by Edwin Ashton
‘When it is born, the creature drifts. It wanders and grows until it reaches its final manifestation and then it searches the depths for a place to live, where it will remain for the rest of its life, arranging and rearranging the debris around it. Nowadays it is a delicacy but who would not be moved by the sight of it, claws bound with twine or rubber bands, clicking, rattling and cluttering on the fishmonger’s stall.’
I edged into the room, beer in hand. ‘Want something to eat?’ Elastic too tight or too loose — remember not to wear these ones again. ‘No thanks … we should be off… thanks for looking after her.’
A long tank on metal legs is lit like a fairground. In front, a sofa mottled with coffee stains sank in the floor. At the other end the room has a strip light. I’d not been inside the house before. I bent over to look at the tank more closely.
‘Well, the children love it…’
A steady trail of bubbles drifted up a yellowing tube. The tank’s bottom was speckled with gravel. At one end, three plaster lumps — columns or gateposts — had fallen over and behind them was a cave. It was mustard with pink and orange flecks. Spidery algae spread up the tank’s walls.
‘Judy went and got it last thing before going off. She was meant to be looking for hamsters or blinds or…’
The tank was empty.
‘Oh well, I suppose it’s no trouble.’
‘More than you’d think, but I can’t take it back… A friend at the Co-op got us the stuff for the tank.’
I looked closer. There was nothing. The bubbles rose up, up, up in their tube bluppbubb bluppbubb bluppbubb.
I stared at the stones and finally in the darkest recess… tiny feathery movements, minuscule wipers waving rhythmically and hanging at an angle, a pair of peach-coloured antennae. Once seen, impossible not to see, a small lobster sat in the gloom. Apart from the whiskers, it was absolutely still, balanced on a bent-under tail. The claws were horny, inky blue with whitish spots and knobbles running along their edges.
‘I don’t know how they feel what’s round them,’ I said. Upstairs there were screams and tramping and two girls in leggings came thumping down. One was wearing giant tiger-paw slippers. The other had Dalmatian spots. They took the last two steps in a jump. A boy followed.
‘Polly’s mother’s been asking about Lou,’ the man said. ‘Yes, it must be fun for you to have it… to play with,’ I continued.
The girl went to the window. ‘He doesn’t know,’ she said and began tapping at the glass.
‘He does and he likes that,’ the boy yelled from across the room. ‘Scratch your fingers against that plastic bit, he sometimes dances to that.’
The lobster was motionless.
‘We had a web-cam but it broke at the weekend.’
‘Rees broke it,’ said the girl, shooting a look at the boy.
‘Thought it would be nice to show him off online,’ the man explained… so people could just watch, but not for now.’
I thought of growing up and that road. Those skewy images, memories of utter freedom.
Crossing the rail bridge, where the single-roomed houses peered over an advertising hoarding. These were once mews-rooms for drivers or stable-boys. Now boarded up, they watch blankly as traffic crawls and roars. Further down, driving to the airport, you pass the artists’ houses. Vans and people-carriers covering them with thick smooth dust. Great grey-red places with huge arched windows and curlicues.
We’d race out, holding nothing, just rushing. We’d take it all in: the bony houses, the paving slabs, greasy shirts, newspapers, dogs and frying. We went where we liked, driven by smells, wind, whatever took our fancy.
Sometimes we’d be insects. See what it’s like when no one spoke, when no one could speak. You’d lie on your back, close your eyes and empty your head. Then while you’re goggling and zizzing, you’d think of a shape, or some colours or the simplest things and force them out into a floating background.
Many points moving on a vast screen. The sky and constellations spreading way beyond. We’d lean back, stretching our necks, letting our eyes wander inside a wide watery brightness, as a hair oats across the iris then jitters back.
Just off that road was the shuffling house. A man lived there. My mother helped him from time to time; a bit of shopping, taking the cat away when it got old. He had a big scarf and a grey hat and coat and a tie with a pin. The windows were piled with books and card. The plaster looked gnawed and the door had been painted quite recently half pink and half purple. Plastic bags were tucked behind one pillar and string held more around the other.
One day as my mother unpacked bags from the car, I saw that the side door was ajar. I went in. The garden grew high. Convolvulus, thin, trailing honeysuckle and old man’s beard hung down from branches. Laurel hedge spread up to the trees. Where there was space, grass grew with fronds and seeds and drops of dew hung bulbous and clinging.
I began wading forward when a voice said next to my ear. ‘Do you know how many stones there are just here?’ He was standing in the doorway. ‘… Boys love stones.’ I didn’t correct him. ‘Yes, boys like stones… Do you want to see?’ he asked and gestured along the passageway and up. He opened the door to the sitting room which was flooded with light. Fabric covered the wall and faded cloth fell in scallops on rugs. To one side were old tables and boxes. Papers, pale and wind-blown, drooped towards the floor. It was brimming; crags of fading things massed at either end; a model mountain range; a half-eaten sea otter; two wooden poles; batons; ledges; a plastic figurehead. And all around, the shelves were piled with books; stuffed in at angles and lying in cascades. Thick wodges of paper poked from files.
He shuffled off a plastic lid and peered at the crate beneath. I looked down. Inside were concrete lumps, a lighter, chalk stubs, a pencil stump and some half-used hotel guest soaps. ‘They’re labelled,’ he said gesturing at a paper strip stuck on one of them… ‘then they‘re useful. I should have done it from the beginning.’
He hand wiped a pocket with large red fingers, then trailed them over first one pile then another. Finally he lifted a sheet of paper. It was a painting cut from a book or a magazine; a pudding-faced girl. She was touching the lip of a milky shell. It had been converted into a jug with an elaborate handle and stand; a sea nymph and dolphin entwined. The girl wore a high-waisted dress and a bracelet.
‘Oh no… no, no, no… long gone… De Abberhof.’
He folded the paper, pinned on a card and laid it down, then looking at me added, ‘We don’t understand little… younger… children, do we? We present them… for ourselves… We want to see them… to be in a moment of peace with them but we have to make them still, arrange them… and then… what do they become?…’ He looked away and once more pulled papers. His voice was muffled by searching.
‘…and I can’t remember if he wrote it or just something like it.’ There was a pause then… ‘I wished to see what there was of our world: everything there was to see but the more I travelled, the more it fell into a darkness behind me… I have caught a glimpse and all I wish to hear is the sound made by a place; its heartbeat.’
The light caught a paperweight; bright Venetian flowers bulged, floating in the glass. He pulled an encyclopaedia and passed it to me.
A page was marked by an envelope. ‘The poet notoriously walked his lobster in the gardens of the Palais- Royal. An act which presaged his first serious breakdown.’
‘How could they know? Who could say?’
He looked up. I shuffled and was trying to think of an answer when he continued.
‘Slowing down, maybe, drawing away… but not that.’
He retrieved the book… ‘That face… crumpled, soft and gentle with that look, hoping… resigned to whatever there is….and the hands undone.’
and he read slowly,
Then quietly, as if making an aside,
and then sat down,
I looked, too. Cold, bright points trailing. Fragments of shells glistening on the tablecloth. In the tank a heap, another, a tiny pile of sand. Distant figures moving away, floating at the edges. I feel the insides falling outwards; siren whines, rustlings, chirping, burring, skiffling. A corner of the room extends upwards and my view becomes a pin-hole infinitely far away.