The Map of Antarctica

Fictions for Unseen Spaces

Homs and The Chemistry of the Moment – Short Story

Snow laced the edges of the buildings. The gutters and the ledges where the brickwork was jutting, sloping at angles into the deserted street. It was nighttime, Thursday. Tonight there was no gunfire. This meant that the wind and the clattering of a window frame were the only things to make a sound. Outside satellite dishes cluttered the rooftops, slanting upwards to the clamouring dark clouds. Inside a hotel room in the south of the city David Slater was going through the photographs on his digital camera. Images of the moon from a trip out of Homs where the landscape was barren and flat, hundred of miles to the north of the city, nearer Aleppo, where he absorbed a more peaceful and spacious Syria. The moon, larger than a plate, high above mountain ranges. These were photographs that he would have sold to travel magazines were it not for the political quagmire that the country was in. Image after image of dry rubble countryside, far removed from the urban detritus that he was here to actually photograph.

As a photojournalist Slater had travelled much of the world. Central Africa, South America, The Middle East. He had a portfolio of images collated from around the globe that his mind had blurred into cinematic sequences. The Venezuelan protests, armed conflict in The Democratic Republic of Congo, floods in Pakistan. His past was a global montage, fused and radiating energy, propelling him forwards into the here and now, into the icy cold atmosphere that hung around the city.

Homs was dangerous. Largely regime occupied. You had to run from one place to another to avoid sniper bullets, duck behind tyres stacked in the road. In many places buildings were connected through holes in their walls to avoid the need to go outside. Whole rows of abandoned homes connected in long strips where armed men both patrolled and wandered. Geneva was distant and soundless. It was the rebels, the army and the clashes between them that made the noise here. David was here to capture images and not sound. Not the engulfing volumous gunfire and shouting. He was here for photographs. He saw women with children in their arms, hurrying near their homes. He saw Arabic symbols spraypainted on walls. He saw dust climbing into the sky in the distance, grey and towering. He listened intently to the clicking of the shutter, a staccato punctuation amidst a deep symphony of gunfire. It was a risk to get cameras past army check points. Getting equipment out was risky. David might have been there for work but journalists were no safer than civilians. Death was as normal as life here. The streets a childs playground made out of rubble and hunks of brick.

***

In the wreckage of the street, walls were strewn with bulletholes and David’s shutter clicked repeatedly. He directed it towards five people in a group, walking. It was obvious that they were leaving their home, all together, all burdened. The chemistry of the moment somewhere off shot had propelled them to move. To pack their belongings and start their journey. A family, deeply attuned to one anothers needs. David watched them. They all bore their load as they stepped steadily up the street. He had seen countless images of families in need, of the origins of asylum, diaspora and movement. After a minute they stopped by a truck and the father lifted, first the bags and then the children into the back. He climbed up also, after his wife. They all sat and looked at one another, wordless.

Later that night he looked at the photograph of the Syrian family. He picked up on details that he had not seen at the time. A red flower on the girls dress, the sons carefully combed hair. The light from the screen of his camera shone in the dark of the evening. Outside, guns and the occasional explosion still sounded and flashes of light blinked into the dark sky. He thought of home. He thought of the unknowing opulence of London, hopeless and ignorant of the worlds state. London was a city that would never lose its people. The emptiness was the tragedy here. Streets that had loosened their grips on communities and families. Not for lack of caring but torn, wrestled from calm by the violence of terrorism and state corruption.

Slater knew the histories that coalesced beneath the surface of every contemporary war. Beirut, Iraq, Chechnya. None of it mattered here. The people didn’t need another history lesson, they needed food and space, they needed peace. They needed cars to stop being set alight and burning terrifyingly through the night. Neighbourhoods could no longer be called so in the Al-Shammas province, in the Al-Walid suburb. Districts were shadows of their former selves, history indeed.

***

The following morning another reporter was in the hotel bar. A mixture of western reporters and local businessmen milled around the foyer. David talked to the man who had introduced himself as Stewart Dresler.

‘Dialogue is happening,’ said Dresler.

‘Enough?’

‘Never’, he said. ‘Never enough. Look around, there is no sign of change. I have been here four times now. Things only deteriorate.’

‘You think things can change?’

‘Sure.’

‘When?’

‘That is the question. It may take years.’

They paused.

‘There are people at every level working on it, here on the ground, at the United Nations Headquarters, nothing seems to take hold.’

‘It needs to happen here. The transformation,’ said David.

They both sipped on their coffees.

‘If I could get the word ceasefire to go viral here, I would.’ Dresler stood up and nodded at David before walking away towards the lift.

He called his wife, Selina. They talked about the children, about the house, about his forthcoming holiday before drifting into romantic talk. The way distance could be transcended by pushing a few numbers. He shut his eyes. They talked about their first meeting.

‘I like to think about what you thought at the time. I don’t want that to change. Don’t fill in the gaps, please.’

‘I’m not sure if I could. Not accurately’, she said.

He smiled at this.

‘It was instinct, she said.

‘There was a pause as the telephone beeped.

‘Remind me,’ he said.

‘I love you’.

The coins ran out on the payphone and a dial tone hummed in David’s ear.

***

David spoke to some people, Syrians. Every story here was a heroic one. The faces of the people he photographed bore narratives that he could only play a small part in. Grand and serious, candid and true. They had the austere and irremovable imprint of dictatorship shadowing every glance they could make. The people moved about the place with a proficiency, determined that the city was still theirs to use, theirs to function within. They ate frugally. Lemon and vine leaves and olives, all rationed. The regime had long installed road blocks and dug trenches, quelling the memory of uprising in Syria.

Many people were not siding with anybody any more, such was the disillusion. It was frequently a case of convincing whoever asked to keep yourself alive or to make sure your children weren’t kidnapped.  

‘We want the place to be ours again,’ said a woman with a baby in her arms.

He nodded.

A child described how he had seen one of his friends die in a car blast. He said he was a martyr and was now in heaven. His face was impassive and emotionless as he described what he had seen. Normality might never exist again. He understood though, that the horrors of war only exist at a distance. In context people rationalise and adapt, become a part of the scene. When there is no way of resisting, you change. He observed the embattled people, citizens of mother earth, hardened and resilient to anything that could be thrown at them.

David walked on, towards a marketplace where fruit and vegetables were stacked in less abundance then they must have several years earlier. Sellers called out to him as he moved past. His camera hung aslant around his neck. For a short while he managed to block out the distant gunshots and believe he was in a city.

***

Homs was a place that the lens could not capture. It could not be contained. Possibly one of the most covered places on the face of the planet and still he felt it was misrepresented. Neither photography nor footage could translate the experience of being there. This was his job and it was futile. The chaos of factional confrontations, the raw energy spilling everywhere. The shouting and the smell. There was a confidence in the equipment that he used that should not exist here. A consolidation of things, people, movements into an image, disseminating a meaning to the world. He interrogated the role of the photographer. It was not so much a moral confrontation as a psychological conundrum. How could he make it work? The gutted shops, the bullet ridden buildings, the Mosque turned into a hospital. Every aspect seemed a mere component of a sprawling debris of significance.

Everything required attention.

David looked at his camera. A digital SLR that had been a trusty companion on his travels. There were scratches on its body and he had lost the lens cap. He looked and imagined the world being sucked into the camera through its glass.

He clicked the button on his camera and a final distillation of light was compacted into a photograph.

***

Brian Hartland sat back and removed his glasses after looking at the images, emailed to him in the middle of the night. There were enough to use for the lead article. He rang through to Leanne, asked her to come through to his office. She sat opposite him and he turned his screen so that they could both observe the photographs.

‘Strong,’ she said.

He nodded.

‘Some great images here.’

They looked at a Syrian child in the street, sun transparently glinting off the screen.

‘I hope he is safe.’

‘It looks tough.’

‘Demanding, certainly.’

Brian sipped on his coffee.

‘There are some difficult ones. Bloodshed,’ he said.

‘In or out?’

‘Maybe one or two.’

The air conditioning whirred and the two of them looked at one another.

‘I’ll work on them.’

‘Remember we control the message. Nothing too overbearing.’

‘Clean,’ she said.

‘Change. Diplomacy. Possibility.’

Leanne nodded.

‘All in our hands,’ he said.

‘A message to the nation,’ she said and stood up to leave.

Brian turned his computer screen back around and leaned back in his chair, his hand resting on his chin.

***

Homs, the title in large black capital letters. An eight page photo essay with nearly forty images from the city.

How did it read? Amidst the celebrity chatter and the television listings? Did it devolve into filler? Was it lacking punch? Questions that Richard Thacker asked himself as he leafed through the magazine on the Saturday afternoon of its release. He had known David for many years. Worked close by. It was his opinion that would be sought by Slater upon his return. He looked at the pages, slipstreamed into editorial layout. He always felt that glossy pages betrayed the agony of this kind of photography. He would prefer cardboard, or plastic bags. A cheapness that the people in the images would know. He flicked through the other pages. The horoscopes, the sport, before returning to the photography. They were enough to act as an intervention into his Saturday afternoon. An abrupt insertion of real life into his weekend. Richard missed David. He wanted to be there with him in the middle of the wild energies that he had previously known. He wanted to speak to him about the world, about photography, about truth.

***

David had travelled 160 kilometers to Damascus where he was due to fly from. The airport was cool. Large glass windows looked out over a runway. His camera was safely packed into his backpack. He walked, glanced at The New York Times that lay on a newsstand. It was the first Western news he had seen in weeks. Recovering economies and financial prospects between the US and China took the headlines. He went to a coffee bar where he stood and waited for his flight, drank a black coffee and stared out at the desparate cold that vibrated the image of the concrete outside. Syria already a mirage. Once on the plane Homs would begin to diminish in his mind. The details would shrink, the experience mute itself. He was still expecting gunshots to penetrate his sleep, explosions to rupture the flow of his thinking.

The airport buzzed and speakers echoed. As he moved towards the departures board David said goodbye to everything but the memory, everything but the photographs he had taken of the city of Homs.

Forgotten Months

Headlines drifted by in a haze of non-identifiable days that jack-knifed into forgotten months.

Allen Ginsberg reads America

The Coffee Machine

I could have made love to that vending machine.


The joy I got from drinking its dark, hot coffee

while standing in the cafeteria,

away from the desk piled high with papers,


and the colleagues gazes loaded down with tasks

for me to perform as though I were one of the robots

from the factory floor.


Did they realise that I was happy

with a mild caffiene induced headrush,

stood on my own for just a few minutes?


It didn’t matter.

Returning to the office

never felt so good.


Elsewhere

and I wake up

In the car

with dreams

behind my eyes

and my father

is driving

me to work

where I will spend

the day thinking,

and dreaming still,

of being

somewhere else,

somewhere where things

actually happen

and we don’t walk around

without meeting

each other’s gaze,

lying about how much work

we haven’t done.

The Dog’s Eyes – Flash Fiction

In my new apartment the owner keeps a pet. I have been unaccustomed to such circumstances and have had to make some fair and suitable adaptations. For instance I don’t complain if I put my toe in the greasy slop of brown dog food that occupies the kitchen floor next to the sink. I do not say anything if I trip over the dog and nearly break my neck. I do not whinge if I get dog hair all over my clothes to the extent that it is I who looks like the animal. I have to say that these are all concessions on my part. I know. I have let psychological territory go.

I work from home and my flatmate, Terrence, now works in an office. This has given me an intense period of bonding with the pet. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sits in silience in the corner of the Living Room. It has a cushion. From this mantle it surveys and dictates what happens within its realm. Should I enter, the dog fixes its eyes on me and does not remove them until I have left. Of its power I am convinced.

I finish an article and go to the kitchen and speak to the dog.

‘How are things today?’

‘Look at you.’

‘Would you like a biscuit?’

All comments in a strange subservience to the mutt.

‘Is it time for a walk?’

I wait for the kettle to boil.

Of course, I know the dog will not answer me. The dog is far more controlled than that. The dog does not even move. It watches me. I take my coffee through to the other room and continue with my work. I shut the door to avert the gaze. Some work must get done.

Later I leave to stretch my legs. Again the calm surveillance of the the dogs eyes is there. Like Russian State Police, the gleaming black marbles observe me as I pace in the hallway. Sweat lining my brow I calmly state that I have nothing to declare. The King Charles does not flinch. Gazes on, soundless.

I return to work. This time I lock my room. I knuckle down to some writing, sure that that is what the dog wants. For me to work. I am convinced that there is a power structure in place in the flat. Not quite totalitarian. At the end of the day I print off the results of my toil and show it to the dog. Two measly pages it says with its stare, not moving from its cushion. Unimpressed, it orders me back to my room. I humbly comply.

It is two hours later that Terrence returns from work.

‘Jack? Are you here? Did you feed the dog yet?’

I open the door and crawl out of the bedroom on all fours.

‘I was waiting for him to feed me’, I say.

Assembly

yep

Rollick Magazine

I got published today at Rollick Magazine as part of their new Frantic issue. Very exciting!! Check out the link —> http://rollickmag.com/2015/06/lichtenberg-figures/

Novel Excerpt: The Map of Antarctica – At the Supermarket

Ellie wandered down the aisles in the supermarket in small steps and with large dark eyes. There were piles of vegetables either side of her. Okra, Pak Choi, Leeks, Potatoes, a whole array of different potatoes in fact, lay bunched and stacked beneath the fluorescent strip lighting. Vegetables always come first in a supermarket, she thought. They are fresh produce, they will go off. It is a good business model to have people encounter fresh goods first, they will buy more of them that way, while they are still new to the world of exchange. She moved forwards. The wheels of the trolley were slightly askew and she had to put more effort into the right hand side to keep the vehicle from drifting. Music was playing, sweeping people along through the constructed flows of items. Soups melted into pastas followed by condiments. Eggs, sugar, then teabags. Combinations to make you think about your day, shelves built like hours. There is no need for thought here, all is convenience and ease, and is lit up for all to see. Ellie liked to reach to the back of the shelves to get her goods. A tin that has been in the dark might have something extra to it, something unexposed. She walked and accumulated things to put in the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator back at the house.

It was in aisle number 4, stood directly beneath a sign that read ‘sauces, tinned goods, vinegar’, that she became struck by a sense of unease. There was something missing, she thought, something absent from her psyche. It might be that she had forgotten something but maybe it was larger than that, an unexplored element of her self. A pending future. Futures, she knew, could weigh heavily on a person, lock heavy jaws around a woman’s path. Why now though, she questioned, why in the supermarket? She flinched as people brushed past and held jars of tomato red up to the light, squinting. Ellie continued shopping with a furrowed brow and cramped posture, still unable to pinpoint what was wrong. She bought fresh bread and resisted biscuits. She peered at the other people that padded around on the shiny floor but noone so much as glanced at her. She checked her list and she had covered all of the items and more, beyond this point was excess. She continued, because, supermarkets were built for excess. In the bakery section she watched as a child ate a muffin, two women stood nearby talking about hair dye and skin cream.

She found herself stood in the medical section staring at toothpastes. Different shades of blue and white, different logos with clinical designs of smiles and stars. She thought of the action of opening her mouth and inserting the toothbrush, pushing the paste around in circles. There was something unsettling about allowing the world into the body. Between the teeth and past the lips. Ellie shuddered. People dreamt of being naked in places like this. Vulnerable in clinical environs. Eventually she wandered off towards the frozen goods. Lines of freezers with chickens, bags of peas, potato waffles and ice cream. She opened one of the doors and a cold steam puffed outwards and the glass became condensed. She closed the door without taking anything and moved towards the buzzing exit.

The checkout was such a violent prospect after the solitude of wandering the floor. People queued with clenched jaws. When they had hung around long enough they stacked their foods high on the conveyor belts in a seeming competition for the most impactive display of goods. There was a row of people at the front of the lines frenziedly putting their purchases into carriers and then slotting the bags back into the trollies. She offered a furtive hello to the woman at the till and felt suddenly vulnerable to her environment. She had to pay for these items, laid out in a visual map, they were becoming hers and everybody could see. There were no embarrassing items particularly, no condoms or sanitary towels, but they still showed something about her, something she wouldn’t choose to share if she had the choice. Now she understood why people were so quick to stuff the items into bags, conceal them until they got safely home. She did the same in a synchronised display before paying by card and making her way through the automatic doors. The car park tilted with boredom, packed full of locked vehicles lined up in painted white grids. Sun glinted off countless windscreens in a sweep of graduated light. She pushed the trolley forwards.

The boot of Ellie’s car had a blanket and some water bottles in it. She lifted the bags across one by one, lowering them until the thin plastic gave into shapeless forms. She had accumulated, somehow, six carrier bags of goods and they sagged as she lowered and locked the boot. She sat in the driver’s seat and locked the door and put on her seatbelt, sat for a moment or two and looked out at the view.

We Laughed

We laughed. We laughed because it was funny. We laughed because it was sad. We laughed because it helped us feel together. We laughed loud and we laughed long. We laughed with our arms outstretched and fingers pointing. We pointed at each other. We pointed at ourselves. We laughed again. We pulled faces. We pulled hair. By the end it was pulling teeth but we laughed through it all. We got more people and they laughed with us. If one person stopped, another one started. It was endless laughs. All teeth and smiles and spit. All bile and scorn. It was disgusting but we laughed. It was a comedy of errors. We were setting ourselves up for a fall. It was painful. It was gut wrenching. Noone could laugh as much as us. We unwittingly accumulated more of us. It was dubbed hysteria. We found it all hilarious. It had gone too far when it was decided that it should go further. There was nothing that could stop us. Death was conquered territory, privacy the remnant of a quip. It was vile. We all carried on laughing, purely through the fear that someone would get the last one and that it would be directed at us.

%d bloggers like this: