For Dark Winter Nights 2

And Days…

Read After Burnout

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Beyond his window was winter. It had finally arrived.

A long-awaited smile cracked beneath the surface of his leathered skin. He inhaled the cold air that had perpetrated beyond the pane of glass…at Last. 

“So, you have returned to me.”

The empty world gave no response. 

He watched the frozen landscape, and the moon, impaled on the highest peak. This was how it was meant to be.

Finally.

Then, the noise.

He knew that he couldn’t be dreaming because he never dreamt. He was pleased that he did not wander in the nocturnal world of flotsam. He had never read a newspaper nor had he read a book. If he ever allowed the truth to be told, he would have admitted to not being able to read. It was a skill that was beyond him and one that he really didn’t need. A book was paper and it could be…

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For Dark Winter Nights 2

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Beyond his window was winter. It had finally arrived.

A long-awaited smile cracked beneath the surface of his leathered skin. He inhaled the cold air that had perpetrated beyond the pane of glass…at Last. 

“So, you have returned to me.”

The empty world gave no response. 

He watched the frozen landscape, and the moon, impaled on the highest peak. This was how it was meant to be.

Finally.

Then, the noise.

He knew that he couldn’t be dreaming because he never dreamt. He was pleased that he did not wander in the nocturnal world of flotsam. He had never read a newspaper nor had he read a book. If he ever allowed the truth to be told, he would have admitted to not being able to read. It was a skill that was beyond him and one that he really didn’t need. A book was paper and it could be burnt, but wood was better.

The noise was from outside. The one that woke him seemed to be distant, but the one that he now heard was much closer. It was close to the house.

A long time ago, in his father’s life, there had been wolves that roamed these mountains. They would pick off lambs in spring; move in groups to worry herdsmen with their charges. And every now and again, at certain junctures of brashness and bravery, they would even attack dairy cows. He had grown up fearing these creatures whilst wishing that he could be given the good fortune to encounter one, face to face, in the open, an even contest of skill and nerve.

There was scratching at the door.

In the room above the cellar’s stairs was his gun.

It had not been used since the dog. Tonight he reached for it, took a box of cartridges, loaded, then made his way to the door. Whatever had been making the noise stopped so suddenly that he heard te echo of the space into which it had gone. He stood for a long while before leaving the night ot itself. He told himself that it was probably a stray mutt from the village below or a tourist dog that had decided to stay on for the winter. None of them went hungry when the tourists were around , but as soon as the season was over they were like vagabonds and scavengers, raiding refuse and even sneaking into homes to steal what they could. Whatever pedigree they were, to him they were vermin. His hand caressed the gun and his finger stroked the trigger.

Alive, he thought, at last.

 

The scratching was getting louder and more frantic.

Whatever was out there wanted to come in. Perhaps the sudden snap in the temperature had caused the creature to search for shelter. Perhaps it could be running from some other; prey and predator. Either way, it would get a shock. The gun was still firmly in his hands, cradled, one might say. He placed his hand on the key and turned it slowly. In response, the scratching increased. The door was now being pushed with a force that he had not reckoned on and he almost stopped, a shudder of apprehension warning him of the unknown. He had climbed the high mountains, survived the worst of the storms when others had not, and had outlived all of those who thought they were his betters. As the frantic activity continued to escalate, he opened the door.

Something pushed hard from without. It was but a momentary force, but he felt it.

“I have a gun,” he warned, regardless of the sense in it. Then he pushed it shut again and turned the key. His old heart beat a manic rhythm and he felt something that he had not encountered for many, many years; fear. He waited and panted away the panic.

Minutes moved as he leant his shoulder against the wooden divide. The beating of his heart was joined by a throbbing pulse in his temples. An urge to shout, to scream defiance, to offload his firearm into the timber, all demanded action. but he resisted.

Time passed and his heart slowed. The throb in his temples was now only a dull reminder of what had gone and the pressure he was exerting on the door eased. There was no scratching, no sound above a vague wind falling down from the peaks.

“Nothing, you stupid old fool. Nothing,” he reassured himself. “It was only the wind that pushed the door. That and your own imagination.”

Yet, he had no imagination.

What he could do, what he should do, was to open the door once again and shoot whatever had caused him to be so afraid. He remembered someone, some time long ago, saying that there was ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.  That was a good thing to say and that was something that he had remembered down the decades. Now the line came back to him and forced him to act.

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His hand reached out for the key once again. He forced it to be steady. He inhaled deeply and began to turn… 

 

For Dark Winter Nights

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If anyone had told him about climate change in the past, he would have scoffed. ‘Tree-huggers,’ he would have muttered. These days, that was different.

He was awake again. A full bladder told him that he not only had to visit the lavatory, but that he was getting older. This happened to men past a certain age. Things wore out. Things didn’t work. Others became obsolete. If anybody had dared to suggest that this would be him in decades to come, he would have laughed right into their faces.

The house was still. He had never married, never felt the need to have another share his bed. People who did that were weak. He had never been weak. He could look after himself. He always had. Now, at two o’clock in the middle of an unseasonably warm autumn night, he was taking care of himself.

He pissed long and hard into the toilet. These days, his aim was less sure of itself. No matter how well he targeted the big white mouth, there was always an offshoot. That was another thing that he did not expect in his advancing years. Piss pools on the floor. He would clean it in the morning.

Another year without snow. He remembered when it would start to fall as shaken by the hand of a clock. By November there would already be a thick covering on the peaks and ice would beset the higher roads that wound around them. By December, the higher passes would no longer be safe. By January, nothing moved above the summer’s highest pastures. Tonight was mild. Last night was mild. It seemed that the whole of last year was mild, but tonight he shivered a little on his way back to the warmth beneath his covers.

Something had moved. He was awake again, shot out of the oblivion of sleep.

He never dreamt. Some sound had occurred, something from further up the slopes. If his dog had not died, he would have looked for confirmation from its superior senses. The dog had been with him longer than anyone or anything else. In the days when it was alive, it would sleep at the foot of the bed and wake him with its soft mutterings.

Some people loved their dogs and treated them as if they were children. A dog is a dog, he thought. It is loyal and that is its value. To pretend that a dog is anything more is the type of modern madness that the people of the towns and cities indulge in. When he discovered that the back legs were becoming a problem for the creature, when it could not rise from sleep and showed signs of infirmity, he shot it.

Its body, he left in one of the high pastures for carrion.

He listened to the silence of the night and scoured its nuances to discover what had woken him. The night was blank. The rain had stopped falling. He could hear the stream flowing some way off. The waters would be cold, the offshoot of the glaciers that still managed to survive in the face of a warmer world.

He thought of the mountains and tried not to. He had not been up there since the time…

There it was again. The noise.

He had fallen into the first drifts of sleep when it woke him. His eyes opened and he sprung up. He had heard a noise, he was convinced. He wasn’t taken to imagination, never had been. This time, he would investigate. The bedside clock pointed out that it was three in the morning. It had only been an hour since his trip to the lavatory, but the temperature had fallen; dropped dramatically. His breath formed clouds in the cold air. His feet were bitten by the night’s new turn.

At last, he thought.

His slippers were deep beneath his bed and he had to bend to find them. His knees cracked and his spine rung out in alarm. The winter had finally arrived. Finally his exploring hands found what he wanted and pulled them towards him. He had to sit on the mattress and recover before attempting to slide his strangely blue looking feet into the relative warmth of his footwear. And then the noise came again. This time, he was sure of it.

He made his way to the widow and looked out.

The scene had changed.

 

To be continued…

 

 

Monkeys, Mirrors, Metacognition, And Me…

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“You should take a long look at yourself in the mirror,” anybody could have said. 

It could be a case of: not completely liking what you see, liking it a little to much, or not even recognising that the thing in front of you is actually you. 

There are times when I look deeply into the person who stares at me from the mirror and I try to see if we are truly as one. If I look long enough, I see the image bleed-out its precision until only a blur stands before me. Eyes change, mouth changes, hair changes until I am an amorphous mass with out any meaning. I have to blink in order to resume normality.

From Science:

Strange as it might seem, not all animals can immediately recognize themselves in a mirror. Great apes, dolphins, Asian elephants, and Eurasian magpies can do this—as can human kids around age 2. Now, some scientists are welcoming another creature to this exclusive club: carefully trained rhesus monkeys. The findings suggest that with time and teaching, other animals can learn how mirrors work, and thus learn to recognize themselves—a key test of cognition.

“It’s a really interesting paper because it shows not only what the monkeys can’t do, but what it takes for them to succeed,” says Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College in New York City, who has given the test to dolphins and Asian elephants in other experiments.

The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) is revered as a means of testing self-awareness. A scientist places a colored, odorless mark on an animal where it can’t see it, usually the head or shoulder. If the animal looks in the mirror and spontaneously rubs the mark, it passes the exam. Successful species are said to understand the concept of “self” versus “other.”

By Virginia Morell

 

I found it interesting that humans did not actually have this cognitive skill inherent in their circuitry whereas other animals do. It’s taken me a goodly time to realise that the person in the mirror is actually me and not some distant memory.

It appears that the little rhesus needs to be trained to accept that the thing it is looking at is itself and not another. And when it looks around the edge of its reflection, there is nothing there. Other creatures have an initial reaction that oscillates between fear, surprise, and aggression. Yet writers have often journeyed into that territory beyond the mirror, that otherness, and that is where I have been for this last year and a half.

It is that otherness that lies through the looking glass that has helped me to rediscover that self that almost became extinct (before I wondered in and through the false assumption that a mirror is just some frame of material that reflects light rather than absorbing it).

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

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Must dash now.. I’m late for something that is very important.

 

 

 

 

Theft and the Tragic Cycle

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The thing about coincidences is that they do tend to happen, if only by coincidence. Take my daughter’s bike for example; as somebody did the other day.

In the great pantheon of stealing, bike theft comes in at a very low ranking.

If Aristotle was to pronounce upon it, he would state that bikes in themselves cannot be seen as tragic. Bikes are not high status and therefore do not deserve to be invested with tragic qualities. The theft of a bike is the taking of a shell from the seashore.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, may have been a secret cyclist, if they had had them in his day. He could have written a play about Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins and his tragic flaw. A working title could have been, Measure for Measure in Plastic Bags. Other great writers may have also wanted to add to the genre with EM Forster and his Froome With A View, Alan Silitoe and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Ride, and Robert Pirsig’s, Men and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. How the world would have spun on its axle.

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And this is where coincidence rears its expected head. As well as being a coincidence that these great writers of our shared cultural past did not write one word on the travails of  turning the wheels (or having them stolen), it was a coincidence that on the morning of the bike theft that my wife and I deleted photographs of the bike in question from my iPhone. They had been there in order to sell it. It didn’t sell, but we don’t have to worry about that now – do we?

One last addition to the growing list of Tour de Force literature could well have been Lord of the Big Ring by a bloke called Tolkien.

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I do hope that bike burglar meets his Mordor.

Win At All Costs! Or Not…

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Eugene Christophe Tour de France

I always associate the Tour de France with colour. Firstly, there are the colourful fields of sunflowers that have come to symbolise this yearly adventure and then there are the team kits. In 1919, just after the slaughter of the Great War, the Tour set about its pilgrimage around the departments of France. As money was in short supply and industry had not yet recovered from the black and white of conflict, dyes, ironically, were not in abundance. So, the decision was made to wear grey. The problem here was that if everyone looked the same, how could anybody identify the race leader as the peloton flashed past? The answer was to kit the leader out in a different coloured shirt, yellow.

It was the Frenchman, Eugene Christophe who was presented with the first ever maillot jaune after he had led the race for several stages with only five to go. Some in the watching crowd thought this rather amusing as the poor bicyclist looked like a canary so, they laughed. Christophe was non-too impressed. This, after all, was his renaissance as he had been denied victory in the 1913 race through an unfortunate series of events. Christophe had taken the lead from Odile Defraye of Belgium and was building a commanding overall lead when he was hit by a stray motorcar. Remember that this was 1913.

Anyway, the upshot of this was that Christophe was unhurt, but his front fork had been snapped in two. As many cyclists appreciate, bodies can heal themselves but bikes cannot. I’ve seen plenty of cyclists take a tumble, tear off skin, splinter bones, and bleed, but the first thing many of them do is to check that their bike is alright. Cyclists are a selfless sect.

Poor old Christophe’s race was run, but he was accepting non of it. Instead of throwing in the towel, he threw his injured bike onto his back and ran eight-and-a-half to the next village, where he found a forge. Like many of his ilk, he was a skilled mechanic and was able to forge a new fork. He ought to have received a jersey just for that! However, he made the mistake of asking a seven-year-old boy to work the bellows that fed the flames. Never play with flames in the Tour de France unless you wish to be caught and punished (eventually…ask Lance Armstrong).  As a result of his ingenuity, Christophe was penalised 10-minutes for using outside assistance.

You would think that this story deserved a happy ending, but it didn’t get one. In the 1919 race he broke his forks and came third. Again, in 1922, he was in the top three contending the race when…guess what? Yup, the bloody fork snapped again. It would appear that no matter how hard you try, no mater how good you are, or how unlucky you have been, sometimes destiny does not smile on you.

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Going nowhere on a tragic cycle…

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The problem with tragedy is that it never has a happy ending.

Tragedy ends in death.

It starts with a bad decision, leads on to disgrace and downfall, scrapes you through a period of suffering that appears never likely to end before there is a realisation, ‘Fuck, that’s what I did wrong’ or, ‘Fuck, I still don’t know what I did wrong.’ Regardless of self-awareness or not, the tragic circle wants to play itself out.

You, if you be the tragic hero, have been brought low for a reason: hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia, or just the fact that the unknown gods are wanting to have a bit of fun with your oh-so-mortal concerns, once it happens, you are doomed.

And then you die.

Not fair, but then apart from democracy what did the Greeks ever do for fairness? As far as I can see, they spent their time in white sheets, bestriding the known world, creating stories that spoke of our eventual doom, admiring each others’ butts and keeping their wives in a state of servitude that made slavery look humanitarian. Deeply flawed themselves, the enlisted a guy called Aristotle to run out a series of rules that would govern the purity of tragedy. It wasn’t the Bee Gees but it did stay at number one for an awful long time.

So, Mr Morbid philosopher, why is it that you are so interested with me at this moment in time?

Reminders of tragedy surround me. I walk into a school or college and Macbeth springs out. Willy Loman makes a dramatic entrance or Tess Durbeyfield ambles along. And at the back of all this is me, the witless teacher who is being employed to stand in front of groups of young people and explain the importance of the tragic. Some deep irony, I am thinking.

Now, if what Aristotle says is to be believed, there is no way out for me; I’m as good as a gonna already. What’s the point?

The point is that I have to earn my right to be released into the dark embrace of an even darker infinity of complete darkness. Why struggle when the fisherman of fate has got you, hook, line and sinker, and he’s pulling you from the waters of Styx by your very own testicles. What a ball-ache? No wonder we are leaving the Common Agricultural Policy – it’s got Greek written all over it! Tragic.

So, back to me and my little problem with being trapped in the role of a tragic character.

I am not a hero, never wanted to be, not even when I had a Jesus complex. I have not committed any great error of judgement, unless one thinks that going into the teaching profession was significantly grave to determine that I should be staked out on the bare rock of Mount Olympus in order to have my eyes eaten out and my liver exhumed (only for it to be played out again at the next day’s matinee showing).

Yet here I am, standing at the foot of some great precipice, staring up at dark clouds that are threatening to dump their even darker load of shit upon me just for the sake of theatrical rules. It is simply not fair.

I am an ordinary man. I have had moments (usually sleep or drug induced) when I may have thought otherwise, but after much self-evaluation and expert analysis, I can sadly say that I am normal. So, why, why, why am I being employed as a plaything of the Gods?

And what makes it ever so galling is that these bloody gods are not my gods or anyone else’s gods as they have been bloody well dead for centuries. It’s like being stalked by a ghost of somebody who was, in life, and agnostic a non believer, a sceptic. You don’t bloody exist, this tragic wheel on which I have been tethered does not exist, these coincidences of literature that my students are studying do not exist in the way that a non-existent Fate would have them exist. But when I look at my arms, I realise that the reason that I can’t move them is that they are tied to some forever turning wheel that will not let me get off unless I completely check-out.

Reminder to self: what strategies can I use to get out of tragic proceedings?