from The Invention of Zero


The Invention of Zero

We descend into Heathrow.
Arteries of traffic glow
like a dye injected into the blood.

Office windows flash their patterns,
lit and black, like the ones and zeros
of binary code.

Nature adores a vacuum.
The river a broad gap of darkness,
stars a few bits of light
snagged on nothingness.

Back home on the answerphone,
there’s a rubbed spot on
the surface of the silence
where voices have been erased.

And like the perfect circle Giotto
drew to win a commission,
there it is through the window –

the moon –
white beyond bleaching,
the end of abstraction,

a perfect blank.



The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau

While my mother chokes on a fish-bone,
I am shuffled into another room

to watch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Bubbles hurry upwards from

a diver’s mouthpiece
as my mother coughs up blood.

Beyond the window,
snowflakes rim the leafless trees.

The deep teems with presences.
My mother’s face takes on

a distressing error in form. The ocean
generates a music all its own.

Ambulance lights dye the snow blue.
A siren bends the air to zero.



Meeting Billy

Lightning strikes the Paramount jet en route to Paris.
A livid white filament crackles along the aisle.
‘That’s why I’m late,’ Billy explains at the hotel.
Then straightaway he’s telling me how he loves the book,
how he thinks it’s a masterpiece, how he wants to make
the movie and wants me to write the script, that
he’s discussed with Placido Domingo the possibility of
an opera, and before I know it, I’m in Bel Air
having travelled first class from LHR to LAX in
a seat with ten possible settings, and champagne on tap.

A cake is delivered with Birthday Happy piped in icing.
Billy blames the syntax on a Mexican confectioner.
He takes me to see Andrew Davis conduct Holst’s The Planets
and another piece – experimental, dissonant – by
a young British composer, at the end of which Billy leaps
to his feet and applauds. Loyal but alone, I rise to join him.
We leave early, go to the bar. Billy tosses back a whiskey
and some peanuts, works his gums with a toothpick.
He gives the waiter a big tip, saying, ‘This is for the boys.’

Back at the house, he sits in the den, reading my first draft.
‘It’s a process,’ he tells me, warning against reviews
and the danger of too much revision. Mahler,
for instance, got terrible reviews, and Bonnard was ejected
from the Louvre for touching up paintings once they
were on the wall. He’s interrupted by a phone call.
‘There’s a word for that, Mark,’ he barks.
‘You’ll find it in Webster’s Concise Dictionary. It’s bullshit!’
And he slams down the phone. ‘Where were we?’ he says.

It’s the time of the Iraq war. A Five-Star General discloses
the date of the invasion so it will not clash with the première
of Billy’s film. ‘It’s all about oil,’ says the Israeli Secret Service
agent who comes to inspect the house before the Foreign
Minister’s visit. ‘No,’ says Billy. ‘It’s about hummous.’
They need to check the private study where he keeps
his Academy Award. Normally no one is allowed inside.
‘All right,’ he says. ‘But I’ll have to kill you afterwards.’

We watch a Laker’s game from the Viacom skybox –
the cheerleaders with their flippy skirts, the stagy
chords of the organ building to a climax...
Back home, Billy outlines a scene and tells me he’ll be back in
two hours to read it, which he is. He nods appreciatively.
‘I don’t want it quick, I want it good – hot and edgy.’
And when I leave, he says, ‘You’re family now,’
halting his Pilates session to give me a bear-hug.

Here the dark happens fast, flattening everything into shadow.
The sky is black, a bowl that empties suddenly.
It’s as if the sun just drops off a shelf. The plane
rises into a sky so big you can see the earth is curved.

I wait for lightning to hit, as it did the Paramount jet,
but the only lights are those dimmed in the cabin, the only
sound that of the engines merging with the background
hum of the universe, sustained like a pedal note.
A minute passes, then another, and eventually
days and nights and months flow round me.

Birthdays come and go. The war rages on. The planets keep
on spinning. The script lies on my laptop, polished, operatic
and – there’s a word for it in the dictionary – unproduced.


Read selections from Stealing the Mona Lisa and Love, Death and the Sea-Squirt.