The Hill

Remote. That’s what Eleanor wanted. Out of the reach of telecommunications. Alright, Joe had said. I’ll find a place.

In the dawn the streets had been deserted. They had driven along motorways, then precarious roads, passing between mountains. The last few miles had been along tiny roads with high grass covered banks on either side. Rounding a corner, Joe caught a glimpse of the sea, wild, white, foaming. Eleanor was reading. She didn’t seem to notice.

And there was the house, clinging to the edge of the land.

A tractor was ploughing a field, turning spiral turves of rich black earth. A cloud of gulls whirled and dived into the ground, specks against the dark blue of the evening sky. Their cries cut the air.

The key was under the mat. The back door opened into a kitchen with a farmhouse table, a range, a welsh dresser with blue and white crockery on display. Frying pans with wooden handles hung on hooks on the wall. Would she like it? Joe was hardly breathing. Then Eleanor was dancing around the kitchen, twirling her skirt, her arms high above her head. She is luminous, Joe thought. Light shines out of her.

Joe ran behind Eleanor as she explored the house. It was a collection of staircases, dark passageways, odd shaped rooms, connected in unexpected ways. It was too big for the two of them. Each room she found drew a new squeal of excitement from Eleanor, a new little dance

Eleanor stood outside the back door. Behind the house was a hill, sullen, threatening. Maybe that is the place, she murmured. The place for what, asked Joe? She glanced at him sharply. Joe looked down and went back into the house.

The dining room was panelled in dark oak, and there was an open fireplace. Joe lit a fire, and made some drinks.

Tree against the evening sky: Jeremy Kahn

They lay on a rug in front of the fire. Joe had his iPad with him, but decided not to produce it here, now. He was writing in his notebook, Eleanor was sketching on large sheets of textured paper. She had drawn a leafless tree, branches silhouetted against a wild evening sky. Clouds blowing away to a vanishing point at the horizon. Drawn in portrait, the effect was one of space, a cathedral of the sky, but also one of threat.

The fire had settled to a deep red glow, and occasionally crackled and sparked. The smell of wood smoke filled the room.

Joe went into the kitchen and unpacked some of the supplies he had brought. There were duck breasts, which he cooked in a heavy skillet, slowly, until they were a rich brown. He made a mass of green beans, fried with garlic. He opened a bottle of Rioja, and carried the meal into the dining room.

Eleanor had drawn a naked woman standing on the brow of a hill, hair streaming in the wind and rain. The woman was playing a flute. Joe admired Eleanor’s skill and the beauty of her work. He was aroused by the line of the woman’s body, her erect nipples, the gentle bulge of her belly.

They ate in silence.

Joe imagined Eleanor leaning over and kissing him. You are a so clever in the kitchen, she would say.

Eleanor chose the bedroom with the four-poster bed. The room was chilly. Joe still had the image of the woman on the hill in his mind. Eleanor turned away from him.

Joe dreamed that he saw Eleanor standing naked on the sullen hill. He tried, but he couldn’t get close to her. When he woke, it was dawn. Eleanor was not in the bed. He found her in the kitchen. She looked directly at Joe, but didn’t speak. Joe went back upstairs to the bed. He could have asked her. But he already knew the answer.

Spot

In the beginning it was just graffiti. A few grotesque figures painted with a fine brush in red ink, around doorways. Each work had an ethereal beauty. Each work was signed Spot. There were goblins, rodents, weird forests, bacteria. There were internal organs, there were unfamiliar planets, there were galaxies. All traced out in the finest detail. Spot, somewhere on a line between Albrecht Dürer and Banksy.

These were doorways of galleries or museums, or other places of culture. And despite being caught on CCTV several times, no-one could identify Spot. Spot always wore a big hoody, so the cameras couldn’t catch the face.

But then things got more interesting. Breaking into the location, Spot would leave a work of art hanging on the wall, or on a small plinth. Items of intense beauty that deserved their place, and signed Spot. And at each break-in, the signature red ink graffiti by the doorway.

The police were asked to investigate. Not the normal sort of crime, they said. After all, this graffiti is lovely stuff, they said. And no damage has been done inside, they said. These artworks left behind are things of beauty. You could sell them for a lot of money, they said. So their investigations stayed on the back burner, while they got on with things they considered to be more important.

Quite soon, there was a movement to preserve these works of graffiti. And the places that had a Spot by the door became popular.

We heard reports that a government minister had received a message (written in red ink of course) inviting her to meet Spot at some remote location. The minister refused, fearing a trick, or an attack.

Around this time, my friend Shine came to me. Shine, the master trumpeter, with his floppy hair and his serious spectacles. The usual grin was not on his face. He was troubled.

I am obsessed with the identity of Spot, he said. I want to meet Spot, he said. I came to ask you to help me find Spot, he said. I didn’t ask why. I had the same feeling.

So we visited all the places where Spot graffiti had been drawn. We negotiated with the jobsworths in the museums and the galleries so that we could get a look at the artworks that Spot had left behind. There was an aqualung carved from amber. There was a rabbit, sitting like a wise old judge. There was a mobile made from golden hands suspended by silver threads.

We made a chart enumerating all this information, with photos, names of places, dates. We spent long evenings puzzling over what we had found. Was there a pattern to these events? Was there a code or sequence buried in there?

We charted the data on a map of London, drawing lines between the different locations, in order of date.

We studied the catalogs of artworks to see if we could match Spot’s style to some known artist. We took Spot’s handwriting to a graphologist, to see if we could get a handle on Spot’s character.

We drank coffee, we walked the streets, looking for clues. But we got no nearer to a solution.

Late one night, along a backstreet in the East End, we passed a gallery that we had visited once before the Spot affair had started. And there, on the doorframe, was a Spot graffito. It showed a lioness in midair, leaping at a wildebeest. Look, said Shine. The ink is still wet, said Shine. And he pushed at the door, which swung gently open. There were white stairs descending into the basement gallery. A gentle light flooded the place.

The gallery was a single square room. Someone had built a circular wall of concrete, which almost filled the room. The top of the wall curved gently inwards. There was just enough space to get round the sides. The wood used in shuttering the concrete had left its fingerprint on the wall. You could see knots, the grain of the wood, splinters, all in the wall. It was painted a brilliant white. If you walked far enough around the wall you found a gap wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Shine and I had called this wall The Bigloo. Because it was too big to …. you got there before me.

This Bigloo had been in the gallery the last time we visited. The inside of the Bigloo had been covered with facsimiles of line drawings by Leonardo and Michelangelo, drawn directly on the wall.

We edged round the room towards the gap in the wall. Looking in, we saw that the inside of the Bigloo had been daubed with grey slip, and the room was filled with grey leaping human figures made of clay. There were children, adults, old people. All joyously leaping to the sky. I was stunned.

There was a movement. It was Spot, running slip over the hand of one of the figures. Spot looked up then. She was wearing dungarees, grey with slip, her blonde hair cropped short, her face shining with joy. Hello, she said. Are you looking for me?

Smog: a chapter from a book that I might be writing

Everyone in this house seems to be writing a book, so here’s a fragment from something that I am working on. Maxwell is the adult protagonist, and The Boy is his younger self. The Boy is really me, which is probably fairly obvious, but because he is in the third person, I don’t need to be strict with those facts that I can’t quite remember.

Earliest memories. Fragmented but vivid. The first: a trip to America aboard an ocean liner.

The Queen Elizabeth had two funnels, each painted Cunard red with a black stripe around the top. It was 1958 and The Boy was nearly four years old. He had never seen anything so vast. He was running around on the foredeck with a group of kids. The wind was blowing up from the stern of the ship and his parents were sitting on a bench in front of the bridge, sheltering from the wind. The ship rushed forward towards New York.

There was a railing around the front of the deck and he ran up there to look. The other kids had run off. He decided to go back to his parents, but he found he couldn’t move. The wind had pinned him to the railing. He called out but the wind blew his voice away.

After what seemed like a long time The Boy’s father looked up and noticed, ran along the deck. As he swept The Boy up in his arms, his father’s specs blew off his face and sailed away over the ocean. The image is sharp and bright in Maxwell’s mind, 53 years later. Clear blue sky, clear blue water, specs flying away to infinity.

Parents seemed to be big people who knew everything. His father towered over him and his hands were vast. If Maxwell got a mess on his face, his father would produces a giant handkerchief, get Maxwell to dampen it with his tongue, and dab away at his face, roughly, until it was clean.

Many years later Maxwell found a photo of his parents, sitting in the state room of the RMS Queen Elizabeth. The surroundings were grand, with wood panelling and white tablecloths and heavy cutlery. The parents were dressed in their best clothes. They were children. They were lost. Intrepid children, traveling the world with young kids.

The ship was a warren of corridors and wood paneling and portholes and stairways. It was a vast floating hotel. Then, more people traveled by ship to New York than flew. Within a few years, it was all over. When Maxwell was small, people traveled by sea, and by train and bus. The trains were powered by steam. The homes were heated by open coal fires. The buildings were black from the soot. Sometimes in the late autumn, when the kids were let out of school, there was smog.

Thick grey smog that choked you when you breathed in so you had to hold your scarf over your face and breathe through it. You couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. There were oil lamps burning with an open yellow flame, to mark the edge of the pavement. The smog was caused by the smoke from the coal that people burned in their fireplaces. It was considered normal.

Maxwell wonders how people had allowed this to happen. It reminded him of a Tel he had visited somewhere in Israel. A vast mound of earth with steep sides and the remains of an ancient village on the top. Centuries of habitation, of chucking stuff out the window, of building a new house on top of the rubble of the old house had resulted in people living on top of a man made hill maybe 200 or 250 feet high. Didn’t they ever look out of the window and notice that they were living on a pile of garbage?

When they came back from America, his parents moved into a first floor flat in a grand, converted house. At the side of the house, there was a tennis court, behind which was a summer house.

To the rear was a full sized greenhouse, more garden and a little wood at the back. There was even a gardener. For the four years that they lived there, The Boy and his friends had the run of this garden.

Each winter morning, his mother would get up and make a coal fire. In the evenings they would roast chestnuts in a shovel in the fire, or toast crumpets held in a toasting fork. The fire would crackle and pop, flames would dance, and later it would settle to a deep red glow. Maxwell’s father taught him to play chess with this as the backdrop. There was no TV, and the radio was in the kitchen. In the evening the family would be in the lounge, all together, in front of the fire. There was a deep peacefulness about it. They would read, play games, do crosswords.

Every so often a chimney sweep would come. He would place a large white sheet around the fireplace. He had a disk shaped brush on the end of a rod which he pushed up the chimney, screwing on extension rods as he fed it upwards. Vast piles of soot would fall down the chimney. Thinking about it, Maxwell’s mind boggles: “This was just the stuff that was left behind! Just think how much shit was blown up into the atmosphere!”

On the way home from school The Boy would walk over the footbridge that ran through the station. If he was lucky a steam train would whoosh under the bridge with all the racket and steam and smoke everywhere. Even now Maxwell couldn’t think of many things more exciting to watch.

If you ever rode on a train, it smelled of coal smoke. It was ingrained in the fabric of the seats. The carriages were maroon, and had slam doors. Inside there was a corridor down one side, and the carriages were divided into compartments with 3 or 4 seats facing in each direction, and, opening onto the corridor, a sliding door with a glass window. There was a lever to control the heating which never seemed to work. The people within huddled into a little community. The rails clattered and the engined puffed and smoked.

The smell of coal smoke pervaded Maxwell’s young life. Then the Clean Air Act began to take effect. They cleaned all the buildings, which turned out to be golden colored stone, and not black after all.

After, whenever he smelled coal smoke, Maxwell would become nostalgic. His brain had linked this foul pollution to many of his happiest memories.

Sometimes they would board a bus to visit relatives at the other end of the city. The bus would drive past the shells of buildings that had been bombed in the war. The war had finished 15 years before but it was everywhere. The kids in the school played war games where the bad guys were the Gerrys. The Boy, always curious, couldn’t work out what the war had been about, and why, if the Germans were so evil, did his parents play records on the turntable, records by Germans like Bach and Beethoven?

In the flat there was a telephone. To make a call, you would lift the receiver, and a voice would chime out “operator,” and you would ask the operator for the number that you wanted. She would sing “putting you through.” She would plug in a patch cable that connected your line to the line of the number you were calling. If you were calling a different exchange in the same city, she would connect a cable to that exchange’s line, and ask the operator over there to put the call through in the same way.

Maxwell boggles to think how much the world has changed in his lifetime. His nephew once said: “Maxwell, I didn’t know you were alive in the olden days!” They all used to laugh about that, but now it’s obvious that the kid was right.