Conversationalist

Another short story that I’ve had hanging around for a while…

Raindrops

It rains for the first month.

They make tea for people when they come to visit, sit and drink the tea and watch the rain. They show the guests all the rooms in the house and then they take them out in to the rain to look at the garden and stand in the greenhouse as rain runs off the angled panes, they look at plants close to drowning in the borders and scrutinise the outside of the house to try and match the exterior up with what they have seen of the inside of the building.

At the end of that first month, when the rain finally stops, they find that the roof of the shed was unstable and the whole thing has buckled. A box, which turns out to have been their cache of anecdotes has been totally destroyed, turned to mush and pulp.

They do not even have a way of remembering whose idea it was to put that box in the shed.

The incident cannot even be used as a building block towards starting up a new stash of personal stories.

People come round for dinner and these are people who have already seen the house, so now they must talk about something else. They discuss the news for a bit and then start to talk about mortgages, until one of the guests points out, bloody hell, look at us talking about mortgages.

The same guest starts the next conversation and because it goes, ‘do you remember when we were at…’ they exchange a glance, a little warning that they must be on guard.

Through a mixture of agreeing with each of their guest’s recollections and deferring to the other guests for answers to questions, they survive. The conversation ends with one of the guests laughing so hard he has to take off his glasses in order to wipe the tears from his eyes, whilst they just sit there trying to feign a similar level of amusement.

And so it continues. Whenever they are called upon to remember a funny story or contentious incident, they have to duck and dive, dodge giving an opinion, hum along with everyone else’s memories like they are well-loved and much-played songs.

Later, when they are alone, he declares that they need to do something about this. She asks what he is suggesting.

What he is suggesting is this: that they re-populate from scratch, build up an arsenal of anecdotes to replace those that were lost.

He suggests they begin with an easy one, and he offers to take the flak for the destruction of the old box.

She tells him that he can’t do that – they don’t remember which of the two them put the box in the old shed.

But he paints a picture for her. “You had been telling me to put the box somewhere in the house, then your mum phoned and I put the box in the shed because I thought you wouldn’t notice.” His eyes do not flicker, his voice does not falter.

For just a moment she thinks he has, from somewhere, found the truth of the matter. It’s just a moment, but she is hurt by this deception.

On a piece of paper, he writes down an outline of the story of how the old box of anecdotes came to be destroyed, then drops the piece of paper into a new, empty cardboard box.

It is a start.

Their first attempts are poor and stuttering deliveries, their tales are shallow and translucent, sickly things that would never survive out in the real world. The first time he interrogates her version of what happened at a barbecue they once had on the beach, she crumbles under his questioning and she is close to tears as she complains that what they are doing is lying.

But, he tells her, this is all anyone does. He asks her to quiz him about the time he fell and broke his arm.

She tells him he has never broken his arm, but he insists this is the truth. It takes three minutes of incessant questions before she finds a flaw in his story. He patches it up and they try again.

This is how they spend the rest of the night, facing each other across the kitchen table, telling story after story, cementing new pasts for themselves. Periodically she voices the worry that their friends and family will be able to disprove these tales.

“No one has followed every single moment of your life,” he tells her. “And no one re- members all this perfectly, they just take a vague memory and bolt some other bits on.”

She writes this down, makes it official, a solid unit of a thing that has happened to her.

By morning the box is full of fresh new anecdotes. They feel whole again – ecstatic, triumphant – though they are also giddy and giggling, so the feeling may be the result of a lack of sleep.

“You’re wonderful my dear. Such a fine conversationalist!” “Conversationalist!” she descends in to laughter. He snorts. “What a word.”

As dawn breaks, they step outside, feeling the superiority of having outlasted the night. It is not raining but it has been raining and the new sunshine shows up little drops of rainwater on all the leaves and the rainwater on the ground soaks through their socks. They do not discuss the fact that their feet are getting wet, having transcended such concerns.

When they finally fall asleep – and it is that they fall asleep, rather than consciously deciding to go to bed – they dream of conversations, visualised as patterns, all the stories their brains are telling them existing not as experiences but as narratives constructed from words.

They wake and it is evening again, and dark, and they move around one another silently. Words now seem useless, futile, obsolete. They have moved in to a post-conversation epoch in which they will never again tell one another a story.

***

It is several months later – months in which they have completed much successful socialising – when they realise they have missed something.

They are once again conducting a tour of the house, showing around an old friend who has been away. They make him tea and show him all the rooms in the house and then they go outside to show him the garden and the greenhouse and the old shed. “Funny story about that…”

The old friend looks at the exterior of the house, maybe looks at it for a little longer, ex- amines it a little more closely than the previous visitors.

“So, which room is that, there?” he asks, pointing.

They start to explain but-

They go back in to the house and match up the rooms but-

At the back of a cupboard they find a door that leads through to another tiny room, a room of which they have no recollection. One by one they squeeze through the door, lighting the way ahead with the flashlights on their phones and the three of them find they can just about stand.

Of course, the room appears to be empty.

They shine their flashlights in to all the corners of the room. There is nothing there, except one cardboard box.

Just sitting there. Funny story about that.

BirdWatcher2

We were all big fans of the original game and had found each other via the online community, sharing the little ‘photographs’ of ‘birds’ we had taken.  Sometimes the pictures were worth sharing because the bird was one it was rare to see in the game, or we had timed the click of the mouse perfectly and caught the pixels just right.  Sometimes we shared pictures with each other as a way of saying, “I’m here, I’m doing this too.”

The game started off quite easy.  In the introductory level you were stood at a kitchen window, watching birds in the garden.  There was a bird feeder just outside and you never had to wait long for something to flit across the screen, a couple of seconds maybe.  There was a little book icon you could select and then click through its faux-battered pages to find out what kind of bird you had seen.  Once you had mastered the basics, you could select from a variety of locations – Marshland Hide, Mountain Cabin, Forest Den.  You had to watch the screen very carefully and sometimes the game made you wait a whole minute before a bird appeared on the screen.

So when we heard there was going to be a sequel, BirdWatcher2, we were pretty excited.

“Oh, you’re dead right to be excited,” they told us. This only made us more eager.

“We’ve really upped the ante with this one,” they said. We were intrigued! What could they possibly have done?

“Well,” they revealed, “lets just say you won’t just be sitting looking out of a window… this time round there are car chases and explosions. You have to both stay alive and spot the birds.  Or undertake one of the extreme missions and go undercover, avoid detection and bring home the Sacred Flamingo.”

Obviously, with everything that happened soon after, it was no surprise that BirdWatcher2 was never released. It would have been the worst time possible to bring out a new computer game.

We all received the same email, months later when the networks were back in operation and emails could get through again.

“As members of the BirdWatcher community, I would be extremely grateful if you were able to do some beta-testing for a new bird watching game. Your opinions would be very valuable to me.”

The email was not from the gaming company, but from an individual, a fan of the original game who had put some of those bunker-bound hours to good use and developed a new sequel. We would be delighted to help, it was the thing we had been happiest about for some time.

We were told that Bird Watcher Two had more in common with the original than the mooted action hero sequences of BirdWactcher2, and that was fine by us. We made fresh cups of tea, settled down in front of our monitors, started up the game and watched.

No little electronic birds flitted across our screens.

Several minutes passed. We started to wonder… had all the in-game birds been wiped out? Was that how bad things were now?

We neither pressed keys on our keyboards nor clicked our mouses. We could not risk scaring off those tentative byte-size birds.

And then, just when we had-

Is that?

Yes it was. It stuck its little head out of the hedgerow. We could see its beak pointing one way then the other as it looked around, wondering if it was safe to come out. It was only on the screen for a moment, then gone.

We emailed the developer straight away to report that we had played the new game.

“How did you find it? Was it ok?” The email had a nervous tone to it. “Were there enough birds in it? I was trying to-”

We didn’t read the rest of the email before we replied. “It was perfect. Absolutely perfect.”

Day #12939: Mid-Year Updates

Quiet year so far, but now lets break the silence with not one but two pieces of writing-related news.

On Sunday 25th August I did my second ever live reading, on the Sneakaway Stage at Guernsey’s Vale Earth Fair*.  This is a terrible way to announce such an event, as it’s already happened so if you read this and wanted to come it’s too late.  Oh dear.  Sorry.  Anyway, I am pleased to report it went well (or not badly, at least) – I read two short stories, which, on a poetry-heavy stage, must have been a bit of a nice break for people, if nothing else.

My other piece of news is that my story Blue In The Condition Of Blue has been shortlisted for the Aurora Prize for Writing 2019 (Short Fiction category).  It says so here.  The Aurora Prize for Writing (not to be confused with The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity) is run by Writing East Midlands in partnership with the Society of Authors, and this year’s fiction prize is judged by Alison Moore, whose novel Lighthouse I greatly enjoyed**.

 

* The Vale Earth Fair is held each year on the August Bank Holiday Sunday at Vale Castle in Guernsey.  The main stage is within the walls of the castle, with various other stages dotted around.  The Sneakaway Stage was new for 2019 and was situated right around the back of the castle, down the steps and along a path through some gorse.  If you wanted to come and find it, you had to make a bit of an effort.

** I wrote about it a bit here.  I also enjoyed her short story collection The Pre-War House And Other Stories and her novel He Wants, but Lighthouse is the one that stands out for me.

I Lost Myself Shouting Today

You didn’t get the dreams you wanted last night
And lately ‘they’ reported an increase in nightmares per capita
So get up and smell the smell of the coffee smell.
Give me a list of things you want from the bucket shop
And I’ll try to tick everything off.

Paint the carpet, wash the skies, shatter.
Count all the plastic bags back in, brush teeth,
Spoon leftover stew into wine bottles to keep.

Forever

I found myself hiding my lost self
My shirt lay face down on the bed, my trousers lay face down on the bed.
My coat was vomiting into the bathtub.

Downstairs, cacklers raised angles
Which bounced off

Loose parts rattled
I lost myself shouting today.

Your dancing got stuck inside my head and
I remembered a certain headache, what it looked like,
if I closed my eyes I could see it again.

Every day

We make plans to be better people but we’ll never be
Good, we’ll never be good, never be good as you.

But you
You should come and see us tomorrow
Yes yes yes yes, yes yes yes
Come and see us tomorrow –
Tomorrow we’re all getting dolphins.

 

Beasts In The City

Cats are picking their way along.  Heart-eyed dogs strive to chase but are restrained.  All the birds round here have been immortalised in graffiti.  He is sitting at his desk in the window and the sun is coming in through the glass.  Ticking time is biting at him.  The coffee machines are on strike.  Everyone’s out, trying to grind out change.  All the rabid atoms agitate.  The rain steams in to pound down on the hot hard streets and the beasts rush to cower under covers.  And crush.  The news is unreliable.  The sums are made up out of new numbers no one knows how to count.  He makes friends slowly, but always gets there eventually.  They keep building bigger and bigger buildings.  He is stuck at that desk with the sunshine sloshing in, stuck at what to put next.  Beasts are on the ground and up in the buildings and around in the air.  Retreating or emerging or jostled, caught between the two.  He doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going.  It gets crepuscular, lurid, the colours all coming out of lightbulbs now.  The beasts sniff and saunter through the streets.  Text buzzes around, making jagged cut out shapes.  There are lapses in concentration, things smashed apart.  They swim out of focus, back into focus, out of focus again.  He is glad no one is watching, it gives him a freedom to do what he wants.  To make whatever sense of it he can.  Heart-eyed moths burn themselves up.  Spiders pick their way along.  Every individual fox round here has been immortalised in graffiti.

Day #12767 : The Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5)

In the same way that football players endorse particular boot manufacturers and pop stars sell their favourite fizzy drinks (I assume these things still happen, I don’t really know), I would like to turn the crisp sheet of my newspaper to discover a full page ad with e.g. Jeanette Winterson advertising her favourite pen or George Saunders extolling the virtues of a certain make of desk.

For my part, when I am grown up and a fully-fledged famous author with pages and pages being written about my pages and pages, I would have no hesitation in agreeing to become the face of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5).

“Details make all the difference,” I would purr in my by-then-distinctive handwriting.

I have kept notebooks for the last 16 years.  Each has served as a place to jot down half-thought out ideas, scribble little messages, expand ideas into sentences and paragraphs and stick cuttings or wayward pieces of paper.

The ideal notebook is smart enough to care about but not so polished to give the impression it must be kept immaculate.  Part of its job is that it must be possible to make mistakes in it – making mistakes in is what it is there for.

Its pages must be welcoming – it is a mobile office to use however, whenever and wherever you want or need.  It needs to be ok with having something incongruous stuck in with glue, to have a sentence that might not work yet scrawled in it or to house a preposterous idea written with confidence in big letters.

A few years ago I bought my first Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5) during a visit to Fred Aldous, the art supplies shop in the centre of Manchester.  I was looking for a new notebook as the one I was using at the time was running low on unused pages, so I had a little flick through one of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbooks they had there.  It seemed decent enough.

But after using it for a few weeks I came to appreciate its many qualities.  Slim, with decent paper, and bound loosely enough to accommodate being fattened with stuck-in cuttings but not so loose as to feel like it might fall apart.  Then the nice touches – rounded corners, page numbers (!), a contents page (I feel no real need for a contents page, but I have found fun uses for them).

I haven’t really looked back and must be on my sixth or seventh Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook – my preference is for the ones with squared paper but blank pages works well too (for some reason, I have never found lines conducive to work).  All of which makes me, I think, the ideal face and handwriting of this particular brand of notebooks.

What would you like to see advertised and who by and why?  What kind of notebooks do you like using?  Is this how I am supposed to end blog posts, with a series of questions?  I wasn’t sure how else to wrap this one up to be honest?  It was just a bit of a vague ramble, wasn’t it?  Oh well?

Doing Nothing

I am on the cusp of doing nothing.

When I am working through the tasks that are lined up in front of me, i.e. ‘what I have on my plate right now,’ I am also trying to slow to a halt.

But then an existing process requires some attention or a new process suggests itself and must be set in motion.

I have previously come very close to doing nothing.  We had exactly one too few spoons of a certain size in our cutlery drawer.  Once I had purchased another spoon there would be nothing left to do, and I did successfully purchase exactly the specific spoon required.

But when I got back home, a bowl had been overturned.

Notes On The Erection Of The Billboard Showing Gigantic Galloping Horses In The Town

That morning you had cut your hair into the shape of a house.

I couldn’t wait to see it. The look of triumph in your tuna-mayonnaise eyes.

Emoji-ing my way along the street, thinking about what I was into, stream-of-consciousness stuff…

On some rain-toussled scratch of land by the turning for the industrial estate, some hi-vis dayjobbers were using wood to construct a new 3D space for displaying 2D pictures.

I was on your street then I was in your home. I kissed your cheek and nuzzled in, rubbing my eye in the kiss-wet on the curve of your face.

Then we watched music videos together before fucking in a big pile of balloons.

By the time we had finished, your house was reduced to rubble.

You said you had to shop for a box full of pockets for something you were up to. So we went back out in to that damp and fidgety world.

Now the erection of the billboard was complete and they were using rollers to paste up the first of the pictures that would cover that new space.

Your hair fell around your face like a tonne of bricks.

Some dogs passed by with some people. Those people didn’t look like the kind of people who should own dogs.

Sometimes we just liked to make up things like this and say them out loud to one another.

Cars were whizzing past us but we just stood and stayed there, looking.

On the billboard, galloping hooves had appeared and now some horse legs too.

My hands were in your pockets and your hands were in my pockets.

Drizzle rain was slow-clapping to the ground and making invisible things. All the cars had their garlic-butter headlights on.

But the rain hit us differently to the way it hit everyone else.  Our very selves glowed with the righteousness of knowing that.

Pretty soon they had added the straining bodies of what were probably horses and then some grimacing faces that confirmed the fact.

A band of horses twenty-feet tall were racing towards us, kicking up little cakes of turf as they came. A line of miniature birds formed a queue on top of the picture.

We stood in front of the horses and laughed so hard we were crying and then our crying mixed in with the rain which was hitting us just the way it did.

Those gigantic horses looked so supremely lifelike.

Other people’s existences were not running as smoothly as ours – their lives were going wrong, frame by frame by frame.

They were stopping their cars. They were getting out. They were looking at the billboard. They were clutching their heads in their hands. They were screaming. They were running away through the industrial estate.

We were meat and bones like those gorgeous gigantic galloping horses’ meat and bones.

Next you were going to cut your hair into the shape of a horse and I was going to ride it to several famous victories.

Day #12707 – The Very Best Things I Read In 2018

As I usually do at the end of a year, I thought I would set my thoughts down on some things I enjoyed reading in 2018.  I know it’s now the beginning (ish) of 2019 but the idea is the same.  In places these thoughts may be fragmentary or only semi-useful… nevertheless, here they are.

One of the first books I read last year (because it was a Christmas present at the end of the previous year) was Joff Winterhart‘s beautifully observed and drawn Driving Short Distances (2017).  Whilst examining everyday-type people, its power comes in highlighting the tiny details – winks, grimaces, tufts of hair.

David Keenan‘s novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) boasts the fantastically overblown and brilliantly specific subtitle ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.’  Keenan borrows the energy of the most hyberbolic kind of music writing and allows a population of strange characters to reverberate against one another in the claustrophobic small town setting.

Dreamlike in a completely different way, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992) cast a spell on me.  It is however going to be difficult to describe why… it had a haunting quality to it and seemed composed of thoughts which ran from one thing to the next.  Beautiful and sad, though more beautiful than sad…

Having first encountered Cesar Aira in 2017, I continued with my Aira fandom last year, and actually happened to meet another fan for the first time, which kind of confirmed that Aira was real.  All of Aira’s books proceed in strange and unexpected ways, a product of his ‘constant flight forward’ philosophy, and my favourite of the ones I read this year was How I Became A Nun (1993), which is worth it for the opening few scenes alone – a fiasco in strawberry ice-cream.

Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole (1970), a present from friend Lee, was the most terrifying thing I read all year.  A traveller is diverted to another city, one whose language and organisation are both incomprehensible and unfathomable.  Struggling to get a foothold, he tries in vain to understand the city’s food, transport, leisure, failing to get anywhere with increasing alarm.  The effect is mesmerising, suffocating, frustrating – like the character, there is nothing to which us readers can cling.

My two favourite short story collections of the year were James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man (1965) and A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) by Lucia Berlin.  Both wrote with clarity and beauty.

The James Baldwin story Sonny’s Blues (with its sadness leading to a jazz club redemption) and My Jockey by Lucia Berlin (one and a half meticulous pages) were amongst my favourite short works this year.  But there was also Doppelganger, Poltergeist, the final piece in Denis Johnson‘s final collection (a friendship becomes defined by a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced by a double)  and the remarkable reading experience of Triptyks by Ann Quin (a piece of work which doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, but does progress as you allow another part of your brain to enjoy the cascade of images and scenarios).  Plus Defending The Pencil Factory a one-off from one of my favourite current writers, Adam Marek (which pursues a slightly surreal premise before finding an original ending by alluding to another piece of work instead of actually finishing the story).  There were probably other great short pieces of writing that I enjoyed and have forgotten, I should keep better notes.

Last but by some means most (by virtue of me deciding this might be my favourite thing I read all year) – Man With A Seagull On His Head (2017).  Harriet Paige’s wilfully disobedient novel stubbornly refuses to fit in the template you expect.  Despite at first appearing fairly sedate, it is whimsical and unpredictable, and at times seems to hang together by a thread.  Much of it revolves around not-quite coincidences, characters not-quite meeting, loose ends not-quite being tied up.  I recommend it.

Day #12686: Writing About Writing – A Year Of Writing

So this was this year.

In February, I completely failed to mark the ten year anniversary of the creation of this blog.  But when I checked, later in the year, it turned out to be true and I had been posting things here since February 2008.

In the Spring, I finished two longer slabs of short story that had been on my plate for a while.  I will look for somewhere to publish these.

In May, I attended the Guernsey Literary Festival, but this time didn’t write anything about it here or anywhere else.  Nevertheless, it still happened.  My highlight was probably attending a workshop run by Daljit Nagra.

Towards the end of June, I started a new project that resembles a novel in size and shape.  I aimed to write one page (roughly 400 words) every week day and give it to Rach to read whilst she ate her breakfast.  The story slowly started nudging its way into existence.

In the Summer, my (informal, semi-regular) writing group set ourselves a couple of writing challenges and then met up at the pub to read them out (we also met throughout the year to discuss things in general, but there’s no section in this thing for things that happened throughout the year).

In September, I scurried away to deepest, darkest, dampest Yorkshire for a week-long experimental fiction retreat.  The course was geared towards exploring and trying new things, not necessarily working towards a thing that was finished and complete and shiny.  It was refreshing to have that impetus removed and to just spend some time playing and trying things out.  I also met a great bunch of people.

In November, I read a short story to around 40 people at the inaugural Guilles-Alles Library Fiction Open Mic night.

In December, my short story, ‘An Ambulance’ was published online by the Mechanics Institute Review.

Later in December, I completed the project I set in motion back in June and found I had surprised myself by finishing the writing of the first draft of a short novel.  This piece of work has been locked away to mature for a month or so, then I will look at redrafting it.