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Tim Cumming – Play

P Tim Cumming LE P&W Vol 2 2019

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Short story by Tim Cumming

Tim Cumming is a poet, artist, journalist and filmmaker from London. He was born in a children’s home in Solihull and was brought up in the West Country. His poetry collections include The Miniature Estate (1991), Apocalypso (1992, 1999), Contact Print (2002),The Rumour (2004), The Rapture (2011) and two collections from Australian press, Pitt Street Poetry, the art and poetry of Etruscan Miniatures (2012) and Rebel Angels in the Mind Shop (2015). A new collection Knuckle is due from Pitt Street Poetry in 2019. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Forward’s Poems of the Decade, the WS Graham anthology, The Caught Habits of Language and Bloodaxe Books’ 2010 anthology of poetry from Ireland and the British Isles, Identity Parade. He made the acclaimed Hawkwind: Do Not Panic documentary for the BBC in 2007, has shown his film poems at cinemas and festivals worldwide, and writes regularly about music and the arts for the British and international press.


Play

When does play begin? With speech, with sight, with coordinated movement? Or a compacted amalgam of these three magical properties? It’s our first out-of-body projection, a cross between remote viewing and a hologram. Play, faith, invention, imagination – you could pick it all up in a square little towel smelling of mother’s breast milk. This is the blankie, the safety blanket the infant clutches to herself. One remnant from the adult net is chosen above all others and its absence is like the absence of mother, heat and comfort. You must hold on to the blankie. It’s an innocent fetish, not like that Mutu magic washing headless adolescents up and down the Thames. But I also believe it has power, its own babbling tongue, and that it has a practical use.

I sit on my daughter’s bed, half-dressed, getting my head together for the working day to come. She’s at school already. Foxy, Baby Tiger, Puppy and Hodge sit on top of the bed, their heads peeking up from behind the pillow. Completely silent. I pick up Baby Tiger, give his head a little shake, turn it so the scuffed plastic eyes are looking at me. An adult with a soft toy. I know it’s lame. What’s the current slang? Moist.

“How’s it going BT?”

A thin, high, hysterical voice, like an angry wind through a keyhole. “Eff you!”

I tap the top of Foxy’s head.

A high-pitched, nervous, excited voice. “Granpappa! Listen! The moooon!”

I put his ear to the pillow, because that, I have decided for convenience, is where the moon is.

I pick up Puppy, a black lab bought one Christmas at Hamleys, to whom Tasha has given a Birmingham accent. I squeeze Puppy’s head so that he seems to look at me accusingly. I’m skilled at making all Tish’s creatures move with the character she imbibes in them.

Strong Midlands accent: “ I hope you’re not getting a real puppy.” He twists his nose. “They shit ALL over the street.”

And Hodge, who came in the mail from America, a raggedly little cat in blue jeans and with a Texan accent.

“Stay-ek! Yea-ah…”

Hodge is always exhausted. He sighs to fadeout: “Haaaaaahhhhhh.”

Each one of them has psychological issues as long as your arm. They’re my daughter’s babies, and they’re all but silent now she’s a teenager. Though even in this winter’s snowfall she felt compelled, once more, to throw BT from her bedroom window with a high-pitched scream of rage, burying him in the snow on the grass and then digging him out again, brushing the snow from his coat and drying him on the radiator, taking him back upstairs and back into her bed.

Recently, my wife asked her what she would do if one of us threw Baby Tiger into the fire. Just kidding, of course.

”I’d pull him out and wash him,” she said, matter of fact. We were all eating.

“What if he was completely burnt?”

“I’d keep his ashes.” She was slowly, attentively buttering her potatoes. “It would still be Baby Tiger.”

BT was the most potent totem. It was her will that set and calibrated the character of her toys, and BT started sweet, and became a loudmouth, whisky-swilling, gang-leading hoodlum who couldn’t read. We made a catchphrase for him: “My face is boiling with rage”.

“Dad, can you come up and play?”

That question mark is a point of pride, because it wasn’t a question, of course, it was a summons. My role was to provide the voices, and the movement. She would gather the chosen ones all around her – sometimes a few, sometimes a dozen – and she’d thrust the body of the protagonist into my hands.

“Make them speak! Make them!”

I did the voices, though I’d be forced to backtrack if she didn’t like the direction of the story.

“Let’s pretend they shared out the sweets and start to wrestle.”

She shakes her head emphatically.

“Let’s pretend that DIDN’T happen Dad. Pretend BT ate all of his sweets, all of Foxy’s and all of Hodge’s too.

“But Hodge is in his gang.”

“I know. So he doesn’t get angry.”

“But Foxy does.”

“Foxy has a breakdown.”

She picks up Foxy and shakes him as if he’s shivering in a case of sub-zeroes, then throws him up to the ceiling. That’s where the moon is. Foxy worships the moon and that’s where he goes when he’s sad.

“He is very highly strung,” Tasha would say.

It’s strange how key themes – the kind of stuff undergrads underline when they’re reading Dostoyevsky – always come along in the middle of play, poking their heads through the animals spread out across the bed. And if we went out, she’d stuff as many as she could into a bag, conduct mini dramas for the trip. She wouldn’t leave anyone out of her drama. Every hair was numbered, even the feathers of the tiny chick with one leg from the set of 50 or so we got for a pound from the primary school fete. Mass produced tat that developed meaning, like precious family photos emerging from chemicals on a photographic plate.

Gangs, violence, betrayal, sex, murder, alliance, friendship. These were recurring themes, the heads of the invaders bobbing in the always incoming wave. Some were spookier, magic mirrors to my own concerns, my secret life.

When she was little – four, five, six – the dramatic theme, night after night, was abandonment, orphanage, adoption. I became alert. The setting was from Tam Lyn, or the Faerie Queen. A forest, a glade in a forest. A forest of wild unknown animals from the dark, and a mossy bank that was safe, a home in the heart of wilderness. I felt that I was learning as much as she was.

She’d dress up in a princess dress with a blankie, its scent of soured mother’s milk, around her head like a veil. She’d stand at her bedroom door and tentatively step towards me, surrounded by all the babies on the bed. Stretch out her hand.

“Hello, I don’t have a mummy or daddy.”

“Oh dear, what happened to them?”

“Oh, they died.” Or, “They left me in the forest.”

Spreads out her hands: “And here I am.”

“Would you like to come and live with us?”

And so the games, or the drama, would unfold. She’d be taken in by some of the babies, rejected by the others. Sometimes, Catherine would join in, which would make our daughter squeal with delight. We were making up lasting lessons about how to be human with an active imagination. It’s just that the personae were full of stuffing. We made them real so that they spoke without being spoken to. Sometimes she’d take BT to school with her, sit him down at lunch and feed him food.

“Dad, is he actually alive?” She asked once, after school, over dinner. BT was sitting next to her plate. My wife, representing the important utilitarian forces, sometimes threatened to throw them out if they weren’t collected together and put away after play.

“We make him come alive,” I said. “But from an objective point of view – do you know what that is?” – she shook her head – “Well, to most people he’s a toy stuffed with cotton.” Then I put on BT’s voice, and I never knew what he was going to say: with BT, the voice stepped in and took over the controls. Maybe that’s why he was so powerful.

“How dare you grandpapa!” Squeezed his head, raised my voice. “My face is boiling with rage!” Tasha shrieked with laughter.

From the age of two to the age of 12 or so, our world of play revolved around BT and the gang – there were dozens at one point, including a talking pencil case (Pencil Dog). A lot of volume passed through those little creatures – they were like sluice gates to all the forces that smoke and burn in a person. That foaming shore of play is fading into the distance, even I can see that, though I’m the one who picks them up and lets them speak. Am I expecting profundity, a string from Orpheus’s lyre? But the sound of those breakers is never too far off – they’re too deep inside us – and you can walk out from where you are to hear it again. I’ve sometimes kept one next to me when I write. “Just one more line grandpapa!” And sometimes I overhear one of the old phrases, or the cawing laughter of naughty BT, will rise up in Tish’s throat, too. She’s meant to be doing homework.

We need these totems we have made ourselves; they take us to places that secular humanism can never go. They’re just not reasonable. All the good poets I’ve known, the artists too, have something of the child in them. They need to play. That is, they work with a child’s vigour, with all those primary colours, the raw pigments and gums and oils of the human medium.

Dad sprang whole new worlds out of his notebook. Ken Smith used to wear one of his masks to write poems, pulling the totem over his face to see how it guided the hand. That’s what I’m wearing now – my Baby Tiger mask.

I pull up my jeans, pull on a top, in my daughter’s bedroom. The sweet smell of perfume she uses, her shelves’ mix of children’s books and make-up. Deathcore rock stars on the wall, homework books and half-worn clothes. I shouldn’t be in here. No, really. From the windows I can see the sports ground of the local girls school. Year 9 is on the netball court, all the slim-hipped ones who leap in the air as if leaping from an ancient Etruscan frieze, with that little flick of the upraised hand in the prettiest of all ball games. I watch four or five of them leap up together, a kind of adoration of the ball. But I shouldn’t be here, no, not here, half dressed in my teenage daughter’s room, watching teenage sylphs on the netball court. Stay here longer and I’ll get myself arrested.

Dig deeper.

At the bottom of  the basket of babies, the ones who have dropped out of play, under Frisby, Scaredy, Blacksy, Goldie, Lens and Kitty, there’s Lammers, the resident witch doctor. Lammers, from Lambkin, a toy of my own childhood, knitted by a student friend of Mum’s at the Oxford School of Art in the 1950s, when Dad was still the lecturer, before the caste broke and the scandal of their relationship across the student-teacher divide enveloped them in marriage and the course of their lives. Somehow, Lambkin joined them. He was John’s toy to begin with, then he came down to me in the 1960s, after passing through the hands of the rest of the family. He looks strange – a weird, skinny, big-eared, long-tailed fetish with an enchanted little smile stitched into his face. He is going to smile like that forever. Like the gods, he cannot change, he is fixed with the order of the planets. There is a quality antique and native English about him, some of the haze of folklore. Homespun.

He was already old when I got him. I must have been three or four, I suppose. He laid roots and spread. He has a mischievous look, Puckish, older than agriculture.

Every human needs a fetish; it’s the metaphysical equivalent of data in the Cloud. Tiny sparks of imagination, connection and emotion uploaded to the universal activity of play and projection. A whole other world fills the room like a good poem or a painting does when you bring one of those creatures in to it.

When I eventually learnt to read, one of the first sentences I wrote, that I created rather than copied, was at the end of Winnie the Pooh, the last line about a little boy and his bear always playing. I became distraught because I could not bear the play to end. The handwriting is just like my birth mother’s. “Not the end,” I wrote in a blue wax crayon at the back of the book. You can feel the weight of anguish and the hand of a little boy who cannot believe the spell is lifted, that this is the end of the enchantment, that there are no more stories.

I gathered around me totems and fetishes. I began to paint, using poster paints on cardboard. Big pictures of mountains and clouds, a stone circle in a pine forest. Then I began to write stories, then poems. I had to do it. The brushes and pen were like guy ropes. Still are. I had to fasten myself down with marks. I gather around me totems and fetishes.

Today, the Spring skies, after the longest winter in 50 years are illuminated like magic books. I feel I must record them. From my daughter’s window overlooking the playing fields and main road, the skies scroll by like magic books. They gather and fade, regroup and redraw. It’s impossible to think an engaging consciousness isn’t stretching out through that vaporous ballet of perpetual motion. There’s nothing fey about such notions. Clouds can tear our big machines apart as if they were toys in the hands of young children. There are forces beyond our control. Her voice calling down from her room.

“Dad, can we play?”


© Tim Cumming