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WITHERED HEAD™ LUKE KENNARD







No, I mean it’s okay. I’ve never known how to put on a tie. When I worked for the council for a couple of years I wore the black suit my mum bought me for the last day of secondary school – which has since been rebranded as “prom” – and an open necked shirt, no tie, not ever, and nobody seemed to mind. I didn’t like striped shirts because I thought they looked like pyjamas or a cartoon prison uniform. Generally, I’ll be going out with someone who does my tie up for me, either tutting or without comment or non-verbal cues as to their feelings on the matter, but perhaps they were drawn to me in the first place by my air of helplessness. Tonight, though, facing the mirror, the top button of my white shirt done painfully up so that it restricted my breathing, I draped the thin tie over my shoulders and I just did it up without thinking. Like parallel parking: the more you concentrate the more you’re going to screw it up. Close your eyes. Full lock. Straighten up. Glide in.

There are certain things… I had… I had suffered from this for some time. A sense, when I spoke, that I wasn’t getting it across, what was in my head. And an increasing sense that what is in my head is quite urgent. And I mean “quite” as in completely. (In the final meeting with my doctor she said, ‘You’re doing quite well.’ And I felt deflated at the time because it seemed like faint praise, quite – I should say rather – dismissive of the progress I had made and that she was normally so solicitous to encourage. It only occurred to me much later that she – originally from Gujarat, English her second language, and classical – meant that I was doing entirely well, wholly well, that I was whole. Since then I have tried to use quite in exactly this way). Quite urgent and impossible to express. I don’t need to tell you this. We all get that. It’s probably all we ever really communicate to one another. When I feel loved it’s when I see that in someone else’s eyes: I know – it’s terrible, isn’t it? That’s when I want to hug them. I love you. Thank you.

Generally, we want to appear to be superior and I was trying to tell him – my date – that I sort of blamed journalism a little bit for the state of things. And, I added, I wasn’t talking about the kind of journalism written by Oxbridge graduates who detest their own readers – their… cattle– and wouldn’t voluntarily spend a moment in the same room as them. (I watched to see if he bridled infinitesimally at either cue and concluded that he was neither an Oxbridge graduate nor a tabloid-reader). That I didn’t think we even needed to talk about that. We can assume – can’t we? – a base level? But rather, rather, that actual journalism had, for too long (I winced inwardly when I said “for too long” because it is exactly the kind of formulation I try to avoid, haughty and freighted with some sense of one’s own superior oversight as well as telegraphing some notional golden age) operated as a kind of meta-journalism. He sipped from his cocktail and briefly, kindly, made eye-contact.

I sensed either that I was boring him or had lost him and assumed the latter; we can, surely, use the prefix “meta-” with the expectation that we will be understood? Maybe not. That it – I persevered – that it commented on its own commentary: how will this play? Essentially it talked to its readers, to us, as though we were experts on matters… As though we were in an editorial meeting with them, the journalists, and not… Instead of… they… how will this play? That’s all that seems to matter. So it’s really the opposite problem of the tabloids. I don’t need to know – I gestured insanely with my glass – the chemical breakdown of this drink – I shook my head at myself and I could tell that, whether he was bored or not, I had, at this point, also lost him – but I’d still like to know what it is. That I’m drinking. I felt – and here I warmed to my theme exactly at the same time as I realised that what I was really trying to say had completely escaped me – that we had colluded in becoming less and less informed. That is not what I wanted to say at all but it is, at least, coherent enough for him to agree – gratefully, with visible relief, and ask if I want another drink, which I do.

We are talking now – with our third cocktails – about the deluxe reissues of Pavement’s first four albums, and this is when it happens. At first we’re both delighted to have found a pop-cultural reference point in which we’re mutually, unhealthily interested. I tell him, with no little animation, that I’d never even heard the Watery Domestic EP before it was included on the reissue of Slanted and Enchanted, and that I was so grateful because it’s some of their best material and so clearly paves the way for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  Yes! he says, Yes. God, though, the fucking extra material on the Wowee Zowee reissue: a great album (A great album, I agree), but Jesus. Why did they even bother? There’s not a single complete song outside the record. It’s just bullshit. Scraps. Alternative versions of tracks they’d already released better versions of. Isn’t ‘Nail Clinic’ on there? I ask. No, no, no, he says, that’s from the Crooked Rain sessions. To be honest, he tells me, I think it reduces their whole legacy, the Wowee Zowee reissue. It makes it… He seems genuinely upset, and looks at the window. (It is night time). It lessens it.

And this is fine. I don’t particularly disagree. But I hesitate. It occurs to me to think about Scott Kannberg working very hard on the reissue of Wowee Zowee, even if the available B-sides, live recordings and studio offcuts amounted to somewhat slim pickings, and to wonder if my date’s pronouncement isn’t, in fact, a little harsh. At first, I say nothing, I even murmur assent. But Withered Head™ is still in Beta (ten years after it got the green light) and I – a massive Pavement fan for precisely the reasons I’ve maybe unintentionally delineated – clearly have it calibrated too sensitively.

His head shrivels and crushes, somewhere between a balloon with a slow-release puncture and a big rose in an empty glass filmed in time-lapse. His eyes sink into his imploding skull, his mouth puckers and then elongates until the void… It’s actually pretty horrible.  Withered Head™ was written by… Well, you know. What is anything written by? Precociously talented 21-year-old programmers who’ve never suffered. If they had some sense – and it comes to us all eventually – of the frailty and sadness of human existence they wouldn’t work through the night trying to put such images in our heads.

His body – my date’s – sits on the bar stool adjacent to me. His hand still holds his margarita and rotates it slightly so that he’ll be able to drink from the salty part of the rim. Which is another thing we have in common – the salt. I watch as his arm raises the glass to the empty space where his head used to be and tilts it and I watch as the glowing, turquoise liquid – something already otherworldly about a margarita, I’ve always thought – disappears into the nothing.

And it’s this, oddly, the salt, which gives me a pang of sadness that for the rest of his life he will be, for me, headless. If we arrange to meet again, if we fell in love and stayed with each other forever, I will hear nothing he has to say, I will never see his face again. Even tonight when we walk to my tube station (of course I’m not going to tell him and he’ll have no idea why I haven’t been responding to anything he says): I could kiss him (assuming he has a thing for people who suddenly stop responding to anything he says) and it would be like licking invisible meat. He has joined the legions of decapitated people I pass in the street whose skulls Withered Head™ has decided, with good reason and for me alone, to pre-emptively and permanently do away with.



   
Luke Kennard is the author of five collections of poetry and a novel, The Transition (4th Estate, 2017). His latest poetry collection Cain (Penned in the Margins, 2016), was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. He lectrures in the School of English at the University of Birmingham.


    
2017.