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.

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.”

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.”).

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.