Sunday, 27 January 2008

Tales from the Hub. 1. Get a GRIP

one gets out of bed
and the planets don't always hiss
or muck up the day...'

[Anne Sexton, The big boots of pain]

Sleep was disturbed, my brain had moved into engage mode and was enjoying mulling over the latest discussion in the New York Times's Reading Room. The book in question was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Two of American literature's great anti-heroes, Frank Bascombe and Rabbit Angstrom, were traced back to an earlier prototype, Binx Bolling. I was now fully awake and my thoughts drifted to an earlier model from another continent, namely Copenhagen's philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard had been on and off my mind for forty years. In 1968 I'd briefly worked in a brick making factory located under the shadow of Surrey’s North Downs, shovelling sand, breaking up clay, and driving a dumper truck during the day. Crashing my mother's car, getting drunk, being sick, getting laid - at least trying to - and generally fooling around at night.

In between times I'd become fascinated by Kierkegaard. I was now sensing that Walker Percy and Richard Ford had chosen to doff their caps to the Dane. I had to make a choice, could I be bothered to try and prove the link and work up a hypothesis? It was all about anticipation - bringing to fruition seeds planted so many years ago, a sudden bloom in the desert.

It had been forty years since I'd really done any serious posing with Either/Or so I subsequently decided to ask Regine when she came down to make her porridge. Regine had read Kierkegaard more recently than me, when she was making choices about her life.

I briefly explained to Regine about the Reading Room's latest discussion group and then I asked her, "Do you remember what the choices were based on in Either/Or? Was it some ethically based commitment to God or life or aesthetics?"

"Kierkegaard lived a long time ago and trying to demonstrate that a couple of American writers are using him as a model for male angst is faintly ridiculous."

"Maybe" I replied, "but wasn't it all about a women - hadn't he been jilted or decided against marriage - and consequently re-appraised his life?"

I could hear the porridge bubbling and the sound of the wooden spoon scouring the iron base of the pot.

"For God's sake - it's seven in the morning. I want my porridge and you want me to tackle Kierkegaard with your own version of male reductive reasoning."

I watched – then switched tracks. I'd always found it vaguely decadent that my wife - like hundreds, maybe thousands of women throughout the suburbs made porridge, day in day out, without any knickers on. In our fourth decade of marriage it was just one of the curious ways in which I found married life both deeply fulfilling and revealing. It was bad news indeed for decadents that less people, particularly women, were now eschewing breakfast in favour of trimmer hips and tighter buns.

It is difficult to describe the next few minutes – or seconds – a blinding light filled the room and the weight of a powerful centrifugal force pressed down upon my body making it hard to breathe as I was pushed up against the radiator. As suddenly as the force had come it went, as did the light – but when I picked myself up off the floor Regine was missing. Everything was in order – no breakages – and the porridge still bubbled in its pot though it had been subjected to some force because it had slewed up to the rim. It had been like a great earthquake minus collateral damage.

In fear and trembling I searched the house and garden. I looked for signs of damage, of intrusion, of sudden electrical discharge – but there was no evidence of anything untoward – except Regine’s vanishing.

I phoned the police and after twenty minutes I insisted on being put through to someone who would take this matter seriously, comments about “a possible alien-abduction, Sir?” were hardly helpful. After a lengthy silence I found myself talking to Detective Inspector Climacus. He listened carefully, asked many questions and gave assurances that descriptions and the pertinent facts would be relayed to beat officers for a quick solution.

"The matter" he said "will either be resolved by the end of the day, or I fear that no answers will be found without considerable application. This is not the first case of this type that I've investigated - most have been brought home within twenty-four hours."

Inspector Climacus was a man whom I found reassuring and I felt that he would untangle the paradox of Regine's disappearance.

I decided to expand my own personal search. Although any notion of alien-abduction was clearly preposterous it kept playing on my mind. Her Majesty's Government had recently made available to the public data on thousands of sightings - were they all hoaxes or weather balloons?

Our back garden leads into a service lane running between us and the terraces behind. It was one of those lanes that in October is all autumn fruits and smudgy cats shooting into the verdure. Bill, our neighbour, was standing next to an enormous hole that had appeared under the hedge opposite his garage. It was about one and a half metres in diameter, when we tried to look down and make out how deep it was we only perceived increasing gloom, then complete darkness. Bill dropped a brick down it but no sound was heard.

"Seems like an old well has been uncovered," he said.

Was this hole in some way connected with Regine's disappearance? I told Bill about the events of the morning and the derisory remarks when I'd phoned the police. Bill agreed that alien-abduction was unlikely but added a strange statistic.

"Did you know that thousands of people in this country are insured against alien-abduction? I read it in the paper yesterday, I'll go and get the article, if you like."

Are people mad, I wondered? Who would claim - the abductee on their return from some far off planet? Or the forlorn spouse convinced that a sudden bright light and a force field was a visitation from a distant galaxy? Bill returned with the article. To my surprise it was not some tabloid nonsense - but an article in the Guardian, so it must be true, even though it was in their tabloid section:

The Question: Is insurance pointless?

Some 20,000 alien-abduction policies have been sold by a London-based firm Goodfellow Rebecca Ingrams Pearson (GRIP) and around 4,000 immaculate-conception policies ("Very popular with girls called Mary")...

"Do you think they give you a reduced premium if you take out both policies - just in case Mary was impregnated by aliens?"

Before Bill could respond we noticed a policeman coming down the lane towards us. He was still a few metres off but he raised his voice and shouted, "Do either of you know a woman called Regine?"

I was aghast, "Yes, she's my wife."

"We've had a report that a woman of that name has just been found at the recycling centre. She's shaken but basically OK and all she can remember is that her name is Regine Kore and that she lives at 11 Ennafield Way."

Maybe it's my cultural background but as I grow older I find a deep blue uniform and a large black helmet deeply re-assuring. My joy was so great that I wanted to give him everything I owned.

Ten minutes later Regine was brought home in a police car. She was very pale and her dressing gown and nightie looked badly crumpled. Then I noticed that her usual pink fluffy dogs had been replaced by a very sensible pair of men's brown tweed slippers. This was strange.

"I suggest sir, that you take your wife down to the hospital for a check up. There appear to be no injuries but you can't be too careful - nasty places recycling centres, glass, battery acid - even poisonous snakes from time to time. She was found in the clothing bin."

"Perhaps that's where she got her new slippers," I suggested. The policeman gave me a strange look and I decided to shut-up. The last thing I wanted was him thinking that my wife searched for her new clothes at the recycling centre.

As soon as they'd gone I asked Regine what had happened - cooking porridge one minute - gone the next.

"I want a cup of tea." She fell silent and couldn't be cajoled into saying anything more. As we were getting into the car Regine looked at me and said, "I was abducted."

We spent the rest of the morning at the hospital and it was only on our return that Regine opened up.

"A great earthquake, yes, that is a good way of describing it, time and space and matter became folded into one dimension. When stability returned I was staring up at the extractor fan over the cooker and I could see the steam of the kettle shooting out of the spout. I'd become the porridge - underneath was warm and the surface bubbly but at the same time smooth, almost luxurious. Then a large face appeared, definitely male - bearded and above his head a neon sign flashed 'ARKLAN'. Brown sugar was then sprinkled on me - it felt like when we were kids on the beach and someone dribbles sand on you to disturb your sun bathing or wake you up. Then he poured some cream on me and grabbed the pan by the handle. My mass slopped to the edge of the pot and I was amazed to see that I was in a huge field with daisies and rabbits and it was surrounded by a hedge."

"Were you frightened?" I asked.

"It all happened too quickly, because the man then poured me down his throat. I descended rapidly, buffeted on all sides and I was eventually decanted into a large cavern."

"As a pile of porridge?"

"No I seemed to be my self again. I looked around and was confronted by three hoodies on bikes. Their faces were obscured; the first carried an iPod, the second a mobile phone and the last one, the smallest of the three, a silver gun. The first one asked me a question."

"Night or day?"

I replied, "The one must follow the other - utter night would be as unbearable as eternal day."

The hoodie with the mobile phone asked, "Awake or asleep," but I said I would not answer without seeing the question written down.

Last of all the one with the silver gun asked, "Joy or sadness?"

"Always joy," I replied, "Always joy."

"He laughed quietly and said: 'Your greatest strength is your imagination', whereupon he pulled out the gun and pointed it as if he was about to shoot me. My body tipped back to avoid what was coming and I found myself falling again - but only for a short time - and then I landed on something soft. I was found by one of the Council workers who was sorting the clothes."

Regine looked tired. Then she smiled at me and asked, "That recipe you were looking for, 'Enigma de Filets Congalé', did you ever find it? I really do feel like eating something exotic tonight."


brunhilde said...

Well, it doesn't read like a first attempt! Most impressive - even for me with little knowledge of Kierkegaarde. Write a few more and give up the day job...

goosefat101 said...

Hi peter.

It is always weird when the real and the virtual collide. I hadn't really considered the implications of giving you my card but it seems the results have been favourable.

I have to say I really enjoyed this short story. You've god a nice narrative voice for it and its both funny and insightful.

I'm interested in Kierkegaarde too (though its a bugger spelling his name I have found) and I laced the drama series I wrote for my friends Podcast Station with his theories. It's called numbers and you can find it (and some other stuff by me and people I know) here:

I think you might enjoy Germany Calling that my friend wrote and performed although many people hate it with a passion!

Anyway, sorry for the digression. Really enjoyed your story.