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.
(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?]
Last year I made a journey from around about nowish back to the 1920s, travelling through the medium of the short story (I also read Volume 2 of the Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, but this is surely a coincidence).
I’ve picked out four stories that really stuck with me and written a bit about them, the first two of which are below.
Please do note that to properly ‘discuss’ these, this might get a bit spoilerific (so SPOILER ALERT – though these stories have been in print for well over 50 years).
Roald Dahl, Someone Like You (1945)
I’m not a big fan of war stories, but this one is so simple and effective, it just punches you in the heart.
We open with two former fighter pilots meeting in a pub – they haven’t seen each other in years and conversation is slow, but as they start to drink the dialogue loosens. We get less detail, less description and fewer long utterances as the story progresses – by the end, the whole thing is held together by short lines in which the two men seem to reveal their innermost thoughts.
The drink, delivered steadily throughout the piece, is key to the rhythm of the story and it becomes apparent that the setting is important too as they start to speculate on the fact that during the war they must have dropped bombs on places similar to the establishment they are drinking in… on people similar to those surrounding them.
He leaned back and waved his hand around the room. “See all the people in this room?” he said.
“Wouldn’t there be a bloody row if they were all so suddenly dead, if they all suddenly fell off their chairs on to the floor dead?”
The skill in this story, I think, is in the way that Roald Dahl reveals the characters’ troubles – it is not new information to us that men involved in dropping bombs from planes during a war would feel guilty afterwards, but he finds a new way to present this reality to us.
Rhys Davies, A Human Condition (1949)
From the beginning of this brilliant short story, Rhys Davies skilfully dripfeeds us little bits of information without spelling out exactly the occasion and the problem in which the main character finds himself. Here is the first paragraph:
Having done the errand at the Post Office, which he had timed with a beautiful precision that he imagined completely hoodwinked those left at home, Mr Arnold crossed the Market Square just as the doors of the Spreadeagle Inn were opened.
Over the next few pages we follow Mr Arnold in to various pubs, slowly learning that he must be back home by a certain time and that something is weighing heavy on him, “deep inside him was a curious dead sensation of which he was frightened.” We are given insight in to his character as he is greeted at each pub – and yet somehow the bar staff at each establishment know that he must not be allowed more than one drink, not today. On each occasion, they take pity on him and allow him a second, yet refuse a third. It is only after he returns home that it is made fully clear that this is the day of his wife’s funeral.
We are offered, via their words and actions, a perspective from Mr Arnold’s family, for whom the embarrassment of his appearing drunk at his wife’s funeral takes precedence. As such, there is an effective twist at the end of the tale when we are offered a third viewpoint – that of the nurses at the hospital who exclaim:
“He must have been a devoted husband to throw himself in to his wife’s grave like that! I’ve never known a man grieve so much.”
I had a lot of fun writing in 2016. I completed six stories which I will try to find a home for elsewhere (once they are absolutely ready to go) but I also really enjoyed trying things out and putting one word after another.
Reviewing the work I posted to Digestive Press in the last twelve months, some themes crop up – absurd notions, simple ideas with anticlimactic endings, pieces in which I tried to use vagueness as a tool not an obstacle. I have also been making a conscious effort to use simple language and as few words as possible. These intentions are, I think, demonstrated in the pieces I have picked out below – these are my favourite things I put up last year:
Firstly, this poem from January, in which I had some fun resenting having to get up in the mornings: Smash The Snooze Button
Then in April I wrote this piece on the same day I demolished the shed. It was an attempt to write a conversation in which something fantastic could be happening, but isn’t: But Not Which One
A couple of pieces from June. Firstly, this classroom drama: Notes On The Texture Of
And then this poem, written in Summer but thinking of Winter: Enter Your Email For A Chance To Win
In July, when the football was on, I imagined a bizarre – yet plausible – scenario: Numerous Zeros
And this one from the same month – only 52 words, but I was pleased with the effect achieved: Seems
Finally, from September, a thing that I suppose is about exactly what it says in the title : How Badly I Wanted The Hat
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.
As someone who writes pretty much in isolation, sometimes it feels like the me that writes stories is an alter ego of the day-to-day ‘real life’ me. (Hi, if you’re reading – hope your day is going well. Remember to get some milk while you’re out there please).
I felt this disconnection even more after disappearing from my normal life for a week in October to attend, for the first time, a week-long Arvon course. The course was entitled Short Stories: Towards A Collection and involved me being one of sixteen students spending five days with two tutors – the writer Michele Roberts and Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press (who publish Adam Marek and Hasin Blasim and lots of other great stuff). This all took place at The Hurst, a lovely old house in the Shropshire Hills which was previously owned by the playwright John Osborne.
Without rambling on too much about it, I can tell you that it was an excellent week spent with a group of lovely and talented people.
It is difficult to explain or describe being there because it was a bubble we inhabited for a short time, and a kind of infectious mania slowly took hold – which skews my memories of the week somewhat. Parts of each day were spent writing in workshops, then there was time to write alone and some time spent reading work aloud. There were a lot of conversations about writing and more specifically about writing short stories – conversations I don’t usually have. Plus, the house had a fantastic kitchen and a fantastic library, both of which we were free to enjoy.
My instinct was, of course, to take some pictures of The Hurst before I left, but then I decided against it, to keep it just in my memory. Hopefully I will have chance to return in the not too distant future. I did take one picture however:
This strange ceramic bird stands in the entrance hall – a kind of totemic welcoming party. I identified it as a cassowary, but have no idea if this is correct or not. Nevertheless, one of my course-mates issued a challenge in response to my picture – a 500 word story about the cassowary.
Another of my course-mates, Valerie, responded with a beautifully realised little piece of work about John Osborne’s relationship with the cassowary. Encouraged by other members of the group, she forwarded the piece to one of the coordinators of the centre.
In this blogpost, Natasha Carlish, who had welcomed us to The Hurst on the first day of our visit, published Valerie’s cassowary piece, and reflected on the challenges she had encountered in her first three years of working at Arvon.
What I liked about this blog post was Natasha’s reaction to Valerie’s sharing of her piece – it took me back to the final night of our time at the centre, in which each of us read some of our own work to the group. There were – of course – some nerves, but slowly an event that had been approached with trepidation revealed itself to be a vital and victorious ending to our little week-old community.
In short, it reminded me about why we share stories – to try and make connections between our own separate realities.
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.
Are these short stories or a novel? Nobody seems quite sure what it is, so I think it would be best to just categorise under bloody good writing. Reflecting the rhythm of idle thoughts, these tales – or tale – of a young woman living alone in a house in Ireland is a peaceful read, not a difficult read, but all the more thought-provoking for it. Strange, new, beautiful.
The title of this collection refers, of course, to the name of the file on a personal computer and, fittingly, this is a selection of what feel like quite autobiographical stories. Computers play a part in a number of these stories too – for example one tells the story of the human protagonist but only over the lifespan of a certain computer he owned. Zambra writes with a confident, unshowy style which leaves you wondering quite why you are enjoying reading him, though it is clear you are enjoying reading him – maybe because of his honesty and his insight, little poetic touches.
I read a lot of Salinger this summer – pretty much everything that isn’t ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ – and found that pretty much all of it is pretty great. My favourite of his short novels about the fictional Glass family was ‘Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters’, in which Buddy Glass finds himself in an awkward situation at a wedding gone wrong.
The first story in this collection is ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’, which features Seymour Glass – subject of much hero worship in the other Glass stories. This seems to be Salinger’s most famous short piece, but the two I want to concentrate on are the titular piece and one called ‘Just Before The War With The Eskimos.’
The appeal of that second story is difficult to explain – it revolves around some chance encounters which Salinger shows us, and whilst not a lot happens, so much is hinted at. It feels like we are seeing just a small portion of these characters’ lives and that the references they make and the things that seem important to them are intriguing.
The story ‘For Esme – With Love And Squalor’ is a miniature masterpiece in two parts. In the first, an American soldier stationed in England during the war is engaged in conversation by a teenage girl, for whom he promises to write a story. As they part, she tells him: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”
Inevitably, when we catch up with the narrator again, the war is over but his faculties are not intact. This, he explains, is the squalid part of the story. Between the two halves, it encapsulates so much of Salingers work – gentle encounters, with a sense that crisis always awaits around the corner.
For reasons that must only be commercial, novels are expected to last around 250-300 pages and so short story collections seem to have to be about the same size, which is ridiculous and a shame because they should just be as long as they need to be. And if this had been about 150 pages long it would have been perfect because there are that many fantastic pieces of writing here, but then there’s some that just aren’t as good and it distracts from the great stuff. The titular piece, which won the BBC National Short Story Award, is a poetic, intense, funny tale of life, illness and death, and stands out as a highlight.
I kept getting told to read Carver and eventually I gave in and got a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This is a set of spare, terse little encounters which nevertheless do not have the air of careful cultivation you might expect from something so minimal. These moments feel very real – none of the characters are happy, quite, they are just trying to get by, none of the endings are happy either, but then they don’t feel like endings. Clearly life will continue once the story ends.
These stories are bright, funny, weird – like tales told by a high school friend when you catch up with her years later and she is just as odd as she ever was. E.g. ‘Majesty’, in which the protagonist’s dream of an encounter with Prince William has a profound effect on her. She describes, “that day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.” She imagines that the best way to meet him would be through her role as an earthquake safety expert. “Last year a little boy asked me what made me the expert, and I was honest with him. I told him I was more afraid of earthquakes than any person I know.”
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.