A Nightingale in the Scrapyard

Carolina swampland. Trees grow out of the black water like the broken columns of some dead civilisation. Waterlilies lie on liquid soot and ripen under ripped stumps. The dirt roads dip into wet hollows. Dragonflies and damsels fly the ranges and men curse them. Butterflies of an old kind, dark and striking, wander between the soot footed pines. These are not the drifting motes of English lawns. These are shocks among the stun grenades and guns and shell cases crunching under foot. War gestates in these woods. We hear that there is a stranger on the range. A wanted man and so we shall have live ammo. There is hunger, like dogs sniffing for a crumb. The roads on the high ground are bound side to side by sand coloured vehicles. Men and women crouch on the ranges, firing, and there are many ranges. Miles of ranges. Recruits stretch into the distance. It is 4pm and the sun is shining and the flare one mile down the sniper range hurts my eyes. Men lie in fake tenament windows waiting to kill electric muslims.

Leaving the swampland for home, crossing the higher ground, with everyone silent because our own mission has been a failure, we pause in a queue of traffic for yet another checkpoint. Through a screen of trees I see row upon row of motorcycles, scrapped. Harleys, Elektra-Glides, Ducattis, Kawasakis and Hondas. Glittering chrome handlebars curl like dinosaur bones. Brilliantly coloured bodies glow like great dead dragonflies. Corrosion wanders through the piles which are stacked like strata exposed. For a moment I am struck with regret because I have missed, perhaps, the most poignant photograph of my life. We lurch into motion and cross a thin stream draining the swamps and all that they bear, into the blackwater of the Cape Fear river.

Our guide recommends bars, one has a wet t-shirt contest, others are rawer still. If we are feeling adventurous there is a country music bar where a fight is the price of admission. He didn't mention the lounge in the sorry mall. It promises live music and we chose to slake our boredom there. It has four screens each showing a different sport. Segregation has long died in North Carolina, so they say, but that appears not to be the case here. The barman is agitated for a moment. We want beer. A man watches us. Another watcher sits in the DJ's hut. The barman touches his hands free and the DJ touches me on the shoulder. He is almost seven feet tall. His sharp eyes bite. But he wants to play whatever whatever we want because the band is late and we look like tippers. They play us Beatles and Stones and the dark faces tolerate it. The band arrive. They have no drummer, he is not sufficiently stoned today. The bassist and stand-in engineer rips our ears with feedback. He wants us to buy his album and we don't. But when he grudgingly invites the fat lady to sing, apologising for her in advance, we discover the music of a woman told she is talentless by a talentless liar. All the bar is looking away, staring at the TV or the barmaids chest. Not one watches the woman sing and every man here is listening with every ounce of his attention to the nightingale in the scrapyard.





It has been discovered that some people, probably a tiny proportion of women, can see extra colours in the red-orange range. There are devices that are designed to drive kids away with high pitch sound that older people cannot hear. We have long known that some people can't assimilate words as well as others. Autism deprives you of the ability to read the emotions of others. Then, of course, there are the blind and the deaf. 

What other blindnesses are there that we don't yet know? 


The Slow Embers of the Earth

The black fen earth hides beside the ruler-straight road, as though the night itself has been discovered in its combed day-roost, ignored by those who speed past. But that blackness is a thin cliche. Stop for a moment and push your fingers into it and you find that fen soil is not black. Though it seems to be made mostly of soot and ink, if you look closely, if you raise a handful and show it to the sun, it will respond with a hidden ember of ground rubies. Somewhere amongst the peat and clay something deeply asleep holds the power of the sun, frozen. You can feel the ghost of that fire in your darkened fingers, waiting for the spring to melt it and the sun to kindle it back into life and then the fens will burst into green flame.


Three Beautiful Things - December

  1. The pink tongues and shining amber eyes of two dogs lying together exhausted after hours of newly-acquainted play.
  2. A tablefull of feasting guests, all bursting with good spirit.
  3. Goodbyes, and the moment of satisfied calm afterwards.

Black Dog

These fenland nights are as black as a glass of Guinness. On these same nights a year ago, the skies seemed full of stars. This year the night is full of rain. Nothing is seen, everything is felt and felt in the bones. The clouds glower all day and at night they press in like blankets soaked in cold ink. The ploughed earth is fat with peat, the furrows metalled with water, the ridges like fallen drunks replete from the sodden summer. The drains are a mile across, scudding with sooty, ripped trees which roll past, sticking against the bridges which they will soon flow over. The only colour is the red and yellow of the road-closed sign afloat on the water. Dark moulds creep in from the bathroom windows. Dark mud creeps up through the grass. The sky gathers bark-like against the moon, if the moon dares show its face. The last colour of the summer sits in the trees and drips and shivvers. All other colours are lost to the earth like broken soldiers. Crows in joyous hundreds, fountain into the sky to pay homage to the ancient swamp-born beast who rises with the risen flood and finds easy prey in the agued mist.