Sudden Little Drops has been recently resurrected so I could talk about music! Check out the new Albums of 2011 post below, and hopefully there will be more new content coming soon.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Barn

He had rented the barn from a friend of a friend, a farmer who owned six acres of land out in the heart of the country. The arrangements had been made: he could live for the summer in the barn on the outskirts of the farm and would have to be out by the time of the harvest. They had hauled an old mattress up from the farmhouse for him, dragged it to the dead centre of the barn, where it was driest. The farmer had provided him with a small stove to cook on and enough gasoline to last him until the end of the summer.
The barn was a simple timber construction, built to fulfil a function. It was empty except for the mattress and a ladder resting in the corner. The floors were matted with years of hay and dark dry mud. Failures in the beams revealed the odd patch of sky, though the tin roof was sufficient to keep out the most of the rain. The wood was old and it creaked in the wind.

As well as the mattress and the gasoline, he had asked the farmer to load up the truck with reels of old tape. On his first day, he used the ladder in the barn to set up four reel to reel tape recorders in each of the four corners of the barn, resting high up on the wooden beams. For all the time he was there he kept them recording; noises of birds, rats scurrying along the beams, rain rattling on the tin roof. Each documented the summer from its own angle, reacting to the sounds as they echoed through the barn, emphasising those closest to them, offering their own perspective on the weeks that passed. Together they covered the whole space.

The man slept and ate and lived in the barn with the tapes recording for the whole summer. He took only the occasional walk and never strayed far from the barn. Some mornings, the farmer who owned the barn would bring up a few fresh items, milk, bread, sometimes cheese, and they would chat for a little while. He would ask after the farm and the farmer would tell him stories of the crops and the livestock. The farmer never mentioned the tape recorders, or how the gas canisters never seemed to deplete, or how the stove seemed unused.

Other than the farmer he saw no-one. As the summer stretched on, he tried to live as simply as he could in the space that the barn created. He rarely spoke aloud; he sat for hours just listening, absorbed in the very quiet noises around him. He was aware of his own presence in the barn altering the space. At times he exploited this, clapping his hands or tapping on the beams to see how the space reacted. But for the most part he listened passively, attentively, taking in the exact timbres, the depths and nuances in what he could hear. He felt most deeply content when he could hear no sound at all, when he could sit perfectly still on his mattress in the dead centre of the barn and hear nothing but silence, when the rain had stopped and the rats were sleeping and the birds had flown away, and there was nothing but the deep, empty, aching silence around him. He knew in his heart that the tapes recording from the corners would never be listened to, that at the end of the summer he would pile them up on the mattress and soak them in gasoline, that he would drop a match into the pile and fall back onto the tapes as they erupted in flames, that the silence on the tapes would burn and the barn would burn and he would burn with them, that the walls would fall down and the space inside would be opened up to the air and the space would no longer exist and the silence would no longer exist and the tapes would no longer exist. But as he sat in the silence it was nonetheless a comfort to know they were there, recording every moment, waiting.


Small Relevant Details

She is sifting through the detritus, trying to find what is relevant. Her mind cannot rest. As the dentist tells her to sink back into the chair and relax she tries, but cannot focus her thoughts. The memories of it consume her. She tries to make sense of it all, to compartmentalise the details; the wintry branch scratching at one side of the window, the white flowers in the vase rising to meet it on the other. Details separated by glass, examined individually. The cat lolloping, stretching out in the winter sun. Which side of the branch? Where did the cat fit into the picture? Had it watched the whole thing through the window? She remembers seeing its eyes, staring. And behind it, the car. The passing car, red, a sedan, a family car, a bumper sticker. Ordinary people living their lives in the daytime.

She rinses with mouthwash and spits into the small white basin as the dentist instructs her. She recalls the toothpaste smeared down the tube and crusted up at the end, how his hair smelt minty because of the conditioner he used. She hears the small clinking of the glass on the tap, remembers reading the small print on the backs of their shampoo bottles. The mess in the bathroom. The privacy she felt in being near his skin. She sees the face he made when he put his contacts in, sees her underwear reflecting in the bathroom mirror, riding up just a little higher than it should. She feels a vacuum.

Harsh yellow light shines into her eyes as the dentist leans over to examine the inside of her mouth. The flowers, the cat, the window. She pulls out the details from the air, like pulling loose threads from her pajamas. The toothpaste, the glass, the mirror. These were the raw materials of their love, enough for a thousand novels, epics hidden in the minutiae of their lives.

The dentist moves the drill into her mouth and she remembers his fingers pressing into the small of her back, the surprise of his cold hands on her skin, remembers the glass being knocked, the arm involuntarily sweeping out over the bedside table, remembers the thud on the carpet and the clink on the side of the bed like a bell. She feels his body on hers. The memory of his weight pressing down on her makes her suddenly feel the space floating above, stark and negative, like she is making love to a ghost, there in the dentist’s chair.

The memories fall apart, unravel like tied-up hair let loose. They scatter and multiply, bouncing light into a hundred other bathroom mirrors, reflecting, refracting, expanding. It was not yet night, it was evening, it was morning. The sun was moving. It was autumn, or spring. The room was a certain colour and the sheets were a certain colour and his belt was a certain colour. All this to wade through. Could it not all stick? Or else all simply disappear?

She does not see him anymore. His days and hers are filled with separate necessary details, unshared, as she pulls apart the love that they made and tries to find the small relevant details that made it all worthwhile.

The dentist scrapes metal in the gap between her teeth. He presses his fingers against the roof of her mouth. Her tongue quivers as it tries to avoid touching the fingers. All her attention is held for a moment. Her guard is down. A single detail flies like a black bird and smashes against the window – it is the shape of his eyes, his pupils bending back beyond themselves, like holes in arctic ice, like black stars burning, and it is suddenly all she can see, his eyes burning there still, shot through with pain like a phantom that cries as a black bird smashes into his eyes, his shapely eyes burning like ice that smashes like a bird a ghost a phantom stars slipping eyes into ice into eyes as she jerks breathless sputtering ice as birds smash into eyes face black eyes dead face birds black eyes ice face eyes face face face...


Monday, 8 November 2010

The Fire in the Kart-e-Sakhi Cemetery

The last time I was a child, I lit a bonfire in the Kart-e-Sakhi Cemetery in Kabul.

In 1997 I got a purple firefish for my birthday. It sat in a tank in the kitchen and died three weeks later when parasitic worms sucked out all its blood.

In the 1930s I worked a brief stint as a fireman, driving sparkling red trucks around Pennsylvania. One afternoon in warm July, I rescued a child from a burning house but could not make in back in time to save the mother, who died in the suffocating, smoky blackness.

In the 1700s I lived in Denmark and found my wife in bed with another man. Three days later she was burned at the stake for witchcraft. She was wearing her blue dress.

In third century Greece I was a juggler, entertaining the Royal Courts by eating fire. One morning in April I was distracted by a young girl crying out the corner of my eye and accidentally breathed in. The fire burned the back of my throat and collapsed one of my lungs.

In 79 A.D. in Pompeii, I died holding my daughter when Mount Vesuvius erupted and spit hot streams of ash over us, her burrowing her head into my chest in fear.

This was my individual path through the fire – the fire that is always flickering and is never still.

It’s 2010 and I’m a sperm burrowing my way into an egg. Just yesterday I died in Kabul. My leg caught fire as I waved it too close, and the fire crept up my body like a dirty bomb creeps over a city, and I burned alive there standing in the Kart-e-Sakhi Cemetery among the gravestones and the dry dust.


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Young, Furious

 (from a writing exercise in Ugly Cousins)

The Road is European; Italy or Somewhere.
Michael, saucepan on head, holding the wooden
Spoon his grandmother uses to stir bolognese,
Rattles down it, advancing like Hercules, furious,
Beating his brainwaves out of his head.
Mother and father start to chase after but grandmother
Holds them back, assures them. They come around.



(a story in 50 words)

While the mice are scurrying, exploring, establishing their systems, already the maze is gradually filling with water, millimetres that will inch their way up the walls and fill. Some mice might evolve gills; others will drown. The scientist is pouring the water slowly into the maze and it trickles through.


Thursday, 23 September 2010


We have come to mark it.
We have come to Morvah
to make our fucking mark on the place –

and the road that holds,
and the road that holds
old sun-scorched marks that call out
to be touched by young fingers.
                The rocks are set,
droning a long note that begs
for us
to chop and mix it up
with squelching buzzing synths and
cut-up vocal chirps and hi-hat hits.
                We are the young.
Our path is a magic marker scrawl
across your quiet lull. And you need us,
Morvah, you
motherfucking need us.


For three days we scream
from our house on the hill,
blasting out 60s music, dancing,
aching with borrowed nostalgia.
                We cut it raw, burn
on the bare essentials, fuelled
by romantic notions of self-sufficiency.
Lungs full of cool air.
                The actual fucking details,
they hardly even matter.
More vital is the overall picture:
a vast, expansive haze.
                We make endless lists,
instant snapping commentary.
Here are the most important moments
as they happen
as a list:

   1. the growl of the sea as it raged
   2. the great expanse of land
   3. the drunken touching of fingers
   4. the stumbling over the sand
   5. the heavy drench of the sun
   6. the apathetic birds
   7. the silent pull of the evening
   8. the morning’s lightning burst

   9. the cave that was smaller and darker and more intense than the one you’d imagined before, but which, by being suddenly real, captured for a fleeting moment all your fractured expansive ideals, in a small tangible way, warm with the presence of friends, with rocks you could cut and scrape your skin on, with touching and laughing and bleeding and bleeding and bleeding...
   10. the drag of the waves receding


                Our last day.
We watch the sea. It
fights and breaks into waves
that mark their way
up the beach – a temporary
path, a low layered bank
carved in the ever-changing sand.
We build a dam. We change the water,
trap it in our glorious pool.
And the sea is slow to react, pawing
leisurely behind us
in it’s way –

                But sure enough it comes,
not angry or melodramatic,
but gushing with enough measured force
to collapse our walls. It drags
clumps of sand back
into its churn
and smashes against rock.

                For this is not home. There,
we saturate in vacant strangers’ passing faces
and coat our desires in obscene amounts of reverb
to drown out the terrifying
But here –

there is nothing but space,
nothing but stone and rock and call of sea.

And it feels nothing of our fiery resolve.
Our aching spirits pass over
like the shadows of drifting clouds

and are absorbed into the lull.
We could not touch the long and droning note;
only dissolve.


Things We Left Untouched

Here is where the side holds unwashed dishes, moulds expanding
slowly from the centres of unfinished mugs of coffee,
spreading white ambition to an edge
they cannot reach.

Here is where the parsley has got old,
shooting its spindly fingers into air,

Here is where the forest sleeping grumbles,
yawns its wide open mouth. Inside it
the leaves make tiny movements;
their sound is like slow
static, quietening.


Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Late Night Poem

I wrote you a poem on my body,
Lying naked in my bed.
I scrawled the words all down my torso.
I wrote your name. I loved you then.

I felt. I felt
These marks were real,
This ink on skin,
It removed the distance, brought you in,
Inside, close. I drew the outline of your ghost.

When I woke
It was all smudge on the sheets,
Deep blue smears on my Caucasian skin,
Half-ideas blurred in the sprawl;
A more suitable expression.


Tuesday, 14 September 2010

In Reverse

(an old poem)

In reverse she seems to take on a new life,
Deconstructing the rules of gravity and time,
Leaping back through the frames:

Unsaying the things she had said,
Uncausing the things she had caused,
Unlearning the things she had learned,
Unwalking the path she had walked,
Undoing, unlaughing, uncrying,
Unsmiling, unspeaking,


Tuesday, 25 May 2010


after the film is over
in the quiet house
where the flickering pictures lit up
the walls but no longer now
keep your mind
or shine in your room
like a still beacon amongst the time



I picked up the pear from
the ground,
the dark earth clinging to
its soft body,
and imagined taking the pear
home with me,
gently washing it under
the tap

and christening it
in a perfect round bowl
of silver paint,
to take back to the orchard
to see what the other pears
would make.

And some might say: ‘yes,
‘time is wearing on us too,
‘and we’ll soon fall to
‘meet the ground
‘and bruise.’ 

And some,
still hanging from the
branch and fresh,
might not bear the thought
of old, worn flesh
rotting in the leaves, the
hand picking up
and squashing it with ease,
and wish instead for
something silver
(glimpsed through this
imaginary cleft)
to cover its surface in its
comforting swell.

And standing there, my
silver pear lifted
to the light, the silver
paint began to drip, drip
onto the orchard floor;

and as the paint began to
drip the flesh began to
re-emerge from under the
silver sheen
and I saw the comfort this
had all been
as what it was; nothing
more than distant
astral dreams,
far from the stony, earthy pear
and its salvation prayer
in the orchard
where no-one comes
and which is full of death.

Life in this orchard is like
the dirt
clinging to the pear or
the pear
clinging to the branch;
and realising this I
dropped the pear
and left the silver dream hanging
in the air.

The leaving, the dropping, the scattering
the various kinds of end;
the emptying of the room,
sandwiches and cut-fruit
wrapped in tinfoil to keep fresh,
notes buried in coat pockets,
memories of the dead
leaves whipped up in a frenzied breeze

and longings left unsaid;
these are the weight in my hand
at the end.


Wednesday, 21 April 2010


In one of these wilder countries
of rattlesnakes and whitetail
where boyscouts catch fish and make things and sail
you’ll settle

a paper napkin
brushed from the table and falling
(slowly) to the unseen floor

on the outskirts;
close enough to real life
like seeing through TV
it's convenient, flatpacked
in doses: 6l, 2.4mg, half a pack
vitamins, betablockers, paracetamol, milk;
screensavers of the sea, dotted with clickable sailboats,

your blood will turn
or might as well turn slowly black,
semi-hard, glistening like tar
just laid.


Monday, 12 April 2010

She Moves Through Light In The Evening


It always starts with light, falling
in this case through a car window
as streetlights pass.

It is soft at first, cinematic.
The yellow bleeds out to dissipate
at the fringes.

The zoetrope-like slits falling
across the seated body undressing
the dark that veils

create the vague illusion of her
moving, looming inside each
regular absence.


Things soon come undone, fall
apart; she starts to move through
the untangling

towards the foreground.
Other thoughts appear: Indian ink on
unhung canvasses.

And questions too:
does she think like this? has she
watched the light fall across her body

and tried to make sense of this?
did the same light touch her
when she passed this way?

all seen as now,
in the fullest flood,
in the buzzing synapses,

in the blood


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Death Slide

From the backseat of our car ascending
Up the hill I look out at the fields,
Bare except for hedgerows stretching over
Like the lines to which an old hand yields.

I remember mother’s hand upon my shoulder,
The steady weight, the voice that made me calm,
Speaking softly in my small boys ear:
I promise you won’t come to any harm.

With that promise and with eyes fixed staring
Down the death slide’s dark uncertain drop,
I did not know exactly what was coming,
My small hands trembling, clinging to the top.

And this is what I feel now looking over
Fields scorched with man’s uncertain mark –
My fingers slipping from the wooden bar,
My body carried down into the dark.


What I Never Said To The Groundskeeper

I love to see you sweeping by the church.
For though it’s been some time since I last came
To place fresh flowers on her rain-soaked grave
And pay my due, I know that you won’t tell
A soul; you’ll just keep shuffling the leaves
Among those cold, abandoned slabs of stone.
Your eyes point down your broom.
A brief nod to acknowledge me and on,
Across the lawn. You make me feel less guilty.
You help me feel I’m slowly moving on.


Where The Mind Wanders

To old marks on the white board,
Remnants of thick black tape
That still exists in little strips,
Distracting in their shape
And offering escape:

One like a canvas framing
And two like old men stood
Facing, as though squaring off
Like ancient warriors would,
In some invisible wood.

And in the blank between them,
There in the common place,
A thin sharp horizontal
Hovers in the space
In slight, beguiling trace,

And draws me deeper into it
Not caring to explain,
Draws me to the distant end,
Silent and arcane,
And leaves me there again.


Friday, 19 March 2010

The Dancer

After dark, in the half light of street lights
I saw, huddled round in the midst of the dark night’s
Melancholy, those who were caught in his haze,
Who clutching bags and coats, took a moment to gaze

At the dancer. I joined them, sunk into the crowd
To witness his movements, this moment allowed
To spark in the depths of a cold night’s gloom,
With one arm below and one arm in bloom.

And tracing the line of his arm’s slow path,
Like the wing-like trail of a woman’s scarf,
As though leaving a snail’s trail of light,
I forgot about the passing night.


Tape Loops

It came to us both in the night, the place we should go. Come the morning there was a shift over the breakfast table, a feeling that hit us as we poured out orange juice and exchanged pleasantries, as though all the trivial details of the morning were conspiring to point us in the right direction. She would say afterwards that she felt it as strongly as I did, but for then it remained unspoken.


Carrie and I, we called ourselves ‘dragonfly hunters’.

Four years ago she had persuaded me, on passing my driving test, to take her on a celebratory road trip, searching for ‘dragons’, down a roughly planned streak through Cornwall. We went first to the marshy pools of Bodmin moor, then the Carnon Valley near Bissoe & Devoran, and on through Red River Valley near Camborne, veering off our course as we fancied it and heading down through Helston to the Lizard. We drank in the local pubs, slept in cheap hostels, B&Bs, and even once or twice in the backseat of the car. We stopped at any spot we thought interesting. There were a few dragonflies around  Carrie had a little dragonfly book that she looked them all up in – Southern Hawkers and Four-spotted Chasers and Red-veined Darters.

But the best moment came at our last stop, in the shallow, serpentine quarries of the Lizard, in a little clearing by a meandering stream, buried in the corners of the county. It was there we saw a whole cloud of them, appearing out of nowhere in front of our eyes. They hovered right in front of us, inspecting us with unyielding curiosity. We stood, besotted in silence, not even caring that we’d left the camera in the car.

In the years that followed we embarked on similar trips in all parts of the country – Sussex, Yorkshire, Kent, South Wales. But not once did we return to the Lizard. It was a place too crystallised in time, a place where memory coursed through the veins of the air.

Yet on that morning, years later, we knew we had to go back. We were living in Exeter by this time, amateur filmmakers on an undergraduate degree, sharing a flat with a guy named Mark who Carrie had met at a convention up in Birmingham. Our module was on nature films and unsurprisingly we had chosen to make a short documentary on dragonflies. Toying with different ideas of where we could go, having been so many places over the years, we indulged for weeks in nostalgic conversations, appraisals of the sites we had visited. And then this idea. This idea of going back to the impossible.

Our roles in the project were well established. Mark could handle the technical side of it; the sound, the equipment, the tapes. The one thing this guy could be counted on for were his cameras.

The dragonflies were Carrie’s area, of course. She had read the books, she knew the variety of species, the details of their life cycles and mating habits, the myths and folklore. There was something in them she found irresistible. Her eyes lit up when she saw them. Perhaps she longed to live in those moments, caught forever in the alluring beauty of their intricate turns in the air.

As for myself? Supposedly, I would be the cinematographer. I had ideological ideas about beauty and the power of light. I was the one with the vision. I probably brought the least to the table.

The idea was beautiful in its simplicity. Returning to that fabled spot we would show the creatures to Mark, take walks around the same footpaths, filming what we found there. It was all we needed. Simple, clear, effective, emotive filmmaking. Shooting what was there, as it was, and nothing more. No need for clever ideas or neat little camera tricks. It all came down to this; to a clearing near a lake, to a memory from long ago, blossoming up in the night and obliterating everything else.

This was the plan. We would stay there for a few days, shoot the film, come back and return to our normal lives, and that would be that.


Dragonfly mating rituals, from afar, can appear beautiful. They twist and coil in the air, sometimes for hours. In the blink of an eye the male takes the female from the ground and together they ascend into the ether, diving and twirling, their gossamer wings glistening in the sunlight. The position in which they mate is sometimes known as the “heart position”, due to the way the female must bend her abdomen round so their genitalia can touch. To watch them can be very romantic. They are agile fliers who can reach speeds of up to sixty miles per hour. They cannot sting and they rarely bite humans, pinching them only slightly when they are threatened and need to escape.

Erratic and carefree, dragonflies have inspired much reverence in some parts of the world. Across the tribes of Native America they symbolise purity, swiftness, activity, flexibility and transformation. Dragonflies appear in the rock art of the Hopi, the necklaces of the Pueblos, the textiles of the Navajos and the pottery of the Zuni, where they are perceived as shamanistic creatures with supernatural powers. One Zuni myth tells of a brother and sister left behind by their fellow villagers after a failure of the corn crop. To cheer up his sister, the little boy constructed a toy dragonfly from the useless corn husks. The toy then came to life and appeased the corn maidens, who rewarded the siblings with a bountiful harvest to welcome home the villagers.

In the east, particularly in Japan, dragonflies are held to be sacred, holy animals. They symbolise success and victory, as well as courage, strength, and happiness. Legend holds that the mythical founder of Japan, the Emperor Jimmu, was once bitten by a horsefly, which was in turn eaten by a dragonfly. To honour his avenger, the Emperor gave the new land the name Akitsushima, meaning ‘the Isles of the Dragonfly’.

A game that Japanese children play involves trying to catch dragonflies, using a hair with a small pebble tied to each end, which they throw into the air. The dragonfly mistakes the pebbles for prey, becomes tangled in the hair, and is dragged to the ground by the weight.

Mark drove us there in his car, talking away about some zombie horror spoof a friend of his was making. I sat in the back, Carrie in the passenger seat. We were heading towards the sun so it was a slow and difficult drive, and I could hardly see them both in the front, save for their black figures, stark against the sun-drenched windscreen. Outside the scenery drifted by as we sunk further into the depths of Cornwall. My seatbelt was itching so I took it off and lay against the side, my legs sprawled out over the back seat. The car trapped the heat of the sun and the resulting mugginess made me lethargic. I think I may have dozed off once or twice, or at least slipped into some realm of semi-consciousness, my thoughts drifting, struggling to emerge fully formed in the heat. In the background the radio sounded, un-listened to. It hardly seemed worth the effort to try and make conversation. Sleep seemed like the easier option.

The heat-haze kept me detached, at a distance, until one moment broke me out of it; a stuttering glitch of a moment, like a scratch on old film. It was just after we had arrived at the car-park, a short walk along the stream from our clearing. There was a little stone bridge that took the road up over the water. Carrie and Mark climbed up on the stone wall and she pointed down to the spots we’d be filming from. It was all new to him of course. He shouted out his first impressions, all the while a grin on his face. I went back and sat on the opposite wall, watching him, his arms flapping around as he talked, attempting to accentuate his words.

There he stood, wavering on the edge of the bridge, and in my mind I watched him fall over the side, into the stream, very comically, with a great farcical splash. The image looped in my head like a fragment of old black and white film, playing over and over again, splash, splash, splash, exaggerated and dramatic and comedic, a big crash of cymbals as he collided with the water, and I saw the whole movie theatre roaring with laughter, little children pointing at the screen and laughing at the silly man who’s fallen flat on his belly, slap bang into the water, wavered too far and toppled right off the bridge, flailing his arms wildly in black and white and grey.

Then suddenly, for a second, it felt real, flashing before me, harsh and vivid, slowed down to a crawl, full colour, surround sound, every muscle of his face captured in exasperating detail. In a terrible explosion of light it enveloped me and all I could see was his face, stark and desperate, as the light bounced off it and was caught forever on film when Carrie grabbed my arm and said:

“Come on, let’s try and get closer.”

I was shaken up, sweating and alert. I had the ridiculous thought it was some kind of omen. But no, I thought. I was sweating because it was hot. I was feeling sluggish and languid and I had simply let my thoughts drift. It was a phantasm. I followed Carried.

I soon recovered from the jolt. As we made our way down the river I took solace in the familiarity of my surroundings. The trees had surely blossomed with new leaves, the river gushed with new water, yet still it seemed oddly unchanged. As we continued the stream became gentler and thinner; we were walking against the flow of the water. The path narrowed too and the trees became tighter, thicker. We were walking into the shambolic history of our past.

When we finally got to the clearing, I forgot all about the bridge and my vision. We were at our spot. There it was in front of me, hardly seeming real, bathed in sunlight, smaller than I remembered it, but relatively untouched, as though trapped in the hazy miasma of memory and unable to evolve.

 “Let’s get an opening shot, shall we?” said Mark, clapping his hands together. So we laid down our rugs on the ground and set up the camera on the tripod. Carrie stood by the water.

“Okay, three, two, one...”

We recorded a few opening words, a shade under a minute perhaps, just a brief introduction. When she finished I offered Carrie some coffee from a flask. We sat and waited, filming a few shots of the river, keeping the camera rolling in case anything happened. We ate and drank and talked by the river. Once in a while Mark would get Carrie to narrate a little, to introduce the habitat or discuss what we were expecting to see. But mostly we just waited. We should have been out searching for great shots, but none of us initiated it. After a while Mark was the only one left saying anything at all, wrapped up in some rant about Kubrick. The afternoon was hot and lazy. It grew into a long and sultry stupor, stretching out far beyond the limits of my concentration and my thoughts once again began to drift.

Around me the light shimmered and flickered. In the stillness the noises I listened to the gentle noises amalgamating, a slow, perpetual rhythm evolving, a quiet, living, creaking drone, emerging in the shifts of sound, in the softly rushing water of the stream, the buzz of insects around the water, the single, babbling voice, the occasional car from far off on the bridge, the sounds of the trees. I immersed myself in the layers of sound, in the shifts and creaks and groans that overlapped in the thick heat, in the haze, in the blur, where I ceased to yearn for dragonflies and in the absence of desire they did not come.

Mark of course was less convinced by our seemingly unperturbed attitude. He kept whinging and whining about our laziness, though he was too gutless to get up and do something about it. I remember at one point I tried to justify our inaction.

“We’re not being nonchalant,” I said. “We’re just soaking up some atmosphere. We’ve got to get the right vibes Mark. It’s all atmosphere. Just think what the film will feel like. This desolate, natural landscape, the escape, the release, getting away from the bustling nightmare of the everyday, it’s exactly what we want for a nature flick; delicate, refined filmmaking, gently touching, subtly moving, like ripples on a shore.”

He was remarkably unimpressed with my explanation.

“Right, right, subtle of course,” he said.

“Fine, well, its all in the editing anyway.” He smiled. This he seemed to accept. “Can’t have us shouting and charging around trying to catch one of the bloody things, can we?” I joked.

“No, no, I suppose not. Not the Attenborough way.”

“Right, exactly!” He was starting to get it. “So we sit quiet in the peace and try to soak up the atmosphere on tape.”

It was just as I was saying that when it happened. It was just like that. Sudden. No warning. In the midst of the mist of our inaction, a light flickered and we were given a brief flash of hope. It was so quick, I only caught a brief glimpse, while Mark missed it completely. But Carrie was sitting with her back to us, facing towards the water with her legs outstretched in the sun before her, and she saw the whole thing.

It was a dragonfly.

It flitted in front of her, just a few feet away, right where the camera was pointing. It lingered there, suspended temporarily in the air, caught in a slight pause, a hesitation, right where our lens could capture its glistening brilliance, if only for a second. And then it was gone again.

It came. It hovered. It left.

The light could not have been more perfect, soft but lustrous, reflecting off the dragonfly’s bright and shining body, almost dazzlingly so. It was a moment so brief, so ephemeral, so easily missed that I sometimes wonder if it ever really happened.

But no, it was real, and we have the tape to prove it.

It had appeared out of nowhere. With its presence it had graced us, reflecting back to us a memory, with all the hope that that memory could offer. And it had flown away.

When resting, dragonflies spread their wings wide open, while damselflies habitually close their wings, holding them over their bodies. They differ in size of eye and length of body and breadth of wing. But both are equally beautiful to behold, Carrie would argue. Both come in a wide variety of colours. Both flutter and hover in an equally alluring way. If anything, the damselfly is in fact the daintier, friendlier, more elegant of the two creatures.

Yet when we speak of them, the damselfly almost always remains... an implication. We use the word ‘dragonfly’ to speak for both. Something separates them in our minds. The myths, the legends, they all refer to the dragonfly. It conjures illusions of grandeur, of sorcery and mysticism and power and secret intuitive insight. The damselfly is ignored. It pales in comparison to its glamorous relative, as unfair as that may be. It lacks something – or rather, something is lacking in the way we perceive it. It is, no doubt, in the name more that anything. ‘Damsel’ is a perfectly nice word, but it’s anaemic, it lacks any power. Damsels. We think of them as foolish young maidens, typically in distress. They are naïve. They are incompetent. They need rescuing. ‘Dragons’ may be myth, but they are powerful myth – the stuff of legends and knights and ancient magic and noble quests.

So it is that the damselfly is left to wallow in anonymity.

Carrie, shaking herself out of the moment, turned and spluttered:

“Did you... did you see it? It was a... it was...right there in front of me!”

“What’s this Carrie? What’s this?” Mark started getting worked up. We all did. We were shouting all at once – a sudden burst of commotion that injected our lazy afternoon with a shot of energy. Mark and I scrambled for the camera to see it properly, clustered out heads around the tiny screen to watch. He rewound the tape a little and hit play. For a couple of seconds nothing and then from nowhere it appears, flitting onto the screen and hovering just above centre.

“Thank God!” Mark bellowed. “About time we had a hit! Just look at that!”

“What breed was it, Carrie?” I asked.

“I think it might have been an Emperor...” She scrambled to get her dragonfly book and flicked through the pages to confirm. She was right, of course. The Emperor dragonfly. Anax imperator. Large. A mixture of sky-blue and green. Breeds in slow flowing rivers with abundant marginal vegetation. She showed me the picture.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

We fell into silence, then. Our fervour could not last and with its loss came an uneasy sense of dread. We had laughed, embraced, bubbled with ecstatic conversation, when as suddenly as the dragonfly had appeared we stopped. And we were quiet again. It felt like an age. Carrie was the one to finally speak.

“This is nothing really, is it?” she said. “Just a second or two of film. I mean, it’s hardly anything.”

It was like that tiny flicker of success had lit up the rest of our day. It all came crashing down on us. No longer could we hide in our hazy expectancy, thinking we were just getting started. The day was drawing to an end and there could be no denying its failure.

Yet even with this sudden onset of pessimism, we continued to do nothing. Time stretched on, unforgiving, and we continued to wait. We stayed put. We knew we shouldn’t have, but we did, we had to. Five more minutes, we’d say. Just a little while longer. We were bound to catch something else soon enough. If one dragonfly had come, so would more.

I think it was because it was that spot. The sunlight still shone there, the trees still whispered, still wavered in a slight breeze, the clear water still rushed gently over the rocks. It was so close to how it used to be. We were almost there. We were waiting on that magic. We were thinking of that afternoon, years ago, the dragonflies in their abundance. I know Carrie was thinking it too. Neither of us could get up. Just not quite yet.

But the afternoon continued to fade away. The sun descended behind the trees, the dark crept up on us as we sat submissively and eventually one of us, I don’t remember who, announced its arrival. So we packed up our things and we walked back to the car and we drove away.

Up close, dragonfly mating rituals can be violent and gruesome. There is an almost complete absence of courtship, as many male species simply grab hold of unsuspecting females, even immature ones, as they warm themselves in the sun. Some will snatch hold of a female while she lays an egg and have their way with her, even if she drowns in the process. Others may attack and split other mating pairs by colliding with them, pulling and biting them, stealing the partner from their rival. Females try to escape such truculent behaviour by submerging themselves in water, fleeing at high speeds, flying in tortuous spirals, or even fighting back, sometimes killing the attacking male.

In Europe, dragonflies have often been seen as sinister creatures. They are called horse killers, finger cutters, eye pissers, snake doctors, water witches, devil’s darners. The latter term comes from the belief that dragonflies sew together the lips of wicked children while they are sleeping. To some they are merely an annoyance, to others a danger. One Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil, a belief also found in Maltese culture where the word for dragonfly, debba ta' l-infern, literally means “hell’s mare”. The Norwegian name for dragonflies is øyenstikker, which translates as “eye poker”, an idea also found in Swedish folklore where the dreaded “blind stingers” were believed to have an appetite for picking out people’s eyes. In Sweden, legend holds that trolls use dragonflies as spindles when weaving their clothes, hence the term trollslända, meaning “troll’s spindle”. Another Swedish myth holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people’s souls and that if a dragonfly swarms around a person’s head, weighing his or her soul, they should expect a terrible injury to befall them.

Despite such myths being proved false by modern science, dragonflies are still held under suspicion across the Western world. They are virulent. They are poisonous. They will bring you bad luck. They will sew together your lips. They will tear out your eyes. They will crawl into your ear and penetrate your brain.

We stayed the night in a little hostel somewhere nearby. The room was muggy from the heat and had a fusty, sour odour. Carrie tried some air freshener but the smell persisted. I binned some abandoned toiletries that I found in the sink.

In the morning I woke up dreaming of childhood, of Sunday trips to the forest. We congregated in the lobby to eat a little breakfast, sitting there in deep sunk sofas, drinking coffee from the little machine. For a while no-one mentioned the rain, even with the water beating against the window.

But denial could not make it disappear and as we exited the lobby with our small bags of luggage it spat down from above. Great grey clouds hovered in the ominous air. We drove down to the coast just west of the Lizard, where we had planned to shoot on our second day, hoping the weather might clear up as we travelled. Somewhat bravely, we got out and walked over to the side of the lake, where two fishing poles lay forgotten on the bank. The mud was already slippery, though it had only been raining a few hours or so. We tried putting up the camera on the tripod, but it was a futile endeavour. Drops of water were flecked all over the lens in a matter of seconds and the lighting was dingy and dreadful to film in. Mark swore loudly the whole time. Carrie stayed mainly silent.

We drove for miles that morning, becoming more frustrated, stopping at any random point to get out and see if we could film. But it was useless. The morning passed by and the rain worsened. Exhausted and irritable, we gave up and began the drive back to Exeter.

We had wasted our time and now it was too late.

We should have made plans to come back the next weekend, but all three of us had other things on and none of us were very willing to cancel them. I don’t think we could face going back there again, not so soon. The weekend after that there was a massive storm, a grisly band of gloom sweeping right over the South West, even worse than before. We hadn’t the time from then on to do much more filming; the deadline was far too close, approaching us like an oncoming train.

Carrie and I were sitting over the table at dinner time a few weeks later, when she looked abruptly up at me and said, quite quietly:

“Why didn’t we bring a camera with us the first time? You had a camera then. We were both getting into our filming. We could have shot the whole cloud of them, dancing around in the air. It would have been spectacular.”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t think of anything to say. But I thought later that perhaps it was better for us never to have filmed it. Perhaps it was better for it to remain only in memory.

In the end we twisted the basic premise of the film and turned it into a little environmental flick, Mark’s idea. I got credit as cinematographer. In truth, I did very little; juxtaposed the scraps of decent film we had with shots of the city, outlet stores selling dark-wood furniture, Starbucks coffee cups, that sort of thing. Mark wrote some narration for it. It was okay. It scraped us the pass we needed.

I held on to the rest of the film. There were hours of footage, mostly us just sitting around and talking. Late one empty night I sat at my laptop and found, in all the surplus unedited film, that one shot of the dragonfly, the sunlight set beautifully behind it. I cut it out and pasted it and looped it. It was my new film. The looped shot of a dragonfly, over and over, seemingly never-ending, running into eternity. I watched as it flitted onto the screen, just for a second or two, and flew away again. Then back it came again, and then away, and back, and away, and back, and away.

And I went back to the unedited footage, separated the sound track from the visuals and cut out all the passages where Carrie was talking about her creatures, and I copied them and pasted them onto my new film, overlaying them onto the looped shot, running underneath it, her eloquent rambles on flight patterns, on mating habits, on species variance, and not stopping there I found any passage of her talking, random scraps of film where she slipped up, or slurred her words, or made some comment about where to film, or asked me for the water bottle, or the coffee flask, or made some joke about the weather, so wonderfully inconsequential, and I laid it all over the looping shot of a dragonfly, so her voice would run all the way through, speaking of everything and nothing, ducking and weaving, under and over the dragonfly’s bright and shining body, her sequined voice, in waves, covering my film with its presence.

And I sat in my darkened room and I watched it, looping over and over, and when I got to the end I went back and played it again, until the lids of my eyes had grown so heavy that I couldn’t take anymore, and so I turned off the laptop and I went back to my bed and I tried to sleep.


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Struggle

I am sitting on a double-decker bus. I am tucked in the back left corner with my knees propped up against the seat in front of me, listening to the monotonous dirge of the engine, feeling it churn under my stomach.

I am listening to this slow, rumbling noise when I notice a fly struggling for life against the windowpane. The fly is tiny, barely larger than an ant. It seems to be injured in some way, though it’s hard to tell how. A broken leg or a damaged wing, perhaps. Whatever it is, it has lost the fly its most treasured power – the fly can no longer fly.

Instead, it is attempting to climb up the window. With one leg held tentatively to the glass it finds its grip and starts carefully making its way up. Its steps are quite uneven and occasionally it stops and starts. I feel that this fly must be concentrating with everything it has.

It gets maybe an inch or so from the bottom when it loses its footing and drops back down. Then it tries again. I watch it do this four, maybe five times, waiting for it to give up hope, but each time it falls it just picks itself up and, unperturbed by the futility of its plight, wanders back to the glass to try again.

My eyes fixed on the window, I start to think how impossibly large it is to the fly. It cannot be more than three feet tall, but to this fly it is colossal, like a great vast sky stretching upwards. It dwarfs the poor fly so much, there can’t be any hope of it ever reaching the top. The fly simply cannot do this, I think. It will never succeed. Given infinite time, given an immeasurable number of tries. It can struggle and struggle but it cannot win.

Stupid, useless fly. I realise it is in my power to put it out of its misery.

But then I get a phone-call. I fumble around in my bag to answer it.

It’s my friend, Jimmy.

“Sam,” he says. “How are you mate? I didn’t know if you were coming tomorrow night so I thought I’d ring.”

“Coming where?” I say.

“To Fran’s. She’s having a pool party.”

“But Fran doesn’t have a pool.” I’ve still got my eyes on this fly. It’s making its way back up the window again.

“She’s borrowed one off a friend of hers. This friend has gone to the States for the summer and she’s letting Fran use her pool. Whenever she wants it.”

“Whereabouts in the States?” I ask.


“The friend. Whereabouts in the States is she?”

“How the hell should I know?” he says. “Why the hell does it matter, a thing like that? What do you want to know that for? I don’t know, ask Fran. Ask her tomorrow night, if you’re coming. Are you coming or what?”

I think for a second. The fly’s fallen off again and it’s picking itself back up.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe. She hasn’t said anything to me about it.”

“She only just decided today, that’s all. She’ll want you to be there. You know Fran. She’ll want everyone to be there.”

“Well where is it?”

This fly just won’t give up. It keeps on trying. It’s pretty remarkable, really.

“The party? It’s just down the road from Fran’s place. We’re meeting there about seven and she’ll take us down.”

“Alright,” I say. “I guess I can come.”

“Sweet,” he says. That’s the kind of thing that he says, my friend Jimmy. “Listen I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow, around seven, yeah?”

“Alright, Jimmy.” He hangs up and I put my phone back in my bag.

I guess this party could be fun. Fran’s always a good laugh to hang around with. I like spending time with Fran.

I don’t really want to kill the fly anymore so I just sit there and watch it. The poor thing’s still trying.


The bus keeps rumbling along and I start to look around it, at the other people. I do this sometimes, I do it to pass the time. No-one’s talking except this one couple near the front, but they’re not really saying much. One of them mentions their kid, I think. They’re probably just saying things to keep up the conversation.

I can’t decide if I want to go to this party or not. Fran likes to have everyone she knows round to these things and I don’t always like it too much, having all these people around. I kind of wish it was just her.

Sometimes when I’m on the bus I like to make up little stories, about people’s lives. I wonder why they’re on the bus and where they’re going and who they’re going to meet. But today no-one seems to have any stories. They’re all just sitting there, not moving or talking or anything.

I wonder what Fran would think about this fly? I think she’d like it too. I think she’d understand.
I’m sort of staring into the middle of the bus, not really looking at anything, when this one woman looks straight at me. For a moment she seems to be in a right state, this woman. Her hair is all coming off her head and on her face, all bitty and wiry, and her eyes are wild and alive like fire. She thinks I’m looking at her. Or at least I think she does. But then her eyes flicker off somewhere else and I feel like she wasn’t looking at me at all.

I look back down at the fly. There’s something about this fly. I find my fingers coming near it, trying to coax it onto my hand. It starts scrambling away, but I cup my hand around it against the window. Without anywhere else to go, it starts up the window again. I follow it with my hand, ready to catch it when it falls. It gets pretty high up this time, maybe three four inches off the ground, higher than I’ve seen it get so far. But sure enough it falls eventually, landing in my palm, and I quickly take my hand away from the window so it can’t escape. I hold it up to my face to get a better look. It starts crawling around up my fingers and on my fingernails, so light I can only just feel it there.

I look out the window again. We’re just coming past a park and nearing the next bus stop. It’s the one we get off when we go see Fran. I’m looking at the window, and I can see the reflections of the couple and the woman and all the other dreary people in it. I’m looking at the window, with the fly crawling around on my fingers, and I suddenly have the urge to get off the bus.
I want to go see Fran. I’m right down the road from her place, it won’t take me long. I know I should wait till tomorrow night, but I don’t want to. I want to go see her now. It’s been so long. I can’t sit on this goddamn bus any longer.

The bus starts to slow. I don’t let myself think about it, I just pick up my bag, get up and move towards the door. No-one gives me a second glance, no-one knows that this isn’t my stop. No-one even sees the fly, still crawling around in my hand.

I’ll just get off the bus, I think, put the fly on a leaf somewhere, and go see my friend, Fran. She might not be in, but I’ll go see.