Ceci n’est pas une pipe by Chris Green
It seems a long time ago now that Passion and I arrived at Kemble station, in the Gloucestershire countryside. We had taken the Great Western train down from London and were planning to explore the Cotswolds. Passion and I have always been keen walkers and had been told that there were some fantastic walks in the area. Little did we know then that ‘fantastic’ was to be interpreted quite so literally. We had planned to stay in Cirencester, a small market town on the southern fringes of the Cotswolds, a few miles from Kemble station. We had left the car at home to get into the slower pace of rural life. From the station we climbed in the back of a waiting taxi to take us to a family run hotel in the town.
Uzoma, as our driver had introduced himself, had skin that was black as night. He was dressed in African tribal clothing, a swathe of bright red material wrapped around like a skirt and an abundance of multi-beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Passion and I had expected that a Cotswold cab driver might be decked out in something more provincial. We said nothing. What could we have said? It would have been pointless to enter into a conversation about African tribes, as we did not know anything about African tribes. And there was political correctness to be considered.
Leopards are not common in Gloucestershire, so it was something of a surprise when Uzoma, pointed one out through the taxi window. The leopard was busy finishing off its lunch, a large rodent perhaps or a small pig. Uzoma said something that we did not quite catch, his delivery of English being a little difficult to understand. I remember at the time thinking of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as his voice was way down in the bass register and had a musical inflection. Was he trying to tell us something about the leopard? In the back of the car I nodded. Perhaps I was agreeing for us to be taken into the Heart of Darkness.
It was a fine day and Passion and I settled back to take in the Cotswold scenery. This is what we had come for. Shepherd’s Bush might sound as if it’s in the country, but believe me it isn’t. We played ‘what’s that tractor.’ Passion’s nephew, Gulliver, had instructed her about tractors the previous week when she had been babysitting. John Deere was green, Massey Ferguson red, and Ford blue. Through the hedgerow, we caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a tractor painted sky blue with fluffy white cumulus clouds over it. Passion, apparently unphased by this curious customisation, said it reminded her of a painting she had seen in Tate Modern. ‘I can’t remember the artist’s name, but there was another one by him of a steam train coming out of a fireplace. Oooh! What’s his name?’
‘I know who you mean. It’ll come to me,’ I said, trying to get to grips with the idea of surrealist farming in rural Gloucestershire.
We turned into a B road (if not a C or a D) leading us into a thickly forested area. Surely, we thought, there must be a more direct route to Cirencester. It hadn’t looked far on the map. After a mile or two taken at a slow pace to avoid the potholes, tree roots and fallen branches, Uzoma pulled up in a clearing and uttered a few words, ‘boom bah bah boom,’ the gist of which we took to be that he would be back shortly. We conjectured that he had gone to relieve himself, but when he had not returned after about an hour and we had ruled out even a severe case of constipation, we became concerned. After lengthy discussion – we can’t stay here – why don’t we just drive off – we can’t do that -he may have fallen – he might be dead – one of us should stay – you go, I’ll stay – no, what if you get lost, I’ll go, you stay – why don’t we both go, sort of thing, we set off together to look for him. Whether this was pioneering or foolish is a moot point. Suffice to say that when we returned without Uzoma to where we thought we had parked there was no sign of the cab.
We were up the proverbial creek without a paddle. It occurred to us that it would be a smart move to try to contact someone to help us, or at least register our predicament, but although we were both with different networks, neither of our very expensive smartphones registered a signal. Whether a map or a compass would have been helpful at this point is hard to say, but we followed the track we had come in on, only to find that it led into progressively thicker jungle, until the track finally disappeared. Passion and I argued a little about our relative orienteering skills. I suggested that hers were poor; she maintained that mine were non-existent. After a few more pots at each other about sense of direction and spatial awareness, we determined that bickering would get us nowhere. We took stock of our surroundings. The guidebooks had not prepared us for the exotic backdrop we witnessed. Monkeys swung from the trees, parrots called to each other, and the air was thick with insects. The temperature seemed to have risen by several degrees and the humidity was stifling. Had we suspected that the Cotswolds were so tropical we may not have come.
By nightfall, we had seen no sign of anyone. We had encountered layer upon layer of gruelling jungle terrain and had become more than a little scared by our isolation. Apart from being lost in an inhospitable alien environment, with the possibility of a visit from the leopard, or a poisonous snake, or a lion, or the new giant ape we had read about in New Scientist, or a tribe of Northleach headhunters; we had absolutely none of life’s comforts. We had no food or water, and no change of clothes. Neither Passion nor I smoked so we did not even have a lighter to start a fire with. Passion remarked, rather cruelly I thought at the time,
‘Ray Mears would have been able to get a fire going.’
This was hardly the point. After all Ray Mears would probably have understood Uzoma’s English or even been able to converse with him in his tribal tongue. Ray Mears certainly wouldn’t have got lost. Mostly though Ray Mears was not here. We were. We had the clothes we stood up in, t-shirts and jeans, and that was it. Even our jackets had been left in the taxi. We might have used these to wrap around us as a makeshift blanket. After some late night debate about whose fault it really was that we were in this predicament (Shaun and Dawn, our next door neighbours for recommending the Cotswolds, Darren and Karen, from our Ceroc Dance class for saying how stimulating it was to travel by train) we huddled together exhausted on a mossy log and tried to sleep. The Cotswold jungle however does not sleep. The rustling of nocturnal wildlife and plants that go bump in the night kept us awake until nearly dawn. This allowed us plenty of time to listen to the jungle hubbub and imagine any number of grisly fates. Being swallowed whole by a twenty-foot anaconda was my anxiety; Passion’s deepest secret fear was being covered head to toe by tiny spiders.
We were woken shortly after dawn by a steady shower of falling fruit, which was quite fortunate as we had not eaten since our sandwiches on the train the previous day and were very hungry. The fruit were large and red and orange in colour and looked like a variety of mango. I peeled one and bit into it. It was ripe and sweet so we tucked into our windfall greedily.
Looking around, the canopy appeared to have re-invented itself since the previous evening. We were still surrounded on all sides by rampant vegetation. But it was denser, or less dense. It was greener, or less green. The elements that made up the landscape seemed oddly mismatched, its shapes and images cast few shadows giving an overall stage-like effect.
Passion said it reminded her of an Henri Rousseau painting.
I said, ‘it reminds me of a Francis Ford Coppola film, do you want to try to guess which one?’
We decided to let the sun be our compass and headed south east, or was it south west, arriving eventually at a lane. We thought soon a car would be along, and we would be rescued. We waited an hour or two. No car came. The sun was now overhead. On the basis that that all roads lead somewhere, we decided to start walking. I suggested we headed right; Passion suggested we headed left and used her extra vote. The jungle had given way to more sparse vegetation but there were sufficient clumps of trees and hedgerows to prevent us being able to see more than fifty yards ahead at any one time. The lane twisted and turned. We walked for miles. We cursed Shane and Germaine, our teenage children for suggesting we leave the car at home. There were no junctions, no water sources, not a single car, no phone signal, no hint of habitation, no animals grazing, in fact no sign of life apart from small lizards basking in the sun by the side of the road and the occasional flock of geese flying high above us.
Around mid afternoon a bright red object in the mid distance flickered in and out of our vision. As we approached it became clear that it was a red telephone kiosk. We hurried towards it and pulled the door open. We were enveloped by a cloud of smoke. On the shelf by the side of the receiver was a small brown briar pipe, a wedge of tobacco smouldering in its bowl. A rogue thought, some kind of intuitive connection of this surreal spectacle to the ‘real world’ struggled to surface, like a dream into waking consciousness, as I picked up the headset. There was no dialling tone. The insight, along with the promise of contact, vanished. Nothing in the box helped us to establish the whereabouts of our location.
We went through our customary decision making process about whether to stay put or move on, and by the time we had arrived at one, it seemed too late somehow to contemplate going after mystery pipe smoker, so we waited. The scrubland became bushier or less bushy, but no one turned up at the phone box for the rest of the day. We spent an uncomfortable night inside. With all the unconscious turbulence that accompanies such a night. I dreamt that someone had taken the road away and I had to traverse twenty or so yards high above the ground with a huge cauldron of wriggling snakes beneath me. Passion dreamt she turned on the shower and was showered with ants.
We had never actually seen an Airstream Trailer before. When we came across one on our extemporaneous ramble the next day, it looked from a distance like a slender silver marshmallow. Or a very large toaster. Or an alien spacecraft. It was certainly an imposing sight, its painstakingly polished aluminium glistening in the sunlight. We approached it cautiously. No one was about but this was not too much of a shocker. We were getting used to being the only visible people on the planet. The door to the Airstream was open and we stepped inside, taking in its aluminium interior walls, its cosy little bed settee and kitchenette. Most of all though the two roast beef dinners with a platter of hot vegetables (warm-ish as it turned out) laid out on a small aluminium table caught our eye. We were starving. If someone was thinking of coming back to eat them, then bad luck. We devoured the meal with some gusto. And the bottle of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon went down a treat.
There were photos of a couple, perhaps in their late forties around the place. The state flag in the background of many of the photos suggested that they were from Texas and it seemed they were called Hank W. and Honey Pie. Dressed in a variety of checked country and western shirts, bolo ties, cowboy boots, Stetson hats, buckled belts, and cowgirl skirts, they were pictured variously at a line dance, at a rodeo, at a hoe down, at a barbeque, and at Gracelands. We made ourselves comfortable, dipping into nachos, pretzels and other goodies from the cupboard, before dropping off to sleep in each other’s arms around early evening.
Hank W. and Honey Pie did not return. We woke with the dawn and looked out of the window of the trailer – on to open prairie. We ventured outside. Our vista today was a wide plain of rolling, grassland. This was pretty much the middle of nowhere and there were no signs of habitation. There were no trees to be seen from there to the horizon in any direction.
We could see for miles; all there was to see was a large sculpture of a penguin and a trombone, and a fifteen foot frosted glass onion. We had ceased to be amazed by unusual sights in the Cotswolds, it was clear we were dealing with strange people.
How far away do you think the horizon is? asked Passion. She was putting faith in my spatial awareness again.
I used to know, but I couldn’t remember. ‘Twenty miles, as near as dammit.’ I said, without any hesitation. It was a figure off the top of my head.
‘We can’t walk twenty miles across prairie,’ she said.
‘My thoughts exactly.’
Hank W. and Honey Pie certainly kept the trailer well stocked. We had enough tinned food to last weeks and there must have been a year’s supply of nachos and pretzels in the cupboard. And there was plenty of water.
We began to see the Airstream as home and we became accustomed to looking out across the empty prairie. One day a new sculpture appeared of an eyeball, a spiral staircase and a rubber glove. One evening holographic Beatles played Helter Skelter backwards on a blue and white chessboard stage while hooded plasticine ayatollahs set fire to faceless conquistadores nailed to Ikea crosses. But the prairie itself remained relatively constant. From day to day, it seemed grassier or less grassy, greener or less green, the grass taller or less tall. The horizon, twenty miles away, continued to look a long way off. The sky provided us with greater variety. Some days it had a blood red hue and other times there were vivid rainbows, even when it wasn’t raining. One day it was dark all day, not just grey, but end of the world dark. The next day there was no sky, just a void where the sky had been.
Yesterday Passion and I arrived in the Gloucestershire veldt. We had been given a lift down from the north by Hank W., a country and western singer, and his wife, Honey Pie. They were friends of ours and they had left us their trailer and had gone of to explore the Cotswold jungle. They themselves were going to make camp in the jungle. They were keen explorers and told us about leopards and lions they had come across on previous Cotswold expeditions. They had a guide who was called Uzoma and they hoped to spot the new giant ape that they had read about in New Scientist.
Passion and I arrived in Cirencester by bus last week.
Passion and I. Turned left. There was a mango tree.
Passion and I. Climbed in the back of a sky blue taxi with our heads in the clouds.
Passion and I. Went to a hoe down dressed in our ‘country’ costumes and the stage was ablaze.
Passion and I. Could see for miles and miles
Hank W. and Honey Pie. Were going to Gracelands in Memphis Tennessee.
Passion and I. Hank W. and Airstream.
Passion. And I. Had rented a trailer in the middle of the desert.
Desert! My God! It was desert outside. I woke Passion to tell her about the sandy incursion. We had been sleeping most of the afternoon, after a large lunch of tinned paella and nachos, and a glass or two from Hank W. and Honey Pie’s ‘cellar.’ Together we looked out the trailer window. The silhouette of a camel caravan against the horizon as the sun is going down is a breathtaking sight. Unfortunately this is not what we saw. No camels. No sun. What we saw instead was a developing sandstorm. Until you’ve had the experience of being inside a tin can that is being pounded relentlessly by trillions and trillions of tiny fragments of the earth’s crust, you cannot imagine how loud this can be. The Airstream rocked backwards and forwards. Several times we thought it was going to be blown over. We were terrified. Cans emptied out of cupboards and the furniture slid up and down the trailer. The storm lasted for three or four hours, by which time we were nervous wrecks.
After a lingering look outside to take in the perfect patterns of the spectacular sand dunes that had been formed, under the light of a full moon, we went back inside the trailer and started to clear up. We gathered up cans of linguini in white sauce, chicken vindaloo, wiener schnitzel, borsch, okra, veal fricassee, chilli con carne, to name but a few, along with packs of pretzels, Pringles, assorted crisps, nachos and a lobster radio.
Lobster radio is not a dish. This was in fact a transistor radio shaped like a lobster. Passion took it to be homage to Dali’s lobster telephone. I tried to tune in the radio but the batteries were very low and we were only able to pick up one radio station and this faintly. It was Radio Gloucestershire and there was a local news bulletin on. We listened to items about a fire at a superstore in Cheltenham and a little about the alarming rise in binge drinking in Stow on the Wold, before an item much more close to home.
‘The search is still on for the couple, Milan and Passion Mandalay, missing in the Cotswolds since Monday last week. They were last seen at Kemble railway station………..’
The battery died at this point so were not able to find out what Radio Gloucestershire thought might have happened to us.
Next morning we looked across the moor. Yes, the moor. A little hilly at first glance, but there seemed to be a clear path through the bracken and heather, so having packed a few provisions in a bag to keep us going, we took it.
It was a bewildering landscape. Soft watches hung from winter trees. A double bass stood upright amongst the heather, and a large bunch of ceramic bananas pointed to a large limbless stone torso. Sculpted rocks resembled the profile of misshapen figures, and contours of faces formed in the sky. A London cab painted in sky patterns was suspended in mid air. Overseeing the landscape was a giant statue of a fish.
Walking briskly towards us was a figure in a black suit and a bowler hat eating a large green apple. Passion thought she recognised him from a painting.
‘Je m’apelle Renee,’ he opened, kissing us both in turn on each cheek.
Had we inadvertently crossed the channel?
Renee began to grasp that we did not understand French. He continued in English.
‘I’m very ‘appy to tell you that you ‘ave passed the audition to take part in ‘Surreality TV.’ If you would just like to waltz up here to the walrus, I’ll introduce you to the other contestants.’
‘We did not ask to be on this – what did you call it – Sur’ Surreality TV,’ I stammered. ‘Why? I mean how?’
‘You remember Errol and Cheryl who you met at the Cocteau Twins reunion concert last year?’ Renee beamed, as the cameramen dressed as penguins moved in closer. ‘Well they dropped us a line at Surreality TV.’
‘I remember the painter’s name,’ said Passion. ‘It was Magritte’
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved