Peter Hammill - Waiting

'I wake up; without a shadow of doubt I have done so. The hands of the bedside clock show an hour well before my accustomed one of consciousness; the alarm has not yet gone off. For once, rather than drifting back to sleep, I reach over and push down the lever, so the bell won't ring later. My head is muzzy, the brandy of last night is still traced around my mouth; there is the suspicion of a swollen gland on the right side of my neck. I have passed the borderline, truly awake, and no will to return to sleep can be realised; so I obey the unaccustomed impulse to rise.

The day is so mediocre that it cannot even be called hostile. The greyness and the wet are uniform, but in an almost clandestine way. I can look at the day and say ``This is nothing''; but my eyes, turned away, will be all the more bleary, damp, and unfeeling. It is--dull, ambiguous, anonymous--a waiting day, and a day for waiting.

A cup of black coffee, made in automatic fashion; water has spilled over the rim of the cup onto the work surface, where it already starts to congeal into a sticky paste with odd granules of coffee and sugar. I have opened my mail, glanced at opening paragraphs, signatures--and postponed proper reading to a later, more aware, time. Slumped in my favourite chair, I drink the coffee, smoke two cigarettes, read the morning paper. There is nothing of surpassing interest in it--an earthquake, a football result, two foolish mistakes in yesterday's crossword, listings of another evening of valueless television. I need the paper, though, as junction with, normalisation for, the day; without the ritual of morning reading I might well pass through the entire day in a dream state.

The ritual is done, and I have arrived at what I like to pretend is a condition of full consciousness. I'm pleased that it's still early: a full day awaits, packed with precious minutes; time to wield, bend, fashion to my own purposes. Too often, these days, time has its own way with me; today, now, I am up before it is ready, have a head start, and so, perhaps, can master it for once. Soon enough, I know, it will be snapping at my heels--I determine not to lose this advantage I have. Still I am a little queasy, a little slow, still there is that lump below my jaw, intermittently throbbing; perhaps time has an illness prepared for me in its armoury.

Ignore it; it may not come. So, another cup of coffee, and I look at the letters properly while the kettle is boiling. At some time I will reply--in a month? Two?--but not now, not today, not while the grains of time are already joining each other, remorselessly ready. I take it to my room, clear away my papers, smoke another cigarette; now to work.

A fresh sheet of paper, and I make some notes. Another and some guidelines. Another, and some connections. Already three sheets of paper covered with scrawl, impregnated with thought: their sum total is confusion. This is silly--I must stop, clear my head, truly think of where I'm going if there's the possibility of seeing the lie of the land in advance. Now: let me get myself straight.

Stare out of the window. Still an indifferent day, grey, dull; spittle of rain added to it now. Abstraction, meandering thoughts; once more, concentration.

I know exactly what this piece is meant to be and mean, but I just can't see how to get it out. I can feel it prowling around inside me, a caged cat, clawing and scratching to be released. If I'm not to be, I'm the only one who can do any savaging, either to myself or to the work, by mistiming or mal-execution. Still, unless I become aware of the position of the door in this cage I would be as well to be a prisoner myself. I could simply begin writing? That would at least bring something into the open, flesh both beast and bars. But then, I could call myself no kind of trainer for the cat, no wielder of power. Once I know which way the beast will run, everything else will follow--that is the vital problem. I know how the thing should be, surely I can find its physical direction. Perhaps if I just give myself up to it, allow my mind free rein....

Total blank.

Perhaps another cigarette; perhaps a tea, or something to eat. Perhaps anything to be out of this room, off this chair on which I've now been slumped for an hour and a half. Ah, the dog: a walk! The fresh air, the wind will clear me of my stiffness, mental and physical. When out walking the dog, alone, I always think most lucidly; I'm sure that I will be able to sort out all I need to know in order to write the story.

Shoes, coat, lead, keys. Once outside, the day is less neutral, more inhospitable than it seemed. It's a relief to let the dog off his lead at the fields; he has been pulling on it all the way. My wrist is chafed, the exposed skin below my sleeves cold and soaked. Hair continually blown into my eyes. My body feels the cold in colour: nose red, knuckles blue. Water shaken from the trees drip down my neck; lashing splinters of wind and rain in my face. Thrust my hand in my pockets, huddle up my shoulders, walk automatically. The dog now a hundred yards away, chasing squirrels. The story--ah, yes, plenty of time to think about that on the way back.

Foaming water rushes down an open drain, white noise.

A slug inches with barely perceptible motion across the path, white, glistening, moving on his slime; with a twitch of his horn at something unknown--perhaps my presence--he changes course. Time is something different for him.

A rag, caught in a young fir tree. Closer; no, a pigeon! Its wings are outsplayed; the branches' needles snare and rip at the feathers. A black and staring hole behind the right eye, the neck jarred and twisted. Probably it flew at oblivious full speed into the death-trap spine of the tree. The dog bounds up, nostrils epileptic for the smell, tries to pull it down. I shoo him away, but leave the bird to rot in the tree: a warning of the danger of haste.

Walk on, think on. People, events, plans, futures, dreams. Now the house again.

The day has gained momentum but retains identical inertia. I dry the dog, and my rain-soaked hair; I change my shoes. That cup of tea, that cigarette, and back to that room. I know that I am now several moves further away from the work and that I must sit it out: there is no other way. Think of the story; my mind wells up with the echoes of observation and conjecture from the walk. Outside the window, the day seems worse than ever; it is not yet noon, but there is already a feeling of dusk about it. Think of the story. A word comes to mind: look it up in the dictionary, in the thesaurus. There's another interesting word, look it up, mark it: half a dozen random chains through the words of reference. Another cigarette. Think of the work. Blank.

Exhaustion: fold my arms on the desk, rest my head on them, try to absorb and concentrate through relaxation. I know the thing I'm working towards. I know it very well. The characters, their actions stand out clearly, but they are separated like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I cannot see how they all fit, how it fits together. I cannot see any line with which I could possibly begin. It's ready, it's built up inside me for long enough...but there's no way that I can let it out, that I can write a single word to start it. So: that must mean that I haven't fully understood or grasped it yet. Try. Blank.

Some time passes, dimly, quasi-consciously. I have gone to the dark place in search of the roots of this fiction; I return empty-handed to the same unyielding, unchanging reality of the view from the window.

Start again. A fresh piece of paper. Map out ideas, connections, causalities. It's just scribble, even less comprehensible than the previous notes. No nearer at all. In a fury, ball the paper up and throw it towards the waste-paper basket, miss even that. Run my hands through my hair: dirty, greasy. Massage my forehead with my fingertips: it feels bulbous, my bloated, aimless thoughts, like my brain.

Make something to eat: toast, fried eggs, cream cheese, tomatoes. More toast, butter, marmalade, another cup of tea. Play with the dog and his ball; improvise, clumsily, on the piano; play one side of an album. Without thinking, turn on the television: an hour of afternoon soap opera. More cigarettes, more tea, more toast, more time. The precious minutes spurt away and down the drain; the white noise builds up until I can stand it no longer. Time I worked again.

Back in the room; stare out of the window. Day yet more neutral, total absence of colour or vitality. Head on the arms, think, grope for answers, look out of the window; head on the arms, strain for the story, blind search for word, meaning, motive. No nearer. Now time has gained ascendancy; now it slips from me with increasing malevolence and speed.

By now dark outside. With the onset of darkness it is possible to relax, if you know you have tried during the day. I cannot have tried hard enough: I had a start, a hold on the day; and I have got nowhere...there is still more effort to be made.

Still the room. The numbing, dim shunting of the story, the story, the story around my head. Time aches, sucks, yawns collapses about me. Thought extends into daydream, to dissipation, to near-catalepsy. Eyes closed eyes open head on my arms look out of the window: everyway the same dull void of the day. No nearer.

The main meal. Have I done nothing but eat all day? Fish fingers, frozen peas, instant potato. Sludge. Coffee. I succumb, at last, to the brandy which the drinks cupboard has been offering me all day. I succumb, again, to the T.V.: the news, the same news as always; some boxing, programmes on motoring and rock climbing. I am not interested, but I watch. A homily, and close-down; the screen, too, confronts me with grey vacuum. I am haunted by guilt, that I have not given enough. Inwardly, I rage at my lack of effort or concentration or capacity. Another day, another piece of work is almost lost.

The room again. If only I could start writing, have something, anything to show for my day. Tomorrow, I might be able to build on it. Effort. Ten half-complete opening lines, all manifestly inadequate; one closing one, so ambivalent that it might as well be the first. I re-read these things; direction and content are hopelessly wrong. More paper for the basket; my hands rake, tear at, my hair.

Re-assemble all previous maps, conjectures, diagrams and plans before me on the desk. Re-consign them to the basket.

Hands between knees, head on desk, blank.

Elbows on desk, head on arms, blank.

Perhaps I am now working only with regard to time, not to the story: it has almost defeated me.

Head up. Stretch, yawn, eyes open. The numbing beat of time at my temples. The story is now almost forgotten even in intention; none of it seems to make sense any more. Maybe it should be just one part of a larger one, or be divided into smaller sections itself; maybe it is not a story at all. Maybe there is nothing left to say or worth saying, nothing that has not been said before, nothing I can write that is not risible and/or pointless. Now a numb despair. Even though I know that it is the day, the frustration; it is not the story, not the form which fails, but me.

All this writing though. Head on the arms on the desk eyes closed free rein. Hardly even sure any more why or how I am hanging on. Any flicker of distraction enough to divert the attention. I have full knowledge that there will be nothing here, but dogged hope drives me. Harrowing the soil of memory for experience, hallowing the soul for meaning. Oh does it come? No: drifting away...waiting for the story.

Like a woman desired in a way resonant with future knowledge of fire fed and quenched; like waiting for her. At first, all hope, belief, vibration; then burgeoning anticipation, the recurrence in the mind of her face, her body, her presence, soon. Time slips by, a numbness comes, the knowledge of absence, of solitude, grows. Finally, resignation, acceptance.

Oh, yes, waiting for women, often it has ended so: alone with the purest emotion, the most distilled sentiment, fed only by the fire of the imagination and unsullied by actuality. At other times, of course, the woman has come, and desire been quenched; yet something else, some mystery, is also extinguished, and afterwards there comes that other emptiness, that cold doubt...all is as it should be, but all is not enough. Some wish, less personally directed or motivated remains; perhaps for more cogent immolation. The solitude then is deeper, the fear--that nothing is important--greater. The tender embrace suddenly become the ghost touch of a mirage. The dream of a perfect moment, the waiting for it, is often better than its arrival; for it is then that illusions are shattered.

Yes, and there has been waiting for stories before; when my share have come to me, it has not been in a single incandescent moment, but in hours of writing where time is a physical, rather than a spiritual constraint. And afterwards? Afterwards, like the sex, when it is done, a chapter closed, it no longer seems to be of importance. Always, I am nostalgic for the moment when it was neither here nor there, when it was still only the pure germ of an idea in my head, for all the dull pain of striving, wanting, waiting it caused me. The ``work'' towards which i try to be dutiful, of which I am so jealous, is merely the copying down of that idea, stretched in the sand, before the ocean of time closes on and eradicates it.

Still we wait. So we all wait through our days for one moment of passion, knowledge, enlightenment. We recognise trivia and ritual, but are unable to relinquish them; we yearn only half-comprehendingly. From time to time, in the course of brief walks outside self-obsession, we receive signals and signs, but rarely take them to heart. Instead we wait for one moment of vision: an instant in the wake of which all instants, whichever way it goes or is or will be, will be of no importance. Perhaps, for a few of us, it will be the perfect story, the perfect orgasm, the perfect death. For most, there will probably be disappointment in the end, and anticlimax. But there is something in the waiting, the will and effort which it requires, which must be at least as valuable as the ecstasy or mindlessness which finishes it?'

So there he is. He has been waiting for a story: it could have been a song, a poem, a painting. It could have been a plan--how to make himself a millionaire, or how to hijack an aircraft, or how he would blow away an airport. It could have been his suicide. Does it have to be something so dramatic, just because the thoughts are here on paper?

And now, at the end of it, has he wasted his day? He has lived it. On what terms are we to judge that?

Russian Peter Hammill / Van der Graaf Generator Page
Sergey Petrushanko, 1998-2024