Mundi, jittery as he usually felt on the eve of gigs or business trips, packed his bag, the little black suitcase on wheels he always used, folded up brand new pyjamas and pants, a change or two of tee shirt, a rather fancy spotted dressing gown still in its M&S wrapping. He assembled a bag of wash things, moisturiser and deodorant, his laptop, new Kindle bought to save space, plus various books, notebooks, pens he always took anyway, then chargers for headphones, phone and computer, all squished down and zipped tight into the case. One A4 plastic sleeve contained the most important documents, another held get well soon cards. Kind Caj arrived at the designated time in his smart new car to drive him and Mappa, heaved the case into the boot, handed out face masks like they were a trio of bank robbers setting off on a heist. Mappa put her arm through Mundi’s and nuzzled up close as they drove through familiar streets of this city in strange times. He felt fine really, except for the deep foreboding, a hole in the pit of his stomach, though perhaps a more precise anatomical location for this gloom was appropriate in the circumstances. Where exactly did this horrid sensation sit in his belly region? From which angle could it best be removed?
Outside the building Caj parked up in the special bay, unbuckled and climbed out to open the boot. Mundi was shocked to see the anguish in his old friend’s eyes.
“Good luck, mate,” said Caj from behind his yellow and black African fabric mask, swinging the case down onto the pavement. He waved his elbow.
“Yeah. Thanks. Thank you so much. Bye.”
“I’ll be waiting here. No hurry.” Caj murmured to Mappa.
She insisted on carrying the suitcase up the ramp and inside to the lobby. At reception they signed in and sat, waiting nervously, like schoolkids outside the Head’s office. A masked and white coated black woman arrived to take Mundi to his room. Husband and wife had a final hug and murmurings of I love you and let’s talk later.
It was like any standard hotel room with a bed and an armchair, its own en-suite bathroom. By the sink was a rolled up flannel with little tubes of shampoo arranged beside it, aromatic bath and shower gel, calming skin balm. A poster on the wall proclaimed the Trust’s proud mission statement: “Your wellbeing is our first priority”, which seemed a bit bloody obvious to Mundi, as if their first priority might be selling vegetables or, of course, making money.
A big flat-screen telly hung from the wall. The bed was adjustable, on wheels with a cupboard and an armchair beside it. Mundi lay on the bed. He sat on the chair. He lay on the bed. He tapped his fingers on his belly. He found the remote and switched on the TV, flicked aimlessly through food and sport programmes, old movies, news, and settled on ‘The Repair Shop’. In a barn in a country park a team of smiling craftspeople mended items of sentimental value for those who arrived at their doors carrying boxes of broken toys, clocks, trombones, medals handed down through the generations, stored in damp garages, then rediscovered scratched and mouldering. This jolly team of kind experts patched, polished and fettled, asked each other for help on specialist skills, told each other how much fun they were having bringing these items so painstakingly back to life. The punters returned invariably feeling ‘nervous but excited’ to see their object in all its former glory, gasped and teared up when the blanket was whisked away to reveal such a perfect restoration. “Wow!” Hugs were exchanged. “I’ll think of my gran every time I see this. She would be so proud to know the typewriter she wrote her stories on was in full working order again, will be cherished by her great grandchildren…”
Mundi’s mobile rang and it was Mappa, now back at home. Amazing how voices remain unchanged as years go by, hers as melodic and warm as when he first fell in love with it.
“Fine. Yeah. Fine. How are you? No – I’m just lying here. That’s the telly. Repair Shop. Yep. Reassuring somehow, people fixing up clapped out old things. No. Really? Send them my love. Yeah. Let’s talk later. Love you.”
He went back to tapping on his tummy as he watched the nice woodworker planing down someone’s great uncle’s favourite tool box.
REMAKE AND REPERCUSS
At this stage of our unlocking Repercussionists advocate an element of doubt to infect human encounters, a quelling, a coolness, a quiet curiosity. No rushing into arms nor towards other body parts.
Where once loud clapping and howling were deemed essential, now the movement calls on citizens perhaps once a week or so to stand in the street outside their homes and engage in humdrumming: a mix of body percussion and the creation of sound through a closed mouth, activities which sit between shutting the fuck up and shouting the heart out, are how we know ourselves from within, unrecorded, un-reflected, and through which we re-render heard songs, remake and repercuss them for our own purposes to express the inexpressible or almost ignored, those scraps of sorrow, bitterness, love, lunch, the everyday and in-between.
This humdrumming, Repercussionists affirm, can send out a forcefield of emotional complexity guaranteed as much as anything else so far to eliminate most mild symptoms shown of various viruses and hypochondrials. Here lockdown drifts towards the looking into various abysses of grief, ruination and fear, the whole planet staring just now into deep dark.
Meanwhile the Ministry prepares to make defining statements, number the sadly dead, hurriedly moving on to the cheerier rates of infection and frustration, to put an assertive stamp on proceedings, working twentyfourseven on a reboot up the planetary backside to be greener fairer kinder, budgets allowing, keyworkers black and shades of lives mattering some percent moreso, special advisers excepted.
But the humdrumming right across the globe is growing, the pattering on bellies distended by stark staring hunger or anger or grazing on comfort foods, the lips closed, buzzing, ruminating on a tune embodied within us, performed falteringly, to ourselves and those round about, the best means to inhabit these weary skinbags. Let it out but in not quite yet. Hold it in somewhat but still be heard. Humdrumming and look down at our tiptapping fingers, look up to the stars, we are coming up out of lockdown, we open wide shoulders, stretching our backs, pushing out chests, to breathe, resonate, breathe, we must breathe. We are humdrummers no going back and shake.
The first hearing of that new morning of a voice, green shoots and honey, when he’s fifteen and wearing a collarless, bright orange cheesecloth shirt, purple cotton loons , scuffed white gym shoes, carries a canvas bag over his shoulder containing rolling tobacco, papers and plastic disposable lighter, a copy of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse in the silver Penguin Modern Classics edition, a purple biro and his notebook, hard cover A5, lined paper with red margin.
Up the hill, past the secretarial college, cross the road at the Belisha beacon (do these items of street furniture still exist?) by the Catholic prep school, then again at the crossing by the letter box. Left to the next right which takes him over the brow of the hill. Here is a recently built block of old people’s homes, a few posh Victorian houses broken up into flatlets and, on the other side, the high street shops. On the corner by the bookshop stands a flower stall run by an old woman who looks like someone out of Mary Poppins, or the granny in Giles cartoons in his mum’s Daily Express: bulky, corseted, hatchet mouthed. And here’s the bookshop, the centre of this boy’s universe.
In his memory he knows this place inside out and trying to recollect it at this time of life is like walking into a movie he’s seen over and over. Every detail is there to be recalled. He holds this place in his consciousness now. He is closing his eyes and walking into it. But of course, the now he’s writing in changes all the time, the past is fixed if blurry. Recently he bought secondhand from the Oxfam shop a Council directory for that year, so has before him a compendium of every house in the borough and who is registered as living there, advertisements for all the shops, listings of sport centres and doctor’s surgeries. It’s an absurdly well-documented place already, and he’s been made furious over the years to find it so carefully rendered in novels which then move blithely to scenes in unnamed northern cities, sketchily described. But it’s where he’s from and where he knows and there seems less and less point in researching other backgrounds, making stuff up for no particular reason. If you’re not interested then you can just stop reading. His upbringing may be a privileged cliche, but it’s the only one he’s got.
Back then he has long hair which isn’t as long as he’d want it, what with school rules. His asthma is fading as his secret smoking habit grows stronger, swapping one wheeze for another. He’s skinny, with a tendency to spots, and thinks he’s just about good-looking enough to worry a lot about whether he is or not. Oh, and he sneaked out of the house that day in the spring of 1971 because he’s supposed to be revising.
In the bookshop he wanders round the space, avoiding the grouchy manager in the hardback section who suspects him of shoplifting, and seeks out ‘Heads Corner’, a few shelves at the back of the shop dedicated to the canon of Hippiedom. He browses through books by Kahlil Gibran, R.D. Laing, the Penguin teachings of Krishnamurti, Zen Flesh Zen Bones in blue-spined Pelican, those small, square poetry books from City Lights press – that kind of stuff. And almost a shelf of books by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, published by New English Library. Rampa wrote about his experiences as a Tibetan monk in his first book The Third Eye, describing his years of monastic training in the Potala palace in Lhasa. After it was published in 1956, Rampa was unmasked as a plumber’s assistant from Dorset. In his next book the author described how this Englishman had fallen out of a tree in his garden in Thames Ditton, Surrey to find himself inside the body of a monk in Tibet. The one who called himself Lobsang wrote a dozen more books, including one dictated to him by his cat. The boy bought and read most of them back then. But today he doesn’t buy anything. An actual purchase is an occasional treat not a standard occurrence.
At the news stand by the underground he does buy the latest issue of IT, International Times, newspaper of the other kind of underground, and breathes in the oily aroma of its offset-litho ink which is already staining the tips of his fingers black. He’s going to sit on the Heath and read it, or rather look at the cartoons and the small ads, browse the record reviews and decide to read the long articles later. It’s a beautiful day on the Heath and a good time to stroll.
Later, when he lives close to spectacular countryside, he will still hanker for the Heath, thinking of this as real nature, a controlled wilderness in the thick of the city, big enough to roam freely in, but too small to get lost.
GIN & TONIC
After an afternoon and evening consuming bottle after bottle of thick, sickly banana flavoured, protein-rich milkshake, mind roaming wildly through time and state, a night of hot, dry sleeplessness, the next morning Mundi showers, strips and dresses in one of those flimsy cotton garments, putting his arms through the short sleeves so it’s open at the back, struggling and failing to knot the ties, covering his backside with a thin white dressing gown, white surgical tights and ill-fitting yellow socks, is walked down corridors to a harshly lit, TV studio-like room with floodlights, many gowned people busily arranging things, someone pointing at a table on which he is asked to lie. In the corner a nurse in scrubs and visor is counting and cleaning an array of silver blades. The anaesthetist explains they will inject into his back, and when they do the pain is electric. Mundi can’t decipher what the medic is saying through his mask.
“I said sir, now it’s time for the gin and tonic.” They administer an infusion which makes him warm and woozy.
“And now the whisky and soda.”
The anaesthetist smiles and consciousness is