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
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 savaged...no, 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....
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
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,
nodular...like 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
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
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?