Archive for November, 2020

The concluding part of my story The Man Who Could Not Forget:

In the end, I was disappointed. Lanchester’s prose was convoluted and ultimately banal. Speed reading, I devoured the entire text, looking for just one jewel of home-spun wisdom, but there were none. These were the memoirs of an ordinary, and poorly educated man, the record of an unremarkable life, bloated with pedantic minutiae. Brady and I were of the same mind: fifty pence was about its worth, and I regretted wasting my memory on it.

After finishing the book I dozed a little, only to be roused by a loud rapping on the door. I looked at Clarissa, but she was still sleeping. Thinking it might be an anxious relative, I hastened downstairs to open it.

It was Brady. “I should have guessed you’d be in it together,” he said.

“What? You followed us here? For fifty lousy pence! You’re crazy.”

“It’s the principle,” he replied. “Now, where is it?”

I still had the book in my hands and there was no point now trying to hide it. Brady reached out and took it. I felt powerless to stop him. It was his, after all.

“I don’t expect to see either of you in my shop again,” he said.

Clarissa woke after dawn, looking brighter and fresher. I knew her recovery would be short lived, though. She gave me a tender look when she saw me waiting at her bedside, but became gloomy when I told her what had happened.

I tried my best to reassure her. “He won’t come back,” I said. But she was less concerned about Brady’s visit than the book he had taken.

“I’ll never find another copy,” she said.

I tried to make light of it. “Well, from what I read – it’s not much of a loss.”

“You read it?”

“Cover to cover, while you slept.”

“So you could recite it to me?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “It would take days.”

“You could do it, though? Word for word?”

“Of course. But it’s dross. Why waste your mind on it?”

She looked at me then, a steely determination coming over her. “I must have that book,” she said.

“Why should I help you to commit suicide?”

“Is that what you think?”

“What else am I to suppose, when you seem bent on burning yourself out? You’re almost there now. Another book will kill you.”

She looked at me curiously. “I don’t keep this knowledge, you know? I pass it on.”

“What do you mean, you pass it on?”

“I mean, literally. To students, mostly,… I’m a tutor at the college. I also do other,… freelance memory work. But you don’t understand, I pass it on directly,… from my memory to theirs – not that they’re aware of it of course. They just think I’m a good tutor.”

She could see I was struggling with this concept, so she enlightened me further. “That time we met, at college, remember? I gave you some saucy images of me, so you’d want to go out with me. They were Polaroids I’d taken of myself. I thought of them, then projected them into your mind. It was cheap, I know, but I was younger then and not so sensitive. Funny, it had always worked on men before.”

I felt myself go pale. Could it be true? Was it possible? Had she really done that?

“I’m surprised you don’t know the technique.” She grew serious then, and drew herself closer. “You don’t do you? You really don’t. You’re still carrying it all with you! Your whole life! But,…. how can you bear it?”

“What choice do people like us have?”

“But surely, you know that in passing it on, you’re relieved of the knowledge yourself? That’s why people like us live the way we do,… so we can put other stuff in there as well – like,.. like,… those bus numbers from last night and any other trifles that keep accumulating. We,…we,… excrete them.”

I shook my head in disbelief at this. “You mean you dump the garbage into other people’s heads? But don’t they know?”

“You jumble it up,” she said. “It’s just background noise to them – and quite harmless,… but to us,… to us, such a relief!”

“But, how is it done? How do choose your subjects? And what do you mean, you project it? You mean like ESP or something?”

“I don’t know about ESP,” she said. “I only know that it’s easy. You can do it to anyone – even a passer by.”

It was a revelation! Such a technique, if true, would extend my useful life to the norm. SO, the obvious question now was: “Can you teach me, Clarissa?”

She gave me a sly look. “Of course,” she said. “Just as soon as you’ve given me Lanchester’s essays.”

“But if you teach me now, I could give you the essays directly, and rid myself of them in the process.”

“It might take months to teach you,” she said, “And those essays are urgent. My client must have them, and soon.”

So we began – me typing out the essays word for word, comma for comma. It was not a difficult task, only tedious, like copying out the pages of a dictionary. Every hour or so, I would produce a sheaf of printouts, which she would then settle down to read. The task took two long days to complete, the last full stop being punched in around midnight. After that I slept on a futon Clarissa had prepared for me in her spare bedroom. I woke the following morning to find her sitting cross-legged on the floor regarding me strangely. Something was troubling her.

“You will teach me?” I reminded her. “You promised.”

“Yes, I’ll teach you. Have you realised though, the price will be your memories? Which ones and how many, only you can decide. Once gone, they are gone forever. I’m worried you’ll be reckless, destroying half your life in an attempt to preserve it.”

“Surely I’m the best judge of that.”

But already I had begun sifting my memories in an attempt to label them for execution. It had been harder than I’d thought. Was it only the good memories that sustained us? The successes? The times of deep satisfaction? Could I safely dispose of the failures? the cringing embarrassments? the heartaches, the insults? or were they as important in defining us? Was Clarissa right? Was there a danger I would destroy my person in an attempt only to preserve its mortal vessel?

She reached out and squeezed my hand. “Of course I’ll teach you.” “Besides you still have pictures of me I’d like returning.”

“Ah no, Clarissa,” I replied, teasing her. “Those pictures have kept me warm for years. Some things I will never be persuaded to part with.”

By now she was almost too weak to leave the house. It was as if Lanchester’s infernal essays had proven too much for her. In the end, I had to drive her across town to her appointment with the mysterious client. I was curious about him – even more so when she directed me through the gates of a geriatric home.

We were greeted at the door by a senior nurse. Clarissa’s client?

“Clarissa, darling. We were worried.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“You have them?”

Clarissa tapped her head. “All in here,” she said. “Safe and sound.”

We were shown along a corridor, the air heavy with a soporific heat, and finally to a lounge whose walls were lined by the vacant expressions of many ancient souls, each one looking up in expectation as we passed. The nurse led us to a frail old guy in a wheelchair, and knelt beside him. He was in a bad way, his skin almost transparent over his bones. I offered him my hand, a gesture he returned by some long embedded reflex.

The nurse smoothed back the thinning remains of his hair. “Poor love,” she said. “Stone deaf,… Can’t even remember his own name any more.”

But I knew it of course. “Mr Lanchester, I presume.”

Now I understood the value of memory. What to me had been worthless, to him was a spotlight, cutting clean through the fog of his decrepitude to the finest of his days, days that had leaked away from him to be gathered into two temporarily stronger minds.

I tightened my grip on his hand, and Clarissa lowered her head, as if to concentrate. Then she sighed and I swear, as I looked into his eyes, I saw a glimmer of light, not much but enough perhaps to sustain him.

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Continuing from part one of my story, The Man Who Could Not Forget:

The bus station café was just across the street. It was not renowned for its cuisine, and even less for its ambiance, but it was rest and refreshment we sought, and she really looked like she needed to sit down. So we sat, and for a while we watched the buses swinging in and out. Her name was Clarissa and her memory was indeed every bit as perversely proficient as my own.

“You were reading art,” she said. “You were writing notes, in green ink. You had a lovely tortoise-shell fountain pen. The ink had stained your fingers.”

“An essay on Monet,” I recalled. “You were reading Wordsworth’s Prelude. You had on a denim jump suit, a blue scarf, and a little badge on your lapel, a teddy bear,… yellow enamel.”

As we continued to compare notes from that brief encounter, I began tingling with anticipation. Clarissa was different from all the other women I had known. We could understand one another, but almost in the same breath I saw the futility of it. A relationship with her was no more likely to succeed than any other. Indeed it seemed twice as likely to fail, neither of us ever able to forget a single word of all the words we might share, and especially the cross ones. As a distraction, I asked her why she had taken the book.

“It’s rare,” she said. “It’s the last copy in existence. I’ve searched everywhere for it and would you believe it? I find it on the day I’ve left my purse at home. It didn’t seem such a dreadful crime – and I was going to sneak it back when I’d read it. As you know, I need only read it once to possess it.”

“Woudn’t Brady have put it to one side for you?”

“You clearly don’t know him very well. I’ve asked him to do that sort of thing before and he’s always refused. He’s not exactly the most obliging of characters.”

“Actually, I do know him, and you’re right. He does have something of a cantankerous reputation.”

“It sounds irrational, but I was afraid it might be gone by the time I came back. You’ve no idea how important this book is to me right now. It’s vital to my work, to my client.”

She took the volume from her pocket and turned to the inside cover where I noted it was a first edition – 1946. Here also, the price was scribbled in the top corner: fifty pence. For all his faults and they were many – Brady did have an eye for a book’s worth. From the looks of it, J. V. Lanchester did not have much of a following.

“There’s one copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels,” I said. “That’s priceless. But this?”

“No, there are many copies of the Gospels – just the one original. But these essays are probably the last existing vessel of this man’s knowledge. Your paintings by Monet, my Wordsworth – those works have been recorded and printed many times and are in the minds of so many people, they will never be forgotten,… but Lanchester’s childhood in a Manchester slum? His experience as an overseer in a cotton mill? His views on social change in the nineteen thirties?”

“But they’re just some dead old geezer’s memories,… they’re not important. They don’t exactly make the world a richer place, do they?”

“Who’s to say?”

She broke off suddenly, overcome by a pain in her temples. She kneaded them with her fists and tried to shake her head clear.

“You’re unwell,” I said. “I should let you rest. Is there anyone I can call?”

“It’ll pass,” She looked at me. “I’m sorry to ask this when you’ve already been so kind but will you walk me home? Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll pass out on the way.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” she said. “It’s my mind. I’ve been filling it with too many books lately. Now and then it shuts down in protest, or like just now, it threatens to burst open. I’ll be fine if I can sleep a while. So, if you could just see me to my door?”

“You mean you still make a habit of reading books?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

The thought was appalling. “Not books,… no way. There’s too much information in them. I collect pictures, that’s all. They’re a much more efficient way of saying something. You know? A picture says a thousand words, and all that?…”

It was essential to avoid filling one’s head with too much information. The numbers of the buses manoeuvring past our window? the faces of the passengers gazing back at us? I would remember them until the end of my useful life. And each day added inexorably to the burden, so it was enough without actually setting out to deliberately look for more. With care, I might have another twenty years before my mind burned out. After that lay only confusion in an asylum. Now I understood the nature of Clarissa’s sickness: she was nearing that stage already.

We walked slowly while she complained of dizziness, and paused frequently, crouching now and then on the pavement like a drunkard. Eventually, she led me to a respectable suburb and to the door of a tidy terraced cottage. It was here, while fumbling for her keys she collapsed, leaving me to carry her inside.

The house was impressively neat, though what struck me most, given her apparently suicidal thirst for text, was that there were no books. The walls were white and the floor was bare. There were just a few plain rugs ordered with geometric precision, and some simple chairs. It was much like my own home, nothing to arrest the attention, only blank spaces where one might safely stare and put the receptor circuits on hold.

There was no sofa to place her on, so I took her upstairs to her bedroom. This too was in the minimalist style with a low bed and a plain wardrobe. Everything was white, and without feature. I laid her on the bed, arranging her as best as I could, then sank down in a chair, beside her.

She was such a pretty woman, and we had so much in common, but all thoughts of pursuing a relationship with Clarissa, no matter how sweet, were pointless. We could become friends of course, but I already had a string of women with whom I shared a pointless friendship. I say pointless because all my life, I had craved so much more. Had I not been concerned for her health, had she simply passed out blind drunk, then I would have walked away, never to return, but under the circumstances, common decency obliged me to stay.

Perhaps it was boredom then that had me sliding Lanchester’s essays from the pocket of her overcoat. I admit I was also curious about him and I wondered if there might, after all, be something profound about his insights. I wondered too about the mysterious client she had mentioned. I mean what was so important here it could have driven Clarissa to possess these words at any price? I turned to the first page, and began,…

The Man Who Could Not Forget concludes with part three, tomorrow.

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Another of my short stories from way back, reviewed and rehashed for the blog. Printed here in three parts. Next part tomorrow:

I have a problem with my memory. It isn’t that it ever fails me – quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, my recall of events from all but the earliest years of my life is photographic. There was little doubt in my mind then, this  woman was the one who had stolen the book. I had seen her only minutes before in Brady’s Antiquarian Book shop, having looked up from my perusal of a box of eighteenth century prints to see her tucking the book down the front of her trousers. It wasn’t something I approved of, but one had to admire her cheek.

It was Brady who raised the alarm and ran out after her. She was on the street in a moment and would have got away, except she blundered into the arms of a passing policeman. It was all a bit of a farce, and might have been amusing except Brady then delved into her clothing to recover the book. I know she’d stolen it, but to my mind, his ungentlemanly conduct trumped her petty thieving, and I found my sympathy siding with the woman.

She fought back, managing to recover the book from Brady, and she kept him at bay, clinging steadfastly to the book. “It’s mine,” she protested.

“Nice try,” he said.

“No, really. I just hid it to avoid confusion.”

The policeman listened to this exchange before asking the woman if she could prove the book was hers.

“Well of course I can’t,” she said. “But can he prove it’s his?”

This was a good point. She had taken the book from the second hand section. The stock there was low grade stuff, and bore no proprietary markings. The constable turned to Brady: “Well, can you?”

Of course, he couldn’t prove it either, but shop-lifters were the bane of his life and I could see he was determined to make an example of the woman. That’s when he turned and jabbed a finger at me.

“He’ll tell you. He saw it all!”

Now, in fact, I had not seen her take the book from the shelf. I had only seen her slipping it down her trousers, so, to the letter of his request, I was unable to help. This may seem a little pedantic, but I felt I did not owe Brady any favours. Many were the times he had asked me, sarcastically, if I’d intended buying anything, this being a barbed a reference to the fact I only ever browsed. He was not to know I did not need to buy his prints, that the act of looking was enough for me to possess them. Also, the affair seemed overblown. The book in question was a tatty volume of essays by one J. V. Lanchester. The fly cover was missing, the spine broken. Why the woman should have risked prosecution for such a worthless thing, I could not imagine.

So, all eyes were upon me: the policeman’s, Brady’s, the woman’s. She looked pale and nervous and, all right, you might be thinking my sympathies were misplaced, but there was more. I knew this woman, and apart from a few wrinkles around her eyes, she looked exactly as I remembered her from our first, indeed our only meeting, a decade ago.

“I really couldn’t say,” I told them.

Brady turned an ominous bright red colour, like he was about to pop his cork. The policeman decided to give the woman the benefit of the doubt and let her go. Then he rubbed salt in Brady’s wounds, telling him off for interfering with the woman’s clothing. I turned to Brady and gave a helpless shrug, at which he gruffly announced he would be closing his shop for the rest of the day. Then he ushered everyone outside.

Walking back to my studio, I thought about the woman. Our encounter had been in the library at the polytechnic, where we’d been students. It had been a wet afternoon and the place had been busier than normal, with very few places remaining to sit. It was thus by chance we’d found ourselves facing one another across a cramped reading table.

I’d found her attractive of course, but I was already jaded by my experience of intimate relations. It’s my memory, you see? Everything is recorded, all the things you normal people are the better for forgetting. Every slight, every cross word, every bitter misunderstanding, they’re like rocks being added one after the other to the sack on my back, and it’s getting heavier and heavier. It’s our nature the negatives always carry more weight than the positives, so is it any wonder then my condition provides so little nourishment for the first delicate seeds of attraction to blossom into something more lasting?

It was for this reason I’d tried to ignore a growing and somewhat irksome arousal, that day in the library, but with little success. Indeed, such was the strength of her effect upon me, I had begun to imagine her undressed and in all manner of lurid poses. I assure you I was not normally given to such prurience. Indeed, at the time I had found the experience rather unsettling and was only able to overcome my distraction by gathering my books and moving away.

And that was it. I did not see her again, until the day of the incident in the book-shop. That I can remember her from so long ago, and after such a brief and, you might say, insignificant encounter is not so remarkable for me since I can bring to mind the face of every person I have ever met. What is remarkable, though, is I was certain she remembered me, and with equal clarity. But, if true, that would have been very strange, wouldn’t it?

As I walked, reminiscing over the incident, I came upon her. She was waiting a few doors down, having flopped onto the steps of a shop. The tatty memoirs were pressed against her bosom. When she saw me, she eased herself to her feet and fell in step with me.

“I should thank you,” she said.

“It’s fine. I saw nothing, really.”

“But I’d like to explain. I mean, I don’t make a habit of this sort of thing.”

She looked away, perhaps reading my silence as disapproval. Then she said what she had meant to say in the first place: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” She almost whispered the words, as if she couldn’t believe it herself. “I wouldn’t mention it,” she went on, “except I think you might also remember me, which would be rather remarkable, wouldn’t it? I mean, considering how brief that encounter was.”

“We have met, yes.”

“So,… we’re the same, you and I?”

“It would seem that way. I’d no idea there were others like me.”

As we walked, I noticed her pace slowing and her steps becoming erratic, as if she was growing dizzy. Eventually we stopped, and she took my arm to steady herself. I looked at her, wondering about the power of her memory. Could it be true?

“Obviously, we need to talk,” I said.

Part two follows tomorrow,…

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pinkfooted geeseThe pink-footed goose spends its summer months in Iceland and Greenland. Then it heads south, mostly to Britain for the winter. For its night-time roosts, it takes to the wide open estuaries and the mudflats of the Ribble and the Solway Firth. Then, by day, it tours en-mass the surrounding farmlands, where it forages among the post-harvest leavings and winter sown crop. Unlike many animal species, the geese are thriving.

A few weeks ago, they came to the moss near my home, tens of thousands of them. They were feeding off flood-ruined winter wheat and the small potatoes, abandoned and left afield as a bad job.

The climate has drifted here into a period of parched springs, followed by summers of an extraordinary wet. The water table has risen, and many of the vast growing-fields have become lakes. It was like this in the fourteenth century. The land hereabouts was wetland, and nearby Martin Mere was the biggest lake in England. Like the Norfolk fens, the land was drained to make way for agriculture, and Martin Mere was shrunk to a puddle. But something’s happened in recent years; there is a hint the wetlands are returning.

I have struggled to make friends with these low-lying areas of the Lancashire Plain. As a hill-man, I prefer to seek the perspective of altitude, and my panoramas to be ever-changing. On the moss you can walk for hours and see the same near-identical squares of factory farmed meadow, where the sky is the only dynamic element. But when the geese come, the atmosphere is one of excitement. Thousands of big, noisy birds in a meadow raise a throbbing hum of life, and when they take to the air as one, the scene is breathtaking.

I was lucky our visits coincided that day, and managed a few snatched shots with a long lens. Birding isn’t one of my usual hobbies, so I didn’t know what kind of geese these were. I had to consult my bird-book at home. It was there I also learned the story of their migrations from the far north, of their liking for my part of the world, and how their timing seems to fit into the agricultural cycle of us humans. In a confused post-fact world, it makes a change, being able to discern and explain a pattern of behaviour. But more, it lifts the spirit to partake of the simple miracle of its manifestation.

I’ve walked the moss often since the geese came, hoping I would see them again. There are still plenty of small potatoes in the ground to tempt them back from their roosts. But the wide open spaces have been forlorn in their emptiness, and the ways heavy underfoot with a cloying mud.

Meanwhile, I read we may have a working vaccine by the New Year, and so expect we’ll see also a ramping up of scurrilous disinformation by anti-vaxers. Only humans tie themselves in knots this way. Nature, be it manifest in geese or viruses, doesn’t care about the million shades of nonsense men make up. In nature, you are either a part of the rich diversity of life, or you’re working against it. And nature has a way of dealing with whatever works against it. She bides her time, changes the world on you, and then you’re gone.

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yarrow re 5

And finally, part three, the concluding part of my short story, The Choices:

It occurs to me of course I can save his life, and on a fair number of occasions I have done so. It’s not difficult. I go outside and let all his tyres down, then he can’t offer her a lift back into town in the morning, like he always does. She’s not a patient sort of woman, you see? A man only gets one chance with her. One slip, like having the bad luck to get four flat tires, and she marks him as a loser. She’s quick to distance herself then, in case she catches his bad luck. She can’t see that for the times being, she is herself the bad luck fate inflicts on others.

I sip this second malt slowly, and decide against helping him. That might sound churlish, especially since I know it will end with a knife in his ribs. But you see, even when it’s in your power to help someone out of a bad fate, it’s pointless unless they understand the trap they’re in, otherwise they’ll only be back next time, making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe you’ll be around for them, or maybe you won’t. But we can only do so much, and it’s just self indulgent to lose sleep over the immanent suffering of others, when you know you can’t do anything about it. We are, I fear, each of us alone, guiding our own fate towards its mysterious conclusion. The best one can do is enlighten others to the true nature of their reality and leave the rest up the them. But, hey, no one listens to me at the best of times, so who in their right mind’s going to believe a story like this?

The landlord picks up a hefty old bell and gives it a swing. My heart sinks at its infernal clanging: last orders again! Closing time. No new players will enter the story now. There is no fresh phenomena for me to collide against, and ricochet myself to freedom. Another night in the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel. Same old, same old. There follows now only the climb upstairs, to the room, and to bed.

It is a small, white chamber, neat and clean. But like all single rooms, it’s depressing in its capture of the sense of melancholic solitude. It’s like a harbinger of the stagnation soon to follow. There’s the Reader’s Digest Book of Short Stories in the bedside cabinet, pretty much a fixture in time, like the hotel, and me, and the woman in the red dress. So I turn to the page where I left off the last time. I know all these stories now by heart of course, but there’s a certain comfort to be had from such continuity.

Okay, so be it. In the morning I’ll drive that long road to Fort William, and I’ll climb the tourist track up Ben Nevis, like I always do. The pleasure of some things never fades, even with their infinite repetition. But there will also be regret, because I’ll know I’ve failed, and no matter how hard I try to hide from it, it’ll be sitting on my shoulder for the rest of my life. Worse, I’ll know I’m as likely to fail again, next time round, because I am blind to my choices.

Settling back against the pillows, I wonder about the nature of the connections we make. I’ve established by now we’re not the passive victims of fate we sometimes seem to be. We can shape our way, if only we can grasp the subtle nature of the connections that present themselves. I just don’t understand the mechanism. I mean, by our expectations, do we each invite the path we most deserve? Or do we attract the one we strive the most to avoid?

I realize I am smiling at the spin of my thoughts. There is nothing more to be done now, and in the absence of my deliverance, I take comfort in memories of the coming morning, because it is always bright, and Loch Lomond is always mirror-calm and oily-black, and the breakfast always fills me nicely, and then there is the freshness of the road, and that glorious drive ahead,…

This subtle run of thought takes me by surprise. I don’t recall ever being so magnanimous before at this stage in the game. Then, turning the page of the book, a slip of paper falls onto my chest. It’s makeshift bookmark left by a previous reader, a scrap torn from a notebook, bearing the pencilled address of the Sligachan Hotel, on the Isle of Skye.

This has never happened before.

Dare I hope that by such an insignificant connection, a fresh path has opened? Do the walls of this strange attractor melt as I hold the paper and read the address? Do I sense a fresh future in the flow of the hand that wrote it?

The subtlety of this moment is the most significant thing worth noting. There has been only a ripple of thought, an emotion, a feeling like a gently rising tide. It’s a thing hovering on the very edge of perception, yet it has changed everything. I’ve no idea who or what is waiting for me on the Isle of Skye, but I do know all my choices between here and there will be correct. I’ve picked up the current again, and I’m going places!

Now, don’t go shooting off at this point and thinking the key to the future always lies in a destination, or in a person, because I’ve just spent the last three and a half thousand words trying to tell you why I think it doesn’t. What is it, then? Well, it comes down to a feeling, also to one’s interpretation of the choices as they present themselves. What sort of feeling is that, you ask? Well, it’s more of a letting go sort of feeling, than a holding on and it’s like never looking directly at a a thing, more inviting it in from the periphery of your vision. But whatever it is, without it, the right choice, the right connection is never going to come along and you may find yourself stuck in some hotel bar one night, not just for the rest of your life, but for all of your lives.

Until you finally wise up.

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ramblerContinuing with part two of my story, The Choices:

For reasons that should be obvious by now, I no longer fall in love with the woman in the red dress. Love is not always a solution to things, though it’s often tempting to believe that it is. This is not to say it cannot occasionally alter the one’s path for the better. It’s just that the possibilities are somewhat limited on this particular night. As for the woman in the red dress, she is incapable of returning love. I should know, it being a lesson I had to learn many times before I wised up.

For the moment she’s a fledgeling alcoholic and a drug addict, her fate having locked her, long ago, into a downward cycle of repeated self-destruction. For her, escape will come, not through me, but through the solution of the enigma of her own route through time. Should she ever manage it, there will come a time when she no longer props up the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel and no one will be happier than me when that happens. It’s also troubling, the thought there might come a time when all the other pilgrims in here find solutions to their journeys in time, and disappear – all of them, except me.

I get up and, for want of distraction, sit in the chair next to mine, but I’ve done this before and it makes no difference. In a moment I’ll go and sit in the corner by the clock, but these are not real choices, just trimmings around the edges. The big turning points come from the roads we take, or from our encounters with people. There is nothing random about such things. Only from the perspective of a single expansion might they appear so. But once you see things the way I do, the patterns stand out. There’s the dynamic thrust of the clear path. Then there’s the cloying heaviness of the strange attractors, like this one, this night in the McKinley Arms Hotel.

Some times back there was a woman in blue jeans and a pink tee-shirt. She’d been travelling my way, heading for Fort William. On a couple of expansions we’d met up there, and spent some days together. She was soft and gentle and had a scent of rosemary and sandalwood about her. I should have made more of it than I did, but I always ended up alone after waving her off on the train to Mallaig.

Things had been going pretty well, and we’d started looking at each other like everything was meant to be. But then I stopped to think about it for a moment too long and the opportunity passed. It was not so much love, more a subtle magnetism drawing me towards fresh pastures, fresh opportunity.  The next time, I’m thinking, I’ll get on that train and go with her. But she must have veered off some expansions past, and I’ve not seen her since. Thus, I find myself at times in the unusual position of aching for memories of a future I have not yet had.

Of course, my biggest fear is that that was it, you know? Somewhere in that encounter was my one chance of solving this puzzle, and I missed it! But there would be no point in these continuing expansions, if they no longer served any purpose, would there? Surely something else will turn up! Someone will walk through that door and change everything!

So here I am. Waiting.

There are worse bubbles of time to be stuck in. I mean like those beginning around 1900 and expanding through two world wars. They drafted whole generations into the carnage of mindless, mechanical mass slaughter. I suppose, from one point of view there’s a lot of interesting material there to work with, lots of life altering choices, and it may be that it’s easier to make progress in a sea of such upheaval. But what does a middle-aged Englishman of my generation do? Much of life’s nastiness has passed me by. The most dangerous thing I do is get behind the wheel of a car. Still, since I’ve no choice in the times I’m dealt. I can only work with the times I have!

How long I sit here varies. With some expansions it’s about the time it takes to finish my drink. With others, I linger until “last orders”. This marks the bounding condition, and prevents me sitting here all night.

I’m not sure at what point one wakes up to my peculiar perspective, nor even if it’s a natural phenomenon. I mean, I’ve never met anyone else like me. It could be a freakish delusion, I suppose, except one does have a very real sense of the repetition of things, that in certain situations, like this, you have the ability to predict the probable run of events, based on experience. In a moment for example the woman in the red dress will pick up her glass and there’s a good chance the coaster will be stuck to the bottom of it. Then, the old guy sitting beside me will turn over his paper and begin the crossword. It’s interesting how the clues are always different from the time before. This suggests to me the similarities of each successive expansion are only superficial, that at some fundamental level it’s not possible to cheat at life by knowing it line by line. There are probabilities involved, and it’s a probability I’m waiting on now, a slim chance to be seized before it slips though my fingers.

The woman in the red dress laughs. It’s a haunting sound, reminiscent  of the times things were different between us. But for now she is a prisoner of her own circumstances. I’m the only one who knows it and it puzzles me how I can be so prescient regarding the fate of others, yet powerless to guide my own.

I go up to the bar and order another whisky. There are several fine malts to choose from, but my choices here make no difference. I’ve learned to savour each one without worrying too much about the path it might be leading me down. Remember – one shouldn’t try too hard in navigating one’s expansion! I’m sure there’s a Chinese proverb about that sort of thing. But anyway, while I’m here, I eavesdrop on the patter between the man in the blue suit and the woman in the red dress. I’m thinking to myself I could make a lot of money telling fortunes. Like all things, its obvious once you know how the trick works. You’ve just got to be careful not to home in too much on the specifics.

Things are going well between them, so I sense his fate is sealed once more. I back away, taking with me the memory of her perfume, keeping it always as a souvenir of times past, arousing as it does feelings of hopeless attraction and danger.

She’s very tipsy now. The man in the blue suit leads her towards the door marked “residents only”. Her leg collides with my table and the glasses teeter. This hasn’t happened before, and I’m not sure if it’s significant, not sure if it presages a subtle undertow worth surrendering to – but how? How does one to respond to such a thing, and in a way sufficient to alter the course of an entire life? Before I can work it out it, it’s over. She giggles an apology, and they’re heading upstairs to their usual fate.

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pier sunsetA bit of a change this evening, one of my old stories, reviewed and rehashed for the blog, in three parts:

So here I am, sitting in the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel, again. We’re by the shores of Loch Lomond, at the wrong end of a long drive, and I’m staring out into the twilight at my choices. I’ve been this way before many times, and always seem to go wrong at this point, so I have to be careful because I’ve not got it in me to pass this way again. I simply have to get it right this time!

I’ve pondered the course of all the lives I remember living and have come to the conclusion the evening I spend here is crucial to the unfolding of things. This is unfortunate, because it’s not as if my choices are unlimited. In fact, they boil down to only half a dozen or so, at least that I can see. At one time or another, I’ve played each of these choices out to their conclusion, and found them all wanting. What’s more, they all lead right back here, to this one evening, to this time of deepening twilight.

I learned early on not to go for choice number one. That’s the woman in the red dress, over by the bar. Nowadays I realize how obvious that path is. I’ll admit, it’s a wild ride for a time, but I’m always left feeling cheated. This is on account of my demise at the hands of her husband, who turns out to be a “fixer” for a Glaswegian mobster. Right now though, it’s the guy in the blue suit, entering the bar, who’s locked into that particular cycle of bad luck. He’s what you’d call a well groomed predator of womankind and I’ve never warmed to him. That’s not to say I don’t pity him as he singles her out yet again. I’m only wondering how many of his own lives it will take before he finally wises up.

Choice number two is simple. I can get up, walk out, drive on through the night, and seek fresh connections in the Highlands. I’ve done that of course, many times, but my path cycles right back here. Time after time. It’s thus I’ve come to believe my escape lies in the unseen choices this hotel provides, on this one evening, at this phase in the expansion of my personal bubble of time.

I’ll let you into a secret. You can forget all that reincarnation stuff; this life is the only one you get, but you get to play it over and over. I don’t mean it’s the same each time – that would be pretty dull after all – and you do have free choice in the paths you take. But certain situations have a mysterious way of drawing you in time after time, no matter what you do.

I’m born on December 21’st 1960. The biggest expansion I’ve managed was out to 2057. That was bore. For all my time I seemed to achieve nothing more than a vast brood of useless great-grandchildren and gained no understanding whatsoever of my purpose. At the other extreme, as a child, I once got bound up in someone else’s bad run, and for many lives I couldn’t get past the wheels of their truck in 1972. For all of that though, I’m particularly fond of the summers of those early years, and I tend to repeat them if I can. They’re still the best things I recall, on account of their innocence. I mean before I woke up to this peculiar way of seeing.  I have to remember to avoid a particular street on a particular day if I want to wriggle through into my later life, even if that life only ends up delivering me right back here.

In the main I live to a reasonable age and, in general, my lives are good. It’s just that I’m never able to understand what it is I’m supposed to achieve by living them. I mean, I do suppose there is a point to this endless repetition of things. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I’m guessing we must expand our bubble of time over and over, until we get it right.

Whatever it is.

Now, my life’s path seems okay up to this point. I tend not to vary it much because you never know what’s going to throw you off course. I’m not sure “managed” isn’t the right word though, except in the sense that the best way of managing things is to leave them alone. When you do that, when you give in to the flow of things, you look back at some point and see the purpose in your direction. It’s like being swept along by the current of a broad river. I’m happy – charmed it seems – and everything is spot on, until I walk into this place.

I can’t tell you how many times my bubble of time has expanded. It’s for the same reason infinity is a circle, whether it’s diameter measures a mile or a micron. There is no number to count it, nor to give it any meaning, at least not in your terms. However many times it’s been though, I’ve only ever made it this far in my journey: I’m a lone guy, sitting in the lounge-bar of a hotel, on his way up to the Highlands. I walk in as someone who is going places, and I walk out into a lifetime of disillusionment. It’s as sure as the taste of the morning air, a feeling I’ve lost my way, and that anything else I do in life is wasted. Call it a mid-life crisis if you want, but to me, it’s like being stuck in time. It’s like one of those computer programs with a misplaced “goto”. It cuts mid-sentence, then sends you right back to the beginning.

Choice number three is the bar-menu. But my selections there don’t change things very much: Steak, fish, potatoes or chips? Of all the senses, taste seems to be the least likely to alter the course of one’s life. Choice number four is similar to the menu and pertains to the relationships with the people I can see. Like me, and the woman in the red dress, everyone is pretty much a fixture of this moment. Our individual bubbles are overlapping. I’ve connected with them all at one time or another, followed each path to its equally fruitless conclusion. So, I’m thinking my only chance lies with the random strangers who occasionally walk through the door. They lend a flavour of freshness to the occasion, a buzz of anticipation. But there are no strangers in tonight.

Not yet, anyway.

To be continued. Next part tomorrow.

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blake-newtonI wanted to get a pension forecast from the Government. It used to be that you stuck in your National Insurance number and out the forecast popped. But now you have to verify your identity, online. This was an interesting, though ultimately fruitless waste of a few hours with neither the Government nor the Post Office happy I was who I said I was.
I’d offered my driving licence, recent P60, debit card details, and national insurance number. I’d offered my address, email, mobile phone number, and mug-shot. Still, they would not oblige. Did I have a passport? No, mine expired years ago. No matter, what will really do the trick are those records of credit history held on file by the mysterious credit ratings agencies.
Well, that’s fine, except I’ve never had a credit card, or a mobile phone contract. I’ve never paid HP for my car, television, fridge etc. But without that credit history, one is only part way towards a verifiable identity.  I’ve always suspected my credit history was a problem – I mean the fact I don’t have one. So far as I know, it’s not against the law not to have one, not against the law not to have a credit card. It’s a personal choice, but it also makes you something of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
The use of credit exploded in the nineties as a result of wage stagnation. It enabled us to maintain the illusion of a shiny consumer lifestyle in the face of a chronic economic downturn that was not and will never be fixed. Can’t afford that nice car? No problem, £300 a month and it’s yours.  I appreciate the world’s entire economy is based on debt, that indeed debt is how money is created in the first place. I don’t understand how that works so, to whatever extent it is possible, I prefer not to partake of it for fear of accidents.
My approach is called Granny Economics, at least according to one smarmy economics lecturer I encountered, around the time of that credit explosion.  But I’ve stuck with Granny Economics. One of the lessons of the depression of the 1920’s, that my grandma lived through, is there’s always a risk your debts will drag you under. Plus, when you work it out, you’re paying twice the price for something on tick than if you paid for it up front. Sure I can see the advantage for the guy who collects on that debt, but I am not that guy. I’m just trying to manage my finances as best I can within the bounds of my means, and my competence.
So the question is, who am I? Do I even exist? Well, it depends on who you ask.
A while ago, the cameras on the Dartford bridge decided I’d driven over it and not paid the toll. They were sure they knew who I was from a computer’s scan of a car registration plate. The same computer posted out the fine. The fact I live three hundred miles away, that the photograph of the miscreant vehicle was clearly not my car, that the computer could not tell the difference between a “V” and a “Y” on a number plate, cut no mustard. Indeed, the help-line guy was rude, and perfectly assured he (or rather his computer) knew who I was.
“It was clearly you, sir.”
Thus, we have a sense of the world forming itself into the image of a machine. It’s not a particularly smart machine either, and lacks the discrimination of a human being who can easily tell the difference between a “Y” and a “V”, and if not, they can be persuaded to admit to the possibility of a mistake. But if you don’t fit the narrow mechanistic parameters defining “identity”, you’re going to have a hard job accessing any of the services afforded by your membership of this increasingly Kafkaesque society, whose foundation is a system that admits to no error, yet makes errors all the time.
I’ll manage without my pension forecast for now, thanks, Mr Gov.uk. I won’t be drawing it for some years yet, and can guestimate it pretty well for my present purposes. I suppose I could try to renew my passport and thereby try to convince you of my identity that way – though I would rather spare myself the expense, since it’s unlikely I will be needing it for travel any time soon. Plus already I am imagining the bureaucracy it might involve. Will you, for example, want details of the passport I have not got? As for obtaining a credit card, I mean, so I can start racking up an identifiable trail of serviceable debt to verify my existence that way, well, without any credit history to begin with, I can forget that, can’t I?
The conclusion I draw from all of this is, while I clearly exist to myself, the machinery of the state remains unconvinced.  Is that a bad thing? We’ll find out in due course, I suppose, like when I come to apply for that state-pension. In the meantime, it’s given me something to write about, and to further ponder the meaning of my existence, when my existence has apparently acquired itself, as yet, no verifiable details.

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rivingtonFriday 6th, I knock off work early and drive to Rivington for some air. I try Lever Park Avenue – post-lockdown number two. I’m wondering if the crowds have reclaimed it already. They have, so we head over to Anglezarke instead. It’s busy here as well, and I’m ready to abort the afternoon’s outing, but manage to find a lay-by to myself, and tuck her in. It’s a beautiful, crisp, sunny afternoon, and great to be outdoors, but it’s going to be one of those dodge the covid-crowd days – to whose number of course I am contributing.

I’d also guessed this second lockdown would bring a return of the trash, and I was correct there also. There’s been an impromptu firework display, judging by the remains of pyrotechnical junk littering the roadside. There are other unspeakable items of detritus too, but I shall spare you the details.

jepsons lane-1I figure the moor might be quieter, so we’ll paste it up through the boggy meadows to where the dun-coloured grasses begin. Along the way we pass pristine mountain-geared hikers, and twitchers who all look strangely perplexed, as if they’ve wandered up with the aid of Google Maps, then lost their signal. So, we climb further, to the nine hundred-foot mark, to the Pike Stones, only to have the twitchers follow, pressing us on towards Rushy Brow. Here too, the moor, normally such a beguilingly forlorn wilderness, is peppered with bodies, like you’d only ever see on a Bank Holiday weekend; they are noisy people, void of hill-craft, shouting.

But this afternoon is all about the air and the sunshine, remember? If I’m lacking a bit of tolerance for my fellow man, it’s my own fault, and beg your patience. Who do I think I am? Lord Graeme of Anglezarke, perhaps? (it has a certain ring to it). No, sorry about that. We all have our narcissistic moments, just like we all need our fresh air, so you must ignore my grumpiness, and get out as much as you can, but stay safe. Follow the rules. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And don’t navigate the hills by Google Maps.

So here we are, up by the old burned-out plantation on Rushy Brow. There’s a path of sorts that swings you round to Lead Mines’ Clough, brings you down somewhere in the region of James Yate’s Well. The well is a bit of a mystery. It’s named on OS maps from the mid Victorian period, but disappears soon after. Antiquarian researches suggest it was a petrifying well, with a reputation for healing. Nothing remains of it now, the moor has swallowed all trace, but it serves to remind us there were most likely pilgrimages up here in the Georgian and early Victorian period. Similarly, now, the moor gifts us a healing sense of connection with the wild. There’s just one problem; we have become too many, too disconnected, and our demands upon the earth too great.

lead mine fallsJust below James Yates’ Well, we find the upper falls of Lead Mines Clough. This is a lovely little cascade, well hidden and always worth a photograph, though it takes care these days to get safely down to the brook amid the plantation’s perpetual gloom – or maybe I’m just not as flexible and sure-footed as I was.  The faery aren’t often discussed in polite company any more. But if they’re still around at all, this is where you’ll find them – though you’d better pray you don’t, because to surprise the faery is a very grave matter indeed.

So we climb back out of the forest’s gloom, and into the last of the day’s sun, and track the edge of the plantation, down to the lower reaches of the clough. Here where we meet the Covid-crowds again, coming up, though goodness knows what they think they’re doing, with so little daylight left.

anglezarkeThere’s much talk of re-wilding England now, of turning back the industrialized prairie meadows to mixed scrub and woodland, where cattle and wild boar can grub about in mud. Where people fit into that scheme I don’t know, but we need to – call it rewilding ourselves perhaps? It’s just that people en-mass are such untidy creatures and no amount of education is going to make them any tidier.

PikeAs we go along, I snap the scenes with my camera, wondering how much carbon was released in the manufacture of it. I’m no different, you see? I speak of reverence for nature while exporting my pollution to another continent. But it’s such a pleasant afternoon, let’s not spoil it with talk about that. I’m feeling better for the air and the sun, and the autumn gold. We’ll be home in time for tea, then catch up on the drama of the US election. Such a cosy life we’re living, but how sustainable is it?

Already Covid is said to have mutated via the Danish mink farms, that the archetype of mother nature, in her destructive aspect, is gaining on us double quick-time. So what are we to do to placate her? Our worship of money has to go – not money its self, I suppose – just our worship of it. And it’s more important than ever we let our learned friends understand what makes the planet truly tick, grant them the mandate to guide us back into balance, into kinship with our selves, and with the earth. It seems a tall order.

So, finally we come back down to the Parson’s Bullough Road, to the little blue car tucked into its muddy lay-by. There’s a couple up ahead, tut-tutting at the trash the bonfire-nighters left behind. They make me feel a little less precious for their displeasure.

maz at pason's bullough road-1And so, across the Atlantic, the weekend begins with the strut and swagger of the crass, and the monied, being given the heave-ho. Or does it? Is what replaces it going to be any less servile to the corporate lobby, and the obscenely rich? As dismissive of the poor? Not as much on the surface, perhaps. But underneath? Time will tell.

Have we perhaps merely restored the illusion of dignity? In which case the staggering quick-fire lies we’ve grown used to in recent years are revealed to be, in a sense, the unvarnished truth about the reality of the world. In other words, we still have a long way to go. Yet, I’m optimistic. And why? Because the afternoon demonstrates I’m not the only one who doesn’t like litter. It’s a bit weak, I know, but it’s the best we have to go on at the moment.

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1630020_000I’m writing this for my friend Ken, who died last week. I’d lost touch with him in recent years, then heard he’d fallen ill with vascular dementia. I rang him up last Christmas, but he didn’t know me. He spent a while in a care home in the earlier part of this year, then passed away alone, in a hospital far from home.
Ken was a writer, the first, the only real live writer I have ever known personally. Like me though, he never made his living by it. We worked as engineers and that’s how we met. We began as strangers, peeing into neighbouring urinals. By way of breaking the ice he turned to me and said:
“What I want to know is who’s Armitage, and what’s Shanking?”
I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. Indeed, I laughed my way throughout the 80’s with Ken. And we walked. I didn’t think you could devise a twenty-mile hike in the West Pennines, but Ken managed it. And as he walked, he imparted jewels of quirky wisdom. He came to my wedding, was godfather to my firstborn. Then, he got potted in the great downsizing that began in the nineties. I was devastated for him, but he described it as the best thing that ever happened. It released him from servitude at the age of forty-nine. It got him a pittance of a pension, but enough for him to realize his dream of writing full time, and freedom. You manage he said. I should have starved to death decades ago, but you don’t. You manage.
His cars were always interesting, a variety of makes, though all of them decrepit. The most impressive was a Vauxhall Viva whose gear-box was held in place by rope. The rope gradually stretched, lowering the box to the ground, from which it raised sparks. He generally had warning of this as the gear stick became shorter, and he knew to tighten the rope when he got home.
He could have bought a better car but had this theory about the universe. It only ever gave you so many problems in life to solve. So he preferred to have them contained in one place, in his car. If he’d ever solved all those problems, say by buying a better car, goodness knows where they’d show up next. A bad leg? A bad heart? And fair enough, who’d want to risk that?
He and his good lady read my early stories, were enthusiastic about them, told me to keep going. But he also warned me there was a dark secret to writing that few authors cared to admit. It was that, actually, there was no money in it, even if you got published. Also, you should beware the vanity of authorship. If you wanted to write, you had no choice in the matter, because it was in your blood. That’s all. Some of us were just made that way. Writing shaped our lives, our thoughts, our interests. That was the mark of writing, and its true reward, even if no one else read a single word of it.
It was advice I was a while warming to, because I wanted more than anything to be a successful novelist. I wanted to wear the tweed jacket, and sign books for an adoring fan-ship, in a proper book-scented bookshop. He had that pleasure once, and I was pleased for him, excited for him, but it didn’t bring him fame and fortune. He never courted it, because he didn’t want it.
On hill-walking he held the view that no matter how arduous the climb, the respectful walker never claimed the summit cairn, but veered away from it, as if within reach of the last few feet, you settled back and said: enough. It was the difference between respecting the hill and conquering it. The wise man never sought to conquer it, because that just fed the ego. And if you struggled with that concept, your ego was already too big.
Although a devout Catholic, there was also something of the pagan about him. He saw God moving in mysterious ways. It was his last wish he be seen out by the full-monty of a Requiem Mass. I’m not a Catholic, but have attended a few of those, and for sure that’s a Roll’s Royce of a way to be signed off for the next life. He was denied it though – covid and all that. There were just three people at his funeral. It was a done deal before I caught up with news of his departure, and which is partly why I’m writing this now. I’m sure the universe will forgive the humbleness of his bon-voyage, because he paid it plenty of respects while he was living. I only hope the universe will also forgive my neglect of our friendship in his final years.
The value of a person’s life may not be apparent to that person themselves. Indeed, it would be narcissistic to value oneself. Rather, it’s in the hearts of those who knew them, were guided and influenced by them, either directly or indirectly. Ken, if you’re listening, my friend, you made a big difference to my life. There was always a twinkle in your eye, a sense of irreverent mischief never far from the surface, and always a good yarn. But more than that, you were a steadying hand, a listening ear, and your quirky philosophies were always reassuring that I wasn’t actually as odd as I sometimes felt myself to be, if only because you were much odder, though in a way to be treasured.
I was always better, lighter, happier for an hour in your company. Then, I’d return home with the boot of my car full of rubbish you’d been clearing out. It was ancient books mostly, but once I recall a broken old valve radio no one in their right minds would give house-room. After electrocuting myself on it several times, I somehow managed to restore it. If I still had that old thing now, I’d be tuning in to the static around the names of stations that no longer exist. And there I’d be half expecting to hear your voice coming out of the aether, saying to me:
“What I want to know is, who’s Armitage and what’s Shanking?”
God bless you Ken, you were a legend, and though there weren’t many around to see you off, there were many, many more whose lives were all the brighter for knowing you.

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