The Outsider

Piece written on the theme of Inside / Outside for Writers HQ Flash Face Off for the week commencing 11th May.  The below image was one of the prompts provided and I based my piece on this.

Image credit: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

The Outsider

We like those days. Cool, dry, still.

One of our favourite sights is when it is hazy and the mountains on the far side of the lake appear as light blue triangles. Reduced to shapes that do not mean anything, could be anything. Between the sky and the water.

Those of us that share the lake. Those of us that share the breathing of the air around and above the lake. Those of us that share its weather.

Those of us with gills and fins swimming through the water in the lake.

Those of us with wings and feathers soaring in the air above it.

Those of us who live and work around the lake, during the night or during the day.

Those of us who walk along the path around the lake, a circuit that takes hours to complete and never leaves sight of the shore. Starting at the village, passing the harbour, skirting the woods. The path passes yards away from the window of a room at the back of the old house. Your house. None of us ever see you come in or go out.

We never look in through the window. Maybe a glance. Through the open net curtains. When we are walking past, following the path, maybe we glance in. On sunny days when the yellow wallpaper is illuminated and the room looks like the inside of a sponge cake. When we are walking and hungry. But we never see you in there, looking out at us. We never see anyone inside. We might glance in and see a simple wooden chair in the corner. We might think of it when we are tired and longing for a seat.

Those of us with wings. Those of us might flit and land on the windowsill and twitch our heads from side to side, looking through the glass. Seeing but not comprehending the inside. What it is that goes on in that room, from day to day, month to month, how time passes there. How time passes for you.

We like those days. Cool, dry, still. We understand what the lake and the surrounding hills and woodlands will be like in the different seasons.

Who will come and go.  Which services will run.  Those of us on four legs.

How the waves will lap.  How warm they will be. Those of us with fins.

Which flowers. Which grubs. Those of us with wings.

We who spend so much time outside, us outsiders.

All of us. We get a sense of these things, the rhythm with which time passes at the lake. When things will be hard, when things will be beautiful.

Always Gonna

Piece written on the theme of Always / Never for Writers HQ Flash Face Off for the week commencing 4th May.  I will be reading this as part of an event on Crowdcast at 9pm this evening.

Always Gonna

4am, Rick Astley is on Ciao-Ciao’s mind.

“Alllwwwaayyss gonnnnaa giiiivvve yyoooouuu uuupppp…”

The voice, demonic – slowed like a tape warped on a loop of broken heart. Astley in all-denim moving with treacle slowness, his dance a taunt. Astley gyrating in his trenchcoat in an alleyway.

“Allwwwaayyss gonnnnaa llleetttt yyoooouu ddoowwwnnnn…”

This is not dream. This is product of imagination, stuck on the brambles that grow in Ciao-Ciao’s mind, never more thorny than at this time of the night-morning. 4am in all its stillness, the bogs and marshes devoid of light or movement, only the sound of the far away fog horn emitting like a pulse.

Beside Ciao-Ciao, Albert-O (gently sniffle-snoring (which must be evidence of having settled deep (recharging (but if so, why always slow and stagnant on waking? (maybe something unsettling (many many layers in his dreaming… (the sound of The Pet Shop Boys singing over and over, “YouWereNeverOnMyMind-YouWereNeverOnMyMind…”, the sped-up vocals in a mocking chipmunk-pitch, the song never giving up) buried deep) somehow remembered on waking) as if rest only adds to woes) replenishing fears and worries) and all this hidden, disguised, made to look peaceful) long inhalations, soft exhalations) sleeps, dreams.

“Allwwwaayyss gonnnnaa rrruuuunnnn aarrroouunnnndd…”

Really stretching out the syllables, doing all he can to rub in the acute sense of doubt. Now the image has lodged in Ciao-Ciao’s head, it will not leave again or cede to sleep.

“Aaannnnddd ddeessseeerrrttt yyoooouu.”

*

Sunrise brings things to life, drags the ground back up into verdant, undulating hills. At breakfast time, whilst they share eggs and coffee, Ciao-Ciao, fractured and brittle, worries that Albert-O (sluggish, beaten) won’t put up with this much longer. That Albert-O will give Ciao-Ciao up, let Ciao-Ciao down, run around, desert. Make Ciao-Ciao cry, say goodbye, tell a lie, hurt.

As soon as Albert-O has gone to WorkRoom One to do whatever it is that Albert-O does in there (first thing – firing up the video of You Were Always On My Mind to watch over and over until Albert-O feels loved again), Ciao-Ciao goes to WorkRoom Two and digs out a copy of Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley.

When the record comes to life, the tempo is reassuringly upbeat, Rick’s voice is strong, warm, dependable. Ciao-Ciao listens five times over until sure again – Albert-O is never never never never never gonna give Ciao-Ciao up, it seems obvious in the daylight.

Day #13161 – Updates

A quick update on a few things that have been going on / went on before the world got shut down.

On Saturday 15th March, I read my short story Blue In The Condition Of Blue at the Guille-Alles Library as part of Sneakaway To The Library, a Vale Earth Fair event.  As well as listening to me ramble on for a few minutes, people were able to listen to some poetry and some musicians in what was a very lovely and sedate evening at the top of the library, with lots of hand sanitiser and a can bar.

Sneakaway was the launch for the Earth Fair Zine, the first of its kind, which was published to celebrate the first Sneakaway stage at last August’s Vale Earth Fair.  This playfully put together little book contains my story An Ambulance For Inanimate Objects, which was among the stories I read at the festival back in August.  There’s some other great stuff in it too – stories, poems, artwork.  Illustrations pop in and out around the words, giving the whole thing a lot of character.

Splonday

Another recent Guernsey publication is Zone 4, the fourth edition of the island’s comic anthology Zone.  I have yet to see a copy in the flesh but I saw the proofs and it looked to be a pretty incredible explosion of colour, story, madness, beauty.  Included in Zone 4 is a version of my story Erraticism illustrated by Mikal Dyas.  Erraticism was previously published a number of years ago as a straight-ahead words-on-a-page story – Mikal’s illustrations have given it a new lease of life (and he invented some new days, which maybe we should all adopt now, especially in this time when no one really knows what day it is).

Finally, FAO anyone who is in Guernsey and writes / has written / would like to write… I have, in recent months, started to run a monthly writing workshop at the Guille-Alles on a Tuesday evening.  If you are interested in getting involved please give me a shout – though it is unclear at this point when the next one will go ahead, we will try and keep something going online during the interim lockdown period.

Beyond One’s Competence

This is a short comic I did in response to an online art prompt to create something on the theme beyond one’s competence.

I considered that creating a comic would be beyond my competence, and the character Timothy Horsechurch is a bit out of his depth as well.

Click on the images to embiggen them.

Day #13099 – The Very Best Things I Read (And Listened To) In 2019

Display of books

I usually do this post at the end of December / beginning of January but now it’s halfway through February and one eighth of the year has already passed and… but… oh well… I thought I’d just do it anyway.  These books haven’t gone anywhere, they still exist.

One of the first things I read last year was Today I Wrote Nothing, a collection of the work of early 20th century Russian weirdo Daniil Kharms.  His insanely short, shortly insane stories conjur up such strange images and unlikely series of events that it is impossible not to be captivated by them, pleased that they exist, perplexed by the author.  I guess Passages by Ann Quin falls into a similar category. A fractured and sprawling short novel clings to the idea of a narrative, but there is a fierce poetry at work which is trying to shake it loose.

I read Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Recuperation whilst on holiday, which is just when you want to subject yourself to this kind of relentlessly myopic piece of self-obsessed fun.  It’s narcissistic, it’s slow, the narrator’s psychosis feeds back on itself over and over.  It should be miserable, but is not.

My favourite short story collection I read was by Stuart Dybek, whose collection The Start Of Something : Selected Short Stories I checked out after hearing a couple of his pieces on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.  A poet and short story writer, Dybek’s stories are suitably image driven, twisting and bending in time and tone, so that it feels like the narrator is floating above and around the narrative, gloriously disregarding of the usual rules of gravity.

In the introduction to his slim (slim in theory, it’s only available as an ebook) work W C L D N, Glen Wilson admits that he is not sure what his book is – diary, confessional, something else…?  It is an account of watching the 2018 World Cup in and around London, but also an account of depression.  This is not a wild, manic depression, but a quiet one in which the author recounts an inability to socialise, a disconnection with the world around him.  It could not be said that Wilson bends this into a narrative – and this is one of the book’s strengths.  There is no tying of loose ends, just a flattening, a quiet plea for help.

My favourite novel of the year was Patience.  I had already heard its author Toby Litt read some pages of it in 2018 when he was the tutor on a course I attended.  The few pages he read were all about staring at a white wall – this is the perspective of the narrator Elliott, a boy with cerebral palsy who lives in an orphanage run by nuns.  He cannot move or speak, and is often parked for the day in front of a white wall on which he now knows every scratch and blemish.  So far, so grim.  Except Patience is anything but grim – Elliott may be unable to move but he is nevertheless a force of nature.  His understanding, his wit and his patience are incredible.  Time moves differently in this novel – we are on Elliott time, in which waiting days or weeks for something to happen is no bother.  I could ramble on about it some more but I’ll stop here – just read it.

Bonus Music Bloggery Content!: My Favourite Albums of 2019

1. RICHARD DAWSON – 2020
2. CATE LE BON – Reward
3. MARIKA HACKMAN – Any Human Friend
4. SELF ESTEEM – Compliments Please
5. THE COMET IS COMING – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
6. VANISHING TWIN – The Age Of Immunology
7. PURPLE MOUNTAINS – Purple Mountains
8. MOON DUO – Stars Are The Light
9. MATANA ROBERTS – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis
10. MODERN NATURE – How To Live

Raindrops Falling On A Pool

Sleeping-dreaming was one of his favourite things but that night he had spent nearly all the dreamtime available to him trying to put his shoes on in his dream, which was more difficult because the laces and the coordination required to tie them were completely different from those in his waking life. He had finally got them on and started running to catch up with everyone else when the alarm scattered his dream to shattered pieces.

Feeling cheated, he snoozed it and tried to pick up the thread of dream again, but his new half-dream was something repetitive and unimportant. Though he could not be sure, it was something vaguely banal like raindrops falling on a pool, just that over and over.

Over and over again, waking up was exhausting. Having to swap the neutral no-temperature of his dream for the bone cold winter morning. Knowing that now he was awake he would have to, sooner or later, get up and get on with things.

After all that was done and he was on the bus, staring out through the window of the bus, he thought back to the dream he could remember – that pretty but boring scene of raindrops falling into a pool, each one sending out ripples that spread across the water until they ran out of energy or collided with another ripple coming the other way. He wished he could have fought his way back to discover the tantalising content of his original dream, which surely would have held something exciting and special, if only he had managed to get his shoes on more quickly.

He started to think about raindrops not just falling into a pool, but pelting down, smashing the surface of the water to pieces. The pool filling up – now containing the water with which it had already been filled, plus the water now being thrown down by the sky. He couldn’t remember ever having seen a picture of a drowned pool, but it must happen – in a flood there must be pools that were overwhelmed. They must sit there, square little bodies of water, submerged under brown torrents of floodwater.

And maybe, if you were brave enough, or quick enough, or clever enough… it might be possible to dive and swim down into the floodwater, through all those layers until you broke through the final layer, the final covering of raindrops, and into that original dream of water.

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.”