mirror skoda manoeuvre

I was heading for the car having got out of the habit of taking it (the car) to work and therefore uncertain as to whether it would still be there (it was parked on the same street where I’d had a window smashed in —

May the codskin that has been press-ganged into
stretching across your cackling rat-boy features
abruptly crackle and collapse when you push it

with a digit stained from persistent anal prodding
so that fragments of former face sprawl across
the gaudily-upholstered car-seat of your tongue…

as the resultant curse on car window smasher put it).

It being a Friday, the other workers had buggered off to the pub, leaving a single car that looked like mine in the sense that all cars are now small silvery grey hatchbacks. Only this one was pointed at me whereas I was sure I’d parked facing in the opposite direction. As I approached I began to see the very front of my car appear beyond its twin, but so close to it that I had the instant image of a pushmepullyou vehicle composed of the front ends of two cars seamlessly attached to each other. This phenomenon is what I call a chimera, where the brain spontaneously unites two disparate elements into a new whole, usually when you’re dreaming, but not always.

(Normally I’d entitle this post ‘waking skoda chimera’ and post it on the The Chimericon, but this recollected another subject obliging its appearance here. In fact it suggests a third element which will need to appear on the Tri Bradyashki blog, but I’ll let that wildly associative further ramble occur in its own good time.)

About a month ago, my daughter and I were heading up to my parents for the weekend, a standard journey by rail for an occasion which has gathered its own rituals (primarily lunch in Visocchi’s, finest ice cream parlour in Broughty Ferry and purveyor of gnocchi aurora to the discerning glutton). This time we were idling around the station with plenty o time buying small fashion booklets and large bottles of water, and found ourselves at the coffee stand a little later than intended, but nonetheless with minutes to spare. Except, after our order had gone in and before the caffeinated produce had appeared, our train arrived. Izzie was ordered to go stand by a door and if necessary keep it open by force.

I got my simple Americano, but, as the more complicated white chocolate mocha with vanilla and frangipani or whatever concoction she had ordered was being laboriously assembled, she cried out that the door wouldn’t open. Enigmatic railwaymen were reaching for their whistles, so I abandoned the nearly-completed drink despite a) having paid for it and b) reverting to stereotypical Scotsman at the horror of having paid for it, and we ran full tilt with luggage in our slipstream for the next carriage, just making it as the inexorable locking mechanism clicked in.

Merely a typical incident for the chronically inefficient, you might conclude, except that at the other end of the weekend, its spooky double was manifested. Again deploying the plenty o time gambit, we had gone to sit in the warm waiting room at the end of the platform where the carious Gents had used to be. This was now a big glazed chamber appended to the original building, with a long wall radiator directly above one of the uncomfortable perforated benches, so that you could sit and burn your nape whilst watching the automatic door respond to what appeared to be the spirits of former travellers or the micro-breezes caused by gulls flapping over the river. It simply would not shut, although it kept nearly managing this then bursting open to admit new phantoms or feathers, and watching this was sufficient to keep me amused (Izzie is made of more demanding stuff and read her second edition of Cheekbone in as many days).

After a while it became apparent the train, which normally cruises in late and fills the length of the platform, had not managed both of these feats, but there were noises implying the first. Or perhaps some other train entirely on some other platform, which we could only hear because of the spasmodic doors’ eccentric acoustic (another set of identical doors remained stolidly shut throughout). Naturally, no intelligible announcement had been made, so, to be on the safe side, we ventured forth. There was our train, so barely on the platform it could be considered still to be at a previous station. There too the enigmatic reachers for whistles. And again the desperate run to barely make it as the doors slammed.

God, you’re totally crap and shouldn’t be allowed to lead a child around in the real world, you might conclude, but that would be a premature judgement. There are further uselessnesses to be taken into account. I received an email a few months ago from an old school friend — in fact I bumped into another old school friend maybe a year before that and, since he works in the same place as her, he put her on to me. (Why this is happening now I’ve no idea, but a bunch of people I haven’t seen for twenty or in this case thirty years have begun reappearing in my life both accidentally and by intent. Perhaps the middle-aged cluster together for warmth.) But this particular friend had been, briefly, a girlfriend, and we had been very fond of each other but not very articulate, and had dropped out of touch and now, suddenly here we were again, talking or at least emailing.

This is a strange possibility the medium itself has opened up. I remember wondering in an online interview about a college friend (actually I was wondering about his moustache). After a few months, he had presumably googled himself, found my moustache-based query, and responded. Several startled emails later, we slid back into lack of contact, because all the internet does is make available the possibility of change, it can’t actually deal with our underlying habits of sloth and self-regard.

I had suggested the most recent old friend and I meet up for a coffee and had then had conniptive fits about what that would be like, because I’m so insecure about the coherence of my personality I’m unclear as to what extent it still exists. Besides, when I had met the first old friend, who I remember as having bright red hair and spectacles, he had neither of these attributes and I had to be persuaded it was really him. As my physical disintegration is somewhat more marked, I was alarmed at the thought of her thinking she was going to meet me, but actually having to have coffee with my grandfather.

All this meant I hadn’t arranged to meet her that weekend, but was mentally supposing this would happen ‘next time’ whilst wondering whether it should happen ‘this time’. And that forced me into confronting a characteristic I carry over into my writing life which is decidedly xenochronicitous: turnipitude. One of the things I accuse my partner of most is regarding her family as lacking independent thought, requiring continuous shepherding, corralling and all-round reminding to breathe and eat. She doubts, I claim, the existence of Other Minds and assumes we lie around like turnips when not actually being told what to do. In fact, if turnips could sprawl, that would be more the assumed attitude. But that which you accuse others of most fervently is, almost always, the trait you most fear and repress in yourself, and I commit turnipitudes on a daily basis.

Poems which need to be written but somehow aren’t ‘ready’ yet; work which can’t be begun because the poems really ought to come first; editors to whom either unfinished thing needs to be sent; poets whose work I have begun translating but have not yet finished (because of the poems and the work); poets whose books I must read before replying to their kind email about mine (but other work-related reading must come first, ‘first’ meaning just after the the poems/work/translations); people who are waiting for me to put in an application, write a review, complete a reference — behold the the parataxis of turnipitude! Each one clearly exists in a type of mental aspic, an amber to-do list where they do not alter just as I assume my old school friends pose, like a DVD on pause, ready for our relations to be picked up exactly where we left off. And because I really do feel like that about them, just as fond, just as ready to pick matters up, it’s only at the moment when I must actually do so that I realise change may have crept in.

This is partly a necessary faculty of the imagination: the subject must be seized, instantly and for as long as possible, in a determined mandible. Secretly we know that everything is being reinvented, re-remembered, is decaying and being renovated, being worked through the digestive processes of the unconscious, at exactly the same time as we assert to ourselves that it is fixed and unchanging. We make an eternal icon of the subject, whilst its symbolic meanings mature or decay beyond our control, until some stimulus — guilt, coincidence or some interior whistle being blown — brings us back to self-consciousness and, hopefully, we act upon it. (I haven’t personally found guilt to be a very effective stimulant.)

The weekend of not meeting framed by desperate runnings, and the Janus-faced car, as ready to reverse as go forward, both brought this idea, long familiar but never articulated, forcibly before me. We surround ourselves with statuary, always peripheral, in a part of the grounds of being we’re not ready to visit, but which we’re always half-aware of. Midas-like, we froze them; like Pygmalion, we feel responsible for bringing them to life, switching the music back on at the children’s party, though the situation is far more like the end of The Winter’s Tale — only we could think they’re statues when they’re actually just patiently waiting for us to apologise.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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