DAY NINETY-NINE – Richard Price

First word

“Bye,” he says, already awake. He means, “Hello.”

“Bye,” he says, his first word of the day, the first word of his life.
“Bye,” he says, meaning “Hi! Hello!”
The house trembles with his tiny, wrong-way-round greeting.
In the animation of this story his dream creatures will understand –
                                                   he is entering human waking time now,
people creatures are forced to thrive in daylight, to dream with their conscious bodies,
he has to leave his companions now.
“Bye” means “Hello” in our world  but “See you tonight,” to his night-time friends.
“Bye,” he says, warning his daytime keepers gently, rouse yourselves now,
I’ve let my darkness go, dismiss yours. There’s work to do here.
They acknowledge the command, each turning away from each,
mumbling, “It’s your turn, isn’t it?” until one of them submits.

“Bye,” he says, a little later in the morning, turning around in his umpire’s chair,
                                                   tensing his harness, leaning towards his mother,
“Bye,” his mother says, breezily, as if breezily.

He is not an umpire he is a judge,
puritanical like a newspaper. He is greedy (like a newspaper).
“Bye,” his mother says, brightly, “Bye,” she says again, smiling, determined.
He waves his hand. It is a few weeks before he will sob at such departures.
“Bye,” he says, this morning alone with his father.

There is a commotion in the turquoise field
but the synthetic animals, yes, have resolved the issue,
there’s a challenge every day on children’s TV.
“Bye,” he says, this morning alone with his father.
There is a commotion in the red and blue field.
The synthetic animals can’t resolve the issue.
There’s a challenge every day on Breakfast News.
(“Bye,” his father once said, to Scotland in the abstract,
                                                   when more than half of that territory’s people
voted themselves into a region – openly, finally, willed themselves a satellite of Westminster.

His father that morning was lecturing him, on plug sockets and politics.
“They say the well-to-do gave their country away –
those who said “No thanks” to their own country, “Bye,” to their own country,
had already enjoyed free education, a free health service,
who cares if their grandchildren wouldn’t have that privilege,
younger folks have to learn to fend for themselves.
The “No thanks” were Edinburgh devotees of a bit of peace-and-quiet,
               they saw nuclear slaughter on the Clyde as “No great mischief,”
they were the keep-it-in-the-family spoon-in-the-mouthers,
the Comfortable in the countryside, the Satisfied in the suburbs,
pep-talk rugger leaders,
they were the professional moral-high-grounders,
content for decades, they said, to be the UK’s conscience,
as long as their vote changed nothing.

“They must have practiced for the Referendum –
quietly, patiently –
perhaps they employed private tutors –
perfecting the lifting of the Ballot Biro.
In some places it was a flimsy pencil, the kind Ikea supply for do-it-yourself projects,
but the “No thanks” folks are unfamiliar with do-it-yourself at a political level –
why bother if Britain already does everything for you, and what if you got a skelf?
You have to be careful – “No thanks” people make a little god of Careful –
so they practiced and practiced.
In some places it was with a flimsy pen,
the kind boys and girls force into the electricity supply
                              when no one else is looking,
the kind the Lotto provides in newsagents for hope upon hope
but the “No thanks” have no need for wild vulnerable hope, they’ve been investing primly for years,
               their financial advisors tell them, the Tip Top British Companies tell them,
the British we’re-not-nationalists tell them, play safe
(play safe is appropriate for infants, son)
(don’t call us nationalists, the British national Labour Party says),
and the No Thanks are experts now, experts of thou shalt not, experts of scare,
they have UK state-funded doctorates in No –
“No! No! No!”, Thatcher’s favourite triad has surely been improved by them,
with puritanical minimalism you now only have to say it once,
but look, they have
               callouses on their hands, muscular pain in their arms and backs –
and the little pencils and pens have joined together, formed ladder after ladder,
gained density, immense weight.
As they know, it’s hard work pulling a ladder up behind you,
               and the health service that had helped them hoard hope to themselves
may not help them so readily in the new Britain they have approved.)

“Bye,” the boy says to his father, quietly, gently, (the softness of an infant’s voice)
meaning it’s fine to be high on bitterness – for a few moments, it’s fine, even, to be unfair –
but when I could barely crawl you warned me come away from the meeting of the wall and the door,
watch your fingers as the door finally opens, have faith, the door is finally opening,
and now his father wants to change the subject,
is saying almost without conviction,
“You do know Scotland has just become a satellite from the 1950s
and London has a weapon – it can remove space junk by remote control.”
“Bye,” the boy says mindfully at the child-minder’s,
as his aunty lifts him up from the ruins,
                                                                           the lettered bricks on Lina’s scrupulous floor.
No tower of words yet,
no “Ciao” for the moment, except from Lina, who says “Bye,” as well.

“Bye,” he says, turning around in his life-guard’s chair,
                                                                           tensing his harness, leaning towards his father,
smiling quietly and now waving broadly with one tiny hand.
“Bye,” he says, “Bye.”

“Bye,” the father’s mother says, meaning cheerio, meaning take care, sweetheart
(he’s a teenager and she still calls him sweetheart,
he’s a teenager and now he’s decades older but in this story she’s somehow alive)
Did you pick up the new tea bread? – I’ve wrapped it in a clean tea towel,
                                                                           it’s in the Quality Street tin.
“Bye,” she says every Sunday on his own personalised, glimpsey, tv channel, Troubling Nostalgia,
“Tea-bread is ‘brain-food’, I read an article about it.”
Bye,” she says, with that old sweeties tin now in her hands, making sure he takes it,
with its aromatic tea bread and unfolding tapestry of the butterflies of England.
They call sweets swedgers here, Mum.
“Bye,” the father’s father says, meaning goodbye boys, grownup boys,
                                                            here’s to America and forgetting,
let me forget, you can live too long, let me find warmth, you can’t grow old in America.
“Bye,” the father’s father says, twenty-five years later, in poverty, in Florida,
secretly selling his father’s carpentry tools from the 1920s for the next meal at Subway,
you can live too long, you can’t find warmth, human warmth, you can’t grow old in America,
America is coming your way.
Enough of Troubling Nostalgia, it’s not a high value package, the reception is always poor.
“Bye,” the wee guy says, to his own infant miracles –
he’ll remember nothing of his first steps trying to walk through the flatscreen,
into the world of television,
of the demonization of every collective endeavour except hush hush privilege,
its self-special ‘all-in-this-together’ misdirection,
nothing of his high-vis training shoes,
               yellow-and-blue with laces-shy Velcro, bringing them to his father
as a puppy mumbles a lead in its mouth, padding up to its owner, asking her now can we go walking?
“Bye,” the boy says, his last word of the day,
a small beach where language will set off for the next island, the moon,
and the next island, Mars, where there are already new forms of the old language and island and island and island of planets,
                              ranging, stretching out, sharp ancient islands, far out in the space sea,                                                                                 islands to be populated, diminishing, finally,
                                                                                          to a last skerry, a last
just-concealed rock, the future of murmur, a single faint whisper,
and a voice still saying “Bye” and meaning “Hello.”

Richard Price’s collections include Rays, Lucky Day, and the award winning Small World, all published by Carcanet. His latest album with the musical project Mirabeau, is Age of Exploration, released later this year.


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