Punchline

He had never been able to explain the joke to anyone else.  No one found it funny.  No one could even see how it worked, or was supposed to work. 
 
And yet, it made him laugh every time he thought of it.  He would sometimes write it down again, just for amusement.  And again.  And again. 
 
He would imagine someone else telling him the joke and he would imagine laughing.  In his imagination, he was imagining it being told by an imaginary person of his own imagining.  But even this construct could not comprehend the joke or tell it with sufficient conviction. 
 
He stood in front of a mirror.  He set up several mirrors so that several versions of himself could simultaneously chorus the joke, and an audience made up only of versions of himself crowed with laughter.  Each him caught the contagious laughter of each other him and the laughing carried on, around and around until the reflections were worn out. 
 
He wrote it in birthday cards and visitors books and on tax returns and any other pieces of paper on which he was asked to write.  
 
He would think of it, it would pop in to his head at moments when he was supposed to be thinking about something else and he would break down, be shushed, apologise, just about hold it together.   
 
No one understood why he was laughing, so he told them the joke, then he explained the joke, and they still didn’t understand why he was laughing, but at least they knew what he was laughing at. 
 
They knew the words of the joke, the raw materials from which it was built.  They could recite it, some of them.  It wasn’t a long joke.  It wasn’t difficult to remember, when you heard it so many times, when you read it on so many pieces of paper.
 
Some of them would even tell each other the joke and then laugh along.  They told it to him and he joined in with them, laughing longer then everyone else, his laughter coming from a different place.    
 
He waited until he was alone and told it to himself again, because no one told that joke better than him, and this time he laughed even longer and harder than before.
 
Someone found him, hours after he died of a heart attack.  They joked that he must have died from laughing at that damned joke of his, then they felt bad for laughing.  Not because it was disrespectful, but because they found this throwaway quip funnier than his joke.
 
They began to notice that his absence had changed the structure of their world – their lives would work differently from now on.  A subtle realignment was already under way.
 
At the funeral, the joke was read out as part of the eulogy.  Everyone in attendance had heard it many times before and they knew it as something that had never made them laugh.  But this was a different world now, it was a slightly different shape.
 

This Might Be Nothing

Things are not good. We are both tired and broken. Have no energy.

All we want is enough hot water so we can have a shower each and then head out for a nice meal.  I turn on the tap and get a cold stream – I try to rub it with my hands, knowing this won’t warm it up, but feeling as though it should.

Outside it is never quite dry.  An infinite rain keeps on, the sky delivers one raindrop every minute, just as the second hand ticks round to the top of the clock.

Then a downpour every Wednesday, for the duration of the Wednesday.

Bright hot sunshine the rest of the time, too much really.

I go out for walks, just for a change of scene, but see nothing unusual.  The pavements are full of obstacles.  Groups of joggers run past me and I worry they are running away from something I should be running away from too.  Or dogs and dog walkers are meeting on a corner for some poochdrunk love-in, leads criss-crossing the pavement like an unsolved murder.  Otherwise it’ll just be someone driving moronically or parking their car insensibly.

When I sleep, I dream the numberplates of that day’s inconsiderate motorists.

It feels as though we have opted out of the passing of time.  We don’t really think any longer about what date it is or where we are in the month or the year.

I bring some flowers home and you say thank you thank you thank you oh thank you.  We put them in water.  I’m hoping that we can watch them slowly wilt and that will remind us about life and death.  Either that or they might act as a beacon to the universe – a tease to let us back in.

The cat comes in, talking some bullshit about what it has been doing, what it wants now.  We forgive its impetuousness instantly.

Out on my walk I see a fat and beautifully coloured beetle in the middle of the path and my first thought is that for months and months I have not seen anything like this, though I remember a time some time back when every time I set foot outside I would notice some remarkable bird or insect.

This might be nothing.

But I have to knock on the door of a random house and ask to borrow a pen and some scrap paper, just so I can write this down.

Further Decorations Of The Captain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Roses In The Snow

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

Adverse Camber 5: Who Can Smell The Telephone Ringing?

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

Part 1: Be All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: End All

Have you heard of Dirk Slimmens?

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

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

“I’m Dirk Slimmens,” Dirk told him.

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

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

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

“What did you say?”

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

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

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

Adverse ground out a grin beneath his supercilious moustache.

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

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

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

The telephone rang, the telephone was picked up.

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

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

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

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

There was a pause, as if for effect.

“Sure, this is Mr. Adverse Camber.”

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

Writing About Something

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

I Don’t Want To Worry You

You looked worried but I worried that if I asked you about it, you might be more worried – sometimes when you are worried you don’t like to think about your worrying worrying me, but this means I worry that you are worrying about something and not telling me about it, because you worry so much about my worrying about you.  I want to tell you this, because I’ve been worrying about it, but I don’t want to worry you.  I do not want to worry you.

Awry [sketch]

Halfway through, what it becomes is a block of rough grey on a pale yellow background, but then it swirls away to get made – through some invisible process – in to a neat new suit.  “It needs taking in, just a little.”  “How long will that take?”  “Only a few days, call in at the end of the week.”  Adverts for running shoes and running kit and running and running and the joys of running.  A little plastic figurine popped out of a packet, played with, lost in the sand, eaten by the sea, bon voyage, bon apetit.  The pleasure of writing things down, tippy tappy tippy tappy, getting somewhere.  A block of rough grey on a pale yellow background.  A neat new suit.  “No, I would say that fits you perfectly.”  “Perfect.”  The calm rolling in of the year like a ball in to the pocket of a snooker table.  No ending where there’s supposed to be an ending.  An elbow jigged, a drink spilled, a stain slapped across a sleeve.  “Oh, I’m-“  “It’s nobody’s fault.”  Still.  Feet pounding, running, running, the joys of running.  A rough little shape, hard and difficult, lodged, impossible to get to go anywhere.

Collective Failure

“I love my hair in the winter,” she says, when it’s daylight outside, flinging it about.  It’s so cold.  “I can’t get the taste of soap out of my mouth,” he says, and he doesn’t even know where it came from.

Two in the afternoon and it was uncommonly dark with big grey clouds filling the sky and when people talked about it, making dulled observations to one another (“it’s so dark, you wouldn’t think it was two in the afternoon would you?”  “no, it’s like the middle of the night!”) , there was something in the tone of their voices to suggest culpability – as if to acknowledge their own part in chipping away at the world.

And when the rain fell there was hardly anything hard for it to fall on, so it fell softly on everyone and everywhere that was bundled up, covered in the protective layers that seemed necessary.