Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Captains of the Clouds

His name is Curly Waters. His story takes us from this point here to that point there. It is, as these things tend to go, a story of growth, of love, of celebration. It is a story that takes in, right at the start, the fact of him becoming an orphan. It also takes in, near the start and along the way, his younger sister, a couple of deadly enemies and the world at large. The world, in fact, at war. What a backdrop. What an occasional central character, intruding here and there. The ineluctable interference of history. I may even throw in a tiger.

Curly Waters on the stoop. His mother and father upstairs in their tenement apartment of brownstone building and rusty plumbing. They are of a particular nationality, newly arrived, struggling with all that is new, especially the language. No, especially the bills. During the course of a few pages this mother and father, sketched quickly and lovingly, are taken through their paces and take possession of a swift, sharp lesson in what happens when you fool around with the wrong people. Their naivety, touching and courageous, is ultimately their downfall. Curly on the stoop, clowning for his friends, hears the noise from above but, because this is a neighbourhood where noises are heard all the time, ignores the noise from above. What would have happened, he asks himself later, if he had responded to that noise? Would his parents have bled to death as they most assuredly did on their own bedroom floor? Would his sister have been caught in the ensuing carnage? That selfish bum kid, clowning around for the benefit of the full kaleidoscopic gang of kids, was too busy living, living, living while his parents lay dying. And him as new as they were. The date, coincidentally: 7 December 1941. The full pull of history. It starts here.

Curly Waters is caught in the blast as his apartment explodes, the building collapsing on top of, among many others, his four-year-old sister, still nestled in the protective arms of her already dead mother. Curly, his leg deep red, in obvious searing pain, scratches his way down through the rubble, ignoring the pleas of Father O’Brien and Officer Shaugnessy, his little sister down there somewhere, down there. The interchange between them as Curly’s horror and fear stands in contrived contrast to his sister’s placid acceptance. On he battles, on, as she resigns herself to the inevitable. Faced with the image of his dead parents, their shattered bodies grotesquely contorted in forms of desperate love, Curly prises open his mother’s tender fingers, releases his sister – who doesn’t want to go! we have to! they’re dead! – and makes the slow climb back up to the air. But quick, Curly, before the final explosion, the gas pipes, the backfiring car, the lit matches, the pilot light! Pulling his sister free into the open as Officer Shillelagh catches her, safe at last, safe at last, shhh now. But wait. Curly drops, passing out. His sister screaming her brother’s name, Officer Shannonie fighting hard to hold her back. Wake up Curly! As something through the fog touches him (maybe his dead parents, who knows?) imploring him to wake, to embrace life, to not give up, to live, to live, to live! The final few yards, through the fug of haze, passing in and out of consciousness, he crawls – clever boy – into an old refrigerator at the moment of boom, at the moment of enormous crash and thunder. At the moment that everything ends. The rain, the full flowering of the night sky, the illuminations, the grand fallout. And then silence. Cold, empty silence. The pause of death. His sister, somehow loose, roaming the rubble in search of her brother, who won’t give up no matter what Father O’Hara and Officer Shinglesham say. There, wait, there he is. There he is! Inside, prise it open, get it open! The wrong refrigerator, the wrong one! But where? And there, over there, balanced on the horizon, silhouetted against the moon, the right refrigerator, scorched black, its door asunder. Empty. No sign of Curly, no sign of – wait! There, by the gas pipe taking the life from him, pull him away, get him away, get that boy out of here!

Curly Waters, his sister and the war. From initial surprise to the end of victory. A few near misses. A brush with this and that. Sharing the war with a room full of cousins. With gangsters and the black market. A hustle here, a bustle there. Selling comic books, bagels, pretzels, shining shoes, riding the trolleys. Those two enemies, his parents’ murderers, are around here somewhere. Who are they? Ordinary thug gangsters? Vicious loan sharks? They are much more ambiguous. And perhaps not gangsters at all. Back there, the approach of the war. Old Europe. Intelligence. Spies. Double dealing. Red herrings. Doorways. Subway rides. Comic book fantasies. His German parents. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

After the war. Post-war Germany. East and West, mostly East. Reds under the bed. Curly in black and white, a young man in horn-rimmed glasses, working for someone, but whom? Big bakelite telephones. Trolley buses. Rows of Trabants. Black boots crimping snow. Cigarettes in phone booths. The endless spatter of rain against greasy windows. Puddles and car headlights. Crumpled writing on crumpled notepaper. Russians. Germans. The British. Silencers. Bodies in armchairs, bodies in baths. Glasses of whisky on the table, cigarettes burning holes in the floor. The deathly quiet of closing doors. Sneaking out in black and white.

Meanwhile, his sister on a farm in Connecticut. Growing up in the sun. A suitor in the form of a young man called Biff. Biff Grimes. Who is this Biff Grimes? asks Curly, as he steps, unexpected, through the farmhouse door. Years later, his sister asks him: What are you telling me about our parents and these men who murdered our parents? Yes, adds Biff, what are you telling us? That’s right, interject his sister’s kids – Louie, Tom and Isaac – what are you telling us about our grandparents and that?

England. 1963. They don’t actually meet, Curly and The Beatles, but a close look reveals a shared hotel, in Nottingham, with a splash of paint there, some chatter there. A flicker of appreciation. What a backdrop. The blossom from monochrome, the Technicolorisation of England’s cobbled streets. Another brush, years later. Toronto, 1969. With Al Capp at the bar, drunk, on Sadie Hawkins’ Day. Shmoo, says Capp. Shmoo!

In the light of that swinging decade, Curly, who is still a relatively young man (let’s see, 13 in 1941, 33 in 1961, 39 in 1967 – that’ll do) lives somewhat freer and a little more irresponsibly than he had previously done. Which means all the usual. And then history kicks him into the harsh reality of the seventies with his failed marriages, kids, drug busts, underground comix, poetry and all the introspection he can handle. A decade of recovery until the boom – there again, boom – of the eighties where something like the arrival of grandchildren or some long lost relative or lover brings with it a new interest, and new news, of that fateful day back in 1941. The way history ebbs, the way it flows. And how quickly too. So there he is, our Curly of the not-so-sparkling Waters, plunged back through time all over again.

Revisiting the past, Curly travels on a journey that is not only a voyage through his own suffering but also through the pain of the wider past. His omniscient eye, viewing from the safety of the present, compartmentalises and locks things down as truths. One, two, three it went. And then four, five, six. That Hitler, we knew he was bad. That Nixon, worse. Rations and hardship, the card sharps, the pool tables. Look at the way Hollywood has gone. Listen to the way the music sounds. Television. New greed. High rises, low rents. The death of everything. Etc.

His sister, in the meantime, dead. Biff watching helplessly – impotently (NB: see the later introduction of Viagra and the effect it has, both in the wider sociological framework and on the individual Biff, bless him) as his young sons make their way to Vietnam and come back from Vietnam pale imitations of their former cherry apple selves. Their added stories of horror and death. His daughter – the very epitome of all that is good in this drama and in the wider drama – somehow fails to make the most of this good. She falls short and, you know, it seems that that’s what’s going on here, a kind of vast falling shortness that nobody can avoid. So for a while they reach for something, discover that it’s out of reach, and then settle – happily – for the lower lying fruit. That’s where the goodness is, the richness, the nutrients, the life-giving thing – in that low lying fruit. Right there, dimwit, right in front of your vast and bulbous nose. Towards the end there is a coming together, a unity of at least the major players, if not the smaller spark.

But full circle, almost – the parallels are there – sixty years later. A new spark and the beginning of a newer journey. A moment to end on, like an ouroboros. But silence this time, for some reason, the only response. Silence as Curly Waters, now seventy-three years old, finds himself again, unbelievably – inevitably – crawling desperately, heroically, through the rubble.

7 Comments:

Blogger Molly Bloom said...

God, this takes your breath away. A masterful command of language. Truly superb.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Matthew (London; house; kids; you know) said...

Okay, so I might be stopping worrying "what it all means". I raced through this one. Somehow it didn't seem as alienating as earlier posts. Thinking Winter Olympics, it's a bobsleigh ride, isn't it? A slalom. Ski sticks in the snow. Butterfly net stretched out. Took me in, took me there, wherever that might be. I don't know about "masterful" though. Words like that'll go to his head...

9:29 PM  
Blogger Molly Bloom said...

It is TRULY MASTERFUL - so there. Hi Matthew! I think 'alienating' is a positive and powerful force. If you can alienate your reader in different ways, you have shown that you have mastery of language. The power lies in the discomfort you can feel when you are being alienated and reveals the potency of the writer.

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