Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 17 • Spring 2006 • Fiction

A Flock Of Rotations

Rob Beeston

from the full-length manuscript Journey Through a Body

I'd been paying particular attention to the turn of the seasons for a while. I'd had this grand idea, just an old idea actually, that I could make philosophy more interesting, more true to itself in fact, by putting it out to pasture with vastness, the kinds of vastness (anger, desire, nature) that many of the thinkers with whom I was concerned had originally set out but which, by now, were largely lost to the micrometers of method. Even those approaches whose express concern was some aspect or other of the world's largesse rarely did justice to what was by far the best proof of many of the works being plundered. I was convinced the most interesting aspect of certain thinkers was the very beginning of the work, the moment before the work in fact, those primitive energies that motivate the pen to say what it will and which, in the best works at least, endure unfathomably from research to applause; integrity you might say. I was convinced philosophers had loved poetry and been scared by closetry, as I was that much of my favourite thinkers' bread and butter was love and anger, and that this, written in red for me if not for method, was exactly why they were my favourite. I'd realised early on that I'd get bored if theory stayed on the page and I sat in the office. It struck me daily in seminars and journals alike how the best bits of theory were glossed and that surely even academics could, if pressed, recognise the glaring contradiction in putting someone like Heidegger, who warned the world is darkening, or Michel Serres, who lamented no one goes outside anymore, under the desk-light of method. Given sheer enthusiasm had committed me to both a project and a department I knew if I was to make the most of the permitted resources I'd need a world of theory not a theory of the world. I knew, controversially to the sober repose of methodology, I'd need to sit beneath the mantle and be as awed by love and anger just as much as the lovers and fighters who'd taken the world to task. So I'd been sitting in fields, intoxicated.

I'd already watched autumn become winter, tail off and tempt spring and then quickly recede as if to mock the hopeful removal of that extra layer of duvet, before finally relenting, turning gradually greener and greener under a sky that refused to get simply bluer and bluer, preferring instead the hundred shades of summer that gave polite conversation something to bemoan (as if it was different to last year). I didn't believe a word of the chatter in shops about summer's tardy arrival, the very same that conceded how nice the first sun eventually was in the same breath that complained it was too hot to even move around. By the time June arrived and the sky was still grey the gossip had forgotten the sun we'd had in April and the fact that June (by virtue of our habits not its weather) was always a disappointment, just as the low golden sun we get in October would defeat the categories and so also escape the memory. The eavesdropper in shops could be forgiven for thinking the seasons were a matter of semantics more than elements and the gods betrayed the dictionary year after year. Whilst that year I did spend an inordinate amount of time in an unmistakably summer kind of sun, I emerged from the other side wrapped in plastic fabrics asking if November to April was really so unlikely. I was in desperate search of solace by then but I'd reasoned as early as spring that summer doesn't always come directly, that sometimes you have to get up and find it, that it isn't always the same and that sometimes you have to wrap up if you want it, maybe even drink to it and warm the cockles of a blacker sun. Then, and despite what they say in shops, you can retain something of the summer for the mood if not the skin for much more of the year. I was staring into the sun like this on a day that seemed, as they say, just like any other, feeling for the first time this year the brittleness of the blue. Autumn wasn't here and summer past best just yet but the first signs were upon me. I decided, like any other day, to head home for food.

Not far along I called at the cash point and bumped into a friend just back from India. For a steadily eroding moment I didn't register. She must have been smiling a good split second before she came into focus, amusement conjoining her recognition and becoming thus the subject of our greeting. We'd met the previous year while working together on a conference. After it was over we continued with semi-regular lunches and coffees to talk in the main about our respective departmental gripes. Mid-way through the year she'd gone to India to teach and travel. She was away for months and not knowing when she was back I was surprised to see her walking towards me down the street, tanned, a little dishevelled but earthily so, and, thanks she said to both the heat and the food, noticeably slimmer. We went for drinks in a bar by the bus station. Still amused by my reverie she laughed at how I obviously still carried my work with me, she being more instrumental. She said things had changed while she was away, the inference being that they'd taken the opportunity to change while she couldn't stake her claim to an inter-disciplinary position whose bureaucratic anomaly needed digging out from under on an almost daily basis. The risks of taking leave were clear before she left but now she had to make up the ground. Of course she relished a good deal of the alienation. And there was a discretely obvious pleasure to be had from knowing very little about the department's library. It was the half-pleasures she snatched from amongst her otherwise pained remonstrations that were harder to square; I either just smirked to myself or joined fully in as no doubt so did she when I did the same. Eagerly we often agreed that agitations like ours were defaults not strategies as such. We agreed even more that what they kicked against was so oft repeated in hushed corridors, exasperated emails, and hypocritical papers alike it was one of the great bureaucratic wonders of the world how the machinery didn't just right itself and do what anyone and everyone seemed already to know. But of course we also agreed that to do more than whisper such insurgencies under thunderous cover of the photocopier would, obviously, be the end of the rule of law and, ironically, the obliteration of the very ethics that were never really so in the first. Undercover of our respective privileges (the flipside of powerlessness) we absolutely agreed that ours were simple practical imperatives and not (as was the idle charge) bloody-mindedness. Despite its risks an extended leave had given her space to reflect and, over a cool drink on a hot day, to resent. I probed for my own future benefit as much as hers more immediate.

The sun outside was quick to encourage so we spoke very little about anything else. We were there for two hours or more. Being sunny the bar was empty. We talked in a corner by the door, sitting at right angles round a dark wooden coffee table on a plush red chair and a plush-red slightly austere sofa. I was wearing an inside-out blue t-shirt and big green plastic trousers with Vans and a small grey backpack, two homemade friendship bands on my left wrist. My hair was short, my skin tanned from sitting in fields proving the existence of summer to those who would later deny it. And my beard was two days grown. She had coffee, I had lager, two lagers in fact, strong ones that went straight to my head and stayed there. I'd not been in a bar at this time for a while. I tended to make rash decisions when I drank in the day, being why I preferred fields. It was bright outside when we left, me at least light-headed.

Alcoholic afternoons had long been a standard by which I gauged my work in progress, the whisky (cheap and blended) on the ledge of the office window, not proud exactly but certainly not shy of the rustic light it made of the sun. The ledge ran perpendicular to the door so almost immediately a visitor's eyes would widen as if their bottom drawer had never seen the like. I'd thought many times (usually drunkenly) that I should put the bottle out of reach, this most discrete community a temptation far greater than the alcohol itself, a space like the smoker's made partly and secretly of repetition, and which at least to those who know fine-tunes the definition of addiction. I preferred to work at night. But when I had to be in during the day, when the corridors were a bustling of undergraduates and the research seminars a jostling for position, I'd shore up a space between the bottle and me. And anyway a favourite philosopher had said how it, alcohol, was a reverie unto itself, like LSD or HIV, a lot in a little. He also said that he who drinks alcohol burns like alcohol, which was actually a reference to brandy, eau de feu or mobile fire, but my taste was for whisky, the aqua vitae, whose invigorations also burned in the throat. I liked drinking fire. It made of the body a candle. And key to a candle is its golden bridge from wick to world -- where tales are told and vigils kept. It was an old idea, this poetry of fire. But it animated body and bottle alike. And like the flame of the candle itself you can stare through whisky forever and never get bored. A pretty portrait of a burgeoning addiction this may be but I was always more alive in the saccades at the tip of a flame than the corridors of knowledge and power. To my visitors, however, I was probably just a drunk. This being how alcoholic afternoons usually ended up.

My plan to walk straight home and work had already gone awry so light of head and incensed of body I thought nothing of a further diversion. I had family visiting at the weekend and I'd offered to cook a meal rather than eat out. I needed spices, breads, condiments, and vegetables. I didn't mind being indoors to shop after spending the best part of the day in fields, and anyway I could taste hops. The Sainsburys in town was old, notably fat and plastic with a sepia tinge to the inside, whereas Safeway was new. Safeway was red, white, and green in a more advantageous part of town. Its fruit and vegetables weren't as good but its plastics were less depressing. It was big, perhaps medium all told, and the first supermarket I'd seen with scanners on each trolley. And I never used them once. I probably only noticed them once. It was probably my first week in town and I probably thought oh I'll try that and never noticed them again. All of which resistance to change would rest easier if phobia not inertia was behind it; perhaps I was looking at other things. I liked the layout of the fruit and vegetables in Safeway. It wasn't a cheap simulacrum of a market square as was the case elsewhere, just very open and light with flowers by the door, replaced occasionally by piles of vegetables whose only excuse, really, was how many you got for your money. The aisles were much freer of clutter than they are now, which is telling because it wasn't all that long ago. The offers were less aggressive and you could navigate the aisles with little danger of bringing a mountain of bargains crashing down. At most the offers were on the ends of the aisles, maybe with arrows strung violently above, maybe one stack wider than was polite and maybe at risk of a fractious bottleneck. But in general the aisles were wide and clean. When I walk the aisles now, bouncing pinball fashion from seemingly random but neatly stacked piles of women's tights where otherwise it's tinned food that defines the space, I think how much less is my line of sight, how much less I can see of what isn't for sale. Supermarkets have never let the shopper look over aisles; it's the height times the area that equals the meaning of super-. But now not only do they obscure the promenades with bulging aisle-ends they increase your chance of losing sight of who you're actually with behind a random stack of what you don't want. If the same frequency of obstacles appeared in the street it'd be either a traffic-calming measure or a cause for compensation. In supermarkets it's marketing, and it stops you seeing what's not for sale.

Straight out of the bar I put my headphones on. I always went shopping with my headphones. I went everywhere with my headphones but supermarkets were second only to clouds in the way they worked with sounds. I got a kick from them both. Relentlessly straight lines were as suited to headphones almost as much (sometimes more depending on the music) as the undulations of clouds. The secret was perspective and repetition, the changing angles of rows and grids of lines, of composition. I used to think sound made movies of the view from here. It was always a strange kind of movie (small gestures, slow motion, super-8), at least until sometime later, probably when my points of reference changed and I realised it was poetry. I thought maybe it happened because sound fills the gaps between things and leads them a dance, ties them together and the whole is greater than the sum. I'd long been conscious of the way objects orbit when sound tethers them like this, gives them a particular sheen, like in an abstract music video or through the window of a moving train (being the third best place for headphones). The title of an academic journal, a film, and a band had drawn my attention to the word parallax. Before I really read poetry it was my use of LSD that had stripped away absolutes and left just relations: orbits, geometries, internal astronomies. Sound did the same, excised the world and made the inside a law unto itself. The parallax view: an apparent change in the position of an object when the observer changes position. Sound couldn't help but be radically visual here. And as they say of psychedelics, once you've seen the parallax view, once you've glimpsed it, your relation to the world of things is never the same again. Buses and lorries not only get closer, they expand across your retina. You don't just walk past a building, the angles change and its far sides unfold. The sun doesn't just arc across the sky, it ties you to a line that turns you both around, which is maybe what the beatnik Buddhists meant: the moon is a piece of me. You might not be able to conjure this strange choreography when you particularly want it. Or it might walk in when you least expect it. But rest assured it's there, somewhere, in the chemistry of the brain, or a love at first sight.

It was five years ago (an eternity in the price war) so the aisle-ends were less obtrusive. Given so much other detail I'd like to be able to say which aisle it was. Or rather which junction. But I can't. Tethered by headphones I was supremely attentive to the internal workings of an aisle, its motions and unfoldings, but the produce itself was irrelevant beyond colour and mass, which is to say I remember little of what I was being sold. The irony was that the marketing man's rush to stand out had long since joined that of a thousand others and made purchase on the glare all but impossible except in the most indiscriminate ways. One or two products would win out but what was loudest amidst the rush to keep up was the sense of delirium that now constituted a good deal of capitalism, the very same that at times (from behind headphones for example) could be consumed in a way that stopped exactly short of the till. I'd soon perfect the art of buying nothing from a supermarket in ways I couldn't have foreseen. But a more obvious cure for capitalism lay in some of its ruder aesthetics, either their repellent garishness or thereafter the noise that turns the whole aisle white. The effect wasn't always pretty. But it was generally captivating. And thus, to the marketing man's chagrin, somewhat self-defeating: I liked to meander where otherwise the mood was loot. Not that in the middle of a lazy sunny afternoon there were many people to fight through like this but their anxiety was bred anyway into the packaging. Even when the aisles were empty the customer was affronted, voiceovers ranging the bandwidth at the back of the head. And Muzak, that was always a canvas, not innocuous like they used to say. Headphones were easier on the ears. And they had this predictable if acquired side effect of de-tuning the view, which was less a subversion of signs than a welcome cleansing of doors. I liked the way anti-capitalists corrupted corporate logos, but I preferred to squint my eyes and misread them that way. I had no agenda, just an eye for colour and a disinterest in vulgarity. This approach to shopping worked well when I needed images. Or the kind of lunch where you can really see what's on the end of your fork. But I easily forgot where I was.

I think there were boxes so maybe it was cereals. It wasn't detergent because the colours were warm. They changed the layout soon after so I wasn't able to reconstruct the scene from fragments (not for want of trying). It was at the end of the aisle where the aisle meets the central promenade and peeks around to others. It was perhaps adjoining the freezers because there was cool air, unless that's a sense I'm recreating from the sight of summer clothes in a sensitive modern building. It was definitely near the bottom where the chilled section usually is because fish fingers were suddenly by my side when trading re-started and I'd not walked far. But were the freezers next door or across the promenade? Did I move laterally or horizontally? And why do I remember bags of barbecue charcoal? Normally I liked this sense of dislocation, the way the rows and grids of aisles scrolled and, if you paid peripheral enough attention, then blurred to leave that enclosed floating feeling that could be any supermarket in the western world. Rather than bemoan it I tended to love to hate the similitude they said was globalisation. I liked the calmness that came by making just a little extra effort with raging sameness; it worked for the Minimalists. I liked the way over-stimulation flat-lined and lost all acuity, or at least the will to discriminate. Maybe I'd read too much science fiction where the urban sprawl is now so dense all external cues are gone and an extra-geography is all that's left, the streets a hallucination, sky the colour of static. I liked to wander this daze, bug-eyed, and not care how I got back. I did this is as often as I could, in equal parts resistance, escape, and inspiration, the main marker of my success the time that had flown. But given the lack of direction that gives drift like this its potency (no scene to which I could return and swab for blood) I came to wonder after a while if it had actually happened. There were many things that eventually made me doubt but dislocation was the first and gave birth to a myth.

The magic lay in the fact that he saw me the instant I saw him -- clearly he'd been expecting me. But the strangest thing, and the factor that multiplies most of all my recall, is the conversation we had with our eyes while his mouth, busy directing customers, moved alone amongst the earthly world of things. Cruising was always all eyes but when the gaze was in direct conflict with His mouth it was something extra special. Then it was a colossus born of two worlds, the recognition such a vacuum because the mundane, mundanely and automatically, just carried on. He was speaking to one side like this throughout that first glance. And when in the next he wasn't talking he was still the model listener. His eyes were on me less as he listened, but I could tell he was still looking. Divided attention was why I liked cruising in places where cruising was least expected and the main activity, entirely by default, was immediately subverted. Such places were unpredictable and unreliable and you could go for weeks about your business before unearthing your discovery (even longer if you didn't trust the straight ones past their opening gambit) but the wait was worth it. There was always a tension to Him while he conversed with someone else, a pull that threatened to slide out from under the obligation of his pupils, the flicker of elsewhere that gives away the distracted. It was less the secrecy of this that excited me, of desiring in undesirable places, than the abduction, the journey to the far side of the body where conversation could never hope to go. He always looked like He wouldn't remember a word of what He was saying just here. And although it was rare that He'd do something as lucid as puff His chest (which is why I was so taken aback when he did it) there was usually some kind of communiqué to reassure His broken gaze. More often than not it was the absent pad of His feet giving His whereabouts away. And so the disarray -- eyes in front, mind and body to the side -- made His gaze more than just the distance between us. On that particular occasion he cut through his interlocutors like a knife like this, a gaze so sharp and sonorous it was brittle as glass and just as resonant. The look was so rich, so bowed and assonant because the fundamental, stretched like an abandoned cable across the desert, was so steely, an instrument of the wind making audible an eternal event. We were here and now and the sense of isolation was all the greater because the rest of the world was easily visible but barely noticeable in the corner, a sort of milestone but one measured more astutely in moments than miles, not a milestone at all, an altimeter. I would feel the earthiest reverberations of each of these encounters for a good while after. But this one in particular, by the aisle-end, I still feel now, sometimes, when I put my hand to the floor and trace the vein into the ground.

I used to run a lot. It began as a substitute for dancing when circumstance deprived me of my eight hours in the junkdrome. I used to run through fields with headphones and images and rhythms layering sounds whose unity was a glancing estrangement: the hard logics of sequencing. I used to watch two separate sounds and track their path through the machine. It was easy to see these sounds as part of the whole. And it was only slightly less easy to break them down into layers and follow a favourite to the end. But what was best was straining between the two, watching two sounds offset each other, their paths missed and matched, quantised by the machine like a flock of starlings in the night. The danger was two-fold: over-analysis or inattention. But directly between the two were the dilating ears that everyone from Boulez to Xenakis had long since prized in the pursuit of full and forward sonority. It was a difficult tension to sustain. But once there it was hypnotic, an unfaltering tether between two points, a white-hot bar, turning and folding when not actually spinning. Other sounds could pass across these two but their line of sight (an imaginary) remained unbroken. Soundtracks are there to enrol the view (said the electronic revolutionary) so it was no surprise to see the hedgerows unfold too as I ran past, the long line swinging round from obtuse to oblique, promising thereafter to turn itself loose and spin into space. Built entirely of sonority I found this line most of all when my headphones were there to help cordon it off. It was portable like this, eternal even, waiting. And so perhaps it should have come as no surprise to find it gently rotating all the while he was talking with customers and endearing himself to the women. As I moved round and lost sight we never once (and this was the first test of our complicity) broke our axis. By the time I'd walked round the end of the aisle and all down the next he'd turned to pick me up as if we'd pre-arranged the drop. I'd never danced so well.

Much later on he said how my backpack just then was hung from both shoulders as opposed to just the one; the moody sling that, I imagine over a white shirt at the college gates, was the proper way to wear his; I never saw this bag but I knew the white shirt. It's hardly remarkable that I remember what he (at work) was wearing. More notable is that I remember what I wore. And most improbable of all is my remembering now each time I wear it again, which is why I don't, at least not all of it at once. Later on he said he thought I was cheeky thrusting my number on him like I did while he was quietly stacking cakes. I'd written my name on the bill for the cashier and, licentiously, my number on the receipt for him. I've done this twice in all my life; the second time exactly three hundred and twenty six days later six thousand miles away. I don't know if he could taste my lager but he seemed suddenly surprised, momentarily affronted when I appeared over his shoulder. He was quickly intimate again, re-sighting the line we'd super-conducted by the fish fingers, only now a little less certain. I suspected straight away that he'd worked the aisles like this before but I didn't know how much and to what ends. I know he said of a later intimacy that he'd been scared, which as I thought at the time was a prime example of the contradictions that live at opposite ends of the body -- it was him that seduced me. To my mind this moment is a blur of produce, bar codes, and secret messages, a dozen pairs of arms like a raving Hindu god, telling less of his actual reaction than my greedy need for more frames of him per second, this because I know, sensibly, his gait was more deliberate. He thrust the receipt with my name and number on it into his pocket, flashed me another glance with a slightly less filthy smile and went back to stacking cakes. I saw him from this angle many times, turned away towards the shelves, eyes in the back of his head; a black hole, I remember, against pop art. Dutifully I watched the nape of his neck and the olive of his skin contrast the white collar of his shirt. Memorably his hairline was neatly trimmed not shaved, square and unbroken, not the other one, tufted in the middle. Inevitably it was always neatly cut and the weft on top said it would soon be cut again. And the nape of his neck, archetypically, was as tidy as the backs of his ears were brown. And I could see his erect penis in these secret ridges of cartilage and skin. He smiled over his shoulder, gentle nervousness an almost aromatic sign of my time to leave. Turning back I saw him lean out and smile from behind the end of the aisle. I like to think his shift passed a little quicker.

When I used to run it was for no other reason than a hard won freewheel. I forget when I became conscious of the rush but the intuition was there long before. Its sovereignty was what kept me focused at school when team sports offered nothing; its intractability was the motor behind a select few pastimes from adolescence onwards, as its jeopardy is now the marketing power of x number of games. Persistence yielded it, this moment, execution cut it: the concrete wave of a carve line, the mid-air of a kick-flip, the ruthless grace of a spin kick and the undercarriage of a jump one, the minute adjustments of a thousand fails, even better falls, with scabs and bruises to prove it. There was no fakery here, no substitute or shortcut, no formula or hand-me-down, only folk tales and heroes, little legends and enviable notches, each traded and stoked in passing or later round the fire, fuel for dreams so tomorrow's millimetre might still be a buzz. There were as many means to these ends as there were ways to leaven the body. I left university and lost access to all-night clubs for a while. Like a phantom limb the buzz was still wired and my wheels began to itch. So as with skat[eboard]ing before, street furniture its proudest industry, I made use of what was to hand, my legs. The grail was gravity overcome. Whether dancing, running, skating or kicking the feeling when it clicked was only ever so free because it had cost so much. Beyond good example it wasn't something you could say or instruct because it was so tumultuously embodied. It was, to those who knew, a limit, at most half-conscious and ideally a blast. Skating once dared to represent it, in pseudo-Taoist fashion with an apparition of a wizened Chinese skater. He shimmered past in the corner on a glissando when times and tricks were good, a subliminal commentary on the pursuit and, ultimately, the intractability of fun: have you seen him? Running was the same but different. It had first to get fit, then to glimpse a beyond to the body, perhaps re-configure the limits of pain, before (but not always) the legs could run away with themselves inside the lungs. This was the freewheel. Legs like a train, pinioned at the hips, and magically powered from somewhere else. The tarmac falls away and the action circles in space, head back and chest out, a long jumper hanging in the world. I used to run to here because it was the headiest feeling, like walking on air. I used to run because I loved it.

Acknowledgement: Zoviet*France

Rob Beeston

Rob Beeston lives in ex-industrial Sheffield, England. He has a PhD in social theory and technology. He is just emerging from an intensive period of his first fiction writing, the steely fruits of which are about to be let loose.

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