Wednesday
Nov282007

Strangers

I saw a young boy this evening walking alone in the dark. My instinct was to worry even though it was only 4.30 and a month ago I wouldn’t even have noticed him.

It reminded me of the fear that was drilled into me at school about the dangers of walking alone after dark and of the dreaded strangers.

I used to go to French classes one evening a week led by someone’s mum. Sometimes she would take us all home afterwards. I remember one night, she had to park round the corner from someone’s house so she walked her to the door, leaving the rest of us in the car. She was careful to lock all the doors and talk sternly about not opening the door to ANYONE under ANY circumstances because there’d been a ‘stranger’ in the area recently and we had to be careful. We waited in the car rigid and terrified.

Another time, I was at a sports day organised by the Scouts. One (or perhaps both) of my brothers were involved with the Cubs or the Beavers at the time and were taking part. For some reason, I went back to the car which was in a car park out of sight of the field. On my way back, a man (who I cannot picture now, except that I think he was wearing a suit) called out, ‘Little girl!’

I remember the feeling in my chest as my heartbeat raced and my muscles tightened. He called again: ‘Little girl!’ So I ran; I ran as fast as I could until I reached my mum.

It was like the colour had been put back in the painting: a bright summer’s day, children playing, parents cheering, cake stalls and the like; it was as though the last five minutes had happened in black and white, a horror movie stillness brushed over the excitement of the field. I can’t actually remember if I told my mum what had happened or not; certainly she will not have known how scared I was. As soon as I was back in the field though, I felt silly, as if I had imagined the whole scene. Later, I thought I saw the man standing at the front with the event organisers. Seeing him made my heart thud again, but I was calmer this time. I was with my mum and he didn’t seem as suspicious when I wasn’t alone in a car park with him. Looking back, I think he probably just wanted directions to the field.

We were taught to be terrified. I’m not sure if we drill the same fear into our children now, although we of course teach them the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ bit. Perhaps they are simply so over exposed to the notion of dangerous people and the hysteria that whips up all he adults that they don't take any notice anymore. Certainly the same fear is not evident in any of the children I know.

Being predisposed to neurosis, I was probably more terrified than my peers, but nonetheless, a certain amount of fear was shared. Perhaps it was useful: certainly, we did get the message. But it was something I was constantly worried about (that and my mum going out and not coming home again) and I do wonder if the whole thing mightn’t have been taken a step too far.

The neurosis is still with me now. Watching that boy walk home today sparked my old fears easily. I wonder what went through his mind as he walked; is he scared of strangers, or is he just sensible about them?

And more to the point, did he get home safely?

Monday
Nov262007

More Messages

The blogs will continue to be a little thin on the ground in the coming weeks, so I'm going to pre-empt the drought and cheat a bit.

Lynne Rees and Sarah Salway began the Message Project in 2003: “Using email, we would exchange 300 ‘messages’ of exactly 300 words, with each one returned within a time limit of 72 hours. Links between each message were made with words, themes, character, form, or even mood.” The result, Messages, was published in 2006.

Now they have taken the project a step further and invite other writers to respond to the messages on their blog, Your Messages.

Below is one of my responses, a reply to this message.

I'm thinking it has potential for a poem somewhere down the line; as it is now it is a bit verbose and fiddly. This is definitely the downside of posting messages for the project - as you post them they feel like the best thing you've ever written. 24 hours later, they're clearly a first draft. Anyway, feedback on this one would be much appreciated.

Worse things happen at sea, he used to tell me.

I didn’t understand what he meant until one day past bedtime, kneeling on the bed with the curtains pulled aside and the air cold and damp on my face. I leaned out the window and watched the silver spoon held high in the hands of night dip beneath the ripples in the sea.

The cold air drew goose pimples on my skin. The sky’s diamond teeth reflected in the glass.

I saw the limbs of men long ago drowned by the frothing mouth of the ocean, their salty tears scraping through the waves like a vulture’s claws.

I felt the bruise of a shipwreck in the sand as I gripped the window ledge, my eyes dewy as I stared, as I stared, as I stared.

I saw the ghost of an ancient dream as it padded lightly along the seabed, bubbles of breath dead and tangled amongst the seaweed and the fish.

The shrieks and the rumbles of a heavy storm flapped in sails now disintegrated, bodies washed overboard as easily as sardines.

A seagull screeched as it flapped uselessly against a greasy black tide, the water clouding, killing, dying beneath its frantic feet.

Wars were fought here, in this crystal abyss, in this laughing jewel of nature as she stretched her arms and wrapped them solidly around men whose minds were somewhere else. Cannon balls sank beneath her skirts as she roared her laughter against them, as she let them bleed each other empty.

Worse things happen at sea, he told me.

I had never been far from understanding. Understanding was, perhaps, knowing that the worse things crept beyond what you knew, easing apart your curtains and settling down against your pillows, stretched and open for you to imagine.

Sunday
Nov252007

Stalk

Sometimes, my latent talents as a stalker worry me.

I was talking with a new friend about internet habits the other day and found myself explaining that one of my weaknesses is googling people I know / have known. She mentioned a friend of hers who said that he’d had a visit on his blog from someone who had searched for her name (because you can, of course, monitor that kind of thing now with software like sitemeter). I was fairly certain that hadn’t been me, but after the information I’d just divulged, I knew she must have been thinking that it could have been. Which left me feeling self-conscious and guilty despite my innocence in this particular instance and with the thought, God, people I’ve looked up might know that I’ve looked them up. Which, for some reason, terrifies me far more than being looked up myself.

When I was a teenager, I was obsessive about my crushes. There was one boy I fancied who I used to phone up with relative frequency; when he answered I’d ask for a friend and pretend to have got the wrong number. I guess I just liked the thrill of speaking to him. But I couldn’t leave it there: it wasn’t enough. Eventually I asked him, ‘did I accidentally call you last night?’ I said it had sounded like his voice (which was stupid because he didn’t really sound like himself on the phone). Did I want him to know? Or could I just not resist the temptation to find out more about him: how do you react when a girl you’ve no interest in is stalking you?

Over the years, my stalking habits have become less focussed on an individual. Any time I’m bored or (more likely) procrastinating, I dive into myspace or google and search for people I used to know. There’s no purpose to it: rarely is it useful to my writing and rarely does it rekindle an old friendship. All it does is satisfy my curiosity and my need to finish stories. It fuels my nostalgia, which is perhaps the main reason I do it. One of my favourite melodramatic pastimes (and don’t we all have them?) is to wallow in nostalgia.

Talking about this with my friend the other day, made me wonder what people think when they find this out about me. I assume it seems slightly sinister. Perhaps it is. And no doubt it sparks an element of ‘but what did she find?’ (the answer to which, more often than not, is ‘not a lot’).

Talking about it also made me aware of what people would find were they to google me. I do come up a fair bit when you search for my name but less than half of that is stuff I’d like people to find. But what I mind more than people I know finding it is knowing that people I know have found it.

Now, writing this, I feel a bit exposed. If you know me, it’s fairly safe to assume that at one time or another I’ve googled you. So why am I telling you? Perhaps I’m trying to absolve my guilt. Perhaps I am conceited enough to think that publicly dissecting the more dubious aspects of my personality gets me off the hook. Perhaps I want someone to tell me it’s fine, that everyone does it. Or perhaps I just want to tell you before you find out some other way and think badly of me.

One of the things I dislike about myself the most is my tendency to draw attention to things I dislike about myself.

Sunday
Nov182007

Marianne Morris

Last night, we went to see Marianne Morris at an event organised by 14 Hour.

Her work is awe-inspiring and she read brilliantly. She mixes the personal and the political with humour and precision, her poems sharp and her voice clear. Watching her is like touching cold glass over a warm radiator.

Have a listen:

Also performing were AnnMarie Eldon and Barnaby Tidman, who are entirely different but both worth investigating.

Although the idea fills me with a creeping sense of dread, the evening made me realise that I really should start to dabble my toes in reading myself, although to perform with the likes of Marianne Morris would be terrifying and possibly suicidal.

Thursday
Nov012007

Tricked

Last night, we got egged. By which I mean, several raw eggs were thrown at our house because we didn’t answer the door to some trick-or-treaters. We actually didn’t answer the door because the doorbell doesn’t work and we didn’t hear them, but it’s true that we probably wouldn’t have answered the door anyway. We tend not to on Halloween.

We have done in the past. We used to stock up on sweets and admire the costumes of the little people in the early evening and then endure the incredulous stares of the teenagers who really would have preferred money. But I’ve never been ‘tricked’. Actually, I always assumed the tricking part was fairly minimal these days, if only because most people make sure they have treats available so they don’t get caught out.

I wasn’t allowed to go trick or treating when I was growing up. I used to ask every year because my friends wanted me to go along but I always knew that the answer would be no and I never pushed it because honestly, I never really saw the appeal. It wasn’t that I disagreed with it as such at that point; I just didn’t like the idea of knocking on strange people’s door and asking for treats. So I never pushed it and I never did it behind my mum’s back; I just stayed home and was quietly grateful for my mum’s moral codes. Though perhaps I didn’t understand that they were moral codes at the time.

As far as it goes, I’m happy for children to go to neighbours their families know and who are expecting the visit. And certainly the dressing up is harmless, a nice tradition even. But I think there is something a little suspect about going to strangers houses and threatening them with an unpleasant ‘trick’ unless they provide treats for them. Are we saying that it’s acceptable to expect to be given whatever you want by people and that if you don’t get it you have the right to punish them for it?

And as for the eggs, it just strikes me as disturbingly wasteful. All those eggs that could have been eaten, laid for no purpose but for someone to have to clean up. And if they were battery eggs – which presumably they were, those being the cheapest option – the horrible lives of those chickens are even more pointless they are when they’re providing our tea.

I was disturbed, when I went into school this morning, by the number of children who had been involved in ‘egging’ last night, not just property, but people. They couldn’t comprehend the wastage factor when I talked about it with them, and on the whole, they couldn’t see past how funny it was.

Perhaps I should have got them to clean my front porch.