Sunday, 22 August 2010

Tripping on Henry

All those lights were t-t-twinkling on Sunset,
I saw a sign in the sky,
It said, “T-t-t-trip a t-trip, I trip, trip.”
I couldn’t keep up if I tried.
Ah, we stepped down to reality company
To get some instant sleep.
And the driver turned. I said, “Welcome back.”
He smiled and he said, “Beep beep.”

Donovan (The Trip)

THE SILENT CAT crouched in the dark up against the wall along the front of our neighbour’s property. It was not a lion, dark as it was I could easily tell that. The form was different. It should be a tiger, people think they see tigers, don't they, but it would be a leopard there in the near dark. More slender than a tiger, long-necked, smaller head, it would be at home carved in stone at a great temple to men who thought themselves gods. In its powerful silence it watched me walking out into the night and I wondered when my spine would be snapped.

I don’t recall every trip I ever took. This is just as well, I’d never escape the past with trying to analyse why I saw what I did. Not all trips involved pills and tabs and spliffs or a hookah; some trips were triggered just by standing in the doorway out or in.

Time came that I couldn’t go through any door in my unease. I was not consciously afraid of the beasts outside, or inside, I was just afraid of moving from a moment of what seemed to be security, from unfeeling to feeling. When you move, things move past you, things move towards you, you approach right-angled bends in life. And so I stayed at home, in my room, listening to a Sony Walkman. I’ve had music playing in my head non-stop since I was in my early twenties, and I don’t need a radio, tape or disc, but I try to drown my own music out. I know people who hear voices. Jesus, John Wayne and Hitler come calling, come for a chat. I know that is real, for I have the music, familiar and created around the sounds of circumstance. The booming of the wind can orchestrate my life, and the lyric can be an anxiety or a moment of love or lust or loss.

For a person afraid of the dark and the light, I have muddled along fairly well. Routine is difficult; mornings do not always start the same way. I cannot fashion six-thirty to my needs nowadays.

When I was at school I would have been bathed and dressed in my uniform at six-thirty, probably doing the homework I’d neglected the night before. At eight I’d be on the bus or my bicycle. And when I worked for American International Group I might have got home from some bar or nightclub at two, riding home drunk, passing out for a few hours. I’d be at work making somebody a fortune by eight-thirty. And then that all stopped in London one August morning. I could not walk out of my door because I knew I was going to die (I was dying, I was sure of it). The crouching cats came after that.

The most mysterious trip that I am aware of (and this only from the reports of others) that did not involve the horizontal greys rising up to vertical melting rainbows as instructed by the gods in the room began in Bermuda and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah. Apparently I boarded a flight in Bermuda (how did I even get to the airport?) and flew to New York City, where I took a bus over to New Jersey and caught a plane to Chicago. In Chicago I caught another plane to Salt Lake City. A friend had sent me the tickets. He met me at the airport in Salt Lake, though I have no memory of that. Two days later I woke up, after the near-lethal dose of tranquilizers had worn off. I was rather surprised. There is one part of that trip that occasionally floats up to the surface of my mind. I hope it is accurate and not a complete invention. On the flight from Chicago to Utah I was sat next to a young Hasidic Jew and we had a pleasant chat about orthodoxy. I was representing Mormonism. I can, somehow, still sense that conversation. No doubt the young man’s peculiar clothing and accessories are a memory aid, and the fact that I’ve been in the close company of precious few Hasidic Jews my age since.

It might be said of me (so I might say it) that I have travelled through my life uneasily and often not at all. I have some regrets. I was invited to a family dinner by my father and stepmother in early 1996. I accepted the invitation, but, on the day, declined as I could not move myself through the doors between us. My brothers and sisters got there. Two or three weeks later my father literally dropped dead. The family gathered for his funeral, and I did get to it, propelled and propped up by a close friend. I was not collapsing with grief, but the handful of pills I’d taken to move about that day had made me more than a little unsteady.

And so to Henry.

Nearly every Saturday I spend the morning at a drop-in. Some play pool, some play cards. On sunny days some sit outside. I read the weekend papers. Now and then I join the card game. They play “Floaters” which seems an unfortunate name to me. At noon several of us go in search of a country pub for a meal. There might be an afternoon activity: This past month I’ve been to a music festival in Alnwick and on a coach trip to the Yorkshire Dales and Whitby. Sometimes I spend Saturday afternoon in Barter Books, an enormous second-hand books shop. I usually come away with as many books as I can carry, appreciating I have to catch a bus home, and the Saturday buses tend to be crowded with tourists as well as the elderly locals doing their bit of shopping in town.

Yesterday I’d not only a dozen books (including a huge, heavy, hardback copy of “Hymns Ancient and Modern”), but my friend who has visitations from film stars and Old Testament prophets (bless him) had given me a marrow. The marrow (which is on the menu for this evening) is of a size and firmness to be a lethal weapon. I’m reminded of the Roald Dahl story about the woman who clubs her unpleasant husband to death with a leg of lamb. When the police are eventually called in, she has cooked the lamb and serves them a helping.

I schlepped my two heavy bags out of Barter Books and along to the bus stop. I know from experience that the 518 bus on a Saturday is going to run late, at least 30 minutes late in an hour. Still, one feels sure that it will come along if one is not there on the roadside. So I stood in the warm afternoon weather, inhaling more traffic fumes than would be healthy, alone at the bus stop. There is no bench at this stop; I just shuffled about from one leg to the other.

I was looking directly across the street at the entrance to the book shop; the customers at Barter Books are most interesting. I enjoy people-watching at any time, but what fun to see which books the faces read. Suddenly a very old man walked between me and the kerb. The man kept on walking, out of the corner of my eye I saw he’d stopped about 15 feet along, a bit past the area marked for the bus. Curious. Then I felt something gently touch my lower left leg. I looked down to find the oldest Border terrier I think I’ve ever seen standing with his nose on my calf. Not looking up at me, the dog had just anchored his snout to my leg. I lowered myself at my knees and got close to the dog. He was once brown, now grey and white. His eyes were remarkably clear. He hardly moved. I love dogs and Border terriers are a favourite breed, so I petted the little fellow on the head, on his back. He looked at me, seemed to be quite pleased.

I stood up and called over to the very old man who was still a number of paces along from me and the dog:

“Is this your dog?”

The man moved towards me, closer and closer, and when he was so close that his jacket was touching mine, his face, his nose, were just inches from mine, he said:

“No. This is not my dog.”

That worried me, and I said:

“He must be a stray.”

“Oh, no. He’s not a stray. He’s my neighbour’s dog. I thought I’d take him for a walk.”

“Oh, I’m glad he’s with you. The traffic is terrible here.” I had noticed the terrier was not wearing a collar or harness.

“His name is Henry. He will be seventeen in two weeks.” The man moved towards me as I edged back. His breath (fortunately not a smoker) on my face. “His mother died in 2002.”

I remember an episode of “Seinfeld” in which, I think, Judge Reinhold played a man who stood too close to people, inches away. The elderly bloke walking Henry was standing much too close to me. No person would feel comfortable at such short range except, perhaps, a lover hoping for a passionate kiss. I was told a little about Henry, there was to be a bit of a celebration in early September when he reached 17.

“In a year and two weeks Henry will be eighteen,” offered my odd (and sudden) friend. “That is very old for a dog. Only a small dog could be eighteen. A Labrador would not reach fourteen.”

Rather interesting to be thinking ahead to Henry’s eighteenth. I dare say somebody with fewer anxieties than I have could look forward more than a year when the odds must surely be long ones.

Henry remained, nose on my trousers, alongside me, his neighbour, who had not offered his name, remained inches from my face. I was focusing on him through the lower lenses of my bifocals. Small talk about dogs. I explained that I was a miniature dachshund person, resisting the temptation to retrieve a photograph of Cailean from my wallet.

For no obvious reason the man suddenly leaned down, uncomfortably close to my trousers, and awkwardly picked Henry up. Explained that it was time to get him home. And I wondered if Henry was actually on a legitimate walk, or if he had been dog-napped. Off they went, Henry under the man’s arm. They crossed the street just as the bus was approaching.

I stepped onto the 518 bus, which was 40 minutes late, to find nearly every seat on the lower deck had been taken. There was one vacant place next to an old woman. Not exactly vacant, she had her shopping bag on it. I looked her in the face, and nodded towards the bag on the seat. The lady glared at me, put her arm across her bag as if to hold it firmly in place, not moving it at all, and turned to look out of the window. I muttered: “For fuck’s sake!” and moved to the back of the bus with my two heavy bags. The lady remained on the bus, never gave up the space her few groceries occupied.

The lady with the shopping bag would have been on the far side of seventy, she had badly-coloured, thinning hair, and she had a longer beard than Osama bin Laden. Oh, I exaggerate. But her beard would be longer than that of Osama bin Laden’s mother's. I’m talking several inches, a goatee, and quite dark hair. I wondered how one might treat that. Scissors for a start, perhaps some HRT. Did this bearded woman not have a friend who might offer some grooming advice? Or a mirror?

Great cats do not pounce on me. I even walk out in the twilight now and then. Ordinary people, your neighbours, mine, are for the most part delightful. However, now and then things get just a little weird. The topiaries come to life in broad daylight, not just in the dead of night as in “The Shining” and my t-t-t-trips.

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