Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Birthday Message (2016)

This story was directly inspired by the occasion of my birthday and my musings about the way we measure time. It is rigorously logical but uses the logic of associations between ideas rather than the logic of empirical causality. As I have explained elsewhere, this is a common working method of mine. This tale also disproves the old adage that there are no 'new' plots. The central conceit relies entirely on the possibilities that exist because of the telephone and would have been inconceivable before the invention of that instrument. Technology opens up new narratives not merely in terms of the usage of the technological objects themselves but in the unexpected consequences that arise from their application in the world. These consequences are epiphenomena of the invention and can rarely be predicted accurately.

It was the day before my fiftieth birthday. I sat in the most comfortable chair in my house and tried to focus on enjoying the fact that I was still in my forties. I wanted to squeeze every last drop from that decade before I finally reached the half century point.
         I closed my eyes and concentrated on doing this, as if the pressure of my tight eyelids was the mechanism by which the juice of youthfulness was extracted from the flesh of the year. Not that one really is a youth in one’s forties but time is relative, as we know, and the impending leap into my fifties did seem a considerable one.
         Then I realised that there wouldn’t actually be a leap. There could be no abrupt switch from my forties to my fifties, as if I had to jump a hurdle and land on the far side with slightly more weary bones. The process was in fact gradual, like gangrene, and had commenced during my sojourn in the chair. Parts of me already were fifty.
         This requires an explanation. Let me provide it.
         I am not referring to the truism that ‘age’ is how you feel rather than a simple measurement of how long you have existed on the Earth. It is clear that the number of times our planet orbits the sun is merely a convenience of administration when applied to people.
         It is useful to society to define an exact age in this manner but it is not accurate. We age not astronomically but biologically and for some people the process is slower than for others. This may be unfair but it’s the truth and there is no point arguing. Genetics, fitness and luck all play a part, of course, but this is not what I discovered.
         No, the insight that was granted to me in that chair at that moment had a spatial, one might even say geometric, foundation, rather than any direct association to biology. On the wall opposite my chair hung a large map of the world and it confronted me when I opened my eyes. The map showed lines of longitude clearly marked, thin strings connecting the north pole to the south, and strong enough not to snap.
         Forgive that absurdity. Those lines are not real, of course, but they aid our understanding of the cosmic body on which we thrive. And they help divide this spinning orb of ours into time zones. As I blinked at the map, I saw that my former conviction that acute mindfulness would allow me to fully experience and enjoy the last day of my forties was a delusion and a na├»ve product of geographical ignorance.
         For now I knew that the time zones across the globe were loading my fiftieth year into my body and life the same way that a program loads on an old-fashioned computer. It was happening by increments, percentages. Already I had been fifty in Kiribati, the easternmost of all lands, for the past hour. Soon I would be fifty in Fiji.
         Thus I was able, by examining the map in conjunction with a clock on the mantelpiece below, to closely monitor the spread of the infection, for want of a better word, of this invasion of my present reality by a fiftieth year I wasn’t ready for. I turned my mind inwards too, trying to analyse and confirm the effects on my system.
         The aspects of my soul that shared something or anything in common with those Pacific islands in terms of… what? culture or aesthetics? were older than the rest of me. They had forged ahead, those pesky pioneering aspects, deciding to be a vanguard pushing into the future. Or maybe they had merely grown wearier more easily.
         The Earth continued to revolve and my fiftieth birthday moved like an indomitable explorer across the map. Now I was fifty in New Zealand but not yet in Australia. My kiwi was older than my kangaroo. But what was my ‘kiwi’ and what my ‘kangaroo’? They were totems, metaphors, signs and symbols of something deep in my psyche, and although I was unable to say or even guess what they represented, it was mathematically certain that one was older than the other. I felt that the kiwi part of my soul was a more mature portion than the kangaroo.
         But the kangaroo caught up. They always do. Then I became fifty in Japan, in the Philippines, in Thailand and Burma. And I kept examining my soul to determine how it was changing. My pagoda was older. Unlike gangrene, the change didn’t creep but selected discrete blocks of aspects and transmuted them, aged them, but these blocks might not be adjacent to each other. My stupa was stupefied…
         A quarter of my life was fifty, then one third. I was uncertain whether this was a less painful method of crossing into my fifties than the sudden midnight plunge. Then the logic of the time zones reached India and my chakras turned fifty. A shiver ran through my frame. There was a subtle disconnect now between my chakras and the body that housed them. The idea was troubling, too troubling to bear.
         I had to take action at last. I have a friend in Madras who is a guru of sorts. My friend would hopefully give me the advice I craved. I picked up the telephone and called her and although it was late where she was, she answered without a sleepy voice. I spoke to her, telling her of my distress and the feeling of discomfort in my nerves. She listened with a repressed laugh that I could hear despite the fact it was silent. But she is a good and sweet friend and didn’t mock me openly.
         As I was babbling to her, it occurred to me that although I was sitting in my chair at the age of forty-nine, my voice on her end of the telephone connection was fifty! This thought made me break off in mid sentence. A voice older than the throat that utters it. I don’t mean older by fractions of a second but by an entire year and decade.
         So my voice was older than I was. It would have stayed the same age if I hadn’t called India. What a fool I was!
         Or perhaps I had been wise without knowing it. The reason my voice was older wasn’t necessarily because it was more of a feeble duffer than the mouth that had projected it. That was one way of looking at it, true, but one could equally declare that it existed in the future, an explanation that fitted all the facts just as plausibly and far more conveniently for my purposes. The sound of things to come…
         “Shubha, listen to me,” I said to my friend. “This voice of mine now has a temporal advantage over my ears.”
         She answered with some witty retort, but I found that I was concerned more with listening to my own words than to hers. I made hasty apologies and put the phone down. My voice was fifty and it was a part of me, so it must be fifty here too as well as in India.
         Anything I now said to myself would feature words that existed in the future, that originated from tomorrow. We often daydream about what it would be like to offer advice, from our more experienced perspective, to our younger self. I had a chance to do so.
         “The weather tomorrow will be sunny,” I intoned. I grinned at this, for the forecast predicted rain, but that was merely the educated estimate of a meteorological team using mathematical modelling, whereas my assertion came from the time itself, from tomorrow.
         In other words, my voice had looked out of the window and seen there was sunshine. No mathematics necessary.
         Had I been a gambling man I could have taken commercial advantage of the fact my voice existed in the future. Horse race winners would have contributed enormously to my funds. But that’s not my character. I have a philosophical outlook on life and feel contempt for the amusements of the acquisitive consumer society that has evolved to envelop us like a malign growth. My voice wouldn’t stoop so low.
         “I will meet the love of my life tomorrow,” I told myself and the news excited me. It is one thing to encourage oneself with a positive statement, to bolster one’s confidence and keep away despair, but quite another to receive that statement from the future, from a time when the happy event has actually happened, to be told it as a fact.
         After all, it had to be true. To my voice it wasn’t a future event but a contemporary observation. I wondered how exactly I would meet her, but then I realised I wasn’t required to do anything to make it happen. It was fated to occur. My voice had promised me.
         She was a vague outline in my imagination but the parts coalesced as I concentrated, the outline firming while remaining soft, and I found to my surprise that she looked a lot like my friend in India. Then I reasoned that my voice had very recently been within Shubha’s ear and surely still was basking in the afterglow. This was natural.
         I told myself many things that would enormously improve my life on the following day and I realised that I had a truly spectacular day to look forward to. I supposed that the source of many of these promised boons would be my friends bringing me gifts.
         The time passed in this manner and I turned fifty in Turkey, Italy and Spain. Only one hour remained before I turned fifty where I sat. Slightly less than half of me was fifty now, the rest still in my forties, so there was a neat balance. My doumbek, spaghetti and flamenco were a little older than my bagpipes, stout ale and riverdance, and rather more elderly than my banjo, burger and chicken strut. I was like a jigsaw man, with pieces that were both newer and yet older replacing those that already comprised the picture of myself. A curious paradox.
         Then the inevitable moment arrived and the clock struck midnight and my forties slipped off my bones like a silk negligee from the curves of the woman I was destined to meet very soon. Except that… not all my forties went away. By no means! Almost half remained. They were declining on the other side of my official birthday but they were still there. The world was revolving and embracing them in turn.
         I quickly phoned a friend in the United States of America. My friend was wide-awake because the night was relatively young over there. With breathless urgency I asked, “How old am I?”
         “Forty-nine,” he replied.
         “Then my voice is now younger than me.”
         “And you prefer for it to be the same age? Don’t worry, it will come back into synchronization soon.”
         “No, I want it to be older than me, to exist in the future, so it can tell me about events that will happen.”
         “Well, now it can tell you about events that have happened instead. It is good to know what has been.”
         “I already know what has been. The problem is that I no longer know what will be. It’s worse than that. I don’t even know what is. My voice is a past voice and so knows nothing of the present. No more than it knows about the future. What have I done?”
         I put the phone down and chewed my fingernails.
         Anxiety made me feel nauseous for some minutes. I told myself that I was worrying about nothing and that I should calm down, but such advice came from a voice existing in the past. How could that voice understand clearly what was happening right now?
         I ignored my own voice. I disdained its ignorance.
         Sleepiness finally overcame me and lulled the turmoil in my brain. I went to bed and although I muttered to myself in my sleep, as I always do, I didn’t wake with the feeling that I had missed out on some topic of importance. My voice was behind the times.
         Or was it? I jumped out of bed and consulted the clock and discovered that I was fifty in the USA too now. In fact I was fifty everywhere in the whole world. My voice had returned to me.
         I had planned to go for a birthday walk, to visit my friends and receive their blessings and gifts, to go for a special dinner, to celebrate. But none of this was required now. All these things would come to me wherever I was and whatever I did. My future voice had told me so. The love of my life would come to me no matter my location.
         So I stayed indoors and slouched on my chair and waited. The phone kept ringing, no doubt my friends wanting to know where I was and why I hadn’t met them at the designated hours. They were probably worried about me. But I sat tight and ignored their attempts to get in touch. There was no need for me to move a muscle. The events that were fated to occur would occur no matter what action I took.
         It rained heavily all day. I kept my faith until the end.
         When night fell I finally began to suspect that my voice had lied to me and had played a horrid trick on its owner. Probably it desired Shubha for itself and didn’t want me to have her…
         Even advice from the future can be mistaken, especially if the giver of the advice is deliberately deceitful. The rain against my window was like the tears of frustration I felt like weeping.
         Calling my friends one by one, I humbly apologised.
         I had wasted too much of my intimate time with the future and past and missed out on all my presents.




Gut Road (2004)

A brief horror story dedicated to D.F. Lewis, a very prolific writer of brief horror stories who was the first writer I ever met personally, in a pub called The Shakespeare near Victoria Train Station in London back in (I think) 1993.

That was the sort of person Mr Lewis was, a man who seemed happy to leave the hotel just as the sun was going down and walk into the hills with insufficient supplies and the wrong shoes. Probably a product of his desperate need to compensate for a sedentary youth with belated adventure.
The men at the tables made conversation over their beer as they watched him leave. He had already mentioned his interest in exploring the entire length of Gut Road. A good excuse for dark comments.
“He’ll soon be back.”
“No, we’ll never see him again.”
“You’re both wrong. He won’t come back but maybe somebody else will...”

The path was steep and narrow and soon he was alone in the dark but he knew another hour of hard walking would take him to the beginning of the ledge. Down in the valley there was always some light, the glimmer of the river and maybe a distant village or two. His fear was still smaller than his resolve.
All the same, he guessed his pace was slowing as he neared the broken fence and NO ENTRY sign. Two tourists had fallen to their deaths the previous year and the authorities had made token efforts to comply with official safety regulations. But of course this was a country where the people ignored authority.

Gut Road came as a big surprise. He had expected a concrete walkway bolted to the side of the mountain, an artificial ledge winding its way around the edges of the gorge as far as the reservoir, but instead he was confronted by the mouth of a tunnel. He groped at his belt for his powerful flashlight. He almost regretted it was there. He had no excuse to turn back.
He switched it on and stood on the threshold. Even before he looked to see what the beam revealed he had already called out: “Anyone there?”
Then he sniggered quietly. Anything truly hostile lurking in the tunnel would be unlikely to give him a reasonable reply. As he walked forward he imagined possible answers, all of them absurd by the nature of whatever spoke them.
“Yes, I’m here. A ghost.”
“I’m here as well, a demon of sorts.”
“Don’t forget me, a nameless cosmic horror. From the gulfs between the stars. But what are you doing here? It’s not appropriate.”
Mr Lewis nodded. Not appropriate and not clever, but all he encountered was dust thickly spread on the floor. It cushioned his feet and there were no other footprints in it yet. Nor tracks of any kind.

Back at the hotel the men still drank beer and infrequently toasted the faded portraits on the wall above the hearth. Already the landlord was preparing a new picture, huddled over a small desk in a cool corner, dipping his pen into a jar of crusty ink. The scratching of his nib on the rough yellow paper was the only significant sound in the room, a furtive but obtrusive noise like the mirth of a prehistoric rodent. He worked quickly and finished early and rose to glue his latest creation among his growing collection of ink faces.

Mr Lewis had entered a region of stalagmites and stalactites which chewed at his clothes as he ducked and stretched around them, his weary body moving up and down in the precise rhythm needed to dislodge the sweat on his neck and roll it down his spine. He puffed and shivered at the same time and itched under his own salt.
These spikes of rock turned the tunnel into a maze and the idea of retreating began to seem more tempting but he still craved a sense of achievement and could not quite bring himself to give up yet. He compromised by resting for a minute in a clear space, squatting in the thick dust and taking a long drink from his bottle.
He also found a loose cigarette in his pack and inserted it between his lips. But he had nothing to light it with. With a jolt of malign inspiration he unscrewed the lens of his flashlight and held the naked bulb against the tip of the tobacco cylinder. It charred slightly but did not blossom into flame. No matter. He should not risk damaging his single source of illumination.
He groped again in his pack for a match and his fingers closed on his mobile phone. This was a relief but he doubted a signal would be available from his present location. He left it where it was and cast away his cigarette. As he rose and continued his journey he wondered who had constructed Gut Road and for what purpose. Had it really been designed in the shape of a gigantic intestine?

Eventually his own digestive tract started to occupy his immediate attention and he found a secluded spot between the side of the tunnel and a thick column made from three or four fused stalagmites. He chuckled at his own shyness as he pulled down his trousers. There was an awful symmetry in conducting this process here.
Still no signs of other life, no relics of habitation or previous exploration, but he knew many others had preceded him, his guide book had told him so. How could tourists fall to their deaths inside here? Perhaps he was supposed to walk on the roof of the tunnel rather than push his way through it. A simple mistake.
Lighter in body and mind he walked reluctantly and was absolutely on the verge of turning back when his flashlight caught a sign nailed to a pole planted in the dust. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. Everything was safe again. Travelling down Gut Road was acceptable and possible after all.

The beer was almost exhausted and the next delivery was an hour after dawn but nobody moved. The portrait of Mr Lewis gleamed down at them, fading slowly, fitting in with the rest of the collection.
“Funny this constant exchange of residents.”
“But good for local culture. The valleys are so isolated. That must be the reason it exists.”
“Some people still think it’s a sculpture.”
“Are there other Gut Roads?”
“No, there was only ever one giant. A freak of nature millions of years ago, never to be repeated.”
“Not everyone makes it right through the body.”
The landlord glanced up and made his eyes wise. “Some are digested by their own incompetence.”

He had miscalculated very badly. The loops were further apart than he had assumed and the obstacle course created by the stone teeth was becoming more hazardous. He decided not to think about the consequences.
Although the tunnel had not forked at any point, he felt thoroughly lost, an illusion which excited his curiosity as much as his fear. He realised he was bleeding from a gash below his left knee. At least there would be a trail of blood to follow back this way. But in fact the dust drank it all and his own footprints seemed abnormally shallow. His adventure did not want to let go of him.
The flashlight was losing power. The bulb was dying. Too late to return now but if the going became easier he might still make it to the far end. He limped faster.
Less than one hour later he came across another sign. He snorted with pleasure but his beam revealed a blank square of wood. Nothing had ever been written on it. For an instant he gritted his teeth, furious at the worker who had erected it, but then his expression cleared. He walked past and studied it from the other side. That was the sort of person he still was.
In the timid flicker he made out the words. They were intended for a traveller coming in the opposite direction. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. He clutched the post for support.
Time to summon help, if he could. He pulled out his mobile phone and thumbed the number of his hotel, already rehearsing the apology he would offer but unconvinced that a connection could be made through the mineral walls. He was astonished to hear the dialling tone. Even before an unseen hand picked up the receiver he was already calling out:
“Anyone there?”

The landlord listened carefully, frowned and then replaced the telephone. The standard answers were no longer amusing. Ghost, demon of sorts, nameless cosmic horror. Not now. Old worn out jokes, completely pointless.
The others began to drift off to bed.
“Are there portraits of us in that other hotel, I wonder?”
“Do they actually look like us?”
“Will they fade with dignity?”
“That was the agreement,” confirmed the landlord.
The stairs did not creak but the carpet made an unwholesome sound rather like indigestion under the weight of tired feet and mildly bewildered souls.
“What I don’t understand is who did that to the giant? Pulled out his bowels and just left him to petrify. Who? Why? And how?”
“It was a long time ago,” said the landlord.

Mr Lewis was resigned to his fate or perhaps it was resigned to him. Either way it was best to abandon the struggle and rest his misplaced being. The bulb was almost dead. It gave off a deep red glow that turned his environment into a hideous kind of photographic darkroom. He selected a place and lowered his pack to the ground.
The only thing that might develop here would be a very sharp panic. But not yet. He sat in the dust and rummaged for the paper bag he had concealed at the bottom. It was still there, slick with leaked grease.
He planted his flashlight in the dust and settled back but the effect was too eerie, the weak beam casting formless bloody shadows on the irregular roof, so he reversed its direction and suspended it from a stalactite like a lantern. He used his belt to secure it in place. No need to keep his trousers up, not here, not now.
He returned to his paper bag. A meal at last. Nothing very palatable but that was an expected consequence of undertaking an expedition with insufficient supplies. Black pudding, an ironic choice. He tried not to breathe through his nose as he bit into it, to avoid the smell and lessen the taste.
Dust to dust, shit to shit.
And guts within guts.



A Girl Like a Doric Column (1997)

A simple absurdist fable that I just sat down and wrote one day without any prior thought. It was published in my collection THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES in the year 2000. A sequel-of-sorts called 'The Great Me' was published in my collection ORPHEUS ON THE UNDERGROUND in 2015.

1....”Excuse me, is your girlfriend feeling unwell?”
“I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
“Stop me if it’s none of my business, but she seems to have a... It appears that her... I mean to say...”
“Dribble it out man. What’s wrong with her?”
“Her head is made from blue marble.”
“What? Nonsense! Wait a moment, so it is. Somebody must have stolen the original and substituted this lifelike replica. Who would do a thing like that? Why didn’t I notice anything?”
“Gangs of pickfaces roam the subways. They target a victim and make a replica head from whatever materials they feel comfortable with. Heads which are already loose can be swapped in seconds. I bet your girlfriend had a heavy skull on a slender neck?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t particularly valuable.”
“To the right people it might be...”
“That sounds rather ominous. Please explain.”
“The gangs export them to China. I read about it in the paper. Huge demand for heads over there. They use them for ornamental purposes. It’s just not safe to take a lady out.”
“Good job I didn’t like her very much. But I promised her father to get her home in one piece before midnight.”
“Will he notice that her head isn’t real?”
“Absolutely. He’s obsessed with details. Besides, she sings for him in the parlour after supper. It’s a family tradition. I’d better confess and face the music, or lack of it.”
“Rather you than me. What will he do?”
“I shudder to think. He’s very protective. He works in the foundry. Perhaps he’ll boil my ankles over a red-hot girder. Why do relationships always have to be so complicated?”
“I asked myself the same question when my wife left me. The ceiling was falling down and she was fed up with getting plaster in her hair, so she just walked out. Packed a suitcase and went, without saying goodbye. She was run over by a steamroller.”
“That’s life, I guess. But what shall I do?”
“Maybe I can help. I’m used to dealing with vengeful fathers. It’ll cost you, though. I’m not a charity.”
“I’m willing to pay. What’s the price?”
“The girl. I collect females like her.”
“I’m not sure. She might not want to go with you. She’s very choosy with her affections. You are bald and ugly.”
“With a blue marble head how will she tell the difference? Come on, it’s either that or facing the father alone. If you’re worried about how I’ll treat her, put your mind at rest.”
“Well I’d like to know. It’s only natural.”
“Of course. She will be assisting my religious studies. I’m turning my house into a temple. It’s a sacred task I have lined up, nothing odd. Think of her as a foundation of spirituality.”
“I can’t argue with that. Let’s shake hands on the deal.”
“That’s more like it. You won’t regret this. I’m a professional and always guarantee my work. Wait and see. I bet if you have trouble with a father in the future you’ll seek me out.”
“I don’t intend losing another girlfriend’s head!”
“I think you’ll find most women have loose ones these days. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and meet a divorcee. They tend to use glue. But nothing is really secure on the subway any more.”
“The next stop is mine. You’d better follow.”
“The stop belongs to the railway, but I know what you mean. Shall I take your girlfriend’s arm to help her down?”
“She’s not yours yet. Come on, let’s jump off here.”
“We’re right behind you... Not that way, dear... You have a complex and exquisite network of veins, like a map of an antediluvian city ruled by intelligent reptiles... Mind the gap...”


2....”Well that was a cheap trick to play on me!”
“Not at all. I fulfilled my side of the bargain. You have little to fear from that father now. A successful mission.”
“You replaced his head with a mahogany one!”
“Some people are never satisfied. I’m a pickface, but I work alone. You should have realised that when I talked so knowledgeably about China and the export market. But I’m only able to carve heads from hardwood. A marble head is quite beyond my ability.”
“Do you make a habit of this? How many commuters have you deceived? I ought to inform the transport police.”
“Don’t be churlish. Just give me your girl.”
“I guess you deserve her. But I feel nervous. Why do business-deals always have to be so complicated?”
“I often ask myself that question when I’m sitting at home, burning incense to the deity who lives in my broom-cupboard. He lurks behind the buckets and refuses to come out.”
“Heavens! I thought dry-rot was bad enough. What sort of god is he? Does he answer prayers or hurl lightning?”
“Neither, I’m afraid. I think he might be one of the Old Ones, left behind during the last ice-age. At night he plays the washboard with his gnarled fingers. I’m sure this music is what made the ceiling fall down. He lives on spiders and detergent.”
“Sounds like Baby Jesus to me. Is he swaddled?”
“No, completely naked. When my temple to him is finished, I believe he’ll be more approachable. I’ve chosen the Dorian style of architecture for his sanctum, because it represents the last period when the Old Ones openly interacted with humanity.”
“And the girl is a sacrifice to him?”
“Oh dear, no. I need her to hold the roof up. I’ve got a dozen with blue marble heads lining the lounge. When there’s enough of them to take the weight, I’ll knock the walls down.”
“Hey presto! An instant temple!”
“That’s the idea. He’s far too small a god to digest a whole female in one go. For sacrifices I rely on my wife.”
“I thought you said she left you?”
“She did. But I rushed out after the steamroller and peeled her off the asphalt in a single flapping sheet. I rolled her up under my arm and stored her in the downstairs toilet.”
“You sentimental old fool. How touching!”
“Whenever he gets frisky and starts playing his damned washboard, I tear off a required length and feed it to him on a pole. My wife doubles up as a blanket on cold nights. I think I prefer her after the accident. But she’s getting shorter every month.”
“This is my stop. I’ll take my leave of you here. But I’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid. I’m also a pickface.”
“I should have known! You have fingers like chisels.”
“I specialise in brass heads. I made a switch when you looked away. Now you shan’t finish your temple.”
“You swapped her blue marble head for a brass one? That’s breach of contract. Give it back this instant!”
“You misunderstand. I can’t blame you, considering what your brains have to sit in. It’s your head I picked.”
“So you have! That’s really brassed me off. You’d better return it. How will I ever enter an ironmonger’s without losing face? You’ve ruined me. Come back here for a good polishing!”
“Sorry, I have to deliver a parcel to China. But look on the bright side. You’ll be able to fry mushrooms on your cheeks. Haven’t you wanted to do that for years? It’s not all doom.”
“What will my god say? He’ll be absolutely livid.”
“But mine will be enraptured. I’ve also got a broom-cupboard with a resident deity. He’s the last of the Older Ones, who are much older than the Old Ones. Apart from the Oldest Ones they’re the oldest Ones of all. He plays the spoons all evening. I suppose diabolism and skiffle must be connected somewhere along the line.”
“It’s not fair! I’m a widower!”
“So am I. My wife was a steamroller. She blamed herself for rolling over a pedestrian and committed suicide.”
“But what about my temple? It was so ambitious.”
“I’ve decided to adopt your idea for my house. Perhaps it will keep my god away from his blasted spoons. He’s bigger than yours so I’ll have to build a larger temple. He’ll need a higher roof and girls just aren’t tall enough. Let me think it over.”


3....”Excuse me, is your boyfriend feeling unwell?”
“I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
“Stop me if it’s none of my business, but he seems to have a... It appears that his... I mean to say...”


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Office Castaway (2003)

This story was inspired by J.G. Ballard's superb fabulist novel CONCRETE ISLAND. The idea of that short novel is so excellent that I kept wishing I had thought of it. The only way to stop feeling the pangs of an absurd regret was to take the idea and manipulate it. A simple reversal did the trick. The subtitle of the following story is 'A REVERSE BALLARDIAN BALLAD'.

The story begins on an island inhabited by a man called Friday. Whether he gave himself this name or had it forced upon him is unknown but he is happy enough in his solitude and the absence of companions does not trouble his waking moments. Only in dreams does he experience a slight unease, a sense of undefined longing, but this is how dreams affect everybody and no special conclusions should be inferred from the fact. Friday likes to patrol his territory each morning but he never ventures down to the sea because he has a fear of drowning.
     The sound of surf is constant in his ears and he has grown accustomed to the rhythm of the tides, the daily increase and decrease of the dull booming. He dines on wild plants and the animals which dart in the undergrowth and his aim with spear and sling is excellent. He can no longer remember who taught him the use of such weapons, but questions of this nature are mere amusements in the rare lulls between the serious duties of hunting and keeping warm and dry. In summer the island is an agreeable place but the rainy season is relentless and bitter and his clothes have long since crumbled away to unwholesome dust.
     Friday sometimes thinks about leaving.
     But how would this be possible? He cannot swim and has no idea how far away the next island might be, if indeed there are other islands, nor in which direction he should go, nor how to keep to that direction, nor why anywhere else should be better than here. It is certainly not loneliness that bothers him, but mostly the chill, the clammy rain, the absolute greyness.
     One winter it is so cold that the water in his drinking vessel turns to ice and the biggest fire he can build is still inadequate to keep him in comfort, for though it roasts one side of him nicely the other side is still exposed to the freezing air and so he must revolve constantly to maintain an even spread, which is exhausting and annoying. Now he understands why true happiness will never be his if he remains and he stands and starts to run around the island as an alternative method of generating heat. Although he has never approached the sea closely he knows what it looks like from a distance and now he observes that it too is coated with a layer of ice.
     He stops and hugs himself tightly and wonders if this surface of solid water will take his weight but in accordance with most stories of this nature he hesitates for no more than a few seconds before rushing forward and testing the concept in a practical manner. The ice holds. There is no sound of surf at all, only the cries of birds high above and a crackling behind which might be shifting ice or the death throes of the fire he has abandoned. He slides and loses his balance more than once but manages to avoid falling and now he begins to suspect that the world is not quite the place he always assumed it was, far from it.
     Those are not clouds on the horizon.
     Previously the range of his vision was limited by the vapours he has never before questioned, the tumbling steams which roll over the sea and smother his island, though without choking him, for they are not quite that thick. Grey and bland mists.
     Now he is a witness to strange scenes. In silence.
     He shudders and perceives that there are vessels in the vicinity, boats stuck in the ice. He searches each in turn. At last he comes across the aftermath of a collision, two vessels jammed together, metal plates dented and crushed, lanterns and portholes smashed, a pool of frozen blood around them. One of the boats is empty but the other contains a man with a broken neck, a man not dissimilar to Friday in general build and appearance. Icicles have formed on his shaven cheeks and chin, giving him an old sharp beard, and Friday's own beard is spiky and hard, so they regard each other, fevered eyes locked with dead.
     It is too cold for profound thoughts at this meeting and Friday quickly strips the corpse of its clothes and uses them to cover his blue flesh. Nakedness has been exchanged. He is on the point of congratulating himself and maybe even making plans to return to his island when a roaring noise fixes him in his tracks. Is the ice giving way? No, it is something else, the approach of another vessel, larger than the boats already here, an object moving over the ice, breaking it up but without plunging through, spitting white crystals from a long tube in its side. Behind it, following the channel it has created, comes a vessel adorned with flashing lights.
     Friday staggers under this onslaught of sensation and the second vessel stops and lets out two men with a stretcher who run over and catch him and carry him back to the rear of the ship. In the hold it is warm and white. The men lean over Friday and speak and he understands a few of the words but not the meaning of what they are trying to tell him and he is intrigued by the mystery of his recognition of language and the deep memories it stirs within him. Then they jab something into his arm and he is overcome with the weight of sleep and when he finally awakens, with no dreams to disengage from, he finds himself no longer in the ship and no longer moving.
     There is a window and it shows a lawn and trees and a wall and beyond these comes the sound of surf or rather a sound which he knows well but no longer has the same meaning as before. He lies still on a bed and after an hour he is visited by a man who seems pleased he is conscious and mumbles something to which Friday nods because he knows it is expected. The man leaves and returns a long while later with a companion and they are both dressed in white coats and they talk to him but many of the words they use are incomprehensible. Friday rubs his chin and realises they have shaved off his beard.
     They tell him he is in a hospital and that he has suffered an accident because of the freak weather conditions. His memory has been affected and he does not know who he is, an assertion which strikes him as absurd, but he makes no protest. For one thing he is curious. It seems they have taken the liberty of going through the pockets of his suit to ascertain his identity and that his wife has been contacted and will be here soon. Eventually a woman arrives and sits on a chair next to his bed and her pinched face regards him with doubt and hostility but she says nothing and he makes no attempt to talk.
     A few days later he goes home with her.
     He has no physical interest in this unknown female and she reciprocates his apathy but they become companionable enough and spend the days sitting in separate soft chairs watching the televised news bulletins, many of which are concerned with the recent plunge in temperature, a climatic anomaly now fortunately over. He even stops thinking of himself as Friday and the new identity he has been given no longer feels inappropriate.
     One morning he is visited by a figure exuding an aura of authority and competence who rings the doorbell and is led to his side by his wife. This figure is his boss in the firm where he is employed. Friday is informed that the company has made a decision to welcome him back to work despite his amnesia. He pretends to be grateful and stands to shake hands.
     He returns to the office the following day.
     He is lost in this unfamiliar environment but his colleagues show him the place where he used to sit, the desk groaning with papers, the telephones and filing cabinets. It is the far corner of a dim narrow room without windows and he instantly realises he is truly stranded for the first time in his life, a castaway in a cheerless box, marooned without adequate nourishment for mind and heart, stranded without hope of rescue in an eight hours a day, five days a week job, not counting compulsory weekend training courses. There is no way out and his prison is bounded by the sighs of his colleagues, the surf of despair.
     As the months pass he begins to accept his role as normal, though it never becomes more welcome nor does he ever really understand the meaning of his daily tasks. But it does not seem to matter what work he does provided he turns up punctually and remains there all day. His colleagues gradually become confident enough in his presence to openly joke that he is not the man he once was. His wife has not quite reached this stage. He is informed that because of his mental condition he will have to retake his driving test and so he arranges for lessons. In the meantime another worker offers to give him a daily lift from his house to the office and back again.
     Sitting in the passenger seat as they accelerate down the urban motorway, he turns his head away from the driver and stares out of the window. Where three busy roads intersect there is a large piece of wasteland, isolated and overgrown, littered with wrecked cars which recline like boats on an exposed reef. He briefly wonders how the waters receded, how all this land was reclaimed from the sea, how the surrounding flyovers and buildings were erected so rapidly. It is a mystery beyond imagination, but for some reason he does not yearn to know the answer.
     The story concludes with this image and the observation that changes are inevitable, every day in any life, and that they should be welcomed.
     But for Friday it will always feel like Monday morning.



Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Kizomba Wanderers (2016)

I was asked to put together a collection of very brief stories for a publisher in Greece. As well as selecting tales from those I had already written over many years, I saw an opportunity to write several new stories. Brevity was a prime requirement. When writing for a foreign publisher, knowing that my work is going to be translated, it makes sense to write stories that aren't based on wordplay or semantics but that are fairly simple ideas-based pieces that will work well in any language.

Kizomba is one of the most sensual dances for couples to enjoy together. It originated in Angola but soon became popular in many other countries. I went to classes to learn and dance with other beginners. Although not as spectacular to watch as salsa, which I also hoped to learn, it soon became my favourite dance. The way it feels makes it special. It sets up a unique and deep connection with your partner, a closing of a circuit, and creates a powerful illusion that you have known them for many years, even if you have never danced with them before.
Before I tried it for myself, I wondered why kizomba partners closed their eyes when dancing. The truth is that it is easier that way. One can concentrate more fully on the feeling rather than worrying about how the performance looks to others. Kizomba isn’t really a dance that is danced for the benefit of spectators. It is a private dance, but danced in public, an island of sensuality in an ocean of eyes, but those eyes don’t matter. One locks oneself away in the movements, in the closeness, in the timing and the pulse of the rhythm, in the feeling.
But although there are no extravagant spins or twists, no tricky twirls or acrobatic postures necessary, it is a difficult dance because the subtlety is everything. A simple mistake is fatal. In salsa, bachata or forro, errors of timing or missteps can be remedied easily enough. The routine can be rescued. The leader can break away from the follower for a moment and reestablish the pulse or the footing before engaging again as a couple. In kizomba such opportunities are much more rare. The entire dance is close and the movements are meshed tightly.
If a man gets it wrong in kizomba, his error will transmit instantly to the woman and both will flounder. There is no chance to improvise one’s way out of the resultant mess. One must simply stop and start again and hope that the connection can be resumed at the point it was broken off. I think it can be safely compared to the stalling of an aircraft. Both dancers are the wings and the routine will plummet and crash on the smooth and shiny floor of the dance hall or nightclub. Perhaps that is a poor metaphor because aeroplanes don’t fly ecstatically.
Among the ladies who were learning at the same time as I, there was one who seemed to be at exactly the same level as me, and who appeared to progress at the same rate. We were drawn to each other because of this and danced perhaps too often together, for one should ideally dance with as many different partners as possible in order to understand differences of balance, temperament and aptitude. Learning is faster that way, but I liked dancing with Selma too much. We were utterly attuned, our heads made for resting on each other’s shoulders.
There was one move in particular that I could almost grasp but never quite get right, and the same was true for her. It was a sideways move in which the man leads the lady eight steps to the left and then after a pause involving slow gyrations, eight steps back to the starting point. It is called the ‘grapevine’, this particular move, and I was absolutely determined to become comfortable and then proficient with it. At first I would step on her feet all the way to the left, and she would step on my feet all the way back, balancing out the scales of suffering.
Selma and I practiced it again and again, our eyes shut, but always it was slightly wrong. We improved to the point where neither of us injured the other at all. The problem was more one of symmetry. My steps to the left were longer than those to the right, so we never actually returned to the starting point. Always there was some drift. On the dancefloor such drift meant ending up boxed into a corner among the dusty shadows. But even that wasn’t a disaster. One would simply use other steps in order to escape and return to the middle of the floor.
And who repeats the sideways move indefinitely anyway? Nobody at all. But it was a move I ached to get right, so I tended to use it more than I should. One evening at dance class my obsession rose up in full force. It dominated me and appeared to transmit a specific urgency to my partner. At the time I didn’t realise that the main door had been left open. It was a very warm evening in summer, that’s why, and dancers are often prone to overheating. Selma and I were in a close hold, closer than ever before in fact, and our eyelids were firmly shuttered.
Nothing short of an explosion or the roar of an adjacent hippopotamus could have persuaded me to widen my eyes. I was completely embedded in present time, lost in the moment, fixed in the now, a state we all strive to attain throughout our lives but rarely achieve. Kizomba is Zen. There are other activities in this world that achieve the same effect, but kizomba is the most reliable for me. I became so sensitive to the sensation that I was one big sensation all over. I knew that Selma was undergoing exactly the same process and our souls had merged.
The outside world ceased to exist, or rather it existed to provide space and time alone, devoid of worries, obstacles and impracticalities. We still knew, of course, that gravity was a force on us, that we breathed the air of the atmosphere, that one day we would have to die. The mundane serious nuisances of the world hadn’t been entirely forgotten, but they acquired a quality of abstraction that made them easy to ignore. And ignore them is precisely what we did. We danced and the hours might as well have been days, weeks, months. And then Selma spoke.
“The music has stopped.”
“Yes, it has.”
“In fact it stopped a long time ago.”
“You are right.”
“It grew fainter and fainter and then became silence.”
“Very gradually it did that.”
“Shall we open our eyes on the count of three?”
“A sensible suggestion.”
“One, two, three…”
We were no longer on the dancefloor. We were no longer in the dance class. We weren’t even in the same city that we had started from. In fact, we were in an entirely different city, for we had danced through the open door and down streets and along country roads and had ended up far from home and friends. Too much use of the sideways move! We had drifted to a place that neither of us recognised. How would we get back? We had no map, no compass, no transport. There was only one option and that was to enrol in a local kizomba class and try again.
It wasn’t too difficult to locate a venue where kizomba was taught and practiced. Again we lost ourselves in each other, Selma and I, and danced out of the hall and along the surface of the world. I don’t know if we were really expecting to return to our point of origin. I think we were desperate to try anything. Finally when we opened our eyes again we saw that more dancing had simply carried us further away. We were in a foreign country now and somehow we had danced over the surface of the sea, stepping on the tops of waves in our oblivious mutual bliss.
Again it seemed like a good idea to enrol in a kizomba class. Dance is an international language that needs no translation. This time our embrace was so profound that when we eventually stopped dancing, decades later, and lifted our creaking eyelids, we blinked them at a sun that was emerald green instead of yellow. So clearly we had danced right off the globe and onto the surface of another planet. Such things happen thanks to kizomba. And I know that other couples are standing on other worlds right now and still struggling to perfect the ‘grapevine’ move.