The Rage of the Fleas by John A. A. Logan

William Blake claimed to have seen visions daily since he was a small child.
One night in 1819, the spiritual apparition of a flea appeared before him during a séance.
Asked to draw the image he had seen by astrologer, John Varley, Blake went one better and produced this miniature painting, The Ghost of a Flea:

When not seeing visions in London, or perhaps in concordance with seeing them, Blake would
“…wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

I’ve only ever seen three visions myself, and two of them this year.
But, for now, let’s move on to other things…
’Twas the occasion of my 48th birthday recently, and I thought I would take myself down to the centre of my local Highland Scottish town.
It was around noon as I waited for the bus. Sometimes they don’t come at all now. You wait an hour for the next one, and then it does not come either.
But a bus came. Lo! O auspicious Birthday Omen!

On the way down the hill, the young female Polish driver took a sharp right turn, bringing the left side of the bus close to a group of houses.
We passengers on the left side of the bus had a nice close-up window view of a scene in a garden.
A man, lying there, face down, collapsed over a low wooden fence, his trousers and underpants pulled down to his ankles, his bare bottom presented.
I can see he has white hair, he may be about 60, it is hard to tell from a bottom.
The bus passes by. No passenger says a word. I think a couple of years ago, someone would have phoned an ambulance, or the driver would have radio-ed the incident in to base. Or I, myself, would have spoken up, asked if any one of the dozens who had seen him had a phone to call for help, as I had none with me.
But I keep quiet. This is the Age of the Automatons, after all, and I know it…stand out at your Peril.

In town, it is hard to get the image of the man’s bottom out of my mind.
I sit on a bench, opposite Superdrug and McDonalds.
After a couple of minutes, I notice a large bloke, about 6 foot 3 and 19 stone, has noticed me, in the Saturday crowd. I keep my eyes on his eyes, some instinct telling me it is important to do so. He is coming from the Superdrug doorway, walking towards me, about 40 feet away now, keeping those predatory eyes on me as he walks. I stare hard into his eyes and clear my throat loudly. He stops walking, and looks away to the right, almost dreamily, as though pacified. I look away also, to my right, at the Town House, the traffic, trying to look peaceful, trying to be peaceful, no need to keep staring at him now that he has stopped advancing…but after about 10 seconds of looking off calmly into the middle distance to my right, I hear strange sounds coming from the direction of the Superdrug doorway. I look back. It is the large man who had been staring at me and walking towards me. I see that he is now standing opposite a much smaller man. The large man bends backwards strangely as I watch, pivoting at the hips, he reclines his mass, upper body and head, about two feet backwards, and then, as though launched by a spring within his spine, drives forward powerfully, mercilessly, to headbutt the smaller man. I see the larger man’s head look like it has struck the smaller man’s head, but I don’t hear the right sound. Could he have just missed? The smaller man has long, unruly, brown hair. He looks perplexed. The larger man then punches the smaller man in the face.
I wonder if they know each other, or are these strangers meeting. They are surrounded by hundreds of people, but no-one except me looks at them.
The smaller man walks off, in the Eastgate direction. The large man walks with him, they exit my sight with the larger man still shoving at the smaller one as they merge with the crowd and become indistinct to me.
I look up at the sky above the buildings where seagulls circle.
I get up, and start walking with the crowd, in the clock tower direction.   

I walk a circuit of the town.
Passing the doorway where people sit and beg, I see an unconscious body, a man on his back, mouth open, legs at awkward angles. No-one is stopping, or looking. I let the crowd take me on with it. On a second circuit of the streets, I pass again 5 minutes later, and see that two human beings have stopped and are attempting to help and resuscitate the unconscious man. I used to be a human being, too. But now I keep going, with the crowd.

I stop at the outdoor Costa café. I get a tea. As I exit with my tray in one hand, I spill a little, into the saucer.
As I take my seat, another man at another table notices my spillage.
“You’d make a terrible waiter,” he says.
I know this man. I do not look at him. I pretend to laugh.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I say.
I can see, reflected in a shop window, a blue, flickering ambulance light, from the next street, the unconscious beggar man’s doorway.
As I drink my tea, I watch the passing crowd, the faces. I pour all the water from the pot until it’s empty. I keep drinking. Ten minutes later, I forget that I have already tipped that pot’s bottom high, to wring it of the last drop of tea. I take the teapot and tip it high again.
I hear the man from the next table say,
“You’ll get nothing more out of that teabag unless you squeeze it!”
I pretend to laugh.
“Yeah, I think you might be right!” I say.
But I do not look at him. I know he has been joined by the other bloke who often sits with him. When they sit together they talk loud, never saying anything good about anyone or anything. Talking about women they know, or women who pass, in a loud, braying way that makes my skin start to crawl off my back. I don’t want to know either of these Hound Dogs, even if we do sometimes frequent the same café.

Just then, a tourist at another table takes their eye off their jam scone. Two seagulls which have been waiting swoop in from the rooftop across the street, low and hard, one gets the scone, the other wobble-lands on the table, loses its footing, bounces off the elbow of the tourist’s expensive Patagonia jacket, knocks the tourist’s glass coffee mug onto the pavement where it smashes. I see a shard of glass fly eloquently and predictably, like a tiny jagged star, and embed in the passing stockinged ankle of an elderly pedestrian who gives a little cry. The wobbling seagull abandons the mission in disgust, glaring at its comrade with the scone.
I sniff and look up at the sky.
Happy Birthday, Logan…Happy Birthday…Surely, we all get what we deserve in the end…
I turn my head a little, to see who has suddenly shouted from behind, but I don’t turn it all the way round, I don’t really want to see. Anyway, it turns out I don’t have to. The two blokes at the next table squeal with delight. They start talking about this street preacher we can hear from the next street.
“Oh, he’s back again eh?” says the one who had been watching the way I drank my tea much too closely.
“Aye, aye!” says the other.
Then I realise the street preacher is swearing a lot. I’ve never heard a swearing street preacher before. I almost look all the way round, to see behind myself, to see him, but no, my neck abandons the effort again, a lack of faith there in the neck somehow, it cannot complete the gesture. He is getting louder now, this swearing street preacher, swearing more, as though invoking some strange Demon to visit this town today. The two men on my right get up abruptly, off to see the creature more closely.
I stay seated. When I do leave, it is to go the opposite way.

I walk a circuit of the tiny town centre, passing the now empty beggar’s doorway, then coming level with another scene, the street preacher down on the pavement, still swearing and preaching, sometimes screaming now too, as two police officers wrestle with him on the ground. I stare hard, at the blurred fighting limbs, wondering who is Jacob and who is the Angel, in this strange new world? Perhaps, at 48, I am now too old to understand this Brave New World we are heading into. There are 80000 people living now in this town only big enough at the centre for 40000 people. How many are Human Beings, and how many are Angels, and how many only caustic Visions, I wonder now, as I stand and stare at the police officers bouncing on the bones of the street preacher. I am one of this crowd, standing and staring. There is an electrical tension, a vibrant charge, all round us, in the air. Was it always there? Or has it come now as the world unravels, with too many wars, too many refugees, too many bombs, too many boatloads of abandoned spirits swirling in the sea? Surely as the world comes apart, the tensions have to reach here, yes even here, quiet old Inverness, and this is where they would show up first, on the streets, among the central nervous systems of our own vulnerable, lost poor souls. A collective, subconscious, subliminal tension, brought in from those dark tendrils of the wider web, and it must explode out somewhere, in some form, Black Emissions of the Spirit. Suddenly, I realise that, at my side, stand the two men from the street café. No, I will not stand with them, not even to see such Wonders. I walk on…walk on…

When it is time to leave town, the darkness has descended further. I will go home then and open my birthday presents. I leave the town, and cross the canal at the footbridge, entering semi-darkness at the other end of the bridge. Only then, when I am standing on the canal path, do I see them coming right towards me out of the night. Another 19 stone bloke, about half my age, his youthful cheeks showing up under yellow streetlight carrying from the nearby road. He’s coming at me doing about 15 miles an hour on this narrow footpath, and, to his left, moving at 15 miles an hour alongside him, kicking up dust, a 110-pound bulldog, or pitbull, or some other banned/extinct/endangered species of fighting Devil Dog at any rate…both hurtling in at me…or, all three hurtling in at me, if I count man, bike, and dog as three separate entities, like an Unholy Trinity of Destruction heading in from the West to get me for all my sins…
One moment they’re coming right at me, then the bike rider breaks to my left, the dog shifts simultaneously to my right. As they pass me, I clear my throat, loudly.
Then I hear the bike skidding to a stop behind me. I hear the dog skidding to a stop also, its coal-shovel paws tearing up the canal footpath earth that perhaps Thomas Telford himself once ordered to be laid there. The man, and the bike, and the dog, all skidding to an emergency stop behind me, they must tear up 30 feet of canal footpath each, just in the act of stopping.
Then I hear the angry voice from behind, calling loudly,
“Have you got a problem?”
I stop and turn. He’s about 30 feet away now in the semi-darkness, staring at me. He has his bike half-on to the footbridge, its front wheel, so he means to cross there, at least he and his canine were not only skidding to a stop in outrage just because I dared to clear my throat at them. His squat canine companion/weapon stares at me also, impassive, from beside the bike’s stationary rear wheel.
Have I got a problem? It’s such an enormous question, really. I try to think it all over as I stare back at him, and at his dog. There seems to be slightly more humanity and compassion in the dog’s eyes, than in the owner's, though that isn’t saying much, all of their eyes are twinkling orange in the dim streetlight. Where would I start, in trying to express to them my problem?
I think it all over for several more seconds, then turn my back on them and walk on.
After 5 seconds of walking I stop again, and turn. I see that they have reached the far end of the footbridge. I clear my throat loudly at them. I sniff. They don’t react this time.
I walk on, kicking the road beneath my boot after a few more seconds, then I try to leave it all behind me as I head up the hill.
Back at the house, my presents are still on the floor, unopened.
I open one. The Incredible Hulk, on DVD discs, all the episodes.
I put one on.

 That’s more like it.
I haven’t seen this stuff for 30 years.
“I shouted with pain and anger. I felt a chill rushing through my body. Something was happening. I had a feeling inside me like a hundred people shouting all at once, like a locomotive beginning to roll. I felt a surging infusion of strength, my muscles vibrating with a strange life of their own. I could feel a force welling up inside me…”

Bill Bixby is such a poignant, noble, lonely David Banner.
“…the raging spirit that dwells within him…”
But it seems that Bixby’s own actor-spirit is at the heart of this drama.
I watch another episode, the Hulk fighting a bear in a river, which gets some green paint rubbed off on it in the struggle, before the Hulk throws it 40 feet in the air, settling the matter.
Then I Google Bixby, to see how he was rewarded for the poignant moments he brought to this show…and which I remember making me happy, and arousing my sympathy, even as a child…
Well, it seems Mr Bixby wasn’t rewarded. His life became a life of tragedy, just like the fictional Banner’s…during the making of the Incredible Hulk series Bixby’s wife had left him, then the next year their 6-year-old son died, and the year after that his wife, blaming herself for their son’s death, killed herself…Bixby never recovered…

As I am Googling Mr Bixby, I hear a scream, coming from the night, outside my house.
I peek out the curtain. Two people are standing on the road, dim-shadowed figures, outside my neighbour’s house, right next to my garden. The neighbour’s door flies open, I hear shouting from inside their house, then the door slams shut. The indistinct figures remain on the street, watching my neighbour’s house.
I sit down again and watch another episode of The Incredible Hulk, the volume turned up to drown out further shouts from next door.
Twenty minutes later, just as David Banner is being taught self-hypnosis by a hypnotherapist-psychiatrist whom he hopes will help him contain the Beast Within, I hear a vehicle draw up outside my house, and the doors slamming on exit in that manner only the police really know how to properly do.
I hear their hammering knock on the neighbour’s door.
I turn down the Hulk, and return to peek and twitch at my curtain. Perhaps this is what 48-year-olds do when faced with external stresses?
I see one of the neighbours, a 19-year-old girl larger than either of the two male cops who have her handcuffed, she is bent over slightly, her heavyweight boxer’s shoulders drooping dispiritedly, as they herd her along the driveway and shove her in the back of their van.
I hear one cop tell the grandmother who must have phoned the police on the girl that she should call the station in the morning.

I sit back down, to reflect on my Big Birthday Day Out in Inverness.
The Hulk is freeze-framed on the screen, mid-transformation, eerily eyeing my remaining presents which still await opening on the carpet.

And now, let us conclude with a little interlude of Poetry…dedicated especially to all those neo-visionaries, and mid-transformation Hulks, out there listening…:

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


Susan Price said…
Happy Birthday, John!
Unknown said…
Get away with you, An tUasal Sean Oleoghain! A riveting read from start to finish, wonderfully well told, as usual ...but if true, means you were only working as a reporter, when you wrote Agency Woman.

I do believe the bit about the clothes-free posterior suspended on the fence because no imagination, no matter how wild, could have given us _that_.

To think that there must be people who think you live a quiet life in which hardly anything happens, ever.

Dennis Hamley said…
Rivetting, John. A terrific essay in alienation. The underlying Kafka-like fear is deeply disturbing and the Blake context is entirely right. The work of a born story-teller.
Kathleen Jones said…
I found this very moving John - and sad. You have nailed, exactly, what life is like in a (non-wealthy) community today. Last week I had three people in the front garden throwing stones at the windows and threatening to burn my house down. The police took them away, but all they've been done for is resisting arrest! It was, apparently, a mistake - the torching was meant for someone else. This is a village of some three and half thousand people and we used to know each other well. But there's no employment now, so many people have left and the idyllic rural location has meant that troubled people from Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle have been moved into empty properties. I have moments of despair.
Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing.
Thanks, Susan!

Thanks, Postgutenberg (Cheryll)...all true, honest!

Thank-you, Dennis!
Thanks, Kathleen - I'm very sorry to hear you have had to go through a terrible situation like that. Yes, it is shocking sometimes to find out how little the police can do...
That is a very serious, terrifying thing to experience.
It does sound like a "mistake", which is still appalling, you a route back to some peace of mind there I hope...though I know that is easier said than done.
Take care, and I hope/pray nothing remotely like that ever happens again,
Lydia Bennet said…
Gosh John, what a grippingly written but dystopian view of your city, is this fictional or autobiographical? I find people in general are very kind and helpful. Also I must say I'm puzzled about why nobody did anything even ring 999 about the man over the fence, the position of his trousers is surely neither here nor there.People often pass out while urinating for example. I often get involved with people I don't know if they seem to need help and so do others I know, though I have a care for my own safety up to a point. What do others think?
Ann Evans said…
A fascinating, gripping story but I half expected it to be an extract of one of John's novels. I know the world is becoming a horrible place at times, but I've never known people pass by others who are clearly in need of immediate help. I'm hoping it was fictional. Very well written either way!
Thanks, Valerie (Lydia) - Yes, autobiographical. Yeah, a couple of years ago I think the bus driver, or someone on the bus, would have done something to help the bloke lying in the garden across his fence like that - but not now, it seems.

Thanks, Ann! - no, sorry, not fictional. I'm just glad I got home without that Demon Dog tearing a piece out of my axxx.
Anonymous said…
Most of us don't read Camus, or Nietzsche, or Schopenhauer, or any other philosopher who focuses on the human predicament. Because to us, there is no predicament.

As Thomas Gray said where "ignorance is bliss" existential questions are only relevant to those able and willing to contemplate them.

Do you have a problem? John is right. It is an enormous question.

The Guardian in the UK and certainly the US papers and what passes for news on the television stations recount daily the callousness pervading our daily lives. Even the beggar on the street with one leg outside the church in my town is ignored by the passers by. And they step over the winos sprawled in doorways, covered with vomit. How many of us will risk giving such a human resuscitation?

Thomas Gray:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemn'd alike to groan—
The tender for another's pain,
Th' unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;—where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

And Rabbie Burns:
Many and sharp the num'rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Thanks, Aine (good to see Mr Gray and Mr Burns visiting also!)
lynnann50 said…
John...thank you always, for your words.
Never too many nor too few...just right.
Two questions...
Where did all the gifts come from?
Why are you alone opening them?
love and peace...lynnann
Thanks, Lynnann!
Yes, I can see why those questions occurred. In a way, the story does beg those questions...
The answers:
The gifts came from friends.
On the day, those friends were far away (though not too far away to talk to by phone!)
Take care,
julia jones said…
Brilliant, sad, very disturbing. Reading it I wanted to wade in. If I'd been there, probably not.
Thanks, Julia (I don't know, I'd make a fair bet that you might well have waded in if you were there...)

Popular posts

I Got Tested for Covid and Here are the Results by @edenbaylee

Hot trod! - by Susan Price

Reading, Writing, and always being kind... by Mari Howard

Murder on the Metaphor Express - Umberto Tosi