Further Decorations Of The Captain

Anybody who had seen him on this travels to and from the ship – and the captain was a frequent user of the buses – would have assumed that this was a man who had lost all interest in life, a man who had been overwhelmed.  Like the lawn mower which sat abandoned halfway through his garden, the enemy grass grown up all around it and long ago victorious.

But the crew knew that the captain had stained glass dreams in his brain, pop songs in his stomach and they set about ensuring that this illumination was reflected about his person.  One day that wasn’t his birthday but must still have been an anniversary of some event in the captain’s life, they stole his clothes and set about encrusting his jacket with fractured shards of gleaming things.  They dangled shiny penny sculpture things from the cuffs of his sleeves, embellished the blank slate of his shirt with felt-tip pictures of things they dreamt up on the spot, planted spinning little windmill things in his hat and painted gleaming little planet things on to his shoes.

On the bus, the captain stared back at anyone who dared look again at this overwhelmed man.  A tether at the end of its tether.  What did they do to you, he could see people want to ask.  And he wanted the chance to tell them that it was none of their business – it had been done to him, not to them.

Dream w/ story (incl. story about story), Feb. 2017

There are two doppelgangers of my acquaintance.  It has been suggested (by me) that, since they look so similar, they could save money and merge to become one person.  They both tell me they would not want to give up their autonomy.  They have so much in common!

The two doppelgangers live in different countries and have never met, but have agreed to having lunch together, if I go to the trouble of arranging the whole thing.  I will also be allowed to take a picture.  It’s going to be pretty fantastic.

In order to arrange the meet-up, I have to make travel arrangements for them both and apply for various visas and permits.  In filling out these seemingly endless forms, I am not able to state the true reason for their visit as it seems… ridiculous, frivolous… and so I am forced to construct elaborate, serious-minded lies for which I draw up dry business plans to add an air of authentication to my claims.  The whole process is laborious and interminably boring and throughout the whole thing I keep in mind the end goal – how fantastic it will be to see my two acquaintances standing next to one another looking exactly the same.

Just when I have finally finished filling out the forms, I wake up.

*

I thought the rule was that you should not end a story with, “and then he woke up and it was all a dream,” but my tutor says it is more than that, she says, “don’t write about dreams, people get bored of hearing about other people’s dreams.”

But what if what you’re writing about is not the dream itself, but how you feel after the dream?  What if it’s about the effect the dream has on you?

She frowns.  Another rule is, “don’t write about writing.  Your readers don’t care how you wrote it, they just want a story.”

*

I went to the visa office to try and salvage some of my hard work.  I thought maybe the hours I had spent filling in their forms might come in use to someone, somewhere, somehow.  Maybe they could scoop up all that spent effort, pull it in to this reality and donate it to someone who needed to complete a boring task.

Maybe someone in the real world knew some doppelgangers.  As it turned out, I didn’t.  I was not acquainted with two people who looked exactly the same as one another, just lots of people who looked only like themselves.  When they stood next to one another, they looked entirely different to one another.

The visa office was located in the dead space underneath one of the cantilevered stands of the local football ground.  A long queue stretched towards the desk and when I looked at the faces of the people in the line they were all the same, or at least there only seemed to be four or five different models for faces from which their faces had been forged, and in my feverish paranoia the notion occurred to me that they were plants, placed in that queue to do nothing more than dissuade anyone from ever even thinking of bothering to make a visa application, a job which the dark, forboding environment was already doing rather well.

But in the gaps in the concrete there were these little fractal cacti growing, improbable bursts of bright colour and these quickly became a high point of this whole episode, though I could only see them – I was not able to verify their existence in reality.

Day #12039

May will see the next instalment of the Guernsey Literary Festival, with visits from everyone from Simon Singh to Jonathan Wilson to Clare Balding!  (Well, not everyone between each of those people, though maybe everyone between those people if they are all stood in one room sometime around the 11th-14th May, in Guernsey).  Anyway, a list of events can be found on the Litfest website.

I’ll be writing some pieces for the Litfest blog  and have already posted a review of Simon Singh’s ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem.’  There will surely be more writing about writing to be had, so keep your eyes peeled like potatoes.

Day #12038 – Goodreads Updates: Short Story Collections

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, FineFine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams

Shortly after I read this and recommended it to a writer friend, I wrote in an email:

“Some of Diane Williams’ sentences make my head spin – it’s like someone deconstructing their thoughts on to the page, I found I could feel my brain putting things back together.”

I probably can’t add anything more insightful now. Some of Williams’ thoughts and trains of thought are just weird and exhilirating. These are stories you have to commit too fully and enjoy.

It Was Just YesterdayIt Was Just Yesterday by Mirja Unge

This is a wonderful set of short stories which I raced through because I was enjoying them so much. The narrator of each could be the same character – they share a sense of wonder, maybe a little naivety, a raw morality. Unge presents us with a constant stream of reality, events are presented to us, simply described, one after another, as if we are not to judge but merely observe.

The Doll's AlphabetThe Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This is a wunderkammer that thrums with life – the kind of life that is a bit deathy. If it is reminiscent of anything it is of Eraserhead, the 1978 debut film from David Lynch – it’s there in the sense of displacement, sense of terror in everyday living. These are stories that somehow make a noise – the steady churn of a bleak dystopian industrial landscape – but which are illuminated with chimes of luminescent gothic ornamentation.

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Roses In The Snow

Time will pass in no time at all.  We kept those flowers, the late winter hotel breakfast flowers… we kept them well past late winter time, well past breakfast time, kept them as a reminder of the breakfast in that hotel we stayed at in late winter.  The flowers start to prickle and sweat, a soft fuzz of sweet-looking mould spawns across them and back in late winter we saw roses in the snow, but these are not those nor nothing so neat.  These are flowers that start out as a haiku then become a messy paragraph which evolves with scribblings out until we give in and submit.  The late winter hotel breakfast flowers flop, decomposed and decomposing, become late late winter hotel breakfast flowers.

Adverse Camber 5: Who Can Smell The Telephone Ringing?

(Previously: Adverse Camber I/III, Adverse Camber II/III and Adverse Camber III/III.  That was meant to be the end but I brought him back for Adverse Camber IV, thinking that would be it.  But here he is again, turning up like a bad penny).

Part 1: Be All

Just when you though he was dead and gone and everyone had forgotten he ever existed, even forgotten they had forgotten he had existed, it turns out he was still out there, famous in his own mind, living out his own small ‘c’ super-czardom, lord of a small flat in an undercover town, working in a call centre.

One week after he started, Adverse Camber phoned in and told them he was going to work from home and though they said it was not that kind of job, he did it anyway – he had a phone at home and had stolen a list of names and numbers.

For every call he made, Adverse Camber prepared a new alias, embellishing each one with their own specific headspace  and various personal effects.  Switching personas constantly, Adverse Camber began to feel more typically Adverse Camber than he had for some time.

Soon the small flat was strewn with stuff started and then stopped – the paperback that he had picked up when he was playing the part of the call centre operative Bernard Rind-Worcester lay, face-down and broken-spined, abandoned at the moment in which he switched to assume the identify of call centre operative Trudy Spatchcock, with her taste in opulent jewellery, with her voracious appetite for fresh flowers.  So many flowers left to wilt and die with the arrival of call centre operative Ted Panther… and on and on etcetera amen.

Adverse wasn’t washing during this time, a time which turned in to a week-long spree of cold-calling.  He wore each persona for such a short time that it barely felt worth it.  He ate only when it fit with his current persona – on occasion this lead him to eat vast quantities, or to consume foods he didn’t usually like, like bloody lemons.

He worked until the universe took steps to intervene – not by curtailing his list of people to call, or by starving him of inspiration for new characters.  Instead it intervened by slowly but surely filling up all the space in the immediate vicinity around Adverse, filling it with the random multicoloured 3D pipes of the 1990s Windows screensaver.

When the network of pipes had expanded across his vision and Adverse was cut off from the outside world, he gave in and agreed to give up, to go offline, for a while at least.

Part 2: End All

Have you heard of Dirk Slimmens?

I hadn’t either, but then the name popped in to my head one morning.  Dirk Slimmens.  Could there be someone called that?  I checked in a search engine and could find no information about anyone called Dirk Slimmens, so I assumed it was ok to use the name.

Dirk Slimmens greeted Adverse Camber one morning when Adverse was strolling back from the shops, carrying milk and sketching out rough drafts for possible identities at a rate of 20 per minute.  This was soon after Adverse got back in to the independent call centre game, treading carefully for fear of reprisals from the universe and their multicoloured 3D pipes.

“I’m Dirk Slimmens,” Dirk told him.

“That’s great.”  Adverse kept walking, carrying, inventing.

“I’m on your list,” Slimmens said next.

Now Adverse stopped walking, carrying (the milk crashed to the pavement), inventing (identity production ground to a halt).

“What did you say?”

“I don’t know your name,” said the man named Dirk Slimmens, “but I know I’m on your list.”

Slimmens flared his nostrils, as if to demonstrate how.  But who can smell the telephone ringing?

Adverse could feel the multicoloured 3D pipes coming for him again, but this time they were only an obstruction in his mind.  He beat them back to retain his grip on reality.  He considered picking up the milk and socking Dirk with it, but then he thought about thinking his way around the problem instead.  It was certainly true that this man was on the list – he should be expecting a call from Adverse, only he had no right to be expecting a call from Adverse.  And of course, it wouldn’t be Adverse who called.  No… it would be someone else.

Adverse ground out a grin beneath his supercilious moustache.

“I look forward to speaking to you soon,” he told Slimmens, and hurried home with his milk.

Back at the flat he set about prolifically creating persona after persona and working through the list.  Tens of call centre operative lives passed by in a blur as he worked towards the name which now stood out halfway down the page.

When he came to that name, the name ‘Dirk Slimmens’ written so prosaically on the sheet, as if it were nothing special, Adverse was ready with a special persona.  It was one he had been thinking of all morning, such that it had been designed by committee, with ideas chipped in by each of the morning’s call centre workers.  The finished article was exactly right – strange as a whistle, anonymous as a search engine.

The telephone rang, the telephone was picked up.

“Good morning, this is just a cold call about your cold call needs,” said Adverse quickly, “my name is Dirk Slimmens.  Would you have a moment to speak?”

“That’s great,” said the voice at the other end of the phone, and this was definitely recognisable as the voice of the man Adverse had met in the street earlier, though now it seemed the voice was trying out a different pose, a new stance.

It did not sound so unsure, or quite as gazumped as Adverse would have liked.

“Yes,” continued Adverse-as-Dirk, not quite as confidently.  “Can I ask to whom I am speaking?”

There was a pause, as if for effect.

“Sure, this is Mr. Adverse Camber.”

[Next time:  Arg!  What now?  Can there really be two Adverse Cambers like Adverse Camber?  Find out… sometime… soon?]

Day #11983 – The Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, Volume 2 (Review, Part 1 of 2)

Last year I made a journey from around about nowish back to the 1920s, travelling through the medium of the short story (I also read Volume 2 of the Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, but this is surely a coincidence).

I’ve picked out four stories that really stuck with me and written a bit about them, the first two of which are below.

Please do note that to properly ‘discuss’ these, this might get a bit spoilerific (so SPOILER ALERT – though these stories have been in print for well over 50 years).

Roald Dahl, Someone Like You (1945)

I’m not a big fan of war stories, but this one is so simple and effective, it just punches you in the heart.

We open with two former fighter pilots meeting in a pub – they haven’t seen each other in years and conversation is slow, but as they start to drink the dialogue loosens.  We get less detail, less description and fewer long utterances as the story progresses – by the end, the whole thing is held together by short lines in which the two men seem to reveal their innermost thoughts.

The drink, delivered steadily throughout the piece, is key to the rhythm of the story and it becomes apparent that the setting is important too as they start to speculate on the fact that during the war they must have dropped bombs on places similar to the establishment they are drinking in… on people similar to those surrounding them.

He leaned back and waved his hand around the room.  “See all the people in this room?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t there be a bloody row if they were all so suddenly dead, if they all suddenly fell off their chairs on to the floor dead?”

The skill in this story, I think, is in the way that Roald Dahl reveals the characters’ troubles – it is not new information to us that men involved in dropping bombs from planes during a war would feel guilty afterwards, but he finds a new way to present this reality to us.

Rhys Davies, A Human Condition (1949)

From the beginning of this brilliant short story, Rhys Davies skilfully dripfeeds us little bits of information without spelling out exactly the occasion and the problem in which the main character finds himself.  Here is the first paragraph:

Having done the errand at the Post Office, which he had timed with a beautiful precision that he imagined completely hoodwinked those left at home, Mr Arnold crossed the Market Square just as the doors of the Spreadeagle Inn were opened.

Over the next few pages we follow Mr Arnold in to various pubs, slowly learning that he must be back home by a certain time and that something is weighing heavy on him, “deep inside him was a curious dead sensation of which he was frightened.”  We are given insight in to his character as he is greeted at each pub – and yet somehow the bar staff at each establishment know that he must not be allowed more than one drink, not today.  On each occasion, they take pity on him and allow him a second, yet refuse a third.  It is only after he returns home that it is made fully clear that this is the day of his wife’s funeral.

We are offered, via their words and actions, a perspective from Mr Arnold’s family, for whom the embarrassment of his appearing drunk at his wife’s funeral takes precedence.  As such, there is an effective twist at the end of the tale when we are offered a third viewpoint – that of the nurses at the hospital who exclaim:

“He must have been a devoted husband to throw himself in to his wife’s grave like that!  I’ve never known a man grieve so much.”

Day# 11964 – Self Assessment (2016)

I had a lot of fun writing in 2016.  I completed six stories which I will try to find a home for elsewhere (once they are absolutely ready to go) but I also really enjoyed trying things out and putting one word after another.

Reviewing the work I posted to Digestive Press in the last twelve months, some themes crop up – absurd notions, simple ideas with anticlimactic endings, pieces in which I tried to use vagueness as a tool not an obstacle.  I have also been making a conscious effort to use simple language and as few words as possible.  These intentions are, I think, demonstrated in the pieces I have picked out below  – these are my favourite things I put up last year:

Firstly, this poem from January, in which I had some fun resenting having to get up in the mornings: Smash The Snooze Button

Then in April I wrote this piece on the same day I demolished the shed.  It was an attempt to write a conversation in which something fantastic could be happening, but isn’t: But Not Which One

A couple of pieces from June.  Firstly, this classroom drama:  Notes On The Texture Of

And then this poem, written in Summer but thinking of Winter: Enter Your Email For A Chance To Win

In July, when the football was on, I imagined a bizarre – yet plausible – scenario: Numerous Zeros

And this one from the same month – only 52 words, but I was pleased with the effect achieved: Seems

Finally, from September, a thing that I suppose is about exactly what it says in the title : How Badly I Wanted The Hat

 

 

Writing About Something

They warn you pretty early on against ending stories with the sentence, “and then he woke up and it was all a dream,” but sometimes that’s what happens and there is no escaping it.  And sometimes what you want to write about is the feeling you have on waking, a feeling that might be intangible like a conspiracy theory, but important like a house falling down.  The kind of thing that follows you around all day, but on which there is no narrative structure you can hang this feeling, the way you can hang a coat on a chair to dry.

Day #11944

As someone who writes pretty much in isolation, sometimes it feels like the me that writes stories is an alter ego of the day-to-day ‘real life’ me.  (Hi, if you’re reading – hope your day is going well.  Remember to get some milk while you’re out there please).

*

I felt this disconnection even more after disappearing from my normal life for a week in October to attend, for the first time, a week-long Arvon course.  The course was entitled Short Stories: Towards A Collection and involved me being one of sixteen students spending five days with two tutors – the writer Michele Roberts and Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press (who publish Adam Marek and Hasin Blasim and lots of other great stuff).  This all took place at The Hurst, a lovely old house in the Shropshire Hills which was previously owned by the playwright John Osborne.

Without rambling on too much about it, I can tell you that it was an excellent week spent with a group of lovely and talented people.

It is difficult to explain or describe being there because it was a bubble we inhabited for a short time, and a kind of infectious mania slowly took hold – which skews my memories of the week somewhat.  Parts of each day were spent writing in workshops, then there was time to write alone and some time spent reading work aloud.  There were a lot of conversations about writing and more specifically about writing short stories – conversations I don’t usually have.  Plus, the house had a fantastic kitchen and a fantastic library, both of which we were free to enjoy.

*

My instinct was, of course, to take some pictures of The Hurst before I left, but then I decided against it, to keep it just in my memory.  Hopefully I will have chance to return in the not too distant future.  I did take one picture however:

This strange ceramic bird stands in the entrance hall – a kind of totemic welcoming party.  I identified it as a cassowary, but have no idea if this is correct or not.  Nevertheless, one of my course-mates issued a challenge in response to my picture – a 500 word story about the cassowary.

Another of my course-mates, Valerie, responded with a beautifully realised little piece of work about John Osborne’s relationship with the cassowary.  Encouraged by other members of the group, she forwarded the piece to one of the coordinators of the centre.

*

In this blogpost, Natasha Carlish, who had welcomed us to The Hurst on the first day of our visit, published Valerie’s cassowary piece, and reflected on the challenges she had encountered in her first three years of working at Arvon.

What I liked about this blog post was Natasha’s reaction to Valerie’s sharing of her piece – it took me back to the final night of our time at the centre, in which each of us read some of our own work to the group.  There were – of course – some nerves, but slowly an event that had been approached with trepidation revealed itself to be a vital and victorious ending to our little week-old community.

In short, it reminded me about why we share stories – to try and make connections between our own separate realities.