Tuesday, July 18, 2006

if you go down to the woods today...

"Hello", he said and stood up from the long grass in the shade of an ancient sycamore.

"I've been sitting here for hours....it's nice and cool".

Shoulder length grey hair fell in matted tresses from under a stained, wide brimmed canvas hat. Some of it caught in greasy wisps against stubbly cheeks and chin. Rheumy eyes looked not at me, but into the distance, from under restless white thicketed brows. He was tall and spare. His head sat on stooping shoulders and was made of mottled leather as were the hands that signed incoherently as he walked and talked. He was not a thing of beauty or suppleness, in motion his arms and legs appeared unconnected, forced under duress to comply, a gargoyle detached from a high church parapet and given awkward articulation to walk among the living.

"You shouldn't sit on the grass" he said, "you get worms, they get up your bottom" and added almost wistfully "it happened to me once"

He came forwards in short rushing uneven paces, jerkily, a marionette controlled by an inept puppeteer.

"Or rocks, because then you'll get piles"

It was a hot day, a sultry afternoon with not a breath of air. Toffee had been chasing crows and lay temporarily exhausted and panting forty yards away while Charlie stood by me, to attention, watching this awkward apparition approach.

As he came out from under the shade of the tree it became clear that what I had mistaken for a dappling of light and shade on his shirt and baggy trousers were in fact a multitude of stains. Within three yards of us now, I glanced down at the assortment of wild barley and burrs that had attached themselves to his shins and saw that he had made his own sandals out of canvas shoes, and that his feet were scaly, bruised and decorated with toes too long in the nail.

Still he came forward, stumbling finally to a halt, too close.

"Is this your dog? I like dogs. I like tv too". Close enough to see a rime of spit at the corners of his mouth. "I like wild life programmes".

"I know a lot". His arms fluttered before him as if inhabited by moths. But instead they were apparently inhabited by cumin seeds sewn randomly and shallow beneath the skin of his exposed forearms.

"You think everything is trying to kill and eat everything else in Africa?" He looked up and seemed to see me for the first time. His eyes rolled and he blinked and looked at Charlie, and then back up to me, and behind a milky film I saw his eyes refocus. "No!" he proclaimed, "not so". "There's a truce, down by the water hole. There’s a no mans land where everything is safe, so they can drink you see", and he looked at me, asking me to see.

"The lions and the cheetahs, even the wild dogs, they all know, they know that the deer have to drink or they'll die". He hesitated, "and those big wapapotamuses" they're lazy, they just lie there".

He leaned in.

He leaned in and bled a whiff of old sofa into our shared space...old sofa, burnt umber and an ill kempt fridge.

"But not the crocodiles, they’re sneaky they are", he confided. His chapped lips pursed as he breathed in, a susurration of air through dry leaves. "Bastards".

"They're sneaky bastards". "I don't like them at all".

I'd shuffled back, a foot or two, but he leaned in to occupy the space.

Over my shoulder once again he asked "Or are they alligators? I never know". The milky veil descended over his eyes as he rummaged in his attic for the answer.

"It doesn't matter, it's the same thing anyway" he said a moment later. And slowly he stooped, bending at the knee, descending in front of me to hold out a horny hand towards Charlie. "But I like dogs". "They like me too, don't you girl", as he stretched his fingers towards Charlie's shoulder.

Charlie grumbled his dissent, and twitched backwards on stiff legs.

"Feisty one" said this animated bundle of firewood in clothes, unfolding even more slowly towards an upright attitude,

"That's good, feisty is good".

"Feisty makes the world go around. Princess Margaret was feisty. I liked her a lot. She was a good looking woman, not like the Queen, and she had bigger tits". All delivered in revelatory staccato. "I met her once. She came to the home. Well, not really met her, but I saw her".

"We had angel cakes that day"

Simultaneously I took a step back and looked over my shoulder towards Toffee, still lying stricken in the grass. I tried to whistle but my lips were dry, so shouted instead. "Toffee! Toff, Toff!!"

"We should go", I said, "they're getting restless".

He glanced and saw me, but heard not a word that I said.

"Everything needs everything else. There are little fish that feed whales, and little fish that stick to sharks and eat the bugs, and little fish that penguins like, and then killer sharks eat the penguins. If we didn't have any silly little fish then we wouldn’t have great big ones like whales....you know?"

I nodded sagely.

"To'off!!" and then a little too shrilly "Toff!!". "We really must be going", I almost pleaded, "we don't have long and the boys really look forward to their walk".

"It's the same on land too". "Never kill a spider, they eat flies". "I don't know what ants do for us, but you can bet it's important, they fit in somewhere - never kill an ant!"

"I won't" I agreed "Toff, Toff!!" urgently now.

"Excuse me" I said and shuffled sideways and began to walk. "C'mon Charlie".

Charlie came and so did he, shuffling along beside me with an exaggerated gait. "I came on the bus you know" he said, "all the way from Islington".

"They let me on the bus for free" and I didn't doubt it.

I was striding now, and slowly he began to fall behind. I wet my lips and whistled and Toffee stumbled wearily to his feet, shook his head and suddenly, as is his wont, bolted for the bushes at the far end of the field and crashed into their midst without breaking his stride.

Sweating slightly I slowed down and, in my stride, nudged Charlie conspiratorially with my foot.

Business as usual, walking, weeing, snuffling and walking some more.

Except for a distant voice behind us which shouted one last time "Lovely tits!"


Amy said...

At least once a day I wish for a dog that would walk with me as Charlie and Toffee walk with you. I wish to just go and let Gabe run and meet people and see nature and smell the air but it's just not to be in my cards. Thanks for writing this, so that I might feel as if I were on the walk with you instead.

Finn said...

So you're a freak magnet, too? Sometimes I just don't want to leave the house in the morning because I never know who'll corner me next.

krisbtterfly said...

love the way you told the story, col. it really was such an entertaining read. i'm glad he didn't follow you home!

Magpie said...

hmmm freaks are everywhere, i have an old guy who i see sometimes on the way to work and he acosts me and keeps me talking for ages...i think he's harmless but you never know...


Pam said...

Great story. Sorry old sod wasn't he? Kinda sad.


patti_cake said...

Very sad old man. I wonder what his back story was ....
Very well written Col :)

a fish on a bycicle said...

My misgivings are all tempered by the idea that I might be him one day...

Sorry I haven't been to say hello lately.

Wendy said...

Hi Col ... glad you commented at my place, as I meant to get back here to comment, but cannot from work. I too wonder this old man's true story. He sounds lonely, and yet, disgusting. Poor man. It was good of you to give him your ear for a moment before taking off. And besides what's wrong with admiring a lovely 'set' ?? ;~)

Aims said...

worms up your bum! Nice!
Hello there! How ya doing?

Sandra said...

I suspect he was a retired taxi driver who can't hold his audience captive in the back of his cab anymore. Ugh, I hate it when strange, inappropriate people just reach out and run their fingers through my dog's fur...

Seven said...

You are the BEST writer in blogdom. It's a wonderful talent you have.

Lisa said...

Glad to have you back again. Good story. Made me miss my old dog Mabel.