Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Peeling Away


          Terry strolled up the steep path to Dave’s ramshackle house. It was his by default – it used to be a holiday home that his mother had owned but at some point in the hazy past Dave had moved in temporarily and just never moved out. It was all whitewash and peeling blue woodwork, gardens overgrown and grass seemingly never cut. Terry had always liked it, despite or because, he didn’t know which, the notion that it always seemed about to collapse under its own neglect and the onslaught of Atlantic storms. For Terry it had the most fantastic view of anywhere in the world – it looked straight down onto the bay, across the sands and out to the sea and the stunted rock islands that sat tantalisingly close to the end of the headland. The sun set pretty much directly out from the front windows and it was secluded enough from the tripper traffic on the road behind to seem a world away from anything that mattered enough to worry about.

          The only sound Terry heard as he pushed open the garden gate, swinging on one rusted hinge and held together by a triumph of hope over physics, was the solitary screech of a peacock; sitting on the roof and adding to the feeling of having come somewhere other – other than anywhere he knew. The peacocks ranged freely across the village – no-one quite knew how they’d got here – and this one had adopted Dave’s rooftop as its main vantage point for mating opportunities, scrabbling rather than flying its ungainly way up to the top to look out for errant peahens. A dandy in full drag in a place where no-one cared. Sadly its small brain hadn’t yet registered that most of the peahens had been culled by the owner of the campsite, fed up with being woken every morning by the ridiculously vain birds preening themselves on the lawn opposite his house. It was a shame really – the peahens had very little to do with the noise, but they were the dowdy ones. Killing off the peacocks themselves wasn’t a viable option, there would have been too much of an outcry, so it was the peahens that had to go, nobody really noticed them. Stopping the cycle of reproduction and giving the males nothing to do but admire their own fabulous displays in a solitary act that now seemed rather sad. The bird stopped crying out as Terry walked up the path, stamped on the roof and shook its tail feathers with a rattling bravado – it eyed him suspiciously then seemed to accept that Terry’s blue jacket and jeans were no competition for him. Terry thought ruefully back to the times when he could have matched the peacock on haircut and hair colour alone – but not these days – nowadays he seemed to blend in with the scenery, not stick out. He wished he still had the verve to be that peacock on the roof, sure people took shots at you now and again but they didn’t ignore you, never let you blend into the scenery.

          The peacock resumed its pointless cawing; Terry stepped around an overgrown bush and banged on the back door, calling out Dave’s name. No answer. He pushed at the back door and it opened. Still no sign of Dav. Although judging by the sink full of dishes he was around somewhere. Feeling slightly guilty he walked on in. It had always been like this – no nostalgia for the days when you could leave your doors open here – they still did for the most part, unless you lived right in the centre of the village. There was no reason to come around and steal stuff from someone else’s house – mostly people had the view as their most precious thing and that wasn’t easily lifted. Truth was that most people understood that the only reason anyone would lock up their house was if it did have something worth taking in it, so it stood to reason then that those were the houses which got regularly burgled. Not that Dave’s house hadn’t had its share of unwelcome visitors – both his and Joe’s had had at least two early morning visits from the local police. Another reason they left the doors open, no point in getting them kicked in. Both times they were busted for selling dope, both times they did a few months apiece in the local prison, both times the police completely missed the fact that the major part of their stash was in an old summer house on a piece of land next door. Their intelligence didn’t lead them so far as to work out that the land next door was also jointly owned by Dave and Joe and had a healthy crop of weed growing outdoors quite unobtrusively. Still the police got their figures up, Dave and Joe both did their time quietly and then resumed life as if nothing had ever happened. If any of the people who were served by them in the shop disapproved or worried that they might be blighting the village then they never showed it. Their mother never said anything about it either; she hummed a little louder for a while, visited them with cakes and cigarettes and simply refused to discuss the situation.

          The last bust had been a while ago now and Dave didn’t really grow anything any more, those days seemed to be over. Terry had heard that since Joe died he’d been quite astonishingly straight for most of the time. But he could smell something now, coming from the upstairs attic room and winding its way down the narrow staircase. He called up again.

          A sound something like “Yerp !” came down, no sound of anyone moving. So Terry took this as an invitation to go on up.

          Dave was sitting on a stool looking out of the window set into the slope of the roof, smoking and drinking a cup of hot water. He barely acknowledged Terry, just nodded as though he’d expected him all day and had seen him just the day before, rather than someone he hadn’t seen for years. This made Terry uncomfortable. He didn’t know why. He wondered if Dave had seen him coming up the path from a distance - but he couldn’t have from this window, he was looking straight out to sea. Some dance music played quietly in the background, seeping out of an old cd player on the floor. Something modern and mixed, probably something off the cover of a magazine.

          Dave mumbled something Terry didn’t catch. His accent had grown thicker since Terry had last seen him, but more than that it had grown quicker in its delivery, more deeply Cornish in a way that made it sound 'foreign' to a casual listener. Dave had always held that he was at home in Brittany and now Terry could believe it – the rapid way that the words flew, combined with an underlying laughter that almost, but not quite, sounded self effacing. Then you realised that it was you being laughed at – a kind of inbuilt superiority in the accent that made you realise that you were the outsider and you were on their patch now. None of it deliberate, Dave would be horrified if you told him that, but still this innate superiority that no longer gave a damn about what you thought. That was what stopped them being subsumed too easily into theme park England.

          Holding out the joint for Terry with one hand and leaning over to turn off the almost silent tape with the other Dave smiled up at him again. He looked much much older than Terry had imagined and he tried to mask the surprise on his face. Dave’s hair, once long and luxuriant, was receding fast and, although still long, was straggly and thin. His face was lined, his eyes seemed deeper set and his body skinnier even than Terry remembered him as the lanky twenty-something. He was still wearing the same clothes though, still as unimpressed by fashion as ever – still in a baggy jumper and board shorts. When he opened his mouth Terry saw that at least two teeth were missing. The overall impression was of an emaciated pirate who’d retired to live in obscurity with his parrot and eke out his last few pieces of eight in determined but quiet non-conformism.

          “Long time...” Dave offered.

          “Indeed.” Terry was reduced to staccato, “How you doing ?”

          “Yeah. OK. OK” Dave half laughed again.

          Dave had never been too talkative. Terry was working furiously to find a way in.

          “Sorry. About Joe, that is.”

          “Yeah. Mmm. Happens I s’pose” Dave looked at the floor – he wasn’t going down that way. Terry drew on the smoke and passed it back.

          He sat down on the chair across from Dave, an old office swivel chair with no cover. They sat in silence whilst Dave looked out of the window and Terry looked at Dave. It was Dave who finally broke the silence, handing the joint back again. It seemed like a kind of ritual and Terry nodded as he took it.

          “So. What you here for ?”

          “Just, well, getting away. Heard about Joe. Wanted to come back, been a long time.”

          “Yep. Yep.” Dave repeated it twice as if testing its truth, “George was here. Skully too. Funeral. Y’know. Not seen them for a while either.”

          Terry nodded and handed the ever decreasing smoke back again. Dave was busy rolling another. Terry was wondering how long he could go on like this, wondering if he’d ever break through. He flicked through some photos scattered around on the old wooden table.

          “Lanka ?” He asked.

          “Yep. Yep.” There it was again, “Last year, yep – good beach. Last winter.”

          “Wouldn’t mind it myself. Still there’s always this.” He motioned out of the window to the beach below, grimly grey in the late afternoon shadows.

          “Hm, Hm.” A sort of snorting noise came out of Dave’s mouth without him opening it. It seemed to mean he either agreed with Terry or possibly that he was thinking of something else entirely. Terry had no idea. He lit the second joint from the first, swept some of his hair back up out of his face and looked back at his visitor.

          “Seen anyone ? Spoken to them ? Know you saw Jaz an all, in the sea. Staying around?”

          This almost amounted to a speech from Dave. Terry was taken aback. He accepted the second joint and went on to explain all that he’d done since he arrived, how he’d got a caravan temporarily, how he was staying until he thought of something else to do. In the face of Dave’s silences he spilled out a lot, a lot more than he meant to. He was opening up more than he had done to anyone so far. He avoided talking too much about Joe – having been forewarned, but couldn’t help mention that he missed him, that he didn’t really seem to be gone, that he expected him to come back around at some point and breeze into the room filling it with his voice and frame. Dave nodded.

          “Feel that way meself. Even though he’s not here he’s here. If you know what I mean. Still Joe, still the figure. Y’know. Hm?” Dave stared hard at Terry, unnerving him. This time Terry looked away.

          They sat in silence again after that and for a while they enjoyed the easiness of it all, nothing awkward, just silence as the sun fell down behind the sea. A bank of cloud on the horizon muddying its last moments and what had promised to be one of those famously spectacular North Cornish sunsets fizzled out into a bleary pale wash of colours along the very horizon, with dark skies advancing rapidly from behind the house to swallow up the differences between land and sea.

          Terry realised that there wasn’t really that much to say to Dave anymore. He seemed to have been swallowed up in clouds of smoke and his own self. What he thought about in there Terry couldn’t really guess. His life seemed to consist of selling newspapers, smoking weed and an odd side trip off to Asian beaches, beyond that Terry would have been  at a loss to describe him to anyone. It wasn’t that he was devoid of a personality, just that whatever personality he had always seemed to be defined in reference to Joe’s. Now that Joe was gone, well, Dave seemed a bit superfluous, a bit insubstantial, a shadow without the solid object. Joe had always been the joker and the extrovert, the chancer and the one who got things done. Dave on the other hand had increasingly seemed nervous, unwilling to take too many chances, a follower and a bit of a hanger-on. Terry had heard about him getting pretty smashed up in a car years ago, after he’d first left the village, but subsequent visits hadn’t given him the impression that he was particularly any different. He did have one of his mother’s traits – he seemed able to push the unwelcome out of his head, just like he seemed to have done now with Joe’s death, treat it as if it never happened. Put it away in a box at the back of his mind and let it sit there partitioned off from the rest of his world. Terry wondered if he ever visited it, his mum never seemed to have done, or if he had the dreams or the waking daymares that would have sent other people scurrying for the bottle. Maybe that’s why he smoked so much ?

          He looked at Dave’s eyes, red round the edges and streaked with veins, sitting deep above his surprisingly fine cheekbones. What did they tell you about him – if they really were the gateway to the soul ? If that were so, Terry thought, then it meant that his soul was a long way down, unreachable. He couldn’t remember Dave ever getting really angry, although he could be spiteful at times, holding petty grudges and exacting mean spirited revenge. Stupid stuff like hiding someone’s prized possessions when they pissed him off or when he imagined some slight, sneaky things like spilling your pint in your lap and laughing it off as an accident just when you were all ready for a night out. He wasn’t the physical type, never known to have thrown a punch in anger, but he’d delight sometimes in spreading the sneaky rumours that even he knew were untrue. Being in the shop was a good base for such stuff. He wasn’t above doing it to his own brother when they’d had one of their periodic spats. But if that made him sound mean and nasty Terry reflected that he’d also got the ability to be extremely open-hearted and generous with whatever he had. There was a time when he’d sent postcards from far flung beaches even though he hadn’t seen Terry for years, he was always willing to give up a bed or get in the beers, great with friends who’d turn up and more often than not take advantage of his hospitality and his seemingly endless supplies of grass. He was difficult to fathom, but not always impossible – these days he just seemed lonelier, more cut off and more without a point than ever before.

          As if Dave had suddenly become aware of Terry’s thought processes he leapt up and reached into a drawer, fumbled about and apologetically rummaged through the piles of string, paper and detritus of broken oddments it contained. He pulled out an object on a leather string, some sort of pendant or necklace. He held it out to Terry.

          “Joe’s,” he said in the most offhand way he could muster, Terry wasn’t fooled – this was a big deal and he realised that the silence had been building up to it, “Here, s’yours. Joe always did like you being around. He liked this too.”

          It was a a sort of Celtic squiggle cut finely into a silver pendant, kind of battered and worn. It was familiar but Terry couldn’t place it. Something that he’d maybe seen ‘round Joe’s neck years ago when they still went in for those sort of things. It reminded him.

1 comment:

  1. I'm hooked on this degree of tension that you're slowly - but powerfully - building up! Also it's inspiring me to want to illustrate more adult work, I'm picturing the house and Dave's face etc. so vividly, and seeing them as b/w pen & ink drawings. (Wish that there were more illustrated adult books à la The Folio Society editions..!)
    Great music choice too - gotta love Mr Lydon!