Tales of Ordinary Magic
Somerset Meadows is a nice place to live. CJStone sees all sorts of interesting things through his window.
“Are you a druid?” she said.
“Pardon? Whatever gave you that idea?” I said, slightly bemused. It’s not often you get asked a question like that. Not in the stairwell of one of the blocks on Somerset Meadows it isn’t.
Her name is Mrs Rivers. She’s quite deaf. She screws up her face and watches my mouth when I talk, but she doesn’t hear what I’m saying. It’s easier and more polite to listen than to talk, so that’s what I do. I listen, and I never did find out what made her think I was a druid.
So she launched into this story, about the time she lived in Salisbury and went to Stonehenge for the solstice. This was in 1964, she said. It was very different in those days. There weren’t any fences and you could mingle freely with the stones. She went with a friend but they got the date wrong so there was no one there. But then they went back the next night and that’s when it all happened.
She was laughing while she told me this.
“And then the druids turned up,” she said. “They all had on those white headdresses, you know, and they were blowing trumpets, up in the air. No one seemed to know what was going on. We were all just milling around waiting for something to happen, and then the sun came up and we all went home.”
I laughed. Not much has changed, I thought. The last time I went to Stonehenge for the solstice the sun came up and we all went home too.
After that Mrs Rivers and I smiled our goodbyes. I carried on down the stairs while she carried on up, and we’ve never had occasion to talk about Stonehenge again.
Somerset Meadows is where I live. It’s a cul-de-sac consisting of a number of red-brick blocks set in spacious communal lawns.
There are no gardens in Somerset Meadows. Every so often a man comes and buzzes round on a sit-down mower cutting the lawn and there are benches lined up on the sunny side of the blocks where people gather in the summer months to drink tea and chat. The small flower beds lining the blocks are tended communally. You get to know your neighbours very well around here. Your neighbours are never very far away.
It’s also full of old people.
I don’t quite know why that should be. It wasn’t designed with old people in mind. Not everyone is old. I just think that, not having gardens to tend, and with a residents association to take care of the external repairs, it tends to suit older people.
Also I think that some people have been here since it was first built, way back in the 60s.
There’s a lot of infirmity and the occasional death to witness.
I’ve been meditating on mortality ever since I came here.
But I liked Mrs Rivers’ story. She went to Stonehenge thirty five years ago, nothing much happened and she still remembers it.
How like life that is.
Well what actually happened is that the sun came up. The sun comes up every day, of course, but we’re not always around to witness it. What made it memorable for Mrs Rivers is that she was at Stonehenge and she saw the druids. They blew their trumpets in the air in the eye of the sun in order to celebrate the moment, turning it from a mundane event into a magical one.
Which reminds us: there’s nothing mundane about a sunrise. It’s a cosmic event, meaning that it takes place in the cosmos. It’s part of the vast interweaving of the universe in its infinite play, complex and precise. It is only our perspective that makes it appear mundane and it is by our intent that we restore it to its magical glory once more.
This is the essence of magic: the time, the place, the people.
In this case, summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge with Mrs Rivers as a witness.
And by restoring the magical significance of a sunrise to its place in the cosmos, perhaps we restore ourselves too, as witnesses to the interplay of forces before our eyes, in our own very significant lives.
The life of trees
I used to see her looking up at the tree outside my front window. She would pause beneath it most days and look into the leaves, lifting her face towards them as if basking in some invisible radiance. She couldn’t see very much, of course, being mostly blind, but she could see movement and tell dark from light and I imagine she would sense the shimmer of the sunlight from the surface of the leaves through the interplay of shadows beneath the branches.
Sometimes she would catch a leaf between her fingers. It was as if she was communicating with the tree, talking to it, absorbing its presence in all its seasonal moods.
There are a number of trees in the communal gardens at Somerset Meadows. She would talk to them all in the same way, pausing beneath each one as she went on her way.
She was my next door neighbour. I live at number 23, she lived at number 24. Until about a month ago, that is, when she died. I don’t know how old she was. In her 80s I’d guess.
The last time I saw her she was in a wheel chair, with a pale blue blanket wrapped tightly around her, being lifted into the back of an ambulance, with an oxygen mask pinching her face, looking very pale, very fragile.
I was sitting at my computer in my living room. I put on my shoes to go out, but by the time I got out there the ambulance doors were already slammed shut. Another neighbour was standing outside, arms folded, wrapped up against the cold, waiting with an air of patient expectation.
“What happened to Daphne?” I said, joining her.
“She had a funny turn last night,” she said. “She collapsed. They think it might be a stroke.”
“Did she ring you?”
“Oo yes,” she said. “We always ring each other if we’re in trouble.”
“Let me know how she is,” I said.
The other neighbour is called May. She lives at number 22. Daphne and May would sit on the bench outside my back windows in the summer, watching as the shadows lengthened into evening, drinking tea and putting the world to rights. I never knew quite what they talked about out there on those benches outside my window, except that is always seemed to involve a lot of laughing.
One interesting aspect of living in a flat in a communal garden is that you can’t help but notice what’s going on. Hence my close observation of Daphne when she was communicating with the tree. I wasn’t being nosey. I was just looking out of my window.
Hard not to notice, too, when she was being hauled out by the ambulance men, trussed up like a turkey on a Christmas morning, with an oxygen mask slapped unceremoniously on her face.
I see a lot of ambulances in Somerset Meadows. I see a lot of people being bounced up and down in wheelchairs with oxygen masks on their faces.
It’s like the waiting room for the next world around here.
I’m considered a wild young raver being all of 55 years old.
But I liked Daphne, very much. She was always ready with a cheery smile and a kind word. She couldn’t see me, so I would have to address her to get her attention. I guess this is why she liked trees so much. People move around and you can’t tell one person from another, but trees are always recognisable being always in the same place.
And despite her blindness she was active right up until the end, walking resolutely everywhere with her white stick, talking to all the trees on the way.
At first the prognosis was good. She’d had a minor stroke and would soon recover, May told me. But then, suddenly, she summonsed her entire family to her bedside. After that she had a second massive stroke, and she died.
So she knew before the moment came that it was time for her to leave, and she was able to say her goodbyes to her grieving family.
The tree outside my window has dropped its leaves for the winter. That’s why trees never grieve. They are stoically aware of the cycles of death and rebirth.
Steve is an old friend of mine. He’s 6’2”, balding, with a blaze of white hair about his shoulders, and a bright green beard.
He says he is an alien.
When I first knew him I thought this was some kind of a joke, a metaphor for how he felt in relation to the rest of the world. Later I began to realise that he meant it.
One day I gave him a lift in my Morris Minor. Steve got in and I asked him to do up his seatbelt. There was some puzzled fumbling lasting at least half a minute. He had one half of the seatbelt in one hand, and the other half in the other, and he was waving them about in the air. It was like he didn’t even know what a seatbelt was for. I caught this look on his face - bewilderment and consternation - and I laughed.
“Come here,” I said, and did the seatbelt up for him.
That’s when I decided that he really might be an alien after all. It was clear that the very concept of “seatbelt” was something alien to him.
Steve says that he always felt out of place. As a boy he loved nature, and was always out and about, wading in ponds and rock pools, or wandering around in the woods, observing the life there.
He used to collect creatures too: caterpillars in jars, and field voles and shrews, and exotic things he'd get by mail order, like silk moths and stick insects. But human beings always puzzled him.
The other boys also collected creatures: but whereas Steve collected insects in order to observe them and watch them grow, the other boys caught insects in order to pull their legs off; and whereas Steve collected newts in order to breed them, the other boys collected newts so they could throw them on the grass and flick knives at them.
So it’s a matter of opinion whether it’s Steve who is the alien. He is perfectly at ease with the other creatures on this planet. Maybe it’s the Earthlings who don’t belong here.
It was Steve who introduced me to V. That was what he called himself: “V”.
I never met him in person, though I used to exchange letters with him for a while.
Well I say “he” and “him” but this is really for ease of expression, since, according to his own testimony, he is neither male nor female, but some kind of a galactic gynandromorph .
V claims to be an alien, or - to put it more precisely - a Kaiana, an interstellar deva, the earthbound fragment of a being called Aona, with whom s/he will merge at some future date, and emerge, like a caterpillar out of its chrysalis, as some entirely new species of being altogether.
I used to like writing to V. It’s not often you get to receive letters with such unusual concepts in them.
I never quite knew how to picture him, however. I mean: what does an interstellar deva look like? Do interstellar devas ever go shopping, for instance? What would it be like to stand behind an interstellar deva in the shopping queue in Tescos? These are the sorts of questions that interest me.
Steve used to have one of V’s paintings on his wall. It was very well executed, hyper-real. It was of an intergalactic female-type creature, blue with white hair, with scales instead of nipples, very attractive in an alien sort of way, giving you this arch, sensual, come-to-bed look.
Steve said, "if you look at her before you go to sleep, she will come to you in your dreams."
I think this might have been Aona, the creature with whom V hopes to merge one day. But despite the fact that he never made it clear – in fact did everything in his power to disguise it - I was never in any doubt that V himself, in his Earth-bound incarnation, was a man.
One day he wrote to tell me that he’d been having trouble with his wisdom teeth. It had been a very painful experience, he told me.
“Who invented teeth?” he asked peevishly. “Nature is very inefficient.”
In the end I think that V was alienated from his own body.
Sleight of hand
I first caught sight of him in the second aisle in the Co-op where I‘d gone to get bread and milk. He was sort of shuffling about in his pyjamas, looking confused.
He was holding a tin of something and looking at it, studying the label. Then he sort of wandered to the front desk and back again, still holding the tin, eventually putting the tin back on the shelf.
I caught all of this out of the corner of my eye while I was grabbing my bread and milk from the shelves. I didn’t want to look directly at him. It seemed impolite somehow.
You don’t often see strangers in their pyjamas in the Co-op. Or anywhere else, come to that, except maybe in a hospital or a mental institution.
It’s funny how the brain can construct such huge, elaborate story-lines out of the flimsiest of material.
In my head he was some lost old guy so fragile and out-of-touch that he’d wandering in off the street in his pyjamas and then forgotten what he was in there for. He was obviously ill. Why else would he still be in his pyjamas?
And then I got to the counter and they were all dressed in pyjamas too.
“What’s with the pyjamas?” I said to the check-out woman as I handed her my bread and milk.
“It’s for charity,” she said.
“That’s a relief,” I said, laughing. “I was wondering what was going on there.”
“I know,” she said. “Someone just came up to me and said that there was some old feller messing about with the groceries.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “He was shuffling about looking confused to me. I thought he must have escaped from an institution.”
At which point she broke out into peals of laughter and called down the aisle to the person concerned.
“That’s three now,” she spluttered, holding up her fingers to indicate the on-going tally. “This one thought you was mental!”
By which time everyone in the shop was screaming with laughter.
It’s not often that a shopping trip can turn into a comedy routine.
But it got me thinking about the nature of reality. We do this all the time of course. We build stories on the basis of appearances, without ever really knowing what lies behind.
We are dupes to our own belief-systems and we construct appearances to fit in with them.
This is the process by which we build our world. The assumptions are all implanted in us at an early age. They are the assumptions given to us by our parents, by our school, by TV and the media. After that we shape our perceptions to reinforce those assumptions in a continuous feedback loop. If we see anything unusual, we alter it to fit in with our overall world-view.
The shop assistant wasn’t old. No older than me, in fact. I’d made him old because he was wearing pyjamas. And he wasn’t confused. He was aware of my reaction to him, and was observing me.
So it wasn’t only a comedy routine, it was a sociological experiment. That’s why he seemed to be lingering about. He was making observational notes in order to tell his wife that evening.
Stage magicians play upon this propensity of ours to confuse reality in order to construct their illusions. They set up diversions, making a grand display of gestures, while all the real work is going on quietly in the background.
This is what they call “sleight of hand.” One hand acts as a diversion, while the other gets on with the business of messing about with the cards.
Politicians and advertisers use the same method.
You wonder how many more of our in-built assumptions are false; how much more dynamic and alive our world might appear if some of the deadening influences of routine were removed?
Who says that the trees can’t sing, that the wind isn’t alive and that the sun isn’t beating down on us with its boundless intelligence? Or that shopping in the Co-op can’t always be a comedy routine?
It’s all a matter of perception.
“It’s toffs and tramps next week,” said the check-out woman, indicating the charity box for my donation.
Maybe the next time I walk into the Co-op I’ll be a little more aware.
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