Another Outsider

Mother died today. This morning at 11. Having a sudden feeling suddenly all might not be well I called. The nurse told me my mother had died six hours before.

No one sent me a telegram: Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely. I had been back and left my number just in case she worsened.

Flying back to see her it was winter. Getting off the plane at five in the morning I went and swam in a pool to get my head straight. Driving up into the hills I stopped at a bakery in a small shopping centre. On offer were the same rolls loaves and sweets I knew from my childhood. I ate them in the early sun under a 7am clear sky, drinking hot coffee. Then I drove on to see her at the home. The nurses were kind. You are the one abroad aren’t you? We heard of you.

The home where she lived is half a world away. The nurse on the phone said the funeral will be tomorrow or the next day. The body had been taken away.

I have been away for twenty years this time. If you add up all the years in between the times we saw each other, contact was sparse over the last thirty-five years.

I watched as a Roman Catholic sister came in and said to her: I know you are a woman of great faith, would you like me to give you a blessing? My mother looked up at her with adoration in her eyes. Yes, she said. The sister took her hands in hers. I bless your eyes for all the beautiful things you have seen. I bless your nose for all the wonderful flowers you have smelled. I bless your lips for all the kind things you have said, and I bless your hands for they have held all your children.

What do you do? the sister asked bouncing a little on the vinyl floor. I write, I said. You are all creative. Then she left, coming back to confirm my telephone number. Is this still yours? Yes, I said, mine.

My mother and I used to be very close, before others made a weapon of the distance between us. I am a writer, before that a filmmaker. Not the lawyer my mother wanted me to be. So there was that in the silence between us.

The last thing she said, I hear you have not been well. Given all the laps up and down in the pool I said they would have scraped me off the bottom by now if I weren’t. She didn’t laugh, just closed her eyes, went back to that half dream, dozing morphine state.

I suppose I needed a caretaker to walk in, say, You’ve no need to justify yourself, my boy. I’ve read your file. You just lost contact with what you were once.

It was true. Or maybe I am confused as to what it was in truth. After I left the first time whenever I wrote we were two points in space inching further and further away. She looked at me with her one good eye, her beautiful mouth ruined by a stroke. You are looking well on the whole. I nodded. I keep fit. We only have one body so I guess I have to. I wondered if she was ready.

The room was oblong, purpose-built, bigger but plainer than I expected, the walls covered with my sister’s paintings. Photo albums were scattered around. Over in the corner on the floor in with some other dusty paperbacks I found a copy of my last book.

My mother liked her apple juice. I helped her drink some. She was connected to a catheter. She couldn’t get up, her life now like Bukowski’s beer sodden sadder than all the dead Christmas trees in the world. In the corridors residents pushed metal walkers.

I never saw my father’s body. I’ll never see hers. On my last day I kissed her forehead near the large cyst. I have to go to the airport, mother. I hope to see you soon. Yes, she said. No anger, no hopes and no dreams. I could  have looked up through the roof at the mass of signs in the stars and laid myself open to the benign indifference of everything, but there are no signs to be had. I left, walking the corridors, thinking: if I meet my family at the door I hope they greet me with shouts of hatred.

One Writer’s Swimality Check

In the drink fogly.

When I started my swimalog I thought at the the time I could document the mental processes, thought patterns throughout long(ish) swimming sessions, that’s what I planned anyway.

Q: So you haven’t been successful?

Not if you look at the number of blogs dedicated to swimming, no.

Q: Was it too hard for you?

The long swims were hard enough by themselves but then when I got swim-fit enough I found it wasn’t because it was hard to think and swim, just hard to remember afterwards what my mind was actually thinking while swimming, and the fact a lot of what I did think was banal – like lap 22, lap 23, lap 25, hang on it that was 24 or was it etc. When you cruise you lose track, when it’s hard you are absorbed in muscle fatigue and aches etc and when is this going to end. You might think of a phrase of music that repeats over and over and that goes on in the background of other thoughts or  sometimes even how hungry you are, or just how easy it seems, as you try to concentrate on reaching out your fingertips, keeping your kick to minimum but existent  – we’re talking freestyle here – as you just roll on to lap ends and turns and roll and turn and head on into the next lap and getting through it all. Some days are great, some not so great – banal, as you can see. There are many concerns that run through your mind as well, but the thoughts are fleeting and are lost by the swim’s end. One thing though, the harder it gets, the closer you get you get to the end, the more you are concerned with the physicality of it all – perhaps a precursor of final days concerns in any life.

Q: Okay that’s internally. What about externally – other people? Is it better some days than others?

Better when it rains and the pool empties. Way better.

Q: So you learned, one, that swimming highlights an anti-social side in you, and two, you were forced to give up on the original idea – pretty good progress.

Thanks. I branched out in the blog into other topics to keep myself and potential readers interested. And I’m not anti-social, though I accept swimming has a solitary side to it.  On a bad day I have managed the occasional rant about pool etiquette with someone who looking back may or may not have deserved it – there are two sides always to these sorts of disputes – but I’m well and truly over that. Swim and let swim is my motto now.

Q: So failing yourself and others you learned something of a better way of handling social relations and conventions. But on your main goal, in well over two years of lukewarm attempts, you failed miserably. You set out to observe and not having the stamina to maintain the observatory technique or even capacity to reinvent a charting of the banal progress of an ordinary  swimmer’s daily routine, you gave up. And made no friends.

Thanks. I made one or two friends, a few acquaintances as well. On the observation, you try it, see how far you get.

Q: I didn’t start this idea, you did. So what’s next?

Keep on keeping on. Maybe I will find a way to observe and recount a swimmer’s progress eventually. But in defence of my efforts, it’s a little like writing dialogue – slavish recounting of ‘everyday normal discourse’ rarely makes for good dramatic dialogue, or readable material – ditto for any blog on the mental processes while swimming.

oh dear.

Where we are

Linda Nylind
London Fields outdoor Pool - The Guardian. Photo by Linda Nylind

I was doing my 1500 metres in the pool yesterday, lap, swim, turn, lap, roll, stretch, concentrating on my breathing, thinking of what novelist, inventor, academic, Eric Willmot said to me on the phone the other day, talking of his recently written essay on human and planetary survival. I had read the pages he sent me, describing our progress of us all, the twenty third species of human on this planet..the story aint all pretty. Well, I think we know that, but where do we go from here? We seem to be running out of time. Eric is convinced that the global warming we are experiencing is a prelude to another ice age.

Ice with a black hole - see that's the proof!
Ice Age (with a black hole in it as well!)

Our nearest refuge, that is, nearest to our earthly conditions in toto, is Venus, but that planet is a green house gaseous inferno. So that’s out. Another solar system like our little ‘Goldilocks zone’ around the sun, surrounds the star Gliese 581, but that is twenty light years away, beyond our capacity to reach in all our lifetimes. Without some sort of quantum leap in our capacity to travel, our interplanetary air bus is going to run out of gas, if not time.

And even if we get there Gliese 581 may not be quite for us. It hasn’t sent us any kind of signal, let alone a welcome email they want us over for any holiday coming. We better find out then. We could send the executives of Fanny Mae and Freddi Mac and a few bank presidents, the whole of Wall Street in fact, on ahead to check it out, investigate the real estate and other markets and set up for us. In the meantime, we’ll sit it out and wait down here, glued to the telly for messages, filling our neighbourhoods (and the silent universe) with the sounds of humanity, eating, drinking and getting inordinately merry, all those goings on, as we use up the planet we’re whizzing around on.

Eric has some ideas on what we can and can’t do. Are we facing extinction? Are we staring into the abyss, not so blissfully un-a-ware as impotently more-than-scared? Rabbits in the headlights of some rogue comet or asteroid heading relentlessly our way? What should we do? Recycle our rubbish, turn off our appliances, walk to work, invest in nuclear reactors using Thorium (pronounced /ˈθɔːriəm/ wikipedia tells me).

Well, I think the first thing we should do is get up to speed on the actual conditions, educate ourselves. Get to know our options (even if the picture aint pretty). We’ve faced threats before – Hitler, the Cold War, the nuclear holcaust. Let’s face this one, form neighbourhood groups to discuss intra and interplanetary survival.

Well..okay…let’s do nothing then..just sit and wait and watch it happen. Let’s climb into the warming pot we call this world and boil slowly and then when the fuel burns out, slowly descend down into that big freeze.

The Spectre of Joyce

I caught an online Oprah Winfrey interview with Cormac McCarthy. Having only read No Country For Old Men I was and still am a little surprised by all the fawning atttention, but then traced his writing history and found Suttree (1979) .. “the novel’s evocation of Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, is often palpable”. How many writers did Joyce influence? I have lost count of the readers who say they cannot read Joyce, do not like him, yet on literary writers of the 20th century alone Joyce’s influence is always there somehow in some way in their work. Until I hear something that dismantles my view, I think I can say quite confidently that Joyce must be the most influential writer on writers to ever have been so disliked by readers.

How to get over yourself

Take the left leg, place at right angles to the hypotenuse of the trunk, then swing it high past the ear and down round the other ear. At the same time taking care not to bite the tongue completely away from the back of the mouth or crush the odd molar, bring the right leg round the other way in more or less the same manner and then jump. It should work.

Hopefully you’ll land in the pool. Then follow with 1000 metres of whatever stroke you can manage.

Splashing out into the great beyond

Checked the ticker out with the local quack, seems it’s okay so after slowing to a crawl, (anxiety had me going: oh shit not me heart), I’m somewhat relieved. I’ve moved back up from half the distance, half the pace, back to 1500 metres almost at a decent clip. There’s something about the pool that gets the head right.

Snowed under in the Drink of a Middling Life

Going back a bit into the middle of the lap of yet another middling swim I found myself under a category four grey bank of clouds. Oh, what is the chance of lightning today to turn my body into a soup for crabs. I tell you death itself is only a touch less scary and bitter than the shadow of the treat itself. And I swim on, reaching the wall at the end of yet another lap, my heart giving me a piercing thump, hearing words from the ether, ‘abandon ye all hope now’, my heart it says, ditto, says the sky, ye who are fool enough to be swimming on. Lap. swim. Lap. Caustic, funny, celebratory…is that it? a real blast for those who think writers get a rough ride from publishers and those writers who think they have a god given right to procrastinate! Lap. swim. A literary thriller satire from ElephantEars Press, the story set in London and New York, breaking down the strongroom walls gatekeeper-mad publishers have constructed over the centuries to keep writers in their place (no wonder writers are anxiety ridden rebels), publishers who think writers don’t matter (their life blood doesn’t matter!!). The bookworld, it is a changin’ …in one novel at least…Lap. swim. I climbed out and had a shower. It was cold and it was snowing. I was without soap or a towel, the boiler off in the middle of another middling day in spring.

Going with the flow

600 metres up and down back and forth yesterday, and boy, it felt like a low point, worrying over how to distribute my energies at best around middling in this point in the big pond of life. Today I thought: distribution, what’s the problem? Get it out and around. What’s hard about that? Punters still read, don’t they? I picked up on the distance if not the pace, taking the long view, breathing easier, striding out – can you stride out when your feet are off the bottom in an olympic pool? – anyway striding out on the delusional idea I may even be right, I took every lap as it came, one roll after another. Keep your head cool in the hard bits, I said to myself in the exhaling of CO2 bubbles, let the thing run itself, in a long easy freestyle today. Still feel the old ticker saying, Hey, slow down, so I am taking it easy. That’s the plan: slow down, stay cool, enjoy it, take it easy, don’t expect the world to turn at your speed. It will speed up or slow down by itself, so don’t you speed up yourself, roll easy and kick off the wall, swim right through the bubble and chop. 1500 metres. Felt good.

The Big Swim

So: In the beginning Hackney Council recreated the Lido. And the pool took form and filled with water, and darkness once on the face of the deep hole there for no good reason took on light and colour. And the spirit of the big swim moved on the face of the waters.

1000 metres today. Yesterday, 1500, and Monday before that 2000. The week’s running out of steam, the days getting warmer. We’re in early Spring even if the skies are grey. The novel comes off the press at the end of the week. My heart has been thumping during my swims, oil clogged arteries, thick sludgy truck oil that makes London the joy it is at times. Sometimes you cruise the pool sometimes you don’t. I need to drop something from my diet. Roll with the punches. There’s bound to be someone sounding off on freestyle techniques to help me get my breathing right coming out of my tumble turns.