James Hopkin - England

A Day in the Dark Season

This darkness is of my own design. That’s because the bags beneath my eyes are not bags; they are sachets. And these sachets secrete, slowly, a drop at a time, an ink that darkens the air around me. My eyelids hang too heavy to bat away the gloom. All day I am wrapped in dusk.

Sweetheart, the world is heavy.

Especially when you consider that I’m full of hot water and honey. And a half-lemon squeezed in all the wrong directions. I’ll take it tear for tear if you think it will help. Also, I’ve eaten garlic and rubbed a little on my chest. I am not going to die. I work for the council. In accommodation.

Forgive me, I only wanted to lay my head on your shoulder.

‘But I don’t even know you’ she said, with a look of deep suspicion. (Deep enough to bring lines to her forehead upon which her dismay was written.) ‘Besides,’ she said, ’you smell like a fruit and veg stall.’

Every person is a stranger. Sometimes, I prefer trees. Their arms are much more welcoming. Especially when leafless, as they are now. I carry on walking, cobbles and kerbs, streets and alley-ways, past cafés and derelict churches. And shops. And more shops. Everyone is buying things they don’t need, while my ailing tubes whistle like a kettle that has that very moment been taken off the hob.

Forgive me, I intended to talk of spirituality.

I will keep going until every aspect of me is in correspondence. My body to my soul, then back the other way. That might be a long walk. (Remember to take refreshments.) Everyone is continuing to buy things they don’t want. Look, the left hand is trying to outbid the right! At least I have a job. I work for the council. In accommodation. Even though I live in an attic that never seems warm enough. I sleep beneath a blanket of tiles. Whereas, in the office, I look good behind a tie. A tie lies the length of the larynx, just one of my tubes that is now inflamed.

Has everyone lost patience?

Last night, when I opened one of the windows in the attic, I saw three chimney pots looking like the valves of a giant trumpet. I wanted to play them. To clear those valves. Then maybe my own tubes might clear as well. But, no, I remain blocked. My spirit held in a phial with a seal made of ear-wax.

Thick-witted with painkillers, I cry lemon tears. My senses look to each other to confirm their continued existence. But as soon as I sneeze, they are scrambled again.

My hands are very white. They fly out the end of my sleeves like origami doves.

I’m still on the streets. I will keep going until I’m close to understanding the aspects of myself that interact with you. My soul to someone else, then back the other way. That might be a long walk. (Remember to take eternity.) I push my pale forehead through the thickening mist. There must be a whole city of kettles boiling on the hob. My lungs feel like they’re stuffed with socks.

How we neglect ourselves, dear soul! I continue to leak ink from the sachets beneath my eyes. I cannot leave this darkness behind. I carry it with me round the city. Like a rolled-up rug with me inside.

And there’s still a long way to go, my dear. There’s still a long way to go.

A castle, a cathedral, their turrets topped with mist. And how many faces peer over the parapet to see what’s going on below? I cannot see a single one. The people shop. The people sleep. The people shop in their sleep.

I add to the mist with my fumes of lemon and honey. Eyes stinging for a vision. (There is a big difference between a vision and a view, don’t forget.) I seek shelter in other people’s shadows, only for my own shadow to outwit me. It trails. It overtakes. It bulges with bad behaviour.

Tell me, am I still a person or just an unregistered complaint?

And tell me, also, are these other shapes still people? Burdened with parcels, their forms are hunched and twisted. Their spines buckle under all they can buy. And have bought. Even their shadows come wrapped. And trailing ribbons of silk.

Where will they take all these things? I work for the council. In accommodation. Do they have space for all these boxes and bags?

My eyes are watering for a focus. I’m a trumpet with blocked valves.

And all this, just as I had begun to believe - due to a forceful new illusion or an administrative error - that life is worth living.

When the church-bells ring, the few who notice them think there must be some mistake. Or a marriage. Or a death. For the shops are still open. With their features patched up by receipts, the mutant forms now quicken their pace. They steer with their elbows through packed streets. I try to breathe through these swollen tubes. I try to find a space.

But this forehead is shrinking. I can feel the cold mist in the grooves of consternation. I forgot my hat. My ears are alien attachments, a freezing set of brackets.

A voice from somewhere said,’They’re all very pretty, these images. But somehow not for the people.’

‘That’s why I work for the council,’ I replied. ‘In accommodation.’

If they were queuing for their souls, I would understand. I would rejoice. I would dance my honey-numb limbs from ankle to Adam’s apple. But I’m overwhelmed by the smell of plastic and cheap scent, both of which the hordes clutch between their monstrous fingers. Look, the right hand is trying to buy the left! I pull open my coat and inhale another draft of garlic.

Then a siren goes off in the shop as I pass. A light flashes. A security guard comes rushing out. He grabs me by the arm.

‘Have you paid for that?’ he demands, pointing to my shadow.

‘Oh yes,’ I said,’ Oh yes, I have. And how!’

‘You again?’ she says, her mouth now a little rope handle on one of her many bags.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘But you’re not well,’ she said.

‘No,’ I said.

‘And you must have been in town for hours.’

‘Yes, I suppose I have,’ I said.

‘And you smell of garlic.'

‘You could say that,’ I said.

‘You really should be in bed.’

And with that, she receded into the circus throng. Where there were now great parcels being juggled by the crowd, tossed in the air, and palmed across heads. Others grabbed these bundles, held them aloft, and tried to run home before their knees gave way. Three people were trying to swing down the street from window ledges, their bags slung across their shoulders. Two were abseiling down shop-fronts from a flat several floors up. They would make a purchase then reverse their route. As they go back up, people bid for their exposed ankles.

A blocked valve cannot produce a single note.

I am not singing, I am choking. And you say it is simply flu? Or a mild infection of the respiratory tract? When I cough my head shakes violently, and my eyes bounce around in their sockets like unreleased bingo-balls. I have to grab onto something, but everything around me is moving. I am dazzled by all this wrapping-paper and rush. There are enough lights to make a migraine. I must not be ill. I have a job. For the council. In accommodation.

Suddenly, I see her. She carries a spirit just like mine. And no shopping! Her eyes slip from beneath the brim of her hat and roll the length of loneliness. She has sachets just like mine.

Dear soul, we could fill the brightest of rooms with the darkness of our unbelonging! Or, in a whisper, form a breath that will not break us, but simply lift us towards everything we want to become.

But when I approach her, she has already vanished.

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