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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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.

“Hmm?”

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,….

Woah!

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.

Damn!

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,…”

Okay.

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.

“Serena?”

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.

“Em,…”

“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.”

“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.

“Reeeaaaally?”

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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Blowing the dust off some old short fictions with a thought for getting back into the craft. I’ll be putting this one up in daily instalments. Each one is a five to ten minute read, so hopefully I can hook you early on. It’s about young love, old love and time travel. What’s not to like? So,…

I haven’t been to Wigan for ages, not since the ’80’s, in fact, and I can’t say for sure we’re really here now, except it seems pretty much that way to me. If I’m correct, it’s a Thursday, just after lunch, and we’re standing in a huddle of people waiting to go inside the old technical college on Parson’s Walk, but there’s been a fire alarm, and it’s chaos. It’s no hardship, though, because the sun is shining, and every second I spend out here is a second less I’ll have to spend in class.

Okay,… so, here we are; this is the interesting bit: there’s a girl looking at me, smiling. Do you see her? That’s Serena, and I’ve been in love with her for a long time. Her smile is heart-warming, it’s also completely unexpected because, until this moment, I’d not been aware of her having taken much notice of me. Clearly though, she is aware of me; dare I say she even seems to like me?

The crowd fades into the background and all I can see is her, except “see” isn’t the right word. Yes, I can see every freckle, every individual eyelash, but I can also feel the texture of her skin, her clothes, her hair,… and though she’s twenty feet away, and just one person in the midst of so many others, I’m aware even of the warm-womanly scent of her.

Emboldened by that smile I take a step closer, but the smile fades as if she’s read my thoughts, and is wondering how to avoid the embarrassment of my making an unwelcome pass at her. See? She’s gone now, swallowed by the crowd whose din fills my ears as the fire alarm is ended, and we all make our way towards the doors. I always was a bit of a klutz when it came to women.

Here we are then, shuffling along corridors, heading for my Materials’ Science lecture, which I warn you is going to be a couple of hours of grinding tedium, but you’re lucky because from my perspective things are made all the more unbearable by the ache in my heart, and the knowledge it might be weeks before I ever come that close to Serena again.

I’ve done this a few times now, slipped back to this moment, and what I’d really like to do is slow things down, savour the best bits, the glow of that smile for instance, and then pull out of it before this crushing disappointment kicks in, and I’m once more sitting listening to old Dodman explaining about Mhor’s Circle. I might have found a way of slipping back in time, but once I’m here, time ticks along at its normal pace, and I’m unable to control how long we remain, though boredom usually kills it and sends you right back to whatever time you came from.

It’s curious, these trips to what I suppose must be the early summer of 1983, and my final year of the old HNC course in Mechanical and Production Engineering. It’s curious, because although I am myself, as I believe I was back then, my heart heavy with the bitter sweetness of an unrequited love, there is also superimposed upon my memory the knowledge that for our entire lives, Serena and I will never say anything more than an awkward “hello”, that we’ll marry other people, have kids, and live our lives in complete ignorance of one another.

Now, don’t go thinking I regret the way things turned out for me, because I don’t – well, not exactly. This moment may be charged with a deliciously poignant nostalgia, but I could just as easily have revisited any number of similar moments from around that period. Indeed a few months from now I’ll meet a delightfully feisty girl who won’t disappear every time I try to say hello. On the contrary: she’ll take me to her bed at the first opportunity and keep me there – that is until we both wake up, a quarter of a century later, too middle aged and kid-tired for that sort of thing any more.

Nowadays she prefers watching TV and grumbles when I forget to take the rubbish out. Well, that’s middle age for you, and you either grow up, grow into it, accept its imperfections, its disappointments, and grow old grumbling at someone, or you ruin yourself on a mad fling with a girl half your age that you know won’t last, and then you grow old and alone, with only the walls to grumble at.

In the absence of any other alternatives, I know which of the two I prefer. But what if there was a third alternative? What if that mad fling were to take place in another time and place, dare I say even a different universe altogether? Then you could have your fun and it wouldn’t matter would it? And then what if it wasn’t a mad fling or a bit of fun at all? What if it turned out to be the single most important thing you never did?

Old Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle seems to do the trick – don’t misunderstand, this is technically interesting and professionally important stuff for me, first time around. It’s just the boredom of its frequent repetition I suppose, that has me resurfacing, safe and sound, in the shed at the bottom of my garden.

The light’s melting into amber over the messy backs of all the red brick terraces of my street. I can see a multitude of chimney pots, a tangle of drainpipes and a mad assortment of larch-lap fencing in various degrees of disrepair. It’s not exactly the most likely setting for an experiment into the nature of time and reality, but then I’m not sure there’s much of a precedent for this sort of thing.

Faye thinks I’m potting up Bizzie Lizzies – at least in so far as I imagine she thinks about me at all these days, and to be safe I have potted a few, but mostly I’ve just been sitting here in this old armchair, among the dust and the cobwebs, well,… daydreaming really. Except, as you’ve just seen, there’s more to it than that. So, maybe you’re wondering if it really is possible, to slip back in time, court girls, and have sex with all that sweet simplicity like you used to, and just,… be so damned young again!

Well, trust me, it’s possible all right, to go back and experience your past again. I’ll show you how in a moment, but I’m warning you, you can only amuse yourself so much with that kind of thing before you start to wonder how you might go about making some changes while you’re there. I see you hesitate? You’re worried about going back and, by changing something insignificant, ruining your present, or maybe even blotting it out altogether?

Don’t worry. That’s day one on the time traveller’s course, and if you don’t mind my saying so, that theory’s a bit dated now – I mean all those rational paradoxes the usual smart-Alec naysayers throw at you. No, trust me, if you change something in your past, you don’t change your present at all – you simply create another version of it. Setting aside all the philosophical musings for a while, there really seems no harm in it, provided you can always get back to where you started from, of course, and as we’ve just seen, all that takes is moment or two of boredom.

So, it turns out the business of time-travel is actually a lot easier then than you’ve been led to believe, provided you’re only interested in going backwards of course. Sure, it turns out the most effective time machine’s not a machine at all, it’s simply the mind, whatever that is, helped along by nothing more complicated than some herbal tea, and the right phase of the moon.

The phase of the moon, you ask?

Perhaps I should explain. At certain times of the month, your mind is less securely fastened down inside your brain. This has to do with the earth’s magnetic field, which forms a sheath of energy around the planet called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere gets a regular kick from the Sun’s magnetic field, which generally keeps the magnetosphere lively, which in turn stimulates our brains through the pineal gland. What’s that? Well, it’s basically a magnetic sensor wrapped in nerve fibres.

With me so far?

Much of the pineal gland’s function is a mystery, but one of the things it does is keep our sense of self too busy to think of leaking outside of our brains to somewhere more interesting. Once a month though, just before Full Moon, the earth’s magnetic field hushes down a little and then, if your mind’s calm enough, it can slip into a state of dissociation, where any memories that happen by are rendered in ultra-realistic detail.

Okay, so, maybe now you’re thinking this isn’t really time-travel after all. It’s more simply a kind of hallucination? You might have a point, but how about this: if you can trigger a memory, like we just did, then amplify it to such an extent you experience everything, exactly as it was: sights, sounds, touch, smell, and the feel of it all, a feel so overwhelming it entirely blocks out the sense of your present self, well, what difference is there between that and reality, other than the passage of a few decades?

Okay, it’s cold sitting in the shed. Come into the house for a bit and warm up. Let’s try the lounge. Yes,… just as I thought: that’s Faye, reclining on the sofa, dropping bits of chocolate into her mouth, while she gawps rather unattractively at the TV. I’m sure you’ll agree she’s not a bad looking woman, and there was once a time when she was very sweet indeed, very energetic in her loving, only now I get the impression she isn’t really much of anything other than this dull automaton, with all the life squeezed out of her. And to be perfectly fair, she probably feels the same way about me – and not without justification.

Now, Faye and I will never split up. I mean we might have outgrown the idealistic stage when we both believed we had the power to make each other deliriously happy, all the time. And though we may be past all that, we’re far too polite and conventional to do anything so drastic as making each other deliberately unhappy, for example by having the bad manners to take off with someone else. We’re companionable enough, most of the time, but anyone can see there’s something,… well,… missing.

There’s no sense in disturbing her just now, so lets sneak back into the kitchen and check on the herb tea situation. Did I mention the herb tea? Look – I keep it all here in this cupboard where its cool. I get it from the hedgerows, dry it out slowly over the summer, then crush it in the usual way, soak it, drain it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you there’s plenty of stuff growing in those hedgerows that will kill you, and make a pretty long and nasty job of it too, so you need to know what you’re doing. What’s that? You’re already familiar with this kind of thing? Well that’s fine. I suppose you must be, or we wouldn’t have met outside the college the way we did, or when we did for that matter.

But, tell me, do you also know about the ecliptic? No? Then allow me to explain, because a knowledge of the ecliptic might be just the thing you’re looking for to enhance your experience. You see, there’s something else about the moon you need to know. Over the course of a month it goes from rising south of east, to rising north of east, and then back again. When it’s half way, that is when it’s rising due east, it’s said to be over the ecliptic. When the moon’s at this point, more often than not, the earth’s magnetic field is once more a little quieter – like a with a full moon. So, if you want to skip back in time, you’re better doing it either with a full moon, or with a moon over the ecliptic. Got it? If you check your almanac you’ll see this gives you three or four chances a month. Okay? With me so far? Ah,… I see I’ve sparked your interest now. You’re intelligent and already making the connections: you’re wondering will happen when the moon’s full and over the ecliptic at the same time?

Well, you’re on the right lines. A full moon on the ecliptic only happens about twice a year, and I agree with you, that might be just the time to slip back in time if you wanted to do something other than simply experience your past, and instead see about making some changes while you were there. That’s what I plan on doing next time. Next time, I’m going to try a little harder with Serena, instead of being so damned passive about it. After all, you don’t create a fresh future for yourself by being timid in your past, do you?

To be continued tomorrow,…

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My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

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In my mind’s eye, I see a cold grey dawn, with a grey city silhouette like a cardboard cut out, set against a grey sky. Grey people sit in grey motor cars, bumper to bumper, as clouds of grey poison swirl around them. They stand on the streets, packed tightly, grey figures without faces, afraid of touching and yet hardly able to move without doing so. They work, they reproduce, and then they die in a slow, painless, soulless cycle.

The City moves. It creeps invisibly, like the hands of a clock, like warm tar, spreading and sprawling. It lives and grows, fed by the souls it steals. But beyond the gloomy boundaries of this strange place, people dance under blue skies, on summer scented lawns. They dress in bright colours and sing songs. Then the skies darken as the City draws near. Their bright faces shine for just a moment before the warm tar engulfs them. They become petrified and emerge as yet more grey people without faces and without souls, while their summer scented lawns become roads and streets choked with motor cars. Then the poison seeks them out and fills their lungs as they too join in the slow cycle of work and death. Their songs are forgotten, and the intricate patterns of their dance are lost for ever.

Some of the grey people manage to hide a piece of their soul. It survives and grows, filling them with horror at what they see. They break away and search for a summer scented lawn on which to lay down and rest, somewhere far from the City where they can breathe clean air and listen to the singing of the trees and feel the good, sweet earth all around them. They imagine themselves free at last. But the greyness is with them and like Midas and his gold, everything they touch turns to grey. The grass withers beneath their feet, concrete springs up as if from wells beneath the ground, and another city is born, poisoning, spreading, sprawling. This inexorable process consumes whole continents, fouling land and sea until there is nothing left but a kind of grey, living death.

Finally, and in despair, the earth splits and great fires shoot out, creating vast lava-flows. Storm clouds gather, unleashing a terrible revenge, while the land undergoes convulsions of unimaginable proportion, throwing up mountains where there were none before and creating new oceans where once had stood grey mountains, befouled and exploited. The storms last for a hundred million years.

But none of this is real. It’s just a dream; something inside my head that brings me pain when I’m asleep. I wake up sweating and then a woman’s hand curls around my arm easing me onto my pillow. I hear her voice, soft and gentle and then she runs her fingers through my hair while I slip back into the dream.

Sometimes, I see the storms subside. The clouds part and I see sunlight playing upon a new world, a world that has become one big summer scented lawn and I see creatures, strange, yet wonderful, flitting about in an unexpected paradise. But this is no happy ending: there are no people here. I travel far and wide and see only simple creatures living out their lives, oblivious to the paradise around them. There is nothing that is conscious of its existence and no one to see the beauty of it all except for me through the windows of my dream.

I cannot look upon it for long, because I too am one of the grey people. I reach out and pluck a flower but it withers in my hand; I have yet to learn I am only passing through; the flower was not mine to pluck. I should have been content with admiring it for what it was and breathing in the scent it freely gave, instead of trying to claim it as my own, guarding it jealously within the palm of my hand. Then my window breaks and there is darkness once more, until I’m wakened by the dawn and the sound of a woman singing in the kitchen, downstairs.

I drag myself from bed and draw the curtains so I might look out across the waters of the loch. It sparkles with gold-dust in the yellow light of sunrise, and beyond I see moors, dark with bracken and heather. Hills rise beyond the moor, low and rounded and then, softened by a veil of blue haze, there are mountains. I see the fold in the land, and the silver thread of water leading to a pool of morning mist. In my mind, I trace the thread to its source, to that place whose lure I find so irresistible, to that other loch whose strange songs have changed my life.

It was through the Singing Loch I glimpsed the summer scented lawns and felt the meaning of its wordless song in my heart. It has much to tell, embracing as it does the mystery and the passion that compels us all. But also, for those who would claim the wild flowers as their own, there is a message.

From my novel, The Singing Loch, first published 2005. I’ve not looked at this since 2014. It must have gone through a million drafts since the first one in 1995, but there’s a typo in the very first sentence. Still, I meant well.

See if you can spot it. Click here.

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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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