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Posts Tagged ‘story’

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 second and concluding part – to open the trunk or not?

Kathleen recoils from the idea, then becomes evasive. “I wouldn’t know where to find the key. I think Grandma might even have thrown it away,…”

“My tools are in the van. I could have the lock off in no time,…”

“No, thank you. I’ll think on it for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s what she would have wanted.”

I leave her cleaning the dust from the trunk, revealing inch by inch its original lustre. I’m regretting even more now that we touched it, for in doing so, I fear we have disturbed a very melancholy spirit indeed.

It’s a long job, putting things back in order. I’m weeks at Kathleen’s house, and every lunchtime she calls me down for a bite to eat. We sit in the kitchen with the trunk gleaming darkly upon the dresser, but Kathleen will not speak of it, nor even look at it in my presence. Once though, as I’m searching for some tools, I catch her bent over it, the lock in her hand, as if she’s fighting the urge to open it. And as the time passes, I noticed how she seems yet more dispirited, her grandmother’s old sorrows returning to fill again every corner of the house.

When the job’s finished, I come down from the attic to find her sitting, staring at the trunk. By now I hate the thing. I hate it’s squat, ugly shape, but most of all I hate the effect it’s having on Kathleen.

“Have you thought what you want to do with it?” I ask. “I could get rid of it for you, if you like. I’ll take it to the tip. Or we can just set fire to it in the garden and be done with it.”

“No,” she says. “We should put it back. Let it rest up there, out of sight.”

Surely not, I’m thinking. I can just imagine its grim presence lurking above her head, never more than a stray thought away.

But Kathleen insists. “If you’d just help me with it,…”

So that’s how we come to be hauling the thing back up the ladder. I remember pausing to steady myself, and resting the trunk precariously on one rung while I alter my balance. Then I lose my grip and, as the pair of us struggle to keep upright, the trunk goes crashing into the hall below.

The lock must have been hanging by a thread because the lid bursts open, and the contents, an unexpected riot of colour, spill across the carpet. I stare in wonder. There are fine dresses, letters, photographs, a handful of magazines, and the prettiest pair of silver dance-shoes. Kathleen gives a howl and is down in an instant, trying to gather the stuff together, desperate to put it back.

“Whatever would she be thinking?”

But gradually her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to study the things more closely, gazing at the photographs, even slipping open some of the letters,…

An hour later, we’re still at it, picking our way through a bewildering collection of poignant mementoes. Then, suddenly, there’s a change in Kathleen, a dazed confusion wrinkling her brow, as she studies the contents of an envelope that was sealed long before either of us were born.

“What’s the matter?”

She says nothing but slowly wand with a trembling hand passes me a slip of paper. As I read, I realise it’s confirmation of her grandmother’s passage to America, departing Queenstown, April 1912,…

There was one boat sailed from there at that time, a boat that has gone on to live forever in the hearts and minds of people the world over. And sure enough, printed at the bottom of the slip of paper is the name. The Titanic.

“Her whole life,” says Kathleen, “She spent it lamenting a lost chance, and she never knew how lucky she was. If she had gone, then she would surely have drowned. And my mother, and I, would never have been born.”

Seeing all those wonderful things, I’m able more easily to picture Kathleen’s grandmother now as a young girl looking ahead with all the vitality of her youth, only to become a dispirited soul, locking that brighter self up in this old trunk, and tossing away the key. That was the real tragedy, I thought, to have been miraculously spared such a terrible fate, and then to have wasted her life in ignorance of it.

Later, Kathleen and I are sitting out in the garden, gazing at the hills and the woods and the little houses, dotted along the roadside. Everything seems uncommonly beautiful of a sudden, the blue of the sky, the sunlight on the trees, even the taste of the cool evening air. She turns and looks at me, as if to speak, but there’s no need. We understand each other perfectly. Over the years, we’ve each had our share of ups and downs, and I suppose it’s only human nature that it should be the disappointments that carry the most weight. But this evening, we’re both appreciating, I think, and perhaps like no other time, what a precious thing life is.

This concludes my little story. It was first published in Ireland, around twenty years ago. I thought I’d blow the dust off it and give it a fresh lease of life, here on WordPress. Thanks for reading.

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In the Red Box

There’s a supernatural quality about her. I mean, it’s like she’s not really there, or she’s conjured up by my unconscious, complete with every compelling virtue unique to my own psyche. As regards what I do about that, I can only sit and stare, like she stares, unblinking, back at me. What I feel is awe, but her? I doubt she feels anything. She’s just reading me. Judging.

Hers is not the kind of beauty a man can ever aspire to, and I know not to spoil the moment, not even by talking to her. There is a poignant perfection to it, you see? Like in the patterns of a snowflake. To catch it up in the palm of one’s hand would be to see it melt away forever. You must never do that, for you pass this way but once. They say each pilgrim on this road is granted a fragment of wise counsel, to offer those who follow. If that is you, my friend, this, then, is my advice: do not fall in love with the girl, but take that love you feel rising in you, and keep it safe. It’s a gift. Don’t waste it on where it cannot be requited.

“You understand,” she says. “Not all who come here are prepared for what they find.”

Yes, I can well imagine that.

“You seek the wisdom of angels, but what if it’s demons that lured you to this room?”

I’ve wondered the same over the years. And yes, sometimes the angels that led me here have indeed been demons, shadows of my own self, and of the most deceptive sort. Other times, I’m convinced the angels only acted that way, because they know it’s demons we mortals find easier to listen to. We have no way of knowing for sure, except to trust in our better instincts. Either that, or we should not fear the consequences of our mistakes.

She turns to the green door. “All who enter there are changed. You come seeking clarity, and you may well find it, but others are driven mad by what they see.”

Yes, I’ve heard this from other pilgrims. Some leave with the starry light of revelation in their eyes, others run screaming into the dark. But I’m here, now, and it’s been a long journey; it’s a risk I accept.

She gives the briefest of nods. Is it that she finds me worthy? Or is it more she has only done her duty by the warning?

“You can go through,” she says.

The door opens a crack, and there’s a soft, soothing light on the other side, drawing me in. And there, at last, I find him.

He’s older than I’m expecting, in his eighties, or even nineties perhaps, but there’s a glow about him that defies time. He wears the tweeds of a country doctor from long ago, and he sits easy in a high-backed chair. The lines on his face speak of the wisdom of centuries. Hands clasped loosely, he peers over his knuckles at me, strokes his lip with the tip of his thumb, and he smiles.

“Welcome,” he says. “You’ve been a long time travelling, no doubt.”

“Yes. It’s been a long time.”

“They tell me I’m a difficult man to find. Is that still true?”

“Oh yes, you’re still a very difficult man to find. Almost impossible, I’d say.”

He bids me sit, and tell him my troubles, to spare him nothing. There is a low table between us, and on the table is a small, octagonal box of reddish hue.

So it’s true what they say!

He’s watching my reactions, reading my face. “Ah, I see you’ve heard of the red box.”

“Yes.”

“Alluring, isn’t it. Such a pretty, thing. And very old. There were many like it, once, now discarded out of ignorance at their true value. And the craftsmen who made them are long gone, their skills quite mysterious to us, and lost forever. But never mind that for now. Tell me what brings you.”

So I tell him my story, but not in the most eloquent of ways. It’s certainly not in the way I had prepared it over the years, anticipating this moment. Indeed, it spills out now, choppy, and it splashes here, there and everywhere. The thoughts come at me in spasms, like the chattering of those demons that have plagued me since the earliest of days.

I tell him that maybe guys like me have no right to feel so anxious, so lost in the world. Others start out with no money, no work, no girl, and that’s where they stay. Maybe they’re living on skid row. Or they’re with parents they should have moved away from years ago, but couldn’t afford to. So they’re stuck, their lives going nowhere, and the clock ticking. A guy like that has a right to be depressed, to be angry. He has a right to hunger, and to wonder what the hell the world is for if he is denied any useful part in it. Him, that guy, he has a right to be sitting here, asking what I’m asking. So I’m asking for both of us, him and me.

As for me, I managed to make a go of it, before it all unravelled. I was even married for a while, had a little house on an estate of similar little houses, that I could barely afford. I went to work every day, sat in front of a computer screen, and did stuff with spreadsheets. And I got shouted at by sociopathic bosses, for no more reason than that’s just the way it is.

It doesn’t sound great when you add it all up, but it’s the modern way. I mean, what else is there for what amounts to the 99% of us? But even the rich don’t seem happy. They can’t be, if the only fun they get is to go about shaping the world in ever more fiendish ways that make life a meaningless hell for the rest of us. Still, what right have I to feel the way I do?

“And what is it that you feel?” he asks.

Angry, I tell him. No, not angry. It’s more I feel a desperate hunger, like I’m starving. Yet this thing I’m so desperate for, I’m not even sure it exists, actually. But, there has to be more than this, surely? There has to be something.

I’ve had these intimations, you see, even in the early days, when the black dogs first came stalking, that there was nothing really wrong with me. It was more that something was missing from the world. Or maybe that thing was still there, but we’d all lost sight of it, something vital, long ago. Those of us falling sick of it, were the only ones waking up to this widening gap between what we reasonably aspired to as human beings, and what the world of material men – such as men were these days – had to offer.

By the time I hit forty, we’d had the crash, and the world had turned a permanent shade of grey. My wife and house were gone, and I was living in a two bed rent trap. Doctors were no help. Indeed, they seemed as much a part of the problem as everything else. A prescription for happy-pills, and a referral for counselling, was the best they could do.

But the health services had long since been rationed beyond all practical utility, and I never did get that referral because I guess I wasn’t considered ill enough. But if I wasn’t ill, then what was this sense of emptiness that would sooner have me sleep than be alive? What was this sense of dreadful meaninglessness? Why could I not simply fit in with the world as it was, like I was expected to?

The old man listens to all of this, and I mean the quiet sort of listening that draws the words out of you. So you keep going, the words spilling, and spiralling, and him soaking them up.

Some say he’s dangerous. They say the authorities would shut him down if they ever caught up with him, and that’s why he’s so hard to find. Others say he’s mad, or an outrageous charlatan who preys on the gullible, and the needy, and the lost.

When you think you’ve caught up with him, he’s already moved on, to another town, another country, and always one rumour ahead of you. But I kept going, because I knew in my heart he’s the last hope we’ve got of making sense of things. Meanwhile, the world, as we have made it, would sooner be without him. It would sooner we didn’t know of his existence at all, this man who is said to be capable of restoring one’s vision, one’s sense of meaning, and wonder,….

Anyway, here I am, after years of chasing rumours, through the back-street bars and the coffee shops of Europe, these wafer thin whispers of the old man, and the girl. And every contact along the way is cautious, suspicious of your motives. You have to persuade them of your sincerity, and it’s no use pretending. It’s something he does to people, you see? He makes them guarded, protective of his secret, because what he imparts to them is so extraordinary, though none of them can put it into words when you ask them.

And then there’s his last line of defence: the girl.

They say, not even the most sincere always get past the girl. There’s some flaw, some weakness in the way we regard her. But if she lets us pass, the old man listens, and then he asks us to look inside the red box.

But pass or fail, sincerity is the only thing that keeps us safe. There is no point trying to be clever, either, because you’re dealign with a power beyond your imagining. I got this from some guy I finally caught up with in a bar in Paris. I’d sought him out from rumours I’d picked up first in Milan, then followed them through Zurich and Prague. Sometimes the newspapers smell a story, he told me. Scandal. Sex. You name it. They send journalists to hunt him down. Or the politicians send private eyes, who pretend to be seeking the meaning of their lives, same as us.

But it’s not the truth they’re after. Not meaning. Nothing like it. Regardless of anything true, they only want to make a fool of him, so people won’t trust him any more. They don’t care what treasure gets destroyed in the process. They don’t care if generations are to live their lives in black and white, never to know again the riches of a world in colour.

For sure, not many of that sort get past the girl, but if they do, and they look into the red box,… man, watch out! What they see in there isn’t what others see. It drives them mad.

“What do they see?”

“Who knows?” said the guy. “It’s different for everyone. To seek what we seek, it puts you on a knife edge between heaven and hell. Fall one side, and you wake up in paradise, fall the other, and you’re burned up by your darkest imaginings.”

“And you? What did you see?”

The guy shook his head. “Like you, I’d sought them for years, the old man and the girl. I got past the girl, and I told the old man my story. But in the end, I was too scared to look inside that box. I chose to live with it, the meaninglessness.”

To live with it?

I’ve wondered about that, too, just living with it, I mean, crawling back under the duvet, instead of facing another day, and just letting the years slide by, pouring another glass of whiskey, while I scroll the rubbish on my phone. Let my brain stultify. Let the decades roll. Isn’t that what’s required of us? It must be, for I see no alternative. But to find the sanity, and the clarity in all of that, to have the colour restored, well, you’d have to do something with it. You couldn’t just sit on it, could you?

And are you ready for that?

This last thought comes back to me as I lock eyes with the old man. I wonder if he reads my mind, if this is what he’s waiting for. He nods, gestures then to the red box.

“If I told you what you’re looking for, the answer is in that box, and will change everything for you, would you believe me? Tell me, yes or no.”

Careful now. Wanting to believe is not the same as actually believing. So,…

“No.”

“You’re thinking the answer has to be more complicated, than that?”

“No. I’m wondering if there can be any answer at all, complex, or simple. Others have said there is. And that’s why I’ve followed the path I have, but more in hope than expectation. The best I can say is there may be nothing in that box at all. But from what I’ve heard, I have to reckon with the possibility there might be exactly what you say there is.”

I’m feeling a little woozy now. The old man does not seem so substantial as before. I wonder if the girl has hypnotised me. I wonder if the old man is an illusion. So all there is, is the girl, and what she symbolises: our addiction to love, and to beauty. But that’s not the answer to anything, or rather it’s only half the answer. It’s how we interpret it, that’s the key.

“Open the box,” he says.

So I take up the box, and I open it, and at the bottom is a mirror, offering me the most perfect reflection of my own self, all the way down to the very bones of me. The old man is fading fast, now. The last I see of him is his smile. The door opens, and I step out into the world. The colours are startling. The girl has gone. Only her beauty remains, and a sense of the deepest love.

It’s everywhere I look, and in everything I touch.

I can’t explain it any more than that. You’d have to look into the red box for yourself, to know what I mean.

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Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com


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


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


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

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

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

“I’m what?”

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

“When did this come in? What evidence?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Jed, why so glum?”

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

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

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

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

“Coaching?”

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

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

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


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

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

“Dunno.”

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

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

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

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

“Please try again tomorrow,” it said.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Please try again tomorrow.”

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

Jed had broken the machine.

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Les joueurs d’échecsHonoré Daumier – 1863

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you play?”

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

Good night all, and welcome to 2021.

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

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

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

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

“Nice try,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“He’ll tell you. He saw it all!”

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

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

“I really couldn’t say,” I told them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I should thank you,” she said.

“It’s fine. I saw nothing, really.”

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

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

“We have met, yes.”

“So,… we’re the same, you and I?”

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

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

“Obviously, we need to talk,” I said.

Part two follows tomorrow,…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever it is.

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

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

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

Not yet, anyway.

To be continued. Next part tomorrow.

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In the whole of Europe, the UK is looking like it’s suffered the worst death rate from coronavirus so far. In the world we are second only to the US. This doesn’t sit well with those who would paint a picture of Albion’s God-given superiority. There are story-tellers who have had a go recently, with mixed results. But if all else fails – and death is a hard thing to sell – you can always try playing it down.

The morning these figures broke, the majority of the UK press chose to ignore the main story. Instead, they went with news of the assistant chief medical officer. He’d been caught flouting his own social distancing guidelines and had resigned. It was a silly thing to do, and a poor example, but it was hardly the most important headline of the day. Thus, the A-list story-tellers are revealed again as accomplices in the great game. They are PR gurus, not journalists.

But if we can see through all that, what the past weeks and months have shown us is that we were under-prepared. We were under-funded, and we ignored the hard lessons learned by the rest of the world. More, the conclusions of a pandemic planning exercise carried out in 2016, and which predicted the pickle we’re in now – were disregarded.

This should come as no surprise. The British approach to impending calamity is always to ignore the drums, and muddle through. We do this with a mixture of blissful ignorance, bombast, and real-politik. And, when the shit hits the fan, like it always does, we display a certain cold blood in dealing with it. We count the bodies. We shrug, we move on.

Now, the death rate has levelled off. The health service is still on its knees, though not flat on its back as we had feared, and a new story is emerging. Those who pay for the politics want us to focus elsewhere. So they engage their A-List story-tellers to flesh out their post-coronavirus narrative. And it goes something like this:

It’s time to wind back the money, to open the shops. The public are addicted to their free time and their State handouts. They are becoming fat and feckless. We have decades of austerity ahead now to pay for it. They should get back to work, and what are we all worried about anyway? It’s just a bit of flu. You’ll only die from it if you were weak or old to begin with. We must get back to normal, to the way things were before.

The other story, one struggling to take shape, is that things cannot settle back the way they were. We should take this opportunity to build something new from the ruins of the past. We have a chance to tackle the nightmare of climate break-down and inequality, build something new from the ruins. We need to change the economy in ways that won’t leave us so exposed to calamity next time. But, whilst laudable and emotive, it’s a narrative that fails to find any traction among the A-list story-tellers. You’ll only find it on the more obscure and leftist media back-channels, run on a shoestring.

Death is a tricky business, definitely a hard thing to sell, especially when it’s obvious the risks of dying are not shared equally.  I’m not sure how that story will play out. A severe global recession, and mass unemployment look like certainties. It’ll also be a good time to sneak a hard BREXIT over line, because in the midst of this chaos, who would notice? Or care?

Beyond that, I cannot say. I’m approaching my seventh decade, yet I am still naive in the ways of the world. I have learned sufficient only to stand aghast that even in the midst of such an unprecedented crisis, we are battered by a storm of wanton spin. But I do know this: the truth never surfaces in the world of current affairs, that what is often touted as truth is too often the product of an equation weighted by its omissions. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. It is the story that counts: how plausible, how resonant to the emotions, a story spun in exchange for power and votes.

I know which story of the future I prefer. And I shall continue to sing my lament in the face of those A-Listers we all listen to, yet who never seem to tell it the way it is. Or the way it needs to be.

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girl with green eyes

I’ve been walking from supermarket to supermarket all day again, chasing rumours. It’s the last thing any of us were expecting, this run on toilet paper. I always imagined the end of the world would be aliens or crashing meteorites. But this? Well now I’m down to my last half-roll, my feet are killing me and if I don’t score this time I’m going to be needing new shoes as well.

Of course by the time I reach the next place the shelves are empty, except for a single pack of twenty-four. It sits there, fat and fluffy, taunting me. They’re asking thirty quid for it, but I won’t see that kind of money until payday, unless the bastards dock me again, in which case I won’t. And I don’t need twenty-four – four’s plenty for now. Anyway, I’d likely get mugged for them on the way home, a big pack like that. So I’m standing here, weary from the search, and this girl comes up looking like she’s after the same thing.

She’s dressed cheap, but she’s pretty, like a princess in rags. I’m dressed cheap too, but not worth a second glance. When she sees the twenty-four pack she lets out a sigh, no doubt thinking the same as me. Then she weighs me up, wonders if I’m going to make a grab for it. But I shrug, step back a little.

“Too steep for me,” I tell her. I’m smiling my best ‘I’m harmless’ smile, but that doesn’t always cut it with girls. Man, she’s pretty. Did I tell you that? Looks sad though.

So then I say, “we could always,…”

“What?”

Hear that? There’s a sharpness there, like she’s at the end of her tether. I suppose we’re all a bit that way now, what with one damned thing after the other. But she’s short of more than toilet roll, looks pinched and hungry, like she’s not eaten for days. Sure, I’m skint, but she’s worse off.

“I was thinking we could go halves.”

She shakes her head. “That’s still fifteen quid on bog roll, innit.”

I know what she means. Fifteen quid. Take your choice: try to feed yourself all week, or wipe your bum.

So I say, “Well, we could always wait a bit. See if anyone else turns up. Split it with them too. That way we get the price down a bit more.”

“Worth a try, ” she says, then sits on the floor, lithe as a dancer, shrugs. “Nothing better to do anyway.”

So I join her on the floor, drop the goofy smiles. Sure, some girls prefer a guy to come across like a sour git, and maybe that’s worth a try as a last resort, but it doesn’t exactly come easy for me.

Then the security guy comes along and wants to know what the problem is. She’s a feisty one, tells him to f&@k off and leave us alone. But he’s only doing his job and I can see there’s no real malice in him, so I apologize and explain our plan. He weighs us up and decides we mean no harm, tells us we’ve got twenty minutes, then we’re out.

Her name’s Ella, and she’s a student. I was a student too, once upon a time. Now I’m a zero-hours slave with no prospects and fifty grands worth of uni-debt I’ll never pay back. And right now I’m sitting here looking to organize a union all so’s we can afford the dignity of some bog-roll. Hey! Small beginnings, right?

Ten minutes though and nothing, but then this guy comes along, well-dressed, looks like a high roller. I’m worried he’s the type who can splash thirty quid on the twenty-four pack – rip-off or not – and not think about it.

“You guarding those or what?” he says.

Hear that? Assertive type. Boss class.

So I explain the situation. He thinks on it for a bit, then grabs the pack and walks off with it. Look at me. I’m dressed like shit. Who’s going to listen to me? So what am I supposed to do? Ella calls him an effing bastard. I’m thinking the same thing, but say nothing. Then he comes back, looks contrite, says he’s sorry. So I reckon I’ve misjudged him; he’s a middle class salary man, that’s all. It makes him a sitting down slave rather than a standing up one, like me, and he’s desperate for bog roll like the rest of us. Okay, so I’m a soft touch.

“I’ll split it with you,” he says. “Eight each. Eight’s plenty for anyone.”

I explain to him that while that’s a good idea, and very decent of him, a tenner’s still too much for the likes of me and Ella.

Then the security guard comes over again, tells Ella to mind her language, checks his watch, tells us we’ve got five minutes. I’m worried the high roller will divvy up the thirty quid now and leave us to it. After all, the middle classes have only so much patience for the precariat, and who can blame them? Man’s got to wipe his arse, hasn’t he?

“Four will do me,” I tell him. “You pay the thirty quid, like you were going to. We’ll give you a fiver each. Then Ella and me get four rolls apiece.”

He has to think about this. Basic maths isn’t his strong point, and he’s looking for the trap. Ella’s not happy either.

“I’m not paying a fiver for four bog rolls,” she says.

“But it’s our best shot, Ella, and I’m fed up chasing this stuff around.”

The guy’s worked it out now, and he’s up for it, and Ella’s persuaded it’s this or nothing too. So we follow him through the tills under the beady eye of the security guard. He pays, and we divvy up our fivers to him. Then we split the pack on the carpark, and he lifts the lid of his Beamer to stash his take.

I’m wanting him to go now, so I can get a minute with Ella on her own – pop the question, like. I’m thinking I can afford to buy her a burger or something, but she’s looking at him with big eyes and doesn’t seem to notice me any more. Then he invites her for a coffee as if I’m invisible to him as well. Sure, that happens a lot.

Quick as you like she’s in his car, and they’re driving away. Okay, I don’t blame her. She’s got something to give a guy that I’ve not, and a girl’s got to live the best way she sees fit. Sure, a decade of austerity and skid row will do that to you, so who am I to judge? I only hope she’s the sense to get what she wants from him before she lets him have what he wants from her.

So in the end I didn’t get the girl, which isn’t much of a story I guess and no surprises there. But I plucked my share of bog roll from a system that seems ever more intent on denying me my dignity. I count that as a plus, and small things are important now. All it took was a little grass-roots organization, and sure as hell no one else is going to do it for us. So remember that. It might come in handy later on when things get really ugly, and we’re fighting over tins of beans.

[Thanks for reading – and I promise, hand on heart: no more riffs on the subject of toilet paper]

Graeme out.

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