This is a tale I was born to tell of markings seen upon a turtle shell. Sent upon prevailing winds by our servant, Brahma, sat meditative upon the blossomed lotus flower born of Vishnu’s navel, the white heat of a distant star. What miracle, indeed, to be so alive. Awoken from the imploding heart of the dimming sun. An unfathomable energetic force in Vishnu’s consuming cauldron to catalyse tiny particles into elemental form and with explosive power scatter its load far across the vast void of space. A multiple of trillions of martial artists harnessing the innate internal power in their hips and spine to fatally strike with a tornado of fast moving limbs. Such wonder replicated by those amongst us who continue to aspire to reinvent these given base materials into creative gold. What an unsurpassable joy that life is possible. At this time.
I take Violet to school. I sit in cafes with my scribbled in notebooks and gaze with wonder upon an existential black hole that no amount of Eastern wisdom can fill. There is a small crop circle free from the falling pine needles that my feet have made in the mud of my local park. Circle walking, eight steps to complete the circle in each direction. A walking mediation. Dogs bark. It seems to freak them. Impatient blackbirds and chirpy robins hop closely by eager to unearth any worms or bugs that I might have disturbed. A heron stakes his rightful place in the enclosed pond in front of me giving a disdainful shrug of its hunched feathers at the nagging crows that caw from their observation posts on the bare branches of the lofty trees.
It is amazing what gibberish people speak to their dogs. “Come away from that silly man,” is my favourite. The fresh wind burns on newly burst blood capillaries on the surface of my ever rosy cheeks. However grounded I might wish my feet to be they are all but numb from pacing the hard ground in my black Blundstone boots. Energy tingles from the crown of my wooly rasta hat covered calavara to my arched soles. The valves of my heart beat like a clunking bass rhythm to an old Bowie song. The coolness of air I inhale sinks down beneath my diaphragm, opens into my guts, extends my left and right flanks, fills my kidneys, my upper back, giving my taken for granted heart a gentle massage before reaching up to my shoulder blades. I let the light flood into my eyes as I continue to walk the circle, my outstretched palm raised to its centre. My nerves are no longer a rush, I begin to exhale the air slowly back out towards and beyond the raised index finger of my extended palm. A park attendant announces himself with the whining drone of a leaf blowing contraption attached to his torso like an RKO Picture action hero. I imagine him turning a dial on his chest and rising rapidly beyond the trees like a human rocket. The remaining caught air gulps from my mouth and my focus lost to the rev and judder of the machine. Fleeting moments.
They know me well in the cafe. I don’t say much. I’m there to write. I sit by one of the large windows and look out beyond the covering of tiny handprints to the tall oak trees that a young William Blake once saw angels. Some mornings I will order something to eat. They shout out your number, any number, there is no logic to it. Alex makes the best cup of coffee. I gaze at her magnificent mane of flowing hair that falls down her back reminded of time past. “Is that you?” she gestures at an old ID photo of me with long hair as I take out a five pound note from my travelcard wallet. “Yes,” I laugh, “it is.” Alex smiles and double stamps my get one free card. I can hear Lucy from behind the counter. She has this habit of saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” rapidly over and over to the boss in her distinct Czech accent. The boss is cool. Gets on with things. Doesn’t lose the plot when the cafe’s been broken into again overnight.
My eyes lift to the distant line of red buses stood, as if they are one, waiting for the lights to change green. Is it enough to wish that all things are connected as one, that everything is subject to the same inexorable movement from order to chaos? My number is called. It is Lucy. Smiling. As always. As she turns back toward the kitchen, I get a glimpse through her white T-shirt of the tattoo that traverses her shoulder blades. The crows are parked on the cut grass in a pack, black feathers greased back. Teds and rockers, ready to pick a fight. I pile the mushrooms onto one slice of toast. Prone to slouching forward I consciously try to relax my shoulders. Rotating and sinking, imitating my tutor’s posture aware of his continual instruction to maintain an unbroken connection between neck and hips with mine spread outwards across the wooden seat of the chair. An unheralded image of a rickshaw rider peddling on calloused feet from smoggy sun rise till dark paints itself upon my consciousness as I watch a guy in a shiny whistle sat lifting the milky froth from his cappuccino with the disdain of a belching toad. His wife, tottering on heels with skin as if stained by used tea bags, complains to Alex for second cup. A third. A fourth. It’s not what he is used to. Alex is flushed. The boss explains that it is a macchiato he’s after. Makes him one. Ah, yes, that’s it. Bloody hell. I place my knife and fork together on the empty plate.
A hundred million degrees, that is a crazy amount of heat. Hot enough to bond atoms together to form the elements that form our world. The fusing of two protons to form helium, two protons and two neutrons to make carbon and on till enough atoms fuse to create the heaviest elements, gold and uranium. Ninety-two elements, all that we are made up of, born from the intense heat of a dying star, Vishnu’s navel. Elements scattered across space forming asteroids, planets and in our instance, life. Such stuff fills my head when I should be concentrating on the hazards of cycling down Peckham Rye Lane or Peck’nam as we call it. Though, I must say, life has become much easier since the council had the road resurfaced. It almost feels like I am cheating without the many scattered potholes and craters to avoid. There remains the lines of buses, shame the man from the council can’t come and divert them elsewhere. I cycle past the Nigerian market shops aware of the feast of stored fruit and vegetables the rats have nibbled on overnight. I hold my breath as I pass the halal butchers picturing the hanging rows of plucked chickens that await the sudden swipe of the butcher’s blade on the bloodied and worn chopping boards. The road itself is a free-for-all, reminiscent of a sub-Saharan red dirt track or a thoroughfare in a Punjabi town less the unremitting honks and toots from the TATA lorry drivers and the bulky languid animals who have made it their home. As the bendy buses complete with the rush of red double-deckers, guys too cool to look for oncoming traffic walk out in front of me as do the Jamaican and Nigerian ladies out to shop, oblivious of me but swathed in such colour that I notice them. The council need not have bothered remarking the road. A cow chewing on a discarded cardboard box, mopeds with their silencers removed stacked high with empty plastic water containers or a squealing pig. You wouldn’t blink, just smile.
Past the traffic lights at the end of the road the way becomes traffic free. The ghost of Damilola Taylor skips by as I pass Peckham Library, his young bleeding heart held in his bloodstained cupped hands. I cycle on past the vanished Surrey Canal dodging broken glass and wary of the fruit-bat squirrels that like to play dare by making a dash for it directly in front of me. I cross the road into the quiet of Burgess Park and give a smile to the Chinese old boy doing his Qi Gung next to a bench. I pass a rastafarian flying his ‘kite’ high in the breaking sky and am quickly back in traffic. Up through the backs streets of Camberwell and Kennington past a grumpy whiskey politician, bleary eyed in an unflattering beige whistle walking to work from his rented weekday home. I notice a toddler’s bike chained to a lamppost as the smell of freely ground coffee beans from under the railway arches, that lead up to Waterloo, permeates through the toxic car fumes. Up beyond the station, I lock my bike up outside the Royal Festival Hall and wonder how many ghosts I missed today.
Empty, we are made up of nothing more than a bit of dust. Ninety-nine point nine nine percent recurring of nothing. Empty, bar the flicker of electrons around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. If one nuclei was enlarged to the size of a penny it would be surrounded, in all directions, by an all but empty mass the full length of Peckham Rye Lane. No wonder gold is precious, just think of all that emptiness that needed to be crushed out in the hundred million degree cauldron of Vishnu’s navel. I take out a library book from my shoulder bag. “A hallucinatory and bewitching tapestry of love, death, booze and squalor.” Since I started reading it a few days ago, I’ve been having dreams awash with black, smooth, weathered stones. Cold and hard underneath me as I lie on the left hand side of the bed. It’s always the same female voice with the strong Latin accent. The narrator of the borrowed novella in my hand, I should guess, given new words to sing. I swing my leg over a locked gate next to one of the many black painted lamps decorated with a wrapped fish at its base and a crowned ostrich egg light and descend the steps to the uncertain sand soft under my weight. I step from a broken brick and spy the wettened stones exposed by the river’s low tide. I’m alone down here but aware of others lost, hidden in the daylight, looking, searching for half hidden wares that can be sold in exchange for a warm supper, a hot potato, a glass of grog, to be had from a seller on the streets above. I extend my leg placing one foot forward onto a large stone slab only to slip on the gathered moss and fall on my elbow and hip. I stand up quickly aware of the colourful tourists above looking over the railings wondering how I got down here. I continue on my way, careful not to fall a second time, with a heightened pinch of nerves in my hip and the angry throb of my bony elbow.
The sky is blue above. Gentle waves ripple cautiously towards me. I am swallowed by shadow as I pass under Waterloo bridge. I was sat in the cafe above where the second hand books are set out in rows, looking out over the immovable concrete arches of the bridge sunken like the legs and underbelly of a long extinct beast. A girl had been sat aside me by the window with a half eaten apple placed on the table in front of a near perfect two dimensional replica, the logo on the lid of a white laptop. She looked like an actress I had seen on TV. I hesitated before saying, “That would make a good photo,” I nodded to the table, “the apple and the computer.” She laughed but not in the way I had expected. She was wearing the same big round glasses that I remember the actress having worn, what was her name? but she didn’t look anything like her when she laughed.
There is a broken wooden sign half immersed in the sand. “DRINKS, BEER, SALADS, LUGGAGE...” it reads. I look up to the walkway where a group of giggling girls are taking photographs of each other with their ‘smart’ mobile phones. No-one seems to notice the sign. I search for an image of its rightful setting. A floating cocktail bar, sax and double bass, scented perfume and a hazy plume of cigarette smoke? We like to give the past a rosy tinge. Damp wood. Musty. Sat in that wooden shack swallowed by the mist of the cloud-forest. No hope of sleep with the swathes of mosquitoes biting through even my jeans and the outside orchestra of discordant howler monkeys and beaky toucans. Alone. Staring up through the bucketing rain at a billboard advertisement of a swirling creamy fog of Guinness as the Dublin traffic pours around me. Alone with all the time in the world.
We cycled out along Mahabalipuram beach to the renown Tiger Caves. The wheels of the rented rusty Chinese bicycle rarely aligned themselves and I was tired after five or six miles. The beach was pebbly, not sandy as it had been on the city where the sand had an uneven covering of oil and shit. We found a place to sit and listened the crash of the breaking waves on the small rounded stones, miniatures of the huge slabs constantly chipped at with hand and chisel by the parade of skilled artisans lining the long streets of Mahabalipuram where statues of near identical Shivas and Ganeshas are born of rough hands and patient work. Then a pair of smiling eyes greet mine. Close up. “Hello, my friend. How are you enjoying our beautiful Tamil Nadu?” My head sinks as our new acquaintance sits his skin and bones body next to mine on the otherwise deserted beach. “What lonely country is missing you, my friend?” On and on. Alone.
My arm throbs like a spoilt child as I take off my jacket and give it to the attendant. I run up the corkscrew of stairs to avoid the tourists trailing up the escalators. Not looking up to meet my eyes, the guard reaches out his hand from the navy blue of his blazer sleeve to take my membership card. He swipes the card before giving it back along with a guide to the exhibition.
I always avoid the opening room. I like to find my own beginning. Above my head a revolving ceiling fan whirrs. Three strips of attached toilet paper weave a web of constant ripples on the wooden flooring around my feet. I start to walk. The temptation is too great. The bleeping walkie talkie nestled in the blazer of the security guard is distant. I twist my outstretched palms to the centre of my circle directly underneath the fan. Dragon palm. I change direction with a toe-in step reversing the position of my hands and begin to walk faster. I notice a security camera lodged in the top corner of the room like a miniature six legged Gregor Samsa too petrified to move. I change direction again, enacting the first palm change, the single palm change. A toe-in step to close the door followed by a toe-out step to open the window and a swift cut back to hide the flowers. I repeat in the opposite direction and continue to walk the circle. I maintain my intent focusing upon the spiraling shapes made by the lengths of toilet paper attached to the whirring blades of the ceiling fan. I wonder whether to do the second palm change, the double palm change. No, I decide, someone might come in whilst I’m stretching out my limbs like a mistimed dance move. I stop and bring my hands to my centre and walk through to the next room.
A large oval table with three balls upon the green blaise sits in the centre of the room as if it has been delivered to the wrong address, misplaced from a Parisian chambre carombole if such a room were to exist. There are no pockets to sink the balls. I notice a rack of unimpressive cues stacked in the corner of the room next to the red fire extinguisher. The familiar blue chalk rests on the polished wooden ridge of the oversized table. Let’s play. I chalk the cue and notice the unbroken perimeter of photographs exhibited on the four walls. I place my palm soft on the table, my thumb raised to rest the cue. I strike the white ball which sends the red out beyond the edge of the table only for it to rebound from an invisible point as if flicked by an unseen force hurling it back and forth over the green baize like Focault’s pendulum. I’m not sure how I am supposed to hit it now. I aim. I miss. The white zig-zags angular shapes inside the oval frame. I need a strategy to hit both the red and the other stationary white ball with one strike of the cue. I chalk the cue whilst watching the red ball slow its tick tock swinging. As it comes to a rest I strike the white ball with a deft flick of the cue onto both the red, which sets off out beyond the confines of the table, and the other white ball. Beginners luck, I smile. “Tha’ red’s gonna take ages t’ settle again,” the security guard says as he enters the room. I don’t care, I silently retort watching the manic swinging of the red ball in a myriad of directions, I hit them both. I put the cue back in the stand and step towards a wall of mounted photographs. The pregnant tummy protruding like a soft muddy island from the bath water is clever. Concentric ridges of rainwater collected on a flat roof remind me of the enclosed grouping of self made Walter Segal panel houses just up the road from my flat some of which desperately need new roof membranes fitting. There is a picture of water collected like a small pond inside a squashed unwanted football. The turtle shell ought to be here. It really would have worked in this room with these photographs. The curator must have put it elsewhere in another room.
I walk into the next bright whitewashed room. Isn’t it strange that someone is actually credited with the invention of fishing. What did man do before the first sovereign of Ancient China, Fu Xi, was inspired to put a net into the water of the Yellow River? There was said to have been a great flood that had swept all before it. Fu Xi had been spared along with his sister, Nüwa, and had set about procreating using clay figures that came alive. Interestingly, before the wisdom of Fu Xi prevailed, the Chinese reasoned that man made no useful or necessary contribution to the birth of children. Childbirth was a miracle where man had no part which resulted in children only knowing their mothers.
Out of the River Luo came a turtle. As Fu Xi examined the numerous markings on the turtle’s back the trigrams that form the basis of the second most translated book in the world, the Yi Jing, were revealed to him. Towards the top of the shell by the scaly lesions of the turtle’s neck, three solid unbroken lines, representative of the heavens above, the lion. At the base of the shell, three broken lines, the earth beneath our feet, the unicorn. Male and female, yin and yang. The six other trigrams, made up of the various combinations of solid and broken lines seen by Fu Xi were set out on the turtle’s back like the hours on a clockface, eight trigrams as opposed to the twelve hours. Lake. Mountain. Wind. Thunder. Fire. Water. The basic patterns of all change seen by the man who invented fishing on the shell of a turtle.
I walk past an oversized chessboard populated only by two armies of back and white wooden knight pieces. I am reminded that, like the squares on a traditional chessboard, there are a total of sixty-four hexagrams in the Yi Jing, made up by placing the eight trigrams on top of one another to give the sixty-four possible permutations of six solid or broken lines and have been used to chart the flow and our relationship to change. All that we are made of, the traces of the ninety-two elements found in the universe, dispersed from Vishnu’s navel, a meeting of the unending, effortless, gentle rain from heaven soaking into each of us and the soft, heavy female energy rising from the earth. The constant dynamic of yin and yang, eternally changing, turned by wind, shocked by thunder, coiled and clinging like fire, made malleable by soft fluid water belying its strength, still as a mountain with the potential to explode like a volcano. Somehow, we manage to balance these eight aspects, we allow heaven and earth to reside within us, an endless balancing wheel of energy we ride upon.
The next whitewashed room is far larger in size. There are stationary objects placed around the room on the wooden floor. A black inner-tube, no, two inner-tubes stuck together, reinvented. Blown up, inverted, to become something new, radically different to the original functional purpose that was intended by the American manufacturer. A discarded shoe box overseen by a bored security guard, waiting, for a long time by the look of it, for some malcontent to be brave, bold or reckless and give it a nonchalant kick. In the centre of the room is a car. A streamlined French Citreon, with its central section laterally removed allowing room for only one seat front and back. To one side of the room, an elevator from a Chicago office block cut down to the height of the Mexican artist. A mound of plasticine, equal to the artist’s weight, that has been rolled around the city’s grubby streets. And there through an awning, which if the headlights of the Citreon were lit I would have seen much sooner, is, I can see, the artist’s turtle shell. Not literally, no, it is, to be truthful, a skull. Not encrusted with bling either but painstakingly etched with fine squares and shapes of graphite. This is it. I want some of the saffron or whatever Fu Xi took to divine the trigrams on the glistening wet surface of the turtle’s back. A Mexican twist of cactus juice would suffice. It may make me want to retch but then I too could reinvent all that I see around me.
A bald headed man peers at the descriptive blurb written on the glass case the skull is enclosed. I look up switching my gaze upon the others in the room. They don’t seem to taking much notice the shell, the skull, I mean. They are, seemingly, content to read the texts printed on the surrounding walls, taken from newspaper obituaries, I find out later. What did Lennon say? something along the lines of you can’t just play a song to an academic, you have to talk about it first and only then would he put on the record for them to hear. A word is worth a thousand skulls it would seem.
I wish to type a new label to stick over the existing description of this cased skull. Instruct the curator to paint the solid and broken lines of the eight trigrams in a circle upon the wooden floorboards around the glass box. Issue a welcome to the ghost of Fu Xi, if he is not otherwise engaged, to come stand on the overlooking balcony and teach us how to fish from the Thames, instruct us how to trap and make life from these innate exhibited objects. The shrunken elevator will spirit us all to the palace of Prince Su Wong, into the kitchens of the palace to be precise where there is hidden, unbeknown to the Prince nor his staff, a wanted criminal, a thief with a price on his head. A thief who has taken the most drastic measures to hide his identity. He has become a eunuch.
There is uproar in the kitchen. The head chef is fast running out of time to prepare a feast fit for the royalty assembled in the dinning hall of the palace, that is you and I, by the way. The food is simply not ready to be served. A miracle is needed for the chef to keep his life. Step forward the eunuch who offers to serve the food. “You!” the chef screams. “What can you do? You can barely muster the washing up when it suits you.” Yet he is so desperate to keep his life as to let the eunuch attempt the impossible. There are gasps of amazement as the erstwhile dishwasher, carrying multiple trays and plates at a time like a whirlwind twists and spirals jumping effortlessly from table to table serving each guest with not one grain of rice dropped. The Prince, sat enjoying his food in the back seat of the Citreon car is no fool and knows he has seen something special. He calls for the eunuch and requests him to be his personal driver. The eunuch accepts for he too wishes to keep his head.
The ghost of the eunuch sits on the ceiling, so light are his movements, watching over the skull. Below him are his famous students ‘Flying Legs’ Song Cheng Jin, ‘Big Spear’ Liu De Kuan, ‘Thin Yin’ Fu and ‘Invincible Cobra’ Cheng Ting Hua, who walk around the skull executing a whirlwind of combat moves in their own individual styles. Cheng Ting Hua, known to his friends as ‘Spectacle’ Cheng, calls out to the other three and points over to the shoebox out of which, much to the security guard’s amazement, appear a number of onrushing German troops who, the Boxer Rebellion has taught us, will pillage the exhibits given half a chance. Cheng, with his dragon palm, Yin Fu with the bent thumb and straight palm of his ox fist dispatch a good dozen or so of the brazen soldiers as do Song Cheng Jin and Liu De Kuan but the Germans shoot them full of holes and as a result I fear that such bloodshed mayhem will force the curator to close the exhibition.
Upon the shadows made by the revolving strands of toilet paper stuck to the blades of the whirring fan, I walk the circle, my dragon palm held out in front of me positioned towards the centre of the circle. I change direction twisting my torso. I am aware. Intent. Alert to every movement. The security guard will, no doubt, reappear at any moment and move me on, leaving the ghosts renown for the worthiest of martial arts, Bagua Zhang, unseen and all but forgotten. One strike and they could extinguish your life. You would be placed in a wooden box and taken away with all the other exhibits of this temporary exhibition leaving no trace behind. Fleeting moments born from the miracle of Vishnu’s bountiful navel and Orozco’s turtle shell.