A short story by Judy Gahagan
There they go! Streaming off the windy highway which cuts through the grids of small disgruntled houses and into the college buildings. Into the portakabins and brick and cement blocks the students pour. Without a glance around them. Like 99.999% of people perched at the end of the ugliest century in the whole sad history of humanity, they don’t look around. They just find their doors marked ‘Sciences’ or ‘Humanities’ and in they go.
There are two important big buildings. One of them is brimming with future system analysts, lift designers, investment managers, air-traffic controllers, and all the other people who make our lives feel safe, cheerful and successful. This is Sciences. A distant cousin stands on the skyline to the southwest: the largest tallest building in the whole city. Bigger and more useless than all the others, it looks lonely. It’s empty. Unwanted. Its billions-of-dollars glitz ignored. A light winks from its austere flank. Sometimes, desperate as a flasher, it sends out laser beams across to the other gaunt anorexic monuments, or to search the distant brown marshes for recognition.
The other big building is Humanities. This means that it houses the crumbling underside of the efficient glitzy world being formed in Sciences. For to study humanities is to study trouble. To study humanities is to study elaborate woe. To rummage around in the colourful muddle deep in the human soul. It’s a kind of escape inwards from the bland inertia of late 20th century scenery-that is the blocks, the portakabins, the grids and the highway.
Nearly all the people in here are wo me n. The few men look tentative and diaphanous. You’ll notice incidentally that there are many humans around here but very few animals. As a matter of fact on this precinct you could imagine quite easily that no animal species other than humans existed at all – apart from the occasional outsize thrush perched on its firm slim legs on the hedge by the director ‘s car-park and singing at nobody in particular; or the odd bee or big fly who goes humming around the classroom when it’s warm enough.
No, it’s humans who are centre of stage around he re. In Humanities they learn how to give each other the depthless understanding, comfort and support, the hours of talk and listening – in long, all they need to keep going through the widespread bestiality of modem life:
‘Male Rape hasn’t come in yet’ says the girl in Humanities library, who looks like Botticelli’s Venus’ But, hang on a tick, I think we’ve got ‘Readings in Child Abuse’ .
Sciences faces the road and backs onto the portakabins and store rooms. So it doesn’t have much of a view. But then people studying technical subjects don’t have time to hang around looking at the view. Why should they? They make views they don’t look at them. But Humanities could have a view if it wanted it. It fronts onto a non-commital lawn with some box hedges and four yew trees, dark and strange. They must have been here a good long time since yew trees always congregated around sacred sites. So once there must have been some other, probably sacred, building here. There’s nothing like that here now.
But from the back, if you screw your eyes up carefully, so that the flat seas of disgruntled little houses to the left and right are obliterated, as are the distant towerblocks and The Great One in the far distance off-center, if you restrict your view in this way, then an apparently unbounded green swarde opens up for you.
Grass. At this time of the year it is viscous emerald. It unrolls itself like a Royal carpet. And there are some broken lines of trees, their frail wintery lines etched on the sky like lines on an old face, their arms spread out and touching delicately. Beyond them the sky widens out, lemony, as if towards a real sea instead of a sea of houses. There is a feeling that if you just set off and walked and walked, quite briskly, keeping your patience with those peevish houses on either side, until they just petered out, drawn on forever by the emerald grass, you might reach the sea.
Or something else anyway.
None of the people in this building look at the view. Not because they are too busy like the ones in Science building. But because they are indoor people. Deeply indoors. Marinating themselves in unconscious turmoil. Psycho-analysis. And psycho-analysis is for people who never go out, so have no reason to look at views. Freud must have gone out sometimes for one sees pictures of him in a hat. But did Freud ever once mention a landscape?
Still it’s nice to imagine that in the summer the Scientists and the Humanists might mingle in colourful parties on the grass, the girls like moths in light frocks, the boys in brilliant scarves; or they might lie gazing up into the blue, the larks rising, thinking about their futures far away, the looming intensity of exams waiting for them back in the big buildings, as on the eve of the First World War.
But right now out on the grass something irritates, like a bit of grit in the eye. A couple of men seem to be laying down a grid of markers all down one side of the field. What would they be doing that for?
Anyway back indoors a classroom is filling up!
We are inside one of the seminar rooms used by humanities. A group of students is pushing into this room, as usual without even looking at it. Just using it. Today they will be talking about children-or rather The Child. Some of them look like extras from a film-set of a workhouse scene in a screen adaptation of a Dicken’s novel, particularly around the legs: black legging-ed, boot-lace-skinny legs punctuate in huge brutal boots; that and their smudgy woebegone faces.
Do they in summer lie on the grass and watch the clouds’ accomplishments overhead?
The Child: …inside very human of any shape or age there is a bruised child:
either trapped in terrifying fantasies or helpless and abused. Either way tragic. A drunken patriarchal Punch and a cowering helpless Judy, its caregivers, lurch blindly about it, driven by their own unfulfilled infantile needs. This child cries into the dark. It faces a future of rotten self-esteem, guilt and maybe even self-hatred. It’s got a goood chance of growing up to abuse others, to get addicted, to go to gaol. Three to a cell. It never goes out either. One day though when people mend their ways, it will be able to trust everyone, and be given a positive identity. Everyone needs a positive identity.
In this room The Child is being worried about.
Funny though! This morning on the train there was a small black child in a remarkable outfit which she almost certainly chose for herself. It consisted of a voluminous water-proof frock-coat reaching down to her. Zig-zag lines in brilliant colours shot all over the coat; and the same feet colours swirled all over the round waterproof hat and drained into the complicated wee shoes. She was holding a red yo-yo.
And somewhere between Bow Road and Upton Park she had discovered the magic point when permitting it a slow descent, a tiny flick, at the exactly right moment, brings it spinning back up in perfect obedience to the laws of tension and speed. She could make the yo-yo obey and it was delighted to oblige. Holding it in the palm of her small black hand she climbed up onto the seat in order to have a deeper shaft for the yo-yo’s downwards and upwards path, and to share the delicious secret with other people in the carriage. Her keeper, with great gold scorpions at her ears, was ignoring her, calm as a sphinx. Down … down … down … and up! Her teeth flashed joy and triumph.
There’s usually a tea-break half-way through the seminar, for people to comfort themselves in some way. You see them struggling through the door with plastic cups of boiling liquid from which poke small plastic twigs serving as spoons. As they try to pass through the heavy door which resists their passage belligerently, the boiling liquid splashes over the top and scalds their fingers. But they are remarkably stoical about this. Also they’ll be loaded up with bags of crisps and chocolate bars which they munch mournfully, casting understanding glances at one another. And huddling together.
Outside at this moment though, rather than comfort and understanding, the mood is confrontational. The lemony look has gone and a big tumbril of clouds is adventuring over the trees and they glitter dangerously in reply. The grass is livid. Now the rain is sweeping across the field of its own accord, the houses fugitive behind it; the grid strips are hanging limp, and the men disappeared.
Inside an adjacent room, another group of students are tormenting themselves:
‘ . . . the family is a socially constructed reality devised to perpetuate capitalist ideology and to exploit women as well as incarcerate children forcing them into the oppressive system the nuclear semi-detached family represents … ‘
carrying all the burden of the world’s suffering! If they would only look out there they’d see it was those houses which are behind all this. Look at them now in the rain … in their endless low strings, alright thank you very much they do their best and mind their own business and keep themselves to themselves and just get on with things as they are and keep busy as far as possible and as long as they are reasonable and don’t get involved with a lot of extremists and trouble-makers when obviously any decent person can see that it’s all for the best in the end and if you want a bit of excitement then there’s always nylon festoon curtains and new kinds of storm-porches and ornamental ponds.
‘Road after road of them. Road after road. An up-and-over-garage occasionally disturbs the semi-detached symmetry. No trees. Dwarf conifers. The spring bulbs are always nice. There is nobody in the road right opposite the main entrance. Not even a dog. Even a dog wouldn’t find anything to do in that road. Or especially a dog wouldn’t.
The houses are the real culprits.
The rain has veered off down the freeway and a large blue hole, maybe the ozone hole- it looks like you think the ozone hole looks like, if you think about it at all that is, it’s hard to think about a hole in the sky- a large blue hole is pouring light down onto the grass and , gosh, passing the rain en route, a raggedy string of flying Canada geese, looping across towards what must be the sea, or a river, or a canal, reservoir, ornamental pond. Some water anyway. Honking arrogantly. It might be worth going to the seminar room upstairs, for from there you could get a better view of the geese and where they are flying to, and also see over slightly to the right, where towerblocks glitter in the last rabid gleam of a precocious sunset, like Far Pavilions.
The Biggest Of Them All is winking frantically. It seems to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
So that’s what they are doing! A large square of turf has been peeled off like human skin for a lampshade. Peeled and dumped into a dumper truck. And the first tree in the line is having its limbs amputated. Toy men in yellow helmets with yellow dinky toys are scooping up the soft earth and pouring it like manna on top of the turf in the dumper-truck. By sundown half the emerald turf will have gone.
Inside the other torment continues: addiction; break-up; abuse.
But hang on! Two outreach workers have shown up to give a talk with slides and tables of statistics. One of them is obviously not going to let all this continue. You feel she’ll put a stop to it very soon. You think this not because of the slides she’s brought with her, nor the statistics, but because she is large, all in purple, and with a blue streak in her hair. Imagine her terrifying help! Exotically unrelated to the cheap chrome of a poor little bodged-up life. And you can picture her office: she all in purple and her blue hair, with a large ginger cat on a table, and in a vase a bunch of voracious purple tulips, their tongues hanging out.
And now drifting in, or maybe up, for they appear to emerge from an underworld, a quarter of an hour late, two girls: one, her eyes a silvery grey light surrounded by deep brown paint in a devil’s outfit of red and brown striped legs. The other. a face white as death and hair black as pitch, her red frantic mouth veering about with excitement.
These people will stand up for themselves. Definitely.
But by tomorrow all the emerald turf will be gone. For good. And all the trees. It’s going to be a new car-park. How cheerful the toy men look! As if they were giving everyone a present to compensate for the sadness. And why not? Up till now these humans have had to leave their cars in the grumpy little roads. And every grumpy little road for miles around is silted up with cars which don’t belong there. It’s not fair. People may have to drive for five minutes looking for a parking space in their own street. It couldn’t have gone on. Provision had to be provided. You must be able, in your car, to get dose to your learning opportunity indoors.
So they will not be lying on the grass under the pale high sky in June.
No, they will be in earnest little saggy knots on the hot asphalt, every now and then kicking or crushing an empty tin.
The notice-board in the corridor bristles with indignation. But not about the car-park. At the centre of all the written hubbub a big poster summons people to a special meeting called to discuss Race, Gender and Identity. The discussion will be held in this very room:
. . . ‘ you can be oppressed by other people refusing to take any notice of you like nobody takes any notice of you it’s like you’re not there so what you need is consciousness-raising and image-building. . .’
Yes, Yes, yes! But listen to the thrush! It’s singing Bellini and maybe
another thrush is listening and maybe not. And that big fly mooching round all the indignant heads is being completely ignored. There are creatures in ocean deeps where no light falls but which nonetheless have brilliant colours, and nobody ever sees them, and what about this room – it’s facing a complete lack of identity: its disappointing corners, lacklustre windows, sycophantically obliging melange of slide-projector, video-screen and lectern. Anyone could use this room to talk about anything in, it’s got no identity at all. It’s institutionalized and severely emotionally deprived in a uniform of cream emulsion and red-teak varnish chipboard, third-degree strip lighting and militaristic numbering. Who will speak up for this room?
There’s the dumper with neatly stacked logs- the last remains of the line of trees to be transported. The land is nearly levelled. The asphalt will be poured. And dozens of little squares bounded by white lines will be painted on by the men in yellow helmets. Soon there will be added to the sea of little houses, a sea of little cars plumply waiting and smiling in the sun.
The trees held out their arms to them and they didn’t even see them. It is quite possible that the field would have been molten gold-silver in May. And poppies dancing in their red skirts in June. And the edges of the field could have been left rought-cut and the meadow-sweet and cow parsley a gauzy retreat for bees and butterflies and failing humans. Up by Humanities and Stores there could have been a box-hedged herb garden with monksherb and coriander and marjoram; with fennel and chervil and valerian; with basil and thyme and lavender … with drill and chives and parsely … with artichoke, juniper and sage…
A youth in a crimson shirt, like Ghengis Khan only without the scimitar, strides through a door of Sciences building, slamming it.
The geese are throbbing back into a bloodbath of a sunset.
The Great One is lasering the distraught marshes.
Judy Gahagan is a Psychologist, escapist, writer of short stories and poetry, constant commuter between UK and Italy.