After your recent city break, it has become obvious that you are ill and a spell in the countryside is highly recommended.
There are thousands of illnesses to choose from, many of which will give you a one-sided advantage and annoy your enemies. Reflective planes and surfaces contain covert sequences of buggered code helping you to interpret the symptoms you like best. These are a few of my old favourites: blue skin, sudden bone loss, divided attention, double vision, rotating building syndrome, pubic holocaust, rigid superstitious categorisation. The trick is retaining the ability to think rationally when you want to.
Like most keen walkers, I was very ill throughout childhood and spent most of the time underground, where I found many useful things. Precious stones, natural gas, minerals (becoming scarce), stone tools, stalactites and railways. The absence of natural light enabled me to sidestep childhood psychosocial trauma and focus on fundamentals: The earth was once a ball of fire. A nurse’s job is to look after people who are ill. People have been digging holes since the beginning of pre-history and shoving things down them. I shoved myself down a hole as an adaptive response to early aversive events and heightened sensitivity to stressors. These were the first mines. Long before there were men and women, children’s questions were anticipated and facts presented in a logical sequence. Then more trees died and many layers of mud covered them and I began to tolerate the Anxiety of Not Knowing.
My therapist is elusive and corrupt – the semi-retired charismatic cult leader Amanda C Fogwaitress. AC Fogwaitress agrees to be the listed author of articles ghost written by interested corporations promoting drugs and devices at company sponsored symposiums. She allows herself to be plied with expensive gifts and trips to luxurious settings. I feel so close to her but she puts up obstacles. Last time I visited her, a security guard tried to turn me away but I palmed him off with my untouched box of pills.
Walking is beautiful and exciting. Walk carefully and you will finally be able to totally transgress. Before you get to that point, this guide will be your key. The key is just like the illustration but with labelled numbers, except it’s blue. The illustration is just like the walk in its mixture of abstract yearning and thirst for material reward but you can’t have the picture and the walk at the same time. It’s a hurdle you are crippling yourself with in order to achieve value. You’ll forge ahead as long as you don’t get seduced into buying trekking poles.
At this season you will come up against:
Primidrose – An oval, rather wrinkled anticonvulsant which does not appear above ground. It is drowsy and softly hairy and moans to itself. What is wrong with it? Even if it did emerge it would just lie flat on the ground, not coping. It is often found at the edge of dark, private woods. Don’t allow it to trouble you. Instead, notice the black branches stamped like lightning across the Delft sky, all hypergestural and structurally fragile. In the illustration, the things at the front are more like specimens, whereas many have argued that the closer you get to something the harder it is to force it into a jar.
The only place of culture on this route is Penshurst Hall, famed for its hugely disturbing collection of toys (or are they?). Approach via a sweeping avenue of flowerbeds rife with Sweet Viprynium, an unusually efficacious worm repellent with big violent flowers that break a worm’s neck as soon as look at it. Its ghost-like outer robe or hood cloaks the thrusting stamen and all these writhing hellish green semi-sentient leaves pulsing with ill will. You may also know Sweet Viprynium as “Ordeal by Innocence”, “The Secret Adversary” or “Appointment with Death”.
The staff who guard the toy collection are hybrids. Stout and growing to four feet or so in height, they appear in late March. White and drooping, they convey a sense of invasive melancholy and sway gently in the draft that blows along the lengthening corridors. Along with a tiny grey drink, they handed me the list of rules:
…guide dogs may not use audio guides; sharp objects must be shed at the threshold along with any aggressive detergents or brushes with metal or nylon bristles; do not throw bits of sandwich on the floor; don’t look at me; never store a bicycle in a damp outhouse…
The more discrete categories you can recognise, the more likely you are to be able to be right.
Neither the staff nor the inadequate inaccurate photocopied pamphlet can prepare you for the ordeal you must now undergo. Amanda C Fogwaitress told me that this was good, though, and that my chronic need for preparedness was a major obstacle between me and self-actualisation. I keep asking her what’s wrong with me but she just says attaching a diagnostic label represents a failure of imagination. I suggested to her that I might have a schizoid personality but she wanted to call it the radiant magnetism of the bohemian. The pamphlet talks about things like Mechanical Toys of the Early 20th Century, Wedgwood Creamware miniature dinner services and Floral Lotto but I don’t remember any of those.
We access the collection across a stage lit by bright, bright moonlight on a plain of white sand and a sky of outer space black brimming with intrinsic symbolism, although the guidebook is mute. A crowded theatre is spectating with gilded facial expressions and swags of flesh oozing from the gods. Musical accompaniment comes from two pantalooned Edwardian sailors with wide red collars, one of whom plays a set of bagpipes made of an anus, the other of whom sings from a scrolled libretto.
I’m quite aware that this is some kind of test and I am getting annoyed.
– Why am I so ill? I ask anyone who is prepared to listen.
But they are still thrumming in the aftermath of Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan are up next.
Nearby we should note a grouping of a man, woman and child. The man is an illustrious aristocrat. If you operate a hidden button he removes a blunderbuss from his pocket. He is the great-great Viscount Guy Shelley-Shelley. The woman is a toymaker instrumental in creating this toy; a typical example of the use of molds applied to living models, she has a stuffed body with palsied extremities. Her grin is backlit by a flickering low watt bulb. The child’s face is like a badly flipped Gothic pancake and its hand is waving regally, a practice actually dating from the 14th century. I stand still until I have committed the essentials to memory.
The next toy is called Goggin. It has weary ruby red eyes and a big black nose. A wig of animal hair has been styled into a pompadour and sewn to the head. The head is made of a dried apple with a simple line smile without lips. It lives at the bottom of a hill and sits on a pile of stones. Toys give an insight into the development of various cultures and the evolution of the modern industrial world. It is blind drunk and holds forth on such topics as the concepts of evil, death and the ignoble in a moralising, allegorical and sometimes prophetic tone, occasionally leaving off to cough up blood. Compassion is understanding another’s suffering and trying to put and end to it. Ultimately I beat it to death with a broom and make for the emergency exit. No sea un héroe. I needed to leave, now, to continue my very long walk in which I would attempt to trespass.
Regarding this episode Amanda C Fogwaitress explained that everyone’s experience is different and that the toys in the collection are used to explore facets of the ‘proven’ and ‘mythological’ selves, opposing yet eternal archetypes. She added that in general, toys will exist happily in the same environment as people, with supportive psychodynamic psychotherapy. I still felt I was missing something.
Finally outside again it is very heaven. A designer has manipulated the atmospheric meniscus and all shapes and substances cling to the film, shifting slightly with each tweak. The textures of different sections retain their integrity but the overall vision is set to buttery, which no one can properly grasp. The bleobells and the sky are both blue short-acting muscle relaxants. By visualising blue it is possible to prevent nightmares and ward off the psychic attacks experienced by poltergeist victims. The action is stilled in the surfaces.
I told Amanda C Fogwaitress how much I loved nature but she just said wise up and get over it. I wanted to show her my sketchbooks of which there are many. This picture is all about hiding places and escape routes, I explained, pleased with the fuzzy edge of the shadow plane and the dark section with barely discernible hill shapes, and this one explores deceptive surfaces – Saturn, celebrity, sunglasses, cesspools, eyes, ice, undersides.
– Will you stop free associating, she snapped.
The route to Babyeaters is beset with many dangers: perilous ditches, gravel pits, unexpected changes in level, shoots in progress, dramatic corridors of pylons slicing down mountainsides, packs of scorpions and disused quarries.
What’s so dangerous about a disused quarry, you may well ask. Surely the danger is all dormant, only to be awakened by idiotic actions, just as a birthday cake is dangerous if you rashly drop it on someone’s head from a great height. This quarry has a block drum house formerly used for winching stones down to the tunnel through the hillside, a rectangular black gap reminding me of my childhood. I really wanted to go down and explore but this required going beyond a rope. As soon as I went beyond the rope I lost my footing and at first buoyantly scree-surfed the gradient before an unexpected change in level tipped me flat on my stomach, now body-surfing the terrain head first towards a precipice. The first object I grabbed onto was a sheep’s skull which was no help but reminded me of a song my mother used to sing me. The second thing was a hardy perennial which my g-force almost uprooted, leaving us both dangling, perilously.
As I dangled I recalled the time I had first emerged into the overground realm, how my visual impressions had organised themselves like a series of beautiful hand-tinted postcards, how I had felt that I was looking at the world through sweetie wrappers. Soon after came the realisation that I had forgotten to teach myself to read.
– Could that account for my difficulty understanding symbolism, I asked Amanda C Fogwaitress.
– Maybe but I was translating Baudelaire at the age of eight and I still can’t follow an Ikea manual.
Amanda C Fogwaitress Inc boasts a range of fraudulent products such as:
Mindfulness maps – you write mindful words in the gaps and draw mindful pictures in the blank spaces
Mindfulness socks – you put them on your feet to approach closer to a state of mindfulness
Mindfulness bin – this is where you throw all your unmindful rubbish
ACF confided to me that mindfulness will lull you into forgetting to find out what is wrong with you.
After some time a group of volunteers who had been burning branches nearby appeared wavily through the rising heat and dragged me to safety before turning their attention to the hardy perennial.
If all the obstacles you continue to encounter have left you feeling defeated, communing with animals may offer relief. Try something small like an ant to begin with. Ants are famously selfless givers. Let one crawl around on your arm for a bit and the pain, distress and hurt should melt away within minutes.
There are, of course, many joys to savour as you negotiate these hazards. If you hold your nerve over the tightrope bridging the concrete drainage channel, meadows of cyclopropamen on the other side will take the edge off. Owing to their complicated hybrid ancestry they exude a sense of restless yearning and weltschmertz. The outlines of their concepts are always shifting as semi-solid, liquid and vapour. Their wild progenitors are air plants. The flowers are of soft rose fabric but with a leopard print pattern. Cyclopropamen is widely used in the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Between July and September feel free to grope into the root ball and snap off the basal tail of the parent stem, which should yield a furled motto. Last time mine said “If you are waging a war over ownership of your identity, you could choose to concede”.
The Babyeaters can be used as a diagnostic tool. But of course you’re not allowed to go anywhere near them as they are made of chocolate covered with insects and consequently very unstable and dripping with ordure on a bad day. Anyway, the point is how can you receive their wisdom if they are 150 yards away and you can’t even make out their poisonous carved stomachs, their swaggering insouciance, their ambisexual metaviscerality?
I crawl on hands and knees over the moat. It is filled with the bones of dead babies. Ouch. More than 2,500 years ago the Babyeaters were sawn in half down the middle and kept in an isolated hall of mirrors for at least two years in a cruel experiment orchestrated by Pharaoh Xanax III aimed at splitting the atom. Many innovations in language down the generations are created by children at play. From around four months babies can gauge the mood of an adult from the songs they hum. At six months they already have an internalised greatest hits playlist, normally featuring Abba. The Babyeaters were overseen by a mute shepherd. After two years it was reported that they had begun to bleat. But then something else happened. You’ve already guessed it: stimulus deprivation resulted in the spontaneous creation of an entirely new language system, working with glass and chance to show something that wasn’t there at all.
Having studied the Babyeaters’ language for a long time in preparation I knew these facts:
It expresses every idea as its opposite. Instead of saying ‘Give me water’, for example, they would say ‘I withhold water from you’.
It only has one type of vowel sound – a kind of open ‘a’, as in the English word ‘Aaargh’.
They aim to make no statement whatsoever, evoking neither feelings nor associations.
I have my question ready.
– What are my chances of recovery?
The Babyeaters look at each other and shrug. A small golden songbird lands on the shoulder of the right hand one and is swiftly dismembered and eaten.
– Why on earth did you do that? I ask.
One or two gleaming feathers land at my feet as the Babyeater hiccups.
– Now I am songbird, it replies, dribbling bits of worm.
The other one’s stomach begins to rupture, a foetal toe protruding, already swarming with maggot larvae.
I repeat my question, politely, but the Babyeaters have totally lost interest and the right hand one is bleeding from the eyes.
I have brought a small gift, as custom dictates: a plastic crocodile, about twelve inches long with nice colour gradations from darker upper half to lighter lower and smiling wide open jaws. I thought it might remind them of the Nile. I have propped a couple of strawberries inside the mouth to show goodwill. I place the gift equidistant between the two then start to worry in case I should have brought them one each.
– Fuck off, the Babyeaters bark in unison. My best translation of this is ‘we are staying here’ and anyway, I’m keen to recross the moat before the effects of the cyclopropamen completely wear off. After the moat I crawl through a thicket at the same time trying to contact Amanda C Fogwaitress on speed dial. I get the usual voice message. I’m not here. You’re on your own, kiddo. I run through the mantra we developed together for use at times of stress, co-authored to blend poetry and practical guidance:
Lay the unit front face downwards on a protective surface such as its own carton.
Use the fixing slots on the base plate as a guide when marking the position of the drill holes.
An all-pole switch must be incorporated in the fixed wiring in accordance with the wiring rules.
The bypass circuit must include a lockshield valve and be in circuit with the pump.
There is no obvious path across the GM field that now lies ahead. Often the path marked on a map runs at a tangent to the ploughing bias. Orchards are even worse. The genes of Rottweilers have been spliced into the crop and the ground-up roots of the plant can be used as a very convincing caffeine substitute. The razor sharp leaves are creased with a deep lachrymo-sanguinal channel to harvest the fluids shed by injured passers-by. There is no way to patch biological systems once released to the wild but stringent biocontainment can help.
From a mathematical standpoint, the neatest solution is to cartwheel across the field, reducing foot- and handfall by about a third compared to walking. Before I strike out I check my phone one last time, hoping that AC Fogwaitress will have been in touch to present me with options but there is only a text message from an unknown number saying ‘Timeapple’.
The word stays upright in my mind as I pivot around it, arriving at the opposite side of the field with much shorter nails and hair. I am now unable to track myself on the map but realise I am probably in the right place by reading the wooden signpost ahead. Timeorchard. Early cultures have a lot of time for apples, frequently using them as a basic unit of exchange. Apple trees are often hybridised but sometimes one variety will become dominant when proportional representation suddenly flips to first past the post.
Chanticleer is my favourite. The best form is a free-flowering dwarf, highly efficacious in the treatment of immune dysfunction, back pain, learning difficulties and phobia states. Grapey and dense with an after-palate of Archers Peach Schnapps.
Rather tired now, I stretch out across a patch of dappled shade interspangled with acausal half lozenges of watery light. Just as there are many pipes and cables under a city street, so roots bring water and food up from the soil to keep trees alive. I am dozing off a bit now as I run through Amanda C Fogwaitress’s response when I tried to pin her down on symbolism once and for all.
Symbolism is when you’re in an imaginary space, perhaps a bourgeois salon full of exquisite objects suffused with mystery and oriental unease. Innocent scenes painted on paper lampshades, bits of fabric trailing off half-seen couches. There is a door camouflaged by wallpaper. The door opens onto a blank-walled bedchamber, a scene from last night’s dream, the one where David Bowie sits on the bed wearing orange nail varnish, the very essence of suggestive ambiguity. (Wear orange if you are low on energy or feel odd.) In the corridor beyond the chamber is a cupboard full of starched linen, where a maid is unable to locate the right pillowcase among identical pillowcases, finally rejecting the notion of one-for-one equivalence in favour of a personal interior vision of a world clothed in supereminent qualities.
I think it ran along those lines. It is hard to tell the actual size of the clouds. Are they the size of a castle or a town? Each panel verges on abstraction like the triumphant hairstyles of Renaissance gods.
Thump. The silver Timeapple has fallen from the branch above me where it has been shimmering all this time, with its upbeat get-out-of-jail-free aura. Awakening, I tear off the margin of the map where I have scrawled my notes on symbolism and insert them into the slot at the base of the Timeapple.
It rolls off down the steep rake of the tree row and, following, I perceive that it is travelling towards the tunnel entrance at the bottom of the quarry. It hesitates there and, thinking What The Hell, I bowl it all the way in and watch until it has vanished from view. I feel bereft. I could have sold it for a fortune on eBay.
It is time to traverse the scorpion pit but in my pocket is a selection of leaves harvested along the way and I believe that in the right proportions they may combine to provide an effective antidote to the paralysing sting.
Bio: I am a writer and visual artist with an interest in using language and images from different genres and contexts to marry the poetic with the absurd. I have a strong interest in gender non-conformity and a strong identification with the neurodiverse spectrum. My writing currently appears in UK Film Review.