Autumn #1

The trees were in fall again. Of all the seasons he loved autumn most. An alternative awakening of sorts. Hunkering down to see out dark days. Springtime in reverse. Without the hope. He preferred that.

Autumn always reminded him of the new school year. Sharp shoes, crisp new uniforms and unburnished notebooks. The unfamiliarity of the weekly timetable. Structured formalities. Then beyond those adolescent framings, the time shortly after his graduation from university, the period of post-educational freedom when he felt like everything was truly beginning. A confluence of stasis and possibility.

Some friends embarked upon fledgling careers in London; others, like him, retreated to their parents’ homes. After three years of university they were cosseted and indulged. Adultescent. He was smoking a lot of weed, a hangover from his student days. Rare was the day when he went without. Much of his time was dedicated to smoking weed, sourcing weed or earning the money to procure weed. Although he tempered his smoking by only partaking in the evening, sequestering himself in bedroom with a scented candle while praying the smoke wouldn’t infiltrate into the kitchen or lounge. His parents turned a blind eye, but the stink of skunk permeated the house, like the cowshit fragrance of the fields outside.

He took a job in a chain bookstore. Ottakar’s. Now long defunct. His was a temporary role in preparation for the Christmas onslaught. Learning the ropes. As a purveyor of quality lit, to misquote Terry Southern, he thought he’d love it. He hated it. He despised the customers. Their safe, dull selections. The passive aggressive complaints. Their shrieking babies. Their provincialism. That, and the rolling monotonous cadences of the piped music. The playlist selected by head office. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. 'Wichita Lineman'. Being asked to relive the store manager at the service desk. He preferred restocking the shelves or being in the store room unpacking deliveries. Where he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, and could listen to the radio and eke out a momentary solitude.

On days off work he would walk the short distance from his parent’s house to a lake nearby. Let the autumn air wrap itself around him like an old jacket. Blown leaves crushed to near-translucence underfoot. The lake was in a disused quarry. Swimming there was expressly forbidden: many summers ago a classmate’s older brother had broken his neck on a sandbank. He’d been a bullying lout at school. Now he had to drink his beer through a straw.

Sometimes he’d smoke a joint, try to write. Often fail. He frequently regretted it. Being stoned in public during the day made him paranoid. And he simply couldn’t write. There was nothing there, no imaginative spark. He was reading the early poems of R.S. Thomas, imagining himself an Iago Prytherch type, 'enduring like a tree under the curious stars'. Living in undistinguished isolation.

He spent months working on a poem about a dead tree, abandoning it several times. Revised it and sent it to a small magazine, where it was published to zero acclaim. He hated reading it. He was dissatisfied with everything he wrote.

 

Dead Tree

 

Had the Gods

Wrenched it up and out of the earth

And screwed it back in

Upside down

 

It would not appear more pained

Its trunk twisted in the ground

It was not appear so crushed

As it is now

 

Every leaf has fallen

Every branch has broken

Every bough is bare

Even the birds

 

Have abandoned it

To the air

Abandoned it

To the cruelest elements

 

Its trunk chapped and weathered

Its boughs chopped and withered

Withered, weathered and wasted

Photosynthesising for what

 

Splayed in two from the effort

Forked apart

By a quick flick

Of flashing electric light

 

The trunk burned black

Gnarled roots grappling

With the stony earth

That could not sustain it

 

Pity the dead tree

In its mortal asymmetry

Lonely graying ghost of life

Harbinger of winter’s breath

 

Alone in his room he read constantly, finishing a book every couple of days. Mainly about the counter-cultural moment in 60s America. Biographies of Dylan and Neil Young. Jefferson Airplane. The Byrds. The Beatles. The Manson Family. The country-fication of the counterculture. Research into a kindred era. He wanted to be there in ‘66, ’67, ‘68. In a Mod suit with drainpipes and winkle-pickers; in drab garb with Dylan and the Band at Big Pink. He studied Elliot Landy’s photographs of Dylan and The Band at Woodstock at length, as if within them lay clues to their genius. A photograph of Dylan framed by crimson leaves, leaning back on the trunk of a large black car, a Ford or Chevrolet perhaps, one flip-flopped foot resting on the chrome fender, arms folded above his guitar, truculent look on his face.

He especially loved Landy’s spare, downbeat monochrome images. They were so austere, so awkwardly posed, they were almost painful to look at. The cover photo of The Band for their second album, bearded and miserable in the drizzle of Woodstock in ’69. Framed by a sludgy brown border, like the picture had been dropped in the mud. The Band came to be known as the brown album, which was apt, not for its autumnal references (‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’, ‘Whispering Pines’, ‘Look Out Cleveland’), but because they looked like bunch of addicts. The otherwise affable Levon Helm like a terrier in a great coat, the picture of irascibility. Garth Hudson an incognito wizard. Richard Manuel a junk-sick Spanish troubadour. Danko and Robertson, in his leather jacket, street hustlers.    

An earlier group portrait in Appalachian garb, The Band stony-faced and stiff like traumatized Yankee veterans. Only Garth Hudson offering a sly smile. These were autumnal photographs freighted with the ghost of Americana. He yearned to know it, to feel the cold of it in his bones. 

His smoking aided the research, or so he told himself, allowed him to share the headspace of the stoned troubadours, though it did make the process of assimilating the information much more problematic. He would read the same page over and over through a haze of hash. Smoke smarting his eyes. He painstakingly read his way through two doorstop editions of Hunter S. Thompson’s rambling letters, taking him from the 1950s to the mid-70s. Hells Angels to Watergate via Vietnam and the Summer of Love.

He was reading Hunter when he journeyed north to Edinburgh to take a ski technician’s course. Part of some fanciful escape plan. Less buy the ticket, take the ride; more do the training, get a job in an Apline ski resort. Driving to Edinburgh the furthest distance he had travelled alone, and he embarked on the trip with no small degree of trepidation. Racing north at high speed along the M6. Dreaded artery of the north. Averaging a speed of 90 mph in his crimson VW polo, a gift for his 21st birthday, in his haste to get there, in his hurry to avoid a flesh-shredding catastrophe. A red blur thunder-roading under heavy grey skies, through barren fields drained of colour. Spindle-like saplings on the embankment recoiling from the traffic’s centripetal velocity. Dylan and The Band endlessly looping on the cassette until the deck overheated and bent Bob’s harmonica and The Band’s harmonies into an indistinguishable high-pitched whine. Not that it made much of a difference.

He arrived in the Scottish capital like a protagonist from a binned Iain Banks’ novel. Dazed and confused, and lost. After miraculously finding his B&B near the city centre he drove out of town to the ski centre to do his ski tech training (ripping open his fingers on a chisel in the process), before returning to his room to read and drink to the point of insensibility. He stayed sober long enough to tramp his way to HMV on Princes Street. Bought Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Bent’s Programmed to Love. Stumbled into an internet café and checked his emails. Browsed in Waterstones. Bought beer. It rained constantly, the perpetual drizzle common to Midlothian. He walked with his beige Levis hoodie pulled tight around his ears. Shoulders soaked with drizzle. He wished he’d brought his weed. He wished he had a travelling companion. The unfamiliar city swallowed him up, was wasted on him.

He was lonely, but he felt safe in the knowledge that within these periods of extended solitude lay the dormant triggers of some latent self-actualisation. Everything was being recorded for future use. The way traffic lights looked in the rain. The press of people on Princes Street. The plastic carpet covers in the B&B. The smell of molten wax in the workshop. The course would unlock the possibility of becoming a seasonaire, which in turn would introduce him to a whole community of travelers and seasonal workers, thereby permitting him to reinvent himself as one of them, someone more than the sum of his provincial parts. 

Yet he felt apart from everything and everyone. He barely spoke at the ski centre, except for a balding Glaswegian who asked him out for a drink afterwards. They ended up in the dim light of the Hard Rock Café watching Australian expats flair cocktails. He got drunk on two beers and was given a lift home by the Glaswegian, who complained constantly about the inconvenience.

The next day he drove home. It was already dark when he left the centre, plunging back down the M6 in one long overtaking maneuver. After a cursory conversation with his parents he went to his room and rolled a spliff. Put The Basement Tapes on. 'Odds and ends, odds and ends. / Lost time is not found again'. Lit his candle. Stretched his legs. Glad to be home.

A friend returned from university one weekend with an ounce of skunk and a bag of liberty caps foraged in the Peak district. They boiled them with some tea and ate the remains on toast, then sat down to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Built a spliff, and a fire. Partway through their evening the phone began to ring off the hook. He answered it to the voice of his friend’s mother, who wanted to know why his friend had come home and not gone to see her. As his friend attempted to calm her while dealing with the incomprehensible mind-fuck of how she’d tracked him down, he felt himself being absorbed into the depths of the sofa. On the TV, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's chainsaw-wielding hero, Leatherface, was chasing a blonde girl through a forest. Her white jeans strobed and flashed against the grasping trees. He fell into a trance until his friend returned and slumped into the sofa. Palm cradling his forehead.

After the film they sat smoking in his room, listening to Big Pink. Looking through the porthole window, high on the wall behind them, through the reflection in his mirror. They spoke in the hushed, stoned tones about nothing in particular. Beginnings and endings. Stasis and possibility. Sight beyond sight.