Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Wild

The alarm clock blared into life, lifting Alan from a sea of unsettled dreams back into grey reality. With a sinking feeling Alan realised that today was a Tuesday, and judging by the flat light creeping in through the grimy windows, it was rain again. With a sigh, he hauled himself out from bed and trudged over to the coffee machine. A quick look in the fridge ended in disappointment, and Alan settled for black coffee and dry toast before setting off on the journey to the office. Alan locked, and then double-locked the door and then made his way out of the block where he lived, stepping on the rubbish strewn by the ever increasing number of urban foxes, and nodding to a couple of anonymous looking men heading up the stairs.
Alan's sense of frustration grew during the journey, packed like a sardine in a sweaty tin, due to the previous train being cancelled. It seemed to be much more common, basic services breaking down and people accepting this state of affairs, worn down by the constant battle to get anywhere in an overcrowded, underfunded and neglected city.
A message was waiting for Alan at his desk, stuck on the keyboard of his workstation, letting him know he had missed a visit from a couple of men who hadn't left a name or card but had promised to call back. After a brief moment to collect himself, Alan launched into the piles of paper that had been left on his desk, trying to get back to the work he had been labouring through the previous evening. Mounds of printouts of statistics and a number of papers going into excessive detail over government industrial production sapped his motivation, but Alan concentrated and got down to the report he was preparing for his manager, a director of a minor ministry forming part of the massive Depart of Industrial Affairs.
A small cough behind him snapped Alan out from the reverie he had drifted into. A small, rather dapper man in a grey suit was standing just inside the doorway, appearing without Alan realising. The flourescent light glinted off the small, steel-rimmed glasses he was wearing, and showed the sweat forming on his large forehead. The air conditioning, unreliable these days and particularly in the morning, had packed up again and the temperature was getting uncomfortably warm and humid. Alan felt the urge to apologise to the man for the conditions, but held his tongue until he knew what the visit was about.
“Mr Jones?” asked the man in a precise and officious voice. Alan felt his heart sink and gave a nod. A rising sense of panic and generalised guilt began to grow, as he considered the various reasons for being paid this visit. “You are working on a report about production levels and standards in the government factories in the interior.” Alan nodded again, hoping that the content or direction of the report had not disturbed whichever department his visitor worked for. Alan felt the need to defend his work and research grow, but equally the urge to distance himself from the findings, and he finally stammered out, “Yes, yes I am. I was told to look at how production compares to past standards in terms of quantity and quality. I believe, or at least the infromation seems to indicate, a decline in both the...” Alan's weak explanation peetered out in the stare of the grey man, who had shaken his head. “The initial output figures that the factory sent me clearly show that, compared to last year and the five years before that clearly show that production values are actually in decline rather than the state of growth commonly believed in...” Alan paused again.
“I am from the Department of Information. I am going to have to ask you to come with me”, the man stated, in a voice that Alan found increasingly difficult to hear. Alan concentrated on the alien sounds that, he realised, had been on the edge of his hearing for the past few weeks. A quiet hum and occasional louder melodic tones which he couldn't identify were drawing more and more of attention, making it difficult to concentrate on the man in front of him. The urge to run vied with the habits of the obedience to authority, and Alan's shoulders slumped as he walked out with the small man into the dim corridor and out into the busy, grimy streets.
After a short, silent journey through grey streets between tall, run-down tower blocks and offices, the pair arrived outside the imposing, monolithic building that housed the Department of Information. As Alan stepped out the car the sounds he had become aware of in his office struck him again and he paused. The man spoke, but Alan failed to respond. Again, slightly louder the man spoke again, “Don't run. You can't run. Where can you go?” He laid his hand on Alan's arm and led him, unresisting into the darkened entrance.
Alan and the man, a government official Alan realised, stepped into the elevator and again travelled in silence. After what seemed an age the doors scraped open and they stepped out and into an office. The windows looked out onto the dreary cityscape, stretching out grey, soulless and civilised as far as Alan could see. Not such a great distance, Alan noted, as the smog had started to come down again. The chirping noise that had so distracted Alan earlier continued even in this sealed and separated office, and the persistent humming seemed even louder inside.
A door opened and two men walked into the office. With a growing sense of dejection and inevitability, Alan recognised one of the men as the Director of Information himself. The other, wearing a white, sterile doctor's coat, faded into the background. The Director walked over and looked Alan in the eyes, then looked past to the doctor. “So, Mr Jones, you seem tired. What is it that is troubling you?” Confused, Alan did not know where to look for guidance on the right answer to give. “I have been having some problems sleeping recently.” Alan confessed, speaking a little too loudly over the hum in his head. “You have been having dreams, which have disturbed you. Tell me about them.” the Director stated, in a quiet voice that nevertheless left absolutely no room for dissent. Alan found himself continuing, almost against his will, “I dreamt that I could fly. I was in my bedroom, and the windows had become open. I stepped up and looked out, but looking down all I could see was darkness and fog and strange machines moving. Looking up there was a break in the clouds and I stretched my arms towards it, then I leapt. If I looked towards the light I was able to move to it, but as I looked down I saw the machines coming toward me, to pull me back. And I could hear a song, but without words...”
The Director nodded slowly. “The light was drawing you, and it lead to throw yourself from your window. The machines tried to stop you from doing something dangerous or fatal. The singing, this was not part of our world, and you need to accept this state of affairs.” Alan shook his head but the Director continued as if he wasn't there. “The State is right and the State is looking to stop you doing something dangerous or fatal.” Alan felt the doctor step up behind him and gently force him into a chair, and strap a metal band around his head. Alan shook his head again, striving to find the words to describe the sense of wrongness. “The data from factories shows that what the State says is wrong. This society is in decline, but no one seems to be able stir themselves.” The Director frowned slightly and contradicted him. “The State is right. Society, civilisation, is not in decline. Factory production is at an all-time high. You must understand that this is the way it is.”
Alan felt the metal band cool against his forehead, then gradually warming to body temperature. He fought to concentrate on the Director's words, looking for the logical fallacy in his arguments, but the humming was more and more dominant, and the other random sounds, burst of unstructured notes, random and uncivilised drew his attention. The doctor coughed and muttered to the Director, “I think we're losing him.” The Director looked more closely and then spoke clearly to Alan, “You cannot miss this, you can't escape the inevitability. This society, which has nutured you from birth, is not wrong. Your research is flawed, the data it is based on is incorrect. Production is at an all-time high. It is very important that you understand this. The society that surrounds you, that gives you light, shelter and sustenance, that protects you, must be protected. If you are able to accept that civilisation is in decline then where will this train of thought lead? Dissent, disunity and dissolution will come and threaten this mechanised, developed world. The opposite of civilisation, of the State, is a natural state of chaos.”
The humming grew louder and Alan switched his attention, almost recognising the individual sounds. The humming grew and faded, changing tone. Directly behind him, it seemed, something chirruped. The doctor spoke again but Alan was unable to hear him, and seemed lost in his mind. “He cannot hear us now. We have lost him. He must have been unable to accept the truth, and he has escaped into the wild.” Director shook his head and walked out of the office, disappointed.
A single tear rolled down Alan's cheek as, for the first time, he listened to the birdsong and sounds of busying insects, and lost contact with the civilisation that had surrounded him for his entire life.

The Wild (2)

The tube is already full to standing at Green Park as Wendy grabs tight hold of Mick's shirt sleeve for fear of separation. Above ground a light breeze provides some relief from the Summer heat of the day just gone. The Piccadilly line is impervious to such subtle climatic changes and will remain humid and oppressive into the night. As the train jerks to a halt at Russell Square Wendy reaches a hand out to steady herself against her brother's back and feels the sweat that has already soaked through his shirt. All around people are covered with a thin film of perspiration. With each step closer to their destination the carrage becomes ever more crowded and uncomfortable. And then, finally comes some relief. Like someone releasing a jammed pressure valve the doors open at Arsenal station and a never ending mass of humanity pours out onto the platform and towards the exit. Wendy renews her grip on Mick's arm as the crowd jostles its way into the cool breeze of the Summer's night.

A few moments pass and a second train follows close behind. If anything, this one is hotter, and more crowded than the first as it clatters into the station. A group of men in their late 40s push their way out onto the platform. Numbering seven in total they approach the climax of a day that has been spent sitting outside the Askew Arms in Shepherds Bush drinking and talking about the old days. As it always does on these occasions, conversation has focussed on how they'd first met on active service in Northern Ireland, men they'd served with in the Falklands, the danger they'd felt, the women they'd known and the officers they'd despised. It had been one of those afternoons when they'd all been on form, and each story told had been met with laughter, appreciation, and an attempt to go one better with the next.

Even after all those years they still knew each other better by their army nicknames than by the monickers given to them at birth. There was The German, Pieman, Bugsy, Keegan, Headlice and The Vicar. Then, at the back of the group was Monkeyman. Monkeyman was the quiet one, the dark horse, his nickname derived partly from a capacity to climb high trees, walls and fences (particularly when drunk), and partly from his appearance. Though not unattractive in appearance, there is, without doubt, something about him that suggests a primate.

The stream of people continues its unrelenting march to its destination in high spirits. Tattooed rooflayers swig beer from cans and sing songs, lovers hold hands and excited children pester their parents for sweets and ice cream. Wendy feels more relaxed now she can feel the air on her face and has released her grip on Mick's arm. After the nightmare of the last two years she's now ready for a new beginning or, at least, to have some fun. She can laugh as Mick teases her that he'll set her up with Ron the fat electrician from work if she can't find a new man.

"Who says I need your help finding men?" she retorts, "You never know, with all these blokes around maybe I'll find one tonight."

"I'd have thought you'd need all the help you could get at your age", comes the sibling-like response.

"D'you mind," Wendy comes back, "I'm three years younger than you you old codger, and I'm not short of admirers".

They laugh and chat and wind each other up as only siblings can and it's as if they're teenagers again.

Crossing the bridge to the Emirates stadium Pieman, Bugsy and company share their appreciation of the new home of Arsenal Football Club.

"Fuckin' hell, boys, would you look at that", says The German.

"Makes Highbury look like a right old shithole doesn't it", pipes up Bugsy.

"Remember that time we all got hammered before the Arsenal/Spurs game and Monkeyman ended up on top of one of the floodlights?" adds the Vicar, and they all laugh.

"Too right", says The German, "but you're a changed man aren't you now Monkster, since you quit the booze."

Monkeyman just shrugs and smiles, a twinkle forming in the corner of his eye at the memory of his wild younger days. He still enjoys the company of his old army mates. For one thing they're the only ones who've shared his experiences of Northern Ireland and the Falklands. In many ways meeting up with them once in a while is therapy. But he's also moved on. He's got a good job, bought a flat and after years of freewheeling along life's highway he's finally ready to settle down.

Inside, the stadium is beginning to fill up and the sound of 30,000 expectant conversations fills the air. The bars are doing a roaring trade in overpriced Fosters and John Smiths from plastic cups. The excitement in the air is palpable.

"What are you drinking, sis?" asks Mick.

"White wine and soda", comes the reply.

"You wait here while I go to the bar."

Mick disappears into a throng of people. Realising he'll be gone for sometime, Wendy takes the opportunity to freshen up and takes a trip to the ladies. By the time she returns the bar is still a mass of bodies but Mick is nowhere to be seen. She waits expecting his return, but one minute soon becomes five and she suddenly realises he's disappeared. Suddenly, she finds herself alone in a stadium full of strangers, panic rises in her throat and her eyes start to itch.

"You alright love?", asks a tall black man in a florescent orange tunic.

"I'm here with my brother", she replies, "and we've got separated."

"Don't you worry my darling, we'll soon sort that out, you come with me".

The steward leads Wendy through the stand and out towards the pitch. He mumbles a few barely discernible words into a walky-talky and within moments the stadium's PA system is blaring out the announcement,

"Would Mick Harper, a Mr Mick Harper please come to the front of the souvenir stand where your sister Wendy is waiting for you. That's Mick Harper, please come to the souvenir stand where Wendy is waiting for you."

The Steward leads Wendy to the allotted location and says,

"Here you go, love, just wait here. If he hasn't found you in the next five minutes we'll make another announcement. I'm sure you won't be waiting long."

To Wendy's right is man standing on his own. The first thing she notices are the arms. They're unusually long and hairy, as is the v-shaped section of chest visible beneath his open collar checked shirt.

At first, they just stand side-by-side, watching the crowds of people all around them. After five minutes of anxious waiting, Wendy turns to the stranger and enquires,

"Don't tell me you're lost too?"

"Yep", comes the reply, followed, without warning by the question, "that a monkey tattooed on your back?"

"Oh God, yes...", says Wendy, embarrassed, "I've had it years, since I was a teenager. The folly of youth."

"I quite like monkey's, actually", is the reply, "as it happens, that's what people call me, Monkeyman, but my name's really Martin."

Martin has lost contact with his group of mates as they'd piled into the bar and he'd kept his distance owing to his new-found sobriety.

As Wendy and Martin begin to strike up a conversation they're unaware of the growing excitement around them as the crowd catch a glimpse of the evening's main attraction making their way into the arena. At the end of the ground the enormous black screens that have been on standby burst into life. The crowd roars, as if in expectation of the football team that usually plies its trade in the stadium. Instead, a group of middle-aged men troop out onto the temporarily erected stage at the north-end of the ground. The last to arrive walks to the centre, and straps on an electric guitar prompting an even more ecstatic response from the crowd.

"Oh well, Wendy", says Martin, "looks like we've both been stood up for the night. Do you think, err, we could watch the show together? I haven't even asked, how long have you been a Springsteen fan?"

Her answer is lost beneath a swell of guitars and drums as the band launches into their first number. They exchange a smile, turn their eyes to the stage and for the night become characters in a Bruce Springsteen song.

Taming the Wild

Despite his best efforts to suppress a grin he couldn’t help it. He felt for all the world like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. Even though he’d never seen the stupid film all the way through, he knew what it was about: working-class guy forgets all his troubles when he’s on the dance floor.

His madness on the homemade dance floors that were living-room carpets had initiated the comparison from his parents back home. At an early age, at any family gathering, he’d be the first to attempt to move his body to whatever music was playing. Even though his mum was hopelessly rubbish at keeping time, his dad was musical: guitar, piano and singing were always present at weekends.

Even the Bee Gees soundtrack his mum kept playing and singing was in his head.

Fucking disco is shit anyway.

Shaking Staying Alive out of his head, he began selecting what to wear. Army trousers were the norm, along with some boots: his trusty steel-toed DMs – not that he had any other shoes with him here – and a black t-shirt and jumper.

T-shirt selection for a night out was an art in itself. Context was everything. The wrong t-shirt would send out the wrong signals: too bright meant cock-rock; too dark meant Goth. He decided to play it safe with the black Metallica tee emblazoned with skulls. Now the army trousers: green or urban-camo? Had to be the urban-camo in this dark city; no wonder Black Sabbath were formed here. Pulling on the black and white trousers he’d acquired two weekends ago at the market, he wondered what The Wild would be like.

He was excited at the prospect of a nightclub playing the music he loved.

The only nightclubs he’d been to before coming to university played pure unadulterated mindless shit. There was no other word for it. In his mind, if it wasn’t made using drums, guitars, bass, and vocals – it wasn’t music. And he wasn’t averse to telling everyone that.

Being opinionated was what kept him going, and partly what drew him to the heavy-metal subculture, more importantly though, it was the sense of being different. Metal fans think of themselves as a different collective outside the mainstream. Observing it, cynically commenting on it, but not going with it. Questioning, intelligent, and non-conformist: that was how he saw himself.

It could be that, or the fact I love playing guitar he mused.

Anyway moving on: chains. As Tony Manero ritualistically put his gold chain around his neck, so he had his: one chain for the keys, and another for the wallet. He attached the chains to a key ring, and then the clip to his belt. One of the chains had his keys and another his wallet. He then put his keys in his back pocket, then his wallet in the pocket on his right thigh.

He’d often been asked about the chains. It was a style and fashion thing undoubtedly. Alternative-heavy-metal-grunge or whatever you want to call it brought together a diverse set of people: from the dyed-styled hair of the Punk, and the black-make up of the Goth, to the baggy jeans of the Skater.

But overall his way of dressing was a communication to other metal fans. It created a sense of belonging: something he wanted and needed more than anything. Going to university had opened his world. He hated being at home, and university was a chance for him to explore. He could be anything for anyone. He was free.

That’s is. He was ready. He was going to tame The Wild. He allowed himself to grin again at the thought: Taming The Wild – I’ll have to use that in conversation tonight. It better be as good as those guys said it would be.

Locking his door, he walked out of the purpose-built student accommodation into the night air. It was cool and dry. It’s always cold up north he thought. Then corrected himself – I’m in the Midlands – not the north. Such a Londoner! He stroked his month-old goatee as he approached the group of people dressed in dark colours gathering next to the pub.

He recognised the ginger hair of the girl he’d chatting to previously – she ran the whole thing, and was smiling and talking to everyone. Like a black-clad mother hen he thought. There were a few other people whose faces he recognised. Everyone’s new, so everyone’s friendly – it’ll all change in a year or so.

A blonde longhaired bloke in tight black trousers made a joke about the crowd being a “Motley Crüe”. What a twat – he’d even used his fingers to make the quotes sign. A couple of the others even laughed. They must be tipsy already. Fucking pissheads.

He was teetotal. No not for fucking religious reasons – that’s what people usually thought – but partly because he didn’t like the taste of alcohol, and partly because the music was all he needed. And it gave him a slight feeling of superiority when he spoke to people…

With a quick glance over everyone, the ginger girl began leading them on a walk through Birmingham. The Wild was calling.

He found out the ginger girl was called Helen. She explained that The Wild was the only decent club in Birmingham. There were a couple of others, but they “didn’t stay true to metal’s roots” and “weren’t making enough money anyway”. As he heard more about how the club’s Saturday nights attracted in excess of two hundred metal fans, he began to realise that tonight could be a turning point.

Walking through the city on a Saturday night he observed the different groups of young people: shirts, trousers and black shoes on the trendy guys, and very little on the slutty trendy women apart from fucking awful perfume. He feigned a coughing fit as he walked by a group of girls, who proceeded to turn their noses down at their “Motley Crüe.”

The next group were the Asians. Facial hair sculpted carefully, dressed in brands like FCUK and Dolce and Gabbana. He fucking hated them. Not so much for their flashiness and brash behaviour, but more for the way they hated him for listening to metal.

At least there’s a range of people in a big city – imagine what it’s like up north?

He began to hear the regular thump of a bass drum. Not the usual boom of standard house music (designed especially for people who have no clue how to dance) but the throb of a double bass beat which was the exclusive reserve of metal. He actually felt his heart skip.

Through a deserted shopping centre, there it was. The pink neon lights naming the club were a clear declaration to anyone not appreciative of metal: Fuck off. There was a noticeable collective intake of breath from the Freshers. He queued up with the rest of the “Motley Crüe” and took stock of the bouncers.

Bouncers at other clubs were sharp dressed, suited and booted, clean shaven nasty blokes who would take advantage of their position to shag some woman in an alley. At least that’s what the rumours were about the bouncers in the shitty club back home. But these guys were something else. One had shaven head with a tribal tattoo sliding itself like a plant along his scalp. The other had a long goatee. Both were dressed in black – but not a suit – boots, army trousers, and bomber jackets.

And they were built like brick shithouses.

He heard them chatting quite genially to Helen; that was strange! Then he realised Helen was a “regular” and had probably brought several groups of Freshers to the club. It made him feel comfortable that she knew them. Early arrival also meant no queuing outside. As he was searched, he received no questions about his chain, or the fact he was wearing boots, or the fact he wasn’t wearing ‘trousers’. In fact, he felt as if the bouncers would question anyone who was dressed in the uniform of a trendy.

As he paid his entrance, he could hear the music more clearly. Walking forward, he ascended the steps, feeling as if he had been swallowed into the belly of a beast with a metal tune for a roar.

Inside it was a revelation. It looked and felt like a normal nightclub: mirrors, carpets, bars, loud music, but that’s where the similarities ended. Although it wasn’t full, there were metal-heads everywhere.

He was in his element, no doubt about it.

Turning round he saw the dance floor. The dry-ice machine hissed loudly, as the DJ proudly announced in a thick Brummie accent “Welcome to The Wild – and welcome to all the Freshers”. A slightly drunken cheer went up from Helen’s group.

“Here’s something to get the night started” the dry-ice machine hissed again, and the high-pitched strains of “Blackened” by Metallica started to emerge from the speakers. Even in the hot atmosphere of the club, goose pimples rose on his arms.

He felt himself walk onto the dance floor alone, almost in slow motion. Everyone else was either getting a drink or trying to pull. But he knew his purpose.

The dance floor was his.

Good tune, followed good tune, followed good tune. He had found his home. That night he left the dance floor only three times for pints of water. When the lights finally went up to signal the end of the night, he grinned. The hand shaking, and several compliments he’d received about his dancing during the night had earned him a nickname from the other Freshers: “Duracell Bunny”.

It was only as he left he began to reflect. Maybe the reason Asians looked down on him back home was because he was free to express himself however he saw fit. Free to listen to the music he wanted to listen to, and dress the way he wanted to dress.

He loved metal because he was angry. Angry that Asians let themselves be constrained by their shitty narrow-minded backstabbing culture. Angry that they felt they had to dress the way they did, and listen to generic “R’n’B”. Angry that they saw it as their duty to call him a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) and exclude him just because he didn’t behave like a fucking sheep.

But right now, with the steam from his sweat rising off his shaved head in the cold Midlands air, he had experienced freedom.

Chuckling to himself he continued indulging his thoughts: I was the only brown person in that club and I tamed The Wild – not bad for a so-called “fucking Paki”.