Writer,Philip Corker, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website


Gold is something else. You can do things with it that canít be achieved with other materials. In particular there is one thing you can do with gold that shouldnít even be attempted with any other ore. You can, with the right hammer, and the right frame of mind, flatten a typical bar of gold into a sheet only a few atoms thick. If you had nothing better to do you might wonder how much ground you could cover with this gleaming shawl. A double bed? A small garden? A football pitch? The Amazon Basin? No. You could cover the world in gold. Wrap up that glorious blue tragedy in yellow foil and hang it from a christmas tree.

I doubt that this is true, but a part of me has always believed it to be at least theoretically possible. Partly because I like the idea, but also because old man Hague told me as much when I was twelve. Or was it fourteen? Not that he whispered it in my ear like a mystical secret. No. He announced it with total conviction to the class I was in. Though when I say I was in my class, I just mean that I was there, in an absent kind of way. I didnít notice people most of the time and people generally didnít notice me.

One thing I have noticed about people is how much they smell. Some people smell of sex. Some people smell of fear. Some people smell of money, of confidence or good health. Others give off a sunset haze of eternal failure, chronic hope or repetitious loss. Any aroma can be detected in a crowd. Petrol, plastic, rust, empty jars, warm fruit, sweetshops, coffee, a wild garden in June. So many odours that by the middle of our lives we are completely intoxicated by it all, and by the end are thoroughly worn out by it.

Old man Hague had a smell which filled his classroom and followed him down the corridors. It was stronger than the disturbing scent of liver and cabbage which snaked out of the kitchens. I can smell it now. Physics. Chemistry. The pungent fumes of the scientific soul.

In spite of this, Hague had something which the lamentable parade of his peers were colossally devoid of, the ability to make a lifelong impression on the imagination of a boy who was eternally elsewhere. While the fake wisdom of his colleauges fell from my shoulders before the dinner bell, I have never forgotten the story of gold, nor have I ever wished to. It was the luminous pearl in the night of my schooldays, absurd, beautiful, madly poetic.

Last night I told my wife the story of gold. She closed her eyes and nestled into the pillow as the precious metal began to spread beneath my words, over our bed, down the stairs and into the garden, through the streets and the fields, across the old seaways and the hidden lakes, flexing and flowing above the skyscrapers, the sacrificial forests and the starry hills. And as it went, I said, it brought a final rest to everything. To working, to laughing, to loving, to wishing and searching, to planning and to waiting, to the playground and the battleground, to the classroom and the torture room, to either end of the game and to both sides of the hunt.

ĎThatís a nice story,í she said, with her eyes still closed.

ĎItís my favourite story,í I said. ĎI didnít realise till now.í

I waited for her eyes to open, but they were bolted from the inside and dreams were already on her breath.

ĎIím going to sleep now,í she said, and she slipped away like a patient under the needle. Iíve never understood how she does that. Itís an art that passed me by, like dowsing, card tricks and levitation. Either way I feel alone when she goes so quickly and sometimes I have to search for a pretext to wake her, and then feel like a child for doing so.

ĎGo to sleep,í she says, in a low tormented growl. I let her go.

Suddenly Iím at my schoolboy desk again, drifting between Andromeda, the Catís Eye, the Crab and the Great Spiral. Oh, the Universe, that glamorous hell-hole of beauty and sorrow, superimposed on a room of strange children. In the distance, through the glare of test tubes and blurred formulas, an orange light flares up from the void. It might be a new supernova, a million light years away, but itís just old man Hague with another cigarette. I hear his half-mad voice at the edge of the sad sane world. ĎI have a little story,í he says, Ďwhich you wonít find in any text book.í

Outside, some dogs are at it with formidable energy. Two fourth formers grab a secret kiss which everyone knows about. A seagull lands on the roof of the gym. An ambulance goes by. An old woman stares at a blossom tree. Iím hypnotised and hooked with no idea. None of it has anything to do with me and the whole bloody thing is a complete mystery. But itís my mystery.

I look at my wife and wonder how I ever made the journey from science room to bedroom. Sometimes it seems that my life never really happened, but is just a random collection of thoughts I had in the middle of some daily event, sitting in the garden shade, walking to the shops, putting on a record or calling up the stairs to the woman beside me now.

Sometimes I wake with my eyes locked tight and I donít know where I am, why I am or who I am, only that I am, or am meant to be. I could be in any of the houses Iíve ever lived in, or any of the lives Iíve inhabited and outgrown. But Iím not really anything or anyone. I have no location, no identity. For a few seconds Iím pure, primal, unadorned. Iím not me, Iím just a white bone of a floating mind, stripped clean of memory and self-knowledge, light years away from a lifetime of jobs and money, of lovers and friends and family, of birthdays and holidays, of good days and bad days, of every kiss, every embrace and every senseless spiralling passion that ever set me free or weighed me down. Perhaps itís the only true and natural condition, and part of me is at home with it, but itís also unnerving and frightens me back into my everyday focus. In a moment the scattered jigsaw is sucked back into place. My mind jolts. My eyes open. Suddenly Iím me again, reconstituted from the void. I take a deep breath and hold my wife tightly. She puts her arms around me.

ĎAre you alright?í she asks.

ĎI was lost again.í

ĎWell youíre not now.í she says. She is never lost, which is just as well.

Now she is fast asleep. I smell her hair and wonder where she is. Her hair smells like a secret wood at the end of May. But itís not her real smell. No. Her real smell is salvation. She is the one person in the world I would never want to escape from.

I reach over her to turn out the lamp, but the particles of dust floating above it like plankton stop me. They remind me of another smell, another person, the one person in the world I never could escape from, even if I wanted to, which I donít. Iím not sure of the connection. Itís one of those instantaneous subconscious things that strike from any angle, at any time and any place. Perhaps itís the thought of coal dust rising from a mine shaft, but the image generates an unmistakable redolence. The old man. Not old man Hague. No. I mean the real old man. The only old man. The one I carry around with me. My father.

While old man Hagueís world was composed of theories, laws and experiments, dadís private universe was constructed from simple earthly things. He had no time for daft ideas, or bloody daft ideas, as he would say. At the fixed centre of his galaxy were home and family, and around these wheeled all the things which formed the details of his portrait; his car, the garden, drills, lawn mowers, pit boots, snap tin, darts, harmonica, seed boxes, bird tables, firewood. Firewood. Thatís the one thing that impressed me most when I was in short trousers. Dad could chop sticks with the swift precision of a TV chef slicing courgettes, and I dreamed of the day when I could do the same.

I have a black and white photograph of us in the garden, with the old man towering behind me, muscular and immortal, his huge brilliant hands on my shoulders. It is rare that a day passes when I do not feel the gentle weight of those hands, just for a moment, in the middle of some daily event, opening a door, running a bath, answering the phone, or stroking the miraculous hair of the woman beside me now.

I turn out the lamp and and hold my wifeís hand, gently, so I donít wake her. The only thing I can see is the outline of her hair and shoulders. The only thing I can think of is the old man. His smell fills the room, the smell he acquired at fourteen, two days after finishing school, when his old man woke him at three thirty in the morning and took him on his first shift down the mine, the first of more than ten thousand shifts. Forty five years of days, afters and nights. Work. That was dadís smell. Work. The kind of work a heavy horse does. The kind of work I can hardly conceive of. Graft. Sweat. Lift. Dig. Shove. Carry. Little more than corporate slavery. And when he wasnít working at work he was working on the car, or working in the garden, or working in the shed. When he stopped going out on sunny afternoons and preferred to sit in his armchair, I knew it was all over. Perhaps it was the extended family of tumours in his guts, or perhaps it was a surfeit of odours, too much plastic, petrol, rust, too many empty jars and wild gardens in June. Either way, he was thoroughly worn out by it all.

One day in the hospital a nurse asked him what he wanted.

ĎI want to peg out.í

The nurse looked horrified, but knowing him, I thought it was funny, and if his muscles had withered to sad balloons, his wits had not. Not yet anyway. But a few days later he didnít know what day it was and the only thing he wanted was to go home.

ĎTake me home,í he kept saying. ĎWhen am I going home?í So we took him home, with a weekís supply of morphine. Most of it wasnít necessary. A day later he was sucking on the last dregs of his energy through a broken straw. A few hours later I was sucking on the dregs of a treble whisky, numb to the soul. I heard the men in black suits slip in through the front door, whispering. A few minutes later I heard them zipping up the bag, a sound I knew I would always hear from time to time. When theyíd gone I stood in the doorway of the front room. I stared at the empty bed and wondered why Iíd just let some complete strangers walk in and take him away like that. They couldnít chop sticks like the old man used to, but I was speechless and didnít know what to do.

Yesterday, two years later, I was walking down the street feeling exceptionally happy for no reason at all, or perhaps just because it was warm and sunny and the cherry blossom was out. Suddenly, one of those instantaneous things, I heard that sound again. It ripped past my head, above a line of cars and over the rooftops, with a trail of pink flowers in its wake. I stopped and sat on a wall, undid both shoe laces and tied them up again. I thought about dad at the seaside with a big smile on his face. Then I thought about old man Hague. Then I thought about the story of gold, and I realised what I should have done that morning. I shouldnít have let them take him away in a cheap leather bag. I should have told them to leave him alone, scattered their wings with a stone. Then I should have taken his ring, gone to the shed, hammered out a sheet of gold, and covered him in that.

ĎBloody daft idea,í dad would have said. But to me it would have made the most sublime sense. A luminous pearl in the night of my mystery. Absurd, beautiful, madly poetic. A final rest to everything.

Philip Corker, 2010.