Here’s to all the books
I’ve never read
Whose titles bored me,
Or whose dialogue they said
Was dull or worse.
And here’s to all the things
I will not do before I’m dead,
To all the things that scare me
Or fill me with some kind
Of dread foreboding.
And let us not forget
The women who I will not fuck,
Whose chap-sticked lips
Will never wander down my neck
Whose fingers will not run amok.
Here’s to them all,
To the lives I’ll never live,
To the smiles I’ll never give
To strangers on the underground
Or worthy children bearing gifts.
Of all these sins absolve me
When I am dead
But most of all
Forgive me for the books I have not read.
The memory of you
Pursues me like a Painted Dog,
Tears at my empty stomach
With its wet teeth, it’s wild claws.
And the sea, grey and blue on its torn canvas
Pulls the colours of the landscape into view,
The twisted grass, the thorn trees
Leaning into the red clay
And the paths that run along the sandstone cliffs
Run to you,
To your crooked smile
To your sideways glance
To your absence of being.
And I shall look towards the lighthouse
And pull at the shingle with my tired fingers
And count the clouds in your distant eyes.
The memory of you
Pursues me down dark alleyways of green oak
Through splinters of sunlight
And over the twisted roots of your heart.
And the sea, grey and blue
On its torn canvas
Pulls at my animal soul
With its seaweed fingers.
I was living in Israel up near the Lebanese border. It was high in the hills and the altitude meant that the climate there was pleasant; much less humid than down in the valley bottom. It was a small hamlet and not much happened there. During the day I pruned the grapevines and checked the irrigation pipes that meandered down through the long isles of plants. It was kinda dull work but I used to sing and daydream, stopping every now and then to drink from a polystyrene flask. The water was ice cold and I can remember how it would trace its way painfully down to my stomach. At lunchtime I would try and find some shade to sit in and then I’d crack a large watermelon on a rock, scooping out sticky handfuls of the sweet flesh. It was beautiful.
It was a long tedious week but on Friday evenings I would catch an Egged bus down into Nahariyya. It was the highlight of my week. There was pizza and falafel there and it was only the daily thought of this that made my life in the fields bearable.
On one occasion the bus turned up empty. The doors slid apart and I boarded, nodding politely to the driver. I sat a few seats behind him and he pulled away slowly watching me in the rear view mirror. It wasn’t a comfortable ride because the narrow road dropped steeply at times and swung sharply to the left and then the right. It swooped like some fairground ride but I held on tight and all the while the driver chewed sunflower seeds, spitting their shells carelessly over the floor of the bus.
He was an old guy and I didn’t recognise him but he seemed a pretty good driver. I knew the route into town well, I’d been catching the bus for months now so when he made a wrong turn I was immediately on edge. Should I say something? Maybe he was taking a shortcut. I’m a pretty easy going guy so I just sat back and looked out of the window. Soon the metalled road turned to dirt and the ride became more bumpy. He caught my eye in the mirror and smiled then pulled the bus over onto the verge and stopped.
The doors slid open and he beckoned to me. It wasn’t until I had stepped off and followed him around the side of the bus that I saw it. It was the largest lemon tree I had ever seen and some of its branches hung pendulously over a wooden fence. The lemons were as large as grapefruit and a couple were almost within reach. The driver placed one foot up onto an old breeze block, stretched and plucked one down then he handed it to me before reaching up again and taking one for himself.
And that was it. We didn’t speak; I sat for the rest of the journey with that fat fruit in my hands. I had never smelled a lemon like it, I never have since.
I love this book; I read it when I was 15 and it’s stuck in my head ever since. In fact I love all Alan Sillitoe’s novels but that’s the one that’s burnt itself indelibly into my head. Running has long been my saviour, I believe it’s the purest form of meditation there is. Don’t get me wrong I love Prozac as much as the next guy but I have no doubt that exercise is fundamental to beating panic and anxiety.
I have my old boarding school housemaster to thank for my love of running. He was a northerner, a tough beady-eyed, no nonsense taskmaster and he whipped us first years into shape very early on. There were hundreds of acres of fields and woodland around the school and we followed his little bald pate across most of them. There were several designated runs with ominous names, the most feared was “The Steeps,” it was 12 miles of wet ploughed fields, short painful climbs and a section of brambles that lacerated your legs. Just hearing its name made our hearts sink and we would sit silently through lunch dreading the thought of afternoon games.
The thing about boarding school was their time management, we had little to no free time. I guess it was their game plan, no time to get up to mischief. For me though there was no time to overthink, to worry about stupid things or to feel sorry for myself. Saturday was a normal school day, lessons and sports. Sunday was chapel followed by a compulsory letter writing hour often followed by some sort of classical music concert. It was interminable
Running gradually became my escape, yes it hurt and yes I cursed that little northern bastard with every step I took across those fields but I grew to love the pain. I grew to love the isolation too, the loneliness; it was then that I was able to order my erratic thoughts. Most of all I loved inclement weather, running against the elements, in the pouring rain, your spikes sodden and your legs covered in mud. Negotiating your way over a stream or barbed-wire fence made it even more challenging but it helped you forget your worries. Running back then made me feel invincible in a way that I’ve never felt since.
This afternoon I took a run along the seafront, the esplanade is flat and runs for miles. It was windy as hell but the sun was shining and sea air smelled beautiful. I took in great lungfuls of the stuff and I thought about my old schoolmaster, I wish I’d thanked him back then but kids never know what’s good for them.
Let me take you back, back to one of my earliest childhood memories; I’m in the compound picking ripe mangoes from the tree by the fence. I’m on my tiptoes reaching up when I hear the gunfire, it’s rapid and loud and I drop back onto my heels to listen some more. Short bursts then a pause, a large explosion followed by my mother’s panicked voice. She’s on the veranda shouting, waving me in but I can’t move, I’m glued to the red dirt beneath by feet. In the end she has to run out to get me; when I get into the house I see that she has already filled half a suitcase with an assortment of clothes, passports and papers. A minute later she throws both the case and me into the back seat of the Mercedes and we are gone. The front door is still wide open and I watch it swinging gently through the rear window as we speed off towards the highway.
That is my first memory of panic. It’s the first time I can recall that breath-sucking monster, it’s the first time I felt alone and helpless and blinded with fear. They say that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory and I have no doubt that it’s true because whenever I pick up a mango from a market stall or supermarket shelf I can’t help but lift it to my nose and take in it’s cloying odour and suddenly I’m back there in that compound and my head is full of fear.