The narrator in ‘Distances’ seeks through a series of chance encounters to unearth the fragmented stories of a life, and to find there the possibility of authenticity, wholeness and love. There is a quest for a deeper, truer knowledge, but the poems imply that even if the narrator gained a new understanding, he would not know how to make use of it in his current situation. This is one possible reading of these prose poems, but the creative process itself is much more tentative, as I am sure it is with many authors. I have no idea what it is I am going to write when I sit (or lie) down with A4 paper and pen very early in the morning before it’s light, while I am still under the illusion that what is in my head is actually of some importance. I usually begin with a few images that come to me almost in the same moment that I pick up my pen. The imagery may, or may not, develop into some kind of story or it may simply depict a kind of still from a frozen film. I write for fifteen, twenty minutes at most because I have to get up to go to work. Once a week, if I’m lucky, I will find the time to sit down at my keyboard and try to turn what I have written into something more coherent, but without losing that initial sense of uncanny discovery.
The woman in the tourist office showed me a series of lit-up lines on an electronic map display. These represented interconnected shortcuts through the town. But I got lost and ended up on a path going through a field. Some white horses were grazing in a corner. I could feel a wind on my face and soon dark clouds began to appear. There was a clap of thunder not far away. The horses grew restless and ran towards me, so I climbed over a fence into a copse for safety. Then I heard a shout and turned to see a farmer approaching. I thought he was going to tell me off for being on his property, but he only wanted to warn me of the danger of being near trees when lightning struck, although their branches made a beautiful pattern against the sky, especially when there was a storm.
For the first time, I was going to be late at the school in Turin where I taught English as a foreign language. The city looked different this morning. The streets and squares were bathed in a beautiful, yet somehow ominous golden glow, which had so distracted me that I was now lost. I was standing in front of a huge bookshop I had never seen before. There were books of philosophy with ancient lettering in the window. A hunched old man with rimless spectacles was just unlocking the door, and even though by now I should have already been with my pupils, I couldn’t resist his invitation to step inside. Books in different languages lay on shelves that seemed to stretch into the distance. I wandered along them until I found myself alone in semi-darkness, where a chance reach brought me a book entitled The Unseen Everyday. Even before opening its heavy covers, I sensed that here was a text which would finally illuminate my understanding of the life beyond life and yet within the life itself that I led, although it would never enable me to find my way around the city or arrive on time.
In the Turin bank, I noticed an English woman – pretty in a thin and pale way – having trouble at the counter. I offered to translate for her. We got into conversation and it turned out that she, like me, was from Lancaster and knew Father K., whom I had once worked for as a volunteer in a centre for the homeless.
‘Is he still alive?’ I asked, knowing he would not be.
‘No,’ she said. ‘He was very ill, you know.’
I remembered him having to have both legs removed at the knee because of diabetes.
‘A good and brave man,’ she said.
I said nothing. What came to mind was Father K.’s grim smile of satisfaction when he told me how as a headmaster he used to cane boys until they begged for mercy. ‘It was for their own good,’ he used to say.
Taking me for a Catholic, she invited me to visit a nearby church with her. I went only because I fancied my chances, forgetting I would have to dip my fingers into the holy water and make the sign of the cross before I entered.
Behind the counter, in a glass-fronted bookcase, were some antique volumes of Shelley and Byron. The Romantic poets had been as popular as rock stars once; now so many of their works turned up in second-hand bookshops. The man at the till asked if I was interested in purchasing one of them. I assumed they were too expensive, so I settled for browsing through paperbacks instead, though there was nothing of interest.
A woman in a torn coat came in. She was trying to sell some copies of an autobiography she had in a filthy plastic bag, but the man told her to go away. I must have looked sympathetic, for she took me by the arm and told me she had written the book when she learnt that she was going to die from a congenital disease. There were only a few remaining copies and she wanted to sell them all in the little time she had left. She led me out into the rain and we hurried through the streets together in search of another second-hand bookshop.
When I was invited to a big wedding in Italy, I didn’t know if they had booked me into the Albergo Falcone, which I remembered from a previous visit was not very clean, or the Hotel Milano, which was more corporate, but had a reputation for ripping people off.
I asked the thin, elegant man at the Hotel Milano reception if there was a reservation for me and what the price was. He eyed me up and down. My being fussy with money was a clear sign that I didn’t have much of it, and even worse did not have the good manners to conceal the fact. Or perhaps his look was simply a way to put pressure on me to pay more in order to prove him wrong.
At that moment, a party of guests arrived. The man turned to them, as if I didn’t exist. I should have walked out and gone across the road to the Albergo Falcone, but what if they didn’t have any rooms? I would have the embarrassment of returning here, and the man at reception, seeing my desperation, would hike the price up still further.
I took my seat on a bale in the barn where all the presentations were going on. In my trouser pocket I had some coins ready to donate to the speakers at the end. But the coins kept rolling out through a hole onto the concrete floor, making a terrible clatter. The man from India next to me, who had been so kind and deferential when I sat down, now regarded me with irritation and disdain.
I noticed he had a gammy leg, and to make up to him, I offered to give him a lift to the poetry reading in the church later. Otherwise, I told him, he would have to negotiate a difficult path along the top of a steep slope, although there were trees to grab onto in case he slipped.
On my way to give a reading, I had to change trains at a small station by the sea. Here I was met by the poet P. He wanted to make sure I was qualified and that I really was on my way since I’d proved unreliable in the past. Yet he trusted me enough to hand over some passports of other poets he had invited, too. He asked if I would be so kind as to take them to Administration for photocopying when I arrived. New regulations, he explained.
Once on the train, I flicked absent-mindedly through the passports. I realised that they all belonged to friends of mine who lived in other countries, some of whom I hadn’t seen for decades. What kind of a test was this?
My mobile rang. It was my mother. She was crying because she was worried I would forget my lines. With her dementia, she knew what that was like. ‘It’s a reading, not a play,’ I said, looking out of the train window at the crashing waves just a few yards from the railway track. But that only made her cry harder because she realised she didn’t understand what was going on anymore.