By IAN SEED.
I WAS IMPRESSED by the man that I met on the train: his knowledge, his culture, his air of authority. But then he interrupted himself mid-sentence, got down on his knees by the train window and looked out, even though we were going through a tunnel. He asked me to kneel with him. He did not want me to pray, he said – he was not as unenlightened as that – but simply to be illuminated by the infinity of the moment. If I knelt down beside him, I would feel the light stream onto my face when the train emerged from the darkness. I did what he wanted, but all the time I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was more interested in converting me to his way of thinking than in liberating me.
I DIDN’T EXPECT the climb to be so difficult. The old woman in the village had told me it was part of any decent visitor’s itinerary. Yet the hill got so steep towards the top that I had to cling onto tufts of grass and press my body hard against the surface to stop myself sliding down. Eventually I reached the summit, though I had to sit with my arms around a rock because of the wind sweeping over me in waves. The promised panoramic view was of nothing more than other hills similar to the one I was sitting on, where I was happy to be alone, though I had no idea how I’d get back down to the village.
3. Bad Breath
AFTER THE ACCIDENT, I was wheeled around by a nurse. Just the sight of her full lips gave me an erection, which I tried in vain to hide under my blanket.
One day a rough-looking man and a little boy with a tiny lame dog overtook us on a country lane. The boy eyed me contemptuously. I thought he was even going to hit me with his stick (twice the size he was), but the lame dog took a shine to me and rubbed itself against the side of my shin. So the boy decided to walk close by me, too. The man turned and looked back at us with impatience, but I could see from his half-smile that he was glad the boy had finally found a friend besides the dog.
The nurse was so pleased she bent over to give me a first kiss, though she wrinkled her nose with disgust when her lips met mine.
I WAS SENT to Moscow, but had no idea where I was going to stay. My Russian colleague took me through the streets at night. We bumped into a drunk, who challenged me to a fight to see who was more ‘manly’. It ended up as a game of tag because he was too far gone to land a punch.
When we’d got rid of him, I asked my colleague where I would stay. He told me not to worry. We’re were going to have a good time.
We ended up walking through the rubble of torn down blocks of flats. I wondered whether it was worth carrying a gun, but my colleague told me to think about the consequences of doing so. Soon everyone would be carrying one.
He took me to a packed cocktail bar. A woman in a red dress asked if I would buy her a drink. She pressed her hip against mine and smiled, though her eyes looked dead. I could see my colleague, as if from a distance, disappearing into the crowd.
WHEN I GOT back, the door to my flat was broken open and there was a small boy on the sofa in my front room watching television. He told me he was an orphan and meant no harm. His eyes looked pitiful, but a small smile played around his lips. I wondered how I could look after him when I had my own life to get on with. However, it was starting to rain and I couldn’t throw him out now. Besides, he looked hungry. I remembered I had a sandwich left over in my rucksack, but before I could give it to him, he snatched it out of my hand.
A TERRIBLE STORM is brewing. Looking out of the window, it has become dark in a way that makes the street look like a scene from an old black-and-white film. A fine time to have to go into town. Walking though the park, all in black and white, I see a plump woman lying naked, like one of those on a fin-de-siècle postcard. She is so still she might not be alive. It is only when I realise that I can will colour back into the picture that the woman starts to move, and the terrible wind, which we are all at the mercy of, finally dies down.
I WAS SENT to a city on the southern edge of Morocco. After a while, my wife came out to join me. As soon as I could, I took her through hot deserted streets to show her the city’s ancient beauty. Near the top of a steep alleyway, she was desperate for a pee. Not here, I begged her. Do you want me to pee in my knickers? she said. A Moroccan youth at the bottom of the alley spotted us. Quick, get up, I said. I can’t, she said, I have to finish. Some men joined the youth. They pointed up at us and laughed, but the laughter had anger in it. I led my wife by another alleyway back to the hotel. I hoped they would not follow us, but a large crowd soon gathered outside and began to shout and shake their fists. It was no use trying to hide – that would only make them worse. In spite of my wife’s protests, I went outside to try and explain that in our culture it was not such a terrible mark of disrespect to pee in the street if you had to and if no one else was around. In response, the youth challenged me to a wrestling match. I was taller than him, but he was stockier and much fitter. Yet in our struggle, I was surprised at how strong I became through sheer necessity. I found joy in this discovery and soon my fear had gone. When some soldiers arrived to break us up and disperse the crowd, I was disappointed as well as relieved.
EACH TIME I meet my father it is in a different city, but we always stumble across a second-hand bookshop and go inside. He likes it when I ask the bookshop owner where the poetry section is. ‘Still reading poetry, then?’ he says with a smile. In truth, I am only interested in seeing if they have something by the Scottish poet Alan Jackson. My father once gave me a battered, stained copy of Jackson’s first pamphlet Underwater Wedding. It was when I went to see him after his separation from my mother. I was still a teenager, but the pamphlet kept me company for years on my travels until I lost it on a train somewhere between Paris and Turin. I have never found another copy, none of the bookshop owners has heard of Underwater Wedding, and my father says he has no recollection of such a title.
9. Being Free
I ENTERED THE tunnel in search of the treasure hidden in a deep cave. The tunnel grew smaller and smaller until I was wriggling along on my front. Then my headlamp stopped working. The treasure could not be too far away, but I panicked at the thought of being lost or trapped. In the darkness I reversed until I was able to turn and flee back out into the sunlight. Here I wept with the joy of being free, but also with grief over what I had left undiscovered.
Ian Seed’s most recent publications are Italian Lessons (likeThisPress, 2017), Identity Papers (Shearsman, 2016) and The Thief of Talant (Wakefield, 2016), the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (described in The Fortnightly Review here. His work is represented in a number of anthologies, most recently The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (Faber & Faber), The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books) and The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). He teaches at the University of Chester. An archive of his work appearing in The Fortnightly Review is here.