This was sent in by an old friend (writer and book dealer Robin Marchesi) – an occasional follower of jot. It concerns another old friend dead these seven summers…
Not long ago, I stumbled on a sheaf of papers acquired in the mid 1990s. I recalled the old friend, who left them with me.
His name was Derek Briggs and he was educated at Culford School near Bury St Edmunds, where he was recognized as a brilliant scholar. He made it straight to Kings College, Cambridge, but only lasted a year, before being sent down. As I recall marijuana was involved.
He went to London in the early 70’s where he established himself, as an underground figure with an esoteric air, exploring the varying options on offer, without visible means of support, other than his quick wit, intellect and charm.
No enemy of almost any drugs, he evolved from being a ‘pre-digital’ ‘couch surfer’ in London, to a world wanderer; in a permanent struggle, with himself, to survive, in the semi mystic state, which had become ‘normal’ to him.
He was also an inveterate reader and writer of short stories – partly for his own, literary, amusement, but also to chart his own inner exploration. His writing throws a light, on a unique style of life that is seldom recorded, by those living it.
The gift of the folder had given me and a old bookseller friend (who thought they might some day have value) an excuse to give him some much needed funds, to further his, increasingly, vagabond life style; yet now it was, as if his ghost was challenging me, to give his oddly fascinating existence, an airing…
I probably saw him maybe 5 or 6 times more, before his death in 2012.
This story, written circa 1984 or earlier, is one of the more accessible of his ‘works’. There are echoes here, of the feted Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose, avant le lettre as it were. Touches of Burroughs, Kerouac, Sartre, McLaren Ross and, inevitably, Dylan can be noted. Some political incorrectness is in evidence, but this was the era of Reagan, Thatcher, cassettes, Betamaxes and phoneboxes…
Morphine, with Jane and Taffy at 37,000 ft
She was at heart as hard as her nipples; but consummate enough the actress for you to spend quite a time, and quite an interesting time, before you found this out.
Her hair was very long and very black. Her eyes were blue and bright and shining and obliging. Her features were fine and her skin was soft and a porcelain paleness of complexion added a hint of the waif to her appeal. She was slim and pretty and fit and knew her looks alone were sufficient to control, poor important people like Taffy.
Lately, as she struggled to come to grips with me and my kind, she’d thrown herself with noticeable abandon into the role of right Jungian onion, fitting a low-slung diaphragm in order to boost the big boys’ ego and the last fortnight had seen her boosting a good fair few too, but we are all entitled to take to promiscuity once in a while, and it was no business of mine anyway.
It was only the bit of loot she was throwing my way as she pursued her ambitious research, on the thinking ‘narco-maniac’ that connected us; I suppose I hoped she’d earn her doctorate, if only for her enterprising choice of subject for her thesis, but otherwise her continuing existence remained a matter of absolute indifference to me.
When I thought about it, in fact, I’d probably never be better placed to watch as a completely detached observer, the progress of someone through this phase of not knowing what it is she wanted, knowing that whatever it might be, she wasn’t going to find it carrying on the way she was going, but carrying on anyway, because at least she was getting something, which was more than she’d be getting otherwise.
This is a something we all go through sometimes and thus might be considered an aspect of the human condition, and, as such, ought to be providing me with an interesting anthropological or sociological study with which to occupy and amuse myself. I wondered, idly, why it wasn’t?
We’re thirty some thousand feet, above the Atlantic ocean and she’s shamelessly manipulating Taffy with her body language for beginners; every time she crosses and casually uncrosses those long legs, I can see thought bubbles, on the theme of mile high clubs appearing above his head.
Rather than thought bubbles, though, Taffy would refer to his ‘pensee pornographiques’. Whilst he’d probably be quite happy to admit to his reading of comic books, I rather doubted his capacity to see himself as a cartoon character in a cosmic comic strip, as such self- perception might be considered undignified in a serious man.
I didn’t know whether Jane was concerning herself primarily with sexuality or sociology, but she had the good grace, when she noticed my attention to break off her increasingly sleazy eye contact with Taffy, to pivot round and lambast me with a tirade, about how some people miss your sympathy entirely, on account of their being utterly lacking in vision, understanding, imagination, theatre, art, expression or hope. At first, figuring her outburst to be a justification for her behavior, I assumed she is describing Taffy, then wonder if she’s meaning me, or herself, or everybody?
I’d been in my own private, poppy world, watching the jangle of her eyeball rattling with Taffy, the breeze blowing in through the open bay window and causing the velvet curtains to brush up against an empty chair, as the Irish boy led past the garlanded donkey to announce the commencement of the Easter Parade, when her interruption obliged me to cut the channel and was consequently afflicted, by that uniquely selfish irritation of the spectator, when his view of the spectacle is abruptly halted.
I wasn’t therefore as charitable to her for loosening poor Taffy from his lusts, as perhaps I ought to have been, and found my mouth to moving mean for a while, before manners returned. Here I sit, drained receptacle of self suggested arte- vivente excess assessor, chasing wisdoms reflected down from crystal changing chambers, through countless prisms down into those winding alleys of pure mud; where the rodents daren’t run, and half the time my investigations being exasperatingly impeded, by an overeducated slut and her voice activated tape recorder. I know everything leave me alone.
As I say, too much of my unpleasantness found vocal expression, before I could bite my tongue. My last words being an invitation for her to find herself some:
“Five dollar fucking mystic… uh huh… and I use the word ‘fucking’ deliberately.”
Cheap and unnecessarily nasty, I agree, but that’s how I can sometimes be, just the same as you.
“Don’t be so touchy,” her pale face registered amusement rather than offence, “I’m a regular ‘condomiere’, so where’s the hang-up Public dandruff?”
I drifted into distracted musings on the condom, love between the rubbers, death and damnation making its triumphal return into the sexual arena. What a dreadful blow this AIDS business is, for those who believed human advancement would follow in swift foot of sexual liberty.
I wonder if anybody recalls gonorrhea these days? If they do, it’s with the same kind of nostalgia with which they remember ‘Mandies’ or the ‘Jimi Hendrix Experience’. Jane was right enough, and moreover I appreciated that to slap her with accusations of perpetuating the male ‘trouser-brain’ would serve only to incite her in her extreme feminist polemic.
‘Eggs as the man’ was her unfinished theme of the moment and unfinished was how I prefer it kept. So, trying to ignore the way in which her feet pointed accusingly at me, I forced myself instead into an appraisal of the degree to which, I might reasonably be held to be insulting her intelligence, integrity and intentions.
Simultaneously to phrasing my reply, I was trying to think prayer, psalm or poem, so as to show any gentle spirits that might be hanging out in this high- altitude ‘tin-can’ that I’m doing my best to put my heart in the right place; that silly I can be at times, just the same as you.
“It is not,” I told her, “that I think you do not understand, nor “that I consider you incapable of understanding. It is simply “that, whatever your post – Wittgenstein ‘wunderkid’ status, “the practice of meaningful verbal communication, as yet “continues to elude us.
“If, as I believe, you are aware of this also, then I am unable “to discount the suspicion that you’re not above chasing “cheap entertainment in lieu of more worthwhile academic “pursuits. If this indeed be the case, then I ask you to bear “firmly in mind that I’m not the Harlem ‘fugging’ Globetrotters. “Thank you.”
Then, mindful that her interrupting my own chasing of cheap entertainment had been responsible for my bitchiness in the first place, I added a few choice pieces of prattle for her pricey, tape-recording machine that’d maybe eventually provide a minor ball tickle, for some avant-garde professor out on the liberal coast.
I rabbited away, about parallels between her trying to fuck her way in to a meaning and my attempting to inject mine intravenously, birdsong and faith. About common sense and fuller sense and the ‘psycho-phobic zeitgeist’ and whether the first thing you should do with your life, is to make sure it isn’t all you have. About this perfect world and the absolute, profound simplicity of wonderland. I’m sweet with the lingo easy with the cute blend of big ideas and street ‘schick’ these American campus beards love. My spiel flows effortlessly enough to let my concentration follow my eyes, as they rake Jane for more reasons to be merciless. I’m allowing my eyes to roam freely over her and am surprised to find them roaming rather more freely than I might have expected. Finally I run out of things to tell the tape-recorder and turn to glare at Taffy.
He smiles amiably back and waits patiently for me to bore Jane back to their dirty talking. I can think of nothing to say to him and can find no suitable expression with which to transfix him, so I move the direction of my gaze again. This time to the tape machine balanced in its inanimate malevolence between Jane and myself.
I wonder how my voice will sound in reproduction? Whether I’ll come across like Shelley catapulted two centuries forward, or like a burnt out junkie, trading in his small secrets for a first class return flight and enough paper money, to grub out a New York week? Just as long as I don’t sound like both, I concluded.
I had no reason to go to New York. There again I had no reason for being where I’d just left either. Except of course for the prescription and the difference between American and European interpretations of the word ‘therapeutic’, in the context of ‘therapeutic morphine user’. This legality would ensure my clearing U.S. Customs with my medical bag intact, and a change, it is said, is as good as a rest.
Of late my entire life had become one big rest. It amused me to find out just how much more rested I could possibly grow; this, with scarely any additional thought, was the reason for my being on this airplane, at this particular moment. I’m extremely proud of my intimacy with chaos. And everybody knows what fuck ups follow pride.
Jane heard my monologue out, like I was listening and watched me as she waited, to be sure I’d finished.
“You heard about the character that thought he’d seen the “white light and all he wound up with, was a nasty dose of “migraine?” she asked, rhetorically I presumed.
“Awful lot of stress involved in being alive… just simply being “alive like… awful lot of stress… sure there is,” announced Taffy with unexpected conviction, as if he’d read it in a book somewhere, and the remark had made an enormous impact on him. He rubbed his groin reflectively. Jane brushed a dubious speck of dust from her skirt in careful detail, a slow lob return in their distasteful Wimbledon of the genitalia.
I smiled pleasantly at the stewardess passing in the aisle. The stewardess returned the smile automatically, as she had been trained, displaying a lot of excellent dental work, to compensate for any lack of sincerity.
“You hear about the woman who squatted eyeball to eyeball “with Taffy until she’d raised them both into an appreciation of “the infinite?” I asked, rhetorically I presumed.
She responded instantly, with an Earthly chuckle she must have picked up from one of her many recent lovers and muttered:
“Yer bet yer sweet ass, sugar.”
This I’d lately learnt was the ‘catchphrase’ of a T.V. comedienne of whom Jane was fond. She turned her back on me to leer some more at Taffy, and I was left to ponder the absurdities of graduate students, using their valuable voices to mimic the speech gimmicks of television performers, and to wonder why, considering the sharpness of my riposte, I felt as if I’d somehow been outmaneuvered.
Relatively deserted, I pushed my seat back and kicked my feet forward, extending to its fullest space my little module designed by the airlines at great cost for modern man and his convenience. I did my best to feel conveniently like modern man. Within easy reach inside the module are T.V., videos, music, books, magazines, drinks and snacks and all kinds of things to heighten a man’s sense of comfort.
There are even damp cloths, which are slightly perfumed so as to make the traveler’s sweat smell less primitive. If I stretched my arm, I could scratch the next seat and its contents, should I be so inclined. I couldn’t deny that the airline had gone to considerable lengths, to ensure their paying customers feel well treated, as free as they possibly can, when there is only seven miles of nothing, between the customer and the Earth.
And, obviously, everyone deserves to feel as free as is possible. It is not right, though, to be free at the expense of somebody else; too many decent folk remain in chains as a result of this being not quite so universally obvious. About this point, I appreciate I’m thinking myself back into chains again or else no place special, so I give up on the conscious cogitation, let my mind empty for the morphine movie to move in, tilt my head right back in the seat, rest and watch what’s happening elsewhere.
I’m in a bar I don’t recognize and most of the clientele are talking in a kind of English. There is someone called Strollo, a street mime-artist with political aspirations, discussing his personal problems with a German girl in motorcycle leathers and a jeweler named Hans, who takes the opportunity, whenever there is a break in the conversation, to try to sell gold necklaces at substantial discount to the motorcycle girl.
The centre of attention, however, is a good looking, rather drunk, dark haired lady in a red zip up jumpsuit, who is holding court to a circle of city slicker types who are all dressed expensively, if identically, and carrying important-looking attaché cases with them.
From her speech, I gather the woman in the jumpsuit to be a journalist. She also seems to be a bit of a bimbo, but her every pronouncement is greeted by wild applause and calls for further drinks by the city gents. After several cocktails, her B.B.C. English is replaced by a distinctly North Country dialect, which causes Strollo, to demand loudly that he be protected from; ‘the rhythm cheaters of the world.”
The city gentlemen turn their heads in the direction of the noisy protestor. As they do, the German girl rushes forward and pulls the zip on the bimbo journalist’s jumpsuit all the way down to below her waist and then, laughing wildly, runs out the side door before anyone can halt her. The poor journalist is left sitting on her barstool, with her mouth open and her bra-less ‘titties’, waving in the wind.
She has, in fact, rather fine breasts, as the city gents, whose mouths also have fallen open, do not fail to appreciate. Within seconds, seven or eight hands are helping to re-zip her jumpsuit, five or six of which hands, not to put too fine a point on it, are using the event as an excuse to grope her. Eventually, order is restored; the woman does not appear too upset and some of the men appear positively gleeful as they console her, speculating on the possibly feminist motivations of her crazed attacker.
Then they notice that not only have Strollo and Hans the jeweler vanished in the confusion, but so have a number of their expensive briefcases and a couple of jackets, wallets and all, that were moments earlier, casually draped over the back of their owners’ barstools. I want to hurry outside and catch up with these enterprising thieves, but it’s more difficult to move accurately on the ‘nod’ than it is in a gravity-free capsule, and I’m soon floundering.
I float wildly and hopelessly out of control, until I find myself looking down on a poolside argument between a gigolo, sweating profusely beneath his immaculate yachtsman’s attire, and his erstwhile employer, a very tall man in skimpy swimming trunks. He is fiddling with what appears to be a non- functioning hearing aid with one hand and pumping the gigolo’s arm, vigorously, with the other.
The gigolo is protesting loudly that he is strictly a woman’s man and will not do Gay business. The tall man has a puzzled expression, as he tosses the hearing aid aside and cups his ear close to the gigolo’s mouth. At last, it appears from his comprehending smile and the way, in which he shakes the gigolo’s arm even more forcefully the tall man understands. The gigolo makes beckoning gestures to the upper windows of a large, pink painted house behind them.
I catch a glimpse of a woman’s head briefly appearing at an open window. The window then closes, and the gigolo runs his fingers through his hair and waits for the woman to descend the stairs and come out the front door to join them at the pool. Like the gigolo and the tall man, my eyes are also on the door; I am impatient to see what the woman looks like. This is a silly mistake for me to make on my part.
Patience is a golden rule of the ‘nod’.
One must never strain, never be over eager, never try to make things happen in any particular way; the tableau, must be allowed to unfold in its own form and in its own time, no matter how unexpected or inconvenient this might turn out to be. As I step over the line into trying to force it, the tall man and the gigolo look up at me and around them in alarm then vanish, their shapes and surroundings vaporizing back into the ethereal. I am dumped unceremoniously back into my airplane seat, back into the ‘eyeless-in-gaze realms’ of what we laughingly refer to, as ‘conscious being’.
My chastened thought stream neatly encompasses the dream woman I blew the chance of seeing and the woman beside me, on the airplane, whose back is presently all I can see becomes a spurious superimposition of Jane and Taffy the gigolo, and thence to rotating round the slightly sad way, modern woman is obliged to use sex; to realize a fleeting freedom in this world, which doesn’t permit her many freedoms at all, and none that last. Vitamin B deficiencies wilding the parks of the psyche, spiraling out of control, to the point where a gentleman is someone who can tell you your future and doesn’t.
Modern man and modern woman wondering why they so fear death when they do not fear life or if, really, they do? Good mental health is held to involve thinking on such matters, neither often, nor deeply. The role of the human being is to carry on with everyday life as we know it, the rest is the concern of the Almighty; if you’re troubled, your Minister will be glad to accept a dollar to help the Almighty, with the cost of looking out for you.
Even ‘Dirty Harry’ will tell you how a man’s gotta know his limitations; beyond the exercise of bodily functions and making money with which to go shopping lie dangerous, uncharted waters. Slightly electrified fences are necessary to prevent cattle from straying.
And if you think you’re far too cute to be caught sucking on that ding-dong, you’re possibly the sort of person who, by knowing just how easily people can be conditioned, believes you’re thus precluded from being just as easily conditioned yourself. And even if you’re not that dopey, never forget that, no matter how good you are at something, one day you’re going to meet somebody who’s better. Come that day, if you’re a millimeter out of balance, you’re going to topple, and nobody’s going to cry for you either, except maybe city slickers, who wanted to cop a feel and lost their wallets instead. Certain toys never belong in the hands of fat men; goddesses and sirens alike, take infinitesimal skill and care in the arrangement of their guises and disguises.
As much skill and care, in fact, as they take with their Easter Bonnets, to which they are now making the final adjustments, as I at last re-tune to the channel I was previously enjoying, by way of indication that the start of the grand procession is now imminent.
Taffy and the sociologist look as if they are about to get social, so I join instead the gathering gentlefolk as they stub out the last sophist flames from the exhibition of Sufi dancing, the better to delight in the light glowing out from the opening coach and hang reverent heads, as the preacher intones the grace prayer, in his unfailing baritone to declare the festivities open.
The childrens’ choir surround him and they muffle their giggles as they play with the donkey and the lambs. I join in the cheering, as the preacher takes his bow and sits down, tilting his chair back and his hat down to avoid the full glare of the sun as, like the rest of us, he lays back to enjoy the show.
The floats are taking their time forcing their passage through the crowds further up the avenue, so I slip into the cool interior of one of the cafes specially opened for the parade. A young and fine featured Chinese girl, swathed neck to ankle in silk of shades of white and cream, sits alone and sips white wine slowly and with an exaggerated delicacy from a long-stemmed glass. A single candle burns on a white lace cloth covering the table at which she sits. She has a thoughtful, fractionally downcast, appearance. An elderly waiter, also Chinese, hovers in his uniform of starched linen close enough for deference but not for intrusion.
They are a nuisance to the casual tourist.
Both are skilled illusionists and it is not unknown for them to work in tandem as a Mickey and Finn act. I can see other diners in the pale light, a fat Caucasian couple, a solitary Indian and a thin, unobtrusive white woman, most likely the teacher at the Mission school. Crouched between the water-pipes and the serving hatch hides the inevitable refugee, sweating fate for the chance of a swift snatch- and- run, or to beg the scraps from the fat white folks’ table.
The Chinese girl has spotted him, of course, but he holds no interest for her. She avoids also the fluttering eyes of the Indian; his wallet, no matter how suggestively he moves it in and out of his back pocket, will not hold enough money to interest her. He is not an American, he is not able to take her away to America where, out of some whim she assumes to be the promptings of her ancestors, she is firmly convinced her destiny awaits her. Perhaps an American will stray in from the crowds watching the parade; she concentrates very hard on this coming to pass.
Whilst she awaits the means of her conveyance to the Big Country she idly occupies herself by making temptation for the school mistress, goading her into sneaking an orchid or a piece of silverware into her handbag. But the school madam is an unlikely Prometheus of the flowers, as if the ham hadn’t been over-appled already, and this additional spooning is driving us all into the realms of the very syrupy indeed, and I do believe that, if I hadn’t’ve had enough sense remaining to flick off the channel at this stage I’d’ve wound up watching some suburban sucker shopping show while still under the impression that I was tuned into the visionary vanguard of the communications network. The ‘nodder’ must remain constantly vigilant; flashy opening credits no more guarantee a good film than a slick guitar introduction heralds a song you’re going to want to be whistling.
And if you sit around watching too much trashy television, no matter how exclusive the subscription channel, pretty soon you’re going to wind up with a surfeit of trash, a head full of junk, a junkie. And it’s junkies who give morphine fans such a lousy reputation. It’s best to stay alert.
I am naturally a bit pissed off with myself. Whatever did I expect to find in the way of graceful or even humorous sprites loitering at this altitude and in this company, especially with the tape recorder running and me taking Jane personally so much of the time?
We are also nearing the American continent and there’s a reasonable paranoia into which it’s possible to descend when you figure that, if a simple no-good junkie lay-about and his mates can stumble into this waking-dream phenomenon of morphine consumption and conscience, then surely the Pentagon with all its loot and the Zionists with all their spiritual leanings would have cracked the whole thing long ago?
There are those who reckon they must have discovered the secret of death by now, they just aren’t letting on. Maybe it’s bad for business? Whatever, it’s well feasible they’ve tapped into someone’s ‘nod’. Maybe using a variation on one of those spy satellites that can count your pimples from three hundred miles up in space or something and are even now operating their own psychic T.V. stations, to convert communist junkies to the American way. Anything’s possible these days.
Whatever the cause, my ‘nod’ is firmly aborted and I can’t even go outside for a walk and forget about it. I consider articulating my thoughts for the benefit of my PhD woman-child, but I can see she’s occupied by contemplations of whether she should slip into the ‘John’ with Taffy while there’s still time and I’d be wiser to look, presently elsewhere, to keep dreaming around the lofty ambition of communing with the present.
Outside, there’s only sky and clouds, and the state of my imagination has already been exposed as atrophied beyond immediate retrieval, and before I know it, I find myself thinking dirty on the subject of Jane. Lord knows why, although it surely helps to explain my dismal imaginative condition; a man must either sate or subjugate his old ‘stick-winkle’ if he’s wanting to be easy enough to open and out tonight, at a time reasonably convenient for all.
“Where are you staying in New York?” Jane asked me.
She probably picked up on my lust antennae lately grown fine-tuned to such emanations. I hadn’t a clue, preferring to leave details of accommodation to the embrace of chance, but I saw no harm in holding her as an option.
“Fifth Avenue,” I reply, and when she raises a quizzical eyebrow I tell her it’s because I want to watch the Good Sisters march by under my window just before the big Easter Parade.
Then the seatbelt signs are flashing and the descent into Kennedy beginning and I know that we’ll be going straight to her place from the airport and I wonder what on earth is wrong with me, but I’m glad it’s too late for her to make it with Taffy in the shithouse and that he’ll have to wait until the next significant location for his important encounter, and I pledge I’ll not let an impure thought, cross my threshold from the first step I take on American soil, or ‘tarmacadam’, and then, who’s to say? –
A quiet week on the Upper East Side with a studious woman might cause those junkies to lose track of me altogether, or at least for the while….