By Jane Hyphen
Since there is nothing upon the horizon these days except for a vast plane, dusty and barren barring the odd amorous pigeon and a few clusters of bluebells, I have taken to looking sideways. In fact I have adopted crab customs and I am applying them to all situations.
Looking forward, that was how it used to be. My eyes frequently scanning the horizon for leads, what lies ahead, interesting prospects, fascinating strangers, beautiful or useful objects to purchase and bring home. My eyes were always hunting for something new, something interesting, some change; black spaghetti, green tea Kit Kats, vegan mayonnaise.
If I had a bit of spare time and needed a change of scene, I might pop into town, walk the pavements listening to people’s conversations, I enjoy staring at people, a habit often seen as rude, sometimes I would hang around in Primark and just give people dirty looks. Alas, all that has been taken away.
Watching the empty planes ahead I became sort of absent minded, vacant, I became wrapped in a miasma of witlessness, I forgot to lock doors, left fridges open, brushed my teeth with Nutella, I dusted Athletes Foot powder onto a Victoria Sponge. Somebody, I forget who now, because they vanished into the mist, said that I should make the most of this “staycation” but I found myself on a “stay-vacant”.
Crab customs involve a sideways move, thus eliminating having to face up to the doom, nothingness or sheer drop which might lie ahead.
It started, like all good adventures, in the garden. My next door neighbour is sixty two percent Chenin Blanc and will do anything to drown out her inner voice and avoid acknowledging her own shadow. The alcohol eliminates most of it but most days she invites a loud acquaintance to her house for anything from two hours to several hours. Her acquaintances or “friends” tend to be somewhat needy themselves, they last a couple of years before she has a monumental falling out with them and never speaks to them again.
So her current friend is a large man who resembles the giant in Harry Potter; big and strong with a loud booming voice, and a stupid, unformed face. Almost everything he says could have some out of the mouth of an eleven year old, except he is about forty. In response everything the Chenic Blanc says is gushing and complimentary, telling him how clever he is, how kind, how creative, how he was far too good for his ex wife etc etc and so it goes on. His visits used to be restricted to weekends but now, in lockdown, he comes most days and they sit in the garden, engaging in verbal heavy petting. The situation has become intolerable.
I could wear headphones, I could go and speak to her about the noise but the last time I tried that she said I was “insulting her friend”. So looking sideways, the solution I came up with, quite spontaneously, was to play The Pogues - The Worm Song at high volume to drown out his inane mutterings with something more truthful, more sincere and in all ways more cultured. I’m not sure what it really does except diffuse the rising tension, thwart the urge within me to shout, “Why don’t you shut your big, fat head, before I push you into the abyss!”
The abyss being an imaginary hole just beyond the fence at the bottom of our gardens, a hole with sharp teeth that chew.
I extended the crab customs to my dog walks. Often I used to bundle the dogs into the car and we would take a drive searching for green Public Footpath signs in the hope of finding unexplored wildernesses or undiscovered civilisation. Now we are confined to our immediate location I have been looking sideways for virgin cul-de-sacs and unchartered housing developments.
There is a faded Public Footpath sign on a very busy main road which has been bothering me for years. It is located at the end of somebody’s driveway and many times when passing I have craned my head trying to work out the entry point. So, a few days ago I made a spontaneous decision to investigate. My canine companions gave me an excuse and a bit of confidence since the fact that it involved walking on private property made me feel very conspicuous and guilty.
We walked very quickly along the driveway with our heads down and entered a very narrow path, bordered on both sides with the bottoms of neighbouring gardens. Their fences varied in height and being a very fine, warm day people were sitting out on deckchairs, having barbecues and smoking gigantic pipes. Suspiciously aromatic clouds of smoke drifted across the path. I tried to glide along unnoticed but sticks cracked beneath my feet and voices fell silent as I came into view.
There was no way I could have passed another person without us rubbing together, chests chafing, a DNA exchangingly tight squeeze thus breaking all social distance protocol. The path narrowed to just a few feet wide and became very overgrown, obstructed with young nettles, grass, broken glass and garden cuttings, charred pieces of wood, empty paint cans and toxic smelling discarded paint.
One of my dogs was getting a bit anxious so I stopped and considered turning back but it looked more open ahead so we soldiered on.
It turned out the open area ahead was just a slightly bent elbow with an even tighter path beyond. We stopped and caught our breath but there was a strange atmosphere and I suddenly had the sense of being observed. A man, heavily tattooed with fish lips and a vest made from nylon nets was sitting on an oil drum, he spat into the grass just by my feet.
‘You shouldn’t be doing that….’ I said, repulsed. I looked down at his feet, he had no shoes on and I noticed that his toes were webbed.
‘Nice claws!’ he said smiling. I checked my hands but they were just, well, hands. ‘You decided to try it out then?’ he said, his voice was kind of bubbly, like he was gargling mouthwash.
He stared at the top of my head and nodded. ‘Just skimming the scum from the surface of your subconscious. People who walk this path, they’re brave. Most of them have been thinking about it for a long time, it’s hidden from most people’s view, it isn’t on their..’ His eyes suddenly went really wide, ‘RADAR. You have to look sideways and this path, it gets so narrow, you have to walk sideways too, it’s really only suitable for crustaceans.’
I looked back at the way we had come and considered running back but it looked as if it had narrowed still and I questioned whether I could actually fit. I started to panic a bit, shut my eyes and took a couple of deep breaths, when I opened them the man’s face was inches away from mine. ‘Would you like to come and meet the octopus that controls your dreams?’ he said, panting heavily.
‘I..I erm..’ Before I could answer he pushed me into the oil drum. We were suddenly underwater swimming through currents but somehow I could still breath. He held onto me and it was a bit like the scene from Peter Pan when he leads all the children through the night sky.
We swam through beautiful reefs, ancient shipwrecks, we passed by swarms of jellyfish and manta rays like dark angels of the sea. He pulled me down deeper, down, down to the seabed where, among the green swaying plants there was a small, gold lid, similar to that of an olive oil bottle, he kneeled down and twisted it until it opened. A long tentacle reached out and felt the dimensions of my face, the suckers plucking at the contours of my nose, cheeks and lips. Then, the octopus, which was very large, enormous actually, slid through the hole, inch by inch.
We stared at each other eye to eye and my friend with the webbed feet acted as translator. ‘She says, what would you like to dream about?’
I thought for a moment. ‘Well, I’d like to have some flying dreams, I haven’t had any of those in a while and I’d love to dream of being young again. Tell her I’d like to put an end to the recurring dream about the public toilet with the revealing saloon door, I hate that. Oh and tell her I’d like to meet up with my dad again and also my friend Fiona who died when we were at school.’
He spoke quietly to the octopus in a language of bubble blowing and gargling. ‘She says they haven’t renewed their contract with the afterlife, ever since something went wrong when someone asked to meet up with Ted Bundy but she can look into sorting the others.’
‘What? Okay, just that then.’ I was anxious to get back to the surface now.
The octopus waved and blew a whistle which was dangled around her neck, two crayfish appeared and helped push her back into the hole. They screwed the lid back on tightly.
‘Bye Ronnie, bye Reggie,’ Webbed-feet shouted and as we swam to the surface I felt him prize his hand from mine and I continued like a rocket to the surface. I gasped as I popped out of the oil drum and I was alone now except for my dogs who were waiting calmly. They greeted me with gently wagging tails. All that was left of my friend was a bit of nylon netting among the nettles.
My face felt sore and stingy from the tentacles. The sun shone and I could hear the faint chatter of people relaxing in their gardens. We continued our journey on the footpath. It turned out there wasn’t much of it to go, just another twenty meters and we were out onto the pavement in a road fairly close to my home. One of my neighbours was standing on the other side of the road clutching a bottle of milk and a can of tuna. ‘Did you just walk through that path?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I flicked some plantlife off the front of my t-shirt.’
‘I thought that had become impassable. I wouldn’t even attempt to claw my way through there,’ she said laughing. ‘You look a bit pinched, are you okay.’
‘Yes, I’m fine. Just a bit narrow in there. The dogs got a bit stressed.’