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Grandfather Letter I

Grandson,

I lived in a town, once, in the north; a town where I didn’t know what was going on, where I’d lost any sense of who I was or why I was supposed to be there. On weekday mornings, breathing again, I’d pack your noble grandmother off to work, and then I’d clean something, and then, desperate to travel away from my pointlessness, I’d walk. At something like a quarter to ten, inevitably, I’d end up at St Stephen’s, where I would stand on the footpath and wait. I’d have sat, but I didn’t want to go inside, and there was nowhere nearby to sit outside; no benches or fences or stones or burned-out cars. There was a lawn, but I wouldn’t have sat on that and looked up, not up at that spire and that cross.

They had an electric bell – by which I mean a proper bronze bell in a tower, though it was a tower that looked like it should have had a windmill on the top. I mean that the bell was rung by a hammer that activated on a timer, or so I suppose. It may have been the hand of God, for argument’s sake. There were certainly no people involved.

I’d stand by, on the footpath, in between the cracks. The children in the schoolyard next door would be watching me, from time to time calling out their imprecations with the superiority and invulnerability of youth. And then at ten, I’d let the rich tolling of the bell fill up my empty insides, for ten beats, and then wash out of me and out of the air again.

When you stand close to a bell, too close, there is another sound that comes before the bell-ring. It hurts, even though it’s a soft sound in your ears. It goes through you; right through, and then immediately there’s the gonging, which is so loud you’re left wondering whether the sharp through-sound was really there at all. And it comes again, ten times, the sharp cutting-through sound and the bang, filling up your life by pouring in through your ears; louder than your blood rushing; so loud there’s no room for anything else, no room for a hole.

I’m not consoled by the idea that even if a man had taken every opposite choice from mine, he’d most likely still be unhappy. Nevertheless when I look back and see only two paths, this one in which I did what I did, and that one in which I did everything else, this is my sense of it. The world crowded around me like foamy backwash in a blowhole tidepool, grandson, receding and crashing in, receding and crashing in, with a rhythm not exact enough to fit yourself to or time an escape from. Yet relentless, until here I am in bed, nothing working right but my brain, more or less, and finally, all the crashing gone. Everything’s an ebb, and I find I’m missing something.

So grandson, my advice is to find a bell to stand next to – but you make sure that it’s a metaphorical one, which you can stand next to from getting up to lying down, and not suffer things like hearing loss, the insults of teenagers, or a feeling that your life is so well wasted that an automated church-chime in a dried out northern shithole actually makes you feel better.

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2008; I’m not sure if this is really finished. I don’t think it really says anything yet-and yet that’s part and parcel of the time in my life I’m writing about.

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bell, letter, grandson, ennui

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