A collection of some of Job’s ‘Best Bits’ from Driftwood. Definately my favourite character to fall out of my head.
They started putting god in the water around about my twenty-fifth birthday. It began slowly, of course. Region by region. Constituency after constituency. It was as if some kind of divine digital switchover was carried wetly through the pipes running from each and every household, spurting through brick laced orifices, galleons each godly-soaking second. It took almost three years to complete, they tell me. I can remember the headlines, clear as anything. The red-tops were announcing a new golden age of family values. “Back to basics”, they were saying. The death of secular Britain, bums back on pews. Some of the broadsheets were more sceptical, of course, but soon grew quiet. Printed news didn’t seem to have the same effect after the rains came.
It began in London, as most things do.
It quickly spread through the entirety of the south coast, leaping over channels to the islands and bridging rivers to the West Country; then heading north along the motorways and water mainlines until every reservoir and household tap had some residue of god in each droplet. The holy was carried on a molecular level. Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. One part god.
More than the sum of its parts, so to speak.
Of course, there were protests. Wales and Scotland formed organised groups as best they could after the devastation of the floods the years before. Some people were saying it was a violation of their freedoms. The atheists argued they didn’t need god, that god is a choice, a lie. A drug. The fundamentalists were upset that the god in the water wasn’t specific enough. They only had to allow the drinking water into their systems for a couple of days and they all settled down, they couldn’t help it. They consumed god by gulping down cups of tea, or absorbed it through their porous skin in their baths, or they ate it via the slaughtered meat of animals that had been plumped after their death with injections of the stuff. It subdued their will. It made them humble. It made them penitent.
The floods that came at the beginning of the decade started it all. The rain began falling hard, and it damn well didn’t stop for over a year. It soon became apparent that the country was collapsing under the force of precipitation; the news was full of images of London sliding somnambulantly into the river that bore it, and the same was happening all over Great Britain. After that, there was no news. Just grown men shivering inside tube stations, their hair plastered to their faces, their hands cracking open tins of peaches with twisted metal spoons as the water rushed along the train lines.
I was one of those men. I watched the dead rise to the stinking, muddy surface of the lakes that occupied the cities. Through genetics and genetics alone I escaped the disease that ripped through over a third of the population that weren’t buried alive by mudslides or drowned through exhaustion, or trapped inside their model homes and sports coupés. Cholera made its comeback, as though it had never left the Thames estuary two hundred years before, and she took the lives of sizable percentage of the sodden, struggling population. Cholera. We couldn’t believe her putrid rags had returned.
All the while, it didn’t stop raining. People were blaming it on global warming, on the gradual, selfish destruction of the planet. But the power stations and coal burners were redundant now, the airports were all closed. Still, it kept raining. Still, I shivered underground. People began turning to religion. They didn’t know where else to turn, and this was more than a flood; it was a deluge. A deluge can give people some pretty strange ideas. So, the desperate occupants of Great Britain flogged themselves and kneeled and prayed and did their best to preserve the half-submerged churches and their soaking icons whilst the Turners and Kapoors of the Tate collection returned to their separate, original elements of oil, turpentine and flax.
It seemed to work. The rain stopped falling.
It took a long time to get things back on track. The population had been decimated, the NHS could never operate as it used to. But slowly, gradually, Britain dried out, began to resemble its former self. The government at the time was deeply unpopular; people were blaming the watery wrath of God on the ridiculous expense claims made by decadent and corrupt former Etonians. After a particularly difficult local election, the former Etonians consulted the scientists who eventually put god into the water mains of Great Britain.
It was a new chemical, that was all we were told. It was to benefit our health, to make us a strong nation once again after our brief and devastating apocalypse. They had done it before, they said. They did it with fluoride, to help our dental health. We all thought that was a good idea, didn’t we?
“Yes”, the people replied. “Yes, that was a good idea.”
I started trying to tell people about fluoride, now that I had emerged from the underground stations and had began construction on my home. I tried to tell people that fluoride was first put into water mains back in the 1940’s, in a country called Poland, in places with funny names like ‘Auschwitz’. It was used to subdue the will of hundreds of thousands of people who were being sent to their death. This is true. People didn’t believe me. I also told them the son of one of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, the son of Albert Einstein, had proclaimed that the acceptance of national fluoridisation of drinking water would be one of ‘humanity’s gravest errors’. People didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Job”, they would say to me, (for that is my name) “Job, we don’t know what you are talking about”.
And so the protests were short-lived, and people would drink the water, and people would accept god into their lives. The opiate of the people had manifested itself in ways even Marx could never have imagined. People got up each day, and sleepwalked to work, where they would suffer gleefully in the infectious, water-borne belief that a better life lay ahead.
My aversion to water grew with an organic, natural formation within my psyche, made up of instances and memories, each one like so many droplets at the tip of a stalactite in a cavern somewhere. That cavern is now sixty-five years old, and is full to the brim.
I will take you through this place, step by step.
Firstly, my mother had once tried to drown me as a small child.
We took the old double-decker bus through the greener parts of the county, a pleasant journey made up of wet fields and old forests. My mother would point out kestrels hovering above the road, seeking out the field-mice and voles that lived beneath our wheels. We ambled through tarmac and concrete, splitting the woodland in two, until our horizons were interrupted and extended by seawater and the occasional huddle of dunes and umber stratified cliff faces. Their irony deposits and fossil-heavy stripes reminded me of cakes; of ginger biscuits and of the black bread my uncle used to bring with him to dinner. The landscape, as seen through the smeared windows of the rattling old automobile I was sharing with my mother and several strangers was comprised of vast slabs of petrified food, dropping off the edge of the world. I remember tracing my fingertips along the cracks in the leather of the wide seats, imagining that each crack was a canyon somewhere, and the heat blowing from beneath my legs was a fire. There were people, tiny, tiny people in the leather of the seats of that old bus.
I was three years old.
I remember being mesmerised by my hands. In my memory, my hands then look no different to my hands now, although of course they were completely different, even on a cellular scale. My hands now look like they are wrapped in old newspaper and dipped in iodine. My hands then looked like children’s hands. I would bring my fingers close to my eyes and squint at them, watching my vision swim slightly through blurry perspective. I would see four fingers, then eight, then one. It was a huge amount of fun.
We alighted at a collection of wooden piers jutting into the grey water, and my mother heaved and puffed as she tugged a massive brown leather suitcase in her wake, its brass buckles had long been collapsed and useless, and she preferred instead to keep it bound together with several belts and cords and a frayed silk tie. This was fairly typical of my mother. Very little was ever thrown away in her house, and appliances would be held together with the most unlikely of tools until they became too hazardous or refused to comply with their function completely. My old bed, which I can only just visualise at the very corners of my memory, was constructed of wood, metal coat hangers and greaseproof paper. I look now at the clothes I am wearing, and around me at my house at the corner of this river, and wonder whether I did pick up some of her habits, after all.
My mother and I stood at the end of a crumbling wooden pier, and she proceeded to tie me up.
At this point, the perspective of my memory shifts dramatically.
It doesn’t feel like anything I can describe to you with my relatively limited vocabulary. One moment I am seeing directly out of the two forward facing holes in my physical, material face, as I am looking at the paper now. The next moment, I am not. I am out of my body, in a looser fitting, more comfortable skin that feels blueish-greenish-grey, but looks like nothing on earth. It can’t be described any further. One moment normality, the next; normality. Only several metres from my actual beating heart and wobbling milk teeth.
I cease to see with my own eyes, and I now watch the proceedings from a hiding place beneath a concrete memorial bench. “This bench was dedicated to somebody good, somebody who lived a good life”, I tell myself, as I watch my mother pull me, three years old and unhesitant, along the old wooden pier. It is cold beneath this bench, and my elbow shifts to avoid fag butts and the remnants of cigarettes and the crumbs of black bread blown here from the edge of the world by sea winds. The view for whoever it was that had lived a life good enough to deserve a bench was disappointing, at best. A car park to the left. A collection of rotting piers slowly drowning themselves to the right.
A concrete support slices my vision into two distinct panoramas; the sea, and the adult and child wandering along water blasted wooden supports. That child is me.
I watch her lug a Victorian ceramic hot water bottle from the suitcase, an enormous and inelegant item that continues to bemuse me to this day whenever I come across one in an antiquities museum or shop. The thought of sharing my bed with a heavy, grey brick filled with boiling water and weighing down my mattress seems thoroughly unpleasant, slightly ridiculous. The manufacturers were obviously painfully aware of the aesthetic flaws of their product, and overcompensated with their enthusiastic glazing and decoration of the misshapen granite coloured bottle. I watched my mother loosen the belts holding the suitcase in one piece, and thus I watched the suitcase fall to pieces. I watched my mother tighten the belts around my chest, one by one, and loop the buckles through the thumb-grip on the bottle now full with salty water. I heard leather sliding into fastenings. I saw sunlight on brass. I watched my mother put me to bed at noon, there on the piers of the English coastline. I watched a mother kill her son, and I knew that son was me. They may bemuse me, those hot water bottles; but damn, they certainly send a shiver through me too.
Quite what happened next, I do not remember. I do not remember drowning, or any lights or tunnels or panic or remote discomfort. You must forgive me for this, and believe me that my memories of these occurrences are obscured by a preoccupation with woodlice beneath a memorial bench several feet away from the disturbance, that and the discovery of a fascinating piece of wood that occupied my ‘hands’ whilst my body was dropping three feet into waterlogged silt. I remember momentarily dropping whatever debris I was clutching onto to put my fingers in my ears. A man bounded over my hiding place, shrieking and shouting before leaping head first into the sea. He didn’t even stop to untie his shoes, and I remember worrying about what his mother would think, should he return home soaked and dripping with brown and grey water. Another man took my mother by the hand and walked her away. The concrete support in front of my face obscured them completely.
I remember nothing of the next two years after this event, although I often chose to return to that bench, in my memory. It changes, now and then. Sometimes the filthy floor is littered with underwear, or broken plates and newspapers alongside the cigarette butts and condom. Sometimes the man who walks away with my mother spins her around and kisses her like they were in a film where cities were burning behind them. Sometimes she looks at me. Sometimes she doesn’t. Once, she tried to. Often, my dreams begin in that place; that place where I never was and could never have been whilst my mother killed me. Obviously, I survived this ordeal. I was rescued, they tell me. I was lucky, they tell me.
On more than one occasion, I spoke to God in a dream, and God took the form of a fascinating piece of driftwood that never existed beneath that bench that was probably never there. God told me many things, and I remembered almost none of them upon waking. I sometimes questioned, in dreaming, if he ever had a son; and whether being nailed to a wooden cross and crowned with thorns would be easier for a piece of driftwood, and whether driftwood could stretch new roots into the soil or float some more on wider seas. On more than one occasion, God answered. His answer was ‘Sometimes’.