How Much to Distract a Writer?

I’m trying to write. No really. Seriously. Don’t look at me like that. I know it may not look like it but, inside this lump of bone, plots are being sketched by my gelatinous gloop of neurons, characters developed and moved around by neurotransmitters and synapses are firing with story arcs. Oh that was close! No, I can multitask. (I can’t, no one can, of any gender, they just do everything badly) I mean it’s only football isn’t it?

I don’t even like football and its 10 o’clock in the morning for goodness sake, but my son (let’s blame him, he can’t argue on here) has put Switzerland vs Cameroon on the television. I’m like a cat with a ball of string, it knows it can’t eat it but it still can’t ignore that prey response. Moving object plus thin dangly bit behind equals mouse, never mind it smells wrong doesn’t squeak and tastes horrible. I don’t know what mice taste like by the way but my cat seems to like them, at least the faces which appears to be the bit he eats mostly.

I like rugby union, well I did before the changes in the game to accommodate professionalism moved it increasingly towards a low attention span game, like rugby league or basketball. But football never got me. Or I never got it. Being sent off at school from flattening my mate who kept going past me probably started the rot. Frustrating. When I went to senior school and was introduced to a game that positively encouraged knocking down people with the ball, I was a lot happier.

I still played a bit of football, training for rugby, work five asides, kickabouts with mates, that sort of thing but my heart was never in it. The most fun I had was with my son in the park playing football, long after I had given up rugby, but that had a different vibe to it altogether. He’s my son; I’d have done synchronised swimming if he’d been into that.

But World Cups bring out something else, and the sheer unpredictability of what is supposed to be a bit of a breeze for the big teams in the group stages has been intriguing this year. Saudi beating Argentina saw me doing triple takes when my son told me, and I confess I reached for the internet to check it wasn’t a massive windup.

Rugby seldom does that. Occasionally in the past a team few had heard of like Western Samoa emerged to cause an upset, it felt like usually to Wales. Think what the whole of Samoa would do boys! Well we found out and it wasn’t pretty. Unfortunately for Samoa, economics kicked in with the professionalisation of the game and Samoa is back to being an also ran team as the rest of the rugby world pits its South Sea Islanders against everyone else’s South Sea Islanders. Can’t blame Samoans, Fijians and Tongans for wanting to exchange physical prowess for family security but the diaspora has shown vividly what happens when Capitalism drives labour migration. Teams like Cote d’Ivoire in the past and Portugal coming up may entertain for a game or two but mostly you fear for their safety and a repetition of Max Brito’s horrendous injuries in the 1995 World Cup.

But I shouldn’t be bothered about rugby or football. I’m supposed to be writing about an eighteenth century retired British Army officer pompously recounting his memoirs in comedic fashion. Maradonna’s ‘hand of God’ aka cheating bastard handball is going to be difficult to work convincingly into that narrative. Although cheats and chancers abound in eighteenth century military affairs.

Distraction is easy at the best of times, but wall to wall football seems to be impossible to ignore. It’s that rolling ball effect that snags the cat’s attention. People running, chasing a little rolling object seem impossible to ignore. I like watching Wales, sort of, though why they only played for half a match last time out defeated me. They are on again at 1000 tomorrow but there are four games televised between now and then.

It will be the nineteenth century by the time I return to the comedy Battle of Minden at this rate.

Hey ho, what’s the score?

About $229Billion. Billion! At the last count. That’s a lot of dosh to distract a writer of an homage to Brigadier Gerard.

Caveat Author

Photo credit: Brickset on VisualHunt.com

I had an email on Friday from the Secretary of the local writers group. He was forwarding an unsolicited email from a ‘publisher’ to writers groups, announcing the opening of a new short story, flash fiction and poetry magazine!

Yay! I thought, how bold and brave and exciting that there are people, in these times of financial restraint willing to make a stand for the arts and help people to share their writing.

Then I followed the link.

Here it is if you want a look. https://shortfictionmagazine.com/

My advice however is to think extremely carefully before doing anything other than look.

A quick look at the website of the magazine’s parent company, Taboo Books https://taboobooks.co.uk/ , might make us think twice about any relationship we, as authors, might have with it. Taboo claims to be:

“Not Like Other Publishers!”

Regrettably it seems all too reminiscent of many people claiming to be alternative or hybrid publishers today.

Taboo has several routes to publication. The first is:

‘Traditional Publishing Route’ – you send them your manuscript and if they like it they will publish it … but with a difference.

They show you how traditional publishers do it: agent, submission contract, and then things get odd – according to Taboo ‘traditional publishers make you pay for proof reading and copy editing, do ALL your own book promotion, and ask you to organise and pay for your book cover to be designed and produced. I’m beginning to think we aren’t talking about ‘traditional publishers’ at all, but old vanity publishing outfits.  Yes publishers are getting ****ing lazy about publicity in many cases, and expect you to social network and if you’re lucky, go on tour to signings and fairs and events, but they don’t normally let authors anywhere near the creative side of the look of the book. And yes they have cut back on editing but there is definitely something odd in the list of things required by ‘trad publishing’ according to Taboo. But…

“Taboo Books is Different!

If we offer you a contract, we’ll:*”

And then they list a whole lot of things you’d expect a publisher to do anyway – bog standard stuff like issue an ISBN, stuff which is either in the other list explicitly like the ISBN bit, or should be – print and hold copies of your book and place and fulfill wholesale distributor orders.

But note the asterisk, which leads us to…

“*Services are offered, depending on the Author membership level you are subscribed to.”

“Membership”? I thought this was a traditional publishing route? You send the manuscript, they publish if they like it?

What is this membership?

They don’t tell you on this page. But:

  1. You have to join the site (free) to submit a manuscript for starters.
  2. There are three levels of author membership:

New Author: £24.00 per month!

Promo Package: £39.99 per month!

Monthly Promo Package: £74.99 per month!

Remember the ‘traditional’ publishing route?

I was told something many years ago and it still holds true (annoying though it is if you aren’t getting published):  “If the money is flowing into your account you’ve got a proper publishing deal. The moment any cash flows the other way, there is something badly wrong, get out!”

Now I’ve no problem with self publishing, done it myself, but I laid out no cash and I made money on the deal thanks. If you want to self publish and pay for services, that’s fine too, but check how much and get the details up front. Companies that promise something with no details of costs or confusing cost packages that keep adding things as you go on, are to be avoided.

Taboo also offer an Assisted Publishing route – which they offer if they don’t offer you a ‘traditional’ contract. Goodness knows what that costs. [Having just followed a few links from that option, they take you back the “Author Packages” above with individual services available as for the “Traditional Route”.]

But that isn’t Taboo’s Short Fiction magazine imprint is it?

No. It isn’t, but the same marketing strategies appear.

You can send stories in to appear online for free (you have to join the site with your email details of course, “keeps the spammers out” and you’ll want to receive updates on prizes, deals and promos won’t you?) but while no overt mention is made of it, it is clear that to be eligible for the £1,000 prize there will be something else required. As I haven’t joined (and am not going to under any circumstances) I can’t be sure what those requirements are but I suspect cash. Similarly to be eligible for consideration for hard copy publication in the ‘anthologies’ you need to do more.

Now I’m sure Taboo and Short Fiction aren’t breaking any laws here, but they are getting free content to fill out their new website (good content costs), and they are advertising cash prizes without making it clear how access to that prize draw (voted for by the readers) is gained. A new prize of  £250 per week is being touted after the £1,000 prize is won.

I may be obtuse but how did ‘Sally from Romford’ get Zoom recorded when Short Fiction told her she’d won £1,000, when the competition still has 104 days to run and the site just opened on 9 September? https://shortfictionmagazine.com/add-a-story/

Now at least she’ll have some money to pay to “copyright protect” her work via the site’s “Copyright Service’, a bargain at only £30 (£29.99 actually let’s not overstate the cost). As they say in the blurb just above the form to get your cash “In the UK there is no legal requirement to register your written work for copyright” Indeed there is no facility to do so as it is not required to prove copyright. Your copyright vests in you the moment you write it. Yes, someone could copy it if it is online, but this “Copyright service” doesn’t look for breaches of IP, it simply claims you’ll have a date stamped record of your work. This may be evidential perhaps if Spielberg decides to film your work someone else has sent him under their name, but Taboo aren’t checking the web to see if it has happened. You’re paying £30 for them to keep a copy of your manuscript with a date stamp. But you have the drafts and the time and date marked original digital files saved already on your computer or USB or disc or whatever you saved it on don’t you?

But it’s another money making scheme from something that worries many first time writers.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything legally wrong with Taboo and Short Fiction magazine’s model of alternative publishing. But it is nice to know what you are getting for your money and what you aren’t. There are many more publishers out there who offer similar packages and some are no doubt more expensive and less transparent about cost creep than Taboo and Short Fiction.

Have a look at https://jerichowriters.com/austin-macauley/#Austin-Macauley-A-Close-up-Look-At-One-Vanity-Publisher for one.

My advice would be to keep looking for an agent. If you want help then use a fraction of the thousands of pounds you might spend on vanity publishers pretending to be something else to get a genuine professional assessment service to read and comment on your work if you want help.

If you want to publish a book for family, friends or yourself, that won’t get a publishing deal because the interest group is too small, then there are genuine self help publishing services who will be open about costs and the likelihood of it going viral (< 0.1%) but will give you what they promise on time, on budget and no hard sell to spend more.

Happy writing!

LITERARY ARMAGEDDON POSTPONED

Photo credit: Pierre J. on Visualhunt

I was in the village on Tuesday enquiring about the possibility of using a local community space for hosting a writers group, either the local one I am already with or another one I may start. I haven’t fallen out with the existing group but we lost the library space we used due to a combination of Covid and refurbishment at the library and we now meet in person half as often as we did, six miles away. I would like to meet in the place we are named after and within walking distance.

I found the person who runs the space and we were talking about checking availabilities and options for meeting there and it transpired that they do not have a website, they rely on Facebook. Facebook is possibly great for many things (I say that in an attempt to appear reasonable – it isn’t.) but it is lousy as a resource for finding information easily. I try and follow hobby sites and forums that have moved exclusively onto that platform and they may be immediate and simple to post on, but retrieving something you remember seeing two months ago is like trying to track down a work from the Great Library of Alexandria for all its accessibility now.

What has that got to do with writing? It reinforced a feeling that social media platforms are ousting web based information. Later that day I forgot and clicked on a link I have had stored for some years but rarely bother visiting now. I would visit more often, it remains interesting and informative, but it is moribund. As soon as I saw the landing page with its reminder that this site is no longer being updated I remembered why I hadn’t visited for some time. They still welcome you with open arms and invite you in to look around and enjoy the thoughts, links and celebration of the short story form. But one can’t help but notice that things like the ‘Lit Mags’ list is out of date.

I suppose part of the reason it is not longer being updated is that a source like ShortstopsUK is going to need constant attention if it is to remain relevant. The turnover in magazines has been huge and while solid stalwarts of the trade like ‘Granta’, ‘Ambit’, ‘Confingo’ and ‘The Fiction Desk’ are still going strong, the threat to many outlets old and new is highlighted in what remains of the lists in Shortstops. The number of titles, print and online, paying and not, bearing the dreaded red ‘CLOSED’ letters after their contact details is high. And trying to click on through many of the others reveals how even this annotated list is now inaccurate.

The site stopped being updated after January 2022 and the tumbleweed is beginning to roll through. I find this a real shame as I found it a very useful place to keep in touch with what was coming and going and who was rising and where to find them. It was of course also a very useful source of titles to place work.

Go and have a look, and if you are a social media user fear not, they maintain a twitter feed at https://twitter.com/shortstopsuk  which appears to include at least some of the features I found useful on the website. The Call for Submissions which collated magazines open periods for submissions and prizes and the like seems to slide in as one off tweets here and there, which may be okay, but is a nightmare to backtrack through from what I can see. I say ‘from what I can see’ because I am not tweeted up and twitter now blocks access after a couple tweets through and tries to force you to join to see more. I have a very oppositional nature and confrontational temperament so my main reaction is a string of expletives even if it does make life a lot harder.

I immediately wrote a piece about the demise of the web page and the takeover of social media. And then I had a thought; was this right? Had the web resource for writers disappeared to be replaced by an inefficient, short attention span social media storm? Or was I just being lazy? Me? Lazy!?

I started searching for writers/authors’ websites, blogs, fora. Sure enough the lists of lists popped up, 50 best sites for… etc. I picked https://www.scribendi.com/academy/articles/best_writing_websites.en.html for trial purposes, principally on the basis it had only 30 sites to check which suits my laziness/tight schedule but gives me more to chew on than ‘top 5’.

There are still lots of writers resources online so I can stop, for the moment, writing my ‘We’re all doomed!’ article (shame I like a good panic story) and look at what is out there.

It is worth noting first off that the list is two years out of date, but whilst three links were dead and a couple have morphed into related writing forms, the list seemed remarkably active.

This may be because most of them have commercial aims or at least spin offs – the number of free guides, booklets, newsletter was high but as I didn’t click through I can’t say how many led to pay-for classes, courses, books, guides etc. At least a few, because I did see several with links to content to buy, and there is a fair percentage of commercial outlets involved in this list. Two at least were part of a self publishing outfit.

There were hints in several that there were links to actual outlets for work, but none of them had that as their aim. The list was divided into ‘Advice’, ‘Lifestyle’, ‘Marketing and Blogging’, ‘Publishing’, ‘Writing Inspiration/Prompts’. There was a lot of overlap and in some cases I found it hard to understand why the link was in a particular category, but this was probably because bloggers had changed tack.

The general feeling was one of slick professionalism. Why did that feel worrying? There was a sense of glibness and a feeling a lot of them had been through the same course on how to sell a blog and that indeed a fair few were selling more for cash. That didn’t stop many having good, solid, engaging and interesting content. My reaction may be a Brit thing, I am naturally suspicious of surface glamour and glitz. The white bread may have a superficial promise of soft tastiness but I prefer a chewy wholemeal granary myself. And that is what Shortstops felt like to me compared with many of these sites. It had grit and maybe you had to work through a bit more, but I didn’t feel like I was being sold a snazzy looking confection that was a triumph of appearance over substance. Is that harsh on these sites? Probably and I would recommend having a look rather than taking my word for it.

It is probably part of my feeling that the web itself has lost its way in becoming part of the advertising industry it and commercial world it tried to subvert initially.

Still! Good news, there are writers and authors sites out there. I don’t have to sell my soul to the Metaverse or Twitter just yet.

[PS Not a natural Luddite:  Computer user programming Basic 1982, IBM mainframe TSO user 1984, PC and internet user since 1996. Smartphone Refusenik since forever!]

CLEAROUT: Alternative version

I drafted this version of Clearout to see what it felt like with most of the indirect speech and description turned into direct speech to see how it felt. On reflection I think I prefer this version in many ways. It lets the reader pull out what is going on from the conversations rather than telling them. It still has the lack of jeopardy and a cosy ending but changing that is going to involve more thought and considerably more effort to keep within the (rough) space constraints. A task for another day perhaps.

The sixteenth time it happened he decided he needed to do something.

‘Sixteen? That’s very precise.’ Doctor Lennox said

‘Since I started keeping count.’ Irvine told him.

Lennox took out his stethoscope and blood pressure machine and torch and started prodding and poking at this point.

‘Smoke?’

‘No.’

‘Ever smoked?’

‘No.’

‘Alcohol?’

‘Yes.’

‘How much?’

‘Not as much since we stopped that Napoleonic campaign.’

‘Yes that was nerve racking wasn’t it? Must do it again some time.’ He made a note. ‘Within guidelines then?’

‘Unless they’ve lowered them again to trap the unwary, like the speed limits.’

Lennox smiled.

‘Sorry, but I’ve got to ask, any recreational drug use?’

‘No.’

‘Sure? I’m not off to the coppers if you are.’

‘No Robin, I don’t.’

Lennox nodded and went through a whole set of other questions about any recent dizzy spells, headaches, fainting or flushes.

‘I’m not here about the menopause.’

‘Not worried about that. And that’s not a very appropriate comment these days.’ Lennox chided ‘Any other odd visual symptoms?’

‘Not that I’ve noticed.’’

‘Well, we’ll take a blood sample for a general MOT type thing.’

‘Brain tumour?’

‘That’s a bit of a leap under the circumstances. Just a general check up.’  Irvine presumed it was cancer cells they were looking for. Maybe liver function, although he couldn’t think why liver problems would give him visions. Lennox interrupted his chain of thought.’ And you should go and see an optician, as you’re seeing things.’ Doctor joke among friends. Except it had stopped being funny for Irvine well before he started counting the sixteen times.

The first time it had happened he’d blinked and sure enough it had gone away. It had always gone away. But more slowly of late, more reluctantly. Which was why he’d gone to Doctor Lennox. Lennox was a good man and Irvine had known him for years. Which was why it had taken so long to go and see him. It was a bit embarrassing going to someone you wargamed with and telling them you were seeing things. Especially when you didn’t know what it was you were seeing. And only seeing them in one place in the kitchen doorway to the hall was weird.

Irvine had struck while the iron was hot, or at least while his innate suspicion of medical types was overwhelmed and went into the optician’s. She hadn’t been much more help. He explained the reason for the out of schedule appointment and she went through the usual checks.

‘Well, your prescription is still good, we only changed that a few months ago. You still need glasses for seeing long distance, so you must wear them for driving. Reading is still good, no obvious problems.’ She flicked through a couple of screens on her computer. ‘The Field test was okay, and the puff test for eyeball pressure acceptable. No obvious signs of glaucoma. Nothing else obviously to worry about.’ She scrolled on down his notes. ‘Did you go and get that ballooned capillary checked at hospital?’

‘I’m afraid I haven’t got around to it yet.’

‘Under the circumstances I think I should make a referral, okay. It’s probably fine if you aren’t getting any other interference with vision, but it would be better to check in any case.’ She typed into the machine and looked up. ‘They might check a few other things while you are there under the circumstances.’ She sighed. ‘There is a waiting list of course.’

‘Of course. Covid. Post Covid.’

‘And the rest.’

He walked slowly home, reflecting all the worries this simple apparition problem was throwing up. Rhona didn’t appear too worried, although she vigorously supported his medicalisation of the problem.

‘Go and see Robin. He’s only a GP but it will start the ball rolling. And don’t forget what you’re there for and spend all the time talking toy soldiers.’ She understood the whole health care approach to things from the inside of course. From his outsider position it sometimes appeared as much akin to faith as anything. Something he had no understanding of. She had lightly murmured about a mental health aspect of course, but she would wouldn’t she? Experts liked to fit most things into their speciality, be they doctors, economists, politicians or plumbers. If you had a hammer, every problem had a nail like quality.

He reached the house and Rhona was already back.  He shouted as he entered, ‘Only me!’ and went into the kitchen. He’d left the laptop on the table. He sat and opened it to check his emails. He heard Rhona coming down the stairs and looked up.

There it was again. An impression of a figure. Not a shadow exactly but not quite a solid object either, nor an obvious wispy apparition you could see through. Just the hint, the feeling almost, of a person. An indistinct presence in the doorway into the hall. As soon as he looked directly at it, it began to disappear. It left him, not scared, not desperately worried, but oddly concerned as if there was something he should be doing and he had forgotten what it was. It always left him feeling like that, in addition to the bewilderment of seeing something that wasn’t there. Rhona walked into the room from the hallway.

‘All right darling?’

‘Yes, yes.’

Rhona looked behind her into the doorway.

‘Did it happen again?’ Not “Did you see it again?” but “Did it happen again?” Fair enough he supposed, he wasn’t sure what was going on himself. You picked the easiest explanation for you. Medics included no doubt.

‘Er, yes, just a flash when I looked up to see if you were there. I heard you coming down the stairs.’

‘Elephant feet eh?’

‘No love, you’re as light as a dove.’

‘Old flanneler’ she said smiling. ‘Right answer though. Coffee?’

‘Yes, thanks. The optician says there’s a wait for Ophthalmology.’

‘There is with everything since the Covid. I mean there was before but now…’ She raised her eyebrows and flicked the switch on the kettle. Her own department was snowed under. But mental health work had always been understaffed. ‘How long?’

‘Didn’t say. They’ll be in touch.’

‘I’ll see if I can have a word.’

‘I’m not urgent Ron, those in front of me will need it more.’

‘I was thinking of my needs, not yours.’

She sat down opposite him, the laptop between them, her head blotting out most of the site, and sight, of his worries.

‘It’s not going to be a physical thing is it?’ she said.

‘Don’t know.’

‘Does it happen anywhere else?’

They’d been through this a hundred times before.

‘No. Just when I’m sat here.’

‘Silly question, why not move? You’ve got a perfectly good study upstairs.’

‘I know but…’

‘You’re stubborn.’

‘I want to know what it is.’

‘It’s going to be an associative response to some particular light stimulation by something in there.’ She leaned over and tapped his temple gently.

‘I’m imagining it you mean?’

‘No, that’s simplistic, but if it helps you deal with it…’

‘It doesn’t actually.’

He got up and made the coffee. He brought the two cups back to the table and glowered at the computer.

‘Poor wee man.’ She said and stroked his cheek. ‘It will all be fine.’ She stood up and took her coffee away into the living room. ‘Get the tests run. It might be that capillary triggering it off with the angle of the light.’

He watched her through the doorway into the living room and then looked back at the hall. Nothing.

If it were simple mechanics, why didn’t it happen every time he looked up from the laptop? No there was something else going on. But he didn’t think he was going mad. Not that he’d put it like that to Rhona. But he didn’t.

He typed solidly for fifteen minutes. No stops, no corrections, no in line editing, just writing. Almost stream of consciousness. There was a noise at the front door and his daughter’s voice carried down the hallway.

‘Hiya, only me!

He looked up and there it was again. He wasn’t surprised this time, he’d expected it. He did wonder if it was the time staring at the screen that did it. Fifteen minutes, often more when he was working well, flooded his eyes with light and then looking up must mean he wasn’t getting a full picture in the relative dark of the room. Maybe it was simply an adjustment of light. He didn’t take his eyes off the doorway and sure enough it was fading now, almost gone as his daughter walked in.

‘Hi Dad. You okay?’

‘Hello love, yes thanks. You?

‘Yeah you should hear what Mara did today in the kitchen.’ She rubbed her arms, ‘Why is it so cold in here?’ She walked over to the kettle and switched it on. ‘Coffee?’

He waved his cup in the air.

‘Got one thanks.’ The last of the image faded.

Holly raced through the tale of Mara and the platter of chicken wings and he made a note not to eat there again. She sat at the table and that was the end of work for the day. He shut the laptop and they talked. He hadn’t told her about his problem yet. Wasn’t sure what to tell her. Alex probably knew because although five years younger than Holly he was a listener and cunning. If you wanted to know what was going on in the house, Alex was the one to bribe.

After dinner Irvine went for a stroll down to the village. Thought about going into the pub and decided against, just in case word got back to Lennox. There were shadows and odd lights aplenty on the walk but nowhere did he see any figures appear and then fade. Walking along the lane at the back of the house, overgrown with trees hiding the streetlights he could see dark forms and pools of shadow he was able to make into anything he liked should he choose. But if he didn’t choose they stayed as amorphous lagoons of darkness. Whereas he couldn’t make the thing in the doorway into anything or anyone at will, but he couldn’t stop it looking like someone when he wasn’t trying.

Holly was out when he got back. Alex was in his room, probably playing some game on his console and Johnny was of course at Uni. Rhona was watching the news on television. An activity which showed her age, and his. He sat down with her on the sofa.

‘Okay?’

‘Uh huh. You?’

‘Apart from this idiot.’ They spent a happy five minutes dissecting the Health Secretary’s lack of ability. A pleasant way to bond again after the worries about his eyesight, brain tumour, mental health.

‘I’m not crazy you know.’ He said. Rhona looked at him.

‘No-one said you were. And we tend not use that diagnosis these days. Just saying.’

‘Political correctness gone mad.’

‘Showing your age. Nobody says that anymore either.’

‘Really? I do.’

‘I may have to resurrect that diagnosis.’

‘Cheek.’

‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘Ignore it probably for the moment. I’ve done everything I can. Seen the GP, waiting for test results. Seen the Optician. Been referred to the Ophthalmology Department . Your lot won’t look at me until the physical defect lot have said not our problem. So not a lot else to do. Get an exorcist in I suppose if we can’t wait.’

‘I wondered if we’d get round to it.’

‘To what?’

‘The “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” scenario.’

‘I’m not planning on ringing the local Jesuit priest if that’s what’s worrying you.’

‘Doesn’t worry me, you’re the committed atheist.’

‘Yes, I am aren’t I? Is it my Mum and Dad you’re thinking of?’

‘I did think originally we’d be leaving them behind somewhere rather than have them with us all this time.’

‘They don’t take up much space do they?’

‘Hardly the point Irv.’

‘Suppose not.’

The conversation moved on to generalities. They streamed a film. Holly arrived home during it, telling them as they watched what was going to happen in the next scene after every one that was on screen.  At the end Irvine thanked his daughter for the inline captioning otherwise he might have had to pay attention to the plot and the acting rather than listen to her. She flounced off out of the room.

Rhona congratulated him on his parenting skills and went after her daughter telling him she obviously wanted to talk. Irvine wondered why she hadn’t just said, “I’d like to talk Dad” in that case. Maybe no-one did that any more either. He turned the television off and went into the kitchen with his laptop, put the kettle on and opened the document he’d been working one earlier. Did it make any more sense now? Rhona shouted down she was off to bed. He spooned coffee into a large mug, although Rhona routinely advised him against caffeinated drinks so late. He poured the water into the mug and read through the last few hundred words he had written in that burst of creativity. Oddly coherent he thought.

Alex clumped down the stairs and burst into the room.

‘Dad. Don’t worry, it’s only me.’

‘Who else would it be?’

‘You’re joking right?’

‘About what? Irvine asked his teenage son as the boy opened the refrigerator with a crash and took out a chilled can of fizzy orange drink.

‘Not caffeinated. Mum says it’s okay.’ Alex waved the label at Irvine. ‘See?’

‘Not really, but that’s okay, I don’t need to if it’s okay with your Mum.’

Alex leaned against the central island and looked at his father and then at the door.

‘I know about your problem. You and Mum couldn’t keep a secret if you tried.’

‘Oh. Does Holly know?’

‘You are joking now right? Holly? Nice girl, not too involved with the rest of humanity?’

‘Harsh.’

‘You should hear what I say when I’m not being the caring sibling.’

‘You know I don’t think I should. Anyway, what problem?’

Alex rolled his eyes to the ceiling and took a long pull on the can of orange.

‘Well defended Dad. It would have been better if you’d opened with that rather than “Does Holly know?” don’t you think?’

Irvine conceded the point.

‘What do you think you know then?’ he asked.

‘About you seeing someone over there every time you look up from that old steam computer.’

‘My difference engine works perfectly thank you.’

‘You can joke all you like its ancient.’

‘It isn’t, and it works.’

‘Stop changing the subject.’

‘I’m not.’ He looked at his son and at the door. ‘Only a bit. How do you know?’

‘Apart from the doctor’s visits and optician and Mum clucking like an old hen trying not to say you’re crazy?’

‘That’s not a …’

‘…current diagnostic term. I know.’ Alex drained the can and put in on the work top. ‘Anyone else seen it?’

‘No.’

‘That’s not strictly true Dad.’

‘It’s not?’

‘No.’

‘You mean?’

‘Yeah. Me too.’

‘Are you all right?’

‘I don’t need an optician.’

‘No. I meant…’

‘Does she scare me?

‘She?’

‘Don’t you know who it is?’

‘Alex, all I see is a sort of shadow, not even that, something, and then it disappears.’

‘Makes sense. You don’t believe do you?’

‘In what?’

‘Anything. God, spirits, anything like that.’

‘No. There’s no way it could work.’

‘Well, that makes it hard for her to get you to see.’

‘Who?

Alex stared at his father.

‘You really don’t know?’

‘Do you think I’d be going through all this bloody medical palaver if I knew what I was seeing? Irvine said.

‘Okay. Don’t freak out Dad, but it’s Granny.’

‘Granny? You mean…’

‘Your mum, Granny Laidlaw.’

Irvine was stunned. He had expected Alex to have worked out there was something odd happening with him, Irvine. He hadn’t expected this.

‘Did your mother put you up to this? Is that what she did? All that going to bed early rubbish, feeding you this line to make me look daft. Is that it?’

‘Dad! Come on, be serious.’

Irvine took a deep breath.

I’m trying to be. Are you?’

‘Serious?’

‘Yes, all this ghost stuff, it’s not like you.’

‘It’s not like, you know’ Alex raised his hands in the air and waved them from side to side, ‘Wooooo! type of thing. It’s just granny. It feels okay.’ 

‘How do you know it’s her?’

‘Dad, I remember what granny looked like.’

‘Have you told Mum?’

‘I’m not in the nut house am I? Course not.’

‘I don’t believe I’m asking this, but, do you know what she wants?’

‘It’s not like she actually says anything. But I think she just wants to get your attention.’ Alex shook his head, ‘It’s not words, it’s just a feeling. Wanting to move on or something.’ Alex walked over and kissed his Dad on the head, something he hadn’t done for years. ‘I’m okay. You should be too. Take a chance and believe eh? I’m pretty sure you’re safe. Night Dad.’ And with that he walked off.

Irvine sat staring at the doorway where Alex left the room. There was nothing. He didn’t feel any chills, no tingling of the spine. No fears or disturbances in the force. He got up and went upstairs.

Holly’s door was shut, Alex’s light was on and there was a low rumble of something on his computer. Rhona was asleep already. Irvine opened the loft and pulled down the ladder and ascended. He turned the light on and went to the cupboard at the back of the. It wasn’t a traditional lumber room or anything, if had flooring and carpeting but there was he admitted an inordinate amount of rainy day material in boxes that had never been opened since he’d put them up there. Must have a clearout.

On a shelf in the cupboard, in velvet drawstring bags were two urns containing his mother and father. What was left of them after the crematorium. He hadn’t known what to do with them after the funeral. He’d hoped for inspiration to let him know what to do with them. It never came. As Rhona had said, months turned into years. On reflection it was perhaps a little unusual. He looked at them and apologised. He probably hadn’t been ready to let go. He lifted them from the shelf and carried them downstairs. They were surprisingly heavy for ashes.

He put them on the mantelpiece in the dining room and said goodnight. He’d take them both out onto the hillside overlooking the loch tomorrow and scatter them where sea and mountain could claim them He went into the kitchen and made sure all the taps were off and the implements unplugged. He sat at the table in front of the laptop, saved his work and turned the computer off. He looked up at the doorway. Was there a figure? He couldn’t see anything. Nothing.

He’d get his blood test results and get his eyes checked in hospital and he knew they would both be okay. He had a warm peaceful feeling.

CEAROUT: Visions – original draft

Photo credit: lamirlet on VisualHunt.com

This is the original version of Clearout, with the odd change of style part way through. I didn’t notice as I wrote it but reading back to edit and redraft it, it became very obvious. It isn’t the absolute first draft as I tidied it up and saved it before I decided which style to keep but the main shift in style remains as I didn’t touch that in this version. I have another where direct speech drives the narrative which I will put up later.

The sixteenth time it happened he decided he needed to do something. The sixteenth since he’d started keeping count that is, as he told the doctor. The doctor asked him lots of questions about his lifestyle. Did he smoke? Did he drink alcohol? How much? Difficult question he knew, but any recreational drugs? Not to worry he wasn’t off to the police for a bit of cannabis. No? Sure? Positive. He knew whether he took drugs. 

Any dizzy spells? Headaches? Fainting? Flushes? No he wasn’t worried about the menopause. Not very PC these days but we’re chaps together aren’t we? Yes. No other odd visual symptoms?

He’d taken a blood test for a “general MOT type thing”. Irvine presumed it was cancer cells they were looking for. Maybe liver function, although he couldn’t think why liver problems would give him visions. The Doctor also said to go and see an optician, “as you’re seeing things”. Ha ha. Joke.

Except it wasn’t.

The first time it had happened he’d blinked and sure enough it had gone away. It had always gone away. But more slowly of late, more reluctantly. Which was why he’d gone to Doctor Lennox. Nice man. Known him years, They’d played toy soldiers together for a while when they’d found out they were both interested in wargaming. Unusual hobby. Nice to find a fellow enthusiast. Lennox was busy these days, busier than Irvine. Still did get a game in occasionally but the whole Covid thing had been a nightmare and ‘still’ hadn’t happened for nearly three years now he thought about it.

The optician hadn’t been much more help. Still needed glasses for seeing long distance. Okay for reading, no obvious problems. Field test was okay, puff test for eyeball pressure acceptable. Did he know of anything else? Small purple spot left eye where there was a slightly distended capillary. Known about it since he was thirty six. Should have been back to hospital more often than he had but he’d moved around a bit and forgotten. No reminders from anyone had caught up with him. Okay, he’d make a referral.

Rhona hadn’t thought it an issue. Probably still didn’t, although she vigorously supported his medicalisation of the problem. It was easier that way. There were murmurings about maybe a mental health referral. He checked his emails. There was a note from the hospital. There was a waiting list. They’d be in touch. Arrange for transport after as he wouldn’t be able to drive for some time and don’t worry about odd vision effects afterwards. The chemicals they would put in the eye to dilate the pupil so they could photograph the retina would affect his vision. Don’t worry about odd vision effects! Ironic given the circumstances. He heard Rhona coming down the stairs and looked up.

Shit! There it was again. Just an impression. An impression of a figure. Not a shadow exactly but not a solid object, nor an obvious wispy apparition you could see through. Just the hint, the feeling almost, of a person. But indistinct, a presence in the doorway into the hall. As soon as he looked directly at it, it disappeared. When he looked away the impression was no longer there and when he looked through the doorway the only person was Rhona walking into the room from the hallway.

‘All right darling?’

‘Yes, yes.’

Rhona looked behind her into the doorway.

‘Did it happen again?’ Not “Did you see it again?” but “Did it happen again?” Fair enough he supposed, he wasn’t sure what was going on himself. You picked the easiest explanation for you. He looked at the email. Medics included no doubt.

‘Er, yes, just a flash when I looked up to see if you were there. I heard you coming down the stairs.’

‘Elephant feet eh?’

‘No love, you’re as light as a dove.’

‘Old flanneler’ she said smiling. ‘Right answer though. Coffee?’

‘Yes, thanks.’ Keep it grounded, medical. ‘The Opthalmology department have emailed. There’s a wait.’

‘There is with everything since the Covid. I mean there was before but now…’ She raised here eyebrows and flicked the switch on the kettle. Her own department was snowed under. But mental health work had always been understaffed. ‘How long do they say?’

‘They don’t. It says they will be in touch.’

‘I’ll see if I can have a word.’

‘I’m not urgent Ron, those in front of me will need it more.’

‘I was thinking of my needs, not yours.’

She sat down opposite him, the laptop between them, her head blotting out most of the site, and sight, of his worries.

‘It’s not going to be a physical thing is it?’ she said.

‘Don’t know.’

‘Does it happen anywhere else?’

They’d been through this a hundred times before.

‘No. Just when I’m sat here.’

‘Silly question, why not move? You’ve got a perfectly good study upstairs.’

‘I know but…’

‘You’re stubborn.’

‘I want to know what it is.’

‘It’s going to be an associative response to some particular light stimulation by something in there.’ She leaned over and tapped his temple gently.

‘I’m imagining it you mean?’

‘No, that’s simplistic, but if it helps you deal with it…’

‘No it doesn’t actually.’

He got up and made the coffee. Instant. Good quality but not fresh ground. He actually preferred it but he knew Rhona could be a bit demanding of her coffee.

He brought the two cups back to the table and glowered at the computer.

‘Poor wee man.’ She said and stroked his cheek. ‘It will all be fine.’ She stood up and took her coffee away into the living room. ‘Get the tests run. It might be that capillary triggering it off with the angle of the light.’

He glared at her back and then at the doorway to the hall. Nothing.

If it were simple mechanics, why didn’t it happen every time he looked up from the laptop? No there was something else going on. But he didn’t think he was going mad. Not that he’d put it like that to Rhona. But he didn’t.

He typed solidly for fifteen minutes. No stops, no corrections, no in line editing, just writing. Almost stream of consciousness. There was a noise at the front door and his daughter’s voice carried down the hallway.

‘Hiya, only me!

He looked up and there it was again. He wasn’t surprised this time, he’d expected it. He did wonder if it was the time staring at the screen that did it. Fifteen minutes, often more when he was working well, flooded his eyes with light and then looking up must mean he wasn’t getting a full picture in the relative dark of the room. Maybe it was simply an adjustment of light. He didn’t take his eyes off the doorway and sure enough it was fading now, almost gone as his daughter walked in.

‘Hi Dad. You okay?’

‘Hello love, yes thanks. You?

‘Yeah you should hear what Mara did today in the kitchen.’ She rubbed her arms, ‘Why is it so cold in here?’ She walked over to the kettle and switched it on. ‘Coffee?’

He waved his cup in the air.

‘Got one thanks.’ The last of the image faded.

Holly raced through the tale of Mara and the platter of chicken wings and he made a note not to eat there again. She sat at the table and that was the end of work for the day. He shut the laptop and they talked. He hadn’t told her about his problem yet. Wasn’t sure what to tell her. Alex probably knew because although five years younger than Holly he was a listener and cunning. If you wanted to know what was going on in the house, Alex was the one to bribe.

After dinner Irvine went for a stroll down to the village. Thought about going into the pub and decided against, just in case word got back to Lennox. There were shadows and odd lights aplenty on the walk but nowhere did he see any figures appear and then fade. Walking along the lane at the back of the house, overgrown with trees hiding the streetlights he could see dark forms and pools of shadow he was able to make into anything he liked should he choose. But if he didn’t choose they stayed as amorphous lagoons of darkness. Whereas he couldn’t make the thing in the doorway into anything or anyone at will, but he couldn’t stop it looking like someone when he wasn’t trying.

Holly was out when he got back. Alex was in his room, probably playing some game on his console and Johnny was of course at Uni. Rhona was watching the news on television. An activity which showed her age, and his. He sat down with her on the sofa.

‘Okay?’

‘Uh huh. You?’

‘Apart from this idiot.’ They spent a happy five minutes dissecting the Health Secretary’s lack of ability. A pleasant way to bond again after the worries about his eyesight, brain tumour, mental health.

‘I’m not crazy you know.’ He said. Rhona looked at him.

‘No-one said you were. And we tend not use that diagnosis these days. Just saying.’

‘Political correctness gone mad.’

‘Showing your age. Nobody says that anymore either.’

‘Really? I do.’

‘I may have to resurrect that diagnosis.’

‘Cheek.’

‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘Ignore it probably for the moment. I’ve done everything I can. Seen the GP, waiting for test results. Seen the Optician. Been referred to the Opthalmology Department . Your lot won’t look at me until the physical defect lot have said not our problem. So not a lot else to do. Get an exorcist in I suppose if we can’t wait.’

‘I wondered if we’d get round to it.’

‘To what?’

‘The “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” scenario.’

‘I’m not planning on ringing the local Jesuit priest if that’s what’s worrying you.’

‘Doesn’t worry me, you’re the committed atheist.’

‘Yes, I am aren’t I? Is it my Mum and Dad you’re thinking of?’

‘I did think originally we’d be leaving them behind somewhere rather than have them with us all this time.’

‘They don’t take up much space do they?’

‘Hardly the point Irv.’

‘Suppose not.’

The conversation moved on to generalities. They streamed a film. Holly arrived home during it, telling them as they watched what was going to happen in the next scene after every one that was  on screen.  At the end Irvine thanked his daughter for the inline captioning otherwise he might have had to pay attention to the plot and the acting rather than listen to her. She flounced off out of the room.

Rhona congratulated him on his parenting skills and went after her daughter telling him she obviously wanted to talk. Irvine wondered why she hadn’t just said, “I’d like to talk Dad” in that case. Maybe no-one did that any more either. He turned the television off and went into the kitchen with his laptop, put the kettle on and opened the document he’d been working one earlier. Did it make any more sense now? Rhona shouted down she was off to bed. He spooned coffee into a large mug, although Rhona routinely advised him against caffeinated drinks so late. He poured the water into the mug and read through the last few hundred words he had written in that burst of creativity. Oddly coherent he thought.

Alex clumped down the stairs and burst into the room.

‘Dad. Don’t worry, it’s only me.’

‘Who else would it be?’

‘You’re joking right?’

‘About what? Irvine asked his teenage son as the boy opened the refrigerator with a crash and took out a chilled can of fizzy orange drink.

‘Not caffeinated. Mum says it’s okay.’ Alex waved the label at Irvine. ‘See?’

‘Not really, but that’s okay, I don’t need to if it’s okay with your Mum.’

Alex leaned against the central island and looked at his father and then at the door.

‘I know about your problem. You and Mum couldn’t keep a secret if you tried.’

‘Oh. Does Holly know?’

‘You are joking now right? Holly? Nice girl, not too involved with the rest of humanity?’

‘Harsh.’

‘You should hear what I say when I’m not being the caring sibling.’

‘You know I don’t think I should. Anyway, what problem?’

Alex rolled his eyes to the ceiling and took a long pull on the can of orange.

‘Well defended Dad. It would have been better if you’d opened with that rather than “Does Holly know?” don’t you think?’

Irvine conceded the point.

‘What do you think you know then?’ he asked.

‘About you seeing someone over there every time you look up from that old steam computer.’

‘My difference engine works perfectly thank you.’

‘You can joke all you like its ancient.’

‘It isn’t, and it works.’

‘Stop changing the subject.’

‘I’m not.’ He looked at his son and at the door. ‘Only a bit. How do you know?’

‘Apart from the doctor’s visits and optician and Mum clucking like an old hen trying not to say you’re crazy?’

‘That’s not a …’

‘…current diagnostic term. I know.’ Alex drained the can and put in on the work top. ‘Anyone else seen it?’

‘No.’

‘That’s not strictly true Dad.’

‘It’s not?’

‘No.’

‘You mean?’

‘Yeah. Me too.’

‘Are you all right?’

‘I don’t need an optician.’

‘No. I meant…’

‘Does she scare me?

‘She?’

‘Don’t you know who it is?’

‘Alex, all I see is a sort of shadow, not even that, something, and then it disappears.’

‘Makes sense. You don’t believe do you?’

‘In what?’

‘Anything. God, spirits, anything like that.’

‘No. There’s no way it could work.’

‘Well, that makes it hard for her to get you to see.’

‘Who?

Alex stared at his father.

‘You really don’t know?’

‘Do you think I’d be going through all this bloody medical palaver if I knew what I was seeing? Irvine said.

‘Okay. Don’t freak out Dad, but it’s Granny.’

‘Granny? You mean…’

‘Your mum, Granny Laidlaw.’

Irvine was stunned. He had expected Alex to have worked out there was something odd happening with him, Irvine. He hadn’t expected this.

‘Did your mother put you up to this? Is that what she did? All that going to bed early rubbish, feeding you this line to make me look daft. Is that it?’

‘Dad! Come on, be serious.’

Irvine took a deep breath.

I’m trying to be. Are you?’

‘Serious?’

‘Yes, all this ghost stuff, it’s not like you.’

‘It’s not like, you know’ Alex raised his hands in the air and waved them from side to side, ‘Wooooo! Type of thing. It’s just granny. It feels okay.’ 

‘How do you know it’s her?’

‘Dad, I remember what granny looked like.’

‘Have you told Mum?’

‘I’m not in the nut house am I? Course not.’

‘I don’t believe I’m asking this, but, do you know what she wants?’

‘It’s not like she actually says anything. But I think she just wants to get your attention.’ Alex shook his head, ‘It’s not words, it’s just a feeling. Wanting to move on or something.’ Alex walked over and kissed his Dad on the head, something he hadn’t done for years. ‘I’m okay. You should be too. Take a chance and believe eh? I’m pretty sure you’re safe. Night Dad.’ And with that he walked off.

Irvine sat staring at the doorway where Alex left the room. There was nothing. He didn’t feel any chills, no tingling of the spine. No fears or disturbances in the force. He got up and went upstairs.

Holly’s door was shut, Alex’s light was on and there was a low rumble of something on his computer. Rhona was asleep already. Irvine opened the loft and pulled down the ladder and ascended. He turned the light on and went to the cupboard at the back of the. It wasn’t a traditional lumber room or anything, if had flooring and carpeting but there was he admitted an inordinate amount of rainy day material in boxes that had never been opened since he’d put them up there. Must have a clearout.

On a shelf in the cupboard, in velvet drawstring bags were two urns containing his mother and father. What was left of them after the crematorium. He hadn’t known what to do with them after the funeral. He’d hoped for inspiration to let him know what to do with them. It never came. As Rhona had said, months turned into years. On reflection it was perhaps a little unusual. He looked at them and apologised. He probably hadn’t been ready to let go. He lifted them from the shelf and carried them downstairs. They were surprisingly heavy for ashes.

He put them on the mantlepiece in the dining room and said goodnight. He’d take them both out onto the hillside overlooking the loch tomorrow and scatter them where sea and mountain could claim them He went into the kitchen and made sure all the taps were off and the implements unplugged. He sat at the table in front of the laptop, saved his work and turned the computer off. He looked up at the doorway. Was there a figure? He couldn’t see anything. Nothing.

He’d get his blood test results and get his eyes checked in hospital and he knew they would both be okay. He had a warm peaceful feeling.

‘Clearout’ Origins and Variants

Clearout, initially called ‘Visions’, just started out of thin air, almost as a quick exercise to get my brain into writing mode. It then went quite a long way, grew legs and I liked the idea.

But it didn’t start out in the form it is in now. Or rather it started much as it does now, but it transitioned in style half way through from indirect narrative to direct speech and back and forth between. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it felt stylistically choppy and as if there should have been some plot point for the difference between the times I was using direct and indirect speech and there wasn’t really. It was simply a change of style, probably because I got up for a cup of coffee or to answer the door to the postman.

As well as my concern (easily remedied) about the direct/indirect style problems, I have my doubts about the ending, it feels a bit twee and cosy. I think there are good reasons for that but they don’t necessarily make a good story. Or perhaps the ending is okay but there is a lack of real jeopardy in the storyline.

I suspect that is because the basic idea, the odd visual effect is a real thing I have been experiencing and this story started not as an intended complete narrative but as an exercise that grew.

The sense of unease and vague unfinished business is of course made up and something I wanted to push it a little or there wouldn’t be a story at all. If I were doing it as a longer piece then the apparition or vision would be more worrying  and feel more threatening over a greater time.

Alex appears as something of a deus ex machina in solving the identity of the problem in one go and Irvine reacts after a bit of shock with admirable perspicacity and immediate action to solve the issue (we think). I would probably work on this much more over time to string out the jeopardy and the solution.

As it was I felt I would run with what I had.

I changed to all indirect speech and a slightly detached viewpoint and played around with bits of the middle which I didn’t save.

I will post the original changing style version later and then perhaps another version I did with all direct speech and some description.

I hope an exercise like this might be interesting in showing there are many ways of skinning a moggy and I may work this up into something more unnerving with a more tense denouement.

Maybe!

Thoughts on Perchance to Dream

I hope no-one thought the last post; ‘Perchance to Dream’ suggested any portents of doom chez Farrish. It didn’t (no more than usual anyway!). It came from an idea that popped into my head years ago when I had walked my son to school and was returning home to start work. He’s sixteen now so that must be at least five or six years ago. [I just checked the properties of the original file that contains the notes I made when I got home – I was a bit out in my guess – it was June 2013!] Here are the first lines of the note I made as sipped my cup of tea in front of the computer as I started my day’s work:

narrative of a life (short, but engaging) coming to a crisis – medical? Possible heart attack? Arrhythmia? Brief overview of how he got there – past work and personal relationships, marriage divorce, successes triumphs, failures. Building seemingly inexorably to this moment when life may be ending

Narrator wakes in hospital.

After that the notes develop into more complex versions of the narrative, none of which precisely mirror what came out in this short version. Initially as you can see it didn’t start with an awakening. There was a longer story of a life which suddenly experiences a traumatic event and unconsciousness from which the protagonist awakes and resets. It was a simple idea, and hardly original. It’s almost a Bobby Ewing moment (one of the stars of the eighties TV series Dallas left and his character killed off in an episode which drove the story arc for 31 episodes. And then the actor returned and the preceding 31 episodes were written off as a dream!].

One of the development ideas in my notes was that the protagonist realises he is younger than the previous narrative leading up to the emergency suggested he was. Is this a dream, a portent of what might happen if he doesn’t take another path? Does he have the choice still to make? What if he does something different? Can he remember the choice he made that led to the situation he was in when he became unconscious? Was it so bad and the alternatives so clearly better that he wants to change anyway? A sort of ‘Sliding Doors’ moment with an active choice.

I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from. It may have been from the first time I suffered a bout of Atrial Fibrillation (AF), I see that AF, or more precisely arrhythmia, is mentioned as a possible trigger. Not that I lost consciousness or anything but it’s creative fiction right, not journalism. I didn’t realise my first AF had happened so long ago – but there it is, time stamped and unaltered.

I wonder if life looked a little bleak at that moment and I was thinking what might have happened had I made other choices. I don’t remember wanting to change anything much, and I’ve always found it a pointless exercise in reality. You can’t go back and change anything. You might not like where you are but you start where you are each day. The only changes you can effect start here and now. But as an intellectual exercise I have looked back. I would need to be a very unreflective person not to. My life has hardly been a straight line in career or personal development terms. One divorce, three or four careers, depending how you cut them up, lots of small jobs in between, remarried, three kids (one deceased) Moved house seventeen (?) times – lived where I am now for fifteen years, longest I’ve ever been in one place. Hard not to think what if I’d made different snap decisions over the years to the changes I’ve made at different times. So maybe that was the only origin of it: idle curiosity. Wondering what it would be like if what I was doing right then, walking home from that junior school, looking forward to a cup of tea and writing, turned out to be a moveable feast? If I woke up thirty years prior to that day and made a different choice? And how do you know it would turn out differently, or better?

I didn’t do anything with the idea. Probably because, as I said, the whole thing seems a bit nugatory to me. It can’t happen and although in creative fiction anything can happen, I probably didn’t feel invested in it enough compared with what I was doing at the time.

So why come back to it? And why write such a small thing when obviously it had legs to be bigger? The simple answer is that I came across the note in a list of ‘ideas’ I sometimes keep (not very assiduously) and decided it sounded interesting enough to play around with. The deeper answer to why I was looking, and why I picked this idea over any other frankly escapes me. I was just trawling for ideas.

This short version has turned slightly circular, which I don’t think I had in the original notes. As well as the ‘portent’ moment idea outlined above I had a version which started with waking from a near death experience, or at least the protagonist believing he was waking from one, living quite a long life after that and then waking from that to return to the first dream not in a circular situation but in a point in a narrative where it was no longer clear what was a dream and what was reality. I think this may well have been tied into some reading I was doing about the possibility of a multiverse of infinite possible existences. I still found the idea ‘cute’ and wanted to write something based on it but a quick version appealed rather than a long crafted piece as I wanted the pat on the back feeling of completing something. I have lots of ideas and stories in process but I wanted to progress something to an ‘end’ state simply for the mental hit of ‘completion’.

Having done that and kicked the concept around a bit, I have more desire to work on a longer version of the warning from the future idea. I’m glad I wrote this version as it helped crystallise some storylines for me. It feels a little derivative as it is perhaps, but it jump started my desire to write something based on it, reminded me to look at my ‘ideas’ folder more (and add to it. Note to self!).

And on the plus side, you didn’t have to watch 31 episodes of prime time 1980s TV which turned out to be completely irrelevant!

Perchance to Dream

I was in my bed. I glanced around the room. I was in my bedroom too. The absurdity of why the bed would be in someone else’s room didn’t occur to me immediately. I checked first, thought afterwards.

The dream, it had to have been a dream, seemed so vivid. In those few waking moments, more vivid than my bed and the reality of my room. I sat up and leaned over to twitch the curtain aside. The usual sliver of sky and hillside greeted me. Why wouldn’t it? Nobody had the means or the interest in building a replica of my room somewhere else did they?

I shook my head and got up.

Shower and shave, dressing, all went prosaically enough which seemed odd in itself for some reason, as if nothing should be quite that normal, that ordinary after what had happened. I walked, quite easily down the stairs, no lurching, no hangover, no signs of debility, and went into the kitchen. I hadn’t been drinking last night, hadn’t had a drink for over a week, not that I was counting thanks, so why was I surprised about not having a hangover?

The radio didn’t seem bothered about the day. The usual collection of misery gleaned from around the world blathered out of the speaker. Radio. I still had a radio. How old was I? People didn’t have radios anymore did they? News was on the phone, on social media, on the computer, at a pinch on the television but radio? Come on!

I turned it off. The sound died but the machine was still there, plugged into the wall. It even had an aerial.

I made toast and a black coffee. I always drank tea didn’t I? White no sugar? Non-NATO standard. A nightmare when drinking from a metal cup dipped in a Norge container of NATO standard white two sugars on an industrial or at least military scale.

Why would I do that? I wasn’t in the army. Or any other armed service. Why would I think about dipping a metal cup into a big green bucket of tea so sweet you could feel the dental cavities forming as you drank?

I looked at the clock on the wall, half past seven. I drained the cup.

I had to go.

I tried to remember the dream as I locked the front door behind me. It had been so vivid, so real, so alarming that it had woken me from my sleep, my much needed sleep and caused me to doubt where I was and who I was and my radio for some reason and yet I had forgotten it. In the manner of dreams the feeling of unease was still there but not a single detail of what had so engaged me remained accessible.

I pinged the car open with the electronic tag and got in. I turned the radio on. It was eight o’clock. I’d better get a move on. Someone had left it on a music station. I like music. Did I? When had I last put a record on? A record? I switched to the news station and put my seatbelt on. As I drove out of the driveway the announcer mentioned what I was listening for. Russia.

I’d told everyone who would listen, and a lot more who wouldn’t, not to ignore Russia. That had been what? Twenty five years ago? When Francis Fukuyama’s end of history had been all the rage. Even he knew it was a mistake now.

 Russia, our potential great ally again, no ideological differences to spike the deal, had been turned into a threat again apparently. Jesus what a mess. I went right at the roundabout. Five past eight. I should have left earlier. They’d have to wait for me. How many Russia experts did they have these days?

Putin. He’d been a KGB major in East Germany when I’d been over the wall in West Germany. Same rank. Not the same organisation of course. Alex Younger said there was no moral equivalence between us and he should know. I laughed out loud at that thought. The woman in the Audi next to me, turning right at the junction looked askance at anyone being so happy in the morning. Why was I happy? Was I happy? Where was I actually going?

I hadn’t looked at Russia professionally since about 1993. What the hell was I going to say? I crept up to the stop line, braked and changed into neutral. The junction was always difficult, even turning left at this time of day. No need to rush. Ten past eight, maybe a little rush to be there for nine. I looked right, past the Audi, all clear , first, clutch to biting point, up off the brake and away we went. Nine? Why nine?

Something in the dream, something about time and driving? What about tea and Norges? The man was saying there was going to be a war. Not us though. Someone else and Russia. Why hadn’t someone told me? I’d been the desk analyst for it after all? I could have told me if I’d still been on the desk I left in ’93 Or had it been ’89. What happened in those four years.

I was at the top of the hill now. It was 100 yards to the big roundabout and then 400 yards to the motorway junction. I’d need to step on it to make the meeting.  Twenty past eight. I must have been on autopilot. I didn’t remember driving from the village into town. Had I got enough petrol? I always filled up the night before if it was getting low. I looked at the gauge. Yes, I’d be fine. Full tank. I must be doing something right. Maybe Claire had filled it?

A moment of panic struck me. Where was Claire? She hadn’t been in bed with me! She hadn’t been in the house! And I was in the car so she couldn’t be at work. And the kids! I’d gone without telling them I was leaving!

Wait a minute. I did have kids didn’t I? And a wife. Claire yes. But where was she? And why was I in her car if… I arrived at the roundabout, checked the right, put my right signal on and coasted through into the traffic. Lucky to get a space immediately, one exit, two exits, check the mirror, left signal, clear, pull over and past that minor exit and down the dual carriageway to the motorway. No problem.

Where was I? Dream. Something familiar all of a sudden. Claire? Kids? They were at Uni of course, no need to worry about them. Actually no need to worry about Claire. This was my car of course. She must be at work. Mustn’t she? Why was I on my way to work, I’d retired hadn’t I? Some time ago from that job. I’d just go right round the motorway interchange and go home. Maybe pick up breakfast at the garage. I’d had breakfast though hadn’t I? It was all getting a bit confusing. Better concentrate on the interchange, everybody was mad there.

The lights hurt my eyes and there was a crushing pain somewhere. There were people pulling and pushing at me and people muttering to each other. There was a lot of sudden activity.

‘He’s breathing.’

‘Got that line in?’

‘Yes. In now.’

‘Heart beat’s too fast, thready.’

 Was that a Russian accent? No Polish.

‘Okay, induced coma then?’

‘Yes, go for it.’

I was in my bed. I looked round the room. I was in my bedroom too.

WESTLEY WRITERS Chapter 5

If you thought eight months was a long walk for Straker this coffee has been cooling for thirty! Our writers are ready for their inaugural meeting, probably, but they aren’t actually a group yet and someone else is in the library.

If you want to catch up on how Westley Writers got here, they have their own section here: https://gfarrish.wordpress.com/writing/westley-writers/

PEACE IN OUR TIME

June blew a short shrill blast and brought the meeting to order.

‘Bloody hell June!’ Ashby said wiggling his finger in his ear. ‘Can we go back to the bell?

‘No. Nobody’s going to end up in A&E if I lose control of this.’

‘Might end up in audiology. I’ll be deaf as a post if you keep blowing that in my ear.’

‘Pardon?’ Bill asked

‘I said…’ Ashby tailed off as he caught the twinkle in Parker’s eye. ‘Very funny, Bill. Maybe I’ll go and get that bell myself and give you another bash with it.’

‘Now you two, behave! Veronica snapped.

The two men raised their eyebrows at each other.

‘Yes ma’am.’ Ashby said.

‘Well, I’m sorry but violence isn’t a joke and I don’t think I’ve recovered from the EGM yet. I still can’t believe we’ve split from the readers section. ‘

‘No, you’re right Veronica. We’re all sorry it happened. John and Bill were just playing but we should remember how close it came to being very serious for Bill.’ June blushed a little at the memory of what she’d done to Parker at the EGM and pulled her papers closer to her before continuing. ‘Now we’ve got to decide a few important things today. Like what we’re called, what our purpose is and how often we will meet. And of course elect officers. Diane, you were secretary, any thoughts?

‘I’d be happy to carry on as Secretary of the writers. Or did you mean about what we should be called?’

‘Both I think.’ June said.

‘Are we quorate?’ Veronica asked.

‘I’m not sure we can be Veronica. Technically we don’t actually exist yet.’ Straker pointed out.

‘Okay’. June said heaving a sigh. ‘Do we want to form a writers group? Raise your hand if you do.’

Seven hands went up in various states of embarrassment.

‘Good. Now what are the purposes?’

‘Of a writers group?’ Ashby asked. ‘Do we really need to state that?’

‘Do we want to read each others’ work? Do we want to hear it read? Are we supporting the members writing only, or writing in the area more generally? Do we want to publish our work? Anthologies? Is it creative or all genres? Are we…’ Stephanie was on a roll.

‘All right, all right. Point taken.’ Ashby conceded.

‘Writing in the Westley area’. Diane said firmly, writing it down. Whether she was secretary or not she wanted a record of things. ‘That gives us wiggle room to stretch to Ravenbury if needed.’

‘Fair enough.’

‘To encourage writers in the Westley area develop their talents and skills by providing a forum for discussion, reading and performance of their work and offering written and verbal feedback as required.’ Parker suddenly intoned.

‘Bloody hell Bill, that were a bit good.’ said Ashby who gave Parker a small round of applause.

‘That way we keep the council on board and make it easier for the library to host us.’ Parker said, winking extravagantly at anyone unfortunate enough to catch his eye.

‘Maybe add something in about helping publication within our means and as appropriate? Straker offered. ‘I know quite a few people were keen on the anthology we did, and that way we don’t have to squeeze the meaning of the word ‘performance’ too hard to accommodate another volume if anyone wants to go down that road.’

‘Could you repeat that?’ Diane asked. ‘From “…by providing…”‘

 There followed a few minutes intense cross talking while everyone offered their version of Parker’s mission statement  with or without amendments. June decided to try and bring the meeting to some sort of order without using the whistle but despite her best efforts no-one seemed inclined to cease putting their point forward. The shrill blast had Ashby wiggling his little finger in his ear again and everyone else silent.

‘What was that for?’ Veronica Goodman asked.

‘Nobody could tell what anyone was saying. It was all talk and no listening. It was just too loud.’

The door opened and a librarian’s head appeared in the opening.

‘Is everything all right?’

‘Er, yes, thanks. I’m sorry about the noise.’ June said

The librarian blinked and stared pointedly at the whistle in June’s hand.

‘Perhaps a gavel may be less piercing. There are people concentrating out here.’ She said and shut the door, gently, before anyone could reply.

‘Maybe I’d better find a gavel or something less carrying.’ June said, red faced from the admonishment of the librarian.

‘There’s never anyone in there reading anyhow.’ Ashby said.

‘There are people using the computers though.’ Straker observed. ‘Not that I’m criticising, June.’ He added hurriedly.

‘Should buy their own bloody computers.’ Ashby said. ‘Feckless lot.’

The conversation turned to the price of computers and how everything now was done through them from banking to benefit claims and buying groceries. Straker snatched a glance at Stephanie and raised his eyebrows. She smirked back. The implicit bet was on how long before someone said ‘When I was young’ or some equivalent. Straker harboured a view that hardly anyone every really said this. Stephanie had a more jaundiced, or as she called it, realistic, view of her fellow writers.

‘Well I was trying to get a TV aerial fixed the other day and could I find a phone number with a human being on the other end?’ Parker was saying.

‘You can’t get anyone on the phone now, it’s all automated systems and if you do get through it’s a call centre with people whose accents you can’t understand.’

‘Indian you mean?’ offered Ashby.

‘Northern Irish. I can make out the Indian fellers now after all that business with the garage roof but I can’t tell half of what the Ulster one’s say.’ Diane said.

‘Course it was different in my day.’ said Ashby. You could ring a local office and have the thing sorted in minutes.

Stephanie smiled and Straker hung his head. His faith in human nature his downfall again.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Ashby said.

‘Nothing John. Just the vicissitudes of fate.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ Ashby said, ‘never mind the vicissitudes of fate. Who is in there “concentrating”?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean the library’s normally closing as we start. That’s why you said you’d be all right with that thing.’ Ashby jabbed his finger in the direction of the whistle.

‘You’re right John. I wonder what’s going on.’

Straker rose from his seat and walked out of the room.

‘Where’s he going?’ Ashby asked.

‘Going to see what’s happening.’ Stephanie said. ‘You know what he’s like.’

‘Nosy bugger you mean?’

‘I was thinking more proactive, but it often amounts to the same thing I suppose.’

‘Oh I do hope he doesn’t upset anyone!’

‘When does Jules upset people June?’

‘I can think of one or two he can wind up when he’s in the mood.’ Ashby said looking at Stephanie.

‘Different kettle of fish John. As you well know.’

‘Well we’ll soon find out, here he is now.’ Ashby said as he saw Straker approaching through the glass panel in the door.

‘Who’s in there?’ Veronica asked before Straker was in the room. A smile flickered across Straker’s face as he shut the door behind him.

‘Our former selves. Well, our alter egos.’

‘Meaning?’ June asked.

‘Well bugger me! The readers section isn’t it?’ Ashby guffawed. ‘They’re stalking us.’

‘What are they doing?’ Stephanie asked as Julian sat down at the table.

‘Without meaning to sound sarcastic, reading.’ Straker paused ‘I suppose it should be “Reading Group” shouldn’t it? As they’re an entity in their own right now.’

‘In the library?’

‘Yes, June, in the children’s section.’

‘We should do that.’ Veronica said.

‘Move to the children’s section?’

‘On alternate weeks, yes. That’s what they’ve done isn’t it?’

‘We could ask the librarian I suppose.’ June said.

‘Was Lilian Dobson there?’

‘I believe she was John. Being rather forceful about cancel culture and an author’s right to say what they mean.’

‘Bit of a cheek considering how she moaned when I put her in a story.’

‘I suspect that is a different issue than the one she has with publishers John. Why did you want to know?’

‘I was thinking we could ask about the money. As they’re using the library, I presume for free, it would be a good time to sort out getting our share of the balance. They don’t need to hang on to more than their share do they?’

June looked around the table for support.

‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea in the middle of their session is it?’

There was a muttering, the meaning of which was hard to determine

‘Middle of ours too!’ Ashby said ‘It’s not the money it’s the principle of the thing.’

‘No John, with you it’s the money.’ Straker sighed and walked out of the room again.

‘We’ll end up in a fight again. I can feel it.’ Veronica twittered nervously.

‘No, he’ll sort it out. He’s not belligerent.’ Stephanie said. Bill Parker raised an eyebrow.

‘Remember him playing rugby?’

‘That’s different.’

‘Dunno, I can see Lilian as a prop forward myself.’

‘Uncalled for John’ June said trying to hide a smile. ‘Although I take your point.’

The door opened again and Straker walked back in followed by Lilian Dobson. Tight smiles flashed across faces.

‘Lilian.’

‘June. Everyone. All well I trust?’

‘Yes thank you Lilian.’ June said

‘Very kind of you to send your best wishes to us. Nice to know there’s no hard feelings. I don’t want to disturb you now, I know how much some of you put into your work. If you want to see me after in the library I’ll sort out a cheque for you. See you later.’  And with that she left.

‘Bloody hell, what did you do?’ Ashby said.

‘You hypnotised her didn’t you?’ Parker said. ‘I’ve read about it, the power of suggestion. Your lot are trained to do it aren’t you?’

‘My lot?’

‘You know, who you worked for.’

‘I was a civil servant Bill. I was trained to write reports and make tea. Not hypnotise stray women,’ he glanced at Stephanie, ‘unfortunately.’

‘One problem.’ Stephanie said, a sweet smile on her lips, ‘who does she make the cheque payable to? We haven’t decided on a name yet, never mind opened a bank account.’

Everyone clucked at the oversight.

‘Perhaps I was a little premature in my subterfuge.’ Straker admitted, but I think we can trust June or Diane to accept the money on our behalf and pay it in as and when we open an account.’

‘And you think Lilian Dobson is going to go along with that do you? Ashby offered.

Well, we’ll have to see won’t we John.’ Straker looked at his watch. ‘If we hurry we can appoint a treasurer so they can take the cheque as an official. Then maybe we can read some of our writing this week. I believe Steph has been busy.’

No Bleeding Please, I’m not Hemingway.

I love quotations. Especially those pithy encapsulations of a point someone else wants to make. They know they need help and an argument from authority seems like a great idea to make you put aside those doubts you have that their thesis is essentially utter tosh. If Lincoln, Voltaire or Hemingway said it who am I to argue?

I was looking at online advice to help readers engage with blog writing. You know in the vague hope that I could discover an untrod path of the internet which held the Holy Grail of making people so enjoy your blog, no, my blog that they cannot resist coming back for more and telling all their friends, hell the world, to do the same. Unlikely I know, but wandering without algorithms telling you where to dig has a value all its own. The internet is too zoned and laned into keeping you in fixed areas now, and all because you once clicked on a couple of sites about piano tuning the ads, suggested sites and social media feeds all revolve around b****y pianos. A rant for another day perhaps. So I am pretty sure I didn’t find the answer to unlimited readers but I did come across a few helpful thoughts. Mostly however I found the combination of ads for courses that promise maximal seo (surely a bit dated?) and ‘how to write like …’ enter bestseller du jour, and the usual motivational rubbish presented in such a nauseating way that I want to rip my eyes out rather than follow the advice however good. So when I came across the advice to use motivational quotations, with examples, a smile lit up my face. I knew I could at least raise my spirits with checking a few of these.

The one I really liked and almost wish were true (spoiler alert I suppose I should have said there) was one attributed to Ernest Hemingway.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

That sounds suitably Hemingway, macho in the face of adversity and a sly mocking tone. And yet it’s not is it?  This is a man who, say what you like about how his writing represents an outmoded model of maleness and what we expect a man to be, took part in war, was wounded, liked to shoot and hunt, was a keen fan of the bullfight and obsessed with the proximity of death and turned out a few good stories as well. So cool turn of phrase perhaps, but it does make him sound like a bit of a wuss.

I suppose you can interpret it in various ways which may reduce the negative effect. It’s obviously (?) not literal, if you bleed when you write I’d call a doctor. Metaphorically I suppose reliving the emotional hell of some experiences may make it feel like bleeding emotions out onto the page but…

It turns out my convoluted interpretations are unnecessary, I needn’t have worried. He didn’t say it. Or at least if he did he didn’t bother committing it to any page and neither did anyone else attribute it to him during his lifetime. Its origin probably predates Hemingway and several other writers have had this phrase or near relatives of it laid at their door for over a hundred years. More recent attributions include American sports journalist Red Smith and writer Paul Gallico. Hemingway knew Smith and admired his writing but there is no evidence of any cross pollination of this phrase from the one to the other.

For a much fuller pursuit of this ‘motivational’ quote see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/

 and https://www.hemingwaysociety.org/quotation-controversy-writing-and-bleeding

 I’ll have to think of some other way of getting views than sitting here bleeding, which frankly is a relief. Now where’s that matador cape?