Midsummer Night’s Murder

After dinner, we trooped round the streets again, the whole family, taking down the ‘missing cat’ posters we had stuck up earlier that week. There were no signs of it getting dark outside, as if the night had overslept or forgotten to turn up for work.

There were other people still out and about, just going for a walk or sitting and drinking on the streets, just standing there talking, saying all the things they never had time to say in the course of a normal day. Over garden hedges, there drifted smoke from barbecues and music from radios. We collected up all the posters, then went home.

I needed sleep – there would be business to attend to tomorrow. But it was difficult, with it being so light. It felt like the world had been split open with a knife and spread out flat, so now the sun had no choice but to meander around the sky, there being no horizon behind which it could disappear. Lying there, feeling increasingly fractious, I felt like I was missing out on something, some action. The possibilities seemed endless, there were infinite permutations for things that might be happening, and here I was lying in bed.

I must have fallen asleep because at some point in the night I was jolted awake. Instinctively, I thought it had been the cat jumping on the bed, but I was mistaken – it had been the sound of a horn or a scream, or something crashing down. Half-asleep, I didn’t really know what was going on.

When I woke again, it was light. Had I not stirred briefly in the night, I could have believed there had never been any darkness. Now, there was the sound of a soft rain falling; next, a flurry of birdsong drowned it out; then, when the birds had finished, the soft rain could be heard again. By the time it stopped, it was only five o’clock. I got out of bed, quietly slipped some clothes on and left the house.

I walked through the streets. The fabric of that morning felt like it had been worn through by the previous night’s transgressions, like the air itself was hungover. I went down on to the beach and walked along with my eyes closed – walking in this way, I felt I was only lightly touching the world. As though maybe I didn’t properly exist.

I opened my eyes and the world was still there – furthermore, there was something new in it, lying just where the knackered sea was meeting with the slumped sand. A guitar riff became lodged in my brain and I started to replicate it by making sounds with my mouth.

Da-na-na-na-na-now, diddly-dee-dee-dee, diddly-dee-dee-dee, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam-bam- bam-bam, dow-nnnowww. And by now I had reached the edge of the creeping tide and stood looking down at that lifeless body, its clothes tangled in seaweed. The world would tilt and we would proceed to winter.

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An Episode In The Life Of A Substitute Goalkeeper

To celebrate the World Cup (hurrah for having a World Cup), my (informal, semi-irregular) writing group issued a challenge to write a football-themed piece of flash fiction with a word limit of 500 words.  The challenge culminated with ‘performances’ of each of the pieces at the Last Post pub in Guernsey on the evening of Wednesday 27th June, after the Brazil match.  My piece was partly inspired by Cesar Aira’s short novel An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (the title, the horse) and came in about 12 words under the limit (let me know if you think there are some I could or should have squeezed in).  Here it is: 

 

Dmitri’s father’s preference was to sit high in the stands behind the goal and watch with steepled fingers to his lips, displaying neither joy nor anguish at the team’s fortunes, only enjoying the pattern of play as it created new shapes on the field, like a kaleidoscope.

For young Dmitri there was only one player worthy of attention – he felt the crowd behind the goal had a responsibility to support the keeper in front of them, regardless which team was attacking. Instinctively, he rejected the idea of the ball hitting the back of the net.

This was not to be what made him the most famous goalkeeper in the country, but it set him on a path.

Dmitri practiced diving, stretching his still-growing sinews to reach further. Studied angles. Became elastic, quick. Forced himself to be unafraid to get hurt. Coach praised his bravery; Dmitri knew it was merely devotion to a task. He was a function.

He was good, but not good enough. His fate (though fate had further plans) was that of the substitute goalkeeper, the back-up to be thrust suddenly into situations. Game after game of watching, waiting then – bam! – sliding for the ball, a striker’s studs thump into the number one’s sternum. This was a local derby, crowds upon crowds pressing down on the pitch. Dmitri was on.

He warmed his palms with a few smart saves, leapt above the jostle to collect a corner. His concentration was absolute. He had eyes only for the ball. When his team scored, he barely celebrated, just kept watching the ball as the game was reset. His team-mates’ ‘one’ did not affect his own pristine ‘zero’, but the crowd had erupted into thick smoke and popping fireworks.

Players ran one way then another, in the heat and noise the game seemed descended into madness. But there was something else.

A horse was on the pitch.

There it was, rearing up, wide-eyed, spooked. Dmitri saw it only as an apparition. The ball was still upfield, bouncing from one player to the next until one, in blind panic, launched it high towards Dmitri’s goal. The horse galloped goalwards. Surely the game had already been stopped.

The ball bounced once as it approached the penalty area; Dmitri judged it carefully; the horse kicked up little explosions of turf as it raced on; the noise of the crowd intensified and then went dead.

As Dmitri took the ball, the horse was upon him.

High in the stands, his father, steepled fingers to his lips, watched this strange and hideous turn of the kaleidoscope. The green pitch, the white ball, the bay horse, the hi-vis medics pouring past the different-shirted players.

Later, in the buzzing listlessness of the hospital he waited beside this braced and bandaged Picasso of his son – broken arm and pelvis, cracked ribs, punctured lung; the ball placed at his bedside.

Work Ethic

I love hard work.  Working hard.  The idea of working so hard.  Working hard, sweat on hair dangling from face as bend and lift or dig into or shift, or brain cells worn down from think.  Unshakeable from task, hand on shoulder but unshakeable, cannot be shaken out of.  Hard work.  Dedication to task.  Not stopping.  Never stopping.  I love the idea of growing as a person.  Personal growth, working hard, growing.  Producing, or becoming.  The idea, the idea of such hard work.  Is so.  Tangible.  Almost.  I lie prone, thinking how great hard work is, how good is personal growth.  Prone, as if finally stopped from hard work, exhausted.  Thinking about hard work, how admirable, working hard.  Yes.  Great.

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* Sometimes when you ask Google a question, it is keen to tell you about the related questions other people have asked.  I have a fascination with the way the questions drift from your initial enquiry as they pop in to existence one-by-one forever, suggesting you can never know everything.  You probably can’t ever know everything, but the tumble of these questions makes for a very pleasing found poetry thing.

Crises Upon Crises Upon Crises Upon Cupboards Upon Cupboards Upon Cupboards

I couldn’t sleep for laughing, then when sleep did crack through the laughter, that sleep was distracted, unfocussed, bad at being sleep.  I woke giddy, was a useless, sore morning person.  Living in the land of the living.  I was making for a bad guest, an irresponsible, unreliable narrator.  I needed to buck my ideas up.  I looked out of that borrowed window, composing myself out of old notes, watched the last leaves clinging to the trees.  Those poor saps probably thought they had won some kind of prize.  My hosts looked over in my direction, as if they could actually hear the things falling over in my mind, the clattering, the accidents setting fire to accidents.

And then to the ceremony and the reception. I was not sure where the animals – toads, spiders, cats – had come from, they crept / hopped / prowled across the hall. My gaze tracked their progress and I saw a cupboard and, wanting to get away from things, tried the handle, entered.

The cupboard was empty (in that it had some things in it, but nothing that seemed important), but in it there was a door. I hesitated, and some of that old dread of being unreliable, un-bucked up, came creeping back. I push open the door, entered another cupboard, with another door, so…

Much like the last one. This time, I locked the door behind me. In case anyone was following. It is possible that ‘cupboard’ could describe many different types of small room. This one was being used to store a lot of towels. No one else was around. I had locked the door behind me, but there was nothing to say that someone would not suddenly come through the other door. If that was what the story wanted. No one was going to suddenly come through the door. I took a step back, then launched myself in to the softness of the towels because no one would ever know. However. I had failed to notice that shelving punctuating the towels, giving their stacking structure, and, as a result of my leap, took an edge of wood to the ribs. No one saw, but I was embarrassed – and embarrassed of being embarrassed all by myself.

The next cupboard was a store for dried food. The one after that, I think, was the one containing ring binders with cryptic names felt-tipped on their sides. “Change Quorum ’97.” “Revamp Q-7.” I was starting to worry I might not be able to find my way back through the cupboards, even though each one had only two doors and the way back was just to pass back through each cupboard until I got back to where I had come to get away from.

In the next cupboard there was a funeral going on. The room was not small, it might have been stretching use of the word to describe it as a cupboard.

I saw those animals again – the toads, spiders and cats, creeping / hopping / prowling through the mournful crowds – and followed them, excusing-me in soft tones all the way, towards the door on the far side of the cupboard.

This lead to a cupboard as big and as outside as the outside world and I was still clattering through, still with accidents setting fire to accidents all the time.  Irresponsible, unreliable.  When I fell through the door and into that big, cloud-stretched cupboard, I couldn’t breathe for laughing again.

Two Men Have A Fight Scene

The first man cuffed the second man round the chops, which, written like that, using the word ‘cuff’, makes it sound like a softer action than it actually was. Like two shirts colliding in a wardrobe.

In retaliation, the second man slugged the first man, and this time my choice of words makes it sound wetter than in reality, given there was no blood, no flesh squishing like dropped fruit. Just a dull pain.

The first man should have been ready to evade the slugging but his attention had been caught by something happening off… somewhere off camera, or to the side of the scene, and this distracted him from the movement of the second man preparing to return the punch. Perhaps there was a third man or a woman. If this figure existed, he or she was hiding behind a plant or maybe a sofa, depending on whether the scene was set in a garden centre or a furniture store. I didn’t really mind.

I was lying on my back, on the couch, writing this down on a piece of paper that was resting on a book. I looked away from what was happening in the words on the piece of paper and glared softly at the tv.

The third man (or woman) took this pause as an opportunity to step out from behind the tree or bookcase, present him or herself to the two fighting men and to ask them, because I needed something else to happen so that I could wrap up the scene: “so what are you going to do now?”

The two men were standing in that garden or living room, or wherever, I didn’t really mind, and they were both gingerly touching their faces where it hurt from the cuffing and the slugging, whichever was which.

“Come on,” the second man said, looking the first man in the eye, “we need to settle this like real men.”

“Real men,” the first man said, or I made him say, because I decided that was what I wanted him to say, “real men never talk about what it is real men do or do not do, how they might or might not settle things.”

Day #12323 – The Very Best Things I Read In 2017

In 2017, I read some fantastic books.  I tried to look for some similarities between them, to make this piece of writing flow more easily, and was mostly unsuccessful.  But I have grouped them a bit and this first group is all ‘novels where the nature of something keeps changing’.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne (2017) has a post-apocalypse physicality, an inventive weirdness and a lot of heart.  At its centre is the titular character, a being the nature of which is as elusive as the truth of the situation is unclear.  The landscape – and the narrative – is at the mercy of numerous overpowered entities wrestling for control, such that it feels like being picked up by a wave and tossed around.

On similar unstable foundations is Ursula K Le Guin’s Lathe Of Heaven (1971), a novel about a man who can change the world through his dreams.  What makes this such an unnerving and discombobulating read is the way his dreams shift not only reality but the way reality used to be, meaning nothing can be relied on for long.  The previous pages are being constantly rewritten as the reader presses further in to the redreamt future.

Here (2014), a graphic novel by Richard McGuire never fully explains itself.  Fragmented across time, each page is drawn from a static position, the corner of a living room.  We jump backwards in time to primordial swamps and forwards to utopian futures and sometimes several time periods are scattered across a single page.  It functions as a biography of a specific plot of land and forces the reader to think about everything that has happened in the space they currently occupy.

Then there was brevity.

An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (2000) was just one of the works I read by the puckish and prolific Argentinian author Cesar Aira, but definitely the best.  Compact in its 100 pages, its scope is still vast, drinking in the wide open Pampas and filtering the landscape through the perspective of Johann Rugendas, a 19th Century German painter of whom this is a biography-but-not-really.  This is a short novel that never really gives the reader an idea of what to expect next and steals your breath as it completes its journey.

Comparatively long-winded at 150 pages, We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson was something I had been meaning to read for a while and once I did I wanted to make everyone else I know read it as well.  An unstoppable piece of American gothic, it is relentless in its energy and predictability.  Just as the passage of time goes unnoticed during a good film, you will get to page 150 without realising your progress.  There’s a film due next year apparently (wince).

In the world of short stories, I enjoyed collections by JG Ballard, Stephanie Vaughn, Stuart Evers and Mirja Unge, but there were two that really stood out.

Shortly before Denis Johnson passed away in May this year, I was recommended his collection Jesus’ Son (1992).  These are stories populated by characters on the edge, propelled by addled logic through desparate situations, yet lit up by moments of beauty and clarity.

Less freewheeling, more carefully curated was The Doll’s Alphabet (2017), the debut collection by Camilla Grudova, published this year by the fantastic Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This collection of inventive, atmospheric tales reminded me of Eraserhead – the same ubiquitous dissonance, the sense of characters trying to proceed in a world that is unpredictable and unexplainable.

And finally…

There was of course Reservoir 13 (2017), a new novel by Jon McGregor, his first since 2010.  This one follows the life of a village – its people, its wildlife, its landscapes – following the disappearance of a teenage girl.  Again McGregor delivered a piece of work which is beautiful and unique, written to a completely different beat.

Object

He picked up the object.

“What even is this?”  It sat on his hand, a wooden ring.  Like a crop circle on his palm.  “Our house is so full of crap.”

A nail pierced the ring on one side, a hook protruded from the other.  I mean maybe it could be – he could never shake the feeling that something could very possibly be useful at some point.

“Shhhh,” she warned.  She got up, took the object from him.  When she did that, he felt lost without it in his hand.  It had been the perfect shape and weight to make him momentarily happy.  Maybe there would one day be another moment like that.

She took him by the hand and dragged him through to another room.

“We don’t know what that thing is yet,” she told him.  “It might be important.”

“We don’t even know what it’s for,” he argued.

“Keep your voice down.  If we don’t know what it is used for, how do we even know how important it is?”

Chastened, he went back through to the other room.  He picked up the wooden ring again but it didn’t make him feel happy.

“The secrets of the universe have yet to be entirely uncovered,” she said as she followed.

She opened a box of matches and started setting them out one by one on the counter, investigating them, looking for differences.

Was ‘Badgerman’ A Premonition?

I forget all about ‘Badgerman’ until the next evening when I am out eating dinner with colleagues. I stop mid-forkful, mid-conversation, and outline the plot, and this telling of ‘Badgerman’ forces me to re-count the story in greater detail, a fact for which I am grateful later.

After dinner, I walk home through town. There is a trail of pizza, torn and violently redistributed across the pavement. The Police are talking to a shirtless guy who is about the same size as me.  I initially take him be the aggressor, but on overhearing snatches of their conversation I revise my opinion.  I carry on walking, glad that nothing has happened to me.

A friend and I have gone to look for something near a bridge. It is late at night, completely dark. We have torches. We get out of the car. A man rushes out of the darkness and attacks me. He is the same size as me, but has a badger’s head for a head. He grabs me, he has his hands on my shoulders and in defence I put my hands on his shoulders and now we are both pushing each other. My friend is on the bridge, shouting at me to hurry up, come and help him look for the thing. Badgerman and I are of exactly equal strength. It is taking all of my effort to repel him, I cannot shout to my friend. The man with a badger’s head for a head has his badger’s head just inches from my head, I am in no doubt that he wishes to bite me with his badger teeth.

Shortly after, I see some more friends outside a pub and we go to another pub and my route home becomes lengthier by a couple more pints. I text them later (“I’m putting you in a story about a dream I had.” “We were in your dream?” “No, you are in the story, but the story is kind of about the dream.” “So, is it kind of saying something about all stories being their own kind of dreams?” “I don’t know. It’s late. I just wanted to let you know that you were in it.”).