Diane Chandler's passion for Ukraine and its incredible people began when she managed a European Union aid programme there in the 1990s. Ukraine had just become an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and DiFD, the UK government department she worked for, was supporting its path to democracy.
She travelled throughout this stunning country umpteen times and met thousands of warm, welcoming people, who quickly found their way into her heart. The Road to Donetsk is her tribute to Ukraine. It won the 2016 People’s Book Prize for Fiction, an award she dedicated to the Ukrainian people. Today, her memories of all those she met weigh heavily on her mind.
Ben at Shepherd.com asked Diane to pick and review 5 books that capture the spirit of the Ukranian people.
US readers are discovering Diane Chandler's prize-winning debut novel set in Ukraine. Diane is a former programme manager of the UK's overseas aid to Ukraine.
The Road To Donetsk is a novel full of love for Ukraine & the spirit of the Ukrainian people. It won the 2016 People's Book Prize for Fiction.
All past and current author & publisher income is being donated to aid for Ukraine.
More details: smarturl.it/roadtodonetsk
Back in 2016 we had the honour of featuring Diane's novel in the Kyiv Book Festival. We spent a memorable week in this beautiful city.
The story of the domesticated cat covers many centuries and ranges from adoration to hatred and back full circle to mostly love.
Recent speculation seems to confirm that domestic cats are descended from one species; a Middle Eastern wildcat that lived 12,000 years ago. As the fertile crescent of the Middle East flourished, farmers began to store their grain and the mouse population expanded rapidly. The wildcats came out of the woods to hunt and so the familiar tale of the cat and mouse began. The cat was welcomed as the perfect solution to pest control, and thus began its domestication and the enduring relationship between humans and cats.
Whilst I am sure the farmers were happy that the mice were under control, all cat lovers know that cats bring far more than just an instinct for hunting small rodents.
In the US in 2017/18 nearly 32 million households owned a cat and in the UK in 2019 the PDSA estimated 10.9 million households owned a cat. This book aims to bring you surprising, interesting, and astonishing stories of that relationship. Whether they are the humble moggy or the highest pedigree, cats have always inspired and endeared themselves to people. It’s not surprising that some of our most distinguished historical public figures in literature, art and politics fell in love with cats. This book ranges across the centuries and brings you the personal, private cat stories behind the public faces. I hope it will surprise and delight you as I reveal what happened behind closed doors between these famous owners and their cats.
Chapter 1 – BC/CE and 1st Century
The cult of the cat began thousands of years ago. It has been established that Egyptian culture from as early as 450BC worshipped the cat. The penalty for killing one was death and when a cat died the household would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.
These were some of the observations of Herodotus, the Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC.
He wrote The Histories, the first narrative record of the Ancient World. It is in his second book that he writes about Egypt and although scholars of this period have doubted his methods and authenticity he has come to be known as ‘The Father of History’.
It wasn’t only the cat which was worshipped by the Egyptians. Their religion was animistic; the belief that natural places, objects and animals were spiritual. Bast, or Bastet was a cat goddess and one of the most popular. The temple at Bubastis was dedicated to her and dead cats were brought to the temple to be mummified as an offering to her.
When Cleopatra arrived in Egypt from Macedonia, she adopted not only the language but its culture. It would therefore be entirely possible that she owned a cat. Some sources name her cat as Charmain, whilst others say it was called Tivali. It was not common to name a cat. They were usually called ‘mui’ or ‘muit’ perhaps relating to the noise they make.
EMPEROR ICHIJO, Emperor of Japan
The invention of cat cafes in Japan has given rise to many more around the world. The Japanese love cats, some even worship them, but lack of living space and long working hours prohibit many from owning them. This yearning for cat love has been satisfied with the cat café where you pay to spend time with the cat of your choice.
There were no such restrictions for Emperor Ichijo, the 66th Emperor of Japan, who ruled from 986-1011. The high status of cats in Japan is credited to this Emperor because when he was 13 years old, in 999AD, a litter of five white kittens were born. The Emperor’s favourite kitten, Myobu No Omotu was given a rank at court; Lady of the Fourth Court. A banquet was held in honour of the cat’s birth and special rice cakes were made. The Emperor was so enchanted by his favourite that he decreed she was to be treated like a Royal Princess. She even had her own lady in waiting.
MOHAMMAD, Prophet of Islam
570 CE – 8 June 632 CE
In Islamic culture the cat has a special place in the hearts of its followers. This is due largely to the Prophet Mohammad and his favourite cat, Muezza. A particularly famous story relates how Mohammad rose from his bed as he heard the call to prayer and saw that Muezza was lying on the sleeve of his robe. He cut off the sleeve rather than disturb the cat. Such was Mohammad’s devotion to Muezza that he allowed her to rest in his lap during his sermons. He also drank from the cat’s water and washed himself with it. Legend also says that the ‘m’ marking on the forehead of a tabby cat was made by the Prophet resting his hand on its forehead.
The teachings of Islam state that Muslims must not trade or sell cats for money; they can drink the same water as cats as their saliva is harmless, unless impurities are visible in its mouth. They are free to live with cats so long as they feed and water them and treat them well and allow them to roam freely.
c. Christina Hamilton 2020
All rights reserved
What were the odds that I would spot them that day from the top of the 94 bus? Sitting up front like a child to bagsy the best view, enjoying the warmth of the year’s first sunshine on my face. Ironic that I was en route to buy him a birthday gift too, one of his favourite polo shirts. My husband, down on the pavement, in the secret shadow of a pub doorway, tenderly kissing another woman. The way it had wrenched them when they’d pulled apart, the way it had punched me in the gut. And it was I who had felt criminal, loping off the bus, stomach on slow spin, and into a furtive black cab home.
That evening, Ollie had been hosting a wine tasting at the shop, Sophie was sleeping over with a friend, and so I sat in the darkening kitchen tormenting myself – that look between them. Play, misery, rewind, play. When he was finally home, my face must have glowed white in the gloom. At first, he’d thought I was ill and sat down concerned by my side, a caring hand at my shoulder, while my belly roiled on; all out of vomit, it offered only limp spasms.
‘What’s her name?’ I said, quite calmly.
Ollie flinched, his own face drained of colour, but still he said nothing, still he must have hoped.
‘I saw you,’ I said. ‘On the way to Westfield.’
He grasped my hand. ‘She’s just a friend.’
A dizziness took hold then. At some point, I was going to have to stand and stomp off, but my body was denying me that triumph.
‘Kiss all your friends like that, do you?’
He was nicked. A plaintive sigh and he released my shoulder, slumped into his chair.
‘How long’s it been going on?’
He hung his head, it was a good minute before he spoke.
My mind hurtled back through the months; snatches of days, events in our diaries, Ollie’s business trips. Nearly five months and I’d not had an inkling – how had he pulled that off?
I really did try to leave the room. Had I been in a film, I would have risen with dignity and glided, turning at the door with a damning, ‘Finish it now or you’ll lose me.’ Truth is that I didn’t dare challenge him like that. Truth is that a tear bobbled onto the rim of my eye and, against my vehement command, slid down my cheek. I watched it plop onto my shirt. It was he who had stood and left the room.
A wave had smashed me off my feet. I found myself tumbling, rolling and spiralling. Where was the surface? Where were the depths? What would I do if he left me?
It never occurred to me to leave him.
Nearly two weeks on and I was still reeling. Any hopes he may have harboured at finding himself still in our bed were skewed; it was crucial that Sophie remained oblivious, and so there we slept, back-to-back, stony-to-sheepish. Some mornings he’d attempt a sickening hand to my shoulder as we passed in the kitchen, a lopsided smile, grotesque in its meekness. While I sustained the ice treatment.
Why had he done it? We were still having sex, weren’t we? – true it was same old, same old – but what ancient marriage had not slid into the comfort of a fleeting missionary every now and then? What was he not getting from the marriage? From me? My own shortcomings unfurled before my eyes like a magician’s handkerchief, endless and garish, but I remained frozen by shock, by fear. Unable to confront him again.
‘I hate seeing you like this,’ said Scarlett as I sank into her sofa, cowed like a rescue dog. ‘You’ve got to have it out with him. Don’t let the bastard off scot-free without telling you everything.’
Sound advice. Scar was one of my dearest friends, and the only person I’d confided in, but whenever I sought to muster that anger I found only vulnerability, my once exuberant confidence shattered. She too must have been stunned by the depth and speed of my unravelling, a ship’s cable whipping from its spool. The fury did bubble, finding release at odd times – and on unlikely victims – but I had not yet gathered the courage to unleash it upon him. In case he did indeed tell me everything?
Instead, I’d been scrabbling to fortify myself, to restore the old Anna, so that I might cope with whatever the consequences of that everything would be. And the way forward, as I saw it then, was to flee backwards to a time when Ollie and I had been equals, to unearth my corporate self. I might now be a product of the school gate, but I used to be somebody.
So, after a spontaneous email to a former colleague, I was sitting once again in a slick meeting room at my old firm, a city investment bank. But what was I thinking? Sixteen years since I’d left, much longer since I’d last been interviewed, and the nerves were tap-dancing inside my chest, breaths coming in staccato bursts. Was I really up to this? At least, outwardly, the Max Mara suit was bestowing some of the old swagger. Black wool with a soft chalk stripe, and classic I thought, plus the fact that it fitted me again after the recent weight loss – every cloud and that.
‘Nice,’ Sophie had said that morning. ‘Don’t let the fashion police see you, Mum.’
‘I need to impress on them that I was once a professional woman. Can’t wear anything too funky.’
That sing-song voice I now assume to appease my tricky teenage daughter.
That eye roll she’d recently perfected.
I cast her from my mind, thoughts of Ollie too, and fixed a smile for the man across the desk, middle-aged, white, alpha – all that privilege in one human being – and then for his sidekick, a young Asian woman. My email had fallen upon good times. They now had this diversity scheme, a drive to recruit women returners, to harness the experience and perspective that evaporates once we leave to have our kids. Not an opening at my previous level, of course, but still.
‘Research suggests that women are better at spotting opportunities, at inspiring others, even that they are more strategic than men.’
From his smug tenor, I knew that he believed otherwise, and already I disliked the man; flashes from my past, of a thousand other chauvinists.
‘Oh, I’m very strategic,’ I said, with a firm nod.
Even if, at home, I was being buffeted like a dingy in a perfect storm.
His eyes narrowed, did he sense that?
‘So, can you flesh out the qualities you would bring to this position?’
Qualities? The word flitted, my mind unable to pin it down. I rummaged for those lines I’d rehearsed in the mirror, lamenting how the face above the suit was now more crêpe de chine than porcelain, shaking my hair forwards to hide what it could.
Qualities, qualities… How do you vocalise the expanse of life you’ve encased yourself, infused yourself with, during all those years at home as a wife and mother? And make it count? Not those weekend mornings I’d dragged Sophie out of bed to engage in every activity under the sun. Not those playground drop-offs spiked with testosterone-pumped women. Nor those evenings of playing wifey at wine events, or poring over recipes with ingredients I’d never heard of.
No, I knew he was after the soft skills I’d apparently acquired in that role of homemaker which would see me well back in the corporate world. And, thankfully, they came to me just in time – the critical thinking, the time management, the resilience. I held forth at length, added a joke too, well that was my intention, one that might capture a skill he would appreciate.
‘And I chaired the PTA at my daughter’s primary school,’ I said. ‘Put me in a room full of tiger mums and I’ll emerge alive and kicking!’
A slow nod, just the one, but no smile – I guess the tiger mum bit was lost on him. (Of course, I was one of those pushy mothers myself, most of us seemed to be these days, even if as a tribe we’d be shocked to be considered such.)
As the man made a few notes, my clammy palms found the rough wool of my skirt with a surreptitious clench; so nervous, but did I really want to subject myself to this life again?
‘How would you feel about getting up to speed on the new technologies, which will have transformed themselves twice over since your day?’
Helpless. But that was ageism – even if I must have been one of the oldest potential returners.
As if in tacit agreement, the sidekick uncrossed and re-crossed her legs; a silent signal, and he did clock it.
‘I mean, change has been especially rapid in our business,’ he added, shifting in his seat, a hint of weakness which bolstered me – and also brought a sudden memory.
As a young graduate I’d once been advised to imagine all interviewers sitting naked in the bath, a rubber duck floating between their legs. So that’s what I did. Stripped him off, paunch and all, steering that duck clear from his stub of a modesty, and my shoulders sank a little.
‘Well,’ I said, with a deep breath and a more relaxed smile, ‘I understand that these days emotional intelligence is just as valuable as technical ability.’
And I happily added two more qualities to my list: empathy and intuition. Not that I’d intuited my husband’s affair, had I?
A flicker of smile. Steepled fingertips. And then he floored me.
‘An impressive track record while you were with us.’
I felt myself flush, surprised tears springing in gratitude.
Because, yes, I’d been bloody good at my job, had been valued, on other people’s radar. And yet here I was, Anna Bond, in my mid-forties, in the prime of life, and floundering. The female term for a cuckold, I’d read, is a cuckqueen, and that felt perfectly apt.
On the Tube home, I stared through the pages of the Evening Standard. They’d said they’d be in touch but, whatever their decision, I’d known. Even as I’d sat gazing at the abstract swirls of colour on the walls in reception, as I’d been led through the open plan, with its splash of screens and the stench of callow greed. Let’s face it, I’d known even as I’d dressed that morning. I had moved on. The corporate world which had once given me meaning would no longer rouse me, and if offered the job I wouldn’t take it; there would have to be some other route back to me. The interview, however, had fortified me – I was still in there somewhere. Perhaps the way forward was philanthropic, some form of charity work, even if the thought of sorting fusty second hand clothes or stuffing envelopes left me cold.
I nearly missed my stop. Dashed to the closing doors and out onto the ground I loved. Chiswick, my one constant. Down on the pavements of Turnham Green Terrace, the heatwave which was to smile upon the nation that summer was already warming itself up, and the yeasty scent of Fuller’s Brewery steeped the air, a deep breath of it heightening my sense of home.
Hanging back, I glanced in at Ollie’s shop on the other side of the road, its frontage painted in Plummet Grey, the lettering a deep charcoal, Oliver Bond Esq. Purveyor of Fine Wines. He stood planted at the oak desk, frowning down at his phone, one hairy arm outstretched, hand resting on the layers of tissue paper. Pillar of the community, so he always joked. Still a thick crown of hair, still sandy too, and cut to perfection by the guy opposite – all the local businesses enjoyed the fruits of barter and Burgundy was a heady commodity.
A woman entered and Ollie looked up with that winning smile. Expecting the sight of his face to bring misery, I found instead that it stirred a surge of defiance. An impressive track record, the man had said. Who was this bastard to have an affair on me? He fetched down a bottle from the wooden shelves, holding it with reverence, stroking it. Not unlike he once used to hold and stroke me. Did I still love him? I had no idea. We just were. Anna and Ollie a solid couple, married now for nearly twenty years. A slide into marital oblivion so steady that the moment when I’d no longer caught my breath, when my insides had no longer flipped was indiscernible.
‘Leave him,’ Scar had said. Simple words for such a terrifying act of dismantlement.
I crossed over to the deli in search of something quick for dinner.
At my front door I assumed that cape of super-motherhood which smothered all fragility of my own. I’d been slipping it on since Sophie was born, and it now draped itself automatically in her presence.
In our hallway I found a bike propped against the wall, heard her chatting to someone in the kitchen and smiled with relief, it was easier these days when we were not alone, just the two of us. Cocking my head to gauge which of her friends she’d brought back from school, I was pulled up short. A male voice, rich and deep, suffused with a particular joyous-come-cheeky resonance, which I recognised from my own youth. They were flirting. I wandered through to them.
The boy was sitting at the island opposite my daughter, and he didn’t look up immediately. Between them sat our pet tortoise, Horace, whom the boy was feeding, leaf by leaf. Cocky then. Finally, he glanced at me, his eyes a startling pewter grey, luminous with his laughter, with enthrallment.
‘Hi,’ I said, bearing down on Sophie with a quizzical smile, unable to hide my initial shock.
‘Hi Mum. This is Jack.’
Her tone towards me was warmer than usual, right from the start I was aware of that. Her smile shone half euphorically, half sheepishly, and our eyes remained locked while the impulses leapt between our synapses – why didn’t you tell me? Why should I? And then I looked away, softly rueful of her inevitable slide towards independence. She’d been pulling away for some time now and this was a further step. For a moment I felt completely alone, abandoned by husband and daughter, the two truths of my life.
The boy stood up from the bar stool, causing it to rock on its legs, and I pretended not to notice the face Sophie pulled at him, mocking his stumble, but was heartened to see that she held such power.
‘Hello.’ I strolled over and held out my hand.
‘Nice to meet you, Mrs Bond.’ A chunk of dirty-blond hair flopped onto his forehead as if by remote control. ‘You have a lovely house.’
‘Thank you, Jack. Cup of tea?’
‘Awesome, thank you.’
I turned to fill the kettle. Her first boyfriend. But this was not a boy, he must have been six-foot tall, his chest was as broad as Ollie’s, his wrists were muscled for Christ’s sake! As I unloaded my bag of food into the fridge, I could feel the energy dancing between them and finally I swung around, arms folded.
‘What are you up to, then?’
‘Revising together. History. We’re in the same set.’
‘The rise of Hitler.’ It was Jack who spoke, his smile disarming. ‘And the causes thereof.’
Thereof. Clearly from an educated family.
‘Sounds like a plan. Biscuit?’
I took the tin over, it felt good to have a prop.
‘Awesome, thank you.’ He dug out two chocolate digestives and slipped one whole into his mouth.
Again, I contemplated Horace, now abandoned on the island to feed himself, and I shared a further lingering look with Sophie. My hygiene rules were strict, no tortoise on eating surfaces, but we both knew I wouldn’t nag. I wandered back to pour the teas.
‘How was the interview, Mum?’
I turned with a bright smile but her own eyes were on Jack, her radiant face carefully framed by a mass of blonde, and my heart leapt out in protection – take it slowly Sophie.
‘Great,’ I said, watching the boy as I placed his mug of tea down. His smile oozed filmic confidence. ‘If wanky bankers float your boat.’
I was pleased to see him blush; not so cocky then. ‘Hope your father doesn’t work in the City?’
‘No, er, he’s a garden designer.’
‘Creative, I like that. Anyway, been a long day, I’m off for a bath. Nice to meet you, Jack.’
I slunk from the kitchen, mug in hand and stopped on the first stair to catch Sophie’s words.
I waited, leaned into the banister.
‘She’s mad,’ said Jack.
I’d intended to soak off the interview but instead I was fending off thoughts like missiles. Ollie. Why had he had the affair? I was going to challenge him while that post-interview defiance was still fresh; the Max Mara suit alone had restored a bundle of confidence. But I had been counting on a return to my old firm as the way forward, it would have allowed me to walk away from my marriage – if that was the path I chose – or to cope if he were to leave me. I saw again that woman in the doorway, the look between them. What was I going to do now? Where next would I search for that elusive someone I used to be?
And now there was Jack. This stranger lounging in my kitchen, a boy-man whose presence hung in the air. The space he took up was disturbing, a mass of limbs and flesh, a trace of earthy aftershave too, whereas most teenage boys smelt of baked beans.
The bath water had cooled so I topped it up with hot and plunged beneath the foam of raspberry bubbles (I still bought Sophie’s childhood favourite) wallowing until my breath burst. Sweeping back up, I scooped a palmful of froth, squeezed until the bubbles had vanished and reached for another. What had just happened in my kitchen? Well it seemed that, totally out of the blue, a rite of passage was underway for my daughter, an emotion in her eyes I’d not yet seen. Had I warned her enough about sex? About the privilege of her own body? What if Jack were to coerce her into it? You can’t tell a teenager not to do it, I myself was younger than she is now, but somehow, at fifteen, I seemed older than my daughter, more street-wise.
A gale of laughter from below and I sank again beneath the water, losing myself in its cocoon. Mad, he’d called me. And I knew that mad was teenage slang for cool – it didn’t mean loopy or unhinged.
By the end of that summer, however, I would be unable to fathom quite what I had become.
c. Diane Chandler 2020
All rights reserved
c. Pam Billinge 2021
All Rights Reserved
Waterstones UK £9.99
Amazon worldwide £9.29
Ebook Amazon Worldwide £2.49/$3.99
Introduction by Timothy Leary
The 60s in America was different and difficult for all of us. It was a time of fast thinking, profound shifts of direction, and a lot of fun. The Doors of Perception were glued together by many souls. And we had in common a need for mutual dignity, freedom and passion.
This story is about a young man at 20 under the influence of art. He is in rebellion with his parents, Hollywood, America and the Arts. Growing up in Europe, meeting history on the walls of the Etruscan frescoes, walking the Tiber, and finding the fountains of Rome erotic and funny prompted his first calling to become an artist. His parents were artists in the film world. They were sympathetic to Michael’s odyssey. His picture of the eternal city was transposed from a Hollywood upbringing.
The book begins in Venice, California on an LSD trip with Jim Morrison, who is also looking for his identity. Their friendship helps define each of their paths. Michael’s world view, like Jim’s, tries to be hip. Where Michael’s optimism fails he finds his bravery and his imagination. The world feels in flux and his affection for people and their art forms become his faithful companions.
I identified with this naïveté. The riddle of life has several options, and Michael has the time to sort out his lot. He is lucky. We can study his boyish charm at leisure. I wonder if many young people today have the time to consider their privileges. Michael owes his parents a part of the freedom he explores.
This is a sweet story which suggests that the ultimate resolutions may not be the answer. This is no surprise. However, here is a wealth of impressions! People, places and events, famous and personal, sit side by side in curious metaphors that softly draw the reader into meditation.
This Lawrence trip catches something of this passion or faith and the landscape of the 1960s. It is, as a book, an interesting guide to a path we are now returning to. ‘Sight and setting’, or the organising of how to view reality, affects how we see the wonderment of creation itself.
The sight and setting focus around art provides subtle shifts that are illuminating, pleasurable and often funny. An adventure of rich feelings and a sense of human growth evolves.
I am sitting in Venice at the kitchen table going over some of my notebooks. It is my senior year at UCLA. Outside the light is fading and Morrison pops in. Felix has something special, do I want to join him and Phil? Before time for second thoughts Jim had charmed me into his fold. He had good timing that way; I was ready for a game. We were off on foot scurrying across the alleys like Huey, Louie and Dewey Duck the cartoon images of a Disney world, on our way to the Andes to find the precious jewels hidden deep in the Inca caves. We scurried across bridges past bungalow houses amidst a labyrinth of quaint structures. The glass chimes tinkled in the wind outside Felix’s bungalow. We were on the canal off Howland Avenue. Jim softly knocked on the front door. The afternoon light was as tentative as his rapping. There was no answer. Jim went around the back. I looked into the patterns moving across the water in the canal. Jim returned, he nodded; we left quietly and as quickly as we had come.
Those few moments we spent circling outside on the veranda of Felix’s bungalow gazing at the water created an unforgettable feeling as if I were in Kashmir far away from LA or this lifetime. It was a passing thought, a flash, and we were on the move again. Experience is a ball of string that each of us unravels. Fate, karma, destiny, character… it is all different for everyone. Would my own life be like my donating that painting to Jim’s door? Did I expect, require, demand that every gesture I make be acknowledged, put in a museum? Isn’t it all a museum? Aren’t we under the cosmic umbrella? Where else is there to go? Vanity. Who said it, ‘all is vanity’? Life and the living of it is the thing, even if beauty needs a place to rest. I was on the move following Jim, mindlessly enjoying, not thinking about anything, just out playing with the boys.
In the distance we spotted a police car. The black and white taxi. Jim suggested we outfox them. It was a grey winter’s day, no one else was out except for us; we looked automatically suspect. It was part of the game, to see if we could lose them, tease them a bit and then disappear into thin air. We crossed a footbridge to the other side of the canal, down an alley and up; we had gained time. We walked on more confidently now. They had missed us. We were now approaching the boardwalk that ran parallel to the ocean in front of a long bay of sand. The grey of the afternoon light had darkened. Along the boardwalk the palms shifted ominously in the cool breeze that was coming off the tops of the white caps foaming in the distance. Jim stopped in front of a small water fountain. I had forgotten that we had actually scored anything. Jim handed me a pill and bent down to drink some water. “I used to drink here, last summer,” he intoned in a manner suggesting fondness as he tilted his head to the side. Phil and I swallowed our trips. It was time to head for some shelter. Jim suggested that we drive over to his pad, which was on Fourth Street, as there was time before the trip would hit. Back at my place we jumped into my TR3 and drove the few blocks east.
We entered a small apartment with peace-eye throw rugs and wood panelling. As I was taking inventory of the pad, Jim immediately turned on the radio, which I noticed to be a large and modern set. He was crouched down to turn the knobs. He did this very attentively; he was completely focused on the radio. Jim had knelt down as if in front of an altar. A connection was being made in this moment of intense focus. To listen was to become one with the music. Later when Jim wrote about music being your only friend, I thought of this moment and what seemed like a communion. When he sang at the Unicorn coffee house he had pressed his boot to the stand of the microphone with this same sense of intense connection. The channel would be opened and the words came up from inside his body, travelled into the microphone to explode in the amplifiers as clear words on the sea of air, carving out of the waves the words of prayer, the song, the message, his soul. When Jim kneeled to listen to the radio it seemed an acknowledgement of all beauty. The nature of his own moves opened the channels and showed me the grace of his reverence.
Phil had already disappeared into another room. I felt slightly on edge, not knowing exactly what to do with myself. Standing in the door jamb, watching Jim deftly tuning the dial, I felt out of place, trapped. There was an empty room so I decided to lie down in it and take inventory: cool down, get a hold of where I was.
Lying on the floor the feeling of discomfiture seemed to be increasing and I felt nauseated. This was a typical reaction going into a trip, but it always affected me badly. I sat up in the hopes that I would feel better. Listening to the music I heard a blurred chorus of what I imagined to be giant frogs belching and burping outside. The room was claustrophobic. I got up on my feet.
I saw Jim leaving the radio and heading out the door. “Where are you going?” I thought I was saying, but he left without responding. I followed, but he had disappeared. I felt better outside in the dark air, comfortingly wet and frothy. There was a fog, a mist that hung around the lampposts, but I could see clearly. The plants, illuminated by the streetlights, appeared violet and fleshy. A car lurched in the distance. I found myself peeing. It felt warm. How long had I been walking? Do I live nearby? I was moving unconsciously through this dark world, aware only of moving and then I turned on all the lights in my apartment. How had I found the switches? I crawled into bed feeling my kidneys: large tubes of lipstick, full of blood, full of youth, a very rich feeling, overwhelming. Is someone talking to me? Who is there?
There is only the moment; so many thoughts and experiences coming and going in a small brightly lit theatre of images. Pick one and find the past parading in front of you, aping pleasure. They all seemed to have the same weight, as if meaning had no special importance, the moments of a life being mere sculptures. The mind empties, I am here in my living room typing, having spent the day writing, sculpting, going to the post and coffee between the rain in the fresh air. I am alive, rolling and unrolling a thread, sound the trumpet, I am grateful, ready for a new call to arms. The memory of having the sensation that William Shakespeare came to visit me that night and how flattered I was to have him near; looking over my shoulder as he passed, looking to find a new drama. Alas, I wasn’t writing anything on paper, it wasn’t necessary; it was all in my mind, especially how quickly he made off with all my ideas.
Voices seemed to be coming through the radiator. Jim had forgotten to turn off the radio. What are they saying? It’s in a foreign language, or is it Morse code? Damn, I should have studied that at school. What was it that Ginsberg was saying about the CIA? Is the radio taping me through the radiator? Where were my friends? What is a friend? Why did they have to kill me? I wouldn’t play along? Was it a kind of new Mafia or something? What was this LSD? A secret way of recruiting people, transplanting energies into other bodies, transforming your body? Where was Jim? I was sure he could answer all these questions. Where had he gone? How had he disappeared so quickly? Was I farting? I felt better. Was it getting lighter? How long had I been wrapped in bed? Could I find my way back to the apartment? I’d wait for dawn. It was odd to feel Shakespeare’s presence; maybe he thought this would make a fine play? Hamlet? I thought that the night had passed quickly. I had listened to the radiator as if it were monitoring me or I it. What a strange trip! I didn’t like thinking about the CIA or hearing voices over the radiator. It wasn’t amusing to live through, even if it was funny to think about later. It was a madness. And I’m not mad. A happy fool to be sure to expose myself to the wind, to see what’s flying. But when you are thinking thoughts that don’t feel like your own invention, then reality is another kettle of fish. That is an unholy monster of an experience, when you sense that you are not there, that it is not you who are thinking, a conscious nightmare.
Was it Jim’s reality? I felt there was something almost vicious about this acid, as if it had stolen into my consciousness and made off with something. With the sun came a sense of ease and just Willy Shakes and Rock’n’Roll. The morning air was fresh and I was genuinely pleased to see other people routinely going about setting up their shops for the day’s business. Passing a small park even the trees seemed pleased to see me. They appeared like sentinels, bright and peppy in the early morning sun. It was a sparkling blue morning, the first after a long stretch of grey ones. I had the impression that I was in another town. Perhaps Arles. The pine trees and the park had made me think of Vincent. A happy Vincent, the painter off to a vineyard in the morning sun before it became too brutal. I was too agitated to paint. There I was. This was the apartment. The door was open, so I entered. I called out but there was no answer. Turning around I was facing Jim, who just walked in as if that night had never existed and he was dropping in to see an old friend after a long period of absence. He threw his arm around my shoulder, delighted to see me.
“Got any grass?”
“Where have you been?” I responded, slapping the leaf of a plant as we headed toward the sidewalk.
“Don’t do that; don’t hit the plant.”
I acknowledged his request and asked him again where he had been all night.
“Oh, I was down at the beach, listening to the waves.”
“Wasn’t it cold?” I asked. Jim laughed.
He laughed himself into the back seat of my TR3 and wrapped his legs around my waist. Jim was so buoyant, full of cheer. It was clear to me he hadn’t spent the night listening to a radiator. The music had continued in his head, the waves playing softly. Had he composed some of his gentle lyrics about swimming to the moon and climbing through the tide?
The lyrics were clear and full, the gesture as open as his wrapping his legs around me.
I laughed and off we drove to my apartment. Jim and I bolted into the pad and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Where’s Phil?” I asked.
“He’ll show up,” Jim quipped; he was still laughing.
Examining the grass Jim suggested that we eat it rather than smoke it. Conveniently there was a jar of honey on the table, which we opened and dipped our hands into like cubs, then rolling our paws into the grass. The grass lost its bitter taste. We were pleased at our ingenuity.
There was a knock at the door. Phil came in and he and I looked at one another. We seemed to spring apart and fly through the air, as if some energy field existed between us rendering us non-compatible. This was phenomenal, yet meaningless. Like my paranoia. It was there however, and whatever that energy field had been, it did separate us, throwing us apart as if we’d been sucked into a black hole and shot out. In the future, we would never become close friends, but for that moment, in my kitchen, we all laughed it off and Phil joined in for our breakfast of grass and honey. The three of us sat in the small kitchen, the sky turning grey again. We gazed at each other, grunting. I had some trepidation about doing grass after my ordeal the previous night, but now I felt more secure amidst company. Nothing was said for the longest period as if we were catching our metaphysical breaths.
Then Jim broke the silence, “Shit!”
I sized this up and carefully responded mimicking his cool posture with a “Fuck.”
Jim in turn gave me a long hard look and then said, “Shit.” I volleyed back with “Sheet.”
He felt that this needed a decisive “Fuck.” I quite agreed, “Fuck.”
Between our exchanges of “Shit” and “Fuck” were thoughts silently placed that indicated exactly just how the ‘shit’ should sound and exactly what we meant by the work ‘fuck’. Indeed there seemed to be a real conversation going on between us. The weightiest bits of philosophy, our goals, our disappointments, the lovely ladies we had laid were all described in this manner, in the minutest details. The worldview itself, die Weltanschauung, everything lay between these two words. We had boiled it all down to a few syllables to record time. To give a simple sound the feel of a vast experience. There wasn’t much beauty to this, no real elegance, rather a symbiotic embrace of the void we would have to fill to become artists. For the moment, it was a substitute, a smug comment. Vietnam and middle class sheep sat at our sidelines, but we had no money, just sad shoes and attitude.
Throughout our exchange Phil sat nonplussed. Out of the silence he began laughing, laughing like a drunken gypsy. And then Jim and I understood what we had been doing and we began laughing as well.
This moment of brightness faded. “Do you want some tea? I mean to drink,” I asked. Phil thought he might have some. Jim’s head was drooping. “Are you okay Jim?” He didn’t answer; instead he fell into a stupor. I was concerned. I recalled that Jim had taken some tests at UCLA, that they had concluded he had petit mal or some such. I had thought that this was just a part of his cloak-and-dagger routine, but now I was alarmed. I reached for him and he, almost sensing my presence, raised his head.
He looked half asleep. He smiled that mischievous boyish smile, “Wanna go for a walk? I’m fine, man, hey, let’s go out, c’mon man, follow me.” Jim got up slowly, gracefully pulling up his body, summoning his strength. I turned off the water, which hadn’t boiled yet, anxious to accommodate Jim’s wish to be outside.
The mid-morning air was warm and it felt good to be out in the open without a roof binding our thoughts.
“Damn, my moccasins are still wet. I’ll just slip them off.” The pavement was warm.
Jim and Phil were a few paces ahead of me. I ran to catch up and decided to pass them by; I liked running. I stopped and turned, made my hand in the shape of a pistol and pretended to take aim at my companions, transforming the run into a game of Cowboys and Indians. Jim and Phil sprang into action; they drew their imaginary guns and ‘scuttled up’ to join me. The grey of the morning suggested an old TV serial western; Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry together for the first time. We were joining forces to right the wrongs of this here frontier town. Now we were cooking.
“Do you think they’re behind us?” I asked Phil, who looked at Jim who answered, “Yep.”
“Let’s go this way,” Jim indicated and pointed to the right. We were heading for the pass. They always headed for the pass.
I scouted the buildings looking for the bandits hidden between the boulders. I thought that I had spotted one; you couldn’t be too careful. My horse, my legs, were in good shape, we galloped toward the boardwalk. Around it goes, cinema, young boys pretend, reality on drugs, the reel, our real, projection of cinema onto reality. Guns, hunting, escape, hiding out forever and ever as boys will be boys, being men; endless cinema, endless wars.
At the clearing the grey sand melded into the grey ocean. At the boardwalk the sensation of a western faded and now we were in another film, a Godard flick, cinéma vérité. We stopped in front of a mirror to examine our appearances. I drew my gun and shot at the image reflected in the pitted surface. Dans la rue on tuais le miroir. I heard the waves crashing in the distance. Jim and Phil were twenty feet ahead of me. They were pinned up against a doorway. I came up behind them. Jim had a bit of the Jean Paul Belmondo about him: “if you don’t like the country, if you don’t like the sea, if you don’t like women, well man, go ‘F’ yourself.” All said, to be sure, sotto voce, never macho, standing as tall as you possibly can and shooting from the hip like Alan Ladd in Shane. Jim was studying a car in the parking lot across from us, beyond the green cupola. It was the only car in the lot. The lot was closer to the ocean than we were. Jim turned to me, quizzically and tilted his head, “Hey, man, go check it out.”
As I crossed over to the lot, cinéma vérité faded into the grey realities of a real street scene. I was standing twenty feet or so now in front of a sedan. I stopped, thinking it was odd for Jim to have sent me over. A slim black figure extruded itself from the passenger side. The voice of the young black man was very tender, very gentle, “do you want something, man?” The timbre of his voice came from another drug experience. “What do you want, man?” I shook my head indicating that everything was fine; somehow I did not want to break my silence. I turned around, headed back. I knew that they had been on heroin, I could feel it in his voice, and heroin was a drug that scared me. The sound of the young black man’s voice made a very gentle impression upon me. I’m damned sorry I didn’t open my mouth, I was scared but it wasn’t as if that meant I’d take the heroin. His gentle voice had a sense of promise to it. One, two, three, four, open the door, there is no undercover man. We all uncover some aspect of reality. Nobody can take what you don’t own. It’s where you put things, ideas, words, they already exist. That is what the radiator was trying to tell me. Don’t fall into a timid mode, keep it open. It’s all the same stuff piled up on a DNA strand in different amounts, orders, signals. I could have said, “hello, how’s it going?” Life is a participatory sport, so Harry, be kind to yourself and dive in. Thoughts are prayers, action is what is called for. Yeah, it wouldn’t have killed me to have said “hello”.
“What’s up?” Jim asked secretly knowing my sense of dislocation.
“Spades ruining themselves on junk,” I replied.
We walked back to my apartment; the spell of movie land had been broken. Jim decided to continue on with Phil. I climbed up the stairs and made myself a cup of tea.
c. 2016 Michael Lawrence