Invisible Animals

They had been sitting at the table for half a goddamn hour and no one had come to take their order. He was getting hungrier and angrier, looking around at the other tables where diners were laughing, joking and eating, and was incensed by the implication that these people were somehow more deserving. This was a classy place – had they been deemed not good enough?

“It’s like we don’t exist,” said his wife of twenty years. Twenty years today in fact.

“What are we, invisible?!” he said loudly as a waitress passed, not appearing to be tending to anything in particular. Then, to his wife: “Maybe we should just go in there and get our own food.”

He had not meant for the remark to be taken seriously, but her eyes widened, and it made him think it might impress her. Surprise her. Twenty years it had been – he liked the idea that he might still be able to surprise her.

He pushed his chair back and stood. “Right then.”

She followed him across the restaurant. He was already rehearsing his explosion, the exact words he would use when the staff questioned his sudden presence in their kitchen. He imagined them trying to calm him down, how he would storm out. How they would pick up a takeaway on the way home and have vigorous sex on the sofa, fuelled by the sheer righteousness of it all.

But when he pushed through the double doors and into the kitchen, neither the chefs nor the kitchen porters looked up from what they were doing, and as he collected an empty plate no one batted an eyelid. Growing bolder, he started to load the plate, helping himself to handfuls of food, burning his fingers as he picked up sizzling steaks and fistfuls of chips.

After completing a circuit of the kitchen, he had collected an obscene amount of food, a heap piled high on the plate. The two of them tucked in, shovelling it with their hands, devouring with an appetite they hadn’t shared in years.

When they were finished, he said: “Watch this.”

Then held the plate in one hand and casually let go. It fell and smashed on the floor. They both laughed. No one else seemed to notice.

“Maybe we should have dessert right here,” she told him, grabbing the front of his shirt in her greasy grasp, pulling him towards her.

Day #14180: The Very Best Things I Read In 2022

I mean, you’re right, it does seem foolishly late to be going on about 2022, as we find ourselves here, already 6.5% of the way through 2023.  But I didn’t get this done before now, so here we are and there we go.  I’ll keep it brief anyway, and let the pretty pictures do most of the work.  Below are some of my favourite things I read last year + my favourite records released in 2023 (I don’t know why, it seems kind of wrongheaded when you think about it, that I do this every year and my books are books published any year and the record are only those released in that year).

My two favourite novels of the year, Hotel Splendid by Marie Redonnet (published in 1986) and Children Of Paradise by Camilla Grudova (published this year) had much in common – both are tales of havens deteriorating, falling to rack and ruin. 

Hotel Splendid is about a hotel built on the edge of a swamp, somewhere, somewhen. It is run by three sisters who argue amongst themselves and try to accommodate the series of workmen who are extending the train track through the swamp. 110 pages of damp, sinking, faulty wiring, blocked pipes, bills, illness and various other types of turmoil. Brief moments of respite shine through the gloom to make all the work seem worthwhile, but the hotel’s trajectory seems inevitable.

The setting for Children Of Paradise is an ailing old cinema, at which the narrator, known only by the pseudonym Holly, is employed.  Taking on a job at the Paradise, she descends into the strange permanent-night of cinema work and finds herself sucked into a dark, dingy and surreal underworld.

I read loads from Fitzcarraldo Editions and they pretty much all hit the spot.  Paradais, the new Fernanda Melchor, dialled back the magical realism of her debut Hurricane Season (my favourite novel of the year a few years back) to become a flat, brutal, desperate tale.  Box Hill by Adam Mars Jones was a beautifully-written eulogy to a time and place.  Best of all was Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, a slight but perfectly formed novella which I read in one afternoon, sitting in the sun. 

Hand in hand with my year’s favourite works of fiction, I was fascinated by Cal Flynn’s Islands Of Abandonment, and her reports from places in the world that have been abandoned by humans and taken back by nature. 

Now-traditional Extra Music-Bloggery Content: My Favourite Albums Of 2021

BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – Ants From Up There

CAROLINE – Caroline

JEREMIAH CHIU & MARTA SOFIA HONER – Recordings from the Åland Islands

MITSKI – Laurel Hell

AOIFE NESSA FRANCES – Protector

MOUNDABOUT – Flowers Rot, Bring Me Stones

DRY CLEANING – Stumpwork

CLARICE JENSEN – Esthesis

THE SOFT PINK TRUTH – Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?

 

 

 

 

Get Serious

He phoned in sick, having woken up vibrating.  They had to pull him out from under a big pile of sweat. 

On the news, reports of a national reality shortage.  Also they read out a list of recently deceased dogs (they don’t normally do that).  He had been reading a book that convinced him it might be possible for him, a human, to fly – that wasn’t what the book was about, but reading between the lines, he understood how it might be possible. 

All day he suffered from moments in which perspective seemed to zoom out and he became aware of his nonsensical position in the world, in the universe, in time – and not just his, but that of everyone and everything else.  In those frequent moments, he felt like he was going to fall and never stop falling, so he carefully made his way down to the ground and hugged it.  He came to believe he could feel the earth’s bones moving, shifting to respond to his touch. 

Late afternoon, they sent out an engineer to try and set him right. 

“Get serious,” the engineer told him. 

He wrote this on a piece of paper and stuck it to the wall so he might remember how serious he ought to be.

‘Toothbrushing Dude’ / The Magician’s Rabbit

I woke from a dream and found a big wasp and a big spider duking it out on the ceiling above my bed. Then I woke from that dream and found I had overslept, the sky outside looked mad, storms thrashing around and heavenly sunshine all at once. I was late for rehearsals.

This was the first play I had been in – it was about a magician who set out to perform a long trick in which she gave birth to a rabbit. I played her flatmate, a character who didn’t really have anything to do with anything. The gimmick was that each time I appeared I was brushing my teeth, which meant all my lines were pretty much incomprehensible – the joke was that I would stumble in, gesticulate wildly and storm off again, frustrated at not being understood. The toothbrush was an electric one and I struggled to hear the other actors over its buzz, meaning I often delivered my ‘lines’ at the wrong time, which the director thought was great anyway. It added to the chaos. I was drunk for most of the performances, most of the rehearsals, dribbling toothpaste all over the place. I had a variety of costumes so that each time I appeared I was dressed differently – once in a tux, then in a wetsuit, at one point dressed as a vicar. As if my character were actually lots of characters. I never worked out what the play was about – I didn’t read the full script or see the other scenes performed. All I knew was that at the end, the magician gave birth to a small child wearing a bunny costume. Later, trying to explain the play and my role in it, I came up with a theory there was a secret plot twist that ‘Toothbrushing Dude’ was actually the father of the magician’s rabbit child.

By then, I was more settled – at nights I went to sleep, dreamt lightly, got up on time, got the children ready for school, dressed sensibly, went to work, produced. Yes, I’ve got the hang of this now, I’ve got this thing tamed.

Cupboard

One morning I decided to have a scratch around right at the back of my cupboard.  Usually I opened the door a crack and shoved things in.  After all these years it was pretty full, so anything new had to be really crammed in there.  The pressure of my pushing new things in at the front of the cupboard squashed the old things at the back of the cupboard and they became broken down and smushed together, compacted into one indistinguishable mass.  Until this morning when, feeling – maybe lost, maybe a little unhinged, certainly uncertain, certainly scared – a little bored, I decided to start excavating. 

I was a big fan of cupboards.  A cupboard was life.  A cupboard was independence.  A cupboard was a status symbol.  A cupboard was somewhere to put things.  In a land of inanimate objects, I was a living breathing animal thing and every day I wandered around, picking things up, putting things down, thinking.

Right at the back of the cupboard, in amongst some old letters that had been broken down by time and weight until they became indecipherable, a pulpy mess of paper and ink… I found a basketball, shrunken like an old tangerine.  It was the size of a thumbnail.

But I remembered playing with that basketball, eras ago when it was all different. 

On a Saturday afternoon, a friend and I would shoot hoops in his back yard.  Neither of us were good at basketball, nor did we want to be, and we threw the ball listlessly – it was something to do as we talked about the tv we were watching, the books we wanted to read, pop music.

For about 20 minutes that tiny desiccated basketball transported me back in time, but I needed more so I put on my shoes and coat and left the building, mooching through town until I got to my friend’s old house – actually it had been his parents’ house because back then we were only kids.  The house was still there, but in the back yard a block of flats had been built. 

Huh.

That back yard had only been, what, maybe ten foot by ten foot?  Can’t have been much more than that.  There was enough room for us to stand at the back door of the house and throw the ball at the hoop attached to the wall.  I’m not saying there’s anything unusual about building a block of flats in such a small space but it threw me when I saw it.  I just never expect the world to make changes, even after all these years.

I closed my eyes, brought my hands to my head and squeezed gently – the pressure on my skull felt good, comforting.

I opened my eyes again and looked up at the block of flats.  It was quite tall.  Wow, I thought.  I wonder how many cupboards are in that thing.

This Gun Shoots Horses

This was life. Cups of coffee. Taking things out of cupboards. Putting things in drawers. Groceries. Poignant glances. Terse dialogue. Whimsical events. Cats entering rooms, turning tail and walking out again. Anonymous clothes. More dialogue. A little magical realism.

Then one day one of my characters brought a gun into one of my stories.

He pulled it out mid-sentence and waved it vaguely; vaguely threatening.

“What are you doing?” I hissed. “Put it away.” I didn’t want him spooking the other characters. They all regarded him, warily.

“It’s death man!” he said. “Stop fucking around.”

Obviously, there was death. I had not been keeping death out of my fiction. But this was not it. A quiet death at a convenient point in life, that’s what I was in favour of.

“Sit down,” I told him. “Do what you’re told to do.”

Instead, he held the gun up and pointed it to his own temple. The rest of the imaginaries stood and watched. Gawped. There was maybe a little nervous laughter. I had a whole narrative I wanted to explore with this group, but my plans had been railroaded and the other characters were starting to drift away, scared off by this kerfuffle.

He lowered the gun and stuffed it in his back pocket. “Lets get on with this bullshit.”

But ‘this bullshit’ was ruined now. The rhythm of the piece had been demolished. We called time on the day’s work early.

He hung around after everyone else had gone. One of this character’s defining traits was that he always spoke out of one side of his mouth, something people have told me I do as well. I worried that in giving him this I had created too much commonality between us – now he thought he was superior to the other characters, some kind of proxy for the author.

I made my way home, but he followed, right on my shoulder. We wrestled, physically and mentally. The presence of the gun was making me uneasy.

“Where did you get a gun from anyway?” I asked.

“Here and there.”

“I didn’t give you a gun. That wasn’t part of the story. I don’t write about people with guns. I don’t write about people shooting other people.”

“Well, this gun shoots horses!” Everything he said sounded like a joke only he got. I wondered where in my imagination he had crawled out of, brandishing his guns and doing everything he could to disrupt my story. But what if I didn’t let the gun be a weapon for disrupting the story? I could do that. I could repurpose his intentions.

“Ok,” I told him. “Lets go and fire this gun of yours. Try it out. See what it can do.”

“Yeah?” A look of surprise came sideways out of his face. “Yeah! Lets do it!”

The way he walked was a funny lurching scamper, always at my shoulder and at my heels. I don’t know what he represented.

“Where are we going anyway?” he chirruped after a while. He was getting fidgety.

“Somewhere.” I was terse and inscrutable. I thought he would like that.

We left the town behind us and got out into the country. I was looking for somewhere horses might live. Eventually, I found a nice empty field where our gun-shooting wouldn’t cause any fuss or commotion. We vaulted the gate and stood, surveying the empty space.

Though there was nothing for him to shoot he seemed happy. He took the gun from his pocket and started waving it about, shooting his mouth off about how he was going to cause so much death. I was starting to get the hang of this character now – essentially, he wanted to come across like a tough guy, but he didn’t know anything about anything.

“Go on then,” I said. “Fire it.”

He aimed the gun into the middle distance, his hands shaking as he held it out straight in front of him. Something had rocked his confidence. Somehow he knew that I had succeeded in wrestling back control of the narrative.

Finally, he pulled trigger.

There was, of course, the loud crack of the gun firing. Then there was a moment in which it was not clear – to him, at least – what had happened. That the bullet his gun fired had four legs, hair, hooves. It hurtled through the air, its legs gallop-treading the air before it landed and started running round and round the field.

“What the hell?”

“Your words,” I laughed. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. “Your words. This gun shoots horses.”

In his confusion, I took the gun from him and fired it again and again. A horse the size of a dog came out, then a small inflatable horse, then a cardboard cut-out of a horse and then a small plastic toy horse. That gun was no danger to anyone now.

I handed it back to him and he fired it a few more times – a horse made of fluff and finally a horse made of smoke. He tossed it in to the long grass.

“You’re an arsehole,” he said. “You think you’re so fucking clever. Well, screw you. You’ll find out, sooner or later. One day this is all going to catch up with you.”

I had been smiling, but somewhere along the way I had stopped. I knew he was right.

One day all this was going to catch up with me.

Day #13923: Sitcom / Density at Fugitives & Futurists

I am pleased to point you towards the Fugitives & Futurists website where my short story ‘Sitcom / Density’ is published today.

Fugitives & Futurists publish a piece of short fiction every week and  say:  “We want to recognize your melancholy in the occult features of the data stream. We want to flatten the hierarchy of meaning and upset the cobbles in the road.”

I really like the pictures they have used to illustrate Sitcom / Density and the way it looks on the page / screen – they’ve done a great job.  And I was really pleased to find a home for this piece.

The whole thing came together quite slowly, but parts of it were very immediate – particularly the setting for the first half was an image that came to me very clearly all at once.  I could see the factory, the brambles, the smoke, the noise of it.  Then it was just a case of bashing out the details of how the character traverses that world.  I’ve done a few stories in the last few years where I have mashed together two parts – two separate pieces of story that might seem unrelated but put together enhance each other.  That’s what happened with this one.

Thanks to Fugitives and Futurists for publishing it, and thanks also to my writing workshop group at Guille-Alles library for feedback on this one during the writing process.

Egging

Piece written on the theme Chicken vs. Egg for Writers HQ Flash Face Off week commencing 5th March.

 

There was something about having an egg in your hand – it just begged to be thrown. We threw them at each other. We threw them at windows. We threw them from the top of the bus. They sat us down in assembly and explained why we shouldn’t throw eggs but we all knew it wasn’t possible to seriously hurt anyone with an egg. When we didn’t stop, school put a ban on eggs, with severe punishments for anyone found with one.

But the idea was in us now, and we had all this egg-throwing energy kicking around in our bodies, itching to get out.

On the edge of town was an old house, the Witch House. It’s dirty windows and overgrown garden fuelled a story that had been passed down through generations. Even if we schoolchildren squabbled amongst ourselves, we always remembered our shared enemy. The denizens of the Witch house, whoever they may be, had been biding their time – throughout our school days, our parents’ school days, our grandparents’ school days. We too had waited for generations.

Now we had eggs.

Over the course of a week we collected, by stealth and by force, all the eggs in the town until there was not one to be found in farm nor shop nor kitchen. We had stashed them all in the disused mill, and after dark we snuck out and spent all night moving the ammunition to the front line – the overgrown garden of the Witch house.

We would attack at dawn. There was much excitement. We were going to make history – never before had so many eggs been thrown at one thing all at the same time. It was a long night – it took a long time for that sun to start to rise. We got cold and tired. Nerves crept in, but we encouraged one other by describing in great detail how the house would look with oozing egg white running down the walls, seeping in through every crack of that broken down old building, yolks sliding down the windows, broken shells accumulating on the ground like fallen leaves.

*

Two strange things happened in the aftermath of the egging of the Witch house.

The first was that, a few mornings later, a small cake was left on the doorstep of each of us who had been involved. The mystery baffled the adults, but we knew – we had all been marked.

The second was that the hens stopped laying. The poultry farms ground to a halt. The town sat eggless for days on end. And though we each went and stood in that overgrown garden to look up at the Witch house and make our silent apologies, there never was another egg laid in our town.

Short Story #2: Events by Daniil Kharms

Hello, back again with another entry in this series.  Not sure it needs a preamble, except to say it was predictably longer than a week between the first and the second installment.  Quelle surprise!  Oh well.  Here it is, and we’re still in the realm of the super short stuff…

I wanted to do a Kharms story and it was either this or Tumbling Old Women – that’s the one about a series of old women falling from their windows.  It begins:

Because of her excessive curiosity, one old woman tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces.

Daniil Kharms was a Russian absurdist active in the first half of the 20th century – he wrote stories, plays and children’s fiction and was arrested and exiled for anti-Soviet activity before dying of starvation in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad.  His short stories are ridiculous and fizz with manic energy and a refusal to bend to logic.

Here’s his short story Events (found in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms):


There will follow very little analysis, because I don’t know how to analyse it.  The whole thing is perfect.  It’s short and hectic, a relentless list of people whose sanity is being constantly chipped away at by inconveniences.  It gathers momentum pretty quickly and makes no attempt to explain why the death of Orlov seems to prompt this domino effect – or even if the series of deaths are connected.  Each of them is ridiculous

fell from the cupboard

and very funny. 

Our instinct is to look for meaning as each of the characters inevitably breaks down – as readers we are always looking to interpret everything, to search for meaning, whereas Kharms makes me think of this quote from Rene Magritte:

When people ask, “What does this mean?” they are afraid.  They express a wish that everything should be understandable.

We cannot hope to understand Orlov, Spiridinov, Mikhailov, Kruglov or Perekhryostov – like them this Kharms piece is is giddily unanalysable.  I don’t necessarily want to understand it, only enjoy it.  And I do enjoy it, every time I read it – I cannot explain exactly why.

Next time – we finally leave Eastern Europe and head to America, to Berlin.

Numb

[This was from a challenge issued last year.  The terms of the challenge were as follows:
– No more than 400 words –
– No character who appears in the first paragraph can appear in the final paragraph –
– No commas –
– No colours –
– No characters using their hands –
– No not mentioning egg]

Hobsworth had been useless for weeks. Bumbling round the house with both arms in a sling and it was his own bloody stupid fault.

“Is there anything you can do?” Glennis asked. “Anything? Think you could deliver some groceries to mother?”

It would be a treacherous walk through the forest for a man who could use neither of his arms. He wore a cloak for warmth since he was unable to entertain anything with sleeves.

Glennis mocked him: “That colour looks pretty on you.” And when he frowned: “Don’t be sore. I was only trying to emasculate you.”

Strapped to his back was a rucksack. Heavy root vegetables at the bottom. Loaves on top. Then a box of eggs. Hobsworth walked carefully. If he tripped on a root and crashed to the floor he would smash like a pile of plates.

He was surprised when the forest ran out before he reached the house. It had been a while and now part of the forest must have been cut down and built on. Glennis’ mother’s house was suddenly surrounded by other houses.

Hobsworth pressed his nose to the doorbell and heard the chimes ding-dong inside the house.  The sound of someone padding to the door. The sound of struggle as if unfamiliar with the mechanism.

The old woman finally got the door open.  She looked different. How many hours – or years – had he spent walking through the forest?  Were his arms healed yet?  He had forgotten how to try to move them.

“Mother?” He had never known her real name.

She was hunched and hair grew on her face.  As if time and boredom had scribbled on her then crumpled her.

“What a big bag of food.  I’ll be all the better for that.”

Hobsworth followed her inside.  Without the forest looking in through every window the house had a different atmosphere.

“There’s eggs and loaves and root vegetables.”

“But your arms are all broken.”

Hobsworth nodded.

“Oh dear.  And I’m all numb these days.”

Removing the groceries from the rucksack proved difficult. First they tried… then they considered… Lots of stop-start attempts and no success… lots of stopping to rethink the plan.

Finally the old woman decided she would do it with her teeth.

When Hobsworth was gone she looked at the vegetables and the loaves and the eggs where they had rolled and smashed in the struggle.

Then she fell to all fours and gobbled it all up.