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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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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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