Writing Music About

Nature Boy

It's mid-morning on a freezing cold day in January. The sounds of weekday suburban life are punctuated by the thrum of the lorry engine, whirr of hydraulics, and clanking of bins as the refuse collection team inches up the street towards Attwood House. Steve is in the communal garden, squatting down by the trellis screen that hides the bins, taking items out one by one, and pummelling them to smithereens on the concrete paving with a short handled lump hammer. He's a short man with a short sharp nose, a short sharp temper and shorter, sharper hair than that.

The bin lorry comes and goes disregarded as Steve occupies himself. The bin men busily corral the coloured plastic wheelie bins left along the sides of the street, emptying their contents into the truck and leaving a trail of empty bins behind. All that fucking plastic, he thinks. One day he'll smash all of it into smithereens.

He wasn't your typical environmentalist. He wasn't into all that happy clappy clap trap. Quite the opposite. He'd been the one smashing in the faces of the 'fucking hippies' when they'd been handing out leaflets outside the Miller's Arms a few years back protesting about the council's plans to cut down the trees on Hurst Avenue. And a few years further back, even the hint of skin a few shades darker than his, hair a few inches longer than his own, or an earring in the wrong ear had been enough to convene a meeting of his tattooed right fist with the offending subject's jaw, his knuckles proudly pronouncing 'HATE' as they slammed into the object of his displeasure, as if by way of explanation.

But Steve was deep into recycling. Indeed, he'd been into recycling long before 'recycling' had really been a thing at all. Ever since he'd been a kid he'd had this intuition that everything had its natural state – the building blocks of nature if you like – and anything else was just wrong. The building blocks could be borrowed and assembled to make things but those assemblages could only ever be temporary. They didn't represent the natural order. And so, to re-establish the equilibrium of the universe, that order had to be restored. It was obvious. Why could no one else see it?

'Naturism' he called it. It was, he would tell anyone prepared to listen, the opposite of materialism. The latter, he would go on, was a mental illness where people value the artificial accumulations of matter more than the matter in its natural state.

Not that people generally got the point.

“I'm a naturist and proud!” he had pronounced to a very conventional looking girl he was chatting up in the lounge bar at the Miller's.

“But you're wearing clothes?!” She had blurted out, laughing. Stupid fucking bitch. Did she want him running around naked like an animal or a member of some fucking backward African tribe?

He'd gone home, alone, wondering if she meant that he wasn't going far enough in his anti-materialism? Or was she just so stupid she thought when he said 'material' he literally meant cotton, nylon, wool and so on? 'Some fucking people,' he sighed to himself as he closed the front door as quietly as he could so as not to irk Mrs Thrisk opposite. Not out of thoughtfulness, but just to keep her manifest materialism out of his face.

If he'd got her back to his flat (Clare, the girl, not Mrs Thrisk) she'd have seen how extreme he was, how anti-materialist his life was. They'd have sat on the bare floorboards in the empty room – soft furnishings (or indeed any furnishings) being exactly the kind of assemblages of material he despised. And if she wanted a drink he would have directed her to the tap where she could cup her hands like he did. And maybe he would have got to run around naked like an animal. Or maybe not. He shivered at the thought.

But she hadn't come back, so it was just him and the dust. Him and his building blocks of nature. Well, them and the walls and floor and doors and windows and light switches and the kitchen sink and bath, all taunting him for his lack of resolve every time he looked at them. One day he would take a sledgehammer to them and pummel them into their tiniest pieces, return them to their natural state. But not yet. That would have implications that he couldn't get his mind around.

Mrs Thrisk was a particular bane to him. A petite elderly lady with delicate features and a plummy accent, she was a walking bundle of materialism with her horn-rimmed glasses and mother of pearl buttons.

And her fucking medical interventions!

She'd got new hip, a new knee, and after her last stint at the General, she'd even got a pacemaker. How unnatural could you get? Delaying the moment when you too should be returned to dust through artificial means. Thankfully, there was nothing that couldn't be smashed to smithereens.

She, for her part, thought he was a 'rough diamond'. That's how she'd described him to her sister on the phone. Said he was 'a smashing lad.' Well, she was right about that. Steve had been in the kitchen sorting out a stuck window and she'd asked what the banging in the background was. He'd had the tools right on him when she'd asked him on the landing.

"He has 'I LOVE HATTIE' written across his hands," she'd whispered to her sister, and they'd laughed conspiratorially. A girl with a name like Hattie must come from the right sort of family, so by association he must be a good egg too. It was just a shame that the Royal Worcester tea set had been so close to where he was working. The milk jug was broken beyond repair and she'd never found the sugar bowl, just a pile of extra-finely granulated sugar on the tray.

It wasn't just by chance that he'd had his hammer on him. He always carried it in case on one his headaches came on. Headaches caused by being in the presence of non-particulate matter. Even if he didn't use it, just fingering it in his pocket and feeling the reassuring heft of the tool of reduction made things more bearable. And if things got really bad, the imagined crack as it connected with a materialist's temple always seemed to ease the throbbing in his own.

The headaches were a constant companion in the melee of modern life, and as a consequence, so was the hammer.

The only real solution, Steve had found, was to remove himself as much as he could from the paraphernalia and to commune with nature. So when not busy recycling he spent most of his time in his local park, sometimes staying there all day, slinking home after dark.

It had been in the park that his greatest insights into the environment had been revealed. Away from the walls and man-made floor, able to enjoy nature as God intended, the Almighty had reciprocated his undivided attention with what could only be described as visions.

One June afternoon a few years back he'd had his clearest. He'd been lying on the grass, staring up at the blue skies dotted with wisps of cloud, his fingers twirling blades of grass and digging into the loamy soil below. In that moment the reality of nature had presented itself to him in its entirety. He'd seen in an instant how seeds sprouted from the soil into tentative saplings, gathering up the resources they needed to embark on their own individualistic vanity projects, reaching for the skies. Even in their centuries-old selves they they were still just transitory stores of matter. Their true destinies were not as epic structures, but in base matter like the rest of us. They could only fulfil their destiny by being chopped down and allowed to rot away, to become soil once more for the cycle to continue.

He had seen it then that man was essential to this process. That was why we had been put on the planet and given the ability to fashion axes, hammers, saws, angle grinders and of course matches: the instruments to hasten the return of things to their natural state.

The park was the place where these theories came into clarity, without the noise of a Clare or anyone else to shoot down the arrow of his logic with their clever-clever arguments.

Today is too chilly for lying around on the grass. The wind is coming from the north. Hands stuffed deep into jacket pockets, ready on the handle of the hammer, he skirts along the east side along the boundary path where it's more sheltered. He's out of the worst of the weather, but still downwind of the pall of smoke rising from Attwood House less than half a mile away.

It's his least favourite part of the park, passing by as it does a quite unnatural children's playground stuffed with plastic and metal monstrosities, and always crawling with proto-materialists and their yummy mummies. As he walks he expounds and expands on his theories internally.

He thinks of how it was revealed to him that man is an essential agent in effecting the return to nature, and that he is a devout servant of nature itself, devoting his time and energy to the work of recycling. The ghastly coloured plastic slides, swings and see-saws rapidly empty as he scales the steps up the rear of the slide, hammer in hand. Anxious mothers frantically bundle their children away and make for the gates fingering mobile handsets.

What a fucking travesty, he thinks, looking around from his vantage point. What a perversion of our gifts, creating these unnatural stores of matter beyond what was 'reasonably necessary'.

'Reasonably necessary' in his theory referred to what man was permitted to borrow from nature to accomplish the task of restoring things to their natural state. His hammer was a case in point, as were his boots and jeans: they were just enough to allow him to perform the task in hand, nothing more. In the same way, man could also use the wood from a felled tree to make a temporary shelter. The wood would soon enough rot away and be returned to the earth. Our using them in the intervening period did not interfere with that process in the grand scheme of things.

But man was transgressing this ordained arrangement, seeking to create material forms that were eternal, which would never be returned to the natural world. Objects fashioned from hard extruded plastic, for example, would never, in practical terms, decompose.

This slide he was now pummelling would likely still be around in tens of thousands of years. No wonder then that it was proving tough going to reduce it to its constituent parts. It was going to need more uncontrolled violence than anything else he'd had to deal with thus far. Much more than china tea sets or human skulls.

He has unzipped and wriggled out of the stifling quilted jacket, throwing it to one side on the bouncy fake tarmac. What the fuck is that stuff? How is his hammer going to deal with that? What even are the atomic particles of such unnatural man-made goo?

He has stopped, not out of despair at the sheer scale of the task ahead and the unfathomable spongy material but something else. Something niggling him. Something in his interior monologue. What was it he just said to himself? "Atomic particles?" he repeats out loud.

He runs the phrase over in his mind. It was a nonsense: atoms were particles – and surely the smallest possible. Why then had he felt the need to put those two words together? Why does he have the feeling that those words belong together? Where on earth has he got that odd phrase from?

Sitting there on the dented polyurethane for almost a minute it suddenly dawns on him. There is another phrase that used those very words but with a crucial prefix. Scientists keep banging on about sub-atomic particles don't they? Sub-fucking-atomic particles. He is thinking of his piles of dust, of the pile of sugar and ground porcelain on Mrs Thrisk's tray. The zenith of his achievements. Are they seriously saying that there is something smaller?! Surely the idea that anyone could make something finer than dust was absurd?

A distorted barking voice from a radio brings him abruptly back to reality. A figure in a black uniform is bending down near where his discarded jacket lies. The blonde hair under the peaked cap is pulled back into a short, neat pony tail. The figure's attention has been drawn to a cluster of small glittering discs on the spongy ground that have spilled from his jacket pocket. She holds one between her thumb and forefinger for closer inspection.

“How beautiful,” she calls over. “Do you collect them?”

She picks up another, angling it to catch the light, ignoring the tiny snippet of thread that falls.

“No I fucking don't.”

He has climbed down from the slide and has crossed the spongy tarmac just behind her, gripping his tool of choice firmly in his right hand.

“I thought they were shiny plastic,” she enthuses, not looking up, “but they're not are they. They're completely natural. Each one has different ripples in their surface. Amazing. Isn't nature wonderful.”

You have been reading the short story Nature Boy © 2020.

Back to index of written work