Sunday 15 July 2018

bad theatre

It rained on St Swithin’s day, and it’s still raining dammit. It feels interminable, this slate sky, these misted windows. And this is summer ... All it needs is for the odd cloud-borne fish to plop onto the sodden grass outside and writhe there, silver-scaled and shiney-eyed. Or a plummeting toad to bounce off the car bonnet, kerplonk, then hop off drunkenly into the undergrowth. Or a hail-stone the size of a basketball to crash through the gooseberries. Oh God. I cradle a cup of tea in both hands and my glasses steam up.

In the newspaper there’s a photograph of a small orange plane dumping water on forest fires in the outskirts of Athens. Great grey plumes of smoke behind the Akropolis. Much of the stone structure itself is propped up by scaffolding. I check the weather in Athens: 32 degrees and sunny. It’s 41 and sunny in Basra.

She left after breakfast in her waterproofs, with rucksack and flask, and that smile. ‘I’m going to walk the tidal line’, she said. ‘To get away from bad theatre. If you can, go out for a walk to the river. I’ll be downstream. Send me a message’. Then off into the rain, waving through the car window, her hand the same speed as the windscreen wipers. For a moment it looked like the whole car was waving.

The TV says: ‘But shaving cuts hairs so they grow back prickley’.

Where would we go if the rain just kept on and on, way past the 40 days and 40 nights, and the river burst its banks and the flood waters rose ever higher? Seeping in through the porch, the doors, then the windows. Eventually a pool of cold brown soup lapping through the living room and the kitchen, bearing DVD cases, books, shoes, clothes, photographs, TV, plastic bags, wooden spatulas, herb containers, plant pots, a frisbee. What would we take with us?

A sudden gust outside, the trees spasm and an unripe apple drops on to the car roof with a muffled ding. In a flash the image of a staring toad lurches into my mind, then it’s gone. But something of its malevolent gaze and clammy green remains. This weather is creeping into my psyche, leaving its moist fingerprints on every surface.

Sometimes I grow weary of the stories my cortex hums to me.

My mobile beeps. A text message sent up river, against the current: “There is no drama out here where sea and sky are equal – that is a human thing: out here it just is. Love, Ponytrekker”

I sit indoors in my raincoat and try to imagine her out there at the estuary, taking the ferry across the river, setting out upstream. What does she see? Tussocks of marram grass on the dunes. Perhaps the veined purple of the stinking iris. Ragwort. Knapweed. If she’s really lucky, she’ll spot the bleached pink of the pyramidal orchid. And then on the mud flats, who knows, a curlew, oystercatchers, maybe a lapwing or a ringed plover. But this won’t be a day for butterflies, that’s for sure: little chance of witnessing the flashing dance of the marbled whites, the blues, the browns, the painted ladies. The painted ladies ... Black and white tips, orange, red flashes, tiny brown furry body. I google ‘painted lady’, and up she pops. ‘Vanessa cardui’, from the family ‘Nymphalidae’, the brush-footed butterflies. I read that: “when an adult emerges from the split chrysalis, it hangs upside down and pumps blood into its four wings, inflating them. Then it waits for its delicate wings to dry’. With its 2 and a half inch wingspan, it can fly within a few hours. It can mate within a week. Its antennae can see a much wider range of colours than humans. It has taste sensors on its legs. It only lives for about two weeks.

The TV says: ‘Bear in mind with birds that lay lots of eggs, some don’t work’.

Two weeks…

Then another text message, which exposes the inadequacy of my imaginings, and the inaccuracy of my projections of ‘here’ onto ‘there’. She writes: ‘Horseflies and butterflies everywhere. Humid hot sun – I shed my coat. Field of ruined potatoes against red poppies. The river thick and full, I descend towards tidal road with sweaty mane. Love, Packhorse’.

She is riding off bad theatre. And this spurs me on to go to the river. Despite the rain. Because of the rain. I want to connect, somehow. To respond. But with a … different technology. If water is an effective conductor of sound, I say to myself, perhaps I could speak into the river. Or whisper. Or even sing. Maybe… Imagine. Crouched down at the river’s edge, face lowered just above the water. Breathe in, face down, breathe out, release. Let the sounds bounce their way around the topography of the riverbed to the sea. To her. Yes.

The TV says: ‘Relieves all kinds of itching – FAST’.

On the way to the river, rehearsing what I might say, I pass a few muffled souls, heads down and leaning into the wind. A small bright-eyed boy in a push chair outside the newsagent’s sing-speaks one word over and over again through his rain-streaked plastic screen: ’Waindoggies … waindoggies …’ I stop by the underpass to wipe my glasses, and just catch the blur of a passing train on the bridge overhead. In its wake, the wind in the trees sounds like the sea.

As if on cue, another text message. She writes: ‘Had to scramble through undergrowth, scratched fetlocks but full of spirit. Passed sublime wheatfield, soft horizon, soft heads. Passed soft cows, soft horse noses in distance. Love, Horsewhisperer’.

I choose a spot under the horse chestnuts at the water’s edge, check that no one else is around, then drop down to my knees. The water is a peaty gold and alive with light. It already carries infinite swarms of tiny shimmering flecks …

(‘Bad theatre’, invited story for Barbara Campbell’s online writing / durational performance project 1001 Nights Cast, 17 July 2007: performed live 21.10 GMT, archived online as no. 757, -
© David Williams

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