Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Image by Nightcafe Studio AI

There is no shortage of criticism of the artificially intelligent chatterbot ChatGPT. I’ve been snippy about it myself, here. It takes only a few Q+A’s to work out it’s mostly peddling BS. The one good thing we seem to hear about is the plausibility of its answers. But plausibility does not always equate to truth. I asked it to list the novels of “Michael Graeme”, thinking it would tell me it had never heard of him, but it did not. It went on to list a few of the books I’d written, along with many titles I had not, and which – more to the point – did not exist. It appears to make stuff up. And it’s good at it.

Now, of course, I’m anthropomorphising. It does not actually “make stuff up”. Only humans can do that. It’s more that the way it is programmed causes it to give the impression it makes stuff up. ChatGPT is what they call a large language model. It takes an input, and generates an output based on a statistical analysis of the huge pool of linguistic data at its disposal. But that linguistic data is the product of generations of human beings. It is our written language. Our language is at the core of ChatGPT. We are its DNA.

Writers of fiction have much in common with ChatGPT’s ability to make up stories. Stories are plausible lies. The difference between us and con-men, and ChatGPT is we do it for art and entertainment, and our readers are complicit. We take a character, put them in a situation, and see how they react. The plausibility of their reaction depends on their nature. Act too much out of character and the reader isn’t going to be convinced. Similarly, slip an alien abduction scene into the last chapter of a gothic love story, and the reader is going to feel cheated.

We can go the whole hog and ask ChatGPT to write an entire story for us: Give me a thousand-word story about a man who finds an abandoned car with a body in the boot. ChatGPT will deliver. But don’t expect to win any prizes with it.

A more intelligent way of using it is as a sounding board for ideas. You’ve already written part of the story. You’ve got your guy, he’s come across an abandoned car. He flips the boot lid, discovers the body. Let’s add a bag of cash. The guy’s basically an honest, decent type, but he’s hard up, needs cash badly,…

But then you get stuck. The imagination won’t come up with the next piece of the puzzle. Perhaps you don’t want to sound too corny, too obvious, but whatever you come up with must still be plausible. You could ask a fellow writer. Give me some ideas for what might happen next, and the likely consequences? Or you can ask ChatGPT. So I did.

ChatGPT says, and I quote verbatim:

As an AI language model, I must clarify that the following actions and consequences are hypothetical and should not be taken as legal advice. The actions of the man in this scenario would also depend on his personal values and ethics, which can vary from person to person.

With that said, here are some possible actions and their consequences that the man may take upon discovering the abandoned car, body, and cash:

Call the authorities: The most ethical and responsible action would be to call the police and report the incident. This would potentially help in identifying the body and also in tracking down the owners of the cash.

Consequences: If the man chooses this option, he may not receive any monetary benefit from the cash, but he would have acted in a morally and legally responsible manner.

Take the cash and leave the body: The man may decide to take the bag of cash and leave the body, without reporting the incident to the authorities.

Consequences: This action would be illegal, as taking the money would be considered theft. If he is caught, he could be charged with theft and possibly even with being an accessory to a crime, since he did not report the discovery of the body. Furthermore, he may experience psychological trauma due to the guilt and anxiety associated with his actions.

Take the cash and report the body: The man may decide to take the cash and report the discovery of the body to the police.

Consequences: This action may be seen as a middle ground between the first two options. While taking the money would still be considered theft, reporting the discovery of the body could help the authorities in their investigation. If the man is caught, he may face legal consequences for stealing the money but may also receive some leniency due to his cooperation with the authorities.

In conclusion, the most ethical and legal course of action would be for the man to report the discovery of the abandoned car and the body to the authorities. While taking the money may seem tempting, it would ultimately lead to negative consequences and potentially serious legal trouble.

The first option is the most obvious, and advisable to take in real life, but we’re dealing with fiction here and that would be the end of our story, rather than the beginning. The second option, take the cash and sneak off with it, don’t report the body, suffer guilt as a consequence, and legal peril when the cops catch up,… that’s perhaps the most obvious choice for a story, as well as being entirely plausible. But it’s probably already been written, and a thousand movies based up on it,…

The third option, take the cash but report the body, I’d not considered. It’s slightly less obvious, perhaps, and could be an interesting alternative. Already the imagination has latched onto it and is feeling out its potential.

This is a simplistic example, but we can see how ChatGPT helps us explore ideas, and in a way that is meaningful to us as writers and, ultimately, to our readers as well, but without falling for the fallacy that it can simply do our job for us.

ChatGPT and its ilk are here to stay. They will of course be used in stupid and inappropriate ways by time-pressed or just lazy people. They will be used by unscrupulous or just cowardly bosses as a proxy for treating their workers badly. They are being used to write advertising copy, filling the blank spaces on those corporate blogs. Students are using them to write essays, which they submit verbatim for assessment. Like any new, transformative technology, AI can be society’s worst enemy, its best friend, or more likely a bit of both. If facts and truth are your business, I’m still of the opinion it’s best avoided, at least for now. But if it’s ideas you’re exploring, like any conversation, it can stimulate your own imagination into coming up with things you’d not considered, but which nonetheless already exist, albeit in nascent form, like fish in the vast ocean of our linguistic heritage. ChatGPT, used wisely, can be a means of simply fishing for them.

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It beggars belief, but yesterday’s domestic news was dominated by our recently ousted PM’s unsubtly trailed and somewhat premature angling for a comeback. In her forty-day tenure – the shortest serving PM in history – she crashed the markets, wiped billions off investments, stunted the growth of defined benefit pensions for millions of workers, and ruined the UK’s reputation for sound financial governance. But, she writes, it was not her fault. She was badly advised. And worse, there are those within the now bitter dregs of her party who think she’s right. My heart sinks, says the leader of the opposition. Mine too, mate.

Then, political journalist, Andrew Marr, now released from the constraints of corporate news media, has been more frank and informative in his analysis of world events of late. Rumours of an early end to the war in Ukraine are premature, he says – though I must admit I had not heard any such rumours – and we should be prepared for it to go on for another five or ten years. This will cast a dark shadow over European – indeed world – affairs throughout the 20’s. But the UK is particularly exposed, it being now the worst performing of the western nations, including Russia, with stagnant growth and levels of entrenched inequality that are quite staggering. You are better off being poor virtually anywhere else in the world, than in the UK. We must expect energy and food prices to remain high, for a long time.

All of this paints a bleak picture, one that is in contrast to the positive vibes of the morning, with clear skies and the frost still lying across the meadows. We leave the car on Dole Lane at Abbey Village, and walk down to the Hare and Hounds, then strike out along the right of way whose signage does its best to say it is not a right of way, but access only to a private residence. But a right of way it is, and has been forever, so off we go.

Just a short walk today, more of a dog waking circuit for Abbey residents, and incomers like me, around the lower reservoirs, and the Roddlesworth plantations. We have no dog, but there is no shortage of yappy canine accompaniment, and our trousers are soon muddied by an over-friendly, jumpy creature, who gets a telling off by a scold-faced woman. I am ready to wave away her apology, but do not get one. Most people we meet are open and friendly, but we tend only to mark the ones who are not.

We’re planning a bigger walk in the Forest of Bowland for later in the week, when the weather is looking iffy, but today, being such a good day, it was a pity to waste it indoors, so here we are, but not wanting to wear our legs out for the upcoming epic. We have time to linger over familiar ways, to take photographs, and to ponder world affairs. As we move from winter’s dark into the first hints of post Imbolc light, and the snowdrops begin to show, there is the feeling of a weight lifted, of an optimism returning. The media, however, have other ideas and would sooner scotch all hope before it has the chance to bud.

I have the long lens today, not the obvious choice for woodland photography, but I’m looking for details in isolation with blurry backgrounds. The obvious targets are the lone juvenile copper birches, holding onto their leaves, and rising into shafts of sunlight against a backdrop of fuzzed out darker woodland. I’ve a feeling it’s a cliché, but I’m not selling photographs, so it doesn’t matter. There’s something in them that’s worth a moment of contemplation, anyway. The branches have poise, like a dancer, expressive of,… well,… something.

The big international news of course is this devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Over 5000 souls are known to be lost, so far. It’s an unimaginable and sudden tragedy that puts our European troubles into perspective. It’s also worth remembering, however, that a study by the University of Glasgow concludes we lost 335,000 souls, across the home nations, between 2012 and 2019, due to poverty alone, as caused by political austerity a fact the media seems curiously reticent about. But to dwell on these things, says our redoubtable chancellor, is to talk Britain down.

On the middle reservoir, the fly-fishermen have pulled their boats in for the winter, so the cormorants are perched instead on the mooring buoys. Patient birds, they share the character of vultures in their Victorian funeral feathers. We are also befriended by a robin which hops onto a post within arm’s reach, and eyes us cheekily. He bobs about there for ages, so enchanting we forget about the camera, and as soon as we do remember it and try to get focus, he’s gone.

Then we meet a bunch of guys we used to work with, the entire department actually, all retired, but still keeping in touch and meeting up for regular walks. It was a tonic to see them looking so hale and hearty. The chancellor scowls and tells us we are part of the problem, we, the early retired, and economically inactive, and should get back to work, along with the sick and disabled, fill in all those vacancies left by our European friends who went home post BREXIT. But the taxman still collects his dues from us, which is more than can be said for certain members of the cabinet. He will have a tough job coaxing us back into the office, should we even be wanted, which I am sure by now we are not.

We have in common our freedom from the constraints of those things we cannot alter, like the clocking machine for a start, and the daily deluge of bullshit emails. We have the freedom to focus on those things that are within our remit: to stay at home and write, do a bit of DIY, tidy the garden, come out for a walk, explore an unfamiliar part of the country, choose which lens to bring with the camera. These are small things for sure, but important all the same, if not as things in themselves, then as vehicles for exploring the deeper self. But even granted such freedom, we risk ignoring it, to go fretting instead over those things we cannot change, like what further madness the chancellor and his swivel eyed colleagues might be planning next. How about scrapping all environmental, food, employment and animal welfare standards? And making it illegal to go on strike.

I have begun a new story, about a man living alone on a remote Scottish island. He finds a humanoid robot of the type they are now developing, and hyping to a ridiculous extent, washed up on the beach. I take all the frankly improbable tech utopian projections, and bestow them in spades upon my fictional bot. It wakes up and proves itself both intelligent and an astonishingly capable companion, as well as gorgeously female in appearance. In what ways does it alter the man’s outlook on his own life?

Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic, but even as a romantic with an increasingly non-dualist perspective, I hesitate to make fun of it. It is a thing to be reckoned with and, if the impact of the Internet is anything to go by, it will render the near future unrecognisable, and in ways that are not predictable and not entirely benign either. Again, this is something we have no control over, but at least as a writer I can explore it, whilst being careful not to be too shrill in its condemnation, or as its advocate. We’re up to three chapters and the ideas are still coming, but we’ll say no more in case I jinx it.

Anyway, just two and a half miles today in frosty sunshine, then a pleasant drive back over the moors. At home, we clean and waterproof the boots for Bowland. I read on a blog recently of a method of spiritual and philosophical reflection, where we cast our minds back over the week, and ask what lessons we learned, something our former PM would do well to dwell upon. I’m not sure if I’ve heard this before – I think I might have – but it’s not something I do by habit, and it’s early in the week yet, so I hesitate to jump to conclusions.

We’ll see come Friday.

Thanks for listening


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You are still in love with Yasmina. You have always known it, but sometimes forget. You last saw her in the July of 1976. That’s forty-seven years ago and, since you are approaching old age now, it’s possible she is no longer of this world. They say we know, when a distant loved one has departed for the next life, but that’s only if they have ever thought of you, and she never did. Indeed, I doubt she even knew your name. Sometimes love is like that.

It was the most beautiful, yet also the most painful thing you have known. It was also the most formative, in that it made you what you are. Which is what? What are you, my friend? Will I tell you? You lack confidence in the world, or you would not have withdrawn from it as early as you did. You are isolated in your feelings, feeling always the strangeness of yourself, and your thoughts. And that she did not know you, never asked your name, has also lent the world this air of a thing made of glass. It is transparent to you, but has an impermeable surface, which puts you always on the outside of it. Or so it feels on days like these, when the rain beats against the window, and nothing amuses you. Not reading, not writing, nor the role-call of old acquaintances – those still living, that is. So many names now remain pencilled, but with lights gone out, yet you cannot erase them, as you cannot erase Yasmina.

You were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, and have never felt anything so powerful. There have been women since, though few. There have even been nights of passion but, again, few. And every emotion you have felt, pales beside what you felt for her, both in the pain and the glory of it. She was, is, and always will be the standard by which you judge all things. Indeed, your whole life has been a quest for the source of what you felt in her. For though you love her, you are wise enough to know she was but the channel of a source beyond imagining. During those all too brief years, it took human form in Yasmina, for it was in her alone you might have recognised it for the divinity it was.

You cannot believe there is no purpose in such a love as that. Granted, such refusal may arise from a fear belief is delusional in a world void of meaning. And all rational evidence suggests the meaning of life is much less than we would like it to be. What is the meaning of a life, then? Any life. Will we ask it of the computer?

Hey Noodle, what do you say is the meaning of life?

Meaning, replies Noodle,… hmm, that’s a deep one, for the machine is programmed to simulate character, and humour. It then quotes us Simone De Bouvoir. It was she who said life only has meaning in so far as we value the lives of others. That’s about the best the Existentialists will allow. A gloomy bunch to be sure, best suited to violent times, not times of capitulation and crushing despair such as these. But they don’t ring true for you, and why? You have valued Yasmina above all others, and felt only her indifference. You have sought the surrogate of her love in others, and they all failed you, and only because they were not Yasmina. What then is the meaning, if the reward for so valuing others, is to be rejected by them?

Let us ask the computer again.

To exist, says Noodle, means to have a way of living. The computer’s way of living is to search, so the meaning of life, according to Noodle, is to search and to learn. Which all sounds rather dry. Plus, there are two problems with it. One, the computer is not alive, and second, there is nothing to say its way of being – as it describes – is the same as yours. But let us be generous and say we are all on the path of learning, and searching. And for sure, you have sought and learned much. But you have never shared your knowledge, always assuming the world to be indifferent to such learning, as gleaned by outsiders, like you. You therefore keep your own counsel, though your better instinct is to share.

Your purpose then, according to Noodle’s logic, is to exist in secret, and in isolation, but only in so far as you see yourself. In relation to others, you have no existence at all. So be it, but you still love Yasmina. And, strange though it may seem, therein also lies, if not your life’s purpose, then the seedling from which all else grew.

Now, from this perspective, turn your eyes away from the rain, and the despair of the times, pick up your pen, and write.

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She’s a neatly-dressed woman, not young. I see her sitting on the same park bench every Saturday, at two. I can’t say exactly when my orbit became synchronised with hers, or why I persist with it now. I could always walk another way to the station. Indeed, I don’t need to walk to the station at all any more. It’s just a habit: catch the train into town, coffee in the corner café. And now her.

What’s most striking is her serene aura. She’s never lost in her phone, like most of us are these days. Sometimes she’s reading a paperback, sometimes she’s feeding the birds. But most of the time she sits and looks out across the parkland, and the pretty little lake. I’ve never spoken to her, not even caught her eye. I walk past, take the train into town, and that’s it.

At first, I was curious. You don’t see many women out on their own. I’ve read that the Internet has turned all the men into perverts. Or at least it’s convinced all the women that all the men are perverts. I don’t want her thinking that about me. But I’m wondering if she ever thinks about me at all, is curious about me, like I’m curious about her, this guy who walks by, every Saturday at two.

I’m not so old I can’t remember the urgent allure of girls, nor the lengths I went to to be with one. You could sit down next to a girl on a park bench in those days and say hello without her calling the cops – well, maybe not the same bench, but the bench opposite, perhaps. Was it that we were all so much younger, and trusting then, still working out what was the right way to enter into the full bloom of being? And somewhere along the way, something went wrong and turned us all into paranoid strangers, fearful of one another.

It was never about sex for me. I wouldn’t have admitted that to other guys, though – guys whose woman-talk never rose above the level of whether so-and-so was a good shag. They didn’t mean it, by the way. Well, not all of them did. That kind of talk used to embarrass me. And now? Well, now the prize would be someone to share a coffee with, someone to come home with, kick off our shoes, make dinner together, and watch TV.

She’s wearing a white shirt-dress today, looks summery and cool, looks like she’s waiting for someone, actually. That’s most likely it. At two-o-five, when I’ve gone by, this guy comes up, and they stroll off arm in arm. Except you wouldn’t arrange a date for two-o-five, would you? It would be two, on the dot. Or am I just over thinking things?

In truth, I don’t know how it goes any more. I met my wife of twenty-five years at work. I can’t remember which of us spoke first. It just sort of happened. It seemed to happen more easily back then. Now it doesn’t. Now you have to go on the Internet and sell yourself. But if you’ve nothing to sell, what then? I was no looker to begin with, and age has hardly improved things. But is that the best way to make a first impression, anyway?

I’ve wondered about saying hello. I mean, that’s still okay, isn’t it? I say hello to other people when I’m out walking, and they say hello back. It’s polite. It’s like saying: I’m a nice person, and you can trust me. And it usually comes with a smile, and you can tell a lot about a person that way. But it needs a bit of eye contact first, and she’s never scanning for it. Her eyes are always in her book, or watching the birds, or admiring the view. So as simple a thing as that might sound, saying hello, it never actually works out.

It would be best to break the habit, I suppose. It’s getting so my Saturday afternoons begin with the tingly anticipation of seeing her in the park, then it all falls flat, and what used to be a pleasant distraction in town suddenly isn’t any more. The train ride, the coffee, maybe a mooch in a bookshop, these things used to be a way of dodging the loneliness. But now they seem only to highlight it, and bring to the fore an aching desire to fix it.

I’m not saying she’s the right person. I mean, who knows? I’d have to talk to her first. But at least the fact I’m attracted to her is a start. Right? Plus, she might be lonely, too, and these Saturday afternoons on a park bench are her way of dealing with that. Maybe she’d like nothing more than for someone to hello. She just never gives that impression. Indeed, that air of serenity speaks of a rock-solid self-containment, and maybe that’s what I’m attracted by – that what she possesses most is the very thing I lack in myself.

Anyway, here we are again, Saturday at two. She must have noticed me. That’s what people do, they recognise patterns. She sits there, same time, same day, and this same guy comes walking by. And if she was at all curious about me, she’d be looking to make eye contact, if only to sound me out as harmless. So, perhaps today’s the day. Here we go: I give her a glance, an opening, so to speak, like I always do. It’s for her to respond, now. I can do no more but, once again, she doesn’t seem to notice me, so I look away, weigh once more the ache in my gut, and ride the train into town.

So,… coffee, in the corner café. I’d thought I was done with all this teenage stuff. I’d thought I was happy on my own, but it turns out I’m still looking for completion in the body and the soul of another, and all that crap. And worse, I also know myself by now, that I’m trapped in this groove, unable to veer left or right to dodge the hurt. And the only way this will work itself out is when I walk by one Saturday, and she’s no longer there. Then I’ll be that free man again, drinking coffee, alone, flicking on his damned phone, but all of that, at least, without this ache in his gut.

Or maybe, just maybe, next Saturday, at two,…

Header image adapted from: here

Footer image adapted from: here

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The Razor’s Edge mostly concerns Larry Darrel, an American youth who has returned home from the first war. He’s expected to pick up where he left off, marry Isabel, his childhood sweetheart, and take up a position in business with his best friend’s father. His future looks set, and he’s well-placed to move into monied, and fashionable society, partly also by virtue of Isabel’s well-connected socialite uncle, Elliott Templeton.

But Larry’s experience in the war has changed him, and he sets off instead on a journey of self discovery that takes him through Europe and India, leaving Isabel to marry his best friend, the lovable but ultimately dull “Gray”. Maugham plays himself, popping in and out of the various characters lives, and thereby updating us on their progress, as the years pass.

On the surface, it sounds a bit dull, but Maugham draws his characters well and has us believe in them. Although a major thread of the story, Larry’s gradual path to a kind of enlightenment is delivered with a light brush, especially when compared with the lavishness heaped upon Elliot Templeton, who’s outrageous snobbery, tempered by his kindness and devotion to his family, nearly captures the entire book. Templeton’s highly strung obsession with the socialite scene, with matters of taste and position, are however, the perfect contrast to Larry’s gradual, happy impoverishment.

As for Isabel, although superficially happy with her marriage, money and the trimmings of her social position, she has never stopped wanting Larry. She simply couldn’t bring herself to be a part of the humble life he’d chosen, and when Larry resurfaces after many years looking set to marry Sophie, a broken drunk of a girl from his and Isabel’s past, no matter how reformed Larry claims Sophie to be, Isabel is determined to thwart the match by fair means or foul.

There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s one that lingers for a long time afterwards. We realise by the end we’ve become part of Maugham’s world, sat with him at the pavement café’s of inter-war Paris, attended Templeton’s fastidiously crafted society parties, and hobnobbed with the continental aristocracy. What the main characters all have in common is they are seeking happiness, Isabel through a good marriage, Gray through the making of money, Templeton through the recognition of his social prowess, and his exquisite tastes in fashion and art. And then there’s Larry. Larry’s path is the hardest of them all, unlike the others, not even knowing exactly what it is he’s looking for. He walks the Razor’s Edge, the title coming from a line in the Kathe Upanishad:

Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, difficult to traverse.

But as we follow Larry’s path, we see him grow, become grounded and at ease with life and himself. By contrast Isabel, still bound up with the material trappings, grows brittle for the choices she has made, and ever desperate for the man she loves, while Templeton, ageing yet forever striving to keep up with the times, fears being sidelined by the high society of which he believes himself to be king.

A little daring for its time, sexually frank, Maugham even ventures so far as profanity, though delicately, and in French. But what we also have here is the portrait of a lost world, the story taking place mostly in Europe of the 20s and 30s, a world that was swept away, even as Maugham was writing about it, and so lucidly.

It was the subject of two film adaptations, the first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power, the second in 1984 with Bill Murray, but I can recommend neither. I’ve not read Maugham before, and I’m told this isn’t the best place to be starting, it being rather towards the end of his canon, but I found him nevertheless good company, and an engaging storyteller. A bestseller in its day, I thought it was a terrific read, its message as fresh now as ever, which only goes to show how little we’ve advanced, that while the wise know full well the material life is a dead end, most of us simply can’t help ourselves. Besides, anything else is a path so hard, and so narrow, few have the mettle, or the balance for it.

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A story of small beginnings

I didn’t know Uncle Bob, until that day I was ill. At family gatherings, he rarely spoke and always had this vacant look about him, like he wasn’t all there. He was pleasant when spoken to, but never seemed to join in the fun, and seemed a bit,… well,… embarrassed. Dad said he was odd, but Mum – Uncle Bob’s sister – said he was just a bit quiet, and always had been. Dad, being more of an outgoing sort, said that being quiet amounted to the same thing: odd. He seemed to forget I was a bit on the quiet side, too. Or maybe he didn’t.

I can’t tell you exactly what was wrong with me that day. I had a lot of problems, when I went up to big school. I’d been to a rubbish primary, one where they taught more Bible than maths and English, when at big school I discovered maths and English were the things they wanted, while the bible didn’t feature at all. I’d a feeling maths and English were what I wanted to get myself off the ground, but it was a bit late to be starting from scratch. So I was feeling like I didn’t fit in, and that I would never be any good at anything that was really wanted.

Some mornings I couldn’t face things, so I’d invent tummy aches. Nowadays, they’d be calling it mental health issues. I don’t know, maybe it was. All I know is I just hated school, and couldn’t work out how best to fit in, given the backward place I’d come from, and how not to feel like I was disappearing every time I walked through the school gates.

But anyway, this particular morning I’m quivering like a jelly outside the school office, where all the slackers and sick notes got dumped, and some poor teacher draws the short straw, and is told to drive me home. Dad’s at work, which is just as well, because he would have hit the roof, but Mum’s on the way out to work as well, and with a look of disbelief on her face as we draw up. And there’s no one else who can look after me except, maybe,… Uncle Bob.

I’d never been in Uncle Bob’s house before. Dad would never go round, you see? It wasn’t like our place. We lived in a semi on the edge of town. Mum and Dad had gone through it, made it all modern. We had a telephone, and a colour TV, and even some plastic grass instead of the real thing, so Dad didn’t have to mow it. They were well off, my parents on account of them both working. Both drove cars, which was rare in those days. Meanwhile, Uncle Bob lived in this place up by the moors. It wasn’t a big house but stood on its own, and was shaded by these big oak trees from the front, but open to the moors at the back. Dad said it hadn’t been touched since Adam was a lad, that it looked neglected, and creepy.

There was no TV, not even a black and white one, and worst of all, no telephone. If uncle Bob wanted to ring anyone up, he had to walk a mile down the lane to the phone box, not that he ever did – ring anyone up that is – and of course no one could ring him. You might wonder how anyone could manage, now, but in those days you could do everything you needed to do by letter. They were slower times, and no one expected an answer to anything straight away. It had electricity and water, but Dad said Uncle Bob used very little, and either lit candles or went to bed when it was dark. I don’t know if this was true. Dad said a lot of things about Uncle Bob, but I think this was more to reassure himself the way he lived was the right way of thinking about things, and Uncle Bob’s was wrong.

So anyway,… Mum can’t ring Uncle Bob to ask if he can look after me. She has to drive round on the off chance he’s in and not off out on his motorbike somewhere. She’s getting agitated because it’s a way out of her way, and she’s already running late, and frazzled by it, and I’m feeling like a burden, and dreading the thought of a day with my odd uncle Bob.

He looks surprised when he opens the door, me and Mum on the doorstep, and me unable to meet his eyes.

“Hello, Sandra,” he says.

I’d never heard him say mum’s name before. He spoke it warmly, like there was a person inside of him, a warm person, with feelings. But I could sense Mum was uncomfortable. I suppose it was living with Dad. Bob was her brother, and they’d grown up together, so there was a blood bond between them, but Dad was her husband, and though he never said anything rude to Bob’s face, he said plenty that was rude behind his back.

Bob was only a little older than Mum, but already retired by then, or at least he wasn’t working. When I asked Mum about it, she said it was complicated. Dad said it wasn’t complicated at all, that Bob was just a layabout. I learned later on Mum and Bob had inherited quite a bit of money, when Granddad passed away. Mum and Dad had used their share doing up the house, and changing their cars for newer ones, then going to Spain a couple of times. Bob had banked the money and given up his job instead, calculating that, if he lived frugally, he could make it to pension age without having to do another shift down the pit. It was some years later when I learned about his friend, Stephan, losing an eye and an arm in a pit accident, and Uncle Bob having to stop the bleeding, and Stephan screaming with pain until the deputy came along, with a shot of morphine. Things like that happened a lot in the pit. I wouldn’t have wanted to go back underground after that, and given the chance,… well,….

Anyway, from what Mum and Dad said, I expected Uncle Bob’s house to be falling apart, even a bit dirty, but it was all right. It was just a bit different, that’s all. He had a lot of books – walls of them. Books to read – stories and such, books that told you about stuff, and then lots of notebooks that he wrote in and, most surprising of all to me, he had a table set up in the back lean-to, where the light was good, and in there he used to paint little post-card sized pictures of trees and flowers, and chestnuts and leaves,… not to sell or anything. When he’d done, he just kept them all in a shoe-box.

I suppose we made a bit of a prickly start, that day, both me and Uncle Bob being of a reticent nature, and then me with my head full of the things Dad had said about him. I wondered if I was being punished, actually. I’d caused such a fuss, coming home from school like that, I imagined the grown-ups had conspired to make sure I wouldn’t be doing again it in a hurry, and how better to do that than have me spend the day with Uncle Bob. I heard Mum’s car disappearing down the road as she hurried off to work, and my heart sank. He stood there for a bit, like he’d not a clue what to do, and then he said:

“Do you like drawing?”

And I said: “I’m no good at drawing. ” Because, like I told you, I felt I wasn’t good at anything, and it was too late to be starting.

And Uncle Bob said: “That’s not what I asked.”

No. It wasn’t. And I did like it. Drawing I mean. But it seemed the world I’d entered needed you to be a genius at everything right away, or it wasn’t interested. “Well,… I like it, but,…”

“Liking it’s a start,” he said. “Liking’s it’s a good start. The best start. As for being good at it,” He shrugged. “Who cares? But that’s something we can sort out, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

He nodded. “Follow me.”

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Travels by day

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Daytime journeys lack the settled rhythm of the night trains. Indeed, the days have no rhythm, other than their beginning and an end. The in between is all white noise. Of the beginning, dawn brings an ache in the gut, a rush to shower, to breakfast and dress. In winters, of course, the journey begins before dawn, in inky black, often with sluicing rain, and visibility no wider than the thin slice of a headlight beam.

Travel is by the jittery conveyance of a motor car, and not a good one. Mine always feels a heartbeat away from breakdown, with subsequent late arrival and deranged howls of disapproval from the boss. There are trains and buses, but they are also unreliable, and dirty, and have the further disadvantage of not going remotely near where I need them to go. And the trains are expensive. I could fly to Amsterdam for the price of a ride to my nearest town. Indeed, the daytime world is more topsy-turvy, than the nighttime, though it’s becoming clear to me the lessons of neither can be learned without the taking of each other into account.

Mornings, I note, are also dangerous, and more so of late, as I sense the daytime world careening towards some sort of catastrophe. They are a kaleidoscopic rush of travellers crowding the roads and jockeying for position. Headlights, oncoming, burn the retina. Headlights fill the rearview mirror, so I must knock it aside or go blind. Vehicles swerve into gaps at the last minute, causing one to gasp and jerk upon the brakes. Others swing in at great speed from the on-slips, then zigzag precariously into the faster lanes. No ordinary mind can react so quickly as that. It is my belief the drivers are coked up, so see time differently, I suppose, that for them the split seconds are expanded into whole minutes, leaving those with slower lives and unadulterated minds to wonder at this new breed of warrior, tack sharp, but no longer quite sentient.

Thus, I arrive at the office all a tremble from the precariousness of the journey. The memory of the pandemic years are fading, but, while many employers have embraced the expedience of home working, mine did not – not even during the reaper’s grimmest days. We have all had it. The plague, I mean. Mine took six months out of me. My mentor died of it. And the reason? The boss, Cheryl.

She prefers her audience at hand, likes to perform, has her box of tricks at the ready and from which she casts her dark, abusive spells. This morning, she is a caricature of toxicity, eyes like razor blades, slashing the cheeks of those meekly gathered in her early meeting, the one in which she kicks buttocks in order to get the day going. We each bend over in turn, and take it submissively.

A well-dressed woman, no longer young, but, given the apparent immobility of her forehead, she is at pains to seem so. Blonde and bosomy, her face is hardened by both the injection and ejection of poison, also by the life she chooses, this being one of conflict, of confrontation, and foul language, which she uses as a tool to gleefully embarrass those of a more delicate disposition. I suspect a fragility underlying all this outrageous bombast, yet struggle to sympathise, or forgive. One day, I suppose I must, or my journey will end on a return ticket to nowhere.

Then, there is Nigel, her de-facto right-hand man. He is middle thirties, Marketing slash Sales. He is breathtakingly assertive, expensively suited, places his car keys upon the table to show us the emblem of the luxury brand he drives. His hair is more expensively coiffured than Cheryl’s and, though the air conditioning is always towards the arctic side of comfortable, rendering me in sweaters, he dispenses with his jacket in order to better share hints of a rippling physique, underneath his shirt.

I note he makes eyes at Brenda, who is standing in as head of HR. The actual head, Sonya, walked out in tears a few weeks ago, following a particularly brutal dressing down by Cheryl, in front of the entire gathered workforce. It was unprofessional, to say nothing of disrespectful, but sadly common in the modern small to medium enterprise, where the vast majority of us make our way. Sonya is currently indisposed.

By contrast, I find Brenda is a reticent woman of pleasant demeanour, and therefore ill suited to the role, ill suited to the toxic workplace environment. From the piecing together of various rumours, I surmise she is a bookish cat-lady, who lives with her ailing mother, and, for all her years, she is, I suspect, romantically inexperienced, thus Nigel’s flirting unsettles her.

Naturally, Nigel claims to have slept with all the females in the office, including Cheryl. Of course, the majority of these washroom boasts are fiction, yet I note the younger males are taken in. The juniors he has actually slept with are generally dismissed under some pretext. Cheryl’s reasoning in this is mysterious.

There are several others around the table, some talkers, some listeners, all anxious to show themselves to be sharp tools, and therefore indispensable to the business, which, ordinarily, I’m sure the world could well do without. But these are not ordinary times. They are intimidated, but clearly wish to emulate their tormentors and become themselves intimidators and tormentors, for such is the daytime way of things, in these non-ordinary times. I do not include Brenda in this, therefore conclude she won’t last long, which is a pity as I find, in company with her, a comparative stillness that is conducive of rest, of creativity, and productivity.

As for me, I am recently appointed head of information technology, this being on the demise of my mentor, a rotund, genially bumbling man of no relevant qualification, but of a generation in which self-taught computer literacy ran profoundly deep, at least among a certain demographic. I trained in the programming of avionics, elsewhere, but needs must, and not withstanding the fancy title, these days I do nothing but untangle sticky office laptops from the various knots their users tie them in, and then of course, I soak up my share of Cherylean or Nigelian abuse.

Cheryl does not like me. Has told me so, told me I am a poor fit for the organisation. I surmise she tells everyone this to keep them on their toes. But, so long as I am useful, and do not complain, I suppose she will keep me on. Nigel thinks me ridiculous, unpolished, timid, and old. He complains to me of the decrepit nature of his laptop and his phone, and speaks of my incompetence at dealing with such to Cheryl, who issues me with warnings and reminders of Nigel’s superior status.

There is never anything wrong with his equipment, at least that he has not inflicted himself. He merely enjoys abusing those who fix things. His favoured tactic is coming an hour before finishing time on Fridays and demanding his laptop be repaired before I go home. While he might judge this to be a fiendishly timed hand-grenade of stress, the solutions rarely take more than a minute, since he is, after all somewhat predictable in his methods of sabotage.

Anyway, after the morning’s buttock kicking, I make coffee in the small kitchen, where we also microwave our luncheons. Here I am caught staring vacantly, by Brenda, while waiting on the kettle. I am thinking of a puzzle posed by my most recent night journey. Even as the world careens towards some sort of catastrophe, the night trains seem to be taking me further, and with a purpose.

“I need to speak to you,” she says.


The tone of voice is more urgent than I am used to hearing in Brenda. Her manner is more likely to be hesitant, even timid. Anyway, I perk up, wonder if she has been sent to dismiss me, that Cheryl has put her up to it as a baptism of fire. I surmise Brenda is ill-equipped, emotionally, to dismiss anyone, that she would sooner dismiss herself, that Cheryl knows it and would enjoy inventing such a torture.

I indicate with a nod and an open palm I am receptive. If she must dismiss me, then so be it. I will not make it any more difficult for her than she makes it herself. But then we are joined by a breezy, cologne-scented Nigel.

“Now then playmates,” he says. “Not interrupting any hanky-panky, am I?”

Brenda stiffens, manages to mouth the word, “Later,” then walks away.

“Right little goer, that one, I bet.” says Nigel.

Once upon a time I would have wanted to tell him to mind his manners, to shut up. I would not actually have said it, of course, and the tension between my desire, and my lack of action would have had me loathing myself for a coward. Now, I barely register him. Even awake, he sleeps. He is a walking, talking machine, an automaton of purely programmed responses. Lacking such basic sentience, he is unworthy of being treated as such, and therefore I cannot engage with him emotionally, only functionally.

“Something you wanted, Nigel?”

“Laptop’s playing up again. Left it on your desk. Sort it, will you?”

Thus, by day, you see, the characters have the flavour of cartoons. They are simplistic, they are clichés, hard to interpret as symbols representing anything other than what they appear to be, and what they appear to be is ridiculous. Not all appear as such, of course. There are older souls to which I am drawn. I suspect Brenda may be one. But they always misinterpret my intentions. Perhaps I am too clumsy in this, perhaps I lack the experience of other lifetimes, but I have learned to keep my distance, to observe, to interpret, but to engage as little as possible.

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The night train

The limousine arrives after dusk. The driver is a grey-suited fellow of little conversation, his companion, a woman of middling years and magnetic presence, is equally taciturn. She steps out and opens the rear door. She wears a long, sombre dress, padded at the shoulders, forties style. There is an air of respectfulness about them, but this is not to say they are deferential. It is a professional arrangement. Their task is to collect me, and put me on the night train, as it is mine to make the journey.

There was a time when I would try to talk to them, question them, but they would close me down, with soft, short answers that explained nothing. There seemed nothing evasive in this. They knew their part and nothing more, while I knew nothing at all. Now I do not to bother them, and instead sit back and enjoy the leather-upholstered opulence of the drive, and the mystery of it.

I observe the familiar streets as they slide by, but there comes a point when we take an unfamiliar turn, like those the taxi drivers always know, and then you are in a different world, a world contained within the familiar, yet already unknown. Unfamiliarity is piled upon unfamiliarity, until one is lost in it. The north, south, east, and west-ness of it is all jumbled up, so it comes as no surprise to be finally arriving at a railway station that looks so far away in space and time, you cannot place it in your personal locality at all.

Its architecture is like that of a renovated relic from the Victorian, dramatically lit in movie noir style. It excites at once, though I cannot say why, and can only observe the emotion as it rises and falls within the breast. The car draws up, and the woman opens the door, hands over the travel documents. There is a ticket, a little cash, but neither Sterling nor Euro, also a card for major expenses, should they be required. Exactly what is required is never known, yet I have learned to trust all eventualities are catered for, so long as the guides are heeded. Guides, stewards, conductors, travellers. Each has their place.

When I first rode these night trains, it was only the driver of the limousine who would call. He would drop me at the station – smaller stations than this, to begin, just one platform and a single line. It did not matter which way I rode. Then came bigger stations with, a few platforms, different trains, a greater choice of destination, but it did not matter which I chose. I did this for years, never knowing where I’d been, or what for. I suppose it was an apprenticeship of sorts, learning to ride and to make the changes in time. But there comes a point when one’s travels need to be directed, if they are to become meaningful. I suppose that’s why there is a woman with the driver now, to get me on the right train. That’s another thing, the guides do not always advertise themselves as such and a degree of discernment is required – knowing who will set you on the right track, and who will derail you.

Tonight we are on platform two. She walks me into the station, no other souls around the giant halls, lending it a cavernous eeriness, with only the rumble of the trains and the sound of her heels to enliven it. In those earlier times the trains I rode were always short haul, the more friendly looking little two carriage Sprinters that link the local towns, towns that had a European familiarity about them, but whose names I did not know, and would always forget when the journey was done. It was as if the names of places was not the important thing in mapping out the territory.

It was as much as I dared, to begin, and there was always a sense of anticlimax, the towns seeming to stand without meaning, the night bars and restaurants I visited peopled only by the still sleeping, half-shelled forms of what I took to be my fellow men. And none engaged me. It was altogether a very shallow experience, only marginally more interesting than my travels by day.

Lately though, I have begun to travel further out, and I am sensing something in the air, something changing, particularly among the bigger city destinations. There, the denizens seem at least to notice me, but are shy of engaging, as I am shy, for fear of not possessing the necessary etiquette in foreign lands, and among foreign people whose customs may be unlike my own. And I would not like to give offence, no matter how inadvertent. But I’m still unsure if these journeys have an actual point or not, if they are leading up to something, or I am still completing some sort of probation, that to ride the night trains is to enter a temple of sorts, one where nothing is what it seems, and you must leave at the door all your preconceptions regarding the nature of travel.

At platform two, tonight, stands the biggest train I have ever ridden, and quite futuristic in its lines. It is taking on supplies just now: water, refreshment, fresh bedding for the sleeper cars. It is a train for crossing continents, and carries with it an air of anticipation, a determination to pierce distant horizons at great speed. The looks of it alone excites the senses.

My guide seeks out the carriage that is reserved for me, and opens the door. She stands back to let me into the quiet air-conditioned hum of it, herself remaining on the platform. It is a private carriage of a kind I have become more accustomed to, recently. Rather than the familiar rows of seats, there is a couch, deep buttoned and inviting, a couple of club chairs, and a stout desk. There is dark panelling throughout, oiled and richly scented. The ceiling is lined with polished copper tiling, and reflective. There are reading lamps, books,… Whilst I may still be on probation, it seems, amid all this opulence, I am allowed some symbols of advancing status, even though all of it is as yet mysterious.

She closes the door, grants me a parting smile. There is warmth, and something comforting in it. Then she walks away, leaves me to settle in. I note the shutters are drawn, which means we are going a long way, tonight. The shutters grant only a sense of motion as the town and country lights slide by. I have been advised by the stewards not to lift the shutters on such journeys, for it would only confuse me, they say. It is better to settle for the motion, and the point to pointness, I’m told, and to ignore what lies between.

I don’t know about this. I prefer to see where I’m going, but I suspect the geometry here is not of the Euclidian sort, at least not when compared with the familiar plane of living. There is another dimension to contend with, one which bends things round upon themselves, makes close neighbours of cities at opposite ends of the globe, and an impenetrable gulf between towns that are only be miles apart.

I take the couch. There is a book on the table, a slim clothbound volume. The text is Cyrillic in style and illegible to me, though the structure of the lines and heading suggests poetry. I don’t know what these clues are supposed to mean, how they are supposed to be read.

As for other travellers, I assume there are many, and that they occupy the other carriages. We do not mix, and the interconnecting doors do not open to anyone but the stewards. I suppose these others to be the more adventurous, or the more experienced, riding the train out to its furthest destinations, since the first stop of the night is always mine, and I am always alone, when I step out onto that platform.

I hear the steward approaching, the rattle and chink of his trolley being a sensory connection that helps keep me present. He is a cheery man, late middle-aged, balding, bright-eyed. The stewards are more chatty than the limousine driver, and the guide, but not overly so. Again, they have their place in the scheme of things, and know nothing beyond it. I suspect they are not fully sentient, but it would be rude of me to say so to their face. Better, more polite and productive, to play along with their script.

“Coffee, sir?”

Yes, indeed, coffee. The journey always begins with coffee. The experience of it is intense, and puts me in a receptive mood. Sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, emotions too; all are more intensely experienced here than by day. By day the seeming pace of life distracts, and waking is like stepping on an avalanche of words and sensation, the entire day being an act of permanent imbalance. The night trains, for all of their mystery, allow a period in which to gather oneself, and if such is the only purpose, it will suffice. Though I suspect there is more, much more to come.

The train departs. There is no Tannoy announcement, no shrill whistle, no scrolling of a destination board. The steward balances himself against the sudden motion, and pours. He uses a silver pot. There is a China cup and saucer. All of these things are symbolic, I know but, like the writing in the book, I do not yet know how to interpret them.

We clear the station, and I feel the train accelerating, coming up to speed.

Here we go, then,…

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The concluding part of the story,….

Okay, that wasn’t too bad. The car goes like a rocket, doesn’t it? A little wild on the corners by modern standards, but plenty of kick! Anyway, here we are, just pulling into a space on Menses Park Terrace. The college is over there, and Menses Park is to our right. We’ve still an hour to kill, so I thought we’d take a look in the park because I’ve not been in there for ages and, well, the place is kind of special to me, for a number of reasons.

I’d forgotten how green this part of town is, all cherry trees and wide open spaces. It’s just a stone’s throw, and yet a million miles away from the bustle of the centre. And here,… see? Isn’t this a pretty park? Look at the lawns, and the colourful borders. You won’t find parks like this anywhere else in the world – it’s so English, so Victorian. See the bandstand? The ornamental lake? This is where I come at lunchtimes when the weather’s good. It gets me out of college, gives me somewhere quiet to be on my own and lick my wounds.

If you don’t mind we’ll just sit here on this bench for a bit. We’ve been lucky with the weather eh? Today’s exactly as I remember it: warm, and the scent of fresh cut grass. But it was always a pleasure tainted by the perpetual loneliness of being in love, and always disappointed by the reality of love’s apparent indifference to me. Still,… no need to dwell on that now: I’ll soon be seeing Serena again. She’ll be sitting beside me in the car, and I’ll take her to that little pub. We’ll talk over a decent meal and get to know one another,… we’ll feel so grown up and sophisticated – then I’ll bring her home and drop her on her doorstep and say: it was fun, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed being with you. And she’ll blush and maybe give me her number and we’ll arrange to do it again sometime soon.

What’s that? I said: We’ll arrange to,… what are you looking at? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,….


Didn’t I tell you Faye was a looker? Crikey, I’d forgotten she used to wear her dresses as short as that! That’s her bench over there you see? Didn’t I tell you? This is where we first met. This is what I wanted to show you, just for completeness really, though it’s a while yet before our time comes, and I wasn’t expecting to see her today. She was sitting over there, reading Wuthering Heights. I was going through a bit of a Bronte phase myself and was reading The Tennant of Wildfell Hall – made a change from Newton’s Laws, and Mhor’s Circle.

Anyway, even from a distance we couldn’t help but notice one another’s books and we made a joke about swapping them when we’d finished. It was said light heartedly but – you know how these things work – I looked out for her every time I was in town after that, and in the end we did exchange books. Her telephone number was written on the very first page and the rest, as they say is history,… or rather my future.

Look at her legs as she sits down, and crosses them. Aren’t they sexy? You can nearly see her stocking-tops! And the way she dangles her shoe on the end of her toes like that! Oh,… but she looks so pretty,…. so young and absolutely devastating! I don’t mind telling you I feel a bit awkward now, sitting here, knowing I’m about to be going off with someone else shortly, and maybe you think it’s wrong, but you’re forgetting: Faye doesn’t know me yet and it would complicate things if I were to do what you seem to be urging me to do, and take my copy of Wildfell Hall out of my bag – yes I know it’s in there – I’ve seen it too. Oh, Faye: red high heels, big bushy hair, a slash of red lip-gloss, electric blue eye-shadow. How I used to ache for you! Where did you go, my love? What happened to you? What happened to us? Do we really change so much as we age – or are we the same, and we just forget who we are?

Okay, maybe we should move on. I’m beginning to feel really strange now, like I’m going to wake up. Talk to me will you. Say something. Why do you have to be so flipping quiet all the time? Oh,… I think it’s too late,… we’re slipping free,…. no sense in fighting it; once we start to slide there’s nothing we can do to stop it,… here we go.


Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. I think it was seeing Faye that did it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Let me come round for a moment, then we’ll go back into the house and check on her. Does everything look as it should to you? I mean the shed. I could swear there was something,… oh never mind,… I think the tea was a little too strong. Do you have a funny taste in your mouth? Yak!

So, anyway, here we are. The house is all quiet. We’ve been away a bit longer than I expected and everything’s in darkness. There’s just a light showing under the lounge door, and I can hear the TV, so I don’t think I’ve been missed, but I’m feeling guilty about the Serena thing, so I’ll salve my conscience by asking Faye if there’s anything I can do. It’s a little weak I know and she’ll suspect me at once of something underhand but, really, seeing her as she used to be has reminded me of what it was that drew me to her in the first place. She was every bit as pretty as Serena – I’d forgotten that – but there was something else,… and I’m really glad I woke up in time before I had the chance to disgrace myself. Anyway, here we are:

“Faye,… I was just,…”


You’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I think about this.

Yes,… I can see it’s not Faye. But who?…. Oh, I get it – It’s Serena of course! Nice one! She’s padded out a little, and there are lines around her eyes – not unattractive, I might add. Its more her expression that’s so shocking – the same dull, deadness – just like Faye: those lifeless eyes reflecting nothing but the crap she’s watching on TV. So,… I take it we’ve slipped forwards, not to our old future, but to our new one?

Fine, just so long as I know where I am!

On the up-side, it seems our courtship went well and we’ve managed to share a life together, but on the down-side, unlike my life with Faye, I’ve obviously not had the pleasure of remembering the best bits of it. I’ve gone straight from that tingling anticipation of our first date, to surfacing directly here into the featureless plain of our later years, a time when it’s all been said and done, and we can barely be bothered looking at each other any more.


She’s barely aware of us,… fortunately, the TV is on so loud she didn’t hear me calling her Faye.

“Serena, can I get you anything?”

She waves her hand dismissively. Clearly I’m disturbing her and I suspect we’d be as well retreating back into the kitchen.

Now, given the rather shop-worn outcome of both these relationships, I agree it seems I’m most likely the one at fault here, since I’m the common denominator in them both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that though. I mean I could do the decent thing while I’m here and try to perk things up with Serena, but since I don’t remember anything of our relationship, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that without her knowing something’s wrong, and maybe making things even worse.

So that leaves me wondering about your part in all of this, and how we seemed to bump into each other at that particular time and place. And you must forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking it’s you who’s been married to Serena all this time, that this is your future, and that maybe lately you’ve been haunted by memories of a woman sitting on a park bench flashing her stocking tops, and reading Wuthering Heights? A woman who caught your eye and smiled at you as you were waiting to go out on your first date with Serena perhaps?

Okay. Fine. Well, I trust that, like me, you know what it was now that you really left back there in ’83, and now we’ve found it we can both avoid screwing up our lives any further. It was really weird bumping into you again, and you understand if I hesitate to suggest we do this sort of thing more often? For now, I’d be obliged if you’d just put the kettle on and hand me your almanac. With a bit of luck the moon’s not moved too far away from the ecliptic,…

….and Faye’s still sitting on that park bench.

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Still with me after part one? Much appreciated. Let’s see where this goes. So,…

We’ve skipped ahead a little now, consulted our almanac, and there’s a full moon on the ecliptic this evening. I’ve checked the earth’s geomagnetic signature on the Internet and sure enough, it’s been plummeting for days, so now’s our chance. I’ve tickled round the garden with a hoe, tidied up the borders and mown the grass, which ought to keep Faye off our backs for a while. If you think you’re ready, come down to the shed, and I’ll boil us up an infusion of hedgerow clippings. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable – go on – settle back.

Here we go,….

There! see how easy it is? We’ve slipped back to ’83 without much trouble. The only problem is we’ve missed the best bit and we’re already half way through Dodman’s lecture. Mhor’s Circle is up on the blackboard, which means Serena’s long gone. That’s a bit of a drag, but maybe you’re right and trying to cop off with a dream-girl from my past is like trying to run before I can walk. So, maybe I should start with something simple like,… I don’t know,… how about if I just,…. stood up?

Okay! That seemed to work. Here we are, standing up in the middle of Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle. Weird! It seems we’ve just created another future because Dodman, interrupted mid-sentence, is now looking at us over his spectacles in a way he never did in our original past, at least not at this place and time.

“Yes?” he asks.

He’s a pleasant chap, old Dodman, and we’ve no need to fear his wrath, but all the same it’s an embarrassing situation and I’ve no idea what to do next. To be honest I didn’t expect things to be as easy as this.


“Is everything all right, young man?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dodman. I think,… perhaps,.. I need,… to excuse myself.”

I could just have sat down again and maybe time would have flowed back into its normal course, but, really, this is too interesting a thing to let it go just yet. So, we’re outside the room now, breathing hard, sweating like we’re sick and shoving our college notes back into our bag. What now you ask? Well follow me and I’ll show you.

I’m of an age when I can look back fondly on the 80’s, and even though it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, the fashions, the styles, the cars,… when I see these things in movies or pictures from that period, they conjure up a feeling of such nostalgia it’s like I’m sure I misplaced something back here that was really important to me. I’m also sure I know what, or rather who it is:

We’re talking about Serena, of course!

The girls were mostly into big fluffy hair, and shoulder pads in those days. I remember it as a very glamorous, sexy and confident time. As for my car – I drove an RS 2000, painted a gloriously unsubtle shade of yellow. It had alloy wheels, fat tyres and a Cosworth engine. If I’m right I’ve left it parked around Avondale Road, where it’s all quiet and residential, and where the parking’s free. But that’s for later. For now though, I’ve just remembered a coffee shop in the old Market Hall which is nearer, so we’ll check that out first.

Okay, here we are. I know it’s not much of a place but the coffee’s really good, and is very straight forward to order – just coffee – none of the endless choice that’s supposed to be the mark of a sophisticated free-market society. It’s pretty busy, it being market day, you see? But if you follow me quickly there’s a table just over there. We can hunker down, sip our coffee and try to work out what to do next.

Excuse me,… coming through!….

Wow, did you see that girl? She looked like a movie star! I used to sneer at all this glam stuff – plastic people I used to call them – but now I really miss it! By the way, if you don’t mind my saying so you seem to know your way around here pretty well.

Anyway, where were we?

Oh,… hold on. Something really strange has just happened. Serena’s walked in. She’s over there, ordering coffee from the counter – baggy striped sweater and jeans, big satchel. Isn’t she gorgeous? Do you see the provocative tilt of her hips? Oh,… now she’s looking for somewhere to sit. Ever heard of a synchronicity? Well you’re in one. We shouldn’t get too excited though because, considering the way she last looked at me, I’ll be lucky to get a smile out of her this time. Still,… she can’t find a seat, and we’ve got this whole table to ourselves.

I wonder,… Okay, she’s looked our way now and I’m sure she’s recognised me. I can read her mind: she’s thinking she can either beg a corner of that table with those old dears by the window, or she can come and sit with me. If she’s kind hearted, she’ll know I’ll be hurt if she chooses the old dears, but I don’t want her to be uncomfortable either. And I don’t want her to feel sorry for me. I just want her to want me.

Right, she’s coming over! You’d better slip off into the background, while I deal with it. No,.. don’t go too far; I don’t mind you listening in and, anyway, I may need your help if I get into trouble.

“Hi,” she’s saying. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course not.”

I can feel myself tingling now, like she’s emitting a force field and it’s exciting every particle of me. Once again there’s that startling awareness of every detail of her, and she looks so cute and cuddly in her sweater. Surely, no matter how long I live, I will never desire anyone as completely as I desire Serena at this moment. No,… I’m not talking about sex here; it’s more that I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever wanted just to be,… with anyone so much as this. But I’m confused because, of course, this moment never happened. If this truly is, or was, my past, then it’s following a different track now.

And that’s progress.

Isn’t it?

Serena’s nervous. She can read my thoughts, she sees the desire in my eyes, and she doesn’t want any embarrassment. She just wants to sit and drink her coffee without some hormone-inebriated youth making a pass at her.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”

Now it’s her turn to be confused. “Oh?”

“I’m not really here, you see?”

She smiles. She has a lively sense of humour and thinks perhaps I’m joking with her – thinks perhaps she’s misjudged me, been too hasty in setting a distance between us.

“Really?” she asks. She has the most beautiful dimples, and those lips? Do you see those lips – how wide her smile, how white her teeth?

“It’s true,” I’m telling her. “I’m actually sitting in my shed some time maybe twenty five years from now, thinking back on this moment.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, and I can see her running this one through her mind, her eyes making little oscillations while she weighs me up. She could easily think I’m a wierdo and recoil, but instead she tiptoes politely into my joke, and now she’s asking me: “So, what’s it like then: twenty five years from now?”

And of course I want to say something corny like: “All the poorer for not having you in it, Serena,” but that would be lame and this is a joke, after all, so I’ll have to say something light and smart and say it soon, or it’ll ruin the moment.

But what is it like, twenty five years from now? Do I say the world’s economy has collapsed, that the financial institutions these stripey shirted, brace twanging proto-tycoons are constructing around now will turn out to have been nothing more than a sophisticated con-trick? No,… too downbeat. But then I remember I was not particularly happy here in the ’80’s either – sure I wasn’t sinking in a sea of mortgage hell and torpedoed investments, but what I was, was forever falling in love with a long string of women, none of whom ever knew my name, which from where I’m sitting now, back in ’83, suddenly seems a whole lot worse than looking at my building society statement twenty five years from now and thinking: shite!

But she’s waiting – the moment sliding away and if you want to make a decent joke, of course timing is everything. I give her a smile, as warm as I can muster, and then I hear myself, like some ham actor from a ’40’s movie say in clipped English tones: “It’s all terribly dull I’m afraid.”

I’m a hit: she’s laughing now and my heart is swelling. How I wish I could simply hold this moment than have to take things any further, but the times are holding on to me, and it seems each moment from now will be whatever I choose to make of it.

“You’re a nutter,” she says, but flicks me a smile and a coy look that I take as permission to proceed – but carefully.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” I ask.

“Study period,” she replies. “What’s your excuse?”

“Me? I’m meddling with the nature of space and time.”

But this raises barely a grin – too pretentious. Must keep it real! “Well,… seriously, I’ve attended this lecture so often I know it by heart.”

“Lucky you.”

“What time are you in college ’till?”

She pauses before replying. I’m being too obvious now but my gambit is rewarded by that coy look again. “Four,” she replies. “You?”

“I’m here ’till nine.”


“I’m a day release student,” I explain. “We get twelve hours of lectures a week – all on the same day unfortunately.”

“Ah,… then you have a job?”

“Yes. I’m an engineer.” I might have said ‘designer’, but I’m worried she’ll think I mean fashion or something. But what’s this? She’s interested: she’s lifting her chin, fastening her eyes a little more steadily upon me.


Now, it’s not that engineering’s a sexy kind of job – it’s more that just having a job at all makes me seem a little more mature than your everyday college boy. I earn real money, while the guys she’s been out with so far have most likely all been full time students and dirt poor. Sure,… this is what she’s thinking – trust me. Now, I’m not exactly a rich man, but I can afford to spend money on her, and every woman likes to be made to feel she’s worth a million dollars – it doesn’t make her shallow. Anyway, that’s the female side of the equation. As for the male: one side of my head may be pushing fifty – which is the side that’s thinking straight, thinking ahead, and urging caution, but the other side is twenty three and thinking very little, except how much I want to show her the car, or preferably get her into it. I’m young you see and I want to wave my bright yellow, two litre metaphorical willy at her.

“Do you need a ride home?”

She shakes her head and I cringe inwardly. That was too much, too clumsy, but I note she’s careful not to push me so far away. “I mean I don’t know you, do I?” she says.

“True. True,…”

“Anyway,” she goes on, teasing. “If you don’t get off ’till nine how can you?”

“I’ll probably skip the rest of today,” I tell her. “What I really want to do,…” I mean if I blow it here, I’m thinking, “is take the car for a blast over the moors – there’s a little pub I know. Cosy. Good restaurant. I’ll probably hang about up there for the evening.”

“Sounds nice.” I can see her balancing the potential of my rather subtle invitation against the risks of being stranded in the wilds with a psychopath. “Well,…. I see you often enough in the refectory at lunchtimes,” she calculates. “So, I sort of know you already, a little.”

“Yes,… you do.”

“I don’t need a ride home though – I only live five minutes away.”

“Right. That’s very,… convenient.” My how this girl likes to tease!

Is she inviting me back to her place, then? No – don’t be an idiot. Her place will probably include a mum, a dad and an annoying little sister.

What do I do? Time is ticking. Her hands are curled around her coffee cup, her arms flat upon the table and I see her turning her wrist a fraction so she can tell the time. She’s so lovely, so perfect,… but I fear I’m losing her now.

“Study period almost over?” I ask.

She nods, and though she does not smile, there is a look in her eyes that betrays her pleasure in the time we have spent together.

“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to be rude.”

Our eyes are lowered a fraction. She’s waiting to see what I’ll do: if I’ll try to blurt in a last desperate pass. She’s perhaps hoping I won’t, but being terribly polite in giving me the opportunity to embarrass myself. “Well,…” I say. “Maybe you’ll let me buy you coffee next time.”

She’s surprised by this. It gives her the easy way out, the chance to smile and say “maybe”, and retreat with both our dignities intact, also the chance of a follow up if she feels like it, or the chance to avoid me if she doesn’t. Really, I wish I’d had this much sense when I was younger, instead of being so damned gauche and backing girls into corners all the time.

“Well,…” she’s saying. “If you happened to be parked down Menses Park Terrace, say just after four,… you never know,… we might bump into each other again.”

And if I’m not mistaken I think I’ve just scored.

“You never know,” I tell her. “And maybe if you were passing, I could ask if you fancied joining me for a meal,… at that pub?”

“And maybe I’d like that,” she says.

She’s in a hurry now, drains her coffee, and with a last look at her watch, pushes back her chair, flashes me a smile, and says it was nice talking to me. I nod dreamily, and she’s gone before I have time to ruin the moment by saying something stupid.

Well, come on then! There’s no time to waste. We’d better pay up, and get out of here. I know we’ve hours to kill before four o’clock, but I remember it was always murder parking down Menses Park Terrace, and we’ll probably have to circle a bit before we find a spare slot. I don’t want to leave anything to chance, you see, and it’ll give us an opportunity to get a feel for the car again. And maybe,… sure,… while we’re there, there’s somewhere else I’d like to show you.

To be concluded tomorrow,….

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