The Mighty Absence
I was seventeen when I first started to see; see properly I mean; see not just what’s here, but what isn’t here but should be. And once you start to see what is not here but is possible, everything else begins to fade as this mighty absence takes shape.
It’s a sort of awakening of conscience; a conversion of faith; a spiritual politics. It’s come a long way and had many forms: the blacked out face of a Scottish coal miner; the proselytising lips of tea-sipping thinkers; the turpentine nails of tubercular journeymen; the brief reigns of hair-suited Ministers; the thundering thoughts of compassionate minds. But it’s always had one thing in common at its core: life and its fruits are here to be shared.
My parents were going through one of their lean periods, so I accompanied them in our clapped-out burgundy Maxi to a car boot sale in the run-down school grounds of a local council estate. It was a depressing, drab community and the playground lay at the centre of a labyrinth of paint-peeling beige box houses, all exactly the same, with little patches of scrub for front gardens littered with rusting bicycles, old fridges and upturned shopping trolleys. This was where the pallid species known locally as ‘scum’ existed in their hidden numbers, cramped between the Social Security offices and the town centre. Graffiti sprawled on every road sign and lamppost – the claw marks of society’s neglected residents. Just outside the wire enclosure of this asphalt hinterland, a sign shouted the eleventh commandment: NO BALL GAMES.
There we displayed our commodities, old faded Star Wars figures and rusty toy soldiers, souvenirs of childhood, heaped in damp-stained luggage once used by us in mythic times when holidays were still possible.
In a small matter of minutes a grubby-faced little boy appeared wearing a pair of scruffy corduroys too big for him. His face had that transparent paleness typical of these neglected neighbourhoods, where skeletal kids look like they’ve barely seen sunlight for years – as if they’ve been left on their parents’ window-sills to fade in the urban glare like Chimney Sweep miniatures; the sort of luminous paleness the Council kids used to have at school, the ones who reeked of stale urine. That face was marked by a mighty absence of life’s better things. I had to remind myself this was almost the twenty-first century – and no doubt at times so did this shabbily-dressed, thumb-sucking cadaver.
There he stood like a half-starved ghost gazing in wonderment at the out-of-date merchandise displayed before him in the old damp-smelling suitcases. He stared at the small figures as if they were nuggets of gold. I watched as he crouched on the asphalt and picked one of the figures up, toying with it and animating it as his father’s shadow hovered over his luminous skin. ‘How much are they each?’ asked the timid parent, back hunched humbly. My father could barely answer for the pity that scraped his tone: ‘50p’, he croaked. ‘Ok,’ said the father, kneeling down next to his enraptured son, ‘You can pick one of them’. As the small boy rummaged around in the multitudes of figures for his one plastic, out-of-date, paint-faded choice, I saw my father turn away for a second as if on the brink of tears while I held back my own, feeling a mixture of extreme pity, shame and…a sort of enlightening sadness; an unconditional love for the little boy and the little second-hand world he lived in; for the way he scrimped about for just one little faded figure, a faded little figure himself.
In time, and after much careful handling of figure after figure, the boy made his choice and the father pressed a cold 50 pence piece into my hand. The man and his mesmerised son turned and walked slowly away. As I stared after them, I noticed how the little boy held the plastic figure, which I had once taken for granted, as if it were a precious and priceless relic; as if one blink of his eye and it would disappear. Our hearts sank with our hands into our pockets.
What choice had we? We needed money ourselves and so we sold what we didn’t need anymore – but we felt ashamed, and it was all we could do to stop ourselves giving the boy the whole suitcase full of figures for the price of those meagre two. But it had largely been through such selflessness that we had come by hard times ourselves; my father often proudly quoted the motto of our Fabian ancestors: sui oblitus commodi – forgetful of one’s own interests. Doubtless these matchstick folk had never had any interests to forget.
Only a short time later another man, about the same age as the boy’s father, all jeans, trainers and clinking car-keys, squeaked up to us in his leather jacket and surveyed our suitcases of toys on the ground. With a screwed-eyed, indirect gaze beneath the peak of a baseball cap, he said to my father, ‘How much for the whole lot?’ Slightly taken aback, my father’s brow furrowed as he bit his nails in consideration of the toys’ collective value. As if instinctively sickened at the prospect of making a profit in such a deprived place, he muttered ‘I’m not really sure…’ ‘Thirty quid for the lot’ proposed the slightly impatient spectator who seemed as much a stranger to this playground as we were. ‘Right, ok’ agreed my father, no doubt so relieved at the prospect of securing sufficient funds to keep us in electricity for the next fortnight that it didn’t occur to him to haggle for any more; anyway, bartering was contrary to his ancestral nature.
The deal done, the man slid out three crisp ten pound notes from his hefty wallet. My father grinned with embarrassment as he took the money. ‘They’re for the kids’, said the man as he closed the lids on the figures and clicked the latches shut. He then heaved the two cases from the ground and carried them stealthily away, his trainers crunching on the playground gravel. My father gazed at the three notes in his hand, tapped his fingers on his corrugated brow, and smiled wearily at my mother stood shyly by the car.
Then there came the clunk of a car door shutting some yards along the asphalt and we looked up and saw the man seat-belting himself in. His car was a large, chunky estate with a huge boot at the back filled to the brim with all manner of children’s toys and clothes. No one except the woman who lived in the shoe had as many children as that! Or were they for him? Surely an adult should have grown out of hoarding toys? Of course, as his car heaved away, another possibility occurred to us…
The scruffy little boy whose day had been illuminated by the gift of one single second-hand figure came into my mind again, and no doubt, from the sad look clouding my father’s face, into his…
…the image of that boy and his innocent gratitude for what was a pittance of amusement has lodged in my mind ever since and even as I speak about it now I have to swallow the memory as if it’s a stone in my throat. But if it is a stone it’s from a fruit, as it’s grown in me, fleshing out with sweetness. Now every word on my tongue tastes of that memory.
So the seed of new convictions was planted in me that miserable day, when the grey skies hung heavy over the small, second-hand boy crouched on that asphalt before a trove of small, second-hand toys. That’s when I first glimpsed the mighty absence, under his chin, glowing like the golden shadow of a buttercup.
Alan Morrison © 2007
Previously published in Headstorms, 2005; The Seeker, 2005; The Overdose (Sixties Press), 2007