Thursday, 21 January 2010

Vanishing Ratios (Excerpt #1)

‘“………parents whose children are having troubles at school that can’t be attributed to drugs, to promiscuity, to any of the usual teen temptations…
‘“Whose children, you’d think, have no reason to fear persecution for their ethnicity, sexuality, physique, or intellect, but there was that time – wasn’t there? – they !snapped! and no-one expected it…
‘“Brothers and sisters freaked out by their sibling’s sporadic failure to recognize them as relatives, and yet speak to depths of their soul, looking right through them, and into them – from what they say, seeing depths they’d be reluctant to acknowledge, themselves…
‘“Adolescents who might be self-harming, in spite of parental precautions against razors and stationery and cutlery, even, being appropriated – and in spite of surveillance and warnings – and yet deny any knowledge of it when a fresh mark appears, and certainly don’t seem to be doing it for the attention…
‘“Once-proud homeowners whose furniture and ornaments and drapery and soft-furnishings are damaged by objects thrown or wrenched with more force than you’d think possible from their once-so-serene Little Ones…
‘“Not to mention, families whose pets can’t spend time in the same room as the child who once slept with said-pet at the foot of their bed, or dressed it up and pushed it about in a pram, and would never have harmed it – there’s no visible evidence they’ve done so, even now – but out it scarpers every time, yowling…
‘“Mothers and Fathers who can’t phrase it any better than that they’ve lost a child – something they only admit to themselves in the small hours of the morning – in spite of the fact they see the likeness of said-child everyday, over breakfast…
‘“The same Grown Adults who doubt that the child before them is their child; is a child at all, if anyone’s…
‘“Parents who pine for the days when they only suspected their teen was having under-age sex…
‘“Responsible and loving Mummies and Daddies who for the sake of their sanity would consider Electro-Convulsive Therapy, Prolonged Sensory Deprivation, or Insulin-Overload Shock Therapy, if the last were still available, before seriously contemplating what they’ve just been advised…
‘“Because, the fact is, they can’t get their heads around the advice to treat these problems animistically, not mechanistically…
‘“Good people, and smart people, and educated people, who are shocked that the kind of assistance they’re seeking, can actually be found in the phonebook…
‘“Full-time, stay-at-home parents who gave up their jobs to give all the care they could, but long ago passed the point of exploring pharmaceutical solutions, biting their nails and counting grey hairs through the recommended six-to-eight weeks, persisting, consulting the GP, only to introduce a new colour and shape of pill…
‘“Parents who are now seeking an Exorcist.
‘“That’s who we want to talk to.
‘“Any questions…?”’

– our Assignment, in the words of Dan Petro, head of R&D at 4fold Vision. I would have been sitting at the far end of the board-room table, as the most junior member of the Research team. The questions that follow concern Distribution; Marketing Spend; the Lead-Time for an Online Teaser Campaign. No questions about Health & Safety, oddly enough. The room’s blinds, that day, were angled at 45-degrees, admitting dull early-autumn light and barred shadows, across the board-room table. We could have been in any office in any building in the Capital’s Media District (the lack of suits hardly mitigating the dry professionalism). Whatever I imagined at the time, the words on the page bore as much relation to what I saw as… well, words on a page. Our Assignment: to research the turn to Spiritualists, Ritual Healers, Dispensers of Charms & Prayers, and (Yes…) Exorcists, among parents supposedly sane & ill-disposed to superstition, on behalf of their children & teens (similarly disposed, but less stable); to probe the credibility & telegenicity of interview subjects for a documentary on the phenomenon – of Possessions.

Right now, DP’s words are re-playing in the private viewing & editing suite of my brain, as the two of us – Interviewer & Research Assistant – clack-clack-clack and scuff-scuff-scuff up this suburban home’s garden-path to the first case of the day. I haven’t said anything yet, but I’ve got a good feeling this might be the first interview to make the cut; something about the eloquence of the mother, on the phone. This project on Possessions will have been my first assignment at 4fV, too; the first opportunity for something I’ve made to actually be seen, to be broadcast. 26 years old, but still taken for a work-experience minion by the Suits & Suitesses in the lift to the 9th floor. Still struggling with office small-talk & in-jokes when I’m among the Jeans & Cardigan people I call my colleagues. At home in the Capital, a couple of years now, but not quite a native. My first assignment as a researcher, with no expectation my involvement would continue beyond trawling local papers & online discussion groups – cold-calling spiritualist churches to ask about unusual requests from non-parishioners. It wouldn’t be accurate to say I surpassed myself, searching out cases of Spirit Possession – the problem was choosing between the dozens & dozens that presented themselves. Whether by luck or good judgment, I’ve been sent “on the trail” to assist with the interviews.

Introductions: for now, Ward works for me. Nominally, the interviewer I’m assisting is Miss Guinevere Shaw; not quite the “Voice of 4fV” (there are other interviewers and other voice-over artists) but the invisible star of a half-dozen previous documentaries: coaxing confessions from subjects, imbuing locations with dread or delight accordingly, and delivering appraisals of the lessons (or moral vacuum so indicated) with a maturity beyond her years. She’s never on camera, but you can see the gratitude in their eyes. One Broadsheet called her ‘the Voice of her Generation, authoritatively holding her elders to account.’ Black of hair (with dyed white streaks), and often black of humour, a fashionista of indeterminate age (“20-something-you-should-know-better-than-to-ask”), today she’s in the plainest of black jersey-dresses, with stockings irregularly striped (like an ice-core, drilled from the Arctic), and a long velvet ribbon, in lieu of necklace, from which depends a monocle – quaint enough to be impressive that she found such a thing, but (secretly) matching her prescription. The doorbell rings. We wait. We adjust our hair & smiles.

The Process: when you arrive at a home where someone is affected, you start making mental notes. This garden swing-seat is where we’ll do the interview… these stuffed toys are an emblem of lost innocence… these are the seasonal blossoms or bare branches, indicating the passage of time, or the hope of re-birth. Something I overheard our in-house Director telling an Editor: telegraph your punches. Here goes:

The street where they live – a few of the houses further up are having a lawn-sale; ’though not the house we’re heading for.

Plant-pots along the concrete path: a miniature kitchen garden. Better-kept than the neighbours’ own; among the thyme stalks, like skeletal trees, plastic soldiers posed in combat.

Movement behind the leaf-textured glass; a body condenses into being.

The lady of the house: bags under her eyes.

On the hallway ceiling: faint little squares where sellotape has been left behind, after decorations were pulled down.

Emerging from behind her feet, a long-haired cat, with a face like a pug. “Wilbur,” she says.

Souvenirs of holidays in the Mediterranean on the multi-compartmented shelves in the hall, too small for books or plates (I have no idea what such pieces of furniture are actually called. Is this what passes for a shrine these days…? These figurines, little lares et penates. The faces of the ancestors smirking from THE frames – )

The living room; immaculate, but cold; a full ashtray on the windowsill.

The lady of the house: each cigarette lit off the last.

VM: “She’ll be home in an hour.”

The dread in that phrase.


I’ve been left to stare about the living-room, and out the window, while Guin gets the child’s mother to open up, under the pre-text of helping her make tea, in the kitchen. The view takes in adjacent gardens, all with low fences between them, and a communal park beyond; the fences would stop a toddler, a small dog, a football, not much else. You can imagine conversations across the fence, in summer; splashing sounds from paddling pools. ((Not for the first time, I think how a quarter-of-a-century led up to this.)) As I remember it, my own childhood world was always circumscribed by a loop of road. Within this, were several rows of houses arranged along drives, where cars could roll sedately; the real periphery, though, was marked by the main road, with its barrier of fast cars that blurred past like Guillotine blades. There were tall trees beyond the road – and fields beyond that – but the way I thought of it, my world had a circular perimeter, which I made it my daily mission to patrol. Sometimes, it seemed, the full quota of people my young mind needed to make life a never-ending string of surprises, was contained within that tarmac horizon; still, something was out there. My imagination never conjured a specific threat from outside, nor made any plans to escape and explore Beyond the Road, but I took obsessive precautions in every neighbour’s house to Know the Exits in Case of Monster Attack.

Okay, this sounds more serious than it was – I simply rode laps on my bike, rising up the gentle incline at the end of our road, then curving around the outside of the park, past another row of detached houses, and then free-wheeling down the steep hill to screech to a near-halt at the bottom, then negotiate the cut-through that returned me to the road our house stood on. Whizzing downhill I jumped speed-humps (then, quaintly, called Sleeping Policemen) and Yee-Hawed like the Dukes of Hazzard on TV, whenever their Pontiac Firebird flew over some obstacle, as they escaped Boss Hogg, for some interchangeable reason that (as far as anyone could see) was only ever a pretext for the high-speed pursuit, and the Yee-Haws. Looking back on this, I guess that kids a generation-or-two before me might have yelled Kamikaze!!! – and, the generation before that, Geronimo. Right now, I’m too young to have any idea what the cri du jour is for kids at play – so far, I have neither kids nor god-kids.

Anyhow, point is, I was a proper kid. I climbed trees, fell out of trees; rode bikes, fell off bikes; came home with arms & legs camouflaged green & brown with smears of tree-bark; came home with knees grazed in a cross-hatched pattern, or calves (fascinatingly) opened in two glistening pink folds by broken glass hidden among the leaf litter & twigs. Every available waking hour was spent outside, and an incalculable number of the hours I should have been asleep, I spent reading books that sneaked me back outside, except even further afield, to a wilderness stitched together from the dense dark forests of Western Europe, the dawn-stained snowfields of Christmas mornings. In my dreams, I was often running from unseen people, perhaps even hordes of them… but in my best dreams, I could fly, and it was as easy as treading water, or (now I come to think of it) pedalling the wheels of a bike –


“………she was a normal girl. Normal, in that she was a bit shy until she decided you’re to be trusted, and… as you would expect she had some difficulty adapting to… You know, there were the kind of problems you can anticipate… but then, well, all the lying started – what I thought were lies, about where things had gone, and – Oh!”

The two of them return from the kitchen, mid-flow, bearing mugs of tea. Apparently, I’m the thing that’s startling, a stranger in the house, she’d almost forgotten was here. I’m standing by the window, fingers raking through the cat’s white fur, so I smile an apology, take a seat on the sofa, and Guin takes the place at the opposite end from me, closest to the high-backed armchair, where she’s sitting, the girl’s mother –

“Let’s get onto that a bit later [says Guin]. Don’t think of us as social-workers… and certainly not psychiatrists! Why don’t you just tell us what your daughter is like as if you’re talking to another parent at school…? How she used to be – how you expect her to be again.”

“Imaginative. That’s what everyone said. She used to speak Cat…

(A memory that made her smile fondly)

“………not just meiowing, the way most children would, but everything from a purring rumble to a yowl, and squinting too, and twitching her nose. She said that once she’d learned how to speak Bird, she’d make a phrasebook, so she could translate from Bird to Cat, so that Wilbur would stop eating them, and leaving pieces of bird on the kitchen step. [In a higher, breathier, imitation of a child’s voice – ] ‘“You can’t eat someone if you can speak their language”,’ she used to say. That was when she was 6 or so. It’s been a few years. I don’t know if she still does –


I can remember all my friends’ names (Christian, sur-, and nick-), if I try, and their faces, but I’m often told by Family that I boasted more often about having Animal Friends. Having a Dog Friend… and a Cat Friend… and a Lizard Friend… and Spider Friends, and a Pig Friend that gave birth to squealing triplets. We never had pets in the house; these were animals I met, and stayed in touch with in my imagination, updating whoever would listen about their adventures, as if I’d just received a letter from a pen-friend in some Third World country where there are lots of insects, and gross things to eat, and ghosts are everywhere you look / listen / smell. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that before I was born, I was The Goat, because I kicked relentlessly, and it delighted me endlessly, once I was at a precocious and encyclopaedia-devouring age (some would say I never left), to know and to be able to tell people: that We kids were Little Goats, and that boys (bay, bayim) were named after Turkish Knights from Crusader times, and that girls were Deers, although that was back when the word (gurles) referred to all children – equally grubby, unkempt, straggle-haired and sexless.

I was a proper kid: one of the last generation who could grow up without a TV in the bedroom, or computer games of any kind in the house, and not somehow feel myself the victim of some monstrous deprivation or child-abuse. Instead, I embarked on projects to dig tunnels between the houses, and to build treehouses, and actually did navigate the warren of tunnels among the spiky rosehip bushes, snapping spines to make a cavity where I could crouch and contemplate my secret world before being summoned by shouts that We’re going to explore the Haunted House now, are you coming…? I also fought the next-door neighbour regularly, in tumbling scraps on the patch of lawn between our houses; we never kept track of who lost or won. Still, I was sociable in my way: without being conscious of what I was doing, my games were about protecting the little village of my imagination; nesting in places that were all my own; and creating routes and lines of communication so that We-the-Children could get about our own world without having to use the routes laid out for us by adults, under their surveillance, and forbidden between certain hours.

A decade-or-more later, having left home a good few years, I stood in a Crop Circle one rainy midnight, and saw it as a map of a world much like the one I’d understood as a child. The main circle was the immediate horizon of daily experience, viewed from the family home. The narrow track connecting that circle to the next, smaller circle, was the route to school (from which we never strayed), which was, of course, its own self-contained world. Other circles and crescents and fork-like armatures extended from these; encoding other places we might never see the likes of, but that didn’t matter. Standing in the cornfield, I saw it as a schematic for Home, and felt the kind of deep nostalgia that can only come from being at a distance measured in interstellar units.


The interview went on for almost an hour in relative calm, punctuated by the pouring of cups of weak beige tea, and illustrated with an endless array of photo-albums. Wilbur pricked up his ears at mentions of his name, initially, but soon tired of these false alarms, and left his owner’s lap to study a sunbeam on the carpet as if it were a pool, in which he could fish for the flittering oval shapes cast by leaves. We learned that besides being the ambassador of Birdkind, the daughter had written diary entries about such unlikely subjects as her bedroom window: complaining about its banal and repetitive choice of view, and deriding its sycophantic tendency to want to look like anything except itself (the name she gave the window – Alyssa – suggested an encrypted jibe at some classmate, Guin surmised). The diary was returned to its place, carefully, although as it was taken from my hands, a few orange-coloured petals fell from some later, un-opened (perhaps unwritten) page, where a pressed flower must have been hidden, shedding them like passed minutes from the dwindling hour.

Her fridge-drawings were un-tacked, and brought into the living-room for our inspection, all of which revealed a moderately talented young artist in transition from planar, quasi-hieroglyphic representation to Quattrocento perspective (there seemed to be more than one vanishing point, creating an illusion that the scenery was free-floating, or un-moored from gravity). A running theme in the pictures – that Guin picked up on, before I managed to – was the poor fit between the various figures and their shadows… not to mention, in some cases, an apparent surplus of shadows (not that these resembled human figures by any stretch of their dimensions).

Other anecdotes blurred into one another: the one about the party dress that she wore to breakfast for a whole week after her fifth birthday, when the thrill of the presents and attention had worn off, and more of each was demanded; the party dress she threw away, after the nature of birthdays was explained, because ‘it didn’t work anymore’ like a broken toy. Lots of things were ‘broken’ in these stories. In autumn, the trees were broken; when it rained hard during July, summer was broken; boys were broken girls; when, for once, she was served chicken at a friend’s house – a meat ordinarily banned at home due to the hormones – she’d made the critical connection between meat and ‘broken animals’. For some reason, this was the last snippet the mother was able to proffer before she realized she couldn’t delay any longer. She had to tell us, in person, what we’d come to hear:

Her daughter was convinced she was surrounded by dead children.

Except that wasn’t it –

She could convince you, or anyone, they’re surrounded by dead children. That she says she sees –

Look around the room: the cat’s resting peacefully on the windowsill; the sunbeam that lit the floor (a parallelogram), has migrated to the wall (a narrow sliver of light). For all its neatness, the room’s peppered with the innocent traces of a child’s passing, subliminally nudging it from a “house” to a “home” (down between the sofa cushions, a stray hair-band … on the walls, framed photos & certificates… the lowest shelf of the bookcase, where the brightly coloured books are stacked haphazardly). At the other end of the sofa from where I’m sitting (too low for me, knees up like a gargoyle), Guin is poured over the side, one hand extending into the space between chairs, ready to bridge that gap, and take the hand of this woman, telling her story. Guin urges her to pinpoint the exact moment she knew, and reminds her she’s there for support. All through this, Guin’s hand remains hanging, though, palm up; half of a cantilevered bridge, never completed.

Okay. Things had gone missing – a few clothes here & there, that might have been hidden, to avoid wearing them, because they were itchy or ugly – one, for instance, was a green wool cardigan she never liked; plus, around the same time, several tins of food disappeared that could have been taken for Harvest Festival, or for a charity collection her year-group was participating in, at the time. On each occasion, her daughter had shrugged, and insisted I didn’t take it, which was disappointing because she must have taken food from the cupboard without asking, and didn’t want to be caught Not Asking Permission. (That First Commandment from all teachers…) Only once, when she was pressed on the hiding place of a more valuable item, a new pair of shoes, did she let slip, Maybe it was Them – before clamming up.

So. That’s when she first heard about her daughter’s new playmates. How they didn’t have names, because they didn’t have parents. These details were unnerving, but secondary to the consideration of her having imaginary friends in the first place. After all, this was regressive for her age – which was 10, going on 11 – but, again, not wholly unexpected, some kind of regression, given her circumstances. A week later, the mother had made the mistake of asking whether her playmates were still around, and been told: They are here, Mummy, but I know how bothered you are, that they won’t speak to you, so I told them I wouldn’t be able to play with them all the time, if they’re all right with that…

Then there was the writing on the wall… another thing she hadn’t done since she was 5; except, you’d have to have moved the sofa (the one I’m sitting on, right now) to finish that cryptic collection of joined-up half-words, only the trailing paraph of its final –y or –g visible when she first noticed it, something odd like, um: VALSHPAR DELGASHIC…? and then a lot of streaks & squiggles even less intelligible. There’s a faint discolouration where the letters have been erased, and also a divot where the graphite point of the pencil was driven into the wall, with enough force to snap it, splintering. The sofa is pushed close to the wall, as you might have noticed, and it’s also heavy. It doesn’t have casters, or wheels, but stubby wooden legs. It would have rucked up the carpet, or left an indentation when it was moved; that’s to say, assuming it was moved –

So, she had to ask. Not about the wall, or about the words, but about the children. About the parents they didn’t have. About how the parents had died, and so those children were never born, and now they’re here. About the ways they died, the ones who were buried alive in mud; the way they drowned, the ones who tried to cross the river at night, on their makeshift rafts… and the way they hung on, the ones who couldn’t afford treatments… and how none of this her girl should ever have known, not at her age. “It’s not that they died, or anything, it’s that they weren’t ever born”, she’ll say, in her singsong voice, and that’s what’s so mad – that it’s all so normal for her, as if she never knew any other world than this –

There were no secrets, after that… although this is the one time you wish there were, even with your own child – After the incident with the wall, she talked openly, but she made the room cold, when you saw her talking to them. Other children tend to look down, and drop their voices when they’re playing with an imaginary friend, but her eyes moved as she talked, as if she was following someone else’s movements, pausing to consider what they’d just said, and how to reply. She sucked the life out of the room – or they did, those invisible playmates of hers – they did it through her. She was their conduit to the material world.

Sometimes – you’ll notice this when you talk to her, assuming she takes to you – she seems to get more animated, when she talks about them; she’ll grow brighter, as if a spotlight or sunbeam had fallen on her alone, but that’s when you’ll notice how anxious you’ve become, and the set of your own face, worrying what it all means, and whether this is going to get worse, whatever “worse” could possibly entail…

…see, when you walk in on her talking to them, it’s like walking into a room where there’s a picture hanging on the wall – a room that’s been emptied of everything but this one picture that’s been ubiquitous in the room for so long; had become so much a part of the room that no-one thought to pack it. You step close, and take a look at it, and there she is, this young girl, 10-going-on-11. Head tilted as if listening to someone unseen; someone else behind glass, unreachable, or maybe someone on the same side of the glass as you –

This is when the doorbell rings.

(This excerpt is taken from the beginnning of VR, 2007-2010)

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