Si Philbrook: Ragamuffin


I am Christ on a hot summers’ day sitting in a cornfield. If Christ were alive today he’d be working in a petrol station. That’s a lie, but I work in a petrol station. Come meet humanity as it buys petrol. Humanity stinks.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield. THE cornfield, definite article. It exists. Somewhere I’ve been to. Not the one’s they tell you about in school. Listen boys and girls, there was a field-mouse who lived in a cornfield. Where is this cornfield? Alleged cornfield. The world is full of cornfields. Crap! The world is full of mars bar wrappers, coke cans, people who remember the war, and non-biodegradeable plastics.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield, smiling. If Christ had lived he would have smiled. He’d have been a bit odd though. The man you don’t sit next to on trains. The drunk asking for money at Victoria Station. The prostitute outside King’s Cross. Something seedy. Certainly something seedy.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield. I have a nose bleed. Allergy to the new chemicals. Never mind you say. Borrow my handkerchief. Thank you. Brief, to the point, shows you care without giving away too much. We scratch the surface of each other so. What are we that we are alone through the cold night? There were three American girls on the tube. Pretty. Hmm, yum yum. Talking about how the English didn’t smile, didn’t talk. That’s me, what I am, an Englishman, definite article.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield, yawning. Time is slow today, stretching in the sunshine. Life is slow. I stop, think. The smell of the kitchen when we lived above the café. The stairs to the attic room. Town noises. Headlight shadows across the bedroom wall. Aroma of coffee. So young. So very young, when time was young. An old man taught me chess sitting at the corner table. We lived in Brighton then. Mum and Dad ran the café. I learnt to swim at King Alfred’s. Had a pair of roller skates. School was big and I was no good at football. We lived in Brighton and I grew up, scruffily.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield. My nose is still bleeding. Paula had a nose bleed the day we went to London. Italian students. They bought English music and postcards of the Queen. Antonio had his hair dyed green. There was trouble for that. I was student leader, joe responsible. I’d lied about my age. Twenty sounded so much older that nineteen. So there I was, Teacher of English with additional responsibility for hair colour. It was a good summer with the Italians. Gentle flirting with Paula. A brush past, a touch too long. She kissed me once. The last day as they left. Just reached up and kissed me. Unprepared I smiled. Gentle things.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield, and I am bored. I do not feel. I scratch myself with a corn stick, just to know I am still there. I do not care and I do not feel. What are you? Helen asked me. Young girls are armed with pertinent questions, by their mothers I think. What am I? Am, such a definite word, so this or that.

I am a teller of lies, a player of games, a ragamuffin. Holder of dreams, keeper of secrets, ragamuffin. I like the word. It smells of me. What have I done? I have done whatever I choose to have done. There were four boys in the playground. They ran a race. Lee and Simon and Matthew and Michael. Lee was fastest, but this time, oh yes this time I was winning. He fell over. Mat and Michael kept running. I stopped. The attendant said I tripped him. I did not. Stand by the wall and do not move for the rest of lunchtime. I WILL NOT. Do as you’re told. I DID NOT TRIP HIM. I saw you do it. I DID NOT. I didn’t understand. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. How often had I told that lie. But not this time. This time she tumble tripped me with her words. Her grown up big world words. I believed. Everything was bigger than my eyes could see, my ears could hear, my nose could sniffle. Everything was big and I was sorry. I didn’t mean to trip him.

Rag-tag-rag-a-muffin. Games I have played. Lies I have told. I think, when you have lied about love, you I told every lie. I love you is not a game to cheat at. (I have told every lie). There was cat in the road, run over. Crushed utterly. Half decayed it smelt bad, like us, we smell bad, in our shopping centres, restaurants, petrol stations. We stink. Love is that way when you tell every lie. You are the stinking cat in the road, fly-ridden, kissing with maggot breath as you pant and gasp your lies out.

The cornfield is a hot place. Sweaty. The grass round the edge still long, green, fresh, verdant even, but the corn is so dry, scratchy and buzzy with flies. Cornfields are not what they’re made out to be. The pastoral, postcard world is dead. We sprayed it to death. It coughed, choked, spluttered, died. Who cares anyway? The world is not a real place. It can’t be touched, just watched on television. Nothing is real unless it smacks us in the teeth.

The trick for sitting in cornfields, and there’s always a trick (a wooden horse, a landmine, an encouraging smile) the trick is to look up. Be constantly aware of the sky. It gives a sense of the size of things. We look too much to the ground, scratching and crawling around on it. Our field of vision confines our lives, limits us. It makes us stronger when we are not afraid of the sky. I sit in the cornfield. Old shorts, cotton shirt. My legs are scratched. Red-touched from the dryness of the corn. There is a stream in the corner. Shoes disappear in a kick of the wind. Paddlesplashing. It’s colder than it looks. What else is cold kiddies? Ice-cream, yes that’s right. And? An Eskimo’s nose. The east wind. An empty bed. Silence.

Rag-tag-tag-a-muffin. It’s like Roge-dodge-dolphin. I met him. We went bowling. No really. He was in the next lane of course. With his girlfriend, Kate. I’ve known three Kates, but this was the best one. A fine woman of a Kate. The first was bubbly and fun. The second aloof, an art student, but this one, oh she was special. She was Kate, his girlfriend, but she could have been anyone, anything she wanted, a rare gift. I, of course behaved badly. Somewhere else, some other time we’d have got on, been friends. If we’d met in a bazaar in Cairoor a library, or on a long train journey, or as children in the café. I could have taught her chess. I hope she turns out to be a sculptor, or a poet or something.

It is strange what we become. This generation. We did not fight the War. We did not march with the peace movement. What is there for us to be heroic about? Angry about? We have watched too many war films. It has all been done. We are empty, directionless. There are no more Bogarts, just football thugs. We can’t be heroes so we end up as spinning tops. Roge-dodge-dolphin, Rag-tag-tag-a-muffin. It’s the same, tumble turning in our giddy, dizzy wind spun lives. We, the young don’t care. We spit, and even as we spit we feel nothing. We are indifferent. Perhaps this should be more personal. I am all these things. I’m sitting here in this fucking cornfield getting sunburn, because I don’t care. That’s why Kate’s important. She cares. It attracts me. Moths get burned. Perhaps I am just stupid, moth stupid.

Sitting in cornfields you should tell stories. Oh yes, little, gentle stories, to bring a smile. Great big bigger than life stories with characters loud and bright, with noises, jokes, colour. Who should tell it. An old man with wisdom cut deep into the lines of his face. Cut with pain, beauty. Storyteller’s eyes, steady as a heartbeat, wild, acrobatic, bright, gentle. He’d been an aviator, flown transports out of Marseilles after the War. Grown up in the Blitz, French Mother gave him a lilt in his voice, still romantic under the button-up coat of an Englishman. It’s a good story, old, sad.

“Now is not the time to mourn for the oceans are not deep enough to hold our tears. I heard a song. It was the song of the last Giant, wailing and echoing through the depths of the Atlantic. He sang of loneliness. We who do not know love, have not touched such cold depths. Our love is desire, and lust, and having. Getting and having. Our love is red with pain. The song of the last giant echoes the sounds of the sky, water and fire, elemental beauty. No stumbling words. We, the tongue tripped have no song. We are mute.

He sang of the first dawns, when time was young and the music of the giants filled the oceans. When there was air to breath, and the rivers did not run with blood of our wars and the sting of our chemicals. He sang of pain, wounds cut deep by our greed. We who do not know love. He sang of despair, that gifts are lost, and love is dead, and we who do not know love cannot grieve its death. He sang of love, in colours we have no eyes to see, with music we cannot hear. He sang of love and my heart burst with the beauty of his song. We who do not know love are empty.”

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield, and I’m thinking about a girl. There was this girl. Not just any girl, softer than sensual, harder than puzzles. There was this girl and I loved her. I loved her not with hearts and flowers as the French do, nor the passion and pizza of the Italians. I loved her with the plain love of an Englishman, resolutely, steadily, quietly. Here are my socks neatly folded. It looks like rain again. I love you. That sort of thing.

The English are always hidden, never what they seem. Sometimes I think we should all be librarians. Scratch the surface of a Frenchman you find a romantic. Scratch an Englishman, you find a librarian. This is not fair. We speak in such definites, so this or that. Dealing from a loaded deck. The same words round and round, and we wonder why we are alone. All this is not important, except that we spend too long mumble-muttering, tongue tied and tripping over our inadequate words.

I am an Englishman. Say it once or say it a thousand times. Each time a different Englishman in a different world. This time I am an Englishman who fell in love. Mine is a scruffy love. An old letter read so many times the tears and creases have become old friends. My love is odd socks, getting on the wrong train, a snowball fight, kicking around in leaves. Mine is the love that jumps in puddles, giggles, kisses in the rain, makes mistakes, tells bad jokes. Mine is the love that listens to her heartbeat in the silence of the night. These are the things that matter. We should talk more.

I am Christ on a hot summer’s day sitting in the cornfield and I am crying, because we do not talk.


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