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Sunday, February 13, 2011

St Michael and All Aliens

Every time I walk down the track over the railway line and see the barn in front of me, I get a certain sense of satisfaction.  I may have been away for months or weeks or even just for the afternoon but it’s always the same. First there’s a whiff of nostalgia when I catch sight of my father’s old leather covered armchair under a pile of fertiliser bags, but that soon gets elbowed out by a sense of tedium, depression and even pain.  “A rich kaleidoscope of rotating emotions” as Gary would say.   This is my barn, my farm; it was my father’s briefly, my uncle’s and then my grandfather and great grandfather before that.   Their efforts to scrape a living for their families and descendants were heavy, hurtful and stifling.  Their lives and deaths hang  round my shoulders and I will never shake them off.   The pain is that I see the land and buildings corrupted with neglect which I have no inclination to overcome.  But spilling out  over everything is this sense of satisfaction. The satisfaction is that I have a television production company in London.  I am rich.  I do not have to work the farm.   I live in the farmhouse on a whim and the land and buildings and machinery rust, rot and decay and I don’t have to do a thing about it.

It is my Mother, of course who prevents me overcoming the negative aspects of my existence.  It is, I suppose, a mother’s role to keep reminding you how hard your father worked in his short tenure of the property, how well he kept it.  How neat the buildings were, how he worked every hour of daylight and long into the night and how she had to go cleaning floors in order to let me stay on at school for the A-levels, which I flunked.  This, I entirely accept and completely agree with, but ultimately, silently ignore. I can live here how I like.  My mother has her bungalow across the yard and is comfortable.  Or would be comfortable if it was a concept she was able to grasp.  So much of her life has been devoted to aimless, endless drudgery that she now misses the whole point of what life she has remaining to her.  All she has to do is to get a big car and someone to drive it and she could spend every afternoon and evening out enjoying herself instead of sitting here, sometimes for weeks on end, just waiting for me to come down the track so that she can harangue me on the state of the outbuildings.

Naturally, for all the hours I lie awake at night wondering exactly which part of her body to stick the carving knife in, I am a dutiful son.  I sit all afternoon and listen to her litany of discomfort and disappointment in me.  I call a cab and take her out for lunch and remain silent at her exposition on her digestion and how it prevents her enjoying her food.  I promise to get a contractor in to tidy the yard up but It is my labour she wants to see.  Me she wants to see out there with the old Fordson with the front loader sweeping away the piles of rubble left over from when I had the pool dug.  Me she wants to see white washing the milking parlour and installing new equipment and a herd of pedigree Jerseys.  Me she wants to see in the yard at four in the morning calling up the cattle for milking.  Me she wants poring over calving records long into the night. 

I’ve even had a go at it, once or twice.  When the company originally went ballistic and I had some more time and a lot more money on my hands I did think that what I really wanted to do was to run the old farmstead.   I felt it would look as though I had really made it.  I would be the only one in West One who had a real need for a Barbour and a Range Rover.   But in the end I found I had to spend more time than ever attending premieres and receptions and all the stuff necessary to keeping a successful company afloat and besides Barbours were strictly passe by then.

Then, when we became one of the top ten companies in our field I thought of selling up and returning to my heritage.  The idea was that this time I get a manager to do the hard stuff and I could wander round in old jumpers and join clubs in the village. Actually, it wasn’t my idea at all and I had to go to some lengths to get out of it.  My only heritage is that of escape.  I had broken the ties that kept my family’s face in the dirt for generations.  Now there were no links with the past.  St. Michael’s Farm had been my embarrassment in my teenage years because it was the name in other boy’s underpants.  I could do without reminders of any of that.  My heritage was a millstone of drudgery and effort round my neck that I had broken free of.  And for ten years I have been free.

 Ten years ago I was married with dogs.  The dogs weren’t mine.  I was brought up to believe that it was unkind to keep animals as pets.  Dogs needed to work for a living, so should be kept outside where they wouldn’t go soft.  There were words about whether Snapper and Griff should live indoors or out.     Now I keep my trailbike in the big, brick built kennel in the corner of the yard and there are no animals at all.  The great thing about not having pets is that you can stay out as long as you want without having to hurry home at feeding time.  I don’t have a Range Rover now or even a car.  When I travel up to town I go by bus from the main road at the top of the track to the railway station in Wareham.  In London I stay in hotels.  It’s a lot of money but I can afford it.

I always try to be at the farm for Christmas so that I can be with my mother.  Apart from that, I come down as seldom as I can.  People come to see me over the summer because they like to have a few days by the sea-side whilst they’re pitching an idea to me.  I don’t ever let them stay.  They’re better off at The Grand or The Pines or, if they’re just starting out, The Sea Glimpse Bed and Breakfast.  I can’t remember the last time I had anyone to stay.  It would have been a lot of hassle, I’m sure, with breakfast at set times and cereal and marmalade to get.  When there were dogs I remember running out of dog-food one Sunday and having to phone for a cab to pick some up and bring it out.    I wouldn’t want all that aggravation. My mother never comes in.    She thinks I keep  the farmhouse in a mess. So If she wants to see me she phones and I pop over to the bungalow.

In London, it’s all different.  Silk shirts from Jermyn Street.  Hand made Italian loafers.  Breakfast whenever I want it. At work people are pleased to fetch and carry for me.  I like to give them things to do to keep them busy.  At least, that’s what I tell Gary to do.  It’s a happy company and I listen to what people have to say and give them time off when they want it but I do like to see my people busy.   When somebody asks me what I do, I’m always at a bit of a loss what to say.  We have lot of work on so there’s a lot of people doing a lot of things.  But nobody notices if I disappear off to the farm for a few days.  I mean, it’s my company but I don’t actually have to do anything myself.

Then one night, having got the last bus back from the station and walking down the track in the darkness feeling my usual mixture of depression and nostalgia overlaid with satisfaction,  I saw a UFO.  Now, I’ve lived here all my life.  We’re only a few miles from the tank ranges and we’re surrounded by sea so I know all about flares and Very lights and helicopters and target drones.  I’ve seen reflections off the clouds of searchlights and lasers from the roofs of the discos on the front.  I’ve seen mirages of ships’ lights.  This was  a perfectly standard Stephen Spielberg UFO with bright white search lights and rotating circles of coloured lights which hovered for a few minutes and shot off vertically upwards at incredible speed.  I suppose the only unusual part of it was that there were no beings in sliver suits and big, slanty eyes and there was no time lost out of my life, at least the clock said twenty past eleven when I got in and unless the bus was prehistorically early that night there would have been no time for me to have been taken away to the mother ship for strange items of microcircuitry to be inserted up my nose.

You can probably tell from my tone that I’m fairly cynical about these sort of things.  You’re right. Basically anybody who claims to have been abducted by alien beings gets consigned in my mental filing system to the same drawer as reincarnated pharaohs and people who have seen Elvis in a launderette in Hounslow.  I'm not too sure about the mental stability of people who claim to have seen UFOs.  I’m pretty sure that they are Anoraks who see flares or Very lights or helicopters or target drones. They’ve probably seen reflections off the clouds of searchlights or lasers from the roofs of discos.  They might even have seen mirages of ships’ lights.  What they won’t have seen is genuine Stephen Spielberg type UFOs. 

This puts me in something of a quandary.  It has always been my contention that Anoraks who spend their time hoping for close encounters on Wiltshire Hill tops would be better off watching the TV.  Preferably “What A Living!” or “It Works for Me” which could have been doing better in the Autumn ratings if only more people would stay at home and watch them.  Ironically, we had a team working on a revamp of “It Works for Me” on the very evening I saw the UFO.  That’s why I had travelled down to the farm.  They don’t seem to like me hanging about when they’ve got big sessions like that on.  I always used to keep on hand so that I could OK the final decision.   I used to make them coffee and go out for sandwiches whilst they thrashed things about.  I got very good at Minesweeper during those meetings.  But now we have a really good team in place,  Gary says I’m not even needed for that.

The UFO thing was a bit of a worry at first.  I couldn’t decide who to tell.  My Mother would have accused me of attention seeking and the Guys in the Office might have decided on some sort of tacky documentary.  I’ve put together one of the best teams in the business but it doesn’t mean they can’t do tack occasionally.  I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Gary who seems to have certain abstract tendencies.  So the best course seems to not mention it all.  You can’t be accused of being an Anorak if you don’t jot the sighting down in a notebook or send it to Jodrell Bank or whatever.

But keeping quiet seemed to have its own problems.  I actually felt I did want to tell someone.  I wanted to be one of those people who go into the Queens Arms and regale the public bar crowd with tales of fighting off little green men or how I woke up with strange memories of being interfered with by a beautiful Venusian Maiden.  I could have done that, I suppose.  I know most of them who get in the pub and they would listen to me politely, but  I’ve only been in there once in the past year so I would hardly get the attention that a regular would.  Besides, the experience wasn’t the type that would excite them.  The whole point is that it was so ordinary.  It actually happened,  ike a bus going by.  There wasn’t any strange, transcendental emotion.  Just a UFO hovering overhead and then making off into the clouds at incredible speed.

What the experience demonstrated to me, however, was that there are more things in heaven and earth, blah, blah.  You see, I’ve never had the inclination to consider other worlds or other realities or whatever the jargon is.  I’d never really considered anything apart from what is and what happens here and now on this earth.   It was as though a worm-hole had opened up in space and let me glimpse for an instant another sort of reality.  One that is not explained by our everyday laws of physics.  And I had definitely seen it.  I knew and felt I had seen it.  I didn’t need to question it.  I didn’t need any sort of proof or disproof.  There it was, in front of me - another dimension.

What happened was that I started going to church.  I had this piece of knowledge, this fraction of understanding and the only place where I could imagine it applied was in church.  I don’t know how, I didn’t really believe all the stuff about Jesus being resurrected from the dead but somehow it seemed vaguely applicable.  I mean, if someone had seen him.  Actually seen him alive in the way I had seen the UFO then they’d have to believe, wouldn’t they?  And I guess, like me they would have the feeling that they wanted to tell someone else.  Hence religion and churches and so forth.

Frankly, I was embarrassed about going to church, so I went to the very early service,  pushing my trail bike out of the yard so that my mother wouldn’t hear it being started and taking the path up through the woods.  I had been in the choir when I was young so I knew how it all worked.  I hadn’t really been for years since then but things hadn’t changed that much so, in a strange way, I felt quite at home. I kept going on and off for quite a long time and I even ended up serving occasionally and taking the collection.  I never got to feel holy or anything, but maybe that was appropriate.  These things, I knew, were ordinary not metaphysical or different.  They were part of the world as it is.  The only symbolic act I subscribed to  was attending on the anniversary of the encounter.  Which just happened to be September 29th.  Michaelmas, the feast day of the patron saint of underpants.

When I was in church, I always felt a bit daft because I didn’t believe in the Jesus bit.  I believed he was a great man and teacher and so forth and that he spoke a lot of sense.  But the Son of God?  Risen again?  What did that all mean?  No thank you, I parted company with them at this point and I suppose I felt a bit shamefaced that I was telling porkies when I recited the “I believe...” item.  However, I was willing to trade that off for the certain knowledge that there was another life, another world beyond and that they, the honest and upright citizens, would have difficulty getting a grip on any other reality but this one.  I see that old Biddy Janet Hawkins looking all pious and nodding and smiling at me.  “We’re all the same underneath.”  She is telling Jesus, forgiving me with all her might for being a wastrel.  “We’ll all be equal in heaven.”  She smiles, hoping even so that they’ll be a special bit where people like me can go.  The fact is, if you turned her upside down and shook her there wouldn’t be any real belief to fall out with her false teeth because she had never experienced anything but the dreary daily round.  I did pray for forgiveness for thinking like that.  But not very hard.

So what is the upshot of all this?  The point of the story as I would tell it to the lads at The Queen’s.  Well, I’m not sure.  Nothing happened to me physically. Or mentally.  I still eat cold baked beans out of a tin with a spoon.  The house is still a tip.  The yard and farm sink deeper into its wilderness of nettles and rusting corrugated.  My mother still wants to know when I’m going to do something useful with my life.  By which I take it she means get married again and serve farmhouse teas to walkers stopping to admire the acres of flower beds with their broad swathes of colour and variety. But I suppose there is something going on, or I wouldn’t have taken the trouble to write it down.

Oh, and there is a sequel, a rider or whatever you call it.  As a final sop to my Mother, or perhaps because I was really turning over a new leaf.  I decided to clear up the house and get rid of some of the clutter.  I was going to decorate the living room where my father had his office and make it into a place where people could come and sit.  I had actually made up my mind to do some wallpapering and paint the old, brown stained ceiling.  Not get somebody in, but do it myself with my own hands.  I was burning a lot of old papers from the desk drawers when I came across an old map of the farm.  It showed that the name of the place had been changed in the middle of the last century.  It was called Stone Farm before that.  I checked with some of the old diaries and I found that the name had been changed because my Great Grandfather’s uncle, who had been a tenant, was a methodist preacher and had had a vision of an angels.   He had been walking home one night from chapel and had been on his way up the track when....   Twelve months later he had given up the tenancy to go on a mission to the heathen in Birmingham.  His nephew had bought the outfit  and renamed it after St. Michael and his Angels in honour of his uncle’s translation to the spiritual world of  Balsall Heath.  I don’t know where he got his money from but it was clear he didn’t have any left a few years later.  Tenancies always start and finish at Quarter days and this one had finished at Michaelmas because that was the anniversary of his vision.  You know, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  150 years ago some distant relative had seen an angel just where I had seen a UFO and on the same date.  Just for a moment I wondered whether there was something linking me back through the generations after all.  Some great metaphysical chain of Jungian experience that makes me at one with my ancestors.  But I quickly decided that that’s all just a load of bollocks.  Besides, I’m really too busy to think about it at the moment.  But If I get the living room finished I’ll get rid of all the fertiliser bags off the big leather covered arm chair out in the barn so I can sit and think about it.

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