Location: La Ventena, Mexico. In a bar. pdf
Christie sounds a little down in the dumps. Maybe it’s a come down from our magical day swimming with sea lions and whale sharks. Or because she has only a few more days left in Mexico. Or the fact that we’ve just started talking about work—a good sign it’s only just crept into conversation two days after hanging out together, but a subject, for most alas, that invokes little joy. I order us both another beer.
Christie’s an environmental consultant. Presently that means “pipeline inspector”—a water pipeline, she’s keen to point out—not oil. “Everyone hates me because I’m the one that always says, No, you can’t do this or that. The rule keeper.”
It’s not just her job she’s sounding pretty glum about, though; but the state of world in general. According to her, “it’s fucked.”
“What happened for you to get so pessimistic?” I ask, after enduring several minutes of morose musings at the bar.
“I realised no one gives a fuck. And we’re all doomed.”
“Steady on, Christie,” I say with a smile. “You almost sound as negative as I can be at times.”
I studied environmental science and climate change at University. I know all too well how bad things are, and might get, and I often let it get to me.
I consider Christie a moment; her long, mousy blond hair; her kind eyes; and wonder how old she is. Forty? I don’t enquire, of course. Instead I ask, “What made you give up?”
“I was broke too long trying to change it.”
“Change the world?!”
“Why would you want to do something like that?” I ask with a wry smile. She laughs. I do have a point to make, but decide to hold fire. I ask instead, “So what were you doing at my age to 'change the world'?”
“Conversation biology work for threatened species. In Africa, and other places.”
“That sounds awesome, Christie. So you weren't always so pessimistic then?”
“Course not. Back then I was stupidly idealistic.”
“I’ve been there. Idealism, I mean.” I hadn’t made it to Africa yet.
Before she can answer, a man standing beside us asks in a strong northern English accent where I’m from.
“Derby,” I say.
He aims a hand at me, and says, “I’m from Bolton originally. Lived in Canada for the past twenty years, mind.” His hand almost swallows mine, but he applies just the right firmness in his handshake. Nothing worse than a limp handshake, is there.
“You still have the accent,” I tell him.
“Only when I drink.” He glances at the man beside him. “I’m Roger, and this is Darren,” he says.
A minute later and beer in hand, Roger joins Christie and I in conversation: still bitumen-like state-of-the-world stuff, whilst Darren chats to some other chap (wise move).
“So, you were talking about what a mess the world is in, weren’t you?” Roger says. I guess it’s not hard to overhear another conversation in a tightly packed in a bar like this.
“Yes, Christie’s a little glum today,” I say. “We’re all doomed, apparently.” I shoot Christie a smile and she narrows her eyes in mock affront.
Roger appears as keen as I am to challenge Christie’s dour suppositions. She’s been driving the conversation for the past twenty minutes likes it’s a road roller she’s taking for a joy ride. We need to swipe the keys from the ignition, pull her from the cabin, and find her a nice convertible Cadillac. A pink one, with shiny silver wheels. Are they making electric ones yet?
We naively dangle alternative perspectives before her in an attempt to sway her opinion. But it’s like holding magnets next to a grandfather clock’s pendulum in an attempt to change time. Did we think we could change her mind—ideas and opinions years in the forming—just like that? Probably not, but it’s fun trying, isn’t it. To stir things up. Plus, it’s always a relief to find someone more miserable than yourself.
“Perhaps setting out to change the world is where you came a cropper, Christie,” I say, slipping on my tin-foil psychologist hat. “Maybe it was some sour self-image you were trying to heal or make right. I’m not good enough, I need to change—that type of thing. Projecting it out onto the world and trying to ‘fix’ it, you were setting yourself up to fail, of course.”
Roger gently nods his head a few times, like it’s a rocking chair he keeps poking from behind.
“Maybe,” Christie says, sounding unconvinced.
“Perhaps ‘changing the world’ is just another ego trip,” I say, and noticing Christie frown move swiftly on. “Look, I understand there’s a lot of messed up nastiness in the world. And look how privileged we are here on holiday in Mexico; to have time and energy to even think about such things. Of course the world can be better. And if people do nothing, ‘bad things’ will keep happening. But… but I also sense another perspective.”
I take a swig of my beer, Roger and Christie remain silent. I look each in the eye briefly, consider the beer in my hand, turning it, imagining our dear Earth turning itself, then continue:
“Perhaps everything is in order. In balance. Despite all the shit in the world, everything is as it should be.”
Christie scoffs. Roger says nothing.
“Nihilistic clap-trap?” I ask Christie. I’m fully open to the idea.
“New-age cop-out,” she replies.
“Maybe. But on some deep, unseen level, I believe it is like that. I admit, reconciling those different perspectives—the need to get angry and take action, and the peaceful knowing that everything is divine and in harmony—is a little confusing. I don’t want to just bliss out in some hippy dippy way, disconnected from the suffering and destruction around me. Nor do I don’t want to be an eco-warrior or any kind of ‘activist’ raging against the machine and getting burned out like you did. That’s what happened right?”
“I guess so,” Christie concedes.
“Is there a middle ground?”
No one answers that, but Roger says, “You're arguments are interesting and philosophical,” which gives my ego a little polish.
“So, what about you Roger. Did you set out to change the world?” I ask.
“Nah. I was a firefighter all my life. Retired two years ago. We both did,” he says, glancing at Darren. “I wasn’t changing the world or anything, but I was making a difference. And boy was it a rewarding job.”
Perhaps he even saved a life or two.
“Well nice to meet you both…,” he says a minute later, offering his hand again. Yes, Christie’s despondence is a little hard to stomach, I think. He probably thinks it’s easier to pull someone from a burning building than get Christie to say something positive.
“You can’t stay in anger, you’ll burn yourself out,” I say to Christie when we’re alone again. “You’d be miserable. Is that what happened?”
We sit in silence for a moment, drinking our beers, watching the swelling, increasingly lairy crowd.
“Have you ever taken psychedelics?” I ask, randomly. I like random. I also want to steer the conversation left-field and pump it full of helium. Plus, I naively think she would have a different perspective if she had. I’m again assuming that consciousness expanding experiences are synonymous with the attainment of higher values and good actions. Silly boy. Again giving credence to the idea of some universal guiding consciousness that is good. Such foolishness!
“Oh lots,” she says, which surprises me. “We did mushrooms in the woods this summer, in fact”—this even more so. It’s just, well… she seems too old to still be indulging in that type of thing. Then I remember shamans are usually old blokes, and as for most things in life, you’re never too old, right?
“So didn’t you see, on the deepest level, everything is in harmony?” I ask. “That nature know’s what it’s doing? Even with we beastly humans it spawned?”
“No. I just saw how beautiful the forest was. How alive. How sentient it was. Breathing. Watching.”
“Oh,” I say, the extolling-the-virtues-of-psychedelics wind sucked from my sails.
“What about you. When did you last take mushrooms?” Christie asks.
A smile forms on my lips as I think about this. It’s a wide smile, and part of it is invisible and keeps increasing, folding in on itself.
“Four years ago,” I say.
It’s a story I hadn’t told anyone, yet somehow, felt ripe for telling.
“Ok, what happened?”
“This might take a while…” I say.
“I’m in no rush. And hey, you might even cheer me up.”
Daunting a challenge as this is, I pull up each metaphorical sleeve and wonder quite where to begin.
“I’d decided to spend New Year down in Cornwall with my parents. I hadn’t really been in touch with them all that much that year, so it was a chance to spend some “quality time” with them.”
I pause and smile at what I knew that came to mean, and what I’d now share with Christie. As I lower my apostrophised fingers, I again wonder how to tell the story, but then the words just come flooding out.
“On new year’s eve itself my parents went out to a neighbours party and I was home alone. This suited me just fine; I had a little plan for how I might enjoy myself. I made the lounge really nice, lighting a fire, some candles, incense; putting on nice music—that sort of thing.
Back then, my parents lived by an estuary. I remember looking out the lounge window at my father’s boat floating there when they came in to say goodbye. Mum invited me to join them, again, and I told her I’d be fine. She reminded me there was a drinks cabinet in the dining room and said I could help myself. I could tell dad had noticed the little touches I’d made to lounge, but neither said anything.
They went, and there was me staring out the water again, the light of a full moon rippling across it. It was a high tide. To the right the water snaked round a bend, and a mile further you’d reach the open sea. It was very pretty where they lived.”
“They’ve since moved?”
“Yeah. To wales.” I pause, then add, “stop me if I get too poetic, won’t you.”
“No, it’s fine, I like it,” Christie says, brushing her hair behind one ear. “Go on.”
“So, I mentioned I had this little plan of how I might enjoy myself. Well, there was this little bag of mushrooms left over from a festival I’d been to that summer. I’d brought it with me thinking… I don’t know, maybe I’d do them with my brothers or something. I never considered doing them on my own. But why not?
I went upstairs and got them from my rucksack and stuffed them in my pocket. I then ummed and ahhed for a good half hour, you know, whether it was wise to take them or not, but remembering I was home—the home of the people who brought me into the world—and that there probably wasn’t a safer place… funny how long it took me to realise that. Anyway, I chucked a load in my mouth, chewed like crazy, and a minute later the bitter-sweet globule descended the oesophageal road of no return.”
“Ha, I like that!” Christie says, lightly slapping her thigh.
“Good. I’m pretty sure I wrote it in my diary about the night. Or something like it. Anyway, it took about an hour and half for them to really take affect. And in that time I cautiously took more and more. In reality there weren’t that many in the bag in the first place, and they were over a year old, at least. But they were still strong enough for damn good time.
I doubted myself a few times, and what I was doing, you know: Is it sad I’m alone? Shouldn’t I be enjoying with others?—that sort of thing. But I wondered, well, I’ll ask you now: how many people y’reckon were out that night getting pissed, pretending to be having more fun than they actually were?”
“Exactly. So what if I was alone. I was having fun. I was dancing about the living room. Singing. Really moving. I didn’t feel alone. In fact, at one point, all these different voices came to me. I was surprised I could do the accents so well. Though had you been there yourself, you might not have been so impressed.”
“The room was full of all these different characters. An Irishmen, a Scot, all sorts. A healthy schizophrenia, if that can exist.”
I chuckle. I feel sane enough to now.
“And boy, did the Irishman encourage me to drink a lot of whiskey! Remember that drinks cabinet my mum had told me about? Well he’s the one that reminded me about it.
Then I was doing a fine little jig about the lounge. Anyway, that was the beginning of a real journey of self-love. Psychedelic journeys often are, aren’t they?”
Christie smiles and faintly nods.
“Every tune that was playing on my laptop seemed to fit perfectly to the thoughts I was thinking, and what I was feeling. You know what it’s like when you’re high. It’s either your perception shifting, or reality shifting.”
“Or both,” Christie pipes in.
“Yeah, hell: why not. Anyway, sometimes I just sat by the fire and sung. Oh and what a voice I heard. Serious; I never sing. Well, I did as a kid, in the shower, or on the loo. Not now, though. And I couldn’t believe how deep and resonate and… and real it was. Man, it was like… like all the things I hold myself back with. All the little restrictions I didn’t fully know where there, had been ripped away.”
I pause for breath, collecting my thoughts. Or giving them space.
“And the fire. Wow… it was like it was the guardian of the lounge, which was really now a kind of sanctuary. I’d sit there, soaking up its healing heat. Meditating, reflecting, and singing, of course. It’s almost like the fire had a kind of spirit. An essence in some unseen realm. I spent a lot of time sitting there...”
I take a swig of beer, so does Christie—we’re in this together.
“Then I remembered it was a full moon. I went to the front door, and popped my head out, and…”—I puff out some air, reliving my loss for words—“It was immense. All stillness, peace and sparkle! A world glistening with the light of mother moon. I sensed a kind of magic awaiting me out there. But I couldn’t go out yet. It was still brewing. And I didn’t want to leave the fire unsupervised. Unsupervised, ha! That sounds so silly, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I’d wait till my parents got home. Wrap up warm, then go out. It was damn cold out there. But, sheeez, opening that door was like finding your favourite sherbet sweet as a kid, unwrapping it, licking it, feeling that fizz, tasting that sweetness, but them wrapping it up again, knowing it would be best after dinner.
Then it was back inside, dancing. And space and time was all gloomy and mushroom like. So much self-love: the good kind. So healing. When I closed my eyes, the usual geometric, shape-shifting patterns. I remember having a conversation with the bookcase for quite a long time. There was all these dry titles on their, like ‘logic and reason’, or, well I can’t remember, but they made me think of my father, and his rigid ways. How different we were.”
I take another swig of beer. Christie urges me on with her eyes. And the words continue to flow.
“I imagined various scenarios for my parents coming home. All are good spirited, involving a knock on the front door, and a dance of some sort together around the living room. Like linking arms and doing a merry jig. Well, midnight came. I didn’t pop any champagne or anything like that. Champagne’s for sharing, right? The whole evening was celebration. It was like that living room was in the innermost sanctum of the Universe, and the music coming from the speakers the sound of matter being shaped on the Creator’s anvil. I’m getting poetic, again. It’s something else I wrote in my diary, I think. Anyway, celebration was every moment. How could the concept of another ‘new year’ in our calendar mean much?
So, I thought they’d be back right after midnight. My dad hates socialising. But they don’t get back till, like, quarter to one. And they didn’t come to the front door, but to the back door I’d locked to feel safer. Well, there were a few teenage scallywags in their village, Christie.”
“I was pissing in the loo”—Christie raises a confused eyebrow—“The toilet, Christie. The washroom.”—her eyebrow falls—“I was pissing, in mid flow, howling my relief in the accent of one of my earlier characters—Punjabi, I think—and I hear mum rattling on back door getting irate, as she gets, asking ‘why on Earth is it locked?!’. Guessing they heard my adhan—that’s a call to prayer, Christie. I felt embarrassed, but I quickly got over it and composed myself. I have my hand on the back door. There’s two dark shadows on the other side of it: the reality of my parents looming there. In my addled state I was probably imagining that we actually got on. That they we were friends. Anyway, I take a breath, and open it. And… luckily they’re all smiles. And drunk, I realise. I wish them a happy New Near, but avoid eye contact—I wasn’t sure how ‘out of it’ I looked, you know. I then head back to the lounge, urging them to follow.
It was like a glowing cocoon in there. Crackling and warm and somehow telling of all my hours dancing and journeying in it’s midst. As they enter, I’m struck by how beautiful they look. My mother, wearing her multicoloured woolly hat and scarf she always wore in winter, pixy like. Her smile; wise and kind. Dad looked old and ill—he was recovering from a hernia operation and had a cold—but he looked handsome. Gentle. I’ve never seen him like that before. He was a real oger when I was growing up, believe me. It was like I was seeing deeper now, you know?”
Christie nods. Good, I think. She’s still with me.
“So, I invite mum to have a new year dance. Just as I do the perfect latin tune for it comes on. Don’t you love synchronicity like that?”
Christie smiles. Or stretches her smile further, I should say.
“My dad’s watching me and mum dance. He’s sat on the sofa. Sipping a whiskey. Oh yeah! I gave them each a whiskey when they came in. We had a new years toast. He protests saying he couldn’t possibly drink anymore, but soon relents. He’s usually a stubborn old thing. Anyway, he’s sitting there coughing, looking ill, sipping whiskey, and I’m wondering what he’s seeing. I invite him to dance but he won’t. I don’t force it. Meet people where they are, and all that. I go and sit with him instead. And mum vanishes. And Christie, as soon as I sit down in that sofa he complements me on my writing. I’d shared a piece with them a week earlier. He’d really liked it. And then it’s more complements—and this is a guy that never gave me praise really as a kid. Next he’s pouring his heart out, about his childhood, his parents––mostly how he felt he was never wanted. He learned a few years back, see, that his father wasn’t his real father. On his mother’s death bed, no less. And that his three brothers had known since they were teenagers but never told him. Total treachery! Anyway, we chat and chat, honest and open and like we’ve never chatted before, and I was laughing hard at some of things he said, and… you’ve got to understand this was a man I hated growing up. He was always shouting and moaning.
I’ve got this image of him as a kid. I’m playing by the pond at the bottom of our garden, and he’s standing at the upstairs window to our house about to go back to work again. He hated his work. It was like a dark, lone shadow looking down. I wondered what it was thinking. Perhaps I just felt guilty—I was probably trying to catch frogs to torment, poor things. But now, sitting next to him on the sofa I remembered that image of him. That person standing there in the window. Was he happy? What would make him so? Did he need a kind word or support in any way?”
I pause for breath again.
“I told him he’s beautiful. And that I loved him. Such things wouldn’t be easy for me to say. But on the mushrooms, it was the most natural thing. I think he was really touched. He kept telling me to go see the moon, so did mum. I eventually do, wrapping up warm first.”
More beer. Christie just sits there holding hers, waiting for me to continue.
“The clatter of the front door closing was like the ripping of space-time itself.”
Christie’s eyes appear to sparkle.
“It was like I’d stepped through a man-sized slit into another world entirely. Silent. Almost deafening in its silence. If such a thing is possible. Every pebble, bush and tree was beholden to the moon. To the moon’s silky light.”
I smile, knowing I’m sounding poetic. But knowing Christie likes it.
“The cloud-streaked sky was domed slightly. Like I was standing beneath a massive ribcage. But nothing macabre. Your sight goes a bit convex on mushrooms, ever noticed that?”
“Probably why I got lost in the bookshelf and christmas tree a while, earlier.”
We both laugh.
“I walk to the top of the garden, go through the gate and I’m on the pavement by my father’s parked car. We’re in a cul-de-sac, though, so no one’s about.
I’m repeating my father’s words for a minute. Over and over. They didn’t want to know me. That’s what he’d told me. Regarding his parents, I guess. And then I understood. The defences in that moment; his; mine. It was like every ice crystal in that garden shattered. Everything was accepted, felt, understood—forgiven. My eyes filled with tears and I—don’t laugh, Christie—I collapsed, to the pavement by his car. I must have looked like a right tramp. No one was about, though.”
I pause, looking into space, and decide to slow my pace a touch.
“I doubt my father could ever have imagined he’d pass that energy on to me. So many times as kid I felt this kind of sense of abandonment, exclusion, not being worthy. But that’s what happens, isn’t it. For generations. Patterns repeat. When a feeling is locked within, unexamined, and we think we’ve controlled or tamed it, but really we only maim ourselves or the ones we love. Anyway, under a full moon felt a good place to cry. A healing place to cry. Am I getting too deep?
“No. What happened next?”
“`just by where I was lying on the pavement there was this thorny bush. I remember grabbing a fistful of the leaves. It stung, but I wanted it to. It was symbolic. The spiky leaves. My defences. Pushing people away: I do that, Christie.
All that mattered was I truly felt it. The pain. I didn’t want to shut down and close off anymore. What isn’t felt, is only trapped, I’d heard or read that somewhere, and remembered it then. I bet you’re thinking I’m a right drama queen aren’t you…”
“A little,” Christie says, giggling.
I don’t care. I have a story to tell.
“I knew I was crying for my father as much as for myself. Crying away the pain. It’s in the bible, isn’t it? The son often deals with the father’s pain. But then there’s a lot of blather in the bible. Not that I’ve read it. Anyway, I looked through the open gate, at my father’s garden. It’s beautiful. I think about how he’d always loved gardening, and wondered how much of his creating and tending was fuelled by pain. How much poison he’d turned to… Buddlia and cherry blossom. Not just gardening, but in the wooden models he sometimes made, his drawings, or the sailing he loved to do. Creating to fill a void? Covering the sense of rejection?”
I draw a breath.
“Gosh, Christie—you should have seen me. If anyone had seen me! Coughing, dribbling, like a down and out tramp there on the pavement. Coughing up the last hairballs—psychological trauma, perhaps; denied aspects; once swallowed, long suppressed? My palms and knees were on the gravel, and it stung, but that was good. I wanted to feel remember.
Then the images of past girlfriends came to mind, like phantoms. One in particular. And I’m glimpsing something that she’d tried to show me. How she’d only been in my life to help me understand or experience love. To help me blossom. And how I never let her to do so. I felt a kind of delayed love for her—a love I was too blind to notice, or express at the time. It was probably just a fantasy of love, of course. But I missed her, and kind of mourned her loss for a moment, or my loss, I mean, crying, of course, fuck crying a lot, but grateful more than anything. The moon understood.
Anyway, I was seeing the reason people come together. To help each other heal. And I think of my parents again: two wounded characters I’d so raged at as a teenager when I never felt listened to—two people carrying each other home. Fuck, I was awful. Now, I’m thinking what an amazing woman my mother must be to have chosen my father to support. To help him heal his pain. To make him feel… wanted.”
I detect a slight watering in Christie’s eyes. I say nothing, of course. I’m almost done. She’ll hold. She’s strong. I want my words to penetrate.
“It was done. I head back inside. Take my shoes off. Coat. Hat. And I begin walking up the stairs to go to my bedroom, which is opposite my parent’s room. I’m almost at the top when I hear this slightly panicked voice, my mother, saying something unintelligible, then “we’re asleep”. Twice, in rapid succession. You know, in that classic caught-in-the-act, only-making-it-more-obvious type way.”
“Oh man, it was so bad. Although, it wasn’t. I just laughed and turned around, too high and too grounded to be embarrassed.
It was a surprise, catching them ‘at it’, but it seemed appropriate somehow. I liked the contrast, at least. My writhing on the course gravel outside, biting at thorns, drenched in tears; their making love. I’ve never caught my parents at it before, thank god. They never even used to speak about sex. Probably would have been good if they had. I’d have been less terrified of it as a teenager. Did you?”
“Catch your parents at it?”
“Urghh, Sam, no! Well, maybe once but I’m not sure; some surprised rustling when I showed up at their bedroom door because there was a monster at the end of my bed.”
I laugh, then say, “I’ve almost finished.”
“No it’s ok, I’m enjoying it.”
“Well, I remembered I’d one of those Chinese tissue-paper lanterns with me so I head into the garden, light it and let it go. Not before psychically attaching the last of the ‘shit’ and my father’s pain to it that is. It only just made it past the roof, but then up, up, up into the still, cold night it soared. To the haunting cry of some odd sounding bird, or spirit, in the distant woodland, and to someone shouting “wow”. It sure sounded like my father, but I’m not sure how he could he have seen it. Perhaps some part of him did and was so relieved to see his old baggage rise away like that.”
Silence. A moments eye contact, tender.
A smile, reciprocated. A sigh, mine.
“Are you going to write it into a story?” Christie asks.
I hesitate before answering, mulling it over, never really having thought to do so. Then a light flickers somewhere in the amphitheatre of my imagination––no ordinary light; an illuminating spot light on an empty stage––it’s obvious: I must.
“Yeah,” I say, “I will.”
“You should. It’s really beautiful.”
I know Christie’s thinking of her own father. Hearing any story, we relate it to ourselves. I ask her to tell me about him.
“Oh,” she says, leaning back like I’d set her quite the task. “I dunno. He’s a man of his generation, emotionally distant, tough… but steady, reliable… a good father really.” She pauses. “He didn’t have much to do with us when we were kids. He did shift work, and we had to tip toe around the house not making any noise. He didn’t really talk to us except to yell or give orders. I probably had my first conversation with him when I was 20. First hug from him when I was 21.”
Jeez, I think. I didn’t have that much to complain about then.
“We get on well now,” she says, continuing, “We’re as close as we’ll ever be, I guess, all considering. He was doing the best he knew at the time. It must be hard to be so emotionally isolated from everyone around you.” Christie looks down at her beer, and I at mine, picking the damp label there. The silence churns, and we let it.
Changing the subject, I ask, “Were you ever married?”
“Yes. Eight years.”
We drink. More silence. People watching.
“Good night, Christie.”
Empty beer bottles on the bar.