Once they had finished digging up the bone –
First uncovering it and then tugging it from the ground
Like trying to uproot a magnificent turnip –
They washed it in a bowl of hot water and washing-up liquid.
For lunch the archaeologists ate Maxibons,
And then basked naked in the noonday sun
Just as the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period had
In a time before Maxibons were invented.
That evening the archaeologists dressed in their finery,
Looked at all the found bones laid out on the ground
And ate more Maxibons whilst chatting listlessly
About the possible shapes of extinct creatures.
“One hundred and sixty million years,” said one archaeologist,
“And they didn’t even get around to inventing Maxibons.”
The second archaeologist laughed flirtatiously whilst
The first performed an impression of a puzzled dinosaur.
Under the moon they stripped again and swam
In their dug-up swimming pool, jokers finding old bones
And attaching them to their bodies with duct tape,
Pretending to be dinosaurs of the pre-Maxibon era.
In the cinemas of the future, evolved human beings
Ate ice-creams evolved from the Maxibon
And watched this archaeological japery with interest,
Knowing that these too were just myths of the past
Put together in the future.
1. He is lying in bed, fully clothed – even his boots are still tied to his feet. It is something to do with him feeling like he is slowly becoming a half non-person, a feeling that he is not fighting, not even now. He is staring at page thirteen of his book but his eyes are not moving along the lines of words, the words are not sinking into his eyes and through to his brain. The door of the shack is open and there is a cool breeze. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a feral chicken and watches as it makes its way onto the bed and pecks listlessly at the duvet as if it were corn, but not the chicken’s favourite kind of corn. This is not unusual – this morning he counted thirteen feral chickens in the overgrowth at the back of the house. Perhaps this had something to do with his decision to remain fully clothed whilst reading in bed. Perhaps he does not want a feral chicken to be on the bed whilst he is undressed. Whilst he is out here becoming a half non-person one of the things on his list is that he does not want to be found naked on his bed with a feral chicken. No.
2. The world now is very similar to the ‘future,’ with its metal machine boxes purring down the roads at all kinds of speeds, inches away from pedestrians. There is a man standing so close to the cars that he can feel them breathing. He is reading his book by the light of a lamp post, perhaps waiting for a bus. It is difficult to wonder what else he might be doing there, with his book and his lamp post and the light and all of the words that he is reading, but maybe that is just where he wants to read his book. Maybe he finds that the streetlight brings a new quality to the words on the page. Maybe he has read this book many times before in many different types of light. The first time he read it was long ago, when the future was just a glint in the present’s eye, and he read the book from start to finish by the light of one candle. But that was the past and the world was a very different place and didn’t look the way it looks now.
3. The end of the chapter looms. He has flicked ahead to see where it ends and where the next one starts, not to spoil the plot mind, just to see how much of it is left. It is not far away, and then when he reads a little more it is even less far away, that is to say that it is closer. This is ok, the fate of the chapter’s end is in his own hands, eyes, brain. He steadily reads towards it, stopping every now and then to look around the room. His gaze snags on the ticking clock, at its big, bold numbers and its steady ticking second hand which cannot be changed, which moves at its own pace and which cannot be changed into a lie of time. He cannot just look away from the clock and decide to himself that it is actually twelve o’clock when in reality it is five past.
4. “Drat it. Drat it. Drat it, drat it, drat it.” The splash has woken him. He flails and scrambles and scoops the book up out of the water. He is getting too old for this. First the cheese and then the crisps and then the bathwater. He reaches up and dumps the soggy book on the radiator. “Drat it, drat it.” The book is a sad sight now, like a small drowned animal left high and dry when the flood waters recede.
5. Beep. And then a few seconds of quiet, long enough that he thinks it has gone away and then. Beep. Again. He looks around the flat, all painted up in post-utopia whites and hidden wireless entrees so that everything appears smooth and pod-like, a glistening future for. Beep. He puts his book on the bed, face down so that it is splayed open on the pages he is reading and. Beep. He gets up and looks for the sound, the source of the beep, wonders if it is just an imagined nagging in his brain but. Beep. There it is again. In the smooth whiteness of his living room there is nothing out of place, no workings on show. Beep. Nothing in this flat that looks as though it is beeping, nothing that looks like it is broken/out of place/exposed/shouldn’t be there/interrupted/broken/wrong. Beep. He just stands there for a moment until. Beep. Accepting defeat he returns to his seat and picks up his book, which is like picking up a stray brick of a broken building knocked down in the past, cumbersome and stained and rusted and. Beep. He looks at the binding, weakened but still together, and although this is the behind-the-scenes part, not the part of the book that holds his primary interest, it is good to see how everything. Beep.
6. When he looks up from his book he notices that the taxi driver has thirteen lemons tattooed on his forearm, bulbous yellow fruits growing under his thick hair. It’s like something from a film. He returns his attentions to his book but the story he is reading just doesn’t hold the same fascination for him as the lemons on the taxi driver’s arm. Both the fact that they are lemons and the fact that there are thirteen of them fascinate him. He closes his book, careful to mark the page first, and then wonders about how best to ask about the lemons and in the end he just says: “So, lemons huh?” The taxi driver looks down at his arm and then back at the road and about twenty seconds later he cracks a smile and says in a half-growl: “One for each of my sins.”
7. It is winter. He is at Windermere. He struggles to turn the pages of his book, his fingers and thumbs swollen to clumsy proportions by the thickly woollen warmth of his gloves. The pages of the book remain the same bashed-thin butterfly wing thick, impossible to peel apart with fingers this big. He is sat on a bench, the water of the lake lapping at the shore just thirteen feet away. There is frost and ice on the ground, chill in the air. His cheeks are exposed to the air and are red with winter. The pale moon is visible in the afternoon sky, as though it has frozen white and is falling to earth. All of this is outside the plot of his book, just as that plot exists outside of his life. He is half way through the book and no one is going anywhere.
8. When he gets to page thirteen he stops and looks back, flicking through those thirteen pages. The characters and events and descriptions contained on those pages flit past him backwards as he heads back to the title page. He looks at it for a while and then returns to page thirteen. There’s no going back now. It is like walking along a path in a forest for five minutes on a day when he knows he should be somewhere else. He has made his decision and there is no way that he can turn around now. His heart sinks and then lifts. He carries on – fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, don’t look back now, eighteen. The words tumbled down around him, things happen in the book but it is all secondary to what is really happening here and now around him. He just keeps on going, page twenty flashes past, page thirty, forty. Even if he wanted to he could not go back now.
9. He scratches his face and when he looks at his finger there is some blood on it and he is irritated by this but old enough not to be surprised. He has to be careful because he has his book in his other hand. The blood is not running but he is aware that he could inadvertently transfer some of his blood on to the page. He does not want to add his DNA to that of the author and the editor and the publisher of the book. It is bad enough that in the act of holding the book he has transferred grease from his fingers and breath from his lungs on to the page. The book does not need his blood splodged all over it. It is not that kind of book.
10. Reading whilst he sits in a parked car is a new thing to him but there is definitely, he has checked, something exciting about resting a book on the steering wheel and reading whilst the world passes by outside. The car keeps him dry as well. Before now he was a pedestrian and he had spent a lot of time sitting on park benches and reading, which was nice during the dry weather but not so pleasant in the wet. It became a complicated procedure, necessitating a towel with which to dry the bench and an umbrella to balance at an awkward angle in order to keep his hands free and both himself and the book dry. This is much better. It works especially well when he is reading American novels – there is something of the drive-in movie about reading in the car. Something of the car-as-freedom vibe of the country, the pacific roaring by on the other side of the windscreen. Even when he is just parked up near the recycling bins in the corner of the supermarket car park.
11. He is reading someone else’s autobiography, holding it with his hands, reading it with his eyes, taking this someone else’s life into his brain. Packing it down, fossilising these life tales inside him. The autobiographer wrote the autobiography and then died soon after, having reached a respectable age. He had not been someone who felt the urge to tell everyone his life story at the age of twenty three. He had lived, then written and then died. It seems like a neat way of doing things. He, he who is now reading the autobiography and wondering at the differences of one life to the next, is curious to know whether anything happened in the autobiographer’s life in the short time between him finishing his book and his death. Did he plan it that way? Did he feel that his life was now complete having been set down in writing? He puts down the autobiography and wonders whether his own autobiography, when he gets around to writing it, should mention the reading of this someone else’s autobiography, as part of his life and his wonderings. And then he thinks about fossils and the layers of rock beneath the surface of the earth.
12. A tiny wisp-hiss of air and then the syllable. Soft and perfectly stressed. He sits back and watches it, enjoys it. There it is. He smiles. On to the next syllable, he thinks. This is his favourite book. He is sitting in a comfortable chair and he has a cup of coffee and a piece of cake and it is raining outside. How many times has he read this book? He has lost count. He could recite it in his sleep, but he has no interest in doing that. He wants to enjoy the syllables, each and every one of them. He is not even thinking about the words. Just the act of him having the book in his hands and of him pushing the syllables softly out of his mouth as perfectly as he can is enough. It is six weeks since he retired and he has thought hard about what he would like to do with his time now that he does not have to go to work. All he can think of is this book. It is not a short book. He drinks a mouthful of coffee and eats a mouthful of cake. The house is silent except for the rain outside. On to the next syllable.
13. It starts with him picking up a book. The same way it always starts. The book is on the shelf and then he takes it from the shelf. The book is not new, it has been printed and bought and sold and passed from person to person and read over and over again. The words are still on the pages, they have soaked into the readers’ brains but remain solid ink on solid paper. Just words and not yet ideas formed and given stature and importance by the processing brain. He picks up a book and sits down to reads his way into it. It is just a story made of words that act like the bricks of a house but as he reads it, it becomes something else, it grows onto him like an extra arm or a hatch in his brain and he falls through the hatch, like the sky opening up overhead when you want the ground to swallow you up.
I am currently reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
Picture by Ric, in Guernsey.