Tuesday, 28 July 2009

You Slug

Hey buddy you gotta be more careful, that was too close.

I'm just walking down the road and then there you are in my face, crossing without looking.

I nearly stepped on you buddy. You're just a greasy tube with stalks for eyes. Yeah, a greasy tube, we all thought it but I said it. You can have that one for free.

You wonder how many of you guys die in a day? A week? A year? Too many to count, that's how many. You'd just be one more in a big long line of dead tubes. You gotta be more careful.

Nah I'm just kidding, best of luck buddy.

A Nice Easy Start

I'm often the first to rise in the morning. I don't know why, I just don't sleep in. I'm not super keen or anything. I just worry too much. I can't bear to "waste the day" by committing some somnolent atrocity, like sleeping in until 9.

But perhaps that would be no bad thing, I pronounce to no-one in particular.

Right now, everyone is dog tired from four long days at the crag. Even so, I'm up at half past seven, with the birds. Or is it the sheep in the field next to the villa? Their symphony of bells can only descend into cacophony when one is attempting to sleep through the dawn. I pull on a vest and fill up the kettle. In the silence of the morning it sounds like a freight train as it comes to the boil. Cup of rubbish Spanish coffee in hand, I flick through an old copy of Hello! or New! or whatever it is - I can't tell the difference. It's the same one I leafed through yesterday morning in the same manner, and I was similarly disinterested then. The previous tenants of this ropey old villa didn't see fit to take it with them, but rather punish me instead. I am a rabbit in the headlights of its neon typeface.

Idly I allow my brain to lay waste to itself.

Slowly, one by one, the others drag themselves out of bed. Half eight, nine, and the villa begins to come to life once more. The kettle gets up a head of steam again, and again. The frontiersman of the Old West were mistaken when they uprooted their lives in search of black gold; truly it boils here on the kitchen worktop. The muesli is out and swiftly spilled on the table. A half-hearted effort is made to clean it up, but it's ok because I know someone - me - will probably pick at it later. And then it's croissants and toast and bananas and hot chocolate. I watch as this plague of locusts devours every edible item within view, bent on the destruction of that which would stand between them and a full belly.

While waiting for the feeding frenzy to burn itself out, I take a shower. Predictably, the pressure is low and the temperature of the water is tepid, at best. Slowly however it warms to be the perfect midpoint between bearable and scalding. I stand head bowed, and let the rivulets of lukewarm liquid run through my hair, down my spine, over my eyes. It's beautiful really, and for a few moments I'm encased in this shimmering shield. Then the soap gets in my eyes and I hear a knock on the door.

There are other people waiting, you know.

The final preparation ritual begins. We lay out our gear in quiet awe; carabiners and quickdraws, cams, nuts and slings. There really is no need as it is all exactly where it was before, in exactly the same condition. But feeling the weight in your hand, knowing the tangibility; That is as good a reason as any. As swiftly and as silently as they began, the rites draw to a close. Gear is gear, it is all there and in good order, why romance it further? Later in the car, I will find myself thumbing at a carabiner just to listen to its brave snap and click, to hear tell of its heroics and strength, the chill metal a reminder of trust earned.

Belts and harnesses are stuffed unceremoniously into bags as the group becomes restless, almost as one. We pile into the tired hire car and the boot doesn't shut. We pile out again, attempt to rearrange the mountains of equipment and not get frustrated that we still haven't left. At last all the doors shut and our day can begin. Or begin to begin, at least. The air conditioning doesn't work, and I don't know why I expected it to be magically better overnight. On most days we teeter on the edge of being entombed in a furnace but today, thankfully, the air is cooler.

A half-hearted flock of clouds dawdle across the sky.

For some reason the radio stations play only 1980s hits and flamenco. Have the Spanish really only just discovered Soft Cell? More importantly, am I allowed to enjoy the Abba? Motorways become normal roads, and the normal road becomes a track. This plucky Ford Fiesta was never meant to go off road, I can tell you that from bitter experience. To say that it struggles would be an understatement, and even to suggest that it soars like some elegant bird of prey would be an outright lie.

But finally, after too many bone shaking minutes, the crag hoves into view and it begins to rain. Perfect timing Spain, thank you. Optimistically we unpack our gear and set about finding a good first pitch to begin the day. Perhaps there is one which is a bit steep and will remain dry. Initial enthusiasm wanes swiftly as we fail to find a suitable candidate. The drizzle matures and the engorged clouds continue to unleash their payload with aplomb, the epitome of timely restraint and release.

We return to the car without a word, turn on the flamenco and eat more croissants.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Woodcutter

He wakes before dawn. As the birds begin to stir and yawn their pre-dawn song, he makes a cup of coffee. Strong, black. Maybe fresh if he's feeling generous to himself, but more often than not he'll reheat some left over from the day before. As the sun steadily makes itself known over the distant treeline, he drags his aching body to the bathroom. At least he should shave, he thinks. Make himself look respectable. But for who? The trees? The stained porcelain of the basin stairs back at him as he splashes cold water on his weatherworn face. So many years, so many lines. But they are not laughter lines, they are lines carved into his features through toil and slog, lines summoned into existence by two decades of existing over living.

The rusty razor rasps across his skin, but its dullness does not awaken his senses any more than the coffee. Routine.

Returning to his bedroom, the solitary sunbeam casts its weak ray across his messy bed. An old quilt, once made for a child and used far beyond its years lies strewn across the stained sheets. Nothing sinister mind, but the stains of time, of sweat in the too hot summer nights, faded through one hundred too many washes.

Dust motes navigate through the sunbeam. Conjured into existence by the dawn and its piercing light, they have but a few seconds' life before they leave the shaft of light and perish in the dimness beyond.

His jeans, too, are faded. The marks of use and love, of trees, beer and of spaghetti sauce. This pair of jeans are his near constant companion.

"Why throw them away?", he always says, "They've never done me wrong."

He pulls on his overcoat and his splinter infested boots, and steps out into the cool morning air. The sun is visible now, its orange glow struggling to warm the air. The stillness is broken by the sound of an approaching truck; as inevitable as the dawn itself his old buddy arrives to take him the 14 miles up the track to where the sentencing is to be carried out.

"Mornin'" he mumbles, his breath fresh against the cold.

"Mornin'" comes the reply, barely audible above the rattling complaints of the old truck. Men can bond over these things, these trivialities and nonsenses that some overlook. It may well be a simple ritual but a ritual it is, the transference from dark to light, from solitude to fraternity. The journey passes as usual, in silence. At one point a squirrel darts in front of the vehicle, itself too asleep, it would seem, to have common sense.

As usual, they arrive on time, and the day begins. Gloves are donned, chainsaws are revved and visors are lowered. This forest has committed no crime, done no wrong, but its mere existence has become its own assurance of destruction.

The logging goes well that day. No-one is hurt. No machines break down, and no cables snap. No equipment is lost. Trees get cut down, and loaded onto lorries; their full purpose on this world is yet to be realised. The woodcutter doesn't care where they end up, what they are used for. The time has long since passed when he felt inquisitive as to their destination. Trees are trees, he was told. What happens to them is not your concern.

After work, the group of tired men retire to The Happy Logger, as usual. What conversation can be had when all experiences are already shared?

"Hey, did you see Donny nearly eat it under the choker?"

"Reminds me of the time I got hit in the head with an axe."

Old Manny, everything reminds him of the time he got hit in the head with an axe. It is as though that very event knocked every other memory out of him. Still, the younger loggers never tire of the tales of his heroics, imbuing them with the potential to do the same, to rise up as more than mere mortals. These incidental events become defining moments in lives, and these lives suddenly revolve around fleeting moments of the past.

The joviality is false and shortlived - soon it is time for everyone to return home, wherever that may be. One by one, the men slope off to continue their existence privately and savour those brief moments of respite when a man is greater than the sum of his days. He too soon finds it time to leave and sinks the last few drops of his increasingly lukewarm beer. His feet struggle to find the floor from his vantage point on the stool, but find it they do and with a creak he is on his way toward the door and the once again cool air.

He returns to his apartment after dark and fumbles the key in the rusty lock. Living itself became mechanical long ago, the once bright promise of what the day might bring blunted by its repeated inability to deliver. He flicks the radio on and hears the same songs, the same playlist. Why does nothing ever change?

Kicking off his boots, he sinks into his aged couch. It embraces him as though a loved one, warming him and easing his pains. He gazes into his large palms, and revisits each scar, each callous which can never fade. His left index finger is nothing more than a stump, dragged into the whirling, snarling machinery all those years ago. The dirt under his remaining fingernails seems to never wash out, however hard he tries. He can never leave that forest behind, it stays with him, clings to him, haunts him. Looking at his hands now is not only a reminder of the day that has passed, but of the identical day that will follow.

The bed is calling but the couch is too inviting, too hospitable.