‘It is a bawdy planet’
Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
At dinner, I sulkily pushed an olive around on my plate. Next to the olive there was a small pile of cigarette ash. A short distance above the plate, olive, and ash pile were two tall red tulips, wire-stiff in a ribbed glass vase. I poked at the ash with a toothpick and some of its flakes collapsed. The olive — from Halkidiki — was dark and wrinkled as a bog man, crumpling inwards. We drank the good cheap wine the place was known for. There was the light and bouncy scrape of a chair being dragged across the concrete floor, white teeth breaking the bones of brittle teeny weeny gavros, Europop coming through speakers. We were quiet for a bit. The anise, given gratis, stung my throat. I was talking to someone, but most of her words were lost like the wisps of tobacco smoke coming from her mouth. I caught something she said: ‘No. Listen to what, now, through love, I am about to tell you.’ But again, she cut out, as she picked up a tiny fried fish, its eyes and scales scorched lustreless. Other sounds came in, from the past or around us: ‘I will do such things as—’ and ‘I want you to do such things’ and as we were speaking we went down to the bathroom; she paints her nails, she bends her neck and swallows a pill and goes back to the dancefloor, she grows fennel and parsley, pulls pea-shoots from soil, she sows, seeds, grafts, plucks, prunes, weeds, and digs. Often, she gathers flowers. Where are you now, what are you doing, are you still writing letters from the Hotel San ______, who do you see, do you still drive through the night, and did you have souvlaki for lunch with such and such and a squirt of lemon?
The next day, we walked through a forest. Trees cut to statues; statues thick as trees.
Greece was over for me, like the sincere use of epic similes in contemporary poetry. Or not like that at all, I just had to get back home to hand in work, start a post-postgraduate existence, and, naturally, earn.
On my last morning, I drank a cup of coffee on the veranda of a foreign School at Athens, facing the lawns of a foreign Institute of Classical Studies in Athens where sprinklers scattershot water droplets that caught the light and made bronze rainbows above the trimmed grass. A boy, blazer half-on, slipped through the wetted megafronds of the leafy border. The coffee pulled at my heart and I think my body was confused by the s(t)imulation of feeling caused by the caffeine because I had a tight desire to be pressed very close to someone in bed cwtching them tightly for dear life.
Before I get on the plane, standing around in the terminal, sipping coffee, tasting the weird vent-pumped air, eyeing other travellers, I get a notification and see that my mother has emailed me three photos and a message. I look at the photos in a seat I find on the concourse. One is of a replanted rose bush. One is of a pot of flowers and fresh-cut green leaves. One is of her hands. Her hands are covered in small cuts, from replanting the thorny rose bush she writes. Her hands are muddy and there is soil under the fingernails. Some grains of sand have got into the cracks in my phone screen and in the sunlight they glow and it looks as if there are tiny diamonds or flecks of gold stuck in my mother’s hands.
Just off the plane a fiery wind started up. From tall French windows I saw the sun rise over soft and homely hills. Not Greek at all. A dirtbike spoilt the atomised sound of a faraway cricket game. Someone cooked me bubble and squeak when I went to see them. Things are almost but not quite as they were. From the house all the bare oak trees arrayed in fields and hedgerows were, collectively, actually kind of horrible and disgusting, the horizon bristling with scraggly branches like the spears of a huge but badly outfitted, and probably evil, army.
I e-flicked through recipes and “American curried gyros” came up and I felt a bit sick. To stave off chaos and use up a few minutes I slowly and deliberately shaved. After that, I didn’t seem to know what to do. On my way to buy milk I inhaled the warmish air deeply and fish ’n’ chip oil ventilated out into the street got stuck in my nose and lungs. I am back in Appletreewick, near the border with Wales, and I go down Half Moon Street to get to the corner of Rivers Street then onto Church Street which has a corner shop. Nestled asleep in a sandstone alcove by the pub is a night-drinking man crowned with a bushy garland of ivy and small wildflowers and with an abundance of ribbons tied around his head. I fiddled with one of the flowers in the garland, righting it, but accidentally smooshing the buttery petals from a violet hue to mulberry. He grumbled sleepily with breath that had a boozy tang. I queued to pay for the four pints of milk. ‘I usually live in Hackney, I am only up here for artistic inspiration,’ someone says to the cashier. In a cave, old man Pan shivers, wretches. Beside the till, there is a basket of oranges, each with the brightness of Las Palmas sun. I duck to fetch the key to the door. The flowerpot (a little wicker basket made of fine, interlaced twigs) is thickly furred with the blackest of mosses. Underneath, the soily key shines like a sword in a stone until the sun goes behind a scud of clouds. The milk carton has somehow broken and is seeping into the base of the flowerpot. The dry soil sponges up the white, turning from blackest brown to chestnut. I go back to the shop and buy two pints of milk. A smaller carton seems to me to contain a logic that leads to a vastly smaller chance of any breakage.
Henry messages: ‘completed your nostos? hows home? miss greece?’ He sends a photo, self-portrait in our favorite kafeneíon. I drink a small cup of retsina on the silky shaven lawn. Soft underfoot. There is a cypress and a monkey puzzle tree. Someone nearby is brewing smoked tea and another is burning toast while clouds cross an indigo sky and the spout of a glazed earthenware teapot on the windowsill steams. I spread the ylang ylang essential oil she bought me on my wrists and throat and it smelt like the flower was right there, in the room, at my throat.
‘Isn’t ‘Aeneid’ such a nice word on the page / so vowely,’ Helena emails, ‘but in my mouth it feels very empty xxx’.
‘To adjust back to life here, why don’t you go to the seer? Yes, yes, the Soothsayer. Call her a sybil or an oracle or a sage or whatever you like, if it makes it easier. She is a sharp and intelligent woman. It can be nice to feel touch as she traces your future, even if it is not all true,’ my mother says down the phone.
I decide to follow her advice and seek out this Soothsayer. From my youth, I remember that she wore a lot of shawls, sometimes a cape, had raven-black hair, which, unless she dyed it, would now be grey, white, or silver. I had not thought of trying to find someone in a very long time.
Before going out, I check myself in the mirror. My own self-portrait (please note that the light is cold, early, shallow-sea-blue): a black top with sleeves rolled, bicep slippery, rubber ball beneath the skin, pink and purple face, blubbery cheekbones, patchy stubble like spots of ink, dark blue trousers with the bottoms rolled, devilish red spot on chin (i.e. inside worryingly coming outside), slash of burn-scar visible on inner left forearm roughly 3″ from crook, sun-freckles across nose and under eyes spattered unevenly like a spritz from a busted spray-can, yellowy bags beneath eyes, welt like a blue barnacle. I am also tall. On a chair nearby, tucked under a table with one pen laying on it, was my thick-knit fisherman’s jersey.
I stop abruptly in the street the first time I think I see the Soothsayer, spilling foul-smelling coffee onto my hands, burning them a blushing red. But it is just a large cat sitting on a fencepost. As I stand and suck at my knuckles, a braying gang of teenagers crowd out of a terraced house and into a car. I hear what they say. They are going to a rave in the wild woods. One dashes back into the house shouting that she has misplaced her pills. She returns with a bag balled tight in her fist, jumps into the front seat, and they all cough off. A raven calls.
Fetching firewood, looking up, later, a buzzard swoops over me and caws, as if we are in Utah.
At the vegetarian café I told an old friend that I was done with Greece and had no desire to return, ever, but when I was finished speaking, he laughed at my earnestness, I think because I seemed still half in love with the place. Telling him this, which, honestly, felt a touch embarrassing, made me feel empty, so I desired to fill myself up with my current surroundings. I went to the fields to look at a big old oak tree eating a fence (measuring its girth once told us it had sprouted during the Civil War), but on the way I saw a hare jump out the grass and flee. This was enough nature I felt, so turned around. On the way home I pluck sweet herbs, grasses, and meadow flowers for a pot on my kitchen table. An old man was out in the forest collecting roots. The crocus studs the border, thrusting up into the air, where the leaves are dew-soaked and the night about us is turbulent. Splayed on the municipal tennis court, its surface covered now in lichen (we did used to play), is half a dead rabbit — its hindquarters — decomposing in a service box. I look up into the vault of blue Italian-simulacrum sky, and down again into wet, steaming countryside.
In the fireplace cinders burned throughout the night. I like to watch the fire die with all the lights off and only maudlin but mildly dramatic firelight. It is good thinking time, and I think of what to say to the Soothsayer and how to approach her, as disciple or friend, how to treat her, as a stranger or a professional, listen to her as an oracle or therapist? I stir the embers and the room glows. When I wake, cinders are still warm under layers of cat-fur-soft flakes of ash. I take some of the cinders and place them outside and relight a fuming fire. It crackles and smokes as I pile on wet sticks onto then dry logs to build heat. I figure I need a really good stick to walk the miles and miles I project are needed to find the Soothsayer (and I see this as a spiritual as well as physical journey, and a good stick helpful in battling demons). I skin some wood, taking the bark off in long strips, whittle away gnarls and excrescences with a wicked-sharp little knife, smooth it over until it feels good to hand, fire-harden the wood, then rub oil into the smooth, well-grained surface. It is sleek in my hand, fatter at one end than the other, like a staff. It is like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Europe-walking stick. Yeah, it was something legendary like that, I thought. Now I had a strong, weighty walking stick, good for the forthcoming activities.
Someone calls. I put her on loudspeaker as I continued to chop wood. She says that she is on a boat. The circles of wood split pleasingly into chunks, like slices of cake. The axe was so heavy. It fell with such a pleasing thock. I blow on my fingers. She talks interestingly about something. Insects unfurl and scuttle off. A snoozing millipede coils sensuously from a piece of bark. It moves as if it hovers.
The axe is dull. I wish I had and knew how to operate a grindstone. She hangs up to go jump in the sea.
A splinter of wood speeds off and into my shin. It leaves a small cut I think will scar nicely. I love my manly scars, so translucent, such portals, bluely maroon, shiny white, slowly healing, ways to look into the past.
I see a sock on the floor of my bedroom so cerulean that it makes my head swim.
A friend lends me some money. I win a grant to cover living expenses and continue my study at a library in London. This is set for some time in the future.
To spend time, I go to The Green Man pub. It has a hand-painted sign that creaks medievally in the wind. A tattoo of a red dragon pulls itself around the neck of a short-winded cigarette addict who puffs past and slips into a side passage. I open the front door and a woman with hair like three ravens fighting is standing there. A Gucci hat is perched at the top of the hair. She glares at me like I’m a rabbit for her pot. I still shake when I sit and flatten a book of poems in front of me and go to scan the first line while taking a sip of my dark frothy pint, but as I raise the glass to my lips, I spill some of the beer onto a the book and the pages soak up the liquid and the pages cling together, becoming see-through, and words from underneath come up fill the wet white space on the pages, making new poems mixing with the words on the page. In a booth in a corner a man puts great grey wine-stained arm around the juddering jerking mess of a crying man. To stop myself fleeing, I grip my wet book tight until it hurts my thumbnails. The barmaid stamps and a teapot ejaculates steam and a little brown fluid. A yellowy smoke is left in the evening in the low areas pocking the fields outside my door. Strictly speaking it is more of a classic fog, made yellow by strangely dying sunset or the headlamps of drunk-driven 4x4s. I give a thumbs up to the guy who has driven me home. He promptly crashes his car into a lush hedge, brambles and bird nests flopping over its roof.
‘Split and divide, divide and split,’ a local artist intoned as he stood on a bridge, watching the river agitate itself into white water as it cleaved past sharp rocks.
A glowing rune pulsed under a rose bush, near the church. It felt as if the barrow wights were stirring, ghostly under grass and wormy soil, intoning old things, fingering oxidised swords.
I roll up the bottoms of my trousers a few more turns to paddle in the pond on a hot day. I am seeking in nature a kind of cultural oblivion. But even the fleecy clouds turn into stuff as I watch them.
It is a Sunday and I cut my finger on bottle-glass sunk into concrete on the top of a wall. (Why was I climbing? Well, that is a secret.) A boy in eyeliner has wine-bottle-green eyes. I kick the tossed bones of cored chicken wings across the pavement and into the road. Takeaway cardboard packages are painted with flames. There is dirty ignoble writing all over the train station, some — shockingly — in crayon.
A kestrel hovered over the heath. I watch it for ages. I turn away, and, like Orpheus, turn back, and it’s gone.
I begin to note the movements of the Soothsayer. She sits most afternoons at the vegetarian café, flicking down cards, fanning them across the tabletop behind her cappuccino, while she hums and mutters pleasantly, like a stream in a forest. I watch her disappear into the forest, her silver jewellery jangling. She still wears many black and purple scarves, sings by the river in the ivied dells, picks ice cream wrappers out of bushes. I know that she believes in things others do not: trolls, goblins, magic, mana, that fairies put curses on the cattle of hicks that cross them, and, truly, not anthropologically, in folklore and its explanations for the mystical movements of things.
Helena is digging at Pylos. With a trowel curled into her palm, she scrapes the flakes of aeondust from bronze weapons, takes a gem engraved with leaping duellists from the earth, once-in-a-generation stuff, and makes the news. Metal tools in my garden shed their skins like old Greek things.
It is evening and, poking around in the bushes with my stick (I know the Soothsayer places talismans in tall hedgerows, and am wondering if these charms have breached the town walls), I watch a man drop his takeaway. The warm rain has melted the paper bag. A box of chicken tikka hits the concrete, tinfoil crumpling. It bursts immediately, paper lid skidding off and away, curry flooding out, spreading as a mass, thinning in the rain. Chunks of orange chicken and blood-red gravy trickle off the curb. A second container falls (at which he ineffectually lunges), and a lighter, creamier yellow, spreads across the pavement. The man looks devastated. A third (shot out of the bag at speed due to the speed of the lunge) with a darker, almost green, colour explodes close to his shin (towards this he half-darts, his hand snatching, but, seeing the inevitability of impact, he loses hope and ends the movement prematurely), throughly speckling his suspended hand and the grey material of his suit trousers and the cuff of his jacket. The three colours mix as they swirl down storm drains. At this worst-of-all-moments, a gang of kids ride past on bikes, sleek and dry in black, branded tracksuits. Their youthful laughter is high and shrill and unpitying. They had watched his unathletic, robotic movements, and mimic him. It was just him and the kids in the road. They circle a few times, laughing and taunting, then pedal off. The man stands hunched, myopic. Tears mix with the rain. He sticks his hand in his pocket and it comes out fingering a few silver coins, then returns the coins to his pocket. Some of the chicken has, by this time, been washed plaster-white. His jacket is wet through at the shoulders. The rain falls a hard on my dark umbrella, slides down my stick, dampens my dry, peppermint-coloured leather-gloved hand. When the curry has all been swept away by the rainfall, he picks up the tinfoil boxes, places them in a public bin, and plods off, crumbs falling from a leaky, torn paper-and-tinfoil bag. Before he gets into his car, the bottom of the bag breaks open and two puffy naan slump out onto the road, pale against the asphalt.
I try to move a grass-roller, but the handle sheds wafer-thin rust shards and I lose my grip and fall into the low-hanging branch of an apple tree and apples fall all around me like a swift, soft, irregular burst of stuff falling from the air.
I visited a nearby city by train. At this time of year the train was a hot nightmare. I was filching around in my pocket for a cigarette, getting loose thread stuck under my fingernails, when I saw it. I had been checking the screen at a train station for my connection, destinations streaming by on the ticker-taping electric-orange text, and when I looked back down, having located the platform I had to reach, I found I was facing an upmarket fast-food restaurant nestled between two steamy, cheap burger joints. Its poster-ads had an unwashed organic aesthetic in primary colours with an ethic of earthiness and good honest joy which squealed something ad-banal and poster-samey like fast-food done better, or, with its lily-like adverb ‘-ly’ nonchalantly castrated, fast-food done proper. Once, a girlfriend’s mother had bought me one of the chain’s scarlet-spined and gold-leaf-lettered cookbooks. I read the book carefully and often — I was so young, it was my first — and made their rustic recipes until the girlfriend left me one chilly February afternoon, whereupon I bonfired it. When I was sitting on my next train, I looked up the restaurant chain on my phone. Its founder, who had seemed so goofy and affable and pro-multiculturalism in the cookbook — and thinking about it now was totally histrionic in his chummy über-bubbly everyman shtick — was actually a campaigning jingoist and wrote motivational books on how business innovation is improved with the practice of ancient martial arts, two of just about the least cool things I could think of.
Forests spread around the village. In the middle of it all, the Soothsayer sits blissed out under a pink parasol with a pot of fruit tea. The dusk sky still holds a spritz of lofty apricot-hue cloud. She sighs and a small flake of ginger falls from her mouth. A damp rose petal clings to her tongue. The woods speak in the voice of keening chainsaws.
I slip round and into the pub. At the bar, a man and a woman talk about what it means and how it feels to press moulded silicon into your human body. The door to the pub bangs open. A figure is there, filling space, the sky behind bluish with a purply penumbra. My eyes adjust and I see it is a large, green-dressed man. He is pursued by an unsettlingly warm wind which blows his coat out magnificently. His grizzly beard is dyed a darkwoods green and threaded with hazel and sere strands of dandelion, his long hair tangled with violets and orchid-flowers. He is mucky with soil and leaves and army camo facepaint and the juice of forest berries. A red centipede crawls across a boot the colour of a northern snake. He grips a light spear topped with a cypress cone and orders a pint at the bar.
I open the frosty door to an abandoned greenhouse and start when I hear the hinges wrench and fail and then the loamy plump tuberous hooting howling screeeeeeeeeeech of a rooty mandrake as the door falls twisting metal to the solid ground.
The wide floorboards of my bedroom creak.
This is an old place. Trees are turning scarlet on the hillside beside the quarry. It still seems so natural, this hollowed mountain, even with great warning-yellow dumper trucks and diggers, controlled explosions, beeping. Stone is pulled from the cliffs carved into the mountain, and it is then crushed, used to pave roads. The forest is timber.
‘Let us go for a spa day and wash in mud,’ a woman said to her daughter.
A heron cruises above a pond at the Barbican, sending shockwaves out over the stunned water. I know this because a friend sends me a photo taken on her phone from her window.
There are signs up in the hills readying walkers for logging operations. I see a pair of antlers mouldering on the forest floor.
I am shaving. I smell wild thyme. They are shooting outside. They shoot until all the birds are dead. Two birds come out of the forest and they are shot at and about turn and go right back in. I close my eyes and imagine one having an accident with their gun, fucked by it.
On an unseasonably cold and blustery day, I stood at the side of a shower, waiting for the water to heat up, in a bathroom with a window open to let in the wind, which got blowing around the room and through the stream of the shower sending air and steam up at me hot and hard and very steamy from the curve of the bathtub as if I was at the bow of a ship charging into the storm-waves of a warm sea, or, changing my mind, I felt like a rich caliph, although I know very, embarrassingly, little about caliphs, Ottoman or otherwise, except for having read a couple of books in which they appeared, mainly in relation to Byzantium or Michelangelo-in-Constantinople (all of which contained little-to-nothing on their showering habits), but they seemed like the type to step into things that are dramatically steamy and luxurious. Then my training kicked in, and I banished this stupidly anachronistic and, worst of all, orientalist fantasy. I thought instead about medieval English kings and if they might have felt luxurious in my steamy-hot-powershower/waterfall kind of way, but outside of myth is hard to think of English kings as well-washed, they look like a grubby bunch who took shallow baths (at best). As I was thinking this and waiting to get into the shower, I saw a plucked chicken running past the window, but the wind brought it back and it was just a pink football rolling about.
Helena is still in Greece with Henry. They have moved to Epirus. The TV shows the Balkans bathed in the deep orange of an unprecedented heatwave. She writes ‘Henry is flirting with the girls tremendously;—his proficiency at guitar (he can now pick up any stringed Greek instrument and play it with aplomb) has taught him how to strut;—the beach on the island we went to smelled of all-day-out cuttlefish so we came to Epirus;—we were going back to Athens but it got so hot and the Hilton’s pool is, as you known, monstrously expensive;—We need one of those storms that clears the air. It’s stifling. One cannot breathe;—see you in Tunis or Madrid?’ For seemingly no reason she attached a photo of a water droplet ‘like a gemstone, no?:’ on a cabbage leaf.
‘Hot and dry things turn cold and wet’, a farmer says into his grey beard, kicking at some unproductive soil while hungry sheep look on, and go unfed.
Half asleep, groping for the switch, I flick on the light and pivot to step out of bed to go urinate, and walking to the toilet see the garden from the window, in the moon-light so white it all seems so synthetic. The new sun rose as I read.
A friend comes up from London to visit for the weekend. We drink, and delight in the mire. I tell him about the Soothsayer. He is a scientist and thinks me mad. Then shouts, ‘oh I know some witchy lines,’ and recites,
Or the Witch that midnight wakes
For the Fern, whose magick Weed
In one minute casts the Seed,
And invisible him makes.
‘Ah, goddammit that’s all I remember,’ he says.
A chicken washes in the dust. Pigs wade the river.
The Soothsayer is pouring out tea so dark and rich and thick that it appears as a coiling branch as it falls into a china cup where it crests wave-like then curls overspilling and tumbling into its saucer. Trembling, she is stirring, rocking. What is that tea I ask with my Aristotelian impulse to classify, then, coaxingly, where did you study astronomy and astrology? Everything closes in on the conversation. Tell me my fortune. Please. The animal in me prickles. She wipes tea from the saucer. It blots a blue tissue. The tea is spiced, and a warm candle-scent filled the air. The sun seems small, shrunk to the size of a foot. The tea’s smell curdles in my nose. And then she speaks.
For quotations I gratefully acknowledge: John Milton, Alexander Pope, Wilfred Owen, and Andrew Marvell.
Detail from postcard, Priors Lee Furnaces, East Shropshire