PORTRAIT OF A PROVINCIAL MARKET TOWN
It was hardly a town at all, nor a village, but something in between that couldn’t function as either. Admittedly there was a high street, running down its centre like a fat grey vein, and that spiritless thoroughfare reluctantly carried the combined hearts of shoppers, check out girls, bank clerks, resolute disabled persons and assorted idle individuals who always look sicker in the sun. And what a sun there was this morning, and when the first person remarked on it, the crowd turned around all at once in slow motion. Just for a moment you could see the horrifying truth of their paltry existences, but then up went the volume once more, the groan of the traffic set in and all went on as before.
The hot, greasy highway pushed the shop fronts right back, leaving a narrow pavement for the inhabitants to promenade at their leisure. But people didn’t seem to want to linger, and there was no leisure to speak of in the area, except that created by those depressing juveniles who excelled in torching cars, spat with relish from the upper windows of the bus, showered old people with eggs, or threw fast food wrappers into the municipal flower beds in gaudy fistfuls. With the guile of experienced shoplifters, the visitors did what they had come to do and left with a squealing of tyres and a thrusting of barely constrained hopelessness, before the oppressive atmosphere could impinge on them. Many inhabitants held their breath on leaving their house and only let it out again on returning, in case of being infected by a chance encounter with some rogue solitude or naively budding sensitivity.
The shops were few and getting fewer, desecrated empty buildings had spread like so many tumours amongst the seemingly prosperous neighbouring shops, but every now and then one of the healthy specimens would shrivel overnight, slipping away like the malnourished child’s lips from an exhausted teat. Sometimes signs would appear above empty shop fronts suggesting they had been saved from closure, that new entrepreneurs were moving in full of confidence and a yearning for mercantile pride. But then nothing further would happen, and people would read that absurd sign over and over as they passed, wondering if perhaps the enthusiastic owner had been inadvertently killed in a head-on collision, or had leapt from the Orwell bridge after spurious claims of sexual indecency with a minor. Nothing would happen and the promise of so much envy or ridicule suspended in the name of that shop that never was, would be dashed. And so the town began to decay. The cobbler carried on though, diligently laying the heel of another shoe on his smoking lathe, or selling the odd pair of cheap laces which he kept in an old shoebox under the counter. But it was not altogether clear whether if in fact he had survived. Then there was the jewellers next door which had been there for over a century, endlessly dusted by vehicle fumes and generations of pleasantries. Further along was the stationers with its assorted crew of beaming wig wearing shop assistants. Before the cataclysm, I bought my envelopes there, paper and ink too. The tavern opposite, The Pink Moon had an evil smell about it. People crossed to the other side of the road so as to avoid passing its noxious entrance. By day, young men with no prospects to speak of sailed their pale spot ridden faces past the windows whilst waiting their turn at the pool table. At night the same drunken youths and one-armed junkies could be seen through the etching of its black windows swapping needles or clubbing each other with cues. I went in there once enveloped in a strange black fog, hoping to forget momentarily the trials of a late earthly existence, and drained a pint of the local ale which tasted of rust and stewed spiders. I then proceeded to the bank next door in which I had been depositing the most pitiful funds for many years. My plan to finance a Nietzschean ‘warrior’ revolution, in which locals armed with antiquated farm implements culled from car boot sales, would somehow jam the conveyor of media and legal professionals from London seeking a sanitised rural theme park, seemed no nearer to fruition. I had imagined I could convince certain deceptively amiable bank tellers to shed their conviction in material progress and bourgeois restraint and join me in my quest for silver lined chaos. I shouted past the queue ‘Don’t you know that darkness gives the brightest light?’ but to no avail. I might have known it was an unsuitable place to garner support, these people seemed to be only interested in money.
Therefore my vague plan to bring down a hopelessly decadent and abyss-lured liberal ‘democracy’ with a new breed of spiritually enhanced supermen and mobility impaired tight rope walkers, was only met with that nervous smile of someone trying desperately not to inflame the unbalanced, together with a series of account statements which I had not even requested. Rapping on the security window with annoyance, I brandished my cane and called for a permanent end to the rabble’s cultural dereliction, rapacious green belt development and the relentless positioning of toy lighthouses and painted wooden seagulls in the windows of Southwold’s second homes. I was eventually invited to a side room where a moon faced middle-aged blond woman of suspiciously friendly disposition readily discussed a mutual interest in rare meadow grasses and driftwood sculpture, before threatening me with a severe reduction in my overdraft facility if I ever interrupted business again. Things have improved marginally since, and today I queue meekly for my turn at the ticket window, though every now and then a frenzy of indignation overwhelms me and I assault the ‘sorry we are closed’ counters with a final star burst of impotence, which is all too readily acknowledged by the urban satiated eyes of those standing behind them.
This poor provincial town is my town. There is even a railway running through it and. do you know the trains even bother to stop here sometimes? I heard in the Christian tea rooms recently that some people actually got off and made a tour with an out of date Baedeker guide book, a handsome Indian man, perhaps a doctor, with his well groomed family. Silently they checked off their list all places of interest, before catching the last train back to London. I gathered later that these seemingly normal sightseers were in fact undercover security people who had been despatched to carry out a mission to uncover the source of a fatal ecoli outbreak. This was traced to the Dancing Chicken Food Emporium. Some have since dismissed these claims of undercover agents of the state probing our town dustbins and glossy magazine racks as pure paranoia and tittle-tattle. Later I heard that the source of these dark rumours was quickly carted off to a special clinic that helps the generally feeble minded regain a worthwhile foothold in society. A woman it later transpired had once been mistaken for a cow in a field where she had been picking mushrooms. The fog was thick, the farmer had shouted ‘go on there!’ to her and prodded her with a stick to get her to go into the next field. Terrified by his insistence, she had done as she was told and joined the unconvinced beasts in the other field. They surveyed her with a silent pity and mooed mournfully. It was she who had alerted the authorities to the farmer’s strange behaviour. According to her she had also seen him dancing the sailor’s hornpipe for no reason, in a disused greenhouse at the rear of his property. Apparently he had smashed several valuable terracotta flowerpots in the climax of his dance and had then collapsed exhausted, bringing down a whole row of cherry tomatoes on the way. She who had been mistaken for a cow called the fire brigade, who failed to arrive, because the first fireman down the pole managed to break his leg in such a way that he could not be moved and the rest were trapped upstairs for hours. Meanwhile a car was being torched on the railway embankment and hyena youths were throwing pieces of molten tyre at one another. The rest of the town was fast asleep, no-one was aware that the fat woman had been taken for a freisian and that the farmer was sprawled like Goliath amidst a carnage of broken canes and netting.
I notice no one seems to approach me anymore, other than to ask for money which I most certainly do not owe them. Sometimes they get quite beside themselves, and lash out with invective like sharpened sticks. Their narrow faces are governed by generations of intolerance, envy, and cunningly veiled rapacious greed. However they all say ‘good morning’ to each other and talk endlessly about the weather. Above the town the rook masses, unconcerned, construct their elaborate nests. How moving when their melancholy cries net the trees spring greenery. But few bother to look up and acknowledge those strutting toilers. When I pass the Pink Moon I like to stand on the trapdoors which cover the pit down which they used to carry the oak kegs of beer long ago. I like the sense of standing over that space, knowing that at any moment those doors might suddenly give and send me plunging into the beery murk. But they never do, and calmly I enter, order my drink from the same barman who eyes me suspiciously, as his hands move towards a dirty glass which he cursorily washes on a grey mechanical brush spinning drearily over the sink. No one ever seems to stay in the rooms above the pub. The heavy black keys are always hanging motionless on the rack behind the bar. A few hunched loners play cards in the back room as world weary flies throw themselves pointlessly against the grimy panes, and a blackboard above the bar brazenly screams ‘salsa night’ in coloured chalk. Once I found a child’s tooth at the bottom of my glass.
Sometimes I receive a little card from the postman saying I have a parcel awaiting me at the main post office. What happens next is repeated each time without any perceptible change in the routine. I enter the empty office and press a buzzer on the desk. I wait exactly nine seconds, before the door behind the desk swings open and a short man of late middle age enters, always this same man, who enters in the same way, wearing the same blue shirt with rolled up sleeves, showing a faded maritime tattoo on his forearm, whose exact design or message I can never make out. He then takes the card from the desk where I have left it ready for him and reads it. After a pause he says ‘I’ll just get it for you’. He says this in a distinctly robotic manner. He only says this and nothing more. He says this each time in exactly the same way, ‘I’ll just get it for you’. He never says anything else, and never will say anything else. Then he returns with the parcel. His performance never wavers, there is no change, no decline or progression. He does not think about me or the existence I drag into the office on a trolley behind me, nor I him. We are just ants passing each other along the trunk of life, sand grains held aloft on our feelers, nothing more.
At times of stress I travel by donkey down to the sea. It is a relief to hear the ocean rooting about beneath the cliffs like a great sodden shaggy dog. I take the same path each time down under the bridge with its baby arch. The roar of the North Sea on stormy days is restorative. I begin to ride the back of waves long before sighting the vast green brown swell. Then suddenly the path reels back from the cliff edge and one stands on the crumbling lip with the vast panorama before you, that solid mass of salty nothingness quivering, taking you on, weighing your infinite lightness on its watery palm, showing you off to the louring sky, the old void master. On either side condemned shrubs and weeds teeter on the edge, their seed heads boxed mercilessly by the winds. With its bony claws the stricken hawthorn reaches out to the clouds streaking overhead, but they are indifferent, elsewhere, already gone. I then follow the path through the little copse which welcomes a gentle brook of snowdrops in February and where if one is quiet, one may be rewarded with a sight of the tiny deer who live in these copses. Once I stared at a pair of them and they at me for a very long time. Neither they nor I dared move. Their muscles were tensed, their hearts cocked like the hammer of a pistol. I eventually fell back from the brown glass bauble of their eye, unable to support them anymore, and there was a shot. They fled, slicing cleanly into the thickets of holly and yew. One may sit on a dead log and take in this holy place if one is able, sharpen one’s senses on the woodland scent, the patina of sound, the silence. My walk ends by passing the old priory ruins, the last human structure edging relentlessly towards the ocean. If you look hard enough you can see it move. I swear. Observe the hungry wheeling birds. They dig up fish from the green earth of the wave. Madly their curved beaks tear through the mirror shower of scales. They gulp the raw flesh and their eyes roll with lust. Their white prows are sleek with oil and the solidity of being. Between the priory and the cliff there stands a single gravestone, a thumb of masonry lost in the thicket near the cliff edge. In a few years it will keel over the edge, perhaps with the yellow skeleton following feet first, or maybe the skull, the experts don’t know. Or it is entirely possible a pitted femur will shoot out from the cliff face for a few months like a coat hook. A sea bird may stand on it thinking it a branch and preen itself, then a sharp eyed person may point from the beach with their walking stick, ‘look my dear, a coat hook made of bone’.
But now I am back in the town. I always return. I have my responsibilities. They would surely miss me, the people there, if I were away too long. They may call out to me forcefully from the other side of the street and make outlandish gestures, they may give me sideways glances in the supermarket queue, but I don’t concern myself with them. I know deep down they are of reptilian origin and have been on this earth without developing for a very long time. Through unhelpful air which distorts my words I warn them they must seek to evolve, before the hatch comes down and there is no more light. Their reluctance to join me is to be expected. All are fauna, but the weeds grow highest and are the majority. Even when scythed they grow again immediately without reflection as to why they were scythed. Gorging on downpours the bindweed spreads its green ocean of ruin about the sunflower field, hideous clumps bubbling up like geysers, clawing upwards with ferocity to drag down those once fiery heads, summer’s solitary heroes. They are building more houses, so more will certainly come with their double pushchairs like little battering rams and spit their identical remarks, fling around them their suspicious looks, which are merely oil drips flecking the machinery, hitting the right parts, making it work for them alone. And the days are getting shorter now, its getting darker earlier. My chances to convince the town are suddenly fewer, however, despite the cold which is coming, I still plan to walk through winter.