Ministry of Loss

Sitting at his desk among the shadows of houseplants, he imagined that he looked monumental in the light of a single candle though he felt as insignificant as an insect.  Through the window without curtains he scanned the world outside, the spaces between streetlights, between cars, between spaces.  Satisfied, he picked up the envelope, reading and re-reading the handwritten address, trying to find a clue in the slanting of letters and the distribution of punctuation.  The style was familiar to him as he had been corresponding for some time on the subject of his absent wife and daughter.  No hard news had yet been forthcoming from the Ministry of Loss but he found himself becoming curious about the seemingly increasing warm tone of the replies.  Despite what must have been a heavy workload, Inspector Zelda Good still found the time, between the lines, to insert an apparent friendliness quite at odds with protocol and the times.  He had felt so alone following the disappearance of his family and the lack of any real information regarding their fate that he came to rely on her letters and their apparent humanity.  He had begun to construct fantasies about this unknown woman, competing with memories of his wife and sapping his resolve to get at the truth.  This was despite the fact that he had never seen her, never heard her talk, laugh or cry.  He recalled the times he’d tried to visit her workplace.  He had never entered the fortress-like eight-storey structure but instead had stood at some distance surveying the windows, trying to guess which one looked in on her office, which one she looked out of.  The tall aerials on top of the building seemed to read his thoughts and he would always leave in haste, his twin goals thwarted.

He opened the letter and read eagerly, sensing immediately that the cordiality was even stronger.  For the first time, she had signed the paper with her first name only.  He could hardly believe it when she suggested meeting the following day to discuss what she described as “developments” in the case.  He had to read the letter three times to make sure that he had not misunderstood.  He was elated and played a game of trying to picture what this woman would look like followed by feelings of guilt for temporarily forgetting the reason for the correspondence.

The next morning, he locked the door of his flat and hurried down the corridor and stairs, hoping to avoid his neighbours whose polite but gradually emptier queries about his missing family were greeted by his embarrassed, small shrug.  He was relieved to reach the relative anonymity of the street where he would not be obliged to explain himself, at least not to those unconnected to the authorities.  He stood on the pavement for a few moments, trying not to panic, wondering what this day would bring as the rest of the world milled around him.  He noted the CCTV cameras which had mysteriously landed one day like a flock of alien and challenging birds, here to stay.  He walked towards an underground train station, the streets demarcated by enormous video screens urging vigilance, productivity, expenditure and obedience, communicated by the strident, comedy dancing of members of the Government.

Half an hour of not making eye contact later, a train coughed him out into the fog of an abandoned quarter of the city.  He felt cold air on his face as the directions he’d been given led him to a neglected stadium he thought he’d once seen in a television programme though he was not sure now what had taken place there then. With a shiver, he entered through a long tunnel and sat down on a bench at the side of an unkempt football pitch.  All around the edge of the field were statues of discredited politicians from earlier times, covered in bird droppings.  He kept looking around, expecting something to happen, for some sort of game to begin, thinking this was how people used to feel, how he used to feel. The rumble of distant traffic was quite comforting, some sort of connection to a world he believed he knew but did not reduce his anxiety enough.

 

Within a few minutes, a woman wearing a fur coat appeared from the tunnel and stopped to view him.  She advanced towards him purposefully but with a hint of playfulness. Her glossy black hair was cropped and her smile broad and sustained.  He was not disappointed.  She introduced herself in an educated, confident voice, removed her sunglasses to reveal luminous green eyes and reached up to kiss his cheek.

He fixed her in his gaze, standing so close that he could feel her quick breath on his neck and inhale her perfume as she gestured faintly with her left hand, his long lost wife and daughter materialising a few yards behind her, flanked by two unsmiling women.  His heart missed a beat for the second time in as many minutes. His family seemed pale imitations of the people he knew, as though something essential had been drained from their lives and he had great difficulty in knowing how to behave, where to look.  He tried to speak to them but no words came to his lips and he returned his attention to his new distraction.

Zelda Good stepped back three steps and, still smiling, pulled a compact, silenced, silver revolver from beneath the fur, pressed it against his forehead and squeezed the trigger in slow motion.  After a second of hesitation, he fell to the floor.  She took a deep breath and cleaned the silencer with a handkerchief.  The wife tried to go to her husband’s aid but was wrestled away by the guards who pushed her back down the tunnel, her little girl trailing behind, crying inconsolably. The Inspector knelt down, searching her victim’s jacket, retrieving the letters that she had asked him to bring to this meeting.  Pleased, she put the papers under her coat, replaced her sunglasses and left the stadium, passing two colleagues who knew where to take the stretcher they were carrying.  In the stands, empty drink cartons gently bumped into one another in a rising wind as blood slid down vigorous blades of grass and pigeons cooed harmoniously on the heads of the statues.

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Night Shift

It had been a long, tail-chasing day as they all seemed to be those days.  He left the building where he earned a minimal wage as a desk jockey for the Department of Inclement Weather and walked towards the side street where his car was parked.  When he got there, he slumped behind the wheel in a robotic motion, took a deep breath and started to drive through the neon glare of fast food outlets, petrol stations and streetlights to join the country road home.

 

The traffic was light as the hour was late and he settled into the comfort of seating, air-conditioning, music and the gentle rise and fall, rise and fall of the way.  The occasional flick of the wiper blades punctuated the uneventfulness and hinted at more persistent rain.  The lights of settlements gradually grew less frequent as did fellow travellers.  He occupied himself in thought patterns concerning his employment, his twenty-five years in a black suit and, more urgently, a last-ditch attempt to win back the mother of his children.

 

He had to slow down when he approached a dirty estate car.  He saw the scarlet of his brake lights bleed briefly over the hedges behind and he knew that he would not be able to overtake this vehicle for several miles.  After a few minutes, his attention was drawn to what looked like a photograph taped to the inside of its rear windscreen.  He had difficulty in making it out so inched a little nearer then allowed himself to fall behind. He did this several times until he was fairly satisfied that the image was of a local woman who had been reported missing recently. He tried to recall the details that gossip and newspaper reports had half-taught him about the case.  The photograph reminded him of an icon as rain, now falling heavily in a formidable side wind, also hampered identification and aided mystique.  He seemed to remember reading that the woman had been found dead in a wood that lay a few miles from his present route but thought he may have been thinking of someone else.

 

A few minutes later, both cars were diverted by roadworks onto a narrow, twisting road which led through this wood.  Travel was slower now and the trees, whipped up by gusts, reached out their branches to touch the cars, scratching, scraping.  He sensed that they were the bony arms of witches trying to seduce him, to drag him into the undergrowth and leave him covered with moss, leaves stuffed in his mouth about which a horse-bit would be ritually arranged.  He laughed and shuffled in his seat, screwing up his eyes to see rain like arrows falling down on his wild imagination.

 

A cigarette butt was tossed from the other car and hit the wet tarmac in a brief, tiny show of embers.  He felt his hopes were becoming like this last breath of a drug discarded in a lonely place with only him as witness.

 

Suddenly, it became much darker with the sound of a storm replacing that of his vehicle.  He shivered and put his foot down but the car coasted to a halt at a crossroads.  He tried to restart the engine without success.  The trees, bent into contorted gestures by the wind, appeared to have moved nearer in a bridal train of leaves. In the gloom, he tried his mobile phone but there was no signal just the image of the woman in the photograph in the long-gone other car. He could see her smile knowingly at him until the battery expired in a brief blue steel blink and total absence of light reigned.

 

Night Shift image

 

 

Straight Out of Nowhere and Back Again

 

September 1977. Elvis was dead and it was time to go back to school. I had done well in my “O” levels but I was in the grip of the music and attitude of punk rock and the possibility of not conforming to the expectations of the authority figures that seemed to increasingly surround me.

 

I lived in the village of Llechryd, on the banks of the Teifi River in West Wales, a collection of two chapels, a church, a public house, a hotel, a post office, a primary school, a shop, and expanding local authority housing where my family home was located.  I spent much of my teenage years in the company of my near neighbour and best friend, Geraint Evans-Williams.  He was a year younger than me, the son of a minister of religion from North Wales. Rugby, fishing, weekend discos in former mansions, the radio and limited television were the only distractions on offer now that we had rejected God.

 

From his bedroom, we plotted our own counter-culture.  We formed a casual musical unit, Edward H. Böring, the umlaut chosen for effect, the name chosen as a satire on the pop group Edward H. Dafis who represented the straitjacketed and utterly tedious modern Welsh entertainment.  Geraint’s musical hero was Elvis Presley especially his early work while I was fan of The Adverts, The Jam and The Stranglers.  We wrote hundreds of short, pithy and irreverent songs, powered by acoustic guitars and twigs being struck against used Fairy Liquid bottles.  As we were bilingual, we wrote in both languages, and like many young people in that situation, experienced a kind of dual identity.  Our longest track, and the easiest to compose, was the psychobilly Gregorian chant Aberfan, an endless, lugubrious intoning of those three syllables, in essence an almost non-lingual sonic elegy to fallen children.

 

Though nearly all of what we crafted was a private, childish self-indulgence, we did have a moment or two of ambition and self awareness, a guess that our raw anti-music, our anti-talent, could be exposed to an audience.  We filled a C90 cassette with our efforts and sent it to Huw Eurig, a member of the then popular group Y Trwynau Coch ( The Red Noses).  We didn’t give our real names-Geraint became Dai Marw ( Dave Dead) and I became Capten Duw (Captain God or God’s Captain) and it is possible that we did not even include our address.  To support this submission, we pretended that we were a five member group by using two cassette players to make it sound like that number of bad musicians, embracing the do it yourself ethos of the punk movement.  I can remember only one pseudonym of the other three imaginary fellow travellers-Cleif Cleifion (Clive Patients).

 

We discovered in the Welsh language newspaper Y Cymro that our low tech and anonymous effort had caused some interest in the conventional world of our country’s emerging popular music.  As a result, we came out of the shadows for a short time to make our only contribution to this particular genre.

 

We were amazed to be invited to record a session for the BBC Radio Cymru show Sosban and were summoned to the Llandaff studio in Cardiff. Geraint’s father Arthur drove us on a grey February late morning in 1980 the twenty seven miles to the nearest railway station in Carmarthen.

 

Eurof Williams, the radio producer, was bemused and fairly patient in the 60 minutes or so allocated  to us. As soon as he heard us, he barred Geraint’s guitar as he felt its steel strings produced too strident a sound. Luckily, my Spanish guitar was acceptable to him though I couldn’t play it. We managed to record  two tunes but Eurof thought that one of them was unsuitable for BBC listeners. This was “Mistar Urdd” which was an attack on the mascot of the Welsh League of Youth or Urdd Gobaith Cymru, and the idea of marshalling young people in general. The chorus of this reviled, nihilistic, latter day nursery rhyme was simple and direct-”Cachgi Mistar Urdd”.  Cachgi means “coward”. Unforgettable but that’s all I can recall at this distance.

 

The one surviving track, Hen Wlad Fy Datcu (Land of My Grandfather), was an assassination of both the national anthem and the rules of mutation. The premise of the lyric was that, never mind our fathers, our country and its culture were still mired in the age of our grandfathers. A rambling interview accompanied our cacophony.

 

Despite the censorship, the truncated session was actually broadcast the following Saturday morning.  Richard Rees, the presenter, was a good sport, describing us as the “chwyldroadol” (revolutionary) Edward H. Böring!  I cringed as I listened, both glad and mad that no one in my home was listening with me.

 

We did not capitalise on our small success. My great friend and former fellow pupil David Edwards of the truly pioneering Cardigan rock group, Datblygu, once told me that he had been inspired to start his music career by our example.  Geraint and I went our separate ways, he to Charleville-Mézières in France in the footsteps of another of his heroes, Arthur Rimbaud, me to a Youth Opportunities Programme scheme at the local library. I consider my collaboration with him as a kind of apprenticeship, the beginnings of a need to conjure up some kind of literature, of not allowing the weight of having to earn a living erase all creative thoughts from my mind.

Paul and Geraint 1979 3