Wall

Shauna felt the chewed mash of meat and batter and gravy turn to a hot gluey knot in her stomach.  She belched and tasted pepper and flesh.  Falling off the vegetarian wagon had become a regular occurrence on work nights out and she always did it with something deliciously disgusting like a kebab or a battered sausage.  She dropped her bag on the doorstep, realising that the mess of its contents along with the two bottles of wine she’d drunk that night meant she’d need two hands to root out her keys.  Tissues and scraps of paper and cases and tiny metal cylinders and rubber bands and coins and chocolate bar wrappers fell through her inarticulate fingers.  She brought her hands out and up to her face as though checking they were still there.  She looked at the folds of skin on her knuckles and the feint pulse of green-blue veins beneath her pale skin.  Her heart beat steadily, stubbornly alive.  She took a breath, sunk her arms into the bag once more and came out with the bunch of keys.

Inside the house she slumped down onto the brown patched sofa and dropped her arms, one after the other, behind her head.  She stared at the mute window of the television screen and at the remote control on the arm of the sofa, just out of reach.

Her hand brushed against something on the wall behind her and she shifted her body to look.  A lump, no wider than a five pence piece.  She ran two fingers across it.  It was a tiny dome.  The top was sharp: a drip of emulsion, pulled to a point by a departing paintbrush and left to dry.  Her flat was originally built at the turn of the century and subsequent owners had layered paint upon paint in the sitting room so that the walls had taken on subtle contours and undulations, each coat making the room a fraction smaller.  This domed lump might have been an insect or a piece of dirt, painted over decades ago, growing larger with each diligent decoration of the room.  Shauna was surprised she hadn’t noticed it before though.  When the agent had shown her the place she was sure she had scanned the walls closely, mainly on the advice of her mother who had furnished her with the information and even internet-searched images necessary to identify damp and subsidence and popped plaster and a dozen other reasons to delay her daughter’s moving out of the family home.

Shauna pressed the dome.  It was hard but with the tiniest amount of give, as though with concerted effort she could pop through it and retrieve whatever was inside.  She refrained from doing this though, promising to herself that chiselling and painting over this blemish would be the first step in a long-promised programme of renovation that would mark her true transition into adulthood.

Her hand fell idly to the gap between the sofa cushion and the arm of the sofa and came up with a single ready salted crisp.  She removed a short black hair from its surface and placed it slowly into her mouth, enjoying the transgression, the slight chewiness and lack of flavour.  She kicked off her shoes, grabbed the red knitted throw from the back of the sofa and lay down, half-covering herself, pressing her face into a suede cushion.

*

That night Shauna dreamed about work, a regular anxiety dream in which she stood up to deliver a presentation and found she had no idea what it was supposed to be about or what she was supposed to say.  Sometimes the dream remained grounded, based in her office, with her colleagues watching and pulling sympathetic faces as she floundered.  Other times, usually when Shauna had been drinking, they became fantastical; the presentation relocated to a shiny brown school hall that seemed to stretch on forever; the faces of her colleagues became bestial, horrific, stretched outwards and upwards into impossible shapes.  Sometimes she was naked and felt a thousand eyes scanning her body.  Sometimes she was dressed in layer upon layer of old childhood clothes so that she waddled to the podium like an over-fed, rainbow coloured possum.  They laughed, jeered, told her she was fat or ugly, berated her in the voices of playground bullies or old boyfriends and all the while Shauna tried to plough on, reaching for the right words, horribly aware of the position of her feet or what her arms were doing as she babbled.

Tonight’s dream began in a similar vein.  The presentation took place in the back garden of the flat, the garden she had sole access to, which privilege she had taken advantage of by letting it grow wild and inaccessible.  She could barely see the tops of the heads of her audience above the grass as she began, clicking a button on a black oblong in her hand to activate a screen nailed haphazardly to the dilapidated shed at the end of the garden.  She stammered, gripped the podium with blood-drained fingers, felt a bead of sweat trickle down her temple.  It landed on the podium.  Her notes were covered in illegible black scribbles, spiders of ink, pressure-scratched, hideous.  The bead of sweat mixed with the ink making a grey swirl she thought she would disappear into.

Then next to the paper she saw the domed lump from the wall, slightly larger than it had been before, protruding from the top of the podium.  It was the same width but longer, or from this angle taller.  She touched it, felt the slight movement of its surface beneath her two fingers.

And she began to talk and the words came, easily; her voice was clear and full of authority and the faces of the audience were rapt.  Her mother and father sat in the front row, beaming happily between the sharp leaves of a monstrous nettle and she knew in that instant that they loved her.  When Shauna finished the presentation the crowd cheered in ecstasies, a cresting wave of approbation.  Shauna stepped back from the podium and the garden fences became the sides of an ornate proscenium arch under which she took an elaborate bow and scooped up armfuls of white flowers thrown from the crowd, who stood on tip toes to get a glimpse of her above the thick-bladed grasses that danced now from side to side in rhythm with the rapturous applause.

At the edges of Shauna’s dream state danced the knowledge that this was a dream, a ridiculous scene, a juvenile fantasy.  She pushed it away, smiled and took her final bow.

*

The next day, as Shauna swiped and stabbed at her phone on the Tube to work, she had a strange feeling of optimism.  She didn’t remember the dream but nonetheless had some sense that things were different now, after last night.  She looked round at the other people in her carriage with the feeling that they were unfortunate, that they were lacking something she had found.  The feeling lasted until three stops before she got off.  Dread, thick and dark, took hold when she looked up at the map, froze her for a moment to her seat before she was able finally to stand, clutch the handle by the door and wait, staring at her stretched reflection in the tunnel-darkened window.

*

Shauna hadn’t thought about the lump on the wall in the sitting room all day.  In fact, she hadn’t even remembered it through the obscuring muddle of booze.  But when she got home that night she went quickly and inexplicably to the spot above the sofa and found it.  It was slightly larger now, and longer.  Its colour had changed from the white of the wall to a pale yellow like the pages of an old book.  She touched it, first on top, then at the sides, squeezing it between thumb and forefinger.  It was softer than before and, though she thought she might be imagining it, warmer too.  She shuddered slightly, shrugged off her coat without taking her eyes off the lump.  She went out to the garden, waded through the tall grass and came back from the shed with the toolbox she’d noticed when she’d first moved in seven months ago and was eyeing the place up for all the remodelling she would do.

She placed the toolbox on the coffee table.  It had originally been red but most of it was now overtaken by orange rust.  The handle gave a squeak as Shauna released it.  She pushed up the clasp of the lid and a shower of rust fell onto the table.  Inside she found a clear plastic box full of shiny silver nails, its lid secured with brown parcel tape, a clogged glue gun, a hammer and a chisel.  She took out these last two and, with an expression of determination, brought them over to the lump.

She placed the blade of the chisel first on the side of the lump, then on top.  Standing on the sofa she was able to get a good angle to come down with the hammer.  She surmised it would be a quick job.  The lump seemed fragile enough that one or two blows with the hammer would be enough.

She raised the hammer.  She looked at the lump, its domed tip, noticed creases of paint across its middle.  She lowered the hammer.  She relocated the chisel a few millimetres away from the wall, thinking of the damage she might do to the paint work if it were too close.

She raised the hammer.  The lump was the colour of a jaundiced eye.  She tightened her grip on the chisel and raised the hammer higher.

The doorbell rang.

Shauna placed the hammer and chisel back in the toolbox and went to the door.  It was the next-door neighbour, a lady in her sixties whose name was either June or Jean.  She gave the impression of never being at rest; she was always heading out or just getting in and her little legs were never still.  She held out a brown box, simultaneously rising on her toes.

“Package arrived for you, dear,” she said.

Shauna smiled and took the package and said, “Thanks.”

“Anything nice?” June or Jean asked, nodding towards the package.

“Oh, um, I think it’s just a sketchbook I ordered.”

“Lovely!  Going to do some sketches then?”  June or Jean was a nice lady but Shauna resented the fact she was always the one who had to end the conversation with an “Anyway…” or better yet a “Well, I’ll let you go…”

“Yeah, well…some painting actually.  Watercolours.  They arrived yesterday.”

“Oh yes, I remember.”

“How are you?” Shauna asked.

“Fine, fine, thanks, dear.”

There was a pause.  Shauna looked down at her package and flicked a piece of the cardboard that had flapped loose.

“Well,” she said finally, “I’ll let you go…”

“Yes, take care, dear.”

Shauna closed the door and went upstairs to place the box next to the unopened watercolours in the spare room.

*

“Do you like working here, Shauna?” Douglas asked.  He had perched himself on the edge of Shauna’s desk and was flicking through a pad of Post-it notes.  Douglas was Shauna’s boss.  He was neither hard nor soft enough to be a character.  One of her previous bosses, Luke, had spent his time yelling at the top of his lungs, occasionally at his colleagues, routinely by himself in his office. Her last boss, Simon, was always bringing in pastries and asking you about your day. Both had made passes at her, though the manner of each pass had surprised her. Luke hadn’t shouted or got angry, but had got drunk at a work do and tearfully confessed to the unhappiness of his marriage before leaning in with gin-soaked breath. Simon, however, had pinned her against a filing cabinet after a meeting when the rest of the office had gone for lunch, then found a way to ‘let her go’ after she’d made her disgust clear. Douglas conducted business with a blandness Shauna felt it deserved.  He was incapable of bullshit and it had kept him locked in middle management far after his peers were promoted.

“Hmm?” Shauna said.  She’d heard the question but was buying time for an answer that would satisfy both parties.  An answer, of course, that did not exist.

Do you like working here?” He smiled a very appropriate co-worker smile.

“It’s…fine.  I…of course I like it.”  She looked up at him and returned the smile.  “I like it,” she repeated.

“Liar.” he replied thoughtfully.

Shauna was surprised at this response but she held her hands out, conceding. “I know it must shock you to your core, Doug, but no, I don’t really like working here.” It felt good to voice it aloud.

“Me neither,” Douglas said, shaking his head sadly. “What kind of maniac would?”

Shauna swallowed a gulp of tea loudly and looked up at Doug with incredulity.  He shrugged and continued flicking the Post-its.

“Why don’t you… y’know… quit and do something else?” she asked.

“I’m too old. What would I do? You’re young though.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “Why don’t you get out of here?”

Shauna looked around. “Now?”

“I mean do something else with your life. This is no good for you. You’re so much better than this.”

“Are you flirting with me Doug?”

“Come on, Shauna,” Doug persisted.  “This place is… Don’t stick around if you’re not happy.”

Shauna sighed and put down her cup.  She cast her eye over her desk, her keyboard, her pot plant, nameless, wilting and bereft.  “The truth is,” she began, “I am a big fucking lazy coward.  Do I like it here?  No.  Would I be happier somewhere else?  Who knows?  But what price would I have to pay to find out?  I just…I’m sorry this doesn’t match up to whatever idea of me you have in your head, Doug, but I just…I don’t have it in me.”

She slumped back in her chair, physically exhausted from the admission as though it had been a prolonged bout of vomiting.

Doug stood up.  “Well, I’m sorry to hear you say that and I think you’re wrong,” he said.  “And I’m going for a pint.”

He went out without another word.

*

Shauna raised the hammer above her head.  She eyed the handle of the chisel, shifted her thumb to minimise the chance of hitting it.

It was Saturday morning, 10.30am, and the start of the rest of Shauna’s life.  She would eradicate this blot on the sitting room, sand and paint, make perfect what was currently unsightly.

Had it grown a little longer still?  The lump was, she estimated, around three inches long now.  Whatever was causing it was cracking and yellowing the paint as there were more creases in the middle now and a layer of paint had popped up at the end.  She prepared herself for the sight of an insect nest or grotesque fungal growth when the hammer fell.  Shauna repositioned the chisel a final time and prepared to deliver her blow.

And that was when the lump twitched.

Shauna stared and the scene in front of her shifted, as though a new lens had been dropped in front of her vision.  Had it been like this all morning or had it shifted and changed in that moment?  Because there was no mistaking what Shauna was looking at and her mind railed against the idea she’d ever thought any differently.  The creases were not made of paint but folds of skin.  The paint layer at the end was most certainly a fingernail.

It was a thumb.

A thumb protruded from Shauna’s sitting room wall, as though a person had stood in the hallway and forced it through.  Shauna walked to the hallway to check this but it was empty of all but her own shoes, piled on top of each other.  She returned to the sitting room.

The thumb was slightly bent after its twitch but was still now.  The white of the wall changed colour so subtly to the flesh yellow-brown of the thumb that it was impossible to see where one colour ended and the other began.

Shauna thought of a trip she’d taken with friends to New Orleans, in between college and university.  A bus tour guide had told them about the necessity of embalming and of stone mausoleums and monuments in Louisiana.  Bodies buried in swamplands worked their way back out of the ground in a matter of months.  Did the same thing happen to murder victims stashed in wall cavities?  She looked again at the thumb.  It’s colour was unusual but apart from that it was…healthy-looking.

Shakily, she retreated to the armchair against the opposite wall, not taking her eyes off the invading digit.  Now that the initial shock had worn off her previous feeling of determination returned.  What had changed?  There was still an unwanted object on the wall of her sitting room.  It still needed to be dealt with.  The hammer and chisel option certainly seemed less palatable now but Shauna was still sure she could find a solution.  If she called the police what would they do?  Almost certainly they would demolish her wall in an attempt to solve the mystery.  The thumb was not going anywhere soon.  She would think this through.

Drowsiness overcame Shauna.  She hadn’t eaten yet that morning and she felt suddenly weak and tired.  She drew her knees up to her chest and succumbed to sleep.

Creature

This is the first piece I read out at the first group last Monday. Not sure why I decided against reading The Conduit, the piece I posted previously. I wrote it very quickly and it seemed to go over ok. I appreciated the comments pushing me towards being more explicit about the nature of the titular creature and when I finish it I’ll try to do this.

The inception of the idea came from my recent dip in mood and absence from work, which has seen me wake in ‘a stew of anger and despair’ before I’m able to pull myself together. I realised I was channeling Kafka a little with the bathetic reaction of the main character and I also owe a debt, it dawned on me later, to Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, a very weird independent film starring Anne Hathaway as a women who realises her domestic life is affecting the movements of a Godzilla-style monster (above. Apologies for the grainy image) attacking Seoul.

Sam awoke that morning in such a stew of anger and despair that a three hundred foot creature emerged from his mind and laid waste to most of London.  It started in the east, avoiding Sam’s favourite coffee shops, then proceeded across the City, crushing people and buildings beneath its pairs of three-toed feet.  It toppled tower blocks and flattened artist’s studios, smashed high street betting shops and caved in the theatres.  It breathed jets of black fire from a protuberance in the centre of its head and excreted a pheromone from spiracles along its back that caused waves of people to hurl themselves, lemming-like from the famous bridges.  Smaller creatures, darting and skittering, broke off from its underbelly and chewed through advertising boards, drinking the electricity that powered them, entering Tube tunnels and devouring their contents from the inside out.  When the creature reached Hangar Lane it stopped suddenly, turned and stalked back across London as though returning from a day’s work.  It continued to the estuary where, in one smooth movement, it leapt and dived beneath the steel water.

It was a Tuesday.

Sam walked amongst the rubble towards a coffee shop on the corner near his house, his feet scuffing shards of stone and clods of earth that had been turned up by the creature.  Inside a mother was folding down a pram as her red-cheeked toddler pawed at her left leg with cake-coated fingers.  Three people, two women and a man, all in their mid-twenties, tapped away seriously at laptops in three corners of the room.  Sam went to the counter and ordered a Cappuccino.  He always worried it was the kind of coffee his mother would order and that he should really always ask for a flat white, but in truth he liked the chocolate powder and he enjoyed guessing which metal template the barista would use to sprinkle it; he imagined she was sending him secret messages with her choice.  The heart was an easy one.  The stylised coffee bean design?  She was calling him an aficionado – a coffee expert.  The star always depressed him, made him feel like a child being rewarded at school for not shitting his pants.

He felt his chest heat up as he waited.  He watched her lift the metal tin of chocolate in her left hand and her right hand went to the shallow container with the templates.  Sam’s brain pounded against his skull and he pressed two fingers deep into his eye.

She lifted out the heart and held it over the cup.  Joy swelled, briefly and painfully, in Sam.  She handed over the coffee and he choked on the sentence he had planned, saying only Chss, a blunted, barely audible version of ‘cheers’.

Sam sat down and tried to see what the laptop-tapping man was doing.  He couldn’t see the words, the type was much too small, but there were boxes and windows and what looked like lines of code that immediately made Sam feel small.  He noticed a covering of pale brown powder on the shoulders of the man’s gilet and in a small pile on top of his undersized beanie.  His first thought was of a massive accident with the chocolate sprinkler but that wasn’t it.  It was dust thrown up from the creature’s rampage.  Suddenly he realised this same dust covered every surface in the coffee shop.  He lifted his cup.  There was a circular print in the dust on the table.  They must have left the door open during the whole incident.  Very foolish.  But what the hipsters lacked in practicality they made up for in the provenance and quality of their coffee.

The manager of the coffee shop, a tiny man of around thirty, dark-skinned with frizzy black hair pulled back into a messy pony tail, came out from a back room and sneezed.  He yawned and gestured to one of his employees to perhaps try and clear some of the dust from the tables.  She looked affronted but eventually began the task, bringing a damp cloth to the table next to Sam and dabbing at the dust like little bird pecks.  Sam tried to catch her attention and roll his eyes at…what?  Her boss?  Life in general?  She looked up and gave him the ghost of a smile.

The coffee had been served at exactly the right temperature to drink so by now it was stone cold and made Sam shiver.  He finished it anyway then made his way to the door, nodding for some reason to an old man who came in as he went out.

*

Surprisingly, most of Sam’s flat had survived the arrival of the creature.  The bedroom was, in truth, a mess though.  The creature came into being at around ten feet long and had slithered and smashed through the wall adjoining the next flat before shooting upwards through the roof, expanding to its full size by the time it landed in the road.

Sam waved at Mrs Malinskaite through the hole in the wall.  She was in her sitting room watching a game show she’d Tivo’d.  She was a Lithuanian woman in her late thirties.  Her husband was a trained architect who was working as a decorator and her daughter, Ruta, thirteen, was the best English student in her class by quite some way and already a member of the local Labour party.  Mrs Malinskaite had stacked the bits of wall that had fallen through, neatly and politely, next to the hole and Sam went over to retrieve them.

“You still don’t have job, Sam?” she asked without looking up.  “It’s 9.15.”

“I do have a job, Mrs M,” Sam replied, picking up the wall bits and balancing them awkwardly on a raised thigh.  “But I’m…not feeling well today.”

She laughed gruffly.  “None of us well today.  Fucking monster destroy London.  Ashton Kutcher!”

A balding man in glasses on the TV said, “Ashton Kutcher?” and the host of the game show said, “Let’s see if ‘Aston Kutcher’ is up there.”

“What are they saying about that?” Sam asked, nodding towards the TV and trying to sound casual.

“They say monster is giant immigrant from space. Have no leave to remain on planet.” Mrs Malinskaite said.

Sam stared at her until she looked up, her expression unchanging.  “That is joke, Sam.  They don’t know what it is or where it came from or where it go now.  Everyone queue up with bullshit explanation on TV so I watch Pointless.”

Sam half placed, half dropped the pieces of wall on the floor beside his bed and sat down, puffing out his cheeks.  “They’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” he said.  “One thing we can rely on is the integrity and effectiveness of scientific enquiry.  They’ll do…tests and…they’ll figure it out.  Want anything from the shop when I go in a bit?”

“No, darling,” she replied.  “Thank you.”

Sam eyed the gap in the wall.  “What do you want to do about this?”

“I put up sheet later,” Mrs Malinskaite said.

“Cool,” replied Sam.  “Well, I’ll see you later, Mrs M.”

“Angola!” she said.

The Conduit

So this is my response to the first writing exercise. Like a terrible human I haven’t finished it or even stuck to the parameters of my own task as I haven’t managed to steer the story round to the second sentence (The boat drifted gently out to sea).

I challenged myself with this one to keep it simple as far as word choices go. Also, I’m currently in an argument with my four year old daughter about how to make a paper aeroplane so I’ll keep this intro simple too.

On the other side of the door the whispering had stopped.  At this point Eugene usually waited a few minutes before leaving the room.  Brian had advised him to do this on the day they had met, told him how disastrous it would be to come out too early.  Once, when Eugene was six, he’d seen the family cat perish under the wheels of a white van, its last cry a sort of mangled scream, eerily human.  It had stayed with him for weeks and years, that sight and that sound.  Brian had known this, of course, and had warned him that what he saw if he left the room early would make Tuppence’s death seem mildly pleasant by comparison.

“Just sit tight for a couple of minutes after the whispering stops, then you can come out,” Brian had said as they sat opposite each other on Eugene’s mother’s floral three piece.  “Then you can just get on with your day.”  Brian had sat back, arms across the back of the sofa, left ankle on right knee, beaming a window salesman’s grin.  He wore a green tracksuit and a red snapback and, though Eugene assumed Brian could take any form he wished, it was this form he always chose when they talked.  Maybe he thought it made Eugene feel comfortable.

Eugene stood up and carefully slid the white wooden chair back against the wall.  It was the only piece of furniture in the room; Brian had made him clear it out on day two, four days before They first came.  “Paint it white,” Brian had said, tipping back his cap and casting his eye over the walls and ceiling and floor. “Can’t have any distractions for you in here.”

“Why not?” Eugene had asked.  It was one of the few questions he’d had.

“Puts Them off,” Brian replied.  “They’re using you as a Conduit; they don’t want you thinking about a pot plant and ballsing the whole thing up.”  Brian nodded as though he understood.  Then he went to B and Q in his Fiat 500 (the last journey he would ever take in it), bought some white emulsion, came back and set about painting the room.  Brian stood watching, pointing out patches he’d missed, advising a second coat on the walls and a third on the floor.

Eugene stood still for a moment to make sure he had his equilibrium, then walked across the white floor to the white door and pulled down the white handle.

As always, the first thing that hit him was the faint scent of flowers and extinguished matches.  It reminded him of when his mother was still alive, when this was the family home not just his, and she filled it with oil-burning pots and incense sticks and even plug-in air fresheners before someone advised her of the hell they play with your sinuses.  It had taken five or six years for the real smell of the place to fight back against the floral onslaught: damp wood and stone; dust in places no deep clean probing had ever reached.  Then They had come and brought back this familiar but more subtle, earthier scent.

“How did it go?” Eugene asked.

“Fine,” Brian replied matter-of-factly.  He was in his usual place on the sofa and cradled a cup of tea in one of Eugene’s mother’s blue and white china cups.  “Tea?”

“Sure,” said Eugene.  Brian went into the kitchen and Eugene sat in the armchair, picked up the remote control and flicked idly through the channels.  He was a tall, thin man with a pinched face, a broad forehead and thinning red hair.  His eyes were pale and glassy and flitted left and right, in search of nothing in particular.  Despite his slender frame his t shirt clung to his body, frayed at the hem, yellowed at the armpits.

“I’m supposed to tell you They’re impressed with you, mate!” Brian called out.  “I mean, They ARE impressed with you, and They wanted to make sure I said.  Your efforts are appreciated.”

“I don’t know if ‘efforts’ is the right word, Brian,” Eugene said.  “I just sit there.”  There was no emotion in his response.  It was merely an observation.

“You’d be surprised,” said Brian, leaning against the kitchen doorway, dunking a teabag.  “Some people just can’t…cope…  Your mind is perfect for it.  No…thoughts getting in the way.  No offence.”

“No, no.” Eugene waved a vague hand.

After a minute or two Brian returned to his spot on the sofa, sinking down into a divot perfectly fitting his buttocks and thighs.

“Anyone special in today?” Eugene asked.  “I know you can’t say too much.”

“Oh, the usual, really.  Mainly Level 4s from both Sides.  Bigwig from Downstairs popped along towards the end – some issue with a borderline case.  I honestly don’t pay too much attention to stuff above my paygrade,” he yawned.  “Once I’ve taken care of the Conduit,” he gestured towards Eugene, “and got Them all here I’m just happy to drink my tea and take it easy.”

Eugene looked at Brian and felt something like jealousy.  Here was a man, or…whatever, who was content in his job.  Eugene had never been able to say that.  He’d had a hundred jobs: from manning a desk at the local council, fending off homeless families to driving round in van delivering meats he suspected were not as halal as his employer claimed.  The problem, he had started to realise, was that there WAS no job for him.  He figured that’s why he let Brian into his house without any resistance, did as he was told, sat in the blank room every few days to facilitate the Conferences.  Finally his lack of ambition and imagination was a positive.

“You’re absolutely right, my friend,” Brian said, grinning.  “And don’t be ashamed to think it.”

No matter how many times it happened, Eugene couldn’t get used to the mind reading.  Or whatever Brian wanted to call it.  The way Brian described it there was no ‘reading’ to be done.  Everyone’s minds, he said, were part of the same eternal everythingness, and he was just plugged into it.

“You know the other thing you’ve got going for you in this line of work?” Brian asked, finishing the tea and placing the cup on one of Eugene’s mother’s horse-themed placemats. “Never once have you asked yourself whether this all might just be going on in your mind.”

Eugene considered this.  Brian was right, he had never considered that.  He considered considering it now.  What was to be gained?  If this was a figment of his imagination could he make it stop?  He doubted that.  And they key question was: did he want to make it stop?

People do that?” Eugene asked.

All the time!” Brian replied, gesticulating with both hands.  “They shout it at me! ‘You’re not real!  I shouldn’t have taken so much of that shit last night!’”  He chuckled and acted the part of one of these reality-deniers, clamping his hands over his ears and squeezing his eyes shut.  “Funny when you think about it.  Humans do have an extraordinary talent for believing only what they want to believe.  Present company accepted.”

“Never had much time for belief,” Eugene said.  “When mother died people told me she’d gone to a better place.  But that just seemed silly.”  He looked up at Brian.  “Believing it blindly, I mean.  Obviously it doesn’t seem silly anymore.”

“Oh, but it is silly, mate, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Just because its true doesn’t change that.  I know barely more than you at my level but I’m telling you, even the Man Himself is making it all up as he goes along.”

“Will I see her when I die?” Eugene asked.  Brian gave him a look that was somewhere between pity and admonishment.

“You’re better not asking those sorts of questions, pal,” he replied.  “Not sure you’d like any of the answers.”

Eugene nodded slowly and the flame of something like a feeling flared for a brief moment in the pit of his stomach.

“Time to call it a day, mate,” Brian said cheerily, slapping his thighs and rising to his feet.  “You get your head down and I’ll see you in a few days.”

*

Eugene usually drifted easily into a dreamless slumber but tonight he lay awake.  He slept in the box room, hadn’t moved into mother’s big double room at the front of the house after her death.  He’d barely gone in there for the first thirty years of his life and he saw no reason to now.  His room was familiar and he liked how the walls were always almost close enough to touch.

He stared at the perfectly circular blue spot he’d made on the ceiling with a dart gun and some poster paint as an eight year old.  Some nights he had the idea it was getting bigger and he had taken to measuring it every evening before bed.  Tonight it was seventeen millimetres, the same as it had always been.  But Eugene wasn’t sure he trusted the ruler.

He stared up at the spot and imagined it getting bigger and bigger and lifting him out of bed and pulling him in.  Up there everything would be poster paint blue and you’d sit in circles and drink blue milk all day.

A noise disturbed Eugene from his thoughts.  It was the kettle.  Mother had talked about replacing it for weeks before she died because of the violence of its action, rocking back and forth on the element before clicking and slowly coming to rest like a tranquilised animal.

Eugene stepped out of bed and made his way downstairs.  At the bottom he realised he hadn’t picked up anything heavy as a weapon and he wasted thirty seconds standing there imagining what he might’ve chosen had he remembered.

It was ok in any case because, when he came to the doorway of the kitchen and looked inside it was just his mother who stood there, pouring steaming water from the kettle into her favourite cup.  She wore the nightdress she’d stayed in for the last few days of her life, and her cerise dressing gown with the cat sewn onto a superfluous breast pocket.  She smelled of violets and burnt toast.  She turned and looked at Eugene then gestured for him to take a seat at the table.  He did so and she sat opposite him, her grey hands around the steaming cup.

They sat for a minute or two, then Eugene reached across the table and poked the fleshless top of her left hand.  When she spoke it was in her familiar soft Kilkenny brogue.

“What the fuck is the matter with you, son?”

Eugene recoiled.  “I-I was just seeing if you were…”

Mother brushed the spot on her hand he had touched.  “Not that.  What are you doing with this ee-jut Brian?”

“That…He…I…”

“Honest to God, Eugene Bannon, you’re as useless as when I was alive.  He’s got you stuck in the house doing as you’re told and you’re just sitting there!”

Eugene looked at his mother’s face: the pale eyes, the thin nose, the slight quiver of the bottom lip.  “Are you…are you really here?” he asked.

“Don’t change the subject, ye little bastard!” she snapped.  “I’m trying to help ye, as usual!”

“H-help me do what?” Eugene asked.

“Help ye be a man!  Help ye grow up, for fuck sake!  Do you realise what a pain in the arse y’always were?  Do ye?  Thirty fucking years old and still in the box room!”

It was definitely her.  She’d come back and picked up right where she left off.

“Listen, mother,” Eugene said, trying to put some assertiveness in his voice, “You have no idea what’s going on with Brian.  What I’m involved with.  It’s important work.”

“Oh, is it now?” she replied mockingly.  “And how do ye know that?  Because of what he tells ye?  Because of a few whispers behind a door?  You’re so….”

She sat back in her chair as though exhausted.  Her tone softened.  “Didn’t y’ever ask him any questions about any of it?  Why could you never…wake up?  Take charge of your life?”

Eugene stared blankly at the table, followed one of the whorls of the wood to its termination and back again.  He thought of being sucked into the blue.  A tear came to his eye and dropped onto the table.

“My boy,” Mother said.  She reached across and touched the top of Eugene’s hand.  Her fingers were hard and cold.  “You know what you have to do, don’t ye?”

Eugene looked up and their pale eyes met.  Mother wiped away the tear trail with a stone finger.  “Ye have to open the door, son.”

*

Brian sat in his usual spot on the sofa.  Another Conference had taken place and Eugene had submitted to it with his usual quiet.

Brian finished the last of his tea, scooped up a Sainsbury’s bag from the sofa and made his way to the door.  Eugene watched him go.  He caught a waft of flowers and tea.

“Why do you use the door?” Eugene asked.

“Sorry, what, mate?”

“I was just wondering why you use the door.  If you’re…whatever…Can’t you just, you know…” He made a playground explosion noise and indicated Brian’s disappearance into thin air with his fingers.

Brian turned to face Eugene and his expression was blank for a split second before he furrowed his brow theatrically and scratched his chin.  “Well, I could, you know…” he mimicked Eugene’s gesture, “but it takes quite a lot of energy.  I told you I’m not Beelzebub’s right hand man; I don’t exactly possess an embarrassment of maledictory mojo, you know?”

Eugene nodded vigorously, but something had taken hold in his mind and it seemed to command his tongue before he could stop it.  “So you, what, get the bus back?

Brian scrunched his bag in his hands, squeezing whatever was inside through the orange plastic.  “Lot of questions today, Eugene.  You feeling yourself?”  The smile quivered on his lips.

“I’m…good, really.  I just…wondered, that’s all.”

“Play to your strengths,” Brian said, stepping closer and staring Eugene straight in the eyes.  “Wondering never got you very far before you met me, did it?  Why start now?”

“So…you don’t get the bus?” Eugene gulped.

Brian was inches from him now.  His breath was hot and flowery.  “Of course I do not, Eugene, old pal.  I walk to a piece of consecrated ground a few roads over.  It’s a portal and it takes less energy to use.  Does that satisfy you?  Shall I draw you a map?”

Something was happening to Brian’s face as he spoke.  It was getting redder and the edges seemed to sharpen.

“Sorry, Brian, I was just…”

“Wondering,” Brian finished.  “Have a little think about that for tomorrow, would you?  You know your job and you’re good at it.  Don’t get any ideas beyond that; it won’t help.  Trust me.”

His fingers tightened on the bag for a moment, then he turned and was gone.

Eugene slumped back onto the sofa, breathing heavily.  He picked up one of mother’s coasters from the table and turned it in his hands.

The shade and the super-human

A date has been set for the first group: Monday 27th January at my kids’ favourite juice spot, Phlox on Francis Road in Leyton. That being the case, the worrying and self-doubt can really begin in earnest. Who in the name of Danny Dyer’s ghost writer do I think I am, starting a writer’s group in this creative enclave? In my first post I talked about the two inner voices that dictate my approach and reaction to writing: one a swaggering, lesser-spotted super-human, safe in the knowledge of his own talent; the other an anxiety-ridden shade of a man who can’t write so much as a sentence without doubting his right to exist. Can either of these clowns organise a writer’s group?

The template for the group, the thing that makes me sure it could be a worthwhile use of everyone’s time, is a creative writing course I took at uni over 200 years ago (sic). I had no idea what I was doing or applying for when I went through the UCAS process; no clue what I wanted to do with my life or how anything I applied for would help me get there. I had recently quit an Art foundation course. I’d given it a try but found that a skill for drawing that was impressive as a kid had not really developed into my teenage years, my long-held and thinly thought-through ambition to be a graphic designer slowly dissolving in the face of this cold hard truth. One day I found myself with a carved potato in each hand, using them to print a pattern, and realised I hadn’t come very far in my artistic vision.

So it was time to rethink. I knew I liked films and writing so I coveted a spot on the then one-of-a-kind BA Scriptwriting for Film and Television at Bournemouth. The word on the street was that completing this degree all but guaranteed you a bash at writing for The Bill. (Younger readers, The Bill was a TV police soap, kind of like that Line of Duty you’re obsessed with but much more classy and with a hypnotic end credit crawl involving a pair of shoes walking endlessly away into the distance.)

I didn’t make the cut, and instead took Film and English Studies at UEA, picking my way through densely-written cultural theory and highly entertaining film studies courses with titles like ‘Bangy Crashy Smashy: Action Cinema and the contemporary male’. As an option I took Creative Writing (unaware, naive as I was, of my close proximity to the MA Creative Writing Course, supposedly one of the best in this or any country), and found the promise of a guaranteed supportive but critical audience was just what it took to give me the push to write. They were short pieces produced as homework and read and dissected at each seminar. Receiving positive comments in these sessions served to assuage the fears of my anxious inner shade, while criticism kept the super-human from attempting world domination. I can only remember one of the actual exercises the tutor gave us, but I’m going to use it for the first session.

So the next post will include this exercise as well as my own response to it. Anyone who wants to come to the group with some writing and doesn’t have any current irons in the fire can, if they wish, write their own response and bring it along.

Oh God, I have to write something now…

Mark

Comic Book Death and resurrection

*Warning: contains Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker spoilers*

I often struggle with the absurdity of writing. Not absurd writing, that can be great; I’m talking about the absurdity of writing fiction; the act itself. You tell people in words that stuff is happening, or has happened, and you describe what people looked liked and what they said and how they felt. And the reader is supposed to accept this weird arrangement between you and to invest in it. If I think about it for too long the idea of writing down even something as simple as “he said” becomes cripplingly impossible. I understand that storytelling is an ancient tradition, perhaps essential to the experience of being human and living in a society. But it’s also a bit silly.

When you fold in the trappings of genre fiction this problem (perhaps only mine) is exacerbated. A great many fantasy writers have tied themselves in knots creating a world of sorcery then setting rules to prevent this magic rendering all tension non-existent. A character cannot be all-powerful or she can do as she pleases and to heck with the wishes of other characters or the pesky requirement to draw out a compelling plot. Even the greatest writers sometimes let one slip through the cracks. Many highly-invested Lord of the Rings fans have questioned and elaborately theorised about why, if Gandalf had access to a massive magical eagle all along, he didn’t just zoom up to Mount Doom and chuck in the ring on page 1 (OK, this is Tolkien, so maybe page 200). Even the most powerful mages can’t be too powerful or it screws things up for the narrative.

In comic books the nadir (or zenith?) of this quandary is seen in the phenomenon often termed ‘Comic Book Death’. Over the decades practically every Marvel or DC hero has perished only to be resurrected by magic, technology or alternate universe chicanery. Superman died, Batman died, The Flash died, Captain America died, Spider-Man died, Bob the Builder died. They all came back. In a universe so suited to ultra-fandom, the pleasure in these narratives shifts from one of surprise to one of prediction – how will they bring him / her back and when? Like contemporary fans of 80s slasher horror films, experts in who would die and in what order, shouting out plot points at the screen, comic book fans take pleasure in the fact that they know their stuff and are in on the gag.

In Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker a similar potentially problematic device is established (or, more accurately, we are bludgeoned to within an inch of our lives by it): that of Rey’s life-giving mojo with the force. Early on she uses it to Androcles-and-the-lion a giant snake-thing, healing it and revealing, like a videogame puzzle, a light-blinking escape route from its lair. Later this escalates into a tit-for-tat resurrection game between Rey and Kylo Ren, the latter bringing the former back from blank-eyed perishment only to peg out with the effort of it all. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the cinema who, peering through my two sets of lenses (one myopia-correcting and belonging to me, the other 3D interpreting and belonging to the incredible BFI iMax in Waterloo), wondered whether the climax of the nine-film arc might actually be the image of these two characters locked in an eternal embrace of death and resurrection beneath the Sith planet while everyone else goes back for tea and crumpets with the Ewoks. This must have occurred to the writers too because as soon as this thought went through my head Ren started fading out of corporeal existence like his namesake Ben Kenobi, his clothes drifting, all emotional-like, to the floor, rendering himself unresurrectable. Palpatine too returns from his screaming electricky death in Return of the Jedi and seems only to have suffered a few rotten fingers and a bad case of milky eyes. He seems to have timed his comeback purely for the benefit of Disney’s production plans. A huge plus of the film is that it moves so quickly you don’t dwell on all this until after its over and you’re alone in bed thinking about Adam Driver’s sulky little face and Daisy Ridley’s serious little face and wondering what the devil it all means.

Look at his little face!

Note: many of my comments above are snarky, or sarky, or at least seem negative. To clarify, on the whole I enjoyed Rise, with the proviso that it was a bit of a mess and was nothing compared to the magnificent, bold The Last Jedi. The lack of readers of this blog embolden me to make such a claim, safe in the knowledge that those rabid Star Wars fans who broke the internet in their loathing of Rian Johnson’s film will likely never read this: my opinion that The Last Jedi might be my favourite of ALL the Star Wars films. Yes, ALL. Yes, including Empire! Unclench, nerds!

So what do we learn from all this? Writing of any kind is tough. It’s work. Writing fantasy or sci-fi brings freedoms of imagination that in themselves can create tricky issues for plotting and tension. And to return to my original point, writing is a bit weird all round. One of my biggest barriers to writing anything at length has been a sense that nothing I write is valid. I can see the joins in it – the weirdness of “he said” – and that underlying absurdity is all I see. I’ve realised I need to keep in mind the experience of reading. A good story doesn’t let you pause and wonder why you’re interpreting pronouns and verbs; if it works it engages you and you’re drawn in, plot holes be damned. Whenever I’ve hashed out ideas with another person I’ve always like them more because they haven’t arisen solely out of my broken brain. It’s something I need to get past, something this blog and hopefully the group will help conquer.

Devil in the detail

The thing about a period setting is all the research. I should clarify that. I’m not spending days on end in the British library reading rooms poring over any dusty tomes. I have a job and two small kids. No, my research is more of the ‘Googling “What sort of trousers did they wear in the 16th century?”‘ variety. But it can threaten to take over if you’re not careful. Let it go too far and pretty soon you’re asking the internet whether they said ‘maybe’ in 1592. And this way madness lies.

Once again this introduction performs the function of a Shakespearean chorus: excusing what you’re about to see in advance. Any historians in? Don’t read too closely and, if you spot any anachronisms, imagine I was fully aware and left them in for artistic purposes. General readers should apply the same rule if they spot any bits that are poorly-written.

So here’s part two of the Paris backstory thing. Our last installment found Paris’s father receiving bad news about his latest trade mission and here, right on cue, some ‘heavies’ barge in to demand their money.

At precisely this moment the door to the study flew open and crashed against the wooden panels of the wall.  There marched into the room three gentlemen, two light-footed and elegantly-dressed, the third in slightly tattered garb, and behind them a pair of feet skittering along that I identified as those of Mrs da Guda, the head of our staff of maidservants.

“My lord, they barged in before I could stop them!” Mrs da Guda squeaked.  “I told them you were already in conference but the big one berated me in most vulgar tones!”

“I have not nearly begun,” came the gravelly voice of one of the intruders.  “Persist in attempting to stop us, signora, and you shall hear and see a great deal more of my vulgarity.”  This speaker’s club-like fists, I noted, were scarred and stained with something foul and grey-black.  He pointed at Strangwish.  “You too, trencher man.  Begone or I’ll pop you like a buboe.”

The push factor of this threat allied with the pull of the crisp night air was enough to cause Strangwish to depart in short order, with not another word or sound.  Mrs da Guda’s loyalty, too, had reached what she considered its reasonable limit and she exited quickly, the third intruder slamming the door after her.

From my hiding spot it was hard to tell the two smaller men apart, but my attention was in any case fixated by the one whose hands I had identified as keenly accustomed to some form of physical toil.  This gentleman leaned himself against my table and it creaked in protest.  As he gripped its edge I could see his fingernails, such as were left, and they were thick, yellowed and rimmed with grime.

One of the elegantly dressed men, who throughout all this had remained still and silent, took a seat before my father.

“Lord Paris,” he began.  “Come sta, signor?”  Father did not reply. “First of all, we must apologise for the late hour of our visit.  Circumstance does not always permit strict adherence to society’s conventions and here we find ourselves in just such a circumstance.  Though I notice you are not unaccustomed to nocturnal conference?”

Still father kept quiet and I knew he was eyeing the intruders with his hard, blue-eyed stare.

“Be it so,” the man continued, “I feel justified in coming to the meat of the matter: our employer, sad to say, has found himself somewhat out of pocket this month and so it falls to me and my colleagues here present to render such assistance as we find ourselves able;  specifically, in this case, to visit you, one of our employers’ most loyal contributors, at this unseemly hour and enquire as to your situation – namely your financial situation…

My child’s mind was entranced by this amiable gentleman.  His speech was like a song and the words contained in it flowed together gently and pleasingly.  I wondered why my father did not answer to such warm interlocution.

“Please, my lord,” the eloquent man continued.  “It waxes late and this is the end of a long and arduous day for me.”  His tone became almost conspiratorial as he leaned in closer to my father.  “I would dearly love to delegate some of these duties, as men of our wit may do, but my brother,” he indicated the other well-dressed man, “has not spoken a word since our mother died, which makes him of little use in negotiation.  And Uccello here…” He indicated the large man.  “Well, he is able to speak, though, dio mio, little of what he says is suited to the art of dialogue.”

Inches from my head the large man’s fingers closed into a fist and I heard the joints cracking.  Still my father was silent.  Could he be nervous?  Was he still upset by the news from his departed captain? Or was the subject at hand as aloof to him as it was to me and he was afraid to admit it?  None of these were usual with him and so seemed unlikely.  It took what happened next to prick my naivety.

The eloquent man shut his eyes, looked pained, and nodded.

With a speed that belied his size the large man advanced on my father, seeming to grow in size as he did so.  It was difficult to see exactly what occurred as the man’s enormous bulk blocked my view, but there was the noise of scuffling feet and grunts of effort from both men.

When Uccello stepped away I saw blood upon my father’s face, issuing from a ragged gash across his cheek!  It took every shred of my effort to remain silent.

The eloquent man sighed then took a handkerchief from inside his doublet and held it out.  My father merely stared at it then wiped his face with the palm of his hand.  “It pains me…” the eloquent man began, his voice trailing off as though he had thought better of continuing.  His tone became just a little impatient.  “Would you risk your life, so dear to your family, for something as vulgar as money?”

“I have none.”  Finally my father spoke!  “At least none to spare, and not enough as would satisfy your employer.”

“You’ll forgive me if I find that rather difficult to believe,” the other replied, casting a glance at his opulent surroundings.  “There is much here of great worth, is that not so?”

“Nothing that I would give to you,” came the blunt reply.

“Nothing you would give…” the eloquent man said, nodding to Uccello, who made ready to advance again.  This time as he did so I caught sight of what he carried in his hand.  It was a blade, six inches long, and thin as a sapling branch.  It was not its size, however, but its shape that horrified me.  Its cutting edge was serrated to form vicious teeth and where the blade met the hilt two more steel protrusions, smooth and wickedly sharp curved outwards and ended in points.

I yelped, clapping my hands over my mouth, too late to arrest the sound.

Uccello froze and quiet fell in the room.  I watched as though at a remove from my body as the man paced towards the table.  I braced myself for the hand that would snake down and pull me from my hiding spot by the hair and in those brief seconds pictured this monster snapping me into two pieces like stale bread.  I watched eight calloused fingers curl around the underside of the table.

My hiding place exploded.  The table flew up, spinning in the air, and landed with a mighty crash an inch from me.  Still I was frozen.  My father ran for me, calling my name, but Uccello grabbed him in a vice-like grip.  The eloquent man’s brother, who had spent the entire time leaning against the door frame, walked slowly over to where I was cowering and lowered himself onto his haunches.

He was identical to his loquacious brother in every way.  He was thin, his pale cheeks brightened with rouge, and his hair had receded at the front to a widow’s peak.  His eyes looked colourless, as though his pupils had dilated and swallowed any hint of blue or brown.  He smiled and held out a hand.

“Young Master Paris, is it?!” the talkative brother said, delight in his voice.  “Almost a man grown!”

“What are you doing here?!” my father growled.  Blood from the wound had run into his mouth and his gritted teeth were tinged red.  He looked like the Devil himself. I could not answer.  I could not think.  I cowered from the silent brother’s outstretched hand and wished to disappear.

“Bring him out to meet us!” the eloquent man said.  Uccello moved at this but I saw the eloquent man hold out a hand to stop him.

The silent brother waggled his fingers and smiled again, gesturing with a flick of his head that I should rise.  Seeing no other option I did so, slowly and on trembling legs.  The silent man took my hand and drew me over to where my father and Uccello were.  I avoided my father’s stare, looking only at the familiar woven pattern on the carpet.

“Now,” the eloquent man continued, “Let us return to business.”  He turned to me and his voice took on a singsong quality.  “Perhaps you may learn something young master.  It might serve you well when all this belongs to you.”  He turned back to my father.  “Some of the items in this room would serve adequately as an earnest of greater payment in the future.  Surely this is agreeable to you, sir?”

My father was still looking at me.  He spat on the floor.  The eloquent man nodded and smiled.  “There are more precious things in this world than money, my lord,” he said.  “My brother could teach you that.  The loss of family is felt more keenly than the loss of material things and is impossible to rectify.  My brother could teach you that.  And he could teach your boy here, is that not so, brother?”  I felt the silent man’s hands tighten on my upper arms.  “You are how old, young Master? 7 or 8?  He could educate you in so much, young master Antonio…”

The silent brother released my left arm and placed his fingers on my head, ruffling my hair, grazing the top of my ear.  I could feel his warm breath on the nape of my neck.

“Enough!” my father cried.

Poor old Paris

In an interview on 6 Music the other day, Phoebe Waller-Bridge likened talking about your writing to ‘drinking your own bathwater’. Everyone should probably listen to and live by everything she says so I am loathed to do much introducing or picking apart of what I’m going to share in this post. But then again, isn’t talking about writing the raison d’etre of this blog and hopefully the group if it gets off the ground? Hmmm… She’s given me a lot to think about, has that Fleabag…

Alright, so suffice it to say this is the first part of my backstory of Paris from Romeo and Juliet (discussed at far too much length in the last post). I wanted to rethink his motivations, to flesh out the two-dimensional character so often portrayed on screen. In this scene I introduce Paris’s father (I guess he’s Paris too) and the financial difficulties he’s in. Part two in the next post.

From my hiding place beneath the table in the study I watched father enter the room.  The thick soles of his boots, newly-polished, lent weight to his already heavy step.  He was a man of considerable stature, and not only in the sense of having been endowed with impressive height.  In the city, being of noble blood, he was well-known; ever a large man if not one of largess.  His name was known, his activities studied by those outside his circles with the fascination and resentment invariably arising from the inequalities of man’s society.

It had been my custom to secrete myself beneath the table for the best part of the past year, ever since the sounds of gentlemanly conference emanating therefrom had enflamed my childish curiosity to unbearable heights.  I had found that, provided I waited just long enough after father had put me to bed to satisfy him that I was asleep, but not too long that any movement on my part should coincide with the arrival of his frequent visitors, I was able, with great stealth and owing in no small part to my extensive knowledge of the hiding places available on the journey, to make my way from my chamber at the top of the house to father’s study, and thereafter to settle myself comfortably upon the rug, safely-hidden from view by the thick-legged throne upon which no one ever sat.

I watched and listened, enthralled, and at the same time knowing I must at any time be found out, such was the enormity of my transgression.  Ours was a house of rules, and at this hour I was to be in bed, a fact unambiguously made known to me by our nurse, Laura.  Each night she repeated in her deep and breathless voice, “To sleep now, Little Lord, your father wishes not to be disturbed.”  There was never any need to spell out the particulars of consequence or punishment.  These words, “Your father wishes”, entered the room through whomever spoke them with an almost physical force and I had never doubted nor tested the imperative.  Not until this past year – my eighth in the world.

But it was not only explicit rules I broke, seated, breath held, cross-legged beneath the chair, but one I had inferred myself.  Something about the nature of my father’s conversations with his night time visitors gave me to understand they were part of a world I was not.  As the years passed and I grew into a man this feeling persisted: that there were parts of father’s life forever under lock and key.  I understood not one word in ten of the conferences, but their tone, their gravity, the wordless undercurrent of menace came to my ears with terrifying clarity.

My father crossed the room now and the door had almost closed when a second pair of boots entered, the termination of a thick set of legs clad in white hose.  I could see the bottom portion of the man’s doublet, crimson and crusted with what looked to me to be precious gems, and his codpiece like the shell of some exotic sea creature from one of father’s books.

“Have a seat, Strangwish,” came my father’s booming voice.

“Many thanks, my Lord,” the other replied.  His voice was reedy, belying his girth, and something about the formality of it seemed forced, even to my untrained ears.  He spoke with a strange accent, leaning heavily on unusual syllables.  “Your family is well?”

“They are,” father replied, never one for small talk.  “But to our point: what news have you from your travels?  I received your letter a week since but its contents were disappointingly short on detail.”

Strangwish shifted in his seat at this then replied, “Indeed, my lord. My apologies.  I wrote it…in-in-in some haste and felt the details better conveyed in-in person than through the impersonal means of a piece of parchment.”

“Facts are facts, Strangwish, no matter the medium of their delivery.  And this is what I require.  Facts.  Hard facts.”

“I…Indeed and-”

“So furnish me with them,” father interrupted, his tone hardening.  “How fares my cargo?  Its volume and condition.  Its saleability…”

Strangwish cleared his throat.  The moment hung in the air for a while and silence enveloped the space.  My heart fluttered with tension and my breaths came shorter and harder, more difficult to keep silent.

“There were… problems in Lisbon,” Strangwish said, his voice even more high and strangled than before.  Father did not speak at this but it seemed his side of the room darkened almost visibly.  “Goncalvo, it seems, was more fulsome in his promises than he was able to fulfil in his actions.  Only…half the promised cargo awaited us when we arrived.”

Father gave a short, sharp cough and Strangwish jerked a little in his chair.

“He intended still to charge us the same price for half the product!” Strangwish blurted out, “until I told him, in no uncertain terms that it would not be tolerated.  I was firm, sir, that a change in his fortunes made no difference to you, and that the agreed price was immovable.  It was necessary to become rather firm with the man, my lord, and it was only through a mixture of diplomacy and threat that he finally acquiesced.”

“I am to thank you then, for your endeavours in securing half the promised bounty?”

“It is…I mean to say…my lord, things might at that stage have been a great deal worse…”

At this father stood.  I watched him take a step forward towards Strangwish, saw the man shrink from him, then watched him turn smartly as he made his way to the dresser behind his chair.  I heard the clinking of a liquor bottle against a glass then the wet sound of swallowing.

“Continue,” he said, without turning.

“Ah…Well, thereafter we made no more ado about our return, docking overnight, replenishing our supplies in the morning. We did chance to refresh ourselves at a lovely little inn before weighing-“

“I do not need every detail of your ablutions, Strangwish.  My cargo…”

“Y…yes, my Lord.  Marry, the seas were angry upon our return and it was only through the pains I took to marshal the men that we succeeded in weathering the storm.”

“Yes, yes,” father said, his impatience evident.  “Your immense talents as negotiator, captain and leader of men are duly noted.”  His voice dropped to nothing more than a whisper that sent a shiver down my spine.  “I ask you one final time, dear, loyal Strangwish: my cargo…”

The man squirmed awhile longer like an insect under the intense sunlight of my father’s gaze.  “I beg your pardon, my lord,” he began, “but might I trouble you for a dram of that whiskey?”

To my surprise, father silently signalled his agreement, pouring another glass and handing it to the quivering Strangwish, the latter seeing it off in one gulp and wheezing slightly afterwards.  He returned the glass, nodding his thanks.

“P…privateers, my lord…” he said in a whisper.  “They took us not a day from home and left us with only the tenth part of the half.”

Father sighed and it seemed more a weary noise than an angry one.  Without warning he slapped a massive hand onto Strangwish’s neck and leaned against him, his head upon his shoulder.  Strangwish’s legs bowed a little under the strain.  Father sighed again.

“I am…truly sorry, my lord.,” Strangwish muttered through the fabric of father’s cape.

My heart was pounding from my chest.  Fear and tension gripped me.  This was at least as thrilling as my wildest inventions concerning what might happen behind the study door, but now the moment was here I feared the excitement of emotions might kill me where I lay.  When, after what seemed an hour, my father spoke again, a spasm took me and I hit my head on a sharp edge of the chair leg, suppressing the pain with all my might, swallowing a cry.  No one heard.

“What am I to do?” father asked, the question directed at no one in particular.  “This cargo would have served, for the moment at least.  It would have purchased me more time.”

His tone was strange and I realised with horror that the emotion in it was despair, perhaps even fear.  I had only known my father to be a strong, confident man, and this apparent weakness struck me like a dagger, dudgeon-deep in my chest.

“There will be…other voyages, my lord,” Strangwish said hesitantly.  His hand hovered above my father’s back, paused in the act of administering a comforting pat, before he thought better of it and the arm returned to hanging awkwardly at his side.

Father raised himself to his full height again, using the trembling Strangwish as a crutch.  “Will there…?” he intoned.

In support of the bit players

These days I have my social anxiety mainly where I want it: it’s still around but I know its tricks and can deal with it. Some of this comes with age; at 40 I’m aware that a failed social exchange doesn’t equal a total failure as a person, and with a wife, kids and friends already in the bank the stakes are much lower than once they were. The less pressure you put on yourself to get a conversation ‘right’ the less time you spend inside your own head thumbing through the manual, asking yourself ‘How would a normal person answer that?’

University – that obstacle course of social exchanges – was a different matter. Though I lacked the vocabulary or the diagnosis to label it as such at the time, 19 year old me was a quietly imploding gas giant of anxiety. Chronic depression was a constant white noise behind my daily life and though I had a wonderful group of close friends and was always out in the world, I was… I suppose the word is ‘peripheral’. I remember nights out, viewed through an alco-pop haze over the shoulder of more affable, forthright friends; friends for whom the opportunity to meet new people, even to attempt to ‘pull’ them, to lasso them with devastating repartee, was a pleasure and not a chore. There were tours of duty in sticky-floored nightclubs during which a hundred introductions and meetings took place, and during which I always felt I made no imprint on those I met.

Our minds tell us these things. They construct narratives and we grab them and hold onto them to explain away who we are now. Others have told me a different story: that I was funny, that people liked me. But such comments are easy to swat aside when your self esteem is low. After all, what kind of monster would agree and say, ‘Yeah, you were a bit pathetic back then, mate’?

To be more concise, something I probably should have decided to be three paragraphs ago, in my time at university and for years afterwards I felt very much like the bit player in the scene. If my friends and I had been Biff’s gang from Back To the Future I wouldn’t even have been the one with the 3D glasses.

What famously overlooked bit players are there in literature? Well, I hadn’t really thought about it, but since you ask, and since it would make an ideal segueway, let’s have a think…

Two famous examples I’ve thought about a lot recently are Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre and the unnamed Arab from Camus’ The Stranger. They have things in common, these texts: both were thrust in front of me rather than I having sought them out, the former as a text I taught as an English teacher, the latter prescribed at the local book club. And both were reevaluated in the form of ‘follow-ups’ by other writers, their questionable politics deconstructed for the modern reader. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea fills in the backstory of Bronte’s attic-dweller, revealing her to be a victim of a patriarchy too willing to declare a woman ‘mad’ for non-conformity. In The Meursault Investigation, journalist Kamel Daoud gives a name and a kind of voice – that of his furious brother – to the unnamed Arab who is murdered in Camus’ most famous work, commenting on the legacy of colonialism and the dehumanising effect of reducing a human being to a stereotype.

Mahogany: Robert Bisacco’s Paris

Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the three hundredth time last year I was struck by the treatment of another bit player, that poor sod the County Paris, in most modern film interpretations of the play. He is routinely depicted in two dimensions, as a wally at best, a bastard at worst. Paul Rudd’s performance in Luhrmann’s version, all smarmy smiles and cringe-worthy dance moves, is entertaining enough but it always struck me as doing the character a disservice. Meanwhile, Robert Bisacco, who plays the role in the 1968 Franco Zefirelli version, redefines wooden to the point where one wonders whether the director watched any of the actor’s rushes or if his dismissal of the character was so complete that he didn’t even bother.

In Shakespeare’s text Paris is paying his respects at Juliet’s tomb when Romeo arrives packing poison and his self-important little deathwish. Critics have debated the sincerity (indeed the woodenness) of Paris’s vow to strew Juliet’s grave with ‘tears distilled by moans’ but at least the man’s making the effort. Presumably any mercenary motive to butter up the Capulets has died with Juliet so why else would he bother to make the journey through the Verona night unless he felt some sorrow for her death?

And importantly (at least it must have been for the Bard or he wouldn’t have written it) after Romeo slays Paris he grants the County’s request and places his body in the tomb beside Juliet. It is always omitted from modern film versions, this strangely touching moment, as it muddies the emotional waters. Much better that we can neatly place Paris in the category of obstacle to the star cross’d lovers than have to deal with the fact that he might be, as Romeo realises, as much ‘writ…in sour misfortune’s book’ as anyone else.

So I started to imagine what Paris makes of all this. Is he a villain? Merely an oaf? Why is he there in the Capulet house, pushing his suit? What so preoccupies him that he is unable to read the suicidal despair on his wife-to-be’s face when they run into each other at the Friar’s? Yes, I know, I know, he’s a character serving a function in a play, but even for Shakespeare he seems to be more than just a collection of characteristics designed to thwart and confound the central characters. This is our Will’s genius – there is more to even the most peripheral of characters in his verse and repeated readings or viewings keep revealing this richness.

It would be interesting, I thought, to tell the story from Paris’s point of view, to flesh him out and make him more than just a good-looking berk. He is under pressure from his father, perhaps, a man who ran up debts with the wrong people and needs a marriage that will secure him ‘the chinks’ to get him out of a tight spot. As usual I started in a fit of inspiration then abruptly left these beginnings to gather metaphorical dust.

I’ll share them in the next post and maybe return to the idea at a later time. Writing this blog is doing a lot to exercise old muscles and I find myself again wanting to make excuses for poor old Paris.

Untitled fantasy tosh

Some of these posts, I’ve decided, will be stuff I’ve written previously that I think might deserve an airing. This one is the opening of a sprawling fantasy epic that failed to sprawl a few years ago. The concept was consciously archetypal fantasy, multi-stranded and featuring trolls and humans. And maybe elves. I worked it all out with a writing buddy of mine who we will call Dan because his name is Dan: a brilliant writer with a really twisted imagination; the short stories he used to show me were hilarious, toe-curlingly disgusting, really great. I must get back in touch with him.

Anyway, probably the most original aspect of the idea was the race of creatures that feature in this extract: Holder folk. We conceived them as a race of animalistic giants (I always pictured them with bear-like features) long-since extinct, who had been re-animated to serve the race of humans. This intro establishes Hengist, the Holder protagonist of this strand of the story:

That afternoon, as the pale sun reached the highest point on its journey and the Holderfolk returned home, Hengist found himself fascinated by his left hand.  He held it up and turned it in the light, watched the thick fingers curl as though they belonged to someone else.  He felt as if he had never truly seen it before and suddenly it became an alien thing, a creature attached to him against his will, both entrancing and terrifying.

Hengist tried to picture it as it might have been before he was Raised.  His mind’s eye added reddish-brown to the grey of his hair, replaced the missing fingernails and made them thick and long, grew brown flesh upon the smallest finger, which was now only parched white bone.  He had no memory of that time, at least nothing that could be relied upon.  None of the Holderfolk remembered save for the briefest and most enigmatic glimpses.  And it was a sin to try.  What mattered was the here and the now.

“Are you with us, Bror Hengist?” Tarvin asked, noticing his friend’s distraction and slowed pace.

“Yes, vinur, I am here,” Hengist replied after a pause.  He smiled weakly.  “I was just…”

“I know,” Tarvin interrupted.  “You were in a dream.”  He looked to his left and right to check they were out of earshot of the other Holders then leaned in.  “Remember what Aldre Gremel told you, vinur.  No more dreaming, it distracts us from the Path.”

Tarvin was a good man and a loyal friend and Hengist knew he was right.  He nodded his acquiescence and indicated that they should pick up the pace.  One or two of the Holders in front of them had noticed their conference and were casting back furrowed glances.  They caught up and returned to the line.

After another hour’s march they arrived home.  Their path had brought them through the fringes of the forest, which now gave onto a snow-lined path, excavated by their daily travels.  The path wound shallowly down an incline and ended abruptly at the Holdergate, which was already rumbling slowly open.  The moment the opening was large enough to admit the leader of the procession, he entered and the others filed behind him.  It took another sandglass for them all to enter along with the timber, herbs and game it had been their job to find.

As he shuffled forward, Hengist noticed a pair of human children standing beside the gate, attracted by the spectacle; a boy and a girl, no more than seven or eight, dressed in scarlet clothing, the boy carrying a toy boat whittled by his father from forest oak.  As the procession passed the boy tossed the boat without warning and it struck Hengist on the forehead, making a dent in his dry flesh.

“I hit it!” the child exclaimed, leaping triumphantly on the spot and punching the air.  They both grinned up at Hengist as though he were inanimate, nothing more than a randomly-chosen landmark for their game.  They were so fragile, the humans.  Their skin was thin, their bones light and easily broken.  Not even in the summer, when the snows lessened and the air was less biting, could they go abroad without layer upon layer of clothing to keep them from freezing.

Hengist crouched down to pick up the boat.  Even on his knees he was three times the height of the girl, who was a few inches taller than her brother.  The toy floated in his open hand, lost on the grey sea of his massive palm.  Just then their mother approached; she had lost sight of them as she waited for her servingman at the market and approached with a red and flustered face.

“What in the name of the Path is this?!” she exclaimed.  Hengist’s ears folded back on his head and he felt his hair tingle.

He held the boat out and the boy snatched it back without a word.  The family headed back in the direction of the town square without another word, the mother chastising her son as they went.  Hengist’s gaze fell upon his hand as it had before.  The lines in his palm were deep and jagged, meandering like the lines of Holderfolk who toiled, day after day to bring supplies.

“Hengist!” Tarvin whispered as he nearly crashed into his friend.  He rose, touched his newly-damaged forehead and continued through the Holdergate.

I Am Group

To be clear, Leyton Writers’ Group is currently just me. Less a group, more an individual with ideas above his station. The aim, of course, is for the group to flourish and for its name to enter the ranks of great culturally significant collectives: the Bloomsbury Group; the Bauhaus movement; piano rock innovators Keane.

I’m a teacher by day, an occupation that can often make one feel alone. My school contains a few hundred members of staff but its easy to go through the day without really speaking to any of them, shut away as I am in the English department, in my teaching room. At least that’s my experience, and I’ve spoken to other teachers who feel the same way. And it’s a job where you may talk almost continually for 5 hours or so and come out of the other side unclear as to exactly what you’ve been saying. The day seems to have rushed past as you looked on. Again, this may just be me.

I’ve been trying to write in earnest for years. What stopped me is a not uncommon combination of work commitments, laziness, and a chronic background depression that routinely robs me of confidence and creativity. I’m divided on the inside when it comes to this idea of writing things down. Half of me knows with certainty that I’m capable of writing well, of creating something original and interesting – in short, of being a writer. But the other half – that which labours under a cloud, in fear of a black dog, or whichever time-worn metaphor for depression is your favourite – the other half is equally certain that these are the ramblings of a delusional madman. My reaction to my own writing, and the likelihood of my pursuing it, very much depends on which one of these guys turns up on the day.

Which brings me to Leyton Writers’ Group. I’ve found that the best salve for my tiring inner monologue is talk, and any time I’ve been lucky enough to spend talking about and sharing writing with others has never been anything but positive. Leyton and its environs is brimming with writers, established and aspiring, confident and cautious. So a regular meeting over drinks during which work can be shared and support can be given seems to me to be just the ticket.

So these are my first steps towards this goal. Watch this space and the Twitter @GroupLeyton for details of when, where, how, why and if.

Mark