This Place Is An Inspiration
Fiction by John Saul
Oh street of little romance I greet you. In a few leafstrewn steps I have saluted your quiet carehome at the top, the straddlings of carwheels on your kerbs. Felt the tautclosing roof of sky, even nodded at your pair of unblinking heartless bungalows. In my only coat and only brogues I descend your hill, toes aimed for the river, and there, and there, oh. Oh deep mudsquelch of barges, aluminium tinkling halyards, all day and night, shimmering reedbeds, the sight of shelducks and oystercatchers, fleetfooted waders, colossal swans waddling up or honking by. Come bravely with me. There will be turns, surprises. Encounters will come swirling. If you have better to do, then scram, goodbye. If however you are brave, strong in heart, then come, accept these long words like leafstrewn, these gatherings of syllables. For this is a tale of gatherings.
Welling up with corpuscles I stride downhill
hoping for something as bold as art can be, as strong as dance open and adventurous like maybe music looking for a denouement.
Zack, you may say, eyes narrowing: you wouldn’t know a denouement from a dart of wind. But I would. It’s just that there aren’t many denouements around.
Take Leslie of the bins, for example
emptying bags of gardenwaste into his bin
fact one about this man: he has eaten corn flakes each morning of his adult life
Zack I don’t know. The leaves fall. I rake them. More fall. I rake them.
the leaves minding me of his cornflakes falling in no hurry to leave the packet
while the denouement detectors, faced with a man beside a bin in brown rubber gloves
stay bleepless: it’s a life, but only Leslie
fact two, a redeeming fact, between each cornflakebowl and the next: his dedication to the local Advertiser, a dull paper saddled with tradition, but a gathering of words nonetheless
For this is a wordplace I’m walking through. There are names to houses; the library opens every day. In the sky above there is that plane that drones, drones, trailing the letters of a message, even on a winter’s day. And the Advertiser: its free pages of parsing opportunities, the bumpy spellings galore.
but stride on, stride on
when the mood to stride is there, stride on
Ahead is Vikki. Vikki, another softpillar of our society, likewise with little promise of denouementesque excitement. Vikki, flatfootedly loping homewards, longstriding, and awkward, like her satiric misspelling. With a voice tuned to pigeons. Her words arrive in slabs, and concrete has long dried and set as the colour of her hair. Her aura is concrete. She has loped into the driveway of her bungalow, good. That weathersick woodwork, brown woodwork on curdledcream stucco: not remotely fashionable, but desirable way back, when the last bubble blooped out of the Titanic and the world lurched into that pit of war.
Walk walk. Pass by
hello Vikki you too
hurry past the stonechiselled words saying Nile, Trafalgar, Copenhagen, on their emotional gateposts in old Victoria Road, down to the achingly ancient houses. Ahead will be another chance to see those exterior beams, raised up by Tudor barons who made mints from ship repairs. The other tumultuous business then was to grind some corn. There was a mill at this corner, this windy spot. Get control of your zip Zachariah. Wind blows, and blows, the same gusts that once spun those great sails round. Heavy sails, could chop off more than your head.
Damn zip. Back to the wind, a pair of backs if you’re with me still. Backs to the wind and have done with it, are you with me, eyes skinned for bungalow movement—I don’t want an enquiry into what I’m doing looking back up the hill with a zip stuck.
The sight of up the hill I would like to be as eyesoothing as the entrance to a neighbouring village by Camille Pissarro. If only there could be a cart and a track so broad, poplar trees with their pencil shadows, but there aren’t. There was a lime halfway up, the last tree on the street, but it turned holycar windscreens sticky, and got removed branch by branch, night by night.
The struggle to unsnag my zip goes on, opposite the gateposts that appear in a ripple which must measure what, a stretch of twenty yards, where the road bottoms out, brick posts saying Nile, etc., the blood of nations dry now in their mortar. Collingwood and Nelson, Hardy too, once gasping from the din and acrid smoke, have been bequeathed fragrant gardens. It is seriously jammed. Of course without Trafalgar we wouldn’t have as much democracy, the suffragists, the BBC, the French Le Pens, the Clash and so on, though we might have had them just the same. It is stuck. The zip ensnares the lining and the lining traps the zip. It’s stuck; I’m stuck. Try this
I would do a drawing but it wouldn’t get past most editors
not in this country, anyway
Try looking down from the air, from our fiftiesnostalgia droningplane, slide back the little window as Biggles did, and picture the road itself as a zip, the houses the zip’s teeth. Just visible from the cockpit, through the little pilotswindow: it looks like the zip of a road, there, down there, do you see Algy, north of that river … while I myself, that little dark blip of my only coat, would be the fastener, because I’m stuck on the road, on account of the more miniscule zip, far too small to be seen from the air, which is stuck
freeing this zip nonetheless keeps me immobile as it’s even more difficult getting the parts into position, ripping them apart, ripping your own jacket, if you’re on the move
a momentary calm in the midst of rage is possible
there comes a momentary calm
To turn analytic a moment: knowing is not solving.
No good tugging, or is it.
Words or violence, which is it to be. Getting into a paddy is no help. Isn’t it. They say something waxy rubbed on it will get the material to relax, which is all very well, all very groovy for those walking round with bars of soap in their pockets
how no, how the hell
how the hell did the lining
how the hell did the tartan lining
that did not use to be in the way
get in the way
I might have to wear this for ever
Camille, peaceloving Camille, where are you? Might art yet turn up on this doorstep, and save me, us, somehow? In the meantime three hands would be helpful, a little more empathy. Imagine it was you on this corner, in this gale, kept still by one stupidasinine fuckingzip, you too would be vulnerable, naked, standingandstanding on the corner. You could be accosted, or worse. Turning historical: you could be in the middle of fastening your jacket, swearing you will never buy a Barbour coat again, when a sail swings by to chop you in two.
A person can’t forget these mills, even though they’re gone. Only this week the Advertiser, on its mission to regurgitate the past (it can’t think of another mission), explained how mills, like flags, had a mourning position: a tip to the right of the vertical, when someone celebrated died.
We’ve had celebrities, before and since the windy millgrinding days. Brian Eno, the vegetarian businessman. Ambient-music creator and producer. Johnny Depp, chocolate-coated star of screen, screen, and more screen. Roy Keane, Irish footballing man of steel. The Advertiser has interviewed both Roy and Brian. Brian told Leslie he was starting to think the solution to the world’s problems lay in backing vocals. As for Roy, Leslie told me
at his bin, only yesterday
that Roy’s former club in Manchester is not well. Not as united as in his day, it has players about to slope off on the midnight train. Outwardly, Leslie said, Roy isn’t troubled, and he’d report as much in the Advertiser. Nowadays not facing and bowing to Manchester more than twice a day, he’d say, Roy is not that concerned.
You wouldn’t really say that Leslie.
Of course not. But if this player exodus goes on—keep it under your hat I said this—there’s a fear he’ll trash the highstreet.
the very street I’m aiming for, at the end of an alleyway, en route to our mazyriver once I’m free, that is
It’s utter nonsense, of course. But always a lunatic element thinks such things. That’s celebrities for you Zack, and lunatics. Celebrities and lunatics go together. It’s a shame. We’re fortunate to have such distinguished residents.
Leslie took to whispering. Do you want to hear a rumour? Well.
Roy—he may be pictured in dapper modern tweed—told the Advertiser: Eno, Depp and me are buying swathes of the town. It’s to be twinned with Connemara. As editor,
as the friend of cornflakes
As editor, said Leslie, I heard this in alarm. You can imagine how it sounded.
As I stood by him at his bin I tried that.
No no no, said Roy in my mind leaning forward as intently as an assassin in a Coen brothers film, you don’t understand. Steel and chocolate production has already started, Leslie. An academy of vegetarianism has been founded, underground.
Roy probably then leant back. Challenge me if you want. Leslie.
Roy Keane came to your office, wow! was the consensual reaction at the Anchor, our pub of nooks overlooking the floodplain. Roy! The table top did tremble, the glasses chattered. So…did you challenge him, Les, I bet not. Well, er, it was a dead ball, I knew, said Leslie turning all footbally. A free kick to somebody. You wouldn’t kick him though, would you? Well no, but Roy could curl it, a defence needed marshalling.
It would. Plans, the future: difficult subjects for the Advertiser. The big-money conglomerate arriving, just when the series on gateposts was due for launch.
So did the ball go over the wall or into it, or under, Les?
Read the Advertiser.
I inspected my hands, inadequate hands, hands that could not unzip, the fingers that could not effect the slide of zip this fastener once had made, in the safety of its factory. I questioned the usefulness of eyes that saw vislon tkk embossed on the brass. To sound a freewheeling note of minor interest: the royals wear these coats, their three gold crowns are stitched into the label. Surely their zips won’t stick, when they return raindripping from the shoot. Then I noticed the chimney of the bungalow had a Christmascracker cowl, a cutprice crown, as if announcing Vikki’s rung in the long line for the throne. That’s the kind of place this is. And all of a sudden I resented having seen this cowl. But thankfully there came a blackbird. It stopped with a worm in its beak, on a gatepost saying Albemarle, hopped over to Victory, swallowed and flew off.
Do you, don’t you love those gateposts, I could hear Roy saying in his beauteous accent, spying the photos (forever items on paper at the Advertiser) on the little office desk. There are the equivalents in Connemara. I’m sure they’re even better, Leslie might say, shaking. I wouldn’t say that, his visitor replied, it’s a different history. He touched one photo gently. But will you look at these? This place is an inspiration, said Roy.
Roy Keane, Johnny Depp, Brian Eno. Bob Geldof was here. Gordon Brown. Who is Gordon Brown. Emma Thompson. Ed Sheeran of course. A swathe of musical talents trailing after the gingerhaired troubadour, happy to give concerts from a dismal bandstand in the rain. I won’t go via the bandstand, I’ve already greeted the road, the carehome, the sky now opening up again, the gateposts. The gateposts’d be something for Brian too. Gateposts. If mentioning them is as close as I get to a denouement I’m in trouble.
There! I have, am, unzipped. I can’t say exactly what manoeuvre made the difference; nothing I could send as feedback to Barbour head office in South Shields. Energy is released. I even dare zip up again. I have zipped. In no time I’ve reached the Biffa bins so bright red, so TateModern against a concrete wall, I’m ducking under the rustyflaking fire escape behind the Indian, down the alleyway and across the highstreet, heading for the river, no denouement yet in sight but I’ll come to one or my name is not Zachariah Star. Perhaps only the big end remains: our scattering across the universe. Getting the old blackjack, William Faulkner called it early on in Pylon, my current read. The end: the old blackjack, when I can lay back down again.
With its rough characters kicking one another all over the place Pylon, incidentally, does look headed for a denouement. You can turn the pages and race to the end, by all means, but why, and besides, this heady book often puts a foot down on the brakes, to have you reeling among the gatherings of words. Propellerblurs, circuitriderlooking man, Iowacorncoloredhair. His characters however carry on regardless. As if taking to the backroads, the pilots and parachutists and mechanics slip unnoticed past the joinedup syllables and the poetry. A denouement will surely be their dessert. For they get things done. They slyly get hold of a jug of absinthe, for instance. There’s a shady moment of decanting in a back room. That’s Pylon for you. It’s not clear if the drink is real or some mirrorsubstance produced by voodoo: we’re in the New Orleans metropolitan area.
I’ve brought this paragraph into existence and hung on in there for a reason. Imagine. If I ended drinking absinthe by the mazyriver, possibly with some blowsy sunset, it really would be a climax, a mission achieved.
I pilot for the quays, the railway, shoot past more beams and chimney tops, weathervanes with windmills and fish and a nurseryrhyme donkey which seemed pursued by musical instruments in a line. I step warily on the soft stairage of the ironfootbridge over the east-coast line. Stop to gaze at the broad flat squiggle of river.
Ah, the river, ah, you and me.
That last activity for you and me was here, when a flock of gulls showed white and bright, bright like you.
I’m over you, by the way. Like a racehorse over the jumps, mud clodding and stretching mad-eyed for the finish, horseproud: my personal Aintree, I’m over you. I’m over those things and am not going into any of them. I’m told I’m in any case far too melancholy and now I’m over it and not melancholy so I’m not going back now. My hooves are a-pounding, I’m wet and oaty, snorty, looking out for a denouement and besides I have another darling now. She appeared after a long, long wait, very A&E, and then, whimsically speaking, she came dancing in. Sadly her teepee is many valleys to the south. So there’ll be no sudden appearance beside that old Dutch barge, no dizzy perfume mingling in the friedonions of those nonAmerican hamburgers, no rendezvous-ing like we used to do, before I was over you, at that other mill there, still standing, in the white weatherboard, looking like a film set, a piece of New England, the millstones turned not by wind but tides.
I step warily, the same step and same adverbial softening, down the far side. With that hope unquenched for something bold as art, I go and lean on the flood defences. In a dark iridescent jacket there’s Brian Eno, holding his electronic notebook to the sky. They’ll come, he says to the woman beside him.
the detector stirs
No sign of Roy, but why should there be. The reedbeds are not the pitch. It’s far from the big bucks and petro-dollars.
The jackets of Brian and his companion are identical. I wonder about their zips. A band of birds passes and returns.
They pull us in too, says Brian swivelling like a searchlight. Me, you Ness, your mum, residents and strangers. From the north, the west and the east they come. It’s building.
I, I say.
Just I. I can’t get beyond the I.
I? says Brian flicking across a glance. Can you come to a verb? Get to a verb?
There’s a shoal in the sky. We watch it sway and swirl.
I’ve got my head cricked back. The sky is dark with birds. There are fly-pasts of shifting shapes, there are wrappings back and round.
Brian again raises up his screen. Building building, he says, it could reach locustproportions.
Having left her Labradorcreamstucco bungalow Vikki leans beside us, blending in easily with the concrete wall. Could that be an Attenborough, surely not? A couple in plastic macs are saying they’ve come down on the east-coast line all the way from Yarmouth. Leslie of the bins is here. Gloveless, his hands surprisingly weatherbrown. We are a gathering.
Forth and back, the black hundreds swoop round and away in impossibly graceful waves.
D’you hear the swishing? says Brian’s friend Ness.
Crackling, says Brian. Flocks in flux. Thousands. In 1954 so many of them sat on the hands of Big Ben the clock stopped.
1954? says Vikki groping for a cliché. It seems like yesterday. And where’s the Advertiser? It’s never here when you want it.
It is, says Leslie. I’m right here.
This place is an inspiration, Brian says.
When I see this I forget everything, says Ness. Though it’s hard to know what you’ve forgotten. But look.
It’s coming to an end, says Vikki. It’s ending.
The sky is emptying. Rapidly, stupefyingly. It’s half empty. Three quarters empty.
The starlings plummet in a soft rat-a-tat to the reedbeds, again and again.
And are gone.
© John Saul
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read John’s interview]
John Saul’s fiction has been published widely, appearing in several anthologies and in four collections, three at Salt Publishing. The Times has described his fiction as ‘witty and playful’, proof that ‘the short story is not only alive but being reinvigorated in excitingly diverse ways’. Aidan Ellis also published the novel Heron and Quin, and his novel Seventeen is digitally available. He is making the contribution from England to Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018. His work was shortlisted for the international 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin prize for fiction and in 2016 included in Best British Short Stories (Salt). He has a website at www.johnsaul.co.uk