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The discovery of an old trunk stirs unsettling memories,…

Crouching low in the attic, I play the torch over the roof beams, and find them fragile. Kathleen peers anxiously through the trapdoor beside me.

“Well?” she asks. “What do you think?”

For three generations this house has served her family well, but lately the roof has begun creaking ominously, in even the lightest of winds. She’d telephoned me to ask if I’d mind taking a look. It’s as well she did, for in all my years I had never seen a roof in poorer shape, at least not on a house that’s still standing.

“Well, it needs a bit of attention,” I say, trying not to alarm her. “I can start this afternoon if you like, but first we’ll have to clear all this stuff out of the way.”

I shine the torch over the mass of junk that always seems to gather in such places – the bits of carpet, the old-fashioned lamp stands, the packing-boxes crammed with all manner of forgotten odds and ends,…

She’s embarrassed by the mess. “I know,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to get around to it for ages.”

It’s while helping her to sort through everything that we come upon the trunk, a big old thing, secured by a hefty padlock. Curious, I trace my fingers through a thick layer of dust to reveal a rich, dark sheen of lacquered wood.

“This is a fine chest, Kathleen.”

Her face darkens. “Oh,” she says. “I’d forgotten this old thing.”

“Looks like its been up here a long time.”

“Since my grandmother was a girl. That must be ninety years, or more.”

“But whatever’s inside?”

“Just some old clothes and things, I expect. When we were children, we used to imagine all sorts of exotic treasures. Sometimes we’d beg her for the key, only to be scolded for our cheek and then she’d tell us that, so long as she was alive, the trunk would never see the light of day.”

“But she must have been gone twenty years,” I remind her. “Have you never thought to look since?”

“It didn’t feel right, somehow. It’s like she was still watching me.”

“Well, it’ll have to come out now.” But I can see she’s uneasy about it. I’d often heard folk say what a difficult woman Kathleen’s grandmother was, and it troubles me we might have disturbed memories Kathleen would rather remained forgotten.

Later, I sit in the kitchen while Kathleen makes tea. It’s been a long, messy job clearing the attic and we’re both covered in dust. The trunk had been troublesome, nearly pitching me off the ladder as I’d tried to get it down. Now, it squats sullenly in the corner, an uncomfortable presence hanging over it.

As I look around I notice a photograph on the wall of a young woman wearing a plain dress, in the style of the 1920’s. If I had not known better I would never have guessed this was Kathleen’s grandmother. She would have been about thirty then, and remarkably good looking, which never failed to surprise people, since most could only remember her as a bent and bitter old woman.

Indeed, the bitterness was a thing which soured her life, but it also weighed heavily upon those, like Kathleen, who’d cared for her in her sunset years. Looking at that picture now, I fancy I can see it even then, frozen into her otherwise handsome features,… a sort of tragic emptiness.

Kathleen sees me looking. “Ah,…” she says. “She was always reminding us how she might once have made something of her life. I can see her now, rocking herself by the fire, complaining about the rain and the draughts whistling through the door, and about how noisy the neighbours’ children were,… and all of us would be wishing that if only she could be a little more cheerful,…”

“Didn’t you once tell me she was a dancer?”

Kathleen sighs. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s rarely spoken of her grandmother, but now, the surfacing of the trunk has made her want to talk. Slowly, draws up a chair.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she begins. “But she worked at a theatre, in town. They say she had the music in her bones, and such a tremendous vitality on stage, all who saw her reckoned she was destined for greater things. And sure enough, she was spotted by an American lady who turned out to be the owner of a theatre in New York. There was a position going in a production they were putting on, and it was my grandmother’s, if she wanted it,…

“It must have seemed like a dream come true, starting out from such a small place as this. It would have been her first step on the road to fame and fortune. Who knows? First the theatre, then maybe, with looks like that, the movies do you think? Sure she might even have been a movie star. But she was only nineteen. That would be 1910 or 1912, and New York must have seemed a very far away place indeed,…

“My great grandfather had died, leaving only my great grandmother, a poor, sickly woman who didn’t want my grandmother to go to New York. But in the end, I suppose she must have agreed and, so the story goes, everything was set. The theatre company arranged her lodgings and I think they even booked her passage over – so they were keen to have her all right.

“But it was not to be. No sooner had she got used to the idea she was really going, than my great-grandmother was taken gravely ill, and since there was no one else in the family, the responsibility fell to my grandmother.” Kathleen shook her head. “I can imagine how she felt – all the conflicting emotions as she watched her ailing mother, while her own dreams slipped though her fingers.

“He mother lingered for years, finally passing away in 1914, by which time it was the war, and the world all upset, and my grandmother’s chance was gone,…”

Looking at the photograph again, I feel like I’m seeing it now for the first time. “The poor woman.”

Kathleen nods. “It ate away at her for the rest of her days. Oh, she settled down, met my grandfather,… raised a family, had all the things we ordinary folk enjoy,… But I don’t think any of it meant as much to her as it might have done. She must always have been thinking how different things could have turned out,… if only,…”

“And the trunk?”

“Well, they say she gathered everything up that was even remotely connected with her dreams of New York, and locked them inside. Then she had a neighbour carry it into the attic, and there it lay, out of sight, but never quite out of mind. I don’t know why she kept it. I would have burned it, if it had been mine.”

In a strange way, I think I understand, though. “Some dreams are just too hard to let go of.”

We sit for a long time, our thoughts inevitably focused upon that old trunk and, I for one, am burning with curiosity. “So,… will you be opening it, do you think?”

Thanks for reading so far. Part two tomorrow,…

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Tim felt at once they were not a receptive audience. There were few truly earnest faces among them, while others pretended, thinking perhaps he had more authority than he did, when in fact he had none. Worse, he felt empty of a sudden. It had seemed such a little thing at the time, just to come along and talk. But an audience’s attention isn’t guaranteed, especially not a captive one like this. He’d have to work at it. Then having won it, he’d have to come up with something worth saying, and fast. What he’d planned to say, aided by these stilted notes he clutched in increasingly his sweaty palm, just wasn’t going to do the job.

It had started as a joke. He’d written a little book about trees called, well, “A Little Book About Trees.” It had taken him all of an evening, and he’d posted it online, like he did with his other stuff. And like all his other stuff, some of it going back twenty years, he’d not given publishing a second thought. Maybe someone would appreciate the joke and leave a wry comment. There were some real wags out there in cyberspace. But then the impossible happened, and a publisher emailed him. This really doesn’t happen, ever, he’d thought, and especially not for a title like: “A Little Book About Trees” by Tim Burr. I mean, the publisher knew it was a joke, right?

The publisher wasn’t one of the big six, of course, but a small, local press, who handled history and nature. The book would be a good fit, he said, after cautioning Tim there’d be hardly any money in it, but he’d like to print the book anyway, if Tim had no objection. Well, Tim had no objection. It would even be funny, he thought, seeing it on the shelves. Trees weren’t exactly his forte. He’d simply blagged the information from a dozen places around the web and put it into his own words. Then he’d illustrated it with his own photographs. Literature it was not. Poetry it was not. And of all the things he’d ever written, this, he felt, was the least worthy of anyone’s attention.

What he had that he felt was of infinitely more value was a dozen epic novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature. With all his heart, he still believed in them, but they sat up on his web-site with the rest of his stuff, and hardly anyone read them. Still, he wondered if one thing might lead to another, and then, well,…

With publishing, there also comes marketing, so Tim found himself on a bit of a promotional book tour. Or rather, he had a ten-minute phone-in slot on the BBC local radio station. Then there was a morning in a bookshop with a pile of his books for signing. He dressed up in tweed for that, but no one got the joke, just like they didn’t get the Tim Burr bit, and no one was buying the books either. Tim didn’t mind that so much, and even understood it, having by now seen the cover-art foisted upon him by the publisher’s graphic designer. It looked like it had been dashed off in half an hour, which was fair enough, this also being about how long it had taken Tim to write the book.

That said, the book did go on to sell a thousand copies, which just about broke even. You’ll still see the occasional one in publishers clearance, but it’s fair to say Tim’s brief moment in the spotlight faded back into obscurity. So it goes, thought Tim. It never did lead to anything else, and nobody got the joke.

But then there was this teacher who taught English to adolescent students. She was the sister of a friend of a friend of Tim’s, and she’d arranged a speaker to come into school for the annual Book Week, but they’d cancelled at the last minute. This was an esteemed professor, author and arts critic, who sounded to Tim like the real thing, except he was too busy, and also rather rude having cancelled at so short a notice. So, there was a desperate trawl for anyone who might know someone who knew someone half resembling a writer. And that, to cut a long story short, is the only reason Tim was standing there now.

“Just talk a bit about writing,” the teacher had said.

Simple enough, thought Tim. Except, right now he couldn’t think of a thing to say. And he wondered if part of the reason was he knew nothing about writing after all, or if he did, he’d forgotten it, and his dozen novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature meant nothing in the scheme of things. So there was no point trying to enthuse such a reluctant, and by now fidgety crowd of youngsters over the wonder and the mystery of the literary creative arts, when Tim was losing the plot of it anyway, and when the surest route to the high-street bookshelves turned out to be a spoof title called “A Little Book About Trees”, and a subject he knew nothing about.

The teacher, a trim, middle-aged lady with a permanently harassed expression, and greying hair, was starting to look less harassed, and more worried. Was Tim all right? I mean, he was a writer, wasn’t he? And there was nothing writers liked more than boring the pants off others about their writing. So go on, Tim, just say something. Anything.

There came a titter from the back of the class. In Tim’s day there would have been spitballs to follow, but they did not seem an overly violent bunch, and he took comfort from that.

“So,…” he said, a little too loud, and while it got their attention, it didn’t stop the kids from looking at their watches. It was a half hour slot, but there was a risk this was going to be the longest half hour of his, and their lives.

“So,” he said again, softly this time. “How many writers have we got in the room? Put your hands up.”

Tim put his hand up. No one else did.

“All right, he said. “Let’s call it something else. Who keeps a diary?”

He put his hand up. Glances were exchanged. A dozen hands went up, shy at first, but helped by the hand of the teacher.

“So, you were having me on,” he said. “I’m not on my own after all. There are lots of writers.” Titters again, but this time he felt they were with him, and he relaxed. “Can you tell me this, though,” he said: “Would you ever show your diary to someone else?”

There were no takers for that. “Why write it then?” he asked. The atmosphere had changed. Already they were five minutes in, and he’d barely scratched the surface. “That’s a mystery, isn’t it? Let’s think about that.”

Then he remembered why he was a writer, and realised he’d just woken a dozen kids up to the fact they were writers too. And those who weren’t? Well, by the time he was done, he’d have shown them they could be writers as well if they wanted. He was doing none of them any favours, of course, because it was an odd thing, to be a writer. But the blood-writers among them would know that.

And they’d do it anyway.

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Dear George,

In answer to your query, when we write long-form fiction, interesting things emerge. Whether the story ever sees the light of day or not, it is an exploration of ideas, of events salient to our attention, and to our sense of being, at least at the time of writing. It clarifies what it is we think, also what we think we think, but in fact do not. Thus, it points the finger at our bullshit, and our vulnerability to the subversion of our thinking by invasive memes.

Memes sweep the culture, inculcate it, shape it. They cling to our coat-tails like briars, and we must be careful of them. Are these the things we really think? Or are they infections we have picked up and would be better seeking a cure for them? And is there really any difference?

In our current work in progress we have picked up a few threads familiar from previous writings: the secret state, neo-pagan spirituality, depth psychology, the politics of inequality. This is normal, a kind of narrative continuity. But you are right to point out a meme I have missed, and which might be harmful to us both.

As near as I can tell, it is the meme that says the man’s too big – the man being any authority we labour under, or against. The man deploys his authoritarian tool-box to crush dissent, he twists every instrument of the law to protect himself, he is made of Teflon, nothing sticks, and no lie is too big. Indeed, lies are no longer lies in contemporary political parlance; they have become tactical deceits. As for that most urgent issue of global warming, it’s too late to alter the course of it, and since we’re all doomed anyway, why bother even talking about it?

My last hero, Rick, turned his back on climate activism and politics, and went to live with a magical woman in the equivalent of a walled, Edenic garden. I wasn’t happy with him for doing that, but given the nature of the woman, I couldn’t entirely blame him. But it was also a return to the womb, which is hardly a healthy state of affairs. The world is where we live, not the womb. That we are born at all means we have a responsibility to shape the Zeitgeist. Heaven or Hell? The choice, as you say George, is ours.

In my defence, I might argue I wanted others to be angry with Rick as well, for who else can we rely upon to put the world to rights if not our heroes? And when the heroes quit the field in despair at our apathy, it should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that something is seriously wrong. It was, then, a small gesture, rooted in reverse psychology, and probably futile. But, you ask, is there not also a danger I have fallen for my own meme, and begun to believe in it? The man’s too big, the man’s too strong. Go contemplate your navel.

In “a lone tree falls” Rick is reborn as you, George. You are a former intelligence officer, a man of middling rank, intimate with international affairs, familiar with facts that are kept from the rest of us for reasons both fair and foul, familiar too with facts that have been spun to the inverse of their original meaning. But now you too find yourself in the path of the bulldozer, and the big man bearing down. Like Rick, the solution I am suggesting for you is defeatist. You’re knocking on in years, you see the future of the UK as a kleptocratic failed state, buffeted by an increasingly violent climate, spiralling levels of poverty, and an infrastructure always on the verge of collapse. But since – forgive me George – you’ll be dead before the worst of it hits, why worry? Keep your head down. Pour yourself another G+T and salute the sunset.

However, I note your objection, and agree all of this is convenient for the kleptocrats. One wonders if such “resistance is futile” memes can be seeded in the mire of social media to purposely sprout invasive blooms of defeatist nihilism. I also note that to be accepting of what we cannot change is also touted, in the emerging self-help literature, as being psychologically mature – this particular meme coming out of the man’s misappropriation of Buddhist mindfulness techniques. We are taught now to move on from contentious issues as a form of self-preservation. We should not interfere to change the madness, says the man, but employ age-old psycho-technologies to merely cope with it, and therefore remain obligingly docile and economically productive, as we spiral down the vortex of heat-death.

Why do I suggest that you, dear George, escape your responsibilities by making off with a muse half your age, disappear on a canal boat into the sub-cultural wonderland of England’s inland waterways? Is this not another metaphor of the womb, like Rick’s Edenic garden? Have I not worked out yet that the man holds the plug, and can drain any medium of true flight? There is no escaping responsibility.

But what, exactly, are our responsibilities to the world, and to the species? To whom, or to what are we held responsible, and to what standard? I hear your complaint, George, that, though we men of senior years feel no longer capable of action ourselves, we should at the very least take care we do not infect the young, for there is nothing worse for a young person’s confidence than seeing a defeated old man preaching the nihilist memes he learned at the knee of his masters and economic betters. Who then can blame the young for retreating into the virtual worlds of their computer games, drawing their curtains against the light, and subverting intelligent activism into vile shouting matches on Twitter?

Do not be defeatist, be determined? Do not be bitter, be better? Do not resign, be resilient? I hear you, George. My powers are limited, but I’ll see what I can do to preserve your honour and dignity.

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A lone tree falls

Chapter One

Marsh Avenue, Marsden

This is the last garden in Marsh Avenue with a privet hedge, the last with a piece of lawn at the front, and flowering borders. It used to be like that from top to bottom. You could see the seasons change through the cherries in early spring, the laburnums in late May, and the deep greens of high summer. Now it’s all concrete, cracked pavers and white vans.

There were neighbours, too: Mr Williams, next door, a retired gentleman who, in my memory at least, always wore a white jacket and a bow tie. Sometimes he’d have dungarees underneath the jacket, if he was repairing bicycles. He liked old maps and cameras. Weekends would see him in a trilby hat, a second-hand Voightlander over his shoulder, setting through Durleston Wood. He smelled of pipe tobacco, and mushrooms.

His wife, a portly dame of indeterminate shape would arrive unannounced to camp my mother, and help out with the housework. Nowadays, this would be seen as an unspeakable intrusion. Back then it was more a kind of solidarity.

Then there was Mr Simpson, on the other side. His back garden was a wild profusion of blackberries and rhubarb, but he kept his front manicured. He had three mature cherry trees to mark the apexes of a triangle of lawn. When they blossomed, they were the pride and the envy of the neighbourhood. The lawn has gone now, and the trees were felled to make way for a pick-up truck. Loud music thumps out from the house all day, and late into the night.

The occupant is now a scar-faced man, who wears camo. He keeps a pair of barking bull-lurchers which, the story goes, he trains to kill badgers, and foxes. I don’t know if this is true, but he has dead eyes, like black pebbles. I have studied his sort before, and I can easily imagine it is so. When we are ruled in a more unambiguously totalitarian manner, he will be appointed the local chief of police, pulling out the fingernails of leftist dissenters until they too scream out their love for Big Brother. I have never spoken to him, so cannot call him a neighbour. His music is – well – decidedly unmusical, consisting at my end purely of beats. It jams my brain, so I cannot write when I am there.

Thump. Thump. Thumpety.

I did not intend coming back to Marsden, but I don’t regret it now, nor the circumstance that forced me. It granted time to see my father out, with grace and honour. It also eased his mind, knowing there was someone around to keep on top of the garden, keep it respectable, this being in the manner of his generation, who took pains to ease the minds of passersby that here at least, they were safe from assault and robbery.

“Remember to sharpen the edging shears before you clip round.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“The India Stone’s in the shed. I showed you how. Remember?”

I do remember. I was eighteen when we had that conversation. How long ago is that? Forty years? Except I swear it was Mr Williams who showed me how to sharpen things with an India Stone. It was also his India Stone I was always borrowing, because ours had grown concave with use. I am on the cusp of old age myself now, or late middle, or whatever they call it, but in my father’s eyes I was always a lad. I didn’t mind that. He always meant well, even when he was wrong, which, looking back, was often. It’s an important step along the path to maturity, I think, realizing your father could be wrong, and forgiving him for it.

Thump. Thump. Wackety. Thump. Thump.

He’d gone a little deaf towards the end, so he wasn’t as disturbed by the noise from next door as I am. Or if he was, he never said. He never complained about anything, even when he had much to complain about, like how the doctor hadn’t a clue what was wrong with him, until it was too late. Then his only apology was: well, Mr Swift, you’ve had a good innings.

The night he died, there was heavy metal coming through the walls as I sat with him. I’d not the courage to go round and tell the scar-faced man there was this old gentleman, my father, with a magnificent story of life behind him, a man blessed by his obscurity and his inoffensiveness, dying on the other side of the wall, and could you not for once turn the music down, let him pass into the next world in peace, and not be chased there by Banshees?

Funny, the things you feel ashamed about.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

He was a craftsman, my father, worked magic on a lathe, making valves, and far away fortunes for the oil and gas industry, yet a pittance for himself. Mr Williams was a labourer at the rubber works, Mr Simpson a retired collier with emphysema who hid black stuff he coughed up, in a clean while handkerchief which he kept there for said purpose. All were gentlemen, their wives, decent, resilient women. Their solidarity was like glue to us throughout the leaner years of growing up.

Oh,… you get the picture. Things just aren’t the same now. And perhaps there has always been this sense of decline, certainly in the north of my country, and since the Thatcher years, but lately it has taken on a more unabashed appearance, smelling of a thing more brazenly corrupt. And it’s my fault because I looked away, and let it happen.

The obvious thing to do, now my father has gone, is to sell the house, but a part of me is saying that would be to close the door on what I still believe to be a thing worth rescuing from the past. If only I could define the shape of it. But I cannot stay either, because the insult of that music, and the loss of gentleness, and the richness of colour is full of hurt for me. All I do when I’m here is scroll my phone for crass novelty, and wait for a change in tempo.

Boom. Whackety. Boom. Boom. Boom.

___________________________________________

I think this works as an opener. It sets the mood, anyway. We’re ten thousand words in, and it’s still giving, still connecting. I’ve done the cover, too. We may be on to something. Coming to a bookshop no time soon and never to be seen on Amazon, except possibly as a pirated version.

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Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com


Working from home had never suited Jed. Okay, he’d always hated the commute to the office, especially over winter. But now, since the great switch, he missed the companionship of others. He also hated the intrusion of his employer’s virtual presence into his flat. Then there was his employer’s theft of his electricity, his heating, his lighting and his Internet. And for what? Every day he beamed his face into team-space for the sake of listening to the same dreary wombats droning on in meetings he was unable to avoid. And while he listened with one ear cocked for his name, and an invitation to make some banal contribution, he’d try to keep up with the avalanche of emails, so he could still clock off at a decent time. It was an absurd way to live.


Mondays were the worst. It was as if people saved everything up until the end of the week, then waited for him to log off before launching stuff at him. He was sure some even stayed up to the small hours with trivial queries they’d send with a time stamp aimed only at impressing the line manager, whom they’d copied in for no other reason. And come Monday he would open up and be buried in this meaningless dross.


If Jed took a week off, or worse, a fortnight for the summer, it might be several days before he caught up. There were hundreds and hundreds of emails, every day, and most were about nothing. But all required an eyeball for the small number that actually need a response. For years now, he’d felt like he was drowning.
So, he was in no particular hurry to log on this morning, to see what the cat had dragged in over the weekend. He was anxious about it, actually, even retching a little in the bathroom as he’d cleaned his teeth. Still, he’d better get to it. There were debits to pay, and he’d lose money for every minute he was late logging on. Late three times in a row, and he’d lose an entire week’s pay.

This morning though, the machine wouldn’t let him in. It took his password, did the usual security scan, taking pictures of his morning-bleary face to confirm his ID, then booted him out. He’d always passed facials before, but this morning something had changed.

“You’re displaying signs of unhappiness,” said the machine.

“I’m what?”

“All employees must show evidence of positive energy, before entering the system.”

“When did this come in? What evidence?”

He regretted the question. The machine recorded all his conversations, all his mails, for analysis. It would go against him that he’d missed, or more likely deleted, that particular email.

“Lack of a happy smile indicates you are low in spirit,” explained the machine. “You will contaminate the stated company ethos of maintaining a powerful and spirited enthusiasm. You will quarantine while you adjust your attitude. Please cheer up, and try again tomorrow.”

There was nothing he could do. That was a day’s pay gone, and all because he couldn’t muster up a smile when he logged on. Anyway the machine was right. He wasn’t happy. His wife had left him and his dog had died, and he hated his foolish job, answering emails about emails all day. How could anyone be happy about that? How could anyone summon up the required powerful, spirited enthusiasm, unless they were insane? It wasn’t enough the whole world was now operating at this same level of lobotomized enslavement to shovelling bullshit, everyone had to be happy about it as well.

He decided to use his day off to good effect, and to relax, then he’d be in better spirits for logging on tomorrow. So he took a walk in the fresh air. Then he made himself a proper dinner, and practised smiling in the mirror before he went to bed. He practised some more when he got up in the morning, before he logged on. But still, the machine would not let him in.

“Your smile is not genuine,” it said. “It suggests deception. Be warned this is not a positive attitude to adopt, and will count against your employee rating. You will remain in quarantine. Please try again tomorrow.”

There was no way around it. That was one pernickety machine.

Jed wasn’t sure what to do now. It seemed his unhappiness was finally getting the better of him. What puzzled him though was how everyone else had managed to pass the happiness test. Were they right now beaming their positive energies into their emails? But he’d rather got the impression everyone else was as unhappy as him. Could it be they were that bit better at hiding it? And if so, what was their secret?

It struck him, of course, as the days passed, the emails would be piling up, and he couldn’t get at them. Even when he managed to log in, it would be terrible. He would be drowning in them for days and days. Feeling very depressed now, Jed went to the pub. There he met Chris, a former colleague, occasional drinking buddy and barfly sage.

“Hey Jed, why so glum?”

“Don’t you start,” said Jed. “They’ve got this new fangled facial scanner at work. It can tell when you’re unhappy, and it won’t let you log in.”

“Can’t you fake it, like everyone else?”

“Tried that. It didn’t work. At this rate I’m going to be broke.”

“Don’t worry,” said Chris. “I’ve heard of this face reading stuff before. It’s creepy, mate, but it’s not infallible. You need a bit of coaching, that’s all.”

“Coaching?”

“How to pretend you’re happy, when you’re not.”

“But why should I have to go around pretending? I do my job as well as anybody else. Now they’re demanding I smile while I’m at it? I mean it’s just not dignified, is it?”

“It’s a fad,” said Chris. “You know what these big corporate management types are like. They’ll try any shiny whizz-bang thing to impress the shareholders. It also helps if it’ll subjugate the minions. Why do you think I quit?


Because you inherited a fortune from your dad, thought Jed. And we can’t all be so lucky as that.

Chris went on: “Everybody in work these days lies.” he said. “No one says what they really think, or they’d not last a day. The high-fliers in a system like that are the ones who are best at pretending they believe in this positive vibe stuff. Right? Including to themselves. So, tell me,… when was the last time you were happy?”

“Dunno.”

“Oh, come on. Think back. How about when you were a kid?”

An image came to Jed of walking along a beach as a little boy. He could feel the softness of the sand underfoot, and the sparkling cool of the sea as it washed over his toes. It was the first day of his summer holiday, and it had felt like it would go on for ever. There was no sinking feeling at the thought of an email in-box waiting on his return. There was no thought for all the emails wanting to know when he would be responding to his emails, about his emails,… about his emails. Yes, he’d been happy then.

“There you go,” said Chris. “Now you’re smiling. So think of that same thing when you’re logging on tomorrow, and you’ll be just fine, mate.”

Jed was impressed. Chris had always struck him as a bit of an intemperate jerk, but on this occasion he’d nailed it. So the following morning he closed his eyes and summoned up that same image from boyhood. He focused on it until he swore he could feel the pleasure of it tingling throughout his whole being. Then he logged in. But the machine wasn’t fooled.

“Please try again tomorrow,” it said.

Three days now without pay. That meant he’d nothing clear after rent, and he’d need to cut back on some essentials, skip a meal or two. He rang the doctor, thinking to get some happy pills, but he couldn’t get an appointment for weeks. Then a text came through on his phone. It was someone from HR reminding him he’d missed three logins. If he missed another two, he’d be fired as per the terms and conditions of employment he could remember neither reading nor signing.

He looked around him and felt the walls closing in. His flat was rented. His car was rented. Everything he owned, including his phone and even the apps on his phone were all in some way owned by someone else. He merely leased them, rented them, paid subs on them. And if he should ever stop, then everything, his whole material life disappeared. Exactly what did he own, other than the clothes on his back? Wait a minute. Even they were rented now! Was he to go naked into the world and starve?

There had to be a way to turn this around. He had to try harder, focus more on that scene from the beach. He had to focus all day and all night if need be – focus until he was as good as there. But as he focused, he realized, lurking in the background, there had been an imperfection. He’d been ten years old, and innocent, but there’d still been something hanging over him. He would be moving up to big school in September, and the thought had terrified him. He’d been hiding from this fear under cover of that long summer holiday. But it had still been there and, in the weeks to come, it would begin to gnaw away at the seeming perfection of his happiness. He needed to find another memory, one without such a fatal flaw. There had to be something.

What about love? He ran through all his past girlfriends, but discovered love did not cut it at all. With the joy of love there was always the attendant potential of the loss of the other’s affection. Love had always been a striving emotion, never the true, settled perfection of its promise.

What about when United won the Championship then? He’d floated on that for a while. But again there was the accompanying thought about how well they would kick off next season. Always then there was this potential for loss, for the sun to set on one’s joy. As he flicked his way through all the moments of his life, he realized it was never possible to actually be happy for anything other than fleeting moments. Indeed, it was foolish to make happiness the aim of your life. Happiness was both the balloon, and the knowledge the balloon was inflating itself against the sharpness of life, a sharpness that might rupture one’s joy at any moment. More, it was necessary to realize it, he thought, to accept it, and be strong in the face of it. Otherwise, you would always be a slave.

This thought, coming to him in the small hours, after a long meditation, felt like the revelation he needed. He’d been trying too hard. He had to be more neutral in his approach to life and to work. He had to be, if not exactly indifferent to life’s potential for happiness, then at least sanguine over the potential of its loss. As for maintaining a happy, powerfully spirited attitude for even a single working day,.. well that was impossible.


Feeing philosophical and relaxed now, he slept a little, woke early and logged in. The machine scanned his face, analysed it for longer than usual, searching among the millions of facial templates to find the one that matched Jed’s, and which might describe it. The machine failed, then booted him out with the default claim he was not showing enough positive energy. He risked contaminating the organizational ethos with his “unknown” demeanour. So, he was to remain in quarantine until his attitude improved, until he could show the right spirit.

“Please try again tomorrow.”

By now though, Jed was less preoccupied by his lack of success at logging into the damned machine as by the changes he could feel going on within himself. The walls of his flat moved out again. Their colours grew pale, then transparent as they dissolved, and he felt an overwhelming sense of release. The next morning, he logged in without a thought and the machine scanned his face. It thought about it for a long time, then came back with an opaque error message, but let him in anyway. He opened up his inbox, but it was empty, and no faces appeared in the usual team-call. Across entire continents, servers were humming to destruction, eating their own code.

Jed had broken the machine.

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Les joueurs d’echecs – Honore Daumier

So, I’ve decided my name is Thomas Marston. I was a Captain in the Queen’s Royal Highlanders, and I’m a hundred and forty-one years old. My birthday celebrations have been somewhat muted since everyone I know is long dead. Also, the ongoing pandemic in the UK is still making it difficult to get people together – not that I bother much with birthdays anyway at my age.

We’re into our third year of quarantine now, with most other countries, bar the States of course, pretty much back to normal. But if you have a fully stamped CV passport, with all the known mutations up to date, you can at least get into town now and then for a coffee, which is what I’m doing here. Before all this kicked off I’d fallen into the bad habit of shambling into town wearing any old muck. Nowadays, I polish my shoes and press my trousers, like it’s a special occasion, which I suppose it is, mostly on account of its rarity.


The café is quiet this morning. There’s just this fierce looking woman, sitting over there in the corner. She appears to be glowering at me over the rim of her teacup and looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place her. Then there’s that old guy, sitting by the window. I spotted her before I spotted him. I don’t know what her problem is. Could we have met before, and I was inadvertently rude or something? Might we have had a relationship at one time? The latter seems unlikely. For all of my advanced years, I have no problem with my memory and I clearly recall the last woman I courted was in nineteen fifty two.


Relationships are a particular problem, as you can imagine. I’m told I’d still pass for forty – which is the age I normally claim – but romantic entanglements tend to fall apart when the lady in question finds out how old I really am. It’s not that I’m bothered much about that sort of thing any more, though at times I feel the company would be pleasant. Anyway, she’s definitely not an old flame – I mean most of those would be very old indeed by now. Something about me interests her though, and it doesn’t look to be in a good way. Perhaps she mistakes me for someone else.

As for the old guy, what’s interesting about him is he’s got this little fold-out travelling chess set, and he’s playing both sides of the board. You’d see that a lot in cafés, and on long train journeys, once upon a time, but not any more. Now we just flick on our phones. He has an old-world look about him – nudging eighty perhaps. He sees me looking, unhooks his mask and gestures.

“Do you play?” he asks.

I do, actually. My game is unimaginative, but solid. After all, I’ve had a longer time to practice than most people, and you can’t help picking up a few tricks along the way. He’s well-dressed, a tweed jacket and tie sort of guy, and he has a kindly sort of face. He’s probably lonely, so I see no harm,…


Then my mobile rings, which pulls me up a bit. It rarely rings, since very few people have my number. So, if it does ring, it’s usually a scam, or a cold call. I note it’s a London number, and I don’t know anyone in London. Okay, so here we go: it’s an automated voice purporting to be from HMRC, the UK tax authority. They’re threatening criminal action against me for fraud. I make a note of the number, block it, then mail the number out to the government’s cyber-security service. I’m sure they do their best with this sort of thing, but I can’t help imagining they must be overwhelmed.

So, then I set the phone aside, bring myself back into the moment, but by now the old guy has gone, ditto the woman, and the café. Instead, I’m sitting at the dining table in front of the laptop, blinking into the morning sunshine through my window, chasing the tails of a story as it slips back into the unconscious.

I suppose there were scammers a plenty, even in Marston’s younger days. But we seem more vulnerable to attack now, the shady ones turning up in the middle of our thoughts, in the middle of our living rooms and leaving dirty footprints on the carpet. They hit you with a carefully crafted line to get your attention, then it’s on with their nefarious patter. If only such ingenuity were put to good use, we would surely have solved the millions of problems that vex mankind by now.

It’s easy to think no one would ever fall for such things, but the innocent and the unwary do, and clearly often enough to make it worth the while. As for me, it spoiled the taste of my coffee. To remain innocent and trusting throughout life is surely a virtue worth protecting, and one of the unspoken crimes of the scammers, even against those wise to their tricks, is to render us cynical and suspicious of the world.


Anyway,… Captain Thomas Marston. I’ve used him before. Interesting. I thought we’d done with each other but apparently not. And if not, then I’m sure I’ll catch up with him later on, find out what else he has to say for himself.

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Les joueurs d’échecsHonoré Daumier – 1863

So, I’m thinking of writing a story about chess. Well, not actually about chess, but somehow it’ll feature chess. Why? Well, it’s popular at the moment, thanks to the Nexflix series “Queen’s gambit”. I should get some downloads on the back of that, especially if there’s a chess piece on the cover of my book. What’s not to like? Okay, let’s go,…


I see a couple of oldish guys. Yes, I know, young strapping bucks would be better, guys of college age, say, where the female interest is so young they’re still playing with Barbie-dolls. But that was all such a long time ago for me, so oldish guys it is because you’ve got to write what you know, and I’ve not the patience to fake it any more.


They meet in a coffee shop. One guy’s playing both sides of a pocket chess set. He sees our hero sitting there on his own, looking glum, so invites him to play. He’s testing this theory the world’s gone to hell in a hand-cart. Not only that, but he reckons the general public is as thick as mince, as evidence by the fact no one plays chess any more, except him. But our hero does. He doesn’t play like a pro, but he manages a decent game. He doesn’t win, but has the old guy sweating a bit. They agree to meet again and play some more.

The old chess guy has a daughter – ah, here we go! Her husband’s gone off somewhere with a floozy, and broke her heart. She’s no kids because I don’t want any kids in this story. Kids always take centre stage. They whine a lot, and have the adults running round like simpletons, trying to please them. So, no kids. Right?

The daughter? Well, she’s a looker of course, otherwise why bother? And she’s posh. She comes across our two old guys playing chess, and our hero falls in love with her, I mean at once. Heavily, deeply, seriously. But this is no ordinary love. This is from the depths. It’s an unconscious projection of ground shaking, Biblical proportions. But there’s a serious age gap. Let’s make it thirty years, so she’s not going to look twice at him. I mean, he’s not even worn well. He’s grey and craggy, and he’s been ill, and he looks a mess with soup stains down his jumper. And he’s not stupid. He knows there’s no prospect of a Hollywood dénouement there. But that said, what the hell is he supposed to do?

Then it turns out the old guy’s some kind of toff, with a big house in the country. He starts inviting our man out there for weekends, so he sees a lot of the daughter, as well as playing chess. She’s sweet and intelligent, still young enough to start over, and live a normal life with someone her own age. As for our guy, she’s a little frosty with him, thinks he’s weird actually, because he’s edgy when he’s around her, on account of him thinking she’s a goddess. But he’d never say anything about that because he’s a gent, and knows it’s better to do the decent thing. So far, so unrequited, and long may it remain so.

So that’s the set-up, but now the story’s up to fifty thousands words, and fizzling out because I’ve no idea how to solve the puzzle of it. It’s as well I never started writing the thing in the first place, isn’t it? Maybe it just needs another character to unlock it.

Okay, I see an older woman, someone unsentimental, practical, sturdy and above all human. I see the kind who’d wash his jumper in exchange for him mowing her grass occasionally, and just,… well, helping him to smarten himself up a bit, because she sees something in him it would be a shame to let life crush the – well – the life from. But let’s not get carried away here. She’s no time for love-stories. She isn’t even looking for a man. But she doesn’t mind sharing a glass of wine with one, so long as he doesn’t go thinking that gives him rights of ownership.

Now, she sounds interesting, and I’m liking the sound of things again, so we’ll push it out another twenty thousand, see where it leads. But then, ah,… damn,… there’s still the Covid problem. I mean this is a contemporary story, so strangers can’t meet that way any more, can they? Nor can they go inviting them round to each other’s houses. Plus, the cafés are shut, and we’re all wearing face-masks which makes it hard to read people, let alone fall in love or play chess with them. And the world’s such an unstable place now. I mean God knows what’ll come along next and hijack the story in the middle of my writing it? Been there, done that. Got the tee-shirt. Twice.

Maybe I’m better going off-world this time, writing a space-opera. I’ve done a bit of Sci Fi in the dim and distant, and that might be the safest thing to write in 2021, something well away from our physical reality. Or I could dip once more into the liminal zone between dream-time and topside, where anything is possible and anything can be true. But contemporary love, tenderness, empathy, the subtlety of human relationships? Hell, man, that looks like it’s over, unless you can do it by Zoom or something. I can set it back to 2015, but I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning, let alone who the PM was in 2015, or what was on the TV, and was Netflix even a thing back then? No, I’m hardly going to do justice to the background details, am I?

So, we’ll park it there for the better and save ourselves a whole year of trouble, never having typed so much as an opening line. Maybe some other writer will have the pleasure and the pain of it. Or no, wait,… how’s this:

“Do you play?”

No, it doesn’t speak much to me yet, it doesn’t suggest this cast of characters has much to show me. And it’s me they’ve got to seduce first. But, that said, whether the story gets written or not, it’s as good a start as any. So we’ll sleep on it. If the dream fairy gives me a working title by morning, we’re on.

Good night all, and welcome to 2021.

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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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