Thursday, 18 November 2010

Available now!

And Figs Might Leaf by Christian Stretton | Make Your Own Book

Well, the paperback is now available for the bargain price of £3.95 (but there are some postage charges). Enjoy! Tell your friends!

Also, the Kindle version available from Amazon.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

And Figs... the book!

To finally put this thing to bed, I've formatted the stories that I wrote for the site into a paperback, which should be available soon. My excellent percussive friend Dave Kennedy designed the awesome cover. I'll let you know more details as soon as I have them.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Entirely Useless Monument

Edward talked about his plans for the Entirely Useless Monument long before he actually began working on it. He had been playing around with the idea for a while.
‘The plan is,’ he would explain, ‘to build a structure from only natural materials in my back garden. It should have no function apart from an aesthetic one, and it should be large; much taller than me - as big as the house if possible. I would work on it for one year, and when the year is up, whatever the condition of the structure, then the Monument will be finished.’
At this stage (which Edward would later refer to as the Planning Stage) reactions were overwhelmingly positive. ‘Good for you,’ people would intone. They would even offer suggestions of what they thought the Monument should look like: It should have feathers, it should represent the different stages in your life, it should be hollow, you should be able to climb it.
Edward was a creative person, though this was not reflected in his career trajectory. Following a series of clashes with the teachers, Edward had quit college at the age of seventeen, and being too proud to live off his parents’ substantial income, he had immediately found a well-paid-but-dull position in a bank. In this job, he had worked quietly and conscientiously; slowly rising in the company to his current position as a middle-manager.
When work actually got started on the Monument, reactions were more mixed. The next-door neighbour was especially concerned. A keen member of the Residents’ Association, her objections became quite vocal from the beginning. She was most concerned about the noise, and about the effect that the structure would have on house-prices in the area. After all, the Monument would be in clear view from her window. Even Edward’s family counselled against his decision.
Karl, his best friend from college, was absolutely behind him. He even helped with some of the preliminary sketches and loaned Edward the tools. So, in October 2009, work began in earnest, and soon there developed a clear pattern to Edward’s week:
Wednesday: sketch the additions which were to be made this week. This would usually be done on bits of scrap paper during quiet periods in the bank.
Thursday: visit the local hardware shop on the way home from work to buy the necessary wood and materials needed.
Friday evening: sit in the garden with a beer, just contemplating the structure, and imagining the future possibilities (this was the highlight of Edward’s week).
Saturday: Lay out tools and building materials. Work for two hours in the morning, then stop for lunch. Sometimes, work would recommence in the afternoon, sometimes those two hours would be enough.
Sunday: Bask in the glory of his work. Sometimes this would involve inviting friends around to the house to look at the Monument; sometimes it would simply involve feeling pleased with himself for the most part of the day.
Monday: Nothing. Forget about the project.
Tuesday: An anxious feeling would enter his subconscious, always extant in the back of his mind. This creeping paranoia would not subside until Wednesday came around again, and Edward set back to work on the project.

He continued in this cycle for a whole year, and though the slump of Monday and Tuesday were a drag, the sheer exhilaration of the build on Saturday kept him focused. And because he had adhered to this weekly routine so stubbornly, the Monument had really taken shape.
On his final Saturday morning, Edward sanded some rough edges, then put down his electric sander, and stood back to take in the view. The Monument was now everything he had hoped for. It would be pointless to describe it here, but suffice to say that it now satisfied every particular of Edward’s original brief.
Even the next-door-neighbour had to concede that it was quite a spectacle. People from all over the town came to visit the neighbourhood just to sneak a peak at the majesty of it. The Entirely Useless Monument was a hit.
Karl would sometimes ask Edward what was next: ‘We could add a wing to the side of it, and a dome. A dome would be awesome.’
But for Edward, this was missing the point. ‘You don’t understand,’ he would reply. ‘It’s finished.’


Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Penultimate

All good things must come to an end. That is true, but so too, must ordinary tales of madness, loneliness, and disappointment. One year ago, a small man had a small idea: that he would write short stories, and post them on the internet for all to see. The man was not a writer, but he saw in himself characteristics which one would identify with the writerly type: thin skin, an introspective nature, a bespectacled countenance, and most of all, a deep love of books.
So he began these short stories and committed to a new post every Thursday of every week. Though he was no great thinker, he was ambitious to become a writer, and so he worked hard to improve. Before posting a new story, he would re-read, and attempt to judge his efforts at a distance. Sometimes he would be proud of his offering, and this would leave him buoyant for the rest of the week; sometimes he would so despise his creation, that he would consign it to the trash, mope for a couple of days, and then begin again.
Tales of unicorns, donuts, crocodiles and time-travel began to populate the website. After a short while of producing these fictions, he began to see a pattern emerge: the protagonist is introduced, there is a goal to which the protagonist strives, the protagonist fails. Introduction, hope, disappointment. He wondered why the stories so often ended with disappointment, and yet still he continued, and still the pattern repeated: introduction, hope, disappointment.
Unsure of why this would be, and also wondering what connected all of these seemingly disjointed ideas, he decided to write one final story. The final tale would resolve the whole thing. It would be the ribbon that tied together all of his year’s work. It would be the answer to all the
questions that had been raised, and would leave the reader with a satisfying explanation for all of his labour. The story would be about closure, and about learning, and most of all, it would not be about disappointment.
Apprehensively, the writer turned the page of his journal, smoothed the clean white sheet, and began: ‘Edward talked about his plans for the Entirely Useless Monument long before he actually began working on it…’

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The weight of the CHI Rocket 1800 watt dryer

Having swept the last of the auburn curls from the floor, Hayley paused to check the oversized Ikea clock that dominated the wall: Five to five - balls to it, that’ll do. As the apprentice, she shouldn’t really be expected to run the salon alone, but since the appearance of Peter Ackworth, Susan was increasingly absent these days. Hayley retrieved the keys from under the till, and made her way to the front door to lock up. Just as the keys entered the lock, two hands slapped the glass on the other side, causing Hayley to jump back in alarm. Behind the two hands was a sallow face, lined and oval; thick-rimmed spectacles perched upon great meaty plates of ears. Hayley habitually reached down to feel the outline of her mobile phone in her back pocket.
‘We’re closed.’
‘Please love – just a trim.’ His voice was muffled through the glass, and by the traffic noises outside.
Hayley opened the door just a crack.
‘Sorry, we’re closed now. All locked up.’
‘Could you not just fit me in for a quick trim? Please love – the wife will kill me if I go home without a haircut. It’s our anniversary today, and we’re going out.’
For a moment, Hayley weighed her options. He seemed genuine, and harmless enough. Reluctantly, she opened the door and the customer gratefully entered.
‘We’ll have to be quick though – some of us have got homes to go to.’
‘Thanks love.’ He was already removing his jacket and cloth cap. Hayley indicated a chair, and as he sat, she gracefully swung a black nylon cape around his front, and fastened the Velcro behind.
She didn’t much feel like making conversation, but it was hard not to once the comb and scissors were in her hand: ‘So where are you off out to?’
‘Oh, we’re just going to the club; nothing fancy. But we’ll have our tea there.’
‘Very nice.’
Scratch scratch, snip snip: always in couplets. Deftly, Hayley’s hands worked their way from the nape of his neck up to the crown of his head, and feathers of silver hair fell obediently to the floor.
‘What about you love? You out tonight?’ he asked.
‘Probably not. I’ll be at home tonight. Watching X Factor with my mum. Sad isn’t it?’
‘Get away. Pretty young thing like you? I bet you’re not short of boyfriends.’
‘Oh yeah. Queuing round the block, they are.’
As she swept the comb across the top of his head, she thought that she heard him make a groaning noise. She looked at his reflection in the mirror, and noticed a small, but definite peak in the cape appearing around the customer’s crotch area. It can’t be, she thought. She edged her way around his side to take a look. Her glance downwards not only confirmed her fear, but compounded it: this time there was movement down there. Clearly, she could see a pumping motion, bouncing the cape up and down. She raised her eyes to his face, and saw him grinning back at her grotesquely, saliva specks at either corner of his wide mouth.
Without even pausing for thought, Hayley reached for the nearest heavy object: the CHI Rocket 1800 watt hairdryer which sat in its cradle by her hip, and with all her strength, swung the dryer 270 degrees until it collided with the customer’s cranium, sending him sprawling, unconscious, to the floor.
Screaming silently, her hands over her mouth, Hayley skittered backwards, astounded at what she had done. The adrenaline, still coursing through her veins, had given her the strength of an Olympic shot-putter; the blow to his head was pretty hard. She may even have killed him. Slowly, tremulously, she edged towards the old man, who remained prostrate, motionless on the floor. As she approached, she noticed that the impact of the fall had splayed the nylon cape up over his head, mapping out a trajectory of her defence.
Where the cape had been, his hands were revealed, still balanced between his thighs: his right hand held a yellow felt cloth, and in his left, those thick-rimmed spectacles reflected the late afternoon sun, which now spilled curiously through the window.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Infrequent flyer

Hi, I’m Pammy. Do you have enough room there? Sorry – all my bags. I’m not a very good flyer. This is my second time. Second time in the air. I’ll bet you’ve flown a lot? Not me. I get claustrophobic, see? You’ll have to hold my hand. I’m kidding – you don’t have to hold my hand. Don’t worry.
Are you off on holiday, or… No, no. It’s none of my business, you don’t have to say. I’m off to visit family in New Jersey. I have a sister there, and she has three children and eight grandchildren! Can you beat that? So that makes me a Great Aunt. Three of the grandchildren I’ve never met – this will be the first time.
Clara, Gabrielle, Edward, Karl, Tyra, Cassandra, Stevie, how many is that? There’s one more. I can’t think. It’ll come back to me.
I never had any of my own. Never had the time; never settled down. Oh I had the opportunity. You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I had the pick of the boys. I did. We used to go dancing at the Ritz. You know the Ritz in Manchester? It’s still there now. No, you don’t know it. We would go on a Saturday night and it would be Swing, Big Band, Rock and Roll. Not your ballroom nonsense. We were the original party generation. Back in the day. Back in the day.
Ooh! Looks like we’re moving; getting ready for take off. If the lady walks past, can you grab her? Well – don’t actually grab her, you know, but just let her know that I need her. Thanks. A man proposed to me once. Keith Smallshaw from Clitheroe, it was. He was well off too; he had a van. I know that means nothing now, but back then it was a big deal. He said that he loved me and would show me the world. He took me to Morecambe. He said that he wanted to marry me, but he didn’t have a ring. I said ‘Don’t be soft’, and that was that. He bought a tuba while we were there. I had to travel back to Manchester in the back of the van so that the tuba could be strapped in the front seat.
We’ve stopped again now; probably waiting for the little man with the ping-pong bats to wave us on to the runway. So there I was, bouncing around in the back of a van with no windows, while the tuba and Keith Smallshaw enjoyed the views. ELLIE! That’s it: Ellie was the one that I forgot. Eight grandchildren.
So I never saw Keith again after that. He dropped me off at my house – I lived just off Hyde Road back then, and I saw him drive away, the brass of the tuba glinting at me through the wing mirrors as he went. I wonder if he ever learnt how to play it.
Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were wearing earphones. No, I was just saying: My name’s Pammy, I’m not a very good flyer. This is my second time. I get claustrophobic, so you’ll have to hold my hand…

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Slow down

Sliding a Michael Buble CD into the slot, I turn left out of the hospital car park, and my 5-series pulls me up the long slow climb of Edge Lane. It’s not too long before the terraced houses on either side of me are completely boarded up; empty shells that have been ready for demolition for five years now. I heard that it was a botched deal: the council readied the whole area for demolition, and then found that they didn’t have the funds. It sounds about right. Approaching the traffic lights, I furtively press the central locking button on the car, and with a satisfying ‘Shhhunk’ I am safely encased.
I find myself thinking about work again. Tomorrow, I’ll be presenting to the Manchester Branch. I’m completely out of my comfort zone on this, so I’ve put in way too much preparation. I’ve gone over the thing twenty times, but I’m still convinced that something will go wrong. In my dream last night, I opened up the Powerpoint presentation, and it prompted me for my network password. Now, in a moment of frustrated weakness some time ago (I don’t know, I was having a bad day) I set my password to a swearword. One of the bad ones. So there I am, behind a lectern in front of the whole of the Manchester Branch (who, incidentally, are all Chinese in the dream for some reason) and I accidentally type my network password into the wrong window. And there it is, projected on the screen in letters a foot tall: the bad swearword. The BMW sweeps me past the Littlewoods building, which looms down like a 1930s lunatic asylum, and I think: I must remember to change my password.
Really, seeing Steve just now should give me a sense of perspective. He’d been retired… what? A month? Maybe it’s a little more than that, but even so…
In his day, he was the best damn sales rep we had. He would’ve shown the Manchester Branch a thing or two. Old Steve would have had them eating out of the palm of his hand. Is that the expression? Eating Out Of The Palm Of His Hand? It sounds wrong.
Now he’s just wasting away. Arms that were once like Popeye’s reduced to silk draped over bone. It makes you think.
I should probably add another slide or two to the presentation; I may be running a little short of an hour. Maybe more information about the marketing campaign?
In the line of traffic ahead, a sign lights up to let us know we are in a 30 mile an hour zone. White LEDs encircled by red LEDs. The cars in front don’t slow down, and neither do I.
We all just carry on at the same speed regardless.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Fairy Queen

It was a hot day and Maya was looking out of the window of her room when she saw 10,089 fairies looking straight at her but the fairies had a special fairy in front of them. She was bigger than the rest, and looked beautiful.

The gorgeous eyes, the look in her face was so remarkable but I couldn't understand why they were looking at me. I said 'Hello.'

They all said 'Can we be your fairy?'

I said 'Yes!'

We all had a cheese rain sandwich and lived happily ever after.

The end.

Contributed by Maya Stretton (Age 6)

Friday, 27 August 2010

They knocked it down

They knocked it down. Not with a demolition ball, but with a JCB clawing and pawing at the fractured walls like an over-sized robotic lion cub. I watched through the window as the great metal arm swung and then gently scooped. The bricks, timber and steel fell obediently. I was amazed at how controlled it seemed; almost balletic. As walls crumbled and fell, a doll’s house of new walls appeared behind. I tried to recognise objects amongst the rubble. I thought that I saw a fireplace but then the great yellow arm took it. I saw what looked like a china plate still intact, but the clouds of dust obscured my view.
I heard that there was asbestos in the building, which is why the demolition was delayed. They had to send in men with special suits and masks on to take out all the toxic insulation. I felt a dry scratch in my throat, which I itched with the back of my tongue, and looked down at my sandwiches, which had started to curl in the airless office.
I thought of the times I used to eat my lunch in the building, a long time ago. Even then the rooms smelled damp and were crowded with 1970s furniture. Back then I would sit in a low chair in the bay window, and hope that no-one would join me. I would spread out my belongings on the chair next to me, and the coffee table in front of me. One tupperware, one banana, one purse, one copy of the Telegraph, one spectacle case. Every time the door squeaked open, my spine would contract with dread. I must have looked quite insular to the other staff as they walked in. I must have looked lonely. Which, I suppose, I was. But it was a self-imposed isolation; an enjoyable loneliness.
I looked back to the interior of my office: aluminium, formica and Ikea-framed-artwork covering a calico wall. Next to my computer monitor, framed pictures of Alex and the kids.
I would have liked to walk back through those tiled halls, up the creaky wooden staircase once more. But it’s too late now. They knocked it down.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Swirling, spinning endlessly

I wanted to wake you just to show you, but I thought you’d be mad. And then you wouldn’t appreciate it. But really - you should have seen those stars.
Now that I think about it, I’d heard on the radio a few days previously that a meteor storm was forecast, so I guess I knew that it was coming. I’d gone to put the rubbish out. The bag wasn’t full, but it was starting to smell in the hot weather. As soon as I set foot outside, I could sense something was different, so I looked up right away. It was a crystal clear night. There were so many stars, but the street lights were getting in the way, so I dumped my rubbish, and walked to the end of the street where the alley intersects with the train track. Once away from the lights, the view was so much better. I just stood there; my neck craned back, my mouth agape, and took in the picture. Of course, there was too much to fit in my field of vision, so I began to circle around in my slippers to decide which direction provided the best view. I tried to identify some constellations, but got stuck at two: The Plough and Cassiopeia. I resolved to learn some more once I got back inside.

Then the first of the shooting stars just sliced the periphery of my vision. I turned to look, but it was too late. It only lasted for a moment, but it cemented me to the spot. I couldn’t leave now until I’d seen another. I lay down on the still-warm tarmac. The street was absolutely silent from down here. I glanced back up the length of terraces and saw that a few still had lights on, but there wasn’t a sound. Even the usual susurration of electricity from the rail track was notable by its absence. I didn’t have to wait long before another shooting star streaked the black. The line that the meteor drew seemed to run perfectly parallel to my body, and it baptised me in the name of the Father, and the Son.
I should make a wish, I thought. You know, I’m not superstitious normally, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. It made me think back to the time that we were in India, and we received the blessing by the lake, and the gurus that blessed us were really just conmen after some money, but they offered us a wish, so we closed our eyes, and made it. Later, it transpired that we had wished for the same thing. And sure enough, as soon as we got back, it happened. So wishes can come true. I thought about you lying there in bed, the cot by your side; the two of you creating a duet of snuffles and snores in your slumber.
Another meteor dissected the sky, and I realised that I hadn’t made a wish yet. Do you have to wish as the star is shooting? Because that wouldn’t leave you with a lot of time. No, I decided that you just need to wish soon after and it would be OK.
Right across the sky, a brighter cloud of stars formed a band from left to right. I thought of the logistics of the earth spinning around, but also orbiting the sun, which is orbiting the centre of the galaxy, but it began to make my head spin. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a dog bark, and I thought: I still haven’t made my wish.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

A Posse of Guardian Angels

June had been good but recently the summer couldn’t work out what to do with itself; one moment scorching sunshine, the next bucketing rain. Around mid-July Mrs Saldanha had taken to putting her washing on the clothes horse and placing it in the shelter of the back porch, so that she didn’t have to lurch out with the cane and take the clothes off the line soon as the weather turned.
On this day it was sunshine with few clouds but you couldn’t trust the skies and she sat in the porch by her hanger, reading one of those Jilly Cooper novels about rich white people getting up to god knows what with each other – they were the only habit she thought of as a vice; good trash to pass the inexplicable days.
Mrs Salhanda had worked for forty years as an auxiliary nurse at Christie’s before being medically retired in ’02; for a few years after, she’d done voluntary days on the SureStart reception off Albert Road, before the hip got too bad for her to hold down even those duties.
Even with the cane and the pills, there was a visible wince as she manoeuvred her body into a standing position; it happened slowly these days, in folds and cracks. Meter readers and parcel bearers learned the value of patience at Mrs Saldanha’s door.
Today Mrs Rasahdi was there. It was obvious that the woman had something to say, and the tension crept back into their discourse for the first time in fifteen years. Mrs Saldanha led her through the front room with all its photographs.

They sat on the back porch and talked around it for a while – the Khan girl’s marriage, the latest mess Mohammed Afsal’s son had got himself into, this new government – before the thing was said.

‘He got his date,’ said Mrs Rasahdi.
‘That right?’

‘Right.’ Pause. ‘October seven.’

They watched the cats circle each other in the grass.

Mrs Saldanha lit a Dunhill.
‘How’d he take it?’
‘Ain’t spoke to him.’ Pause. ‘Wanted you to know before anyone else, cause it’ll get around, and you’ll get calls from the police counselling people, Victim Support an that.’
Victim Support. You work for forty years. You raise five children. You run the Neighbourhood Watch and the TRA. And then suddenly you are just a victim and that’s it.

‘They ain’t called.’
‘Nah, I thought they might have, but just in case.’
‘They ain’t called.’

‘They shoulda called.’

Pause. ‘Thanks,’ said Mrs Saldanha. ‘I real appreciate that.’

‘Thank you.’

They talked on. The Begum girl’s right of abode application had been knocked back again. They were doing something with the post office that had been boarded up the last six years. Aras Qureishi’s boy seemed to be doing alright at the law firm on Stockport Road.

After Mrs Rasahdi was gone to take the dog for a walk down the cycle paths, Mrs Saldanha finished her chapter of the Jilly Cooper book, marked her place with the sleeve, and went inside. It took fifteen minutes to get up the stairs to the bathroom and back down. She tied her scarf around her head, checked she had everything she needed and had done everything correctly, and left the house.
School holidays, and the 169 was full of kids being cheeky and messing around, but by this time only the silliest kid would have dared to cheek Mrs Saldanha or mess her around. She looked out of the window and marked the changes that were happening even now. More For Sale signs on the Princess Road semis. Another totalled bus station left a signature of sparkling blue dust. The Polish place on the Cavendish Road corner had its shutters down at three o’clock.
Normally she visited the Southern Cemetery on three calendar days: the nineteenth of January, the twenty-third of July, and Mother’s Day. This of course was a special occasion. Mrs Saldanha traced her steps to the stone, thinking about how this whole thing started, the pale and tentative woman courtside, and there had been some minister who had praised her after what she’d said, but to Mrs Saldanha her gesture hadn’t been about forgiveness or redemption or even the grace of God (although she did believe in God); she just couldn’t see the point of having this pain and horror extend any further.

She stood graveside for a long time. She moved when she remembered that they closed the gates these days, due to racist and anti-Semitic desecration, plus druggies stripping the metal for cash. Best to get going before the caretaker did his sweep.

Turning around brought a sharp pain above average. Through the trees the sky was still blue but somehow fragile looking, waiting to burst. And yet she’d lived with this condition long enough to know pain didn’t mean rain. Still, in the treelined air there were hovering points of phosphorescence where she tread, like the brightest stars of night in the day.

By Max Dunbar
http://maxdunbar.wordpress.com/

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Water under the bridge

From the lodge, it was a short walk along a mud and gravel path down to the riverbank. The temperature outside was pretty mild for the time of year all things considered, Old Frank observed, but those clouds look threatening. He pulled his rainhat further down over his brow, swept his index finger over his moustache, and pulled the wooden door shut behind him. As he did, he sent his rods clattering over onto the floor, and down the track, into the nettles beyond.
‘God shit it.’
Old Frank grunted from his diaphragm as he blundered down the path, after his equipment. As he reached his hand into the nettles to retrieve his rods, he held his face away from the plants, looking up to the sky as his fingers explored the undergrowth. He curled his fist around the cold, smooth plastic, and pulled out the bundle of rods.
‘Got you.’
Pausing to catch his breath, Old Frank looked down to where the riverbank curved below him.
‘Yep. As good as it gets.’
In a nearby willow tree, a bird responded: ‘Scooree, Scooree.’
A smile dispersed under the length of that moustache, and slowly, Old Frank made his way down the path.

Once he got down to the river, to his usual spot, he carefully placed his rods down and opened up his tackle box. His pink eyes swept the surface of the water, as his brain performed the necessary calculations that had become almost subliminal by now. He reached into his box, and retrieved the necessary weight, bait, float and hook to land a good one.
As he cast his first line in with a satisfying plop, Old Frank afforded himself a look around the valley: first downriver, then upriver, then across to the opposite bank, then back up behind him to his own lodge. He could hear the family next-door opening their sliding doors, and clattering out onto the balcony noisily. They were shouting to each other about breakfast, about their sleep, about their day.
Old Frank scowled, and then slumped into his camping chair. Last year, when he had come to the lodge, he had been the only one here. The adjacent holiday apartments were a new thing; an unwelcome blight on the previously unspoilt landscape. It wasn’t that Old Frank didn’t like children – he did. He was always polite to the family. Told them where to shop, where to take a walk. It’s just that this used to be his place, and now he had to share it.
He returned his focus to the flow of the river. Sticks and leaves floated past his gaze, then on downstream. ‘Ignore them Frank,’ he told himself, ‘this is your time. Private time. Time to reflect.’
The orange float danced on the moving currents, and Old Frank tried to think back to the time that he was a young man shouting to his kids over breakfast, but the memories wouldn’t come: too long ago, too long ago. His thoughts tuned out. The float bobbed. In the willow tree, the bird reminded him: ‘Scooree, scooree.’

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Take a chainsaw to our future plans

There we stood, you and I, in the rectangle of lawn, blinking up at our future plans which stretched infinitely out above us. You, with a chainsaw hanging from your fists; me holding garden shears, twitching, overwhelmed.

Our future plans had been left to grow unhindered, and now branches forked and sprouted in confident fractals. For quite some time now, I had known that I had to do something about them. Birds were nesting in them. One branch of future possibility (the idea of working abroad for a year) almost reached the side of my house. It could cause structural damage and invite squirrels, you said.

We set to work. You tied the ladder to the trunk of our future plans, and then lodged yourself amidst the branches. I climbed the ladder to pass you the chainsaw, and then stood back to watch your artistry. One by one the boughs of our future plans fell to the ground: plans to
write, plans to emigrate, plans for our children dropped and covered the rectangle of lawn. A sawdust of ideas never dreamt snowed down over my head and garden furniture.

When we reached the branch that contained my gap-year plans we paused to take stock of the situation. The branch was pointing in the wrong direction. Whichever way it was cut, it was going to fall towards the house. We didn’t have a rope that we could use to direct the fall, so
we came up with a plan: as you sawed the branch, I would push against it using a ladder with all my might, therefore encouraging the branch in the right direction. It was worth a try: you sawed, I pushed. Nothing.

So you sawed a little more. This time, the future plan creaked and I began to feel the force of it looming down above me, threatening to fall. It was at this point that I spotted the flaw in our plan.

‘It’s leaning towards me.’
‘Push back. Harder.’
‘I can’t.’
‘OK,’ you paused momentarily, reviewing our options, ‘I think that you need to put the ladder down, carefully, and run away.’ Unquestioningly, I did as I was told. As I ran, my future plan crashed down behind me, mauling my TV aerial threateningly as it went. So it went on, all through the afternoon. Sometimes the plans fell in my garden, sometimes they fell over the neighbours' fence, and I would retrieve them. Eventually, you climbed back down the ladders, and we stood once again, you and I, looking up at our future plans, now trimmed back to much more manageable trunks. I felt relieved, but still you sought to reassure me: ‘They’ll grow back.’
‘I know.’
Our focus then shifted down to the ground where the now amputated plans lay in random, angular, bifurcated piles as deep as our hips. Neither of us spoke, but clearly the thought occurred to us at the same moment: ‘What are we gonna do with all this stuff?’


Thursday, 8 July 2010

Blank canvas

A blank canvas stood, as it had for the last two years, on an easel in Guy’s front room. Guy held the sable brush across his top lip and frowned at the empty white space before him. His shoulders dropped a little as he realised that he had nothing. The inspiration the he had been waiting for was a train that would never arrive. Resigned, he put down the brush, and walked away. Maybe I should try something else, he thought, maybe I should write. How hard can that be?
With a beep and a grinding whirr, Guy started his old PC which lay beneath a frosting of dust and A4 paper in the spare room. For inspiration, Guy picked up an old paperback and flicked through the pages while the computer slowly booted up.
When the PC was finally ready, Guy opened a Word document, and for the second time today was confronted with an intimidating blank white sheet. He remembered hearing that, in his later years, Kingsley Amis would refuse to read anything that didn't begin with the words ‘A shot rang out.’ This seemed as good a place as any to start, so, using only his two index fingers, Guy tentatively poked the words onto the monitor in Times New Roman, font size 12:
‘A shot rang out.’
Satisfied with his beginning, Guy paused to reread his work: Yeh. This is good stuff. He was about to continue, when the words of another Amis (this time his son, Martin) came to mind: ‘A war on cliché’ - hmmm. Perhaps his opening was a little clichéd. And maybe it lacked description – an adverb might be useful. Guy moved his cursor back to the beginning, and changed the sentence:
‘Exquisitely, a shot rang out.’
Still not quite right. The ‘rang’ is wrong. With a click of the mouse, Guy returned to the sentence:
‘Exquisitely, a shot shot out.’
But it needs some conflict in there. Something to pique the reader’s attention:
‘Exquisitely, a shot shot sexily out’
Well, sex sells, he thought. He looked up once again at the sentence and sighed, realising that he was wasting his time. As a first sentence, it was fairly incomprehensible, and (he saw now) he had used the word ‘shot’ twice. Without even saving his work, he switched off the old PC at the wall, and left the room.


When he left his job two months ago people said that this would be the making of him. It would give him the space that he needed to create again. Time stretched ahead of him indefinitely, promisingly. Excited by his new freedom, he had left the office on his final day and rushed straight to the art supplies shop to buy a canvas - the canvas, still blank, that he now confronted once again in his front room. Guy tentatively picked up his paintbrush. Suddenly, a shot rang out.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Bait ball

The cerulean sea sparkled as the late afternoon sun sank lazily back into its chair. A voice from the loudspeaker drifted in and out as the wind blew it across deck. Trey had given up trying to tune his attention to it anyway. Right in front of them, a dolphin curled an arch above the water, then slipped back into its depths. The rest of the boat passengers cooed with amazement. Trey lowered the camcorder from his face.
‘So what’s the plan for tomorrow?’ he asked.
Sally looked blankly at him: ‘No plan. There was a group of Swiss girls back at the dorm that are moving down to Christchurch tomorrow. We could tag along with them.’
‘Yeh. We could. I dunno. I’m keen to get to the mountains. Get away from it all, y’know? I just feel the need to be away from people for a while.’
The speaker crackled and flanged behind them: ‘…out to the Pacific Ocean, where the pod will…
‘Well, we don’t have to go to Christchurch. It was just a suggestion.’
‘I just think that this was supposed to be an escape, y’know? Limitless possibilities: go wherever we want to go, do whatever we want to do. But instead I feel like we’re being herded from one tourist trap to another; kept in orderly lines. It’s like I’m experiencing the world, but it’s a sanitized version. A hypo-allergenic, PG rated edit.’
‘…can exceed one thousand. This super-pod will remain…
‘OK well let’s get off the tourist trail. Here…’
Sally took a map from her backpack and began to unfold it on the bench behind them. Trey rolled his eyes.
‘…we’re here, right?’ Sally looked up to check that she had his attention: ‘Where do you want to go? You choose. Any direction, any distance. We can hop on the bus, or we could look into hiring a car. If you want to get completely off the matrix, we should just put our bags on our back and just walk. Just keep walking until we find somewhere we like. We’ve got sleeping bags, the weather is fine: we could just wild camp somewhere.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Come on! You’re the one moaning that we don’t have adventures. I’m offering it to you now. Let’s go! Forget the Lonely Planet guides, just choose somewhere that looks cool on the map and let’s just go.’
Trey looked out towards the green hills that rose from the sea with impossible geometry. The footpaths and lanes beyond them beckoned him, tempted him with a siren’s song. He turned back to Sally, opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Sally looked at him expectantly.
‘Maybe,’ he answered, ‘we should just move on to Christchurch with the rest of the gang.’
‘…a pod will control a school of fish while individual members take turns ploughing through the school, feeding. The tightly packed school of fish is commonly known as a bait ball.’

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Moving images of you, which exist without your knowledge

Without your knowledge or consent, a small collection of video footage exists. The clips vary in their quality, and depict you from the age of nine to the present day. Uncatalogued and widely dispersed, you will never see these films, and this is just as it should be.
On the memory card of a mobile phone, now unused in a kitchen drawer, you eternally perform karaoke. In the footage you show an uncharacteristic lack of reserve, emboldened by drink and the sounds of the Sex Pistols.
At a Fiesta, in a village in Spain, you were once interviewed by the local news crew. Remember? Your attempts at Spanish were dire; you were aware at the time. Delivered with enough conviction to impress your family, but hilarious to the natives. A man named Sal92 was so amused by your nonsensical ramblings that he posted the clip on Youtube, where it has received a not immodest 4991 hits to date.
Various camcorder footage, on VHS and DVD sits in cupboards, TV units and bookshelves across the country. Old friends, ex-lovers, and your mother never watch them anymore, but can’t quite bring themselves to throw them out.
But the most violating of them all is the footage displayed above the reception desk of a college that you once attended. You were so young then, and you stood apart from the world. You didn’t feel as though you were a part of anything. Rather, everything was against you, and you against it. It was a gloriously happy time, this life of rebellion. The ‘not-fitting-in’ was a badge that you wore with pride: the outsider, the rebel. However, this clip does not reflect your unique other-ness: on a college trip to EuroDisney, you stand in front of a parade, dancing like a chicken. Unbeknown to you, this clip has been added to a promotional video for the college. A Feel-Good, Make You Proud commercial designed to show happy, achieving students. The video was used on the college website, and at recruitment drives where your antics regularly induced a titter from the students present.
Now a little dated, the clip is played on a loop through a large flat-screen TV in the reception area of the college. On and on it goes ad infinitum, and each day, a weary and embittered librarian walks past your image, and he sees you parading around like that, and every morning, without ever knowing you, he curses you under his breath.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A Box within a box

Quite a spectacle I must have presented to Mrs Callow, the housekeeper, as I stood at the doorway of the Fairfax home dripping with the evening's vagaries. She ushered me in, and bade me sit down by the kitchen fireside while she fetched blankets. She apologised that the master was not in residence that day, and feared that I had wasted my journey. I entreated her to sit with me a while, perhaps she could help me in my quest. With some amount of cajoling, she finally acquiesced, and her tongue required little loosening once the subject of Master Fairfax's bride was raised.
‘Rangy was she, an' fair too; on a good day, she could command the eyes of many a Gloucester gent about town. Yet there was somethin' about 'er as was cold – in her nature, see? Of all the time I spent with my lady ne'er a conversation did we have. Some say as it was 'er austere nature that led to their comeuppance. All's I'll say is: he were never truly happy since their wedding day. Oh Sir! Sure enough, he loved ‘er, but his whole countenance did change on that fateful day, and still we all wait in vain for the sunshine to return to his cheek. He was such a lovely boy; so full of joy and mischief. Sometimes I fear that the Devil 'imself took his soul on that day: such was the change!
'Once herself had gone – aye, and taken a good piece of his heart with her, he set sail Sir: bound for Italy, and a new life. Still, Mr Cottersgill and I stayed here, tending the house and gardens ready for his return. Occasionally, he would send word back. The letters would always be addressed to my lady, but, I'm ashamed to say Sir, that we did read them, Mr Cottersgill and I. Only because we were so sure in our belief that she was never to return - and we were ever so worried about his wayfaring, see? T'was only in master's interests that we broke his confidence.’
‘Do you still possess any of these missives?’ asked I.
‘Sir I do,’ she replied, and fumbling in a desk-drawer, retrieved a tea-stained letter that she proceeded to unfold in front of me, ‘and this 'un is the most troublin' of the lot.
‘“My Dearest Isabel,” it begins, as they all do, “I write to thee in the fervent hope that you have returned to Tibberton, and await my return. Though I am far away, the thought of your winsome visage sustains me and gives me the will to go on. Italy is a verdant and fecund land; rolling mountains and groves of olives abound. The natives are civilized, to a degree, and for the most part, welcoming. During the days here, I travel from town to town with a trusty asino to aide me. During the evenings, I satiate my hunger with simple bread, cheese and vino, and then slip into slumber in dreams of you. The other night, my dreams were of a most disturbed nature: In my reveries, I was myself, and yet not myself, living in a future world in which menacing iron coaches dominated the roads, and great castles of glass and steel loomed vertiginously towards the heavens. In this fantasy, I sat at a desk on the third floor of such a tower. In front of me was a magical looking-glass that was a portal to the world. Using a tool made of some unearthly material, I could seek information on this looking-glass, and the whole of human history and thought was there before me. Despite this bounty of knowledge, I was weary of the machine, and chose instead to bide my time writing stories under the adopted nom-de-plume of Xianjon. I held my hands like a pianist over the looking-glass tool, and as my fingers danced, the words appeared on the glass before me:
‘“The parcel had remained on my table since lunchtime. Though I had an idea what the contents would be, I had stopped myself from opening. Each time I passed the table, the cardboard box coquettishly winked at me, and beckoned me over. Eventually, I could resist its overtures no longer. Digging my house keys from my trouser pocket, I scored the tape that sealed the parcel, and eagerly opened the flaps to reveal – another box; identical to the first box, only smaller. I slid this second box from its parent, and rotated it in my hands. No clue was evident, so I repeated the same action, slitting the shiny tape again to reveal the content, which was – another box. Feeling that I had encountered the least decorative Matryoshka ever, again I slipped the box from its sleeve, and cut it open to confirm my suspicion that it contained only another box. At this point I paused to review my options. It is very likely, I thought, that this will continue for some time. I will open a box to reveal another box, and so on, ad infinitum. The alternative is that I could place the box back on the table, and dispose of the already opened containers. Caught in this limbo, I weighed the contents of the parcel in my hand, unsure of how to proceed.
‘“The dream is most unusual is it not? And so vividly realised were all the details that it seemed to be true. Perhaps it is prescient in some way, though I know not what it means. I send you all my love, and hope and pray for your health and your happiness. Until the day that we can be together again, I remain eternally yours, Edmund Fairfax.”
‘And there it ends Sir,’ Mrs Cotterill folded the letter in her lap and looked towards me, a state of puzzlement across her brow, ‘I know nothing more of his travels, and since his return, there has been no mention of these dreams. I am only grateful that return he did, in spite of it all.’
‘Indeed.’ I replied, crossing over to the kitchen window to survey the weather conditions outside.
‘Mrs Cotterill, I thank you most graciously for your assistance. As the rain has subdued now, I must take my leave. There is no need to see me out. Good day.’
I placed my hat upon my head and made my way out to the desolate landscape that surrounds us.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Saracen

The sun torched the red clay earth as the traveller arrived, walking the old goat trail from the south. The children playing in the hills that surround the pueblo blanco were the first to spot him. As with all the villagers, the children were insular by nature, and so chose not approach the man. Instead, they hurried back to the main square to forewarn the adults.
By the time that the stranger reached the edge of the village, a welcome committee had formed; scythes, swords and whatever they could improvise as a weapon in their hands. Their unblinking eyes followed his faltering gait until he reached their perimeter, and could proceed no further.
In the centre of the crowd stood the priest - a tall imposing figure, now somewhat sallow and stooped with old age, he stood out as the figurehead of the group.
‘Where goest thou, saracen?’
The man, swarthy-skinned, barefoot and dressed in rags, kept his head down. The priest waited patiently for an answer. When it was clear that no answer was forthcoming, he directed his parish to herd the traveller to the church doors. The villagers encircled the man. A sharp poke in his back from a broom-handle was sufficient to reanimate him, and together they began the walk to the plaza mayor. Once there, the old priest stood directly in front of the traveller, looked into his eyes, then without a word, turned his back on him and entered the cool air of the church alone. The villagers shuffled on their feet, unsure what to do without instruction from their leader, but the man understood: he limped through the church doors, and took a seat next to the priest at the front of the chapel.
‘This is a Christian land, traveller - a land in which other religions are not tolerated. Do you understand me? Can you speak Spanish?’
The man faced forward, his eyes drawn to the effulgent monstrance above the altar. Suddenly, he replied: ‘Padre, forgive me my sins.’
Taken aback by the man’s faultless accent, the Priest raised his villous brow: ‘You wish to confess?’
At this, the man rose to his feet, and began shuffling towards the altar. As he did, the rest of the villagers (who had so far remained at the door of the church) surged forwards, to make their scrutiny known. The priest tamed them with a limp hand, half-raised, and they came to a stop.
‘Tell me your sins my child.’
The man slowly made his way around the altar, then reached above his head to take hold of the monstrance - a jagged shining sunburst of gold and glass. Still, the priest remained seated. In the centre-bubble of the vessel, a splinter of wood was suspended. The man held this to his eye.
‘An original splinter,’ the priest explained, ‘from the crucifix of Our Lord’
The stranger could contain his rage no longer: ‘FALSEHOODS! Duplicity! Dogma! This institution is crooked, and you make trade in the gullibility of your community! This I know. This I KNOW!’ Raising the monstrance above his head, the man continued, ‘Your precious relics are empty promises! I can only…’
Suddenly the man stopped. His whole face contorted as his mouth opened, and his chin seemed to sink back into his neck. He held up his free hand to cover his expression, and in a voice suffocated by his restricted respiration he explained, ‘I’m going to sneeze.’
He looked away from the priest and waved his hand, to indicate that his spectatorship was inhibiting the sneeze from arriving. The priest though, was unable to shift his gaze from this now convulsing, wildly gesticulating figure. Violently, the sneeze exploded from the man’s face in a great ‘KZIAUW!’
The man, subdued by his ejaculation, looked guiltily back up at the priest, who by now was smiling beatifically upon his subject.
‘Bless you,’ he said.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Early experiments in jet propulsion - the results

So the cans exploded. Well, I guess we knew that would happen. Hoped it would happen maybe. Even a ten year old knows the inherent dangers of playing with aerosols and bonfires. But wow! You should have seen it go. I mean, I’m not advising that anyone should try this at home (for obvious reasons), but it was really something.
Sally and I had been friends for a couple of years. She was (and still is) a little older than me, so you could say that it was a kind of mentor/protégé relationship that we had. She was a tomboy - hair cut short in a bowl, gingham shirts and flared jeans. Last I heard she had shacked up with an Indonesian man, and was fast squeezing out puppies in a suburban yawn somewhere. Life sucks in the very best of us.
We’d taken to hanging out by an old slag heap, Sally and me. We’d do the usual kid stuff - build ramps, race go-carts, torture Barbie dolls. Anyway, I can’t remember who had the original idea. In fact, now I think about it, they were two separate ideas that occurred at the same time, so maybe we’re both to blame. The first idea was: we could make this toy jeep go faster if we attached an aerosol to the back of it, and lit it on fire. The second tangentially related idea was: let’s build a bonfire.
You can see where this is going. And I guess that this is the part of the story where we need to introduce my kid brother, Drew. When you’re ten years old, you don’t want to hang out with a four-year-old. But on those long summer days, we would be bundled out of the house together, and Drew would just follow me around. He never spoke a word. I mean, he wasn’t an elective mute or anything. Just shy I guess. So Sally and I began the walk to the slag heap as usual, with me carrying a can of Sure deodorant, an Action Man jeep and a roll of parcel tape, Sally with a tin of Silvikrin hairspray and a box of matches, and Drew just silently tailing behind like a dog on wheels.
Our attempts at rocket-science failed. We couldn’t get the tape to hold down the nozzle for a continuous spray. Even Sally was too nervous to actually hold the can and light it. So we gave up on our propulsion system and set to work building a fire, using whatever we could find lying around. Once we got a fire burning, that’s when Sally started waving around the canisters, dancing around the fire and laughing like a madwoman. It was pretty funny.
We taped the two aerosols to the back of the jeep, and then Sally pushed the jeep pretty fast into the fire. It was a perfect punt: the jeep parked itself directly in the middle of the flames. There was a pause of a few seconds and then a deafening CRA-CRACK as both cans exploded. There was a flash of light, and bits of debris flew out of the fire all around us. We covered our heads in our hands, Sally and I, and as the dust settled, I looked up at Sally with a stupid grin.
‘ARE YOU OK?’
‘I’M FINE – YOU?’
‘Yeh’
Then, suddenly, the smile dropped from my face.
‘Where’s Drew?’
The smoke above the fire leaned to accommodate our view, and there on the other side was Drew. Embedded in his cheek was a triangular shard of metal, curled like a lazy Dorito. A single line of blood ran from the shrapnel down his face and onto his shirt.
We both ran over to him, and he just looked at us – too stunned to cry. Sally squatted down to Drew’s height and slowly reached her hand up to his face. As she did, the clouds opened above us, and a magical unicorn flew down from the sky. As the unicorn landed, she enveloped the three of us in her golden wings, and for a moment, everything was calm. Just for that second, there were no pretences, and we could all be exactly who we were, and we were comforted and happy. Everything was going to be OK.


Just for the record – this is not the way that Drew ends the story. When Drew tells this tale (and he does – often) he points to the scar on his cheek and, in a really melodramatic way he says:
‘And if this had been just an inch higher…’
And he just hangs it there, and looks at me accusingly.
Never even mentions the fucking unicorn.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A hole that cannot be filled

There’s a KrispyKreme donut store a block from my apartment. It’s a part of my morning routine that I pick up a paper then make my way to KrispyKreme for a coffee and a donut. It’s not classy, I know, but the coffee is actually pretty good, and it’s cheaper than Starbucks. So anyway, the other morning (about a month ago) I’m sitting in my usual seat, slurping my way through my usual latte, minding my own business. As I finish the coffee, I pick up the napkin to wipe my mouth. As I do, I notice something written in blue pen on the napkin. I unfold it and sure enough, scrawled on there is the message ‘Yum! KrispyKreme donuts – now also available in Styrofoam flavour.’
‘That’s weird,’ I think. But, y’know, Vancouver is full of weird people, so I think no more about it. About four days later, the same thing: I finish my donut, pick up the napkin and notice the blue ink. Again, I open up the napkin, and there inside is the message ‘You look amazing today! Beige is absolutely your colour.’
Now, this is odd, because this time the message did seem directed at me. When I look down to check what I’m wearing, sure enough I’ve teamed up a pair of light-brown cargo pants with a tan t-shirt. It did look kind of beige, and kind of wrong. But who the hell is watching me, and then writing messages in napkins for me to read? It made me feel kind of paranoid, if you want to know the truth.
So now I’m at the stage where every morning, I’m still making my way to KrispyKreme, but I’m flicking through the napkins in advance of picking one up, and I’m eyeing everyone in the store suspiciously – the counter staff, the people eating in there – everyone. I could just go somewhere else for my coffee, I know, but to be honest, I’m kind of hoping that it’ll happen again. For three weeks, nothing. Then this morning, I’m sat there just finishing the dregs of my coffee, when I realise I haven’t pre-screened my napkin. I open up the tissue-paper and there inside is the most bespoke message yet. Inside the napkin, I swear to God, it says ‘The emptiness you feel inside since she left you is permanent. This is a hole that cannot be filled with donuts.’
Right? So I’m thinking ‘Fuck!’ I’m looking frantically around the store and I see a young guy over by the counter, and the guy parts the pile of fresh napkins in the middle, slips another napkin in there, and then turns to leave. As he walks out of the door, he glances over in my direction, but sees that I’m still watching him, so switches his gaze, and pushes his way out of the store. So now I’m faced with a dilemma. I’m convinced that this is the guy, but what do I do? My instinct is to go after him, but if I catch him, what then?
Before I know what I’ve done I’m up out of my seat, and out the door in pursuit. I see him there, walking down 72nd. For a while, I just stay behind him, taking it all in, wondering what I’m going to say. He’s a young white guy, tall with a gangly gait and messy hair. As he walks, he’s coughing and sniffing. He seems completely oblivious to me following him. As he gets to the corner of 72nd and 116th Street I shout ‘Hey!’ at him and he turns round.
‘Are you messing with me? You think that’s funny? Leaving stupid little messages for me? Grow up!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about man. Maybe you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.’
I try to measure his reaction, but he does seem kind of genuine. He looks confused, and a little hurt. He makes this move where he reverses away from me, then slowly turns down 116th St. glancing behind him and wiping his nose as he goes.
So I’m thinking ‘Damn!’ That was probably the guy, but what can I do? He says he didn’t do it, and I don’t really have any proof that he did. So I turn back around, and start making my way to the bus-stop to get to work. Only when I’m actually on the bus does it occur to me: As I saw the guy walk away, he threw a tissue (or it could have been a napkin) on the floor. And I’m thinking ‘It’s another message,’ then, ‘No, no, it’s probably nothing. But it could be another message…’
In the end, I have to find out. I get off the bus, and walk the four blocks back to where I left him. I’m scouring the sidewalk, trying to find this goddam piece of tissue paper, which is probably nothing, and which is making me late for work. Eventually, I see a KrispyKreme napkin blowing in the breeze by a garage door. I run over and snatch it, hesitating before I open it, imagining that it’s going to contain some perfect pearl of wisdom that will answer everything.
In fact, it contains a pearl of the guy’s snot. He just blew his nose on it. But the weird thing is, I don’t just drop it immediately, I stare at it, and for the longest time, I imagine that the green streaks form a picture: A perfect likeness of your face. And I think ‘It’s another clue!’

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Strangers

Dear Raymond Chandler:

I would like to personally thank you for the work that you have put in to our screenplay ‘Strangers on a train’. I have made a number of annotations on the enclosed draft which I would be grateful if you would consider. In particular, you appear to have made a number of plot changes which I would consider important to the original story.
I value your involvement in our movie, and I hope to hear from you with a revised script by end September.

Sincerely,
Alfred J. Hitchcock

***************************

Alfred,

Listen - you can take it or leave it. I’m tired of this shit. There’s only so much that I can do with the raw material. If you really want to know – I’m not crazy about the story. The whole premise is implausible. In order for a story to work – even a dumb murder story – the situation needs to be based in the Real. Also, I don’t buy the Bruno character.
How about this for a story instead: Two strangers meet on a train, fall in love. Years pass by in alternating waves of happiness and misery. The daily drudge is shown in all its detail - they get up in the morning, they eat toast, they go to work, they come home. After forty years NOTHING HAPPENS. She dies. Then he dies. So it goes.

You know what? Ask Dashiell Hammett instead. He’d love it.

Yours,
Ray.

****************************

Dear Raymond Chandler:

Your services will no longer be required on the screenplay of ‘Strangers on a train’.

Sincerely,
Marion Price
Secretary of Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, INC

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The transformative power of chlorinated water

It has been, she reflects while entering the leisure centre with a towel rolled beneath her arm, about ten years since she last swam. Can that be right? Ten years? Well, yes it must be, because she hasn’t been swimming since the children arrived. I mean, she has been in a swimming pool with the kids, of course, of course. But then she never actually gets a chance to swim. And she used to be such a graceful swimmer in her youth. Even into her twenties, she would regularly visit the pool, and knock out 40 lengths, alternating between backstroke, breaststroke and crawl. People often commented on the elegance of her stroke - creating not a ripple as she powered through the water.
So it is with no small excitement that she receives her locker token from the reception desk and makes her way to the changing rooms. All this is different, she notes. The changing rooms used to be over there, she decides. Settling on the middle of three cubicles, she undresses methodically, placing the removed clothing in a neat pile. She unrolls her towel to reveal a threadbare one-piece costume that she has had for years. I’ll need to buy a new costume, she resolves. Finally, having wrestled with the locker, and fastened the key to her wrist, she walks through the showers area to the pool. No footbath, she notices. Whatever happened to footbaths? They always seemed rather insanitary anyway.
Wasting no time, she makes her way to the closest corner of the pool, and jumps feet-first into the water. The water temperature immediately surrounds her, and for a moment it is amniotic - she is suspended, at one with the pool. Then she surfaces, inhales, and kicks against the turquoise tiles to propel herself forwards into a breaststroke. About halfway along her first length, she thinks: this is hurting my thighs. This never used to hurt. Towards the end of her second length she realises that she is wheezing – gulping for breath. She reaches the end of the pool and awards herself a rest. She checks the time on the oversized wall clock: 8.15. Okay. Let’s aim for 20 lengths, she thinks.
Fingers cramped together, arms outstretched, then pushed out to the side, and then cupped into her torso as her legs thrust her forward and arms shoot out ahead. Suddenly, she has found her rhythm, and once again she is seventeen years old. As she glides through the water she feels the sunshine and the admiring eyes of the spectators on her back. As she approaches the end of the pool, she folds under herself, pulling off a perfect turn and shooting like a torpedo through the water, leaving a wake behind her. Now, she is nine years old and competing for the county in a regional championship. On a raised platform to her side her dad is jumping to his feet, shouting her name and cheering.
Lost in her reminiscence, she lifts her head from the water, mistimes her breath, and inhales a glug of the chemical-tasting water, right down to her lungs. She grabs the side of the pool, coughing, spluttering and wheezing. Once she has calmed down and regained her breath, she glances around the pool to see if anyone noticed. The other swimmers are gallant enough to look away, but she knows that they have seen her faux-pas, because she once again inhabits the shape of a 40-year-old mother in a tatty red bathing suit.
That’s about 20 lengths, she concludes, and exits the pool.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

After the eruption

With a little more trepidation than usual, the MD took his place behind the lectern, and scanned his eyes over the workforce before him. A natural hush descended over the room, and taking this as his cue, the MD began his address.
‘Thank you all for coming. I’ll try not to keep you too long – I’m hoping this meeting will be finished by six.’
He glanced at his thumb, which pressed the main button of a remote control, opening the first of his Powerpoint slides on a screen behind him. Two hundred heads shifted their gaze ten degrees upwards (glad of something else to focus on).
‘As you are aware, funding has been reduced for the next financial year 2010-11, and… coupled with this factor, an agreed salary point increase of 2.2% has meant increased costs for the company… Erm… I’ll come back to those figures later’.
The workers noticed something different about his delivery: the pauses, the awkwardness. They sensed that something was wrong.
Beneath the earth’s surface, magma bubbled impatiently, and (having found a weak spot 500 miles west of the MD’s presentation) suddenly, violently thundered its way through the earth’s crust erupting through sheets of ice and water, shooting 150 metres into the air. As the magma met the ice, a sulphurous ash cloud plumed from the crater and rose up, up into the atmosphere.
‘…There is no way that the company can sustain this expansion with current staffing levels. A full staff review process will begin this week. I will be speaking to each of you personally to discuss how your role will change. You will receive an email tonight with details of your appointment, which will happen over the next two days…’
They knew what was coming - redundancies. The word transmitted telepathically around the room, bouncing from head to head: Redundancies, redundancies. The workers stared at the screen, stoney-faced. At the end of his presentation, the MD invited questions from his audience, but there were none. The workers were stunned, beaten into submission. Silently, orderly, they made their way out of the auditorium, and into their cars for the lonely journey home.
That night, as the workers lay awake in their beds performing mental calculations, the ash cloud drifted slowly towards them, grounding flights and confounding meteorologists as it crept.

Each appointment followed the same format. The worker would be shown into a room which already contained the head of HR, the MD, and a shadowy unknown individual. The MD would let the worker know that their position no longer existed. There would be other new positions created which the worker would be encouraged to apply for. The meeting was very matter-of-fact. There were no personal touches, no ‘thanks for all your hard work’. At the end of each meeting, the worker was informed that they would receive a letter confirming all that they had discussed by the end of the week, and they were shown the door.
As the workers left that day a fine mist of ash floated down upon them, covering their cars with white speckles. A dry, dead confetti that they could taste as they inhaled.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Singapore check-in

The door closed behind me, and I looked around my silent hotel room, taking it all in. Plastic windows, air-conditioning unit, walls of cream and white, veneered furniture. Idly, I picked up an information leaflet from the bedside table and read the introductory paragraph.
‘A warm welcome to Singapore’s premier business hotel located centrally in The Downtown Core. From the moment that you arrive, a pleasant and relaxing stay is ensured. Our helpful and friendly staff will provide you with a most enjoyable check-in experience. Every room is complete with cable TV and en-suite.’

I skipped back to the part about the check-in experience. I can’t say that the check-in was enjoyable. It wasn’t unpleasant. It wasn’t even an ‘experience’ really. I just showed my passport, and they gave me a room key.

The TV in the room hung on an aluminium cradle from the wall at head-height. There was no reception. I flipped around using the remote for a while, but the result was 99 channels of white noise.

I realised that I would have to make a call to reception to report the fault. In situations like this, I often rehearse the conversation in my head beforehand, playing both parts, to ensure that no leftfield question from my interlocutor will leave me without an answer. For example:
The Mountjoy Hotel. How my I help you?
My name is Richard Parkes. I am in Room 106. My TV isn’t working. It will switch on, but there’s no reception.
Very well sir. I shall send someone up to take a look. Is there anything else I can help you with today?
Well… also, the brochure promised an enjoyable check-in experience, but it was actually a very normal check-in experience. There was nothing enjoyable about it.
Enjoyment, like happiness, is subjective. When were you ever truly happy?

Foxed by this line of questioning from my own subconscious, I had to think for a moment. Suddenly, as real as if it were playing on Youtube in front of me, an image formed in my mind of myself, aged 7, leaning back upon a horizontal stick, suspended from a rope attached to the high branch of a gnarled oak tree. The rope was taut, creating a promising hypotenuse with which I could swing over the sparking canal at the bottom of the bank. I edged even further back until I was forced to my tip-toes, and the rope willed me to submit to its intended trajectory. Unable to hold out any longer, I lifted my plimsolls and rushed at enormous speed towards the water beneath. Fairly skimming the surface, and screaming as I flew, I reached up towards the vernal sun, froze for a moment in suspended animation, and then back, back to the water, back to the bank, back to my tip-toes on the muddy shore. Heart-beating, throat raw from screaming, and out of breath: That. That was happiness.

I sat down near the head of the bed, my hand poised ready to snatch the telephone and dial. But then I reflected: that is not a normal answer. If the hotel receptionist asks me when I was happiest, I can’t go in to the details of a once-forgotten rope-swing. That would not be the answer of an educated professional. The correct answer would be the birth of my son, or my wedding day.

Satisfied that I had fully explored the avenues of possible conversation, and feeling more confident, I picked up the handset and hit the zero key.
‘Reception.’
‘Hello… I’m… Room 106… The telly doesn’t work.’
‘Okay.’
The receptionist hung up, leaving only a sustained binary tone in my ear. I continued to hold the phone to my ear, and into the dead receiver, I mouthed the words over and over again: ‘On my wedding day… On my wedding day…On my wedding day…’

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Jaipur

Dust and stone in vertiginous shoots,
Illuminated pink against the dusk.
Half-drunk and lost, we cruise the streets,
that crawl and slither beneath us.
At knee-height, traders ply their wares:
Marigolds and glittered decals of deities.
In an attempt to interact,
I pay too much for a Ganesh.

Once back in our hotel,
I unfurl it on the cover of my journal.
Inside I write an imperfect haiku:
Jaipur is mental,
To the Amber Fort tomorrow!
Will write more then.


I close the book and lie back on the bed,
Exhausted and overwhelmed.
Green
in
Pink.


I'll be offline for the next couple of weeks (on holiday), but will be back with more needless words in April. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Last day of Planet Earth

On the very last day of planet Earth, the bubbling oceans released great whorls of toxic gas into the atmosphere. Cracks became fissures became canyons. Each canyon flowing with lava; smoking, spitting and bubbling as it travelled. Blackened trees, stripped of their leaves, still stood: eerie witnesses to this apocalypse. In the skies, no birds flew. In the oceans, no fish swam. Yet at the very precipice of a blood-red ravine in California stood the last two remaining humans – Adam and Steve.
‘Well. Looks like this is it.’

Distractedly: ‘Mmm.’

‘Yep. This is probably it. The big finale, el Fin Del Mundo… Steve, what do you think has been the greatest achievement of the human race over the last 200,000 years, or whatever? I mean – what do you think will be our legacy once we’re all gone?’

‘I don’t know. I’m tired, to be honest. I had a long day. I had another run-in with my boss.’

‘I mean, I know that we made all these amazing advancements in technology, and that there’s this whole virtual world full of stuff. But all of that is probably lost now. It was so important, and yet so fragile. There’s probably nothing left now. No such thing as the internet.’

‘The thing is, he’s supposed to be my line manager, but he doesn’t even understand what my job is. I really think that he has no idea. Christ knows how he managed to get to senior level. It’s true what they say: shit floats.’

‘Probably our one last remaining testament to be found by future archaeologists will be our shopping malls. Underneath all the rubble and the rock, they’ll find a still-intact out-of-town mall spreading out for miles and miles. The faux-Grecian stuccos and columns perfectly preserved in carbon.’

‘Anyway, he’s probably dead now. I don’t know why I’m worrying. Why should I give him the satisfaction? Do you know that he refused my holiday request for Spring Break? No reason given. The paper just turned up on my desk: Your request has been refused.’

‘The future archaeologists and historians will hypothesise what these enormous structures were for. They’ll probably think they’re some kind of temple. A multi-denominational temple worshipping the Gods of Gap and Starbucks.’ Pleased with his observational humour, Adam allowed himself a snigger. He turned to Steve, but Steve was still brooding, still self-involved.

Suddenly, with a rumble and a burp (like Ouroboros - the metaphorical snake that ate its own tail), the Earth swallowed itself. The result of the implosion was a black-hole - large and powerful enough to ensure that, even in its absence, the Earth could continue to hoover up anything positive or useful from the galaxy for another million years.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Gravity Curves

The International Spacetime Investigation Committee (ISIC) had politely asked Peter Strondike to leave five years previously. Though a gifted physicist, Peter was considered ‘Not a Team Player’ by the group. In fact, his single-mindedness in the pursuit of time travel enraged other committee members. At the ISIC Annual Conference 2026, Peter had created a laughing stock of the group’s achievements with his presentation ‘Gravity curves: an exploration of Gravitational Fields and Time Travel’.
‘Regretfully I must ask for your resignation from the Committee,’ wrote the then-president Carl Walson PhD, ‘We thank you for all your contributions… you have been an asset to the development of ISIC…’
Five years later, the words of this missive were still imprinted on Peter’s brain. But his rejection had ultimately been the catalyst to spur on his own experiments. Peter preferred to work alone anyway. In fact, he preferred to do pretty much everything alone: Eat alone, live alone, sleep alone. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than another human about the place; cluttering things up, demanding attention, making conversation. Yuck.
There was really never any doubt to Peter that he would achieve time travel anyway. His whole life had built to this; from tinkering with rockets as a boy, to his Doctorate in Physics at Bern University, to his development (from the conception) of ISIC. As he sat in his workshop, he idly dreamed of the first journey he would make when his machine was finally complete. A few clichés would be necessary: The removal of Adolf Hitler would be top of the list, the prevention of the discovery of Nuclear Weapons, perhaps he could smuggle back a couple of modern-day vaccines? And for his own personal gratification: an encounter with Albert Einstein would be hard to beat.
With the discovery of a new element Marinovium (atomic number 278), the final piece to Peter’s interdimensional jigsaw had arrived. With trepidation, Peter stepped into his machine, closed the motor actuated vacuum door, and held his fingers static above the virtual keyboard. Suddenly, all of Peter’s noble intentions to better the history of the world deserted him. Before he even knew what he had done, his fingers had keyed in the date 11th March 1984, and the place: Swindon Community Youth Club. With a flash and a baritone howl, the machine (pregnant with Peter) embarked on its maiden voyage.

Feeling woozy, Peter clambered out of the vessel, and made his way into the centre. All around him, groups of young teenagers noisily huddled, playing ping-pong, listening to music. Peter edged to the far corner of the room where he found the reason for his journey. Sat together around a table were Simon Vee (an older teenager, covered in acne and socially awkward), Fiona Shaw (the object of Peter’s teenage affections – his first crush), and a 14-year-old Peter Strondike. For a moment, Future Peter hesitated, then approached the table.
‘Peter, I need to speak with you.’
14-year-old Peter surveyed this white-haired, bearded eccentric before him with zero recognition. Not wishing to lose cool points by acquiescing with this stranger’s request, Young Peter affected insouciance, and turned his back on his future, returning his attention to his friends.
Astounded, the Future Peter considered his options. There was so much that he wanted to say to his younger self. He wanted to warn him not to get in the Green Fiat in Milan. He wanted to let him know that, at 24 he will suddenly (and briefly) become attractive to females, but that he must capitalise on it, because he will be unaware at the time – have some fun, have some flings! He wanted to steer him towards Gravitational Physics, to the exclusion of Quantum, as this is where his career will ultimately lead. He wanted to explain about the back-stabbers of ISIC, and let him know that he was better than them anyway, and would ultimately have the last laugh. But more than anything he wanted to say ‘Take Fiona Shaw by the hand and lead her outside. Tell her how you feel. Tell her now. It is very likely that she will reciprocate. If you do not do this now, you will never have another chance, and you will regret this for the rest of your life.’
Ah, but what was the point? Young Peter would not listen anyway. Resigned to his impotence, Future Peter backed out of the Community Centre, climbed back aboard his machine, and in a burst of white light, returned to his workshop in April, 2031. Stepping for the last time out of his vehicle, he picked up a screwdriver from his work bench and slowly, methodically, set to work disassembling his life’s work screw by screw, bracket by bracket, component by component.


Thursday, 4 March 2010

In a daydream, you imagine what it would be like to experience a birth, inspired by the arrival of a new baby girl to one of your good friends

This is a story I wrote a while ago - reproduced here in celebration of Neve's 4th (4th!) birthday today.

You are woken at 3am by your wife, who is experiencing tightenings, quickenings, contractions. This is not unusual: she has woken you every night for the last week with her sufferings. Even though the routine is familiar, it is exhilarating each time. You fall back to sleep. You awake again after an indeterminate period of time (in sleep, all periods of time are indeterminate). Your fecund wife is still awake, still experiencing pain. This time, you cannot resume slumber. You talk to her, quiz her of the pains. After an hour in bed like this, you switch on the bedside light to retrieve a digital watch. You time the contractions (yes – you are now referring to them as contractions). They last one minute, and are 10 minutes apart. You hug each other excitedly, then walk down the stairs together to phone the delivery suite.
‘Hello, Maternity ward.’
Speaking in a deliberately measured tone (to give the impression of calm, of control):
‘Hello. My name is {name}. My wife is one day past her due date, and we think that she is in the early stages of labour. We are registered for a home birth. Her contractions are one minute long, and 10 minutes apart…’
Your wife, sat next to an alarm clock, corrects you:
‘Now 6 minutes apart.’
‘…sorry, six minutes apart.’
‘OK, would you like us to send out a midwife now?’
Losing your cool a little, you fumble your words, ask your wife, and then pass the phone on to her. She makes the necessary arrangements, displaying the exact amount of confidence that you tried, then failed to pretend.
You walk to the utility room and attach a hose to the tap. You will use this hose to fill the inflated pool that you already have set up in your dining-room. Of course, before you go, you explain to your wife where you are going, and seek their approval. As the morning progresses, there will be much of this explanation/approval pattern (I’m just going to the toilet, will you be OK?).
You expect a period of the two of you sitting, waiting, talking. Instead, you hear a tentative door-tap almost immediately (it felt like immediately – how long could it have been? Minutes?). Standing at the door is a perfect midwife. She smiles, reassures, enters the room and begins to set out her stall.
By the time the second midwife arrives, a remarkable calm has fallen over the house - your house. Your wife is not writhing in pain, as you had expected, but instead, is sat on the couch, concentrating on breathing, leaning her head back into a cushion. Each time she does this, you catch the midwives eye, check the clock perched next to her, raise your eyebrows, and then remember your duty and comfort her by lightly touching her hand, leg, or head. The contractions are becoming more painful, and closer together. The midwife examines your wife, and declares her to be three centimetres. With your rudimentary knowledge of labour, you understand from this that you are in for a wait.
A word here about how utterly, utterly useless you are. You Are Useless. The midwives find small jobs for you, which you do gratefully. There is the hand-holding that we mentioned. Oh, and you made a playlist for her on your music player, so you add soothing music to the room. But really, you are no help at all. Get used to this feeling.
At around 7 in the morning, the pain is changing – things are progressing faster than you expected. The pool is uncovered, and your wife gets in the water. It is beginning to get light outside (and here is where you become aware that this must be a daydream, or some such fantasy), through the window you see three inches of snow have fallen, blanketing your garden. You both stare out of the window, as ‘Cool Waves’ by Spiritualized begins. It is too perfect.
The birth? Grunting, screaming, writhing agony for around 5 minutes, and then a head is visible beneath the water. A perfect head, covered in dark hair. A final push, and the baby is free. Deftly, the midwives scoop up this new life, and as they do, you and your wife synchronise:
‘It’s a girl!’
…and she is placed on your wife’s chest. She is purple, and covered in a white goo, and yet she looks more beautiful than anything in the world.

In the daydream, we now skip to one week after the event. You stand in your kitchen over a pan of milk, and try to evaluate how you feel, to remember all the emotions that have passed over you. It’s difficult to put your finger on it.
With the continuous stream of well-wishers, and the extra work involved in having a baby, there is very little time to reflect. But now, as you stand over the stove, it occurs to you: ‘I feel taller.’ Physically taller. You grin as you feel yourself looming over this miniature oven, and standing tall, you breathe in deeply, then exhale.