Authors: Lloyd Jones
Tags: #epub, #ebook, #QuarkXPress
MY FIRST COLOURING BOOK
To Skvar the boy, Edwin the man
LATELY I've had time to sit and watch the world slow down. There's still life out there, but it's moving away from me gradually. Clouds drift across the sky; lawn mowers burble and drone like party bores on unseen lawns; a leisurely tabby cat stalks in Mrs Morley's garden, her tail doing the Indian rope trick.
Ours is a family business, gone very quiet in the last few years. New Tesco's down the road, same old story. Corner shop and sub post office â a thing of the past. Makes me feel ancient and antiquated just sitting here inside the place. What's that old saying about money? The first generation makes it, the second keeps it, the third spends it. I'm the third generation behind this counter, and the only thing I can spend freely is time. Waiting and watching, ticking like an old clock in the corner, marking time. My family has petrified slowly over millions of hours waiting for customersâ¦ makes me think of the old oak beams, crooked and iron-hard, in the church porch. I don't even bother dusting under the counter now.
We'll close sooner or later, it's only a matter of time. The accountant gets quieter every time I visit. His place is gathering dust too, I've noticed. Both of us well past our sell-by dates. So I spend far too much of my day looking through the window, ticking off the day's anticipated events, come rain or shine: the bread van first, a fat green beetle scuttling down the hill frantically with the hedgerows whirling behind it, doing a dervish dance; then Postman Pat, shovelling the mail into a box outside our shop, kicking it in â this one's so young and spotty he doesn't even bother looking at me through the window.
Then there's a trickle of professionals going to good jobs an hour or more away; they only come here when they've forgotten something at Tesco's. Birthday balloons and firelighters, that sort of thing. They're all so well groomed. Nice teeth, nice hair, clean fingernails, lovely bedside manner. Look into their eyes and you see a Microsoft logo where the pupils used to be. We call them the Llandroids.
I open at eight, ready for the school kids. Little shits. You need eyes in the back of your head. Good homes, too, most of them. Afterwards it's down to a trickle â the old regulars come here for bread and hope, to know they're still alive; to mumble a litany of surgery bulletins and rolling village news, cheerless gossip nurtured hydroponically behind net curtains. They count their small change out of cracked plastic purses, penny by penny â as if they were grey-haired children playing a final, silent game of shop with the old money.
Death is the centrepoint: Latitude nought degrees, Longitude nought degrees, Year Zero, the Capital City; it hovers quietly above the town, a titanic mother ship waiting for the shuttles, each coffin a pod returning to the cargo hold, ready for the final journey to deep space. Home. When they stand outside my window pointing to the sky I know they're not picking out a buzzard or an owl â they're celebrating another departure, silently streaking the sky. Time they measure in rainfall and funerals. But there's another construct out there on the streets and it weaves a captivating pattern â it's the criss-crossing of individuals as they go about their daily grind. It's as delicate as a sampler â a cross-stitch of pathways and pavements, tracks and alleyways weaving through the town, all with junctions and interstices where people meet each other almost every day on the way to somewhere, or as they move away from someone, literally and metaphorically. Some of these meetings are haphazard but fairly regular, while others are as habitual as clockwork. Here's an example of the irregular: young Carrie Little is having a red hot scene with Iwan Roberts the trainee gamekeeper, newly separated, and she leaves his rumpled bed between five-thirty and six every morning, still all a-tingle and flushed, presumably, otherwise it's a waste of time Carrie dear; more often than not she meets the milkman on the corner by the postbox. They nod and smile but never say a word. Sometimes she looks back, after she's passed him, and smirks. Me too. We're all conspirators at heart, and I treasure this beautifully-crafted piece of knowledge â yes, I hold it up to the light and polish it gently whenever Iwan's mother, she of the tartan skirt and a history of depression, harks on about her precious heartbroken son while she's getting her weekly ration of shortbread biscuits.
There are plenty of other meetings every day, as regular as clockwork, excepting holidays and illness. I could cite any number, but for convenience I'll use my own daily encounter with Mr Barker. He's an old codger, knocking on ninety, and I meet him every afternoon between four-thirty and five in a particularly dreary part of town, a T-junction near the hospital. I wish I could flatter the place, but it's a stunningly boring part of Planet Earth: bland, empty-looking houses (with dirty windows) rising straight out of the dog-spattered pavements, on an abused stretch of highway scarred by countless handpicks and drills, as if it were a practice ground for apprentice road workers. There's one redeeming feature â a tiny public garden on the corner, with a few bullied trees and a dilapidated bench. It's the remains of an old park which has disappeared under an urban jungle â the corner of a stamp torn off accidentally and left attached to the serrations in a stamp book. I pass this place every day on my way to the botanical gardens, where I stroll for an hour or so before returning to the shop to relieve my husband. And it's at the T-junction, every day, that I meet Mr Barker. Or perhaps I should be more precise and say it's where I used to meet Mr Barker until recently.
For months we nodded to each other as we passed. Then an element of humour crept in, and for a while we smiled and greeted each other in an exaggerated way. There followed a period when we observed normal social custom, saying a breezy
Isn't it lovely!
Finally, we stopped. One day, I can't remember when, we came to a halt as we passed, and eyed each other. Why that particular moment, I don't know. Sometimes I think we all have meters inside us, counting everything consumed or experienced, just as we have electric and gas meters in our homes. A mileometer/smileometer which clocks and logs everything we do and everybody we meet. Sooner or later the dial stops spinning and we come to rest, looking at somewhere or someone in a different way. It's when a landscape becomes a landmark, or when yet another face becomes a familiar person. So I introduced myself, and Mr Barker did the same. During the following year one or other of us would sit on the bench in the park and wait. But there was no development of the relationship â no cosy chats or cups of tea in the nearest cafÃ©, and certainly no secret yearnings because Mr Barker is old enough to be my father, and if you must know, I have a taste for toy boys. People often mistake my husband for my son. When pleasure is thin on the ground one must grab what's available with both hands, so to speak.
I must describe this man, Mr Barker. His head is too big for his body, and he has huge jugs, so he reminds me of Wallace in
Wallace and Gromit
with a pork pie hat (too small) jammed on top. He has short arms and legs, so if you imagine a walking Potato Man you're close to the mark. The only hair evident is a bushy moustache, droopy and nicotine yellow (though I've never seen him smoke); and the incongruity of his continued existence on this earth is heightened by his upright, almost regal bearing â as if he were a cartoon character come to life for the day, with one eye staring backwards into the past and the other staring forwards into the future. He's a knot between two colours in a knitted pullover â a singular day between two epochs. Dolefully, his chestnut eyes â once beautiful no doubt â regard everyone with the spaniel's dread of the size twelve boot. But Mr Barker is still alive, yes he's still very much alive: he's a living example of the lottery of existence. Somehow his blood struggles round every hour, somehow his brain tallies each day in its ancient ledger.
He fought in the war and carries his medals with him always, hidden away in an inside pocket. I got to know about his mates in the army, and the big events: injuries and near-misses, a month in the glasshouse for decking a sergeant.
So I grew fond of him. These things happen. We'd sit for a few minutes on the bench, dusting a few selected topics, one of which was the allotment he went to every day of the year, and therefore the cause of our daily meeting. We'd discuss onions and beans, carrot fly and blight; the warm friability of soil in spring. He talked tenderly of humus and haulm: his gnarled, earthy fingers became a puppeteer's as he re-enacted the drama of the soil. Seedlings were his chorus and slugs were the forces of evil in his version of Lear on the blasted heath, myself starring as Cordelia. And then other things became apparent, slowly. Subtly and poignantly.
One afternoon, in a light warm shower, he transferred a dirt-streaked carrier bag to my right hand suddenly, with no opportunity for me to refuse: inside it a clutch of new potatoes and a baby lettuce, still necklaced with a cobweb of rootlets and soil particles. Into my hand he thrust a posy of sweet peas, freshly picked and still sparkling with water droplets. They were a gift from this ancient man to a woman he hardly knew. Eventually I learnt to parley with gifts of my own â out-of-date mints, a packet of seeds come apart at the seam. I felt something gracious and true in the air, a minor exposition of the latent nobility of civilised society. Every day he came in the same clothes: the pork pie hat, shiny and denuded at the front, where his fingers grasped it; a thornproof tweed jacket which looked indestructible, over a clean white shirt and brown tie, carefully knotted; grey slacks tucked into his socks, and once-white trainers, which looked as absurd as a tutu on a navvy. I felt he might have discovered them in his grandson's bin and couldn't bear the waste.
Every hospital has a patient who should have died but didn't, sparking a TV documentary; Mr Barker was a man who defied death not because he wanted to, but because death had paid him a visit and felt so much at home it stayed, putting off the inevitable until the last possible moment, just as a young man who's just enjoyed his first heady holiday romance refuses to go home and stalks around moodily.
But there's another point to this story, and it involves the theatre, or an element of drama at least. Because Mr Barker was a solo dramatist of exceptional skill, I realised gradually. I learnt to sit back, relax, and enjoy the production.
He got up at five o'clock every morning, without any need for an alarm clock â his body was finely tuned, to the exact minute. Then he put on the kettle and followed a set routine, choreographed to the smallest detail: the wash, the shave, the dressing, the tea-drinking, the breakfast and the washing-up had all the symbolic and stylised ritualism of a Japanese Noh play. Of course the seasons changed his timetable little by little: in winter he'd light a fire ready for his wife's later rising, and in early spring he'd spend longer in his greenhouse, planting and watering his seedlings, refilling the heater with paraffin ready for the evening to come. In autumn he'd hum to himself in the outhouse as he brushed and tidied the place, then he'd store his apples a finger's width apart in the loft, or prepare the apparatus â sieve and muslin, earthenware pot and jars, ready for his wife to make apple jelly, and he described its delicious clarity, with a sprig of rosemary as subtle as a coral reef in the bottom of each jar. But the mainframe of his existence remained constant, reassuring and habitual.