This is not a journal. These are the scraped-together writings as they came to me on that hot island in the Mediterranean. Make of them what you will.
7 August - London
At least it’s cool on this train. The green scene wobbles serene past the window; the sky is as a newborn’s eye. Earlier, I’d watched the light roll off the escalators: hundreds of lapping waves on the ceiling of the station. A trip was calling, revealing itself to me by the lapping of my subconscious on the shores of my mind. I am both sweating and the coldest I will be in a week. The seven days that lie ahead now stretch their arms, lazily wake up, enjoy the feeling of clear air on skin. Soon that clear air will thin, and all that will remain will be the blue and white truth of the clouds, and a can of cold, golden promise.
7 August - Catania from above
Sicily appears as if burning under a thick blanket of smoke. The barren hills have burnt first, the pools of water that still stand from the firefighters reflect the flames as they’re echoed in the clouds. Wind turbines signal SOS in semaphore. Nothing lives here.
And then, the red rooves of a settlement, a farmhouse on a hill surrounded by pines, the remnants of green snaking through a dry valley. Etna stands guard over all she has scorched.
8 August - Palermo
Vast arched courtyards through doorways, a priest reading Bukowski hidden in a magazine, black medicine sipped on ice.
12 August - Castelbuono
The cafe only opened at five am – though the owner sat outside looking as bored as we were for a good hour before that – so we dwelled in our wine haze with our new friends with whom we’d run out of conversation. We are homeless, we are the scraped-together, we are the festival gods of our own fate, and we are here, together, in our sleeping bags and everyone in their own mental world, waiting for 5:40am.
12 August - Palermo
Two more hours to kill. This waiting room: Palermo. The bus rattled along the coastal road past Céfalu, the sun rising and scattering itself over the sea. Inside the bus, I tossed and turned on a single seat, my mind willing sleep to come but my body never comfortable enough to allow it. What a festi-dip this promises to be.
12 August - London
The time has come to prick the bubble on the dream and return myself to reality. When the light flicks off, so too does Sicily. The immediate Sicily, anyway. I have no doubt that its effects will be felt in months and years to come.
The cicadas are screeching like someone’s being murdered. The path between the trees that shield them from view is a rubbish dump of rocks, crumbled from these very hills. Our feet gnash at the earth, grinding countless years of nature’s work. Far off on the breeze, carried from another valley, comes the sound of cowbells, occasionally a lowing. The heat is everything. Clouds over the next hill erupt in slow motion, but offer no threat, nor any respite. The cicadas keep time on the heat like a timer on the oven. I swat away a solitary buzz with a trained hand. A lone blonde reed wobbles noiselessly. A tree moves in the breeze. The cicadas slow, then fall still. The murder is over, a body lies bleeding without a name. In years to come, explorers like us will find a jawbone, bleached white-hot.
I watch revelry happening
far off in a nearby garden;
fairy lights and dimlit people,
like I’m in some fishbowl
just swimming round
it rumbles like the world is crumbling,
and all the skyscrapers are falling to earth
by flashes of their decaying silhouette teeth.
that shakes soaked pavements,
sets off car alarms
and sends the neighbourhood dogs away to cower,
sounding like distant bombs
that fall on our conscience.
when the rain comes
it rinses the dust from the sky
and no sign is left of life
bar drip-drip trees
and the echoes of coughs
and then all is quiet.
i am not from around here
my skin is too pale and
they suss my accent out
but the beer is cold
and the sun will be back
from behind the clouds
To walk the streets here is to walk through a carefully-constructed dream maze, which knows only of rising walls, green waterways, wooden tunnels, identical bridges. I walk the same path many times over, each time leading me somewhere new, somewhere unknown, in only a general direction – across town, avoiding the hordes. To be Venetian must be to live your life down these dream-alleys, behind closed wooden doors in your thousand-year high-rise. There seem to be no locals on San Marco, save for those paid to be there.
To walk the streets here is to discover pools of darkness, be tricked by dead ends, fall into squares through hidden doorways.
To walk the streets here is to walk in a dream.
A hundred thousand comings and goings, the wakes they pull reflecting the high façades and bright reds and greens of the awnings. On the metal jetty, boats come chuntering in, sending huge vibrations shuddering through the pier. The water is low and a foot of green algae is exposed on the low brickwork. Steps appear where before there were none.
It was 3:30am when we came through the door of Graciela’s home on the outskirts of Barranquilla.
“Come, my children,” she says, standing up from the table in the dining room, where she’d been sitting with her daughter. “You must be hungry. Do you want some sopa?”
We nodded gratefully and Graciela placed steaming bowls of chicken soup in front of us, chunks of sweetcorn and potato submerged in it. In breaks between eating, her daughter acts as translator when our basic Spanish gives out.
“We saw you at the carnival today!” I point at myself, point at my eyes, point at her, then attempt some rudimentary salsa steps. Graciela laughs heartily.
That morning, in her resplendent outfit of reds, greens, yellows and blacks, her dark hair all done up and her dress flowing about her, she’d driven us as close as we could get to the parade. We walked the final ten minutes down dusty roads where chickens pecked and excited children dashed from house to brightly-painted house. 100dB floods of reggaeton, salsa and vallenato music emanated from a hundred different speaker systems.
Nothing can prepare you for being a gringo at the carnival in Barranquilla. After much haggling, we paid 15,000 pesos (£4) to get into an enclosure where the smoke of grilling and the distinctive hiss of opening cans filled the air. The onslaught on all senses can at times be overwhelming, as music, bright colours, smells, local flavours, and textures combine as the city comes together for three days of parade and fiesta. Flour is rubbed into white faces. Locals, armed with huge cans of bubblegum-scented foam, spray it profusely, targeting the obvious travellers with well-aimed spumes. Over the waves of music, there’s whistles and yells as patrons in the front row call for “dos Aguilas”, the local Colombian lager, or grilled sticks of meat straight off the barbecue. Ahead of us, toiling under the sun’s rays, dancers in the most garish outfits compete for attention, showing no sign of fatigue. Float after float comes past, greeting the excited crowds as they pass.
“There she is!” comes a cry, as we spot Graciela among forty others, dancing around an enormous yellow bull, its horns tipped in gold and streamers billowing. Despite the heat, the dancers’ moves are in sync, their twirls and spins beautifully-timed. She beams as she sees us. Now, following my gringo dance moves, she’s wearing that same smile.
“Si,” she says, then turns to her daughter, who translates: “But now, it’s time to rest. Tomorrow we do it all again.”
the overnight to Dong Hoi
scuttled and squeaked
out of Hanoi
and a little Vietnamese mouse
mistook the sound
for a potential mate
and stuck his head
above my bed
and then, seeing he was mistaken
and was gone.
I laughed in his face. “Je vous donne €5 pour trois.”
He looked around, and seeing no nearby tourists to fleece, relented.
That is how I came to have three empty bottles between my feet. Paris sparkled, like a cloth made of stars before me, a sprawling quilt of life lifting Montmartre to the height of the Gods, like some Parisian Mount Olympus. On a scrap of paper, I wrote a poem, rolled it up, stuffed it in a bottle. I stood, stumbled down marble steps, reached the railing, kissed the bottle once, then flung it as far as it would go over the city. When I thought it would fall to Earth, it continued, straight off into the night sky over Paris, and then, when it was almost out of sight, it exploded into colours, three hundred or more, burning and soaring and illuminating, and the cloth of stars on Earth came to be reflected in the sky. And from the dying embers of light came three hundred homing pigeons; their wings taking them out into the world, to one day, one day, bring them back to me.
I wrote that poem for their safe return.
i spilled my beer
so the room smelled of wet yeast,
and the cigarettes old men stubbed out in the corridor,
and the broth the guy in the top bunk had bought off the food trolley,
and the single rose in a vase on the table,
that wobbled in time with the train.
Exhale as you lift. Inhale as you lower. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirty seconds break. I feel drops running through my hair, down my neck, sticking my shirt to my back. One, two, three, four. Slower now. Back straight, Cable, don’t slouch. Ten. Eleven. Wobbly twelve, then down. Smashed it.
With a goal in mind, training is a doddle. The numbers tick down as my feet pound the spinning rubber of the treadmill. Wake up! Grab a brush and put a little make-up! The pounding vocals drive me on. This is easy. Until it isn’t. Three kilometres in, the pain in my chest is back. Last time it was at two-and-a-half. Progress. And where you gonna run when you're staring down the cable of a mic pointed at your grill like a gun? When the treadmill beeps cut through Fred Durst’s swearing, it’s all I can do not to collapse onto the floor of the gym. But I’ve done it. Twenty-six minutes. A whole minute faster. Race day will be a breeze.
The adrenaline starts as we jostle for position on the start line. There’s hundreds of us here, dogs straining to be let off the lead, angry bees confined to a hive about to break open. Then the starter waves her flag and the clock starts ticking and my feet start pounding grass flattened by hundreds before me, slowly at first, finding my pace, then settling into it as the first kilometre flies by. The crowds are thinning, the beasts have pulled together at the front, the stragglers behind. This is easy going. A marker indicates a further 500m to the first obstacle. In my head, I’m picturing an adventure playground, a huge web of nets held up by a wooden frame, to clamber over and around and through. I see in my mind’s eye soldiers in training, crawling on their fronts through mud, keeping low as live fire is gunned over their heads, barbed wire just centimetres from their backs. I’ve got this. I can do this. Feet keep pounding, the rhythm of my breathing quickens. I’ve lost my team now, probably behind me. I am flying.
Obstacle one. The sign looms up and I am ready, ready for anything, adrenaline coursing through my arms, legs, heart. And then I arrive at a row of tables with a series of people sitting behind them. And there, sitting quietly in a Windsor field behind an old school desk, sits my mother.
“Your father and I are quite worried about you.”
No. They – they promised obstacles. Like, physical obstacles. I spent months training for this. Is this some kind of joke? My heart is racing: from running or from the conversation I’ve been thrown into? I sit through five minutes of her concern, of her sleepless nights, of her “not anger, but disappointment.” I sit and can do nothing but listen, head hung in shame. It’s my fault. All of this, everything she’s saying, it’s my fault. My heart slows down, adrenaline replaced by the darkness of shame. I’m apologising, pledging to do better by me, by her, by our family. It’s all I can do.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” she says. “But don’t let me hold you up. You’ve got a race to run. Priorities and whatnot.”
The kilometre after is tougher. The wind has been taken out of my sails and my feet feel heavy with despair. At the next obstacle, another row of desks. My girlfriend? My heart takes a hit and sinks like a stone.
“We need to talk,” she says.
There’s still three obstacles after this. The adventure playground is gone from my mind. All I see now is ever-darkening circles of Hell. What on Earth do they have in store for us? I picture it all out ahead of me, obstacle three: my boss accusing me of some corporate crime and threatening to strike me off sans compensation and hand me over to the police; obstacle four: a burning bonfire of all my books; obstacle five, the Grim Reaper with a scythe. Sweat now pours, my heart is beating in my mouth. I feel my mind tearing apart with the strain, make it stop before I am nothing but a bag of bones running through a field, make it stop, make it stop!
“C’mon, Cable!” She’s shaking me.
I look at her groggily.
“Wake up!” she says. “Are you ready?! It’s race day!”
De dag keerde vlak na het middaguur weer in op zichzelf, en probeerde om één uur al avond te worden. Wij fietsten over grauwe paden in de mist, vergezeld door eenzame passanten die honden uitlieten, maar veel liever thuis voor het open haard zaten. Bij de veerpont groette de kapitein ons hartelijk en trakteerde ons op snoepjes. Wij waren waarschijnlijk zijn enige passanten van de dag. Uit zijn stuurkamer ontsnapte simpele pianomuziek. Halverwege het water, zag ik in de verte het silhouet van een zeilboot, de twee zeilen onmisbaar tegen de platte horizon. Dit was vroeger thuis, koud in de wind op de zaterdagen van mijn jeugd. Hier heb ik gelachen met de wind in de haren, hier heb ik nooit leren zeilen, maar wel heerlijk leren kloten. Toen ik wat ouder werd, was hier mijn speelplaats in mijn eigen bootje, vrij van verwachtingen en los van tijd. Ik voelde weer die wind, rook weer de adrenaline van mijn jeugd toen ik de motor opengooide en ik over het water stuiterde. Veel later heb ik hieraan teruggedacht bij het gedicht van Remco Campert: hier nu, langs het lange, diepe water; voor mij was dat altijd hier geweest, langs dit water. Dit allemaal ritste door mijn hoofd tijdens het korte rit naar de overkant. Eenmaal weer op het land aangekomen, fietste wij zonder enkel woord verder. Het veerpont voer door, de piano toetsen spookachtig en verdwijnend in de dunne mist. Het enige geluid kwam nu van het gaggelen van ganzen, beesten die ik hoorde maar niet zag, verschuild ergens op het polderland. Dit was Nederland.
Ik trapte door. Zij fietste voorop, haar rode jas als een vuurtoren.
“Hier zeilde ik vroeger,” riep ik de wind in.
“Dat weet ik,” zei ze.
Wij hadden geborreld in de stad, voor de zoveelste keer vandaag, en mijn ogen begonnen dicht te vallen rond een uur of elf. Toch lulde wij stevig door. Moeheid is geen excuus wanneer je iemand maar twee keer per jaar ziet. De ramen beslagen, deelde wij het laatste biertje, solidair. Toen de muziek mij over de rand van slaap dreigde te duwen, omhelsden wij elkaar en baande wij onze weg, door de kou, naar huis. De stad glinsterde onder straat- en maanlicht, de grachten weerspiegelde de waarheid van de wereld. De wegen waren uitgestorven.
De remmen van haar fiets piepte. “Laten we stoppen.”
Jaren geleden zat ik ‘s nachts langs de gracht, in een staat van dronken melancholiek, en schreef ik een ode aan een nog-te-ontmoeten persoon die naast mij deze schoonheid beleefde. Nu stond ze aan mijn zij.
“Je hebt gelijk,” zei ze, en kuste me.
an endless stream
of tricks and tocks
5-star holidays and bubbling stocks
those bits and bytes
those coins and Lites
souring all my dopamine;
a cocaine-snorting Charlie Sheen,
or Kim Kardashian’s brand new bum
our Princess, set to be a Mum.
your clicks are sold to highest bid
they push a platform on your kid
to spin roulette and red-rag bulls
and all them other evil pulls
dreamt up in labs by twisted mind
who bear no feeling for mankind,
who’ve hacked the soul,
found nothing there
but a bunch of wires
and a bottomless tear
and into this deep pit they’ve plunged
and off our weaknesses they have sponged
until the sun comes up one day
and with a yell, I hope we’ll say
these Likes we’re living
while our brains you’re sieving;
we no longer want a part
and so we’ll start to pick apart
this spider’s web that we have strung
those threads upon which we hung
will fall like rags around our feet
that Insta like, that outraged Tweet,
will become again what they always were,
mere ones and zeros, a server’s whirr.
streets are still stained white
but the edges are greying
the thaw has set in.
as wind whips bare branch
puddles on the road shimmer
like cut stones on cloth.
rum still stains my thoughts
but morning Caribbean
washes clean my toes.
the growling tiger,
hot, white noise,
the creak and click of the middle cupboard;
dawn is a haze under blankets.
i shield my eyes from infernal light
and watch you with my ears.
take one tablespoon of music
the kind that speaks right to your soul,
live, if you can find any.
half a gramme of the highest grade of time,
a tot of wine if you so please.
open a book halfway,
read a line or six,
crack the spine,
fold corners if you want.
take no advice from another tongue,
be it forked or of the purest gold,
seek out the love of a good human (or several),
then tell them all.
step back from the newsfeed,
for hollow smiles bring nothing but shame;
do not be a glutton of nothing.
seek out the sun.
avoid all forms of toxicity.
get plenty of rest.
if symptoms persist, double the dose.
The town was grey and its people were mostly shut up indoors. The day’s only taxi turned into a carpool when a couple beat us to it, then offered to take us as well. The driver dropped them at a nondescript but apparently popular B&B without a single sign on the exterior.
We arrived late to the workshop and were still the first ones there. Once we got over our reticence at cutting up literature, we got stuck into redacting words deemed unnecessary and leaving just the poetry that lay beneath. A History of the French Revolution provided plenty of references to Paris and Champagne. Herman Melville was less forthcoming. Maybe he was poetic enough as it was.
When our brains could take no more stained words and linguistic jigsaw puzzles, we braved the cold, rain and wind to walk fifteen minutes through a deserted town to the art gallery.
“Our most famous work is on the beach, but the tide has come in so you won’t see it anymore today. But there’s plenty more to see,” the receptionist told us cheerily. There were more exhibits in the museum than people. Maybe people around here just weren’t that interested in art. Later, as we made to leave, up loomed human-size mannequins, their faces contorted or blank or not there at all, limbs tied up with string or holding dead-eyed children. These were the faces of future nightmares. The artist also had pictures of houses, with the boughs of trees or huge geysers of blood bursting from the windows.
“If a kid did that at school...” Lara said. Her voice echoed around the still gallery.
We were the only ones in the café. The waitress served us, then started clearing up the tables. Whatever there had been of sun was now setting in the world’s most underwhelming sunset, a thin line of orange across a tiny portion of sky.
For some masochistic reason, we ventured out along the concrete pier. In a bar sat a single man nursing a beer. The wind tugged at us, the sea smelled, well, like the sea. Huge plumes of salty froth gathered at the walls as the waves crashed and spat below.
“We might end up on the front page,” I shouted into the wind. “Two swept into the sea in Margate.” We didn’t stay long after that thought.
The route along the promenade battered rain and sea spray at us. I don’t remember seeing another person in about a mile.
The replacement bus was dimly-lit and a few groups sat around, silently pondering how they had ended up in this place. The bus rattled round country roads, the driver making a single stop to pick up a single person before crashing off again into the 5pm night. Then the train wheels started turning and we started thawing as we moved back toward the city where everything happened, and where everything had ground to a halt over three inches of snow.