Fast Food

Fast Food

It’s late at night, or very early in the morning, depending on how you want to look at it. Under the eternal glowing lights, day and night meet to merge into a rotation of shift patterns, on and off. The security guard holds open the door under the golden arches, an impassive Saint Peter beckoning lost souls in to salty salvation.

I pass under his blank stare, with a tipsy smile of radiant thanks, to join the zigzagged queue of road maintenance workers, partygoers and teenagers with nowhere else to go. In the booths either side of the tiled counter-bound aisle, customers consume their compact meals alone or in small groups. The hum of a group of hooded youths’ hushed words is punctuated by shrieks of drunken revellers that bounce against the walls. Like tiny islands with their own dialects, chatter fuels the undercurrent of sounds. There is no music, not here, or in any of the other mirror image restaurants that spring up on every street.

After placing my order, a choice I will undoubtedly regret tomorrow, I watch a slim server named Mafelda checking a large batch of fries dripping hot fat. An automated supply of burgers emerges over the top of a counter pushed by a hand seemingly disconnected from any being. The chubby little paper ovals are shoved to sit with their familiars until an order is up. The servers joke with each other in between bored calls of “Next please!” The thought of clocking off shining behind their eyes.

Moments later, my food is folded into a brown paper bag and dispensed with little vigour, sauce sachets thrown as an afterthought. I turn to seek my own booth and settle to an empty one by the bathrooms. Sipping a coagulated milkshake, I assume the intent stare of other lone diners on the meal ahead. I am halfway through a mouthful of slim fries when my gaze lifts to a voice asking, “Do you mind if I join you?”

I survey the new arrival to my island; he’s baby faced but good looking, well dressed in dark clothing and incredibly perky despite the hour. I wonder if he’s on something, and if he has any left. I raise one shoulder, “I’d be delighted”, half mocking the formality of his introduction and trying to calculate his aim at choosing this occupied booth over any of the others.

We offer tidbits of information about our evenings, before he reveals he’s a trainee detective with the police. I burst out laughing, “But you look about twelve!” His quick smile removes any doubt of offence, as he shows me his identification. Intrigued with the prospect that he’s legit, I fire every question at him that bubbles into my head to which he enthusiastically responds. He doesn’t have a Luther style coat, he has not yet broken down any doors and avoids my insistence about reported police stashes of illegal substances. He knows his new position sounds impressive, but any arrogance he may have is scuppered by his can’t believe his luck answers.

Huddled over our trays, he asks me about myself in between the layers of questions I’ve stacked before him. I wonder how good his interrogation techniques are, film images mentally flickering. In my wine-fuelled state I believe my countering powers of deduction are excellent. Without directly asking, I find out he has a girlfriend, where he’s from and that the police station is around the corner. I knew the last fact before our conversation began, but still count the remembrance of it.

He picks up that I mention a current relationship twice, jokingly assuring me he won’t try anything. So I decide to flirt, without aim. It’s strange the ease with which people open up when someone appears genuinely interested.  Under the tacky bright lights the best and worst of anyone is accentuated.

We finish, crumpling our wrappers and slurping the last sugared liquids, leaving behind the forever open doors and walk into the night. A drizzle has just started and we quicken our pace. Of course we are going the same way. We actually are, not one of those quick lies that strangers say to prolong a conversation. Though I get the feeling he would have walked me as far as possible.

The roads are comfortingly busy, even now, as we turn down a tree lined side street that is home to the station. He exaggeratedly exhales and looks at the building, its single light a beacon among the leaves, “Well, this is me”. Not very subtle, detective, I think. “I’ve got another eight hours before my shift finishes,” he says. “Shame,” I reply, “but if I find any intriguing clues I know where to go, at least.” There’s a pause. Though we have long since realised nothing could go further in any direction from this chance Friday night meeting, it feels like we’ve skipped a step.

We exchange numbers, out of social custom, though it’s doubtful that we’ll speak again. Perhaps another dreary morning I’ll meet him over quick calories, like Brief Encounter but with more cholesterol. Or, more likely, I’ll think of him the few times I’m drunk and desperate enough for greasy burgers.

 

Image credit: Junk shop in San Francisco.

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Vows

Vows

Love is a catch all word covering many degrees of emotion, from never wanting to leave a person’s side to an overwhelming desire to punch them in the mouth. Not many people will tell you that, especially greeting card companies. Under the calm sea of knowing you are wanted and you want, something a lot more transactional is underway. It’s not necessarily a bad deal for either person, but it’s useful, you know? Like, some people use it as a reassurance when signing off a telephone call or instead of saying thank you after someone gives them something, like an unexpected cup of tea. At times it’s like a big safety net, knowing you could live at your absolute worst, but having someone to love you eliminates just how low rock bottom can be. Other times, however, it has no agenda. Love’s free form grows with time like an overrun greenhouse into a pleasant wilderness of purity at the forgetful hands of its keeper.

The variants of these states are often seen, most commonly, between two people in any manner of settings. Like the way drunks proclaim feelings to anyone, letting them free like balloons in the wind. Or that woman in beige staring into her cup at the airport with a man who was telling her she had to make a decision before the impending flight. At times there are more active parties in the various triangles, squares or pentagons, but two is the amount that makes it complicated enough in this instance.

A stolen coffee meeting extended into a stroll around city monuments. They came upon a nearby church, so commonplace in the bustle of taxis humming along the street, it seemed to have lost the weight that religion symbiotically gives to places of worship.

“Have you ever been in here?” he asked, already walking at a pace towards it.

“Never,” she replied, trailing after.

Beyond the heavy wooden doors, they assumed the hush that others were enacting, mostly tourists, save for one suited man nodding his head and muttering as he faced the coat racks. Occasional exclamations of “Jesus, forgive me” could be heard. They exchanged a look. Perhaps they admired his belief in a town that beggared it. Or maybe the shared eyebrow raise was one of genuine amusement.

They shuffled into the narrow, hard wooden bench in the back row, both looking up at the ornate electrically-operated chandeliers. The midday sun spilled miniature rainbows of possibility through the stain glass windows. “These places are good for the soul, whether you believe in it or not,” he said.

They spoke in hushed voices about religion with mischievous smiles, their shoulders and thighs touching warmly until she sighed and looked towards the statues of saints whose names and stories neither of them would ever know. She broke the pause in conversation with a quiet, “What are we going to do?”

Ah. This was it. Just like magic: you reveal it and it’s gone. Impossible to pin down; that which causes the tone of tension to change from tantalising to taciturn. There’s a difference between having nothing to say and the weight of things unsaid. He too sighed lightly, “Everyone is responsible for their own actions, but in this case you aren’t.”

They both took a moment to consider this, before she replied, “That’s ridiculous”. He mined his way deeper into the emotional well, causing their exchanges to bubble forth, frothing whispers. They had seemingly taken on the fervent ramblings of the man behind them, who was still praying to the coats. The pair of them gabbling over each other, they never seemed like ones to think about the weight of what they were truly saying. More like anything to prevent a silence, to fill that desirable space between them.

The elderly tourist couple gave benevolent smiles induced by the respectful quietude. How easy they made it seem! Enjoying a new destination in their matching waterproofs, the man with a camera around his neck, the woman clutching a pamphlet and sharing her newfound knowledge. They had no idea of the difficult game the bench sitters were playing, trying to ascertain if they felt the same way about one another. How much it was worth. The consequences of cloak and dagger. Tightrope walking along a pendulum; there’s always one person who cares more than the other at any point.

After the conversation had looped around the possibilities and returned to its unsteady beginning, he responded semi-philosophically, “Life is complex and complicated. We can’t always have what we want. You may think this is it, but it probably isn’t good for you.” Just like that. Her face shuttered itself down, once more empty of emotion. She smoothed her skirt, glancing at him briefly in agreement that the conversation was over. They stood up slowly, as if raising themselves out of a bath that still held heat, reluctant to accept the knowledge it was over. But her jaw was set as she made for the exit, throwing back the heavy door that would have banged if he hadn’t caught it.

By the time they left the church, the closeness they came in with was left there also. They went on, with no firm decision in all those words, but always possibility, like the lone flicker of the prayer-lit candle in the doorway.

Image credit: A small church in Reykjavik.

Just Kidding

USA 162

 

Just Kidding

It was the summer he decided to fall in love. Not necessarily with a person but maybe an ideology or a place, like the ocean. He memorised verses of poetry and always carried a book under his arm should he ever need to impress a long haired girl in a suede miniskirt. That was not his soul reason, mostly. It was the year he sought Simon and Garkfunkel’s America. Hopping in and out of air conditioned buses to sticky streets as his eyes darted at colour and sound, building tips piercing sky. Everything novel, nouveau, this could be it – his America.

Day. Eating clam chowder out of sourdough bowls the size of their heads; he sat with his family staring over at fisherman throwing crates in and out of ships. Salt breeze in the hot sun, everything stank of fish. Vacant on guided tours, headphones glued but words squeaking through the gaps between his lobes and the padded black donuts, escaping out into the history of the place it was telling. Bright interwoven lines of the past, whitewashing his short timeline into obscurity. Snapping landmarks on the family camera, enveloping images they would show others as they temporarily imprinted themselves within them.

Night. Real sky muted, curtain of haze dotted with fat unblinking streetlights hovering over the pavement, or sidewalk as they called it here. Drunks on corners throwing dice, their faded football jerseys stinking of urine as they eyed up young girls trailing passed in denim cut offs. Pageant waifs fading into the night. His skin prickles with warm shivers from cheap warm beer as he watches them. The setting sun paints the sky tropical pink, phone poles and their black wires slice the colours into neat pieces. Everything could be a postcard.

He ambles back to the hotel, strange building sandwiched between expensive galleries and cheap liquor shops. Wandering up, down long corridors hiccupping beer bubbles that carry light feet. The highest floor is five but the fire door heads to the roof. View below is not as ant-like as from the Empire. “You know it shrinks in the summer?” said a man to his wife after reading it from the brochure. In the cool roof breeze, he looks at the city piling up on itself, old, new, cranes carting pieces of future in iron jaws. He had not yet discovered Howl, but felt it in his bones, like most teenagers who like books and have a difficult period.

He seeks to ground himself and ends up by the hotel pool talking to two broads, which is not a derogatory term but merely the best one to describe them. Brightly printed pantsuits and pearly dentures proclaim how much they love his accent in between vague comparisons to an endless supply of nephews and cousins. He takes a cigarette from them and drops the titles of books he’s read like the ashes into his lap, saying bold things about a rose-tinted future lined with lofty ambitions.

A young Hispanic girl, maybe early twenties, sits with feet dipped in the pool. Watching her for a while, he analyses her profile in the half light. She is playing with a small gold cross on her neck. Her small fingers loop around the chain, coiling and uncoiling it. At once, he is in love. He’s planning out a story already; where they met, how they would have a long distance relationship and send letters via air mail. Their words carried across the waves transported by planes. Perhaps he would move here, or there, wherever she was from. He had seen her loitering in the lobby, probably waiting for her parents too. He hoped she would lift her chin so he could see her face because he can’t remember it.

Puffed up with beer, he excuses himself from his present company and goes to sit near her. The older women smile knowingly behind their cigarette fog that melds with their perfectly set hair. His bottom hits the concrete as some of the bottle’s contents spills into the unnatural blue. Her feet kick the frothing chlorine with a shy giggle. A moment shared watching the underwater lights ripple from the splashes.

The girl turns to him, smiling. Only one of her eyes meets his. The other stares at her nose. The alcohol means he doesn’t mentally jerk like anyone would have normally. Not out of rudeness, but the expectation of symmetry that blurs faces into one another until some feature sticks out like this one. She slides her hand closer across the poolside tiles. He jerks it away and reaches for the beer on the other side him, but smiles back. After a while, she gets up and leaves. The old ladies have gone too.

There is a strange tranquillity in his sense of loss. Television sets cast blue shadows out of all the balcony windows that look inwards, down at the pool. He thinks about jumping in and holding his breath, knowing he cannot swim. He pictures a pool boy fishing out his bloated corpse the next morning, making him think of fat seals on the pier. Out of the corner of his eye there is a shadow, a potted plant spider crawling in the fading light.

“I thought you said you weren’t coming back,” his younger brother says when he creeps back into the room. Habitually sneaking though the hallway lights are on and spilling an oblong of light into the room. He feels like he’s lived a thousand mental lives between the time he left and now. It has only been an hour or so. One that stretched out like the great open highway of possibility the singers reach at in his favourite songs. He grabs another beer from the mini bar paid for by his parents. Shifting in his twin bed, chin in hand, his little brother says “so you aren’t going to join those Harry Christmases then?” The older one feigns great thought, “Nah. I was just kidding.”

Image credit: view from a ferry on a windy day.

The Majesty of Sunsets

IMG_20150304_173053

The Majesty of Sunsets

Burnt orange red and yellow cascade in bold splashes, dipping buildings in copper tones as trees turn to gold leaf and bird wings open and close like black brackets speckling the sky. A slight breeze in the haze of dusk where hours unravel and air hums with traffic, shouts from a playground, basketball thumps against the concrete court.

There’s possibility in the fading light. When it’s this beautiful, as if a brilliant artist layered the Pantone® colours perfectly, a sunset is near impossible to capture. It is in those quiet times, when sun watching becomes an intimate moment alone or with a lover or group, we issue a collective sigh at the seismic kaleidoscope.

The sun must know how beautiful it is. Perhaps it’s quite humble, thinking I’m nothing special, just going about its business. Appearing to rise and set as the earth turns, growing crops and making people run to the beach.

Throughout the year, particularly in Britain, we bemoan the cold and continually changing weather. It’s one of our best conversational pieces. We get taught how to describe it in other languages, es ist kalt, il pleu, hace viento.  When there’s only a faint glimmer or it’s clouded entirely, queues seem twice their length, taxis splash bystanders with deep puddles, the post office is always closed the only time you’re available to collect a parcel and so on.

Until the cloud’s drift off and the sun hangs high, beaming down on those below. It’s much more difficult to feel cross when heat prickles skin and smiles spread like Chinese whispers. Moods are languid when shadows stretch. Going outside becomes an activity in itself; shall we take a walk in the park, cycle, swim in the lido? People bare limbs to absorb rays and colour like fruit, sparking up barbeques with the tiny flaming cousins of the sun. Their bodies dot the banks of canals, skin merging to one multicoloured wave that ripples along the land as the water sparkles. A collective regeneration of vitamin D cells; the positivity is palpable.

I wonder if the sun secretly checks on all the Instagram pages it is hashtagged in, if it happily spikes at likes and shares. Scrolling through posts with a big golden thumb thinking yeah that was quite a good one, I looked radiant that day, I should hang out with those palm trees more often.

If the sun was on a dating site age would be problematic; it was born 4.5 billion years ago or so. But the sun plays it cool, or as cool as it can be for 300 degrees. Just listing hobbies, like an interest in alternate energy sources, favourite music (here comes the sun- for motivation of course), the arts, while trying to avoid any mention of the Mayan calendar. Good traits include punctuality, being bright and gardening, though physical intimacy is a problem.

While the sun’s lighting another part of the world, the moon looks down pensively at the darkened globe, continents dotted with lights. Maybe it thinks, at least they can land on me; see what I’m all about. They’re the same age, the moon and the sun. Except the moon turns hot and cold as it reflects the sun’s rays – it lacks atmosphere, you see – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some people go for aloof. Some people are night owls. There is such a thing as moon bathing…

At the time of writing, the sun has risen 9,052 times in my lifetime. It has seen the history of the entire world, the future beyond this lifespan, up to the point where it may eventually burn out.  Stationary centre of the universe, unblinking lava star pulling on planets like buttons in the dark quilt of the vast atmosphere. I imagine tomorrow it will carry on like it’s no big deal.

Image credit: the view from my window.

Feminista Jones in conversation

Feminista Jones in conversation

As part of the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre 2015, Saturday 7th March.

It’s a beautiful day. People are humming around the Southbank. Vitamin D soaks through the skin to generate feelings of optimism, hope and joy. Today is how every day should be; we are celebrating the work or a diverse group of powerful, intelligent women.

The sun spills through the Weston Roof Pavilion as women, and a few handfuls of men, take their seats. Feminista Jones, a beautifully self-possessed and powerful presence, jokingly takes a selfie from the sidelines with the packed room. Everyone beams in anticipation of her talk ‘designed to make you blush, cry, laugh and shout all at once’.

She takes to the stage. Her warmth is immediate and embracing. Then she tells us how to change the world.

Feminista Jones (FJ): Number 1: You have to believe you are worthy. This ends today. You are woman enough to handle anything that comes your way. You are enough as the woman you are. You are worthy of love, respect, admiration and you deserve liberation.

The audience nod in agreement; Ms Jones notices the quiet appreciation and jibes us for being well-mannered Brits. “Are you with me?” she demands. A spatter of yeses. “I said are you with me?” “YES!” cry the audience.

FJ: Number 2: We must share our stories. You never know when your stories will affect others. This is the key to healing and empowerment, sharing your truth with others. Number 3: We have to work together. Start small. Collect stories, even if they’re anonymous- it’s part of helping others to speak out about education, police brutality, immigration – these are all feminist issues that affect us and others. Take small steps to change the rights of girls and women.

Resounding applause. I have goose bumps. Hannah Pool, journalist, author and curator, steps in to lead a Q&A.

HP: Are you ever asked to pick a side – between being black and being a woman?
FJ: Everyday. Inside the community, certain black men think feminism destroys it. I used to put black first and focus on race and culture. Being a woman in my community was tough.

HP:  You mention police brutality…
FJ: Black people are being picked off day by day, this has happened for centuries. We need to change the community and treat blacks differently. As a mother, I am conscious that what young men and women are learning effects how they act in the future, particularly with women. Feminism is needed.

HP: Do you ever feel disassociated from the mainstream feminist movement?
FJ: I am the mainstream feminist movement! [Big round of applause] It’s not just for white women. Social media is a tool to change this.

HP: Like hashtags, for example, and how they can be used to navigate the conversations that are happening online.
FJ: Exactly. I spoke at Hollaback, a non-profit movement working to end street harassment, and started the hashtag #YouOkSis. The response and conversations online were very strong, particularly with this issue, where women of colour are not being seen as victims of street harassment. There is a huge importance of centring black women in this conversation.

HP: You are also very open about sex and sexual abuse. Your novel, Push the button, is an erotic fiction about a black couple.
FJ: I wanted to write from a black angle about BDSM and kink. The novel is a romance about a couple who are exploring the lifestyle. It started out as a blog post, a short story, but people wanted more. I think this is because kink is typically a white space. Look at 50 Shades, another colonizing white man! In the novel, I have an antagonist who is abusive and perpetrates domestic violence. This is very separate from BDSM and it’s crucial to make that distinction in a sexual space.

HP: Have you experienced any backlash from the novel and your work?
FJ: Mostly from men, but I’ve also had questions from them about sex, like ‘How do I do it? How do I please women?’ I get the usual ‘you’re a ho’ or ‘you’re a slut’, but I deconstruct the words people are using negatively and just say fuck you. Men tell me I’m wrong and I’m tired of that. There’s this misrepresentation of feminism from men and it’s making the movement look bad. Last time I checked, it was feminism, not meninism. When women own their sexual agency and the right to say no, it’s threatening to men.

HP: You freely talk about your experience with depression and sexual abuse- issues that are rarely discussed publicly.
FJ: I grew up in the Black Church, capital B, capital C. It was a very specific way to negotiate the world. It works for some people, but it didn’t work for me. Particularly as sex could be a punishable offence! I found it oppressive in terms of mental health, the ‘pray and it’ll go away’ attitude discourages people from getting professional help. The attitude was ‘only white people have therapists. You have the devil in you!’ These barricades to mental health have a racial implication – black men are twice as likely to get diagnosed with schizophrenia as white men who exhibit the same symptoms. There’s less social housing allocated to people of colour with mental health issues and often this leads to homelessness. There need to be more help out there.

I’m still working through my sexual assault. It begins in sections of the community, in the street for black girls who are 10-12 years old. Up to 60% of black girls are sexually assaulted before they are 18, and it’s often somebody they know. There is a sickness in the community. Confronting the sickness challenges existence and everything we’ve known as a black community. This happens in all communities. Silence is shame – but we didn’t do something wrong. My mother told me I was wrong, that it was my fault, because it happened to me. We need to talk about it.

Hannah Pool cuts to questions from the audience. A wide show of hands.

Q: Is being a sexual predator a male thing, or does it transcend culture?
FJ: I have a degree in sociology, and I know that nothing is innate. It is learned behaviour. For example, some black males overcompensate as a group to help assert masculinity, because of patriarchy they have to work twice as hard to be masculine. They take all their daily experiences of racism and bring it home as a sexual situation.

Q: I have a burden of consciousness. I’m a reluctant feminist, because feminism is a typically white movement. Do you ever get tired? You’re being tugged from all sides, with race, sexuality, feminism. Do you ever think what is the point?
FJ: At least three times a week. Black women have been erased from the movement historically. Feminism started in cultures of colour all around the world. We have the right to claim it. It’s ours, it’s everyone’s. I don’t want to be offered a seat at the table I know I built. Intersectionality is a term thrown around a lot. We are all women- that’s it. Not hyphenated, less, or blank. The more we assert that, the perception of feminism equalling whiteness will change.

Q [from a male audience member]: How do we get more men in the room? How can I talk to my friends about issues like this?
FJ: Thank you for coming. Next time, bring your friends! And they’ll bring their friends. There has been a demonisation of the idea of feminism since the 70s. Using social media to engage is a great way to get involved and change the course of the conversation. Feminism doesn’t teach that men suck, it’s the patriarchy that sucks. Women are victims of patriarchal thinking too. If you’re friends call you out on being a feminist, call you gay or say you’re trying to get laid – whatever. None of these are bad things! And besides, who doesn’t want to get laid?

Q: How to you give yourself the self-care you need to carry on?
FJ: I drink! Being a social worker is my full time job; I spend a lot of time absorbing the trauma of others. Writing helps me to escape. It’s a way of processing thoughts, writing stuff that will never see the light of day but at least it’s out. I always tell myself ‘we’ve gotta change the world’ and that keeps me going.

Q: How do you combat street harassment? Even if you say no from the start and still get harassed.
FJ: There is an inability to accept ‘no’. You have to weigh up the risk; is me asserting my right going to get me hurt, or killed? It’s all in the environmental elements, is it light? Is it busy? Am I in a neighbourhood I know well? Sometimes you just have to absorb it and tweet through it.

She breaks off and asks the audience, “Hands up who here has been catcalled in the street?” An unfortunately large amount of hands point skyward. “And hands up who has spoken to someone about what happened afterwards?” Almost all the hands drop.

FJ: Create a space online to talk through what happened. You will get trolls, but just block them and keep going.

Q: What has having a son taught you? How have you taught him to respect women?
FJ: It’s a cliché, but it takes a village to raise a son. I’m lucky that he has a strong network of people. I tried not to gender him. Being a parent is all about understanding children’s capacity for learning. Modelling interactions with your partner or the other parents is important; this is what shapes their models for future relationships. This is what children pick up on. His father and I are divorced and we may argue, but never in front of him. To him, we’re the best of friends!

Q: Picking up on what you said about the community- I’m Nigerian, and looking back in some of my family interactions, some uncles would linger a little too long, putting their hands around your waist from a young age…
FJ: It is normalised to treat young girls this way, this makes them scared to call their family out. My mom died in 2007, I was scared to tell her what happened to me and I only did it a few months before she died.

Q: Do you think there’s racism in mental health treatment?
FJ: After centuries of psychological trauma, mental health can be passed through generations. The whole world conspired to enslave black people. Black people haven’t been given that space where, for example, Jewish people have. My depression and experience with mental health came from sexism and racism. There’s a problem of representation. Like putting images forth of men in suits and a cap and gown when they get shot. This is giving in, framing them in a certain way. Their lives are not worth less if they didn’t graduate. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were shot in suits. Nobody deserves violence.

Hannah Pool wraps up the questions. Applause and cheers ring out, filling the crowded, small room. Feminista Jones is humble, thankful and beaming. This is what a powerhouse looks like.

Cultivating kindness

NewYork

Cultivating kindness

I write from my bed in a painkiller haze surrounded by several bouquets of flowers. I am in and out of myself. When I read, sleep conjures images to dance amidst the printed words before my eyes. Real and projected worlds conjoin until my eyes close, drawing a heavy black curtain over the page.

Awakening: my face fills the small round mirror. Eyes dimly aglow with muted purples and yellow bruises less beautiful than the natural flora spilling over the surfaces. Neat black stitches sit on my lips and below my right ear – practical and piratical. Stretching out before the shower, dull sticky rings betray where a machine suckered my skin monitoring life signs. Anaesthesia is the pause between life and death; a forced unconscious state. I remember nothing after the injection.

***

The world presents a sequence of landscapes from arctic to ocean, country to city, suburbs to sub-Saharan. Humans navigate these terrains, influencing and being influenced by the vast biosphere. Throughout this journey, each individual possesses a unique state colouring their outlook. The relationship between the world and self is forever in flux. Change is the only constant, manoeuvring the external and internal scenery, creaking new backgrounds into place.

Many have written about the effects of place on people and vice versa. Imagine the body as a large town, one that is fully functioning, controlled and full of components that contribute to its characterisation. Every neighbourhood, like you, has its desirable and undesirable elements. Your sunny disposition is the bubbling fountain in a park square where children sail paper boats. For every delayed bill payment, a company avoids filing taxes. When you give a gift, a new statue is unveiled of a prevalent historical figure. Each time you make love, the city twins with another and international relations flourish.

Within that corporal/geographical relationship, personality is like a private greenhouse. We are each the gardener of our own world. You will reap what you sew, whether planting seeds of kindness or animosity. A greenhouse of vibrant flowers, fruit ripening, plants bursting into life, bees humming to pollinate a microcosm of oxygen or a shaky frame of broken panes, glass tinkling underfoot as the wind rustles through weeds and dry soil. People visit Kew Gardens for a reason. Talking to plants helps them grow, nurture yourself and you will too.

***

Look around and see players in a domino effect of affect that you too are part of.

Example A: Someone bumps into you; you both curse and wish the other a bad day. In a microscopic emotional shellshock, you radiate anger from the encounter, mentally damning the inconsideration of others. This negativity trails you like a tiny black cloud and permeates the next situation you enter.

Example B: Someone bumps into you; you smooth the forming frown, apologise and continue to your destination. This may not have been your fault, it doesn’t matter. There are bigger things than this. You are fine.

Of course, not everything is as clear cut as the hypothetical. The possible combinations of social situations are infinite; there is no ‘one size fits all’ response, but kindness is a good one.

This is, after all, the basic teaching that underpins all major religions. Christianity’s Golden Rule is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Islam teaches, “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.” Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Taoism preach the virtues of karma, the law of moral causation, which crudely means immediate actions not only affect the present but the likelihood of good/bad things happening in the future.

No one is a perfect person. I can recognise the importance of a little rain in helping plants to grow. There cannot be sunshine all the time, global warming is bad enough already, but trying to stay bright is a good option – especially in British weather.

Mindscape

Mindscape

The moon and sun sit high in the blended greys of night and day sky. Two eyes suspended over a barren land. This is where the four winds meet to scatter, a place where time is suspended but moves at twice its normal rate. Lone island of craggy peaks surrounded by a moat of fierce teeth etched from the foaming black sea.

A castle looms out of the haze, piercing clouds with its complex maze of turrets, battlements and stained glass windows. Strength exudes from the dark stones of this solitary sentinel. Periscopes and telescopes peer through arrow slits out onto the wasteland. An inverted panopticon kept by a cloaked figure looking to learn but defend from the world outside.

Deep underground in a locked vault, a glowing, golden orb pulses rays of warmth and light. About it, ivy winds its way around the high ceilings, slinking in and out of padlocks. A host of jungle flowers and cacti flower continually. As far as an eye can see, buds burst open in silent exaltation. Their scent is intoxicating. In this ironclad greenhouse there is seldom wilting. In the darkest corner of the room, a purple monkshood flower sways. High above, a low grumble shoots through the cracked earth.

Something is coming.

From the highest turret, the cloaked body sees the spillage of inky sea. Speckling the swirling black, a fleet of bone white boats sail land bound. The scopes collectively snap shut. A crescendo of locks bolting echoes around the vast structure. The dark stones slowly smoulder, ripening to a dark red to bright white, burning bright. The castle shimmers in and out of view until, as if it has been blown out, it disappears with a static screech.

The ashen boats shatter against the rocks oozing black shadows from their decks like unholy coconuts.  The dark juice drips across the splintered stones, collecting to cast out scores of savage forms.  They shriek and jump to pull rocks from their roots and hurtle them towards the space where the castle sat moments ago. In the rain of rocks the shimmer cracks, spitting the castle back into vision like a fractured mirror. The shadows attack.

This is not the first time they have captured the castle. After each battle, the hooded figure builds more traps, riddles and red herrings between the orb and the outside. But this time the shadows have grown in number.  Sneaking, sleek assassins who slide through the cracks in the walls, the eyes of keyholes, beneath doors, their icy grip poised to snatch the radiant orb.

They flurry around the castle, snaking through corridors until one happens upon a pocket of heat. It stops and shivers in the unfamiliar sense beckoning its wispy comrades. They scan for an entrance, heaving against the ground until their force crumbles the rocky layers to the depths.

The castle is blackening, a burning coal near extinguished. Now the large and small shadows set to unpick the mass of knotted locks that spring open under their sharpened fingers, clattering to the stone floor in a storm of metal thumps. After the cacophony, a final lock releases the iron door to the orb.

The plants recoil in the cold that the shadows bring. Leaves fall from their branches as the tropical bouquets shrivel to vein-riddled monochrome petals. The biggest shadow lifts the orb from its central point. A shockwave pulses across the island. The shadow throws the glowing sphere between its companions. Each touch dribbles ink onto the orb’s surface causing the golden gleam to curdle. A smaller shadow misses a catch and the darkening sphere shatters.

***

The castle fell beneath the moon and sun. The shadows rejoiced and unfurled their black flags from the turrets to celebrate another victory. They stayed only a short while to survey their destruction before skulking back to their bone boats for another island to raze.

A single shard glows amidst the ruins. Tiny shoots spring from beneath the rubble to lean towards its heat. The hooded figure picks up the stones to build a ring around the small fragment.