I've challenged myself to produce a new short story or vignette, or even a piece of fictionalized memoir at the rate of 3 per week, until I have 100.
The only rule I have made for myself is that each piece should be written as a draft - no revising for two weeks afterwards, no agonizing, no perfectionism. I also rarely allow myself to work for more than about 45 minutes on a piece. Rough and ready is the aim.
If you'd like to try this yourself, at home, give it a whirl. What you may discover (and I think you will discover it, too) is that you have far more stories at your fingertips than you've ever thought possible.
And now, to work. Wish me luck!
38. Fame and Fortune
"Do you want to hear it or not?"
"It's not an 'ummm' idea. It'll make us rich. Netflix will buy it, we can do it all on our iPhones."
"What's it going to be called?"
"Pets in Peril, or perilous pets, something like that."
"And how does it work again. Remind me."
"You really haven't been listening have you?"
"Remind me anyway."
"Right; this middle aged couple - that's us - decide they want a pet, but they can't agree on what. So there's tension right from the start. So first they go to check out dogs; nice scenes of them with puppies or shelter dogs. Then they try cats. That's due the second episode, where they talk about cat allergies and damage to furniture and that. Then they start to think big, and decide they might want a rescue donkey. Or a pot-bellied pig. And then they think they might want an iguana or a crocodile, even. And then they get turned on and travel the world looking for rescue animals - a koala would be a big hit - and discuss what the advantages are of having one and what the demands are, and whether you can rescue something like a.. a giant sloth... or whatever. And if you have to get just one or is it more humane to get a pair..."
"Do sloths even come in pairs?"
"Of course they do."
"They might not. If you took a shine to a Bonobo you might have to adopt the whole tribe, or troup. You never know."
"Now you're just making it seem too difficult."
"And what's the audience pull here? Is it to see what pet we finally get?"
"No. No, that's just the envelope, so to speak. They get to see how we argue and then try and work things out. It's about tension and drama when we're in foreign places away from our comfort zone. Plus people learn things about the challenges of certain pets. They'll wonder if we'll ever get the right pet, or if we'll have to divorce because I like a ring-tailed lemur and you really want a tarantula..."
"That's what I want. A goldfish. That's my final answer."
37. Something Different
Am I cheating if I write a list? Is that allowed? I just wrote one and put it up as another page: "Ten Books that Changed My Life". Yes, I think I'll allow it.
You see, when I made the list I also gave reasons for why each item made the top ten, and that in itself was a bit of a revelation. I thought my list would include all of Shakespeare (after all, I'd taught his plays for about 30 years) and most of Wordsworth, plus some Joseph Conrad. Conrad was my doctoral thesis writer, after all. None of these made the list.
What I included were books that had somehow not just astonished and delighted me, but that had asked me to think differently about everything I knew. And I firmly believe that these books came along and nudged me, asking me to take them seriously, and then they became part of me that I can never remove - even if I wanted to.
We are made of many things. And that includes books.
36. Advice to a Young Writer
"Writing is like stand-up comedy. It's all about...."
"Yes. Exactly. I'll tell you a story about that. I wrote this thriller, and it was all about a guy who's being harassed by a woman and gets fifty phone calls a day. And I worked at it and tried to get it right and by the time I'd got it finished phones had changed. Everyone had a cell and anyone could block a caller and stuff like that. My book was no longer of its time, and it wasn't set in a classic time period - WW2 or whatever - so it lost half its power. Four years of writing. Who knew things would change so fast?
"Then I started writing a book about a small island in the med and its fight with an oil refinery. It was all ahead of its time and had themes of pollution, ecology, politics, oil dependence and foreign exploitation of local facilities. I had fun with that one. But then all this stuff became mainstream, and suddenly what I had to say was all old news. No surprises for the reader. Another couple of years' work rendered useless, even though my work was better than most of the stuff out there.
"The next project was a non-fiction, about a prisoner who'd been wrongly incarcerated. Lots of visits to the local High Security jail. Lots of leg work. Lots of checking facts. By the time we'd worked on a tie-in with the movie deal, which fell through, he'd managed to get himself out on parole. That let the air out of my tires. Although I was happy for him. Don't get me wrong.
"Then I tried something different, writing about powerful women. Oprah was one, and J. K. Rowling. And that moved along beautifully. But I was working with a guy who had an exclusivity deal with another project and he couldn't get permission to release this one. He had a big name, bigger than mine, so this was important. By the time we got free Oprah was basically over, and J. K. Rowling was a bit past her front-page-news time. No one needed our book."
"So what should I do?"
"Just write anyway. But always be aware that if you take too long with what Providence sends you it'll take it away."
35. And There We Went
It was a dare. Of course it was a dare. Jesus Christ you wouldn't do something like that if it wasn't a dare! Plus it was for charity. I didn't have to pay. And it made money for a CHARITY, you know, one of those good causes that needed MONEY. This one being the center for the unemployed teens. So they'd have somewhere to go that wasn't on a street corner. So they wouldn't wind up sniffing glue, or breaking into houses, or whatever. Definitely a good cause.
Anyhow, it was a bit different to what I'd expected. When they give you the training they just have you sit on the edge of this platform and then you jump and you're opposed to make a star with your limbs, you know, all spread-eagled out, and land on the mat. But it's different when you're up there. I mean, for one thing there's the wind doing 60 mph around you, so it's hard to sit straight in the opening where the door was. And all that wind is noisy, even though the engine's been throttled back. Plus, you're wearing a parachute, which feels weird with all those straps tight around you.
Then they slap you on the back and you're out. It's a bit scary right then.
Then the cute opens and suddenly its very quiet and very lonely, and you wonder if the straps are actually going to hold you so you wind your fingers around the two upper straps and hope that you can hold on if it all breaks loose.
And then you're down. Which probably jars your teeth.
So you're all alone in this big field, and it's very quiet, and you have to pick up the chute because you don't want it to get muddy, and carry it back about a mile to the hangars and sheds. Except Marina doesn't do that because she broke her leg, and she's miles away, so I had to get her up and we hobbled back together.
Then, after she's sorted out, they show you to a long table so you can re-pack your chute, and they say, right, you're up again in ten minutes.
And this time you know what's coming, and you feel sick.
34. So Many Things
It was, he discovered, useful to carry around a small book. He'd had one that would suit the need, one that had been given to him as a Christmas gift, or perhaps for a birthday, that he'd shoved to the back of a drawer and ignored for a couple of years. Taking it out one day he noted the small loop of elastic for a pencil, and the feature of a closable cover, with some sort of magnet that kept the pages from getting dogeared.
It was easy to feel organized with such a book. He could jot down things to do, things he needed to buy, phone numbers and the things he'd researched on the web. Did he need a new seal fro the washing machine? Yes, and here was the part number ready to plug into eBay. No more lost pieces of scrap paper.
He felt good drawing it from his jacket pocket when he was in the hardware store, consulting the lists or the numbers, choosing the right thing instead of making a guess. He felt practical and - yes - competent.
He found that it helped him be far more efficient about the normal day-to-day of running a house, too, and felt proud, no, smug, actually rather smug about it. Things got done. He was busy and useful.
Until the book went missing.
After he lost it he would look in all sorts of unlikely places, just in case it had slipped away. He knew it had all the details he'd researched that would be so useful one day. About the snowblower, for instance, including the model and serial number and all the part numbers of the bits that were likely to go wrong. Important stuff, and Youtube had always been immensely helpful. All those notes about how to replace the heating element in the dishwasher: gone.
When he gave up on finding the book he breathed a sigh of relief. Thinking about this, taking a moment to be still, allowed him to notice some things. First of all, he wasn't going to worry about it anymore, where it might have gone. He wasn't going to replace it, either. For he'd noticed that having the book, with all its lists and to-do reminders, meant that he had to do the things on the list. He felt he did, at least. In actuality there was no need to do half of it. Perhaps most of it. He had more ideas about what he could do than he had time to deal with. Did the basement need a sink? No. Would it be nice to have one? Yes. But it would be stupid to spend five days or more working out how to install something that he'd use perhaps once every few months, wouldn't it?
Freedom was not about avoiding doing things, he decided. It was about not allowing his thoughts to take over, insisting he should do things just because it was theoretically possible.
It wasn't so much that he needed the things, it was that he gained satisfaction from repairing them. Not that he was much good at it, as he'd admit freely to anyone who would listen, and who had the time to listen these days? But he had to try, he felt, or the order of the universe would be offended. And so the old free-on-craigslist or left-beside-the-trashcans-on-Thursdays bicycles stood stacked against each other, each waiting its turn to be lubricated, wiped, adjusted, have wheels replaced, punctures mended, rust removed. Sometimes, if he really liked one, he'd repaint it, too, although paint wasn't really his speciality. Those rattle cans tended to leave sagging jowls of extra paint in odd corners, even when he took it all outside, hung it from the big branch on the hawthorn tree, and sprayed gently, a small area at a time, walking around it with a handkerchief over his face.
Often he'd give them away after he'd fixed them. Sometimes he could even sell them for small sums.
In the basement, wiping his hands on his overalls, he knew exactly what he was doing. And why. Surely it was shameful to waste things. And yes, he wanted to help save the planet. Although he had a sense that what he was doing was more than this, for he recognized that unless he had what he called 'an old man job', something that would go on and on, then he'd stop doing very much at all, wither and fade away. He was giving himself a reason to keep on living.
It wasn't much; but it didn't need to be.
32. Author Letter
Dear Mr. Gray,
I was going to write a review of your work for Amazon but I thought I'd like to write to you first, since no one, I'm sure, likes a review that comes from nowhere, at it were, and I owe it to you to deliver my verdict face-to-face, as if that were possible.
I started reading your novel 1982 Justine and quickly found myself puzzled and even somewhat repelled. Since it consists of the erotic imaginings of a drunk man alone in his hotel room it seemed to me unnecessarily close to pornography, without actually becoming pornography. But then, the book's cover blurb, written by you, states boldly that this would be just such a book, one that would seem excessive and in poor taste. I have to paraphrase here because I sent the book back to the library in a fit of annoyance and so I cannot quote.
The book came supplied with short extracts on the first few inside pages from several, actually many, reputable journals and reviewers, some of whose names I recognized. All said that this was a major piece of literature, even if challenging. That is why I read, and persisted so long in reading this book, a book that ultimately I found to be reaching into some murky areas. It is not often that I feel I have to disguise from my wife what I'm reading, in case she misunderstands, but I did feel that way with this book.
As I read I began to feel that your purpose in this work was to imitate titillating cheap novels, not in order to deconstruct them in some way but in order to mock your readers. Yet I found it hard to validate this feeling. Was that, in fact, your aim? Perhaps you will not write and tell me, but it is question I long to have answered.
And so I took the book back to the library, relieved to have it out of my hands, released from the requirement of having to read it to the end. And yet I must tell you; since reading it I have had the most astonishing and re-vivifying dreams. I had not dreamed for ten years or more (at least, not that I can remember) before this. Now I have nightly adventures of a most absorbing kind, though not sexual, on the whole. As a direct result my days seem somehow more vital. Whatever it is you have done - for I feel it is your doing - I find your alchemical wizardry utterly astonishing.
I have, today, reordered the book from the library.
I realize, of course, Mr. Gray, that you died last week. I saw it in the paper. So now you'll never see these words. But I had to write them.
The heaps of toys that represented only part of Christmas Past lay up against the kitchen door, stopping Jim from opening it to get to the bins. Just as well, he thought, or I'd have thrown them all out by now. He made tea and began to think about what he could do with them. This was back a few years, you understand. So he thought he'd set up a market of sorts, where kids could trade in toys for other toys. The question was, how to do it?
Obviously he needed an app.
It took some time but he set up a website that was all based on pictures and spoken word - because kids don't always read well up to about seven, he reckoned. It even had instructions, visually, about which buttons to press on your parent's phone. He had his six year old do those instructions, so it would all be at the child level he wanted. It was so good he boasted 'Even a child can use it.' He was right about that.
The main problem was how to get the toys from where they were to where they needed to be. At first he used the phones to his advantage because they all had map apps, so that meant he could find out where they address of the kid was, even if the kid didn't know it. So now, kids could go to the site, find a toy, ask for it, and trade in a toy. He'd send a box to the kid, with the toy, and ask the kid of send it back with the trade toy. But kids would forget to do that, because, well, they were kids. That meant he had to ask for the trade in to be sent first. That didn't always work, because kids couldn't necessarily get to the post office.
At this point, you understand, Jim was more interested in what could be done than whether or not it was a good idea or even worth the effort.
It was time to get the parents involved. Get the kid interested, send them a pre-paid box, get the trade toy, send one back.
It worked fantastically well. Parents didn't seem to mind their kids taking over the phone, and they were happy to do the mailing, especially as it was free. They just had to drop it off. But Jim was now out of pocket.
Until he discovered ads. Obviously they couldn't be for anything except toys, and advertisers were happy to pay.
Jim got rich.
But he got bored.
So he sold the concern when it reached 2000 kids on his list. The new owner now has 200,000 contacts, and growing. The toys are housed in a huge shed, and he employs 7 staff and five cleaners (to clean the toys).
Jim still deals with toys. Several times a year, in summer, he takes the toys his kids have outgrown and holds a yard sale. Usually he gives everything away, but he still likes to call it a sale. But he gets to talk to the kids, help them choose, and feels he's part of a community.
30. High Windows
Basements had their advantages, of course. For one thing you were below ground and so the various noises that the city produced tended to be flattened, even extinguished. Dan found that to be true of the fire trucks, especially. When he'd been on the seventh floor of the rooming house those sirens had been a constant part of his uneasy night time attempts to get something close to rest. Now he found them screened out by the earth and by the parked cars in the alley.
There was even the advantage of the garden, that tiny patch of growing that somehow struggled to life each year just beyond the bedroom window. That is to say, the window he looked out of when he lay in bed, because the other windows gave on to brick walls and garbage cans. He didn't get much light down here, though, which was fine because he came home mostly to watch tv and sleep.
At night the streetlamp from the alley shone in, and if he opened his blinds Dan could see the silhouette of a single daffodil projected on his wall. It was comforting, here in the city. He'd look at it each evening before he shut the blind and went to sleep.
He'd been doing this for a while when the notion took him to see the actual flower. From his window he couldn't make it out, but he wasn't about to give up. This involved getting access to the garden, which meant asking the landlady for the key to the back door, and she, being cagey and Chinese always pretended not to understand what he meant. So Dan reckoned he could avoid this if he went into the alley and looked over the fence; he then would be able to pick out this miraculous flower, allowing for the angle of the light and so on.
He made his way into the alley - which meant walking out of the front door, round the block, down the alley itself and then calculating which house was his. He found the fence and looked over. Nothing bright yellow to be seen.
And then he saw it. It was completely brown. It had died and remained in its full-bloom shape, unwilted, the ghost of a flower, a shell.
"You have a land line?"
"I have a cell, too; but yes, I have a landline."
"Do you really think that?"
"Too late. I'm already on the defensive, ergo, you have been offensive."
"It's only a phone, for goodness' sake!"
"Yes, it is. And when I want to hear not just what someone's saying, but the way they're saying it, so I can listen to what lies behind what they've said, then I have to have a landline. These cells give crappy sound quality, and so half of what's being conveyed gets lost. if I'm to listen to people, to my friends, to those who need me to listen properly, then the average cell is garbage. Oh, it's ok for things like 'meet me at Sal's at 6pm' but that's pretty basic stuff. I need to know what the feeling is."
"You certainly have a lot of feelings about this."
"Yes. I do. We have more devices than ever before for communicating and we seem to be less good than ever before at actually trying to understand each other."
"Have it your way."
"I will. Whenever you try to patronize or belittle me."
28. And Then?
When Sandy retired he felt, for the first few weeks, a sense of tremendous release. No more fighting with traffic. No more boring people needing his time. No more daft administrators messing everything about.
He had a splendid few months. He'd scan the 'free' columns in the neighborhood on-line site and descend upon all kinds of things - bicycles especially - and carry them off in triumph. He managed to sell quite a bit of that stuff, too, which gave him a glow. Things that would have been junk now had a new life, thanks to him.
Gradually he noticed that he was doing this more and more, and he wondered if he should trade in his car for a truck so he could get bigger items aboard easily. Fridges seemed to be plentiful. And couches. His backyard began to fill and he bought tarps to cover some of it. At night the flapping kept him awake.
Lifting some decorated concrete blocks into the trunk one day he found himself wishing he was younger, much younger. Teenaged would do. Because this is what he did when he was a kid with no money - he'd find things that had been junked, mend them if he could, and re-sell them.
Something washed over him in that moment, and he stood still, blinking. Was it his heart? No. That seemed to be just as before.
Driving home with a trunk full of concrete blocks he had no immediate use for he began to connect the dots. This, this collecting of discarded stuff, was exactly what he'd done as a teenager, to make money. And it had done the trick. He'd used his wits to get by. He'd even made a brief and successful foray into antiques. His proper, salaried work years had put an end to that need, but not to that way of thinking. For nearly forty years he'd simply masked his inner urgings, and now, it seemed, they were coming out again.
In those long-gone days he'd believed the world was a grim place, where you had to scrounge and rummage to make do. But it wasn't; of course it wasn't. His work life had shown him that.
The real work, the actual real work he needed to do had never got done. He saw that now. He'd never faced the feeling that the world was unable to supply his needs. Poverty mentality - that's what they called it. And he had it, bubbling to the surface like rust under a layer of paint. Dealing with that, that was the work he had to do now.
He drove back to the kerb where he'd found the blocks and, with great care, unloaded them.
"I notice you write about animals a lot."
"No I don't."
"No I don't! I don't write about saving the whales, or the bears or the koalas - although lord knows they all need saving - and I don't write about trips to the Galapagos. I do not write about animals, as you say, a lot."
"But what about...?"
"Stop it. I don't. OK? I just don't. I write about what makes us human."
"Animals make us human."
"The way we treat them. Do we treat them with respect, recognizing they're creatures that can feel, or do we reject them - like beef cattle - as having no feelings. Or do we give them more 'feelings' than they may have by turning them into cosseted lapdogs? How we treat them can either humanize us more or make them into objects."
"That's what we do. We're humans and we make animals into whatever the heck it is we need them to be. Because we're human. And they're not. End of story."
"Shouldn't we allow them to be what they are, and then ...?"
"No. Absolutely no. We'd see no end to it. They'd have rights and probably laws to protect them. How would we ever get anything done? Seeing-eye dogs with days off and a pension plan? Bomb-sniffing dogs with disability insurance? Come on. Get real."
"And yet you loved Sinbad."
"Leave him out of it. He was different. He was smarter than most humans I know. And he had a bigger heart, too. I miss him every day. I still have his collar, you know?"
"Right. So now you have to write about him, don't you?"
Up along the edge of the moors, where the wind hits hard and then a moment later caresses you like a favorite child, you could get a sense of the hugeness of life. Far away from the petty manias of every day, the should-I-buy this and how-do-I-get-to-be-like-that disorders that gnaw at the soul, the wind felt pure. Even the litter thinned out, probably because not many people came this far. Nicolai found it soothing, although he'd never have admitted it if he'd been asked. But then nobody did ask.
Which is why he felt a needle of disgust when he saw a large chunk of black plastic fluttering from a fence. It rose and subsided and then spread its ragged edges wide again. He lowered his head and walked more steadily, determined to pull it off and take it home to his rubbish bin - for there were no bins up here.
Looking closer he saw this was not a torn sheet of plastic, but a bird. A large black bird, like an omen of death. What was wrong with it? He stood over the wildly cawing raven, a rabbit snare wound around its wing, leg and, he saw, its neck. He knelt down to look closer and it lunged at him.
"Best kill it now. Put it out of its misery." The voice startled him. A largish man in raincoat and black rubber boots was peering at him, a border collie whimpered at his feet.
"I don't think I can kill it," Nicolai answered. Because I'm afraid to, he thought. And now he knows it too.
"Well, it's your problem, not mine then," the booted stranger muttered and whistling to his dog, strode off. He's scared to kill it, too, Nicolai thought.
So he sat down beside it and waited. It was clearly exhausted now, and in a while he'd be able to untangle it without too much risk. But what if it died of exhaustion? How long had it been there? He took off his socks and put them on his hands, then made sure his coat was buttoned. He'd try now anyway. The raven flapped alarmingly and pecked at his hands. The socks weren't much protection. But then as he tried to stroke it it calmed down, and working slowly he was able to get the noose off.
It didn't fly away. It was too tired, too shocked, perhaps? It lay on the tussocks, wings fanned out, beak open. He knew he'd have to take it home.
The walk back was one that was torture to him. What if it had fleas? What if it carried some terrible disease? He held it in his socked hands and knew that his shoes would now rub badly and he'd probably get blisters. He hadn't signed up for this.
When he got home he placed the raven on the ground by the backdoor. As a child he'd read about blackbirds reared in shoeboxes, but this creature was considerably too large for any shoe box, even if he'd had one. A large cardboard box would have to do. And what do I feed it? A bowl of water at first, of course. It responded well to the water. He dribbled it over its beak until it got the idea. Then Nicolai got his phone out and looked up what ravens eat, and what crows eat, in case he'd misidentified it. Ravens ate carrion. Well he wasn't having that! What else? They ate seeds and small insects, eggs and just about everything they could swallow, it seemed. He went to the fridge and got out the mince he'd planned on having for dinner. That was a big hit.
He spent the next hour or so bringing out bits of whatever he could find, apples, some nuts, a carrot, placing them close enough to be within easy reach. It was then that he noticed how lustrous the creature's plumage was, black, iridescent, and full of dusky rainbows.
That was the first evening. Nicolai placed the box on the kitchen table and left the widow open, in case the bird decided to leave. Should he leave the light on? Would that stop it going to sleep? His gran had owned a Budgie, and when she covered its cage with a cloth it always went to sleep. But that was forty years ago, and this wasn't a budgie. So he compromised and left the hall light on.
The next morning he was awakened by a tremendous clattering. Peeping round the kitchen door he saw the raven pick up a tablespoon and drop it on the stone floor, then flap down to repeat the trick. When Nicolai appeared it stopped, cawed loudly, and hopped to the window. And then it was gone.
It returned at dusk, carrying a teaspoon, which it banged against the window. So he let it in. Where had that teaspoon come from? It wasn't one he'd ever seen before.
It spent the night in the cardboard box.
And that was how Nicolai made friends with the raven, which came to stay.
Then one day someone rang the doorbell. Opening it, Nicolai saw a stout perspiring woman in a grey wool coat, slightly out of breath. "Do you know you've got a raven in your garden?"
"He's in the kitchen, actually."
"The kitchen! He's been stealing my cutlery and I've finally managed to find out where he goes. He's a menace, he is."
"Um, you'd better come in. I think he wants to give them to me as presents. I'd no idea they were yours, or anyone's. You'd better have them back. I've got quite a few. Some are bound to be yours."
They walked through the house to the kitchen. The raven stood on the table and cawed.
"He's big," the woman gasped, flinching.
"He's friendly." Nicolai moved calmly to stroke his breast.
The woman stood with her mouth open.
And that was how Nicolai met Mrs Wilkinson, who was so surprised by the raven that she brought her whole family to see it. And before too long she'd included Nicolai in everything the family did. He hadn't realized how much he'd wanted company: and now the wanting was over.
Brenda sat, slumped (mom would have yelled at me for my posture, surely, she thought) at her computer. It was getting, no, it actually was harder than ever to believe in progress, in people coming together to save the planet, save each other, save themselves from gross and utter cruelty. What on earth could she write about that would make one tiny damn of difference to this landslide of disasters?
"Perhaps I should just get drunk." It didn't feel very appealing somehow.
"Perhaps it's time to give up. Give up caring. Give up writing." That sounded a little better, because writing could be so discouraging. All those rejection letters; 'Dear Author, Thank you for your submission...' As if the world had her in a wrestling grip, twisting her arm up behind her back until she would have to submit, admit to being beaten.
"Perhaps I should just stop watching the news." An idea whose time had come, for sure.
The thoughts continued to swirl. Without even thinking she was doing it she leaned forward and began to type her emotions. She would, she knew, never stop the writing. She couldn't change others. She could only stay in charge of herself, writing for clarity, writing to reassert her humanity in the face of the storm, writing to know she was human and alive and that her soul would not let her be quiet. It was all she could do, yet it was everything.
24. Doctors Know Everything, Don't They?
There was no doubt about it. So Kevin did what he always did; he went to the doctor.
"It's my memory. I keep forgetting where I left my glasses. It's becoming a nightmare. I only need them for reading, then I forget where I've put them."
"Have you tried putting a string around them and hanging them round your neck? You can't lose them that way."
"I did that. Then I forgot I'd done it and spent half the day looking for glasses that were just below my usual line of sight."
Kevin went for memory tests. When he got there he found the place was empty. "Half our patients forget they have appointments", the nurse whispered to him, and shrugged.
They couldn't find anything wrong with him. They thought they might have to refer him to a specialist for further tests.
Kevin could feel despair washing over him. Dementia. Alzheimer's. The End. Stuck in a hospice bed drooling and unaware of anything. That was what they were not telling him.
He went home and promptly lost his glasses. Luckily he had a glasses drawer, a place he stored all his no-longer-correct-prescription glasses, together with his old worn out electric shavers and so on. He climbed the stairs slowly, opened the drawer, pushed aside the debris and tried on several sets in turn. They might do in a pinch, he thought. At the back of the drawer was a maroon case with a very old pair of glasses, fragile things that he'd last used more than twenty years - wait - more than thirty years go. He tried them on. Looked around. They were, well, perfect. Yet they were a bit fragile. He could recall the lens on one side had a tendency to pop out. So he decided he'd take them but he'd put them back in the case after each use.
Carrying the case around with him was cumbersome, but over the next few days a strange thing happened. He always knew it was there, no matter which pocket he put it in. And then he noticed that whenever he took his glasses off he took care to put them back in the case. I mean, if that lens popped out of the frame how would he ever get it back in? He wouldn't have his glasses to see with, would he? Well, then!
He stopped forgetting. He always knew, now, where his glasses were.
Kevin made a cup of tea and decided to think about this. What had changed? Only that these glasses were in their own case, and had to be put back in it each time he'd finished using them. He couldn't just take them off and place them somewhere like he'd always done with the others. He had to do something with them. It was almost like a ritual - and that something of folding them up just so, and putting them back in that case was what fixed in his mind where the glasses were.
Focus, Kevin thought. It's more than just what happens with your eyes.
Typing, for Timothy, was always a torture. He wasn't a great typist for sure, but since he'd always aspired to be a writer it was a necessity. Alas, time and technology had outwitted him; when he first started writing, really writing, it was still just fine to write by hand. He'd written all his college exams by hand, and the words had no trouble flowing. He'd found himself taking typing courses but what had happened was that when his fingers were faced with a keyboard he became what he called machine-dyslexic. His fingers simply wouldn't do what he thought he was asking them to do. He'd tried. He'd puzzled. He'd even visited a specialist. He'd attempted to use voice recognition software, but that always made him feel strangled - and the words on the page showed it.
He didn't give up. Eventually he'd worked out that he could do a one and a half fingered typing sidestep, one that worked reasonably well. The index finger of the right hand did most of the typing, and the left hand did a few letters on the left, the space bar and so on. After thirty years of this his right index finger was twisted, painful, worn out,
Then came auto correct.
At first Tim thought this was a decent idea. But then he discovered that he knew more words than it did, and that it would correct terms he'd used correctly. It wasn't just the annoyance of elicit becoming illicit, or faces remaining faces when he'd typed faeces three times and been corrected each time he'd corrected -- or anything of that. It was that sometimes the word predictor would type in the opposite of what he'd intended (attended) because it didn't understand satire (satyr), nor did it take into account willed (wilted) typographical variants (varmints), puns (pans) and so on (soon). He'd spent a lot (alot) of time correcting what he'd written only to have the software change (charge) it back. And when he tried to write dialogue, especially cockney (cocky), it was - he wanted to type in nightmare, but was afraid of what the software would do to it. It seemed that some systems couldn't be turned off, for some (foursome) reason.
Then, one day when his index finger (indicator) was feeling particularly sore (soar), he gave in (giving). Let it, he muttered (mattered), do what the hell it wants to. Whereupon it quickly turned to into too. He hesitated and then left it. Then he noticed further up the page that its had become it's; their, there; and surely worse was hidden in there (which the software had underlined in red as a mistake) somewhere.
Communication had clearly (cleverly) changed (charged) since Tim (timed) first thought he had something to say that was worth sharing. It was around this time that he gave up writing.
22. Auction Sale
Clearing out. Sorting out. Dumping. What on earth was the correct phrase or word for the task of sorting through one's dead parents' stuff, trying to decide what to keep and what to pitch? 'Get rid of it all' Audrey had said. 'You don't need that old energy.'
The auctioneer's assistant had come and gone, taking the few bits of good furniture, leaving so much else as unsaleable and therefore as little better than junk. It would cost money to get it hauled away, which was sad because her mother at least had thought of it as a good thing for any one of the children to inherit. But no one wanted this stuff.
Boxes from the attic revealed spare bedding of an impressive mustiness; a tin trunk of out-of-fashion-but-once-trendy clothes disappointed, too. The Persian lamb coat had never been very attractive (although it had been expensive) and was always kept for best. It was, essentially, unused.
The cardboard boxes had all but disintegrated, and spilling from one Gretli saw a book she recognized, from her school days. The Odyssey. The thing about being the second born was that she'd taken on the traditional role of being the care-taker. It meant she was left to deal with the house-emptying on her own. It also meant that she got to try and keep up with her older sister, and so learned at above her grade level. School. So long ago.
The Odyssey was on the brink of shedding its pages, its spine destroyed by all that careful work for Ms. Tomlinson's class. She'd enjoyed it, but never really saw what the purpose was of reading a story so old, so full of references to things she didn't feel she could understand.
She sat on the floorboards, blew off the dust from the book, wiped her hands on her shirt and then decided against opening the book. Too many memories.
The Odyssey. A story of a man trying to find his way home, back to where he belongs, after twenty years. The trouble is that when he gets back the place he left has been taken over by others, who want to erase the past, marry his wife, and take charge of his wealth. The ultimate story of the soldier's return. What on earth had he been doing for those twenty years, anyway? Serving his own ends, no doubt. Gretli turned the book over in her hands; definitely time to pitch this one.
It occurred to her that she was a bit like Odysseus. She was returning to what had been her home, after more than twenty years, and now, like him, she had to sort it all out. There was more, though, wasn't there? Odysseus returns to his wife and his son. He has to complete himself as a family man after having proved himself as a fighter. Gretli had proved herself as something she supposed. She'd held a job, grown a career, made a life. What was it, then, that she had to do now? Burying one's parents is a life passage of sorts, but what was she supposed to learn here, about this? That our treasures are seldom worth anything to anyone else? That dust gets everywhere?
Perhaps, she thought, the story of Odysseus is about reintegrating with one's past, the past we've run away from when we chase life's glittering prizes.
Perhaps it was time to read this book again.
"You woke me up, you know."
"Sometime in the wee small hours, so small were they I could hardly see them, let alone find my phone. But you woke me. With your text. I was so fast asleep I couldn't even focus to read."
"I know what it's like."
"Obviously you don't, or you wouldn't have done it to me. Your friend. Hello. I'm your friend."
"I've said I'm sorry."
"Well, good! You should be. So what was so urgent? I don't see any signs, or smells, on your clothes that your house burned down."
"Ah, it was, um, just the false lucidity of midnight."
"Huh." Pause. "OK." Pause. "Forgiven."
They were talking about creativity. Or rather they weren't talking, as they'd slipped into silence. It was the sort of thing they tended to find themselves doing in this scruffy pub, with its alternate dark corners and the splashes of sunshine coming through windows that needed washing. Or perhaps they thought it what they ought to do, since they were supposedly all creatives together.
"I hate this topic," said Bernard, "just as I hate those daft people who come to a book reading and ask you where you get your ideas. As if we got them at Walmart."
"Or as if there was a special shop only known to writers, somewhere down a dark alleyway, and they want the address." Bill smirked at his own sarcasm.
"Website, more like. Order ideas on line." Hedrick scowled.
"Yeah, everyone wants to be directed, to get the right thing according to what's acceptable. No one seems to listen."
"Well, you never do, do you?"
"We're not talking about me."
After a longish silence Matthew cleared his throat. "I'll tell you where I get my ideas from. No, not my ideas. Something else. Here's how it goes. I'll close my laptop, log out of everything, determined not to get sucked into any more clickbait. I take off my glasses, even. Then I stare into space. And you know, about a minute later, maybe less, when I'm not hovering over several websites, concocting letters to the editor, or whatever, something comes to me. Then I have to open up the laptop, re-enter my password, and so on, all that tedious stuff, and it's there."
"Yes. Whatever it is I have to write about. Can't do it any other way. Can't shortcut it. Can't ignore it, either."
19. TV Confessions
I'll tell you how it is. Or rather how it was. We'd have dinner each night and then we'd settle down in front of the TV for an hour or so, like any other couple, or perhaps a movie, before bed. It was just what we did. But it was getting old, you know? After about 15 years of married bliss we'd seen a lot of good and whole helluva lot of not-so-good movies. Things were getting very, very old. For a while there we got interested in Game of Thrones, and then we went on to other historical/fantasy type things.
One night, though, we were watching this series - you probably don't know it - and after the episode had ended on a predictable cliff-hanger, yet again, I said I thought the dialogue was a bit stilted. And she looks at me and says, yes, you're right. What they should have said was... And what they could have said was.... And if I'd been doing the script I'd have had them do this...
We got to trying to make up a better episode. We filled the room with possibilities. It was very energizing, somehow. You know, suggesting new ways for the plot to unfold, too.
So a bit later, perhaps a couple of days after, after that episode we were watching was done we started talking again about ways it could have been better. And then we started doing the dialogue. I'm not sure when that happened, but we slipped into it and then, well, we were standing up acting out possible scenes, laughing like hell, playing with the mechanics of things here and there, having a blast doing it. It's put the life back in us. In everything, really.
Now that's what we do. We take whatever series we're watching and we do our own version of it. Sometimes we even improvise the costumes. Of course we can't do it if anyone comes to stay with us. I don't think they'd understand.
18. Four Leafers
There it was. It wasn't as if he'd been looking for it, but once he'd seen it, he couldn't miss it. How long had it been there? He'd walked down the front steps half a dozen times each day, to the car, to put out the trash, to go to the shop. Well, it was here now. So he picked it, this four leaf clover, and stuck it in the front of a book of suitable heft so it would dry flat.
And that got him to thinking. Perhaps he could grow these clovers, cultivate them?
The next day he dug up the plant where he'd found the original leafer, potted it carefully in a yoghurt container, and then went on line to see if anyone sold seeds. A couple of places in China said they had seeds that often produced four leafers, so he bought some from two different sellers, just to play safe if one lot turned out to be duds.
Over the next few weeks he planted small clusters of seeds in various containers he'd found in the basement, all of them ugly, and waited. He reckoned his wife wouldn't mind if he only used the ugly containers she was unlikely to want. And the seeds grew anyway. But no new four leafers appeared.
When winter came he took as many of the containers as he could inside, much to the disapproval of his wife, who insisted he put them in the basement, and checked them every day for leaves. Plenty of three leafers reached towards the muted daylight of the basement widows, but nothing more exciting. He continued to water and tend his small platoon of pots. He even bought one of those grow-lights and rearranged everything on his work bench so all the clover pots would get equal exposure.
When Spring came and no four leafed beauties had come his way he admitted defeat, dug holes in the garden, and slipped the plants in, pushing well down on the roots so the lawnmower wouldn't rip up any protruding clumps.
Walking back to the shed to replace the shovel in its rack he glanced down and saw a four leafer, and then another, growing wild. Luck, he thought; you can't make it happen. You just have to go with what is.
"Yeh got through yer Christmas, then."
"Yeah. We had m'sister and m'step-sister, and all the six kiddies. Half the toys we got them got broken, so I've got m'self a full-time job mending them all as fast as I can."
"At least you had a good dinner, right?"
"Oh yeah. The turkey was doing nicely in the oven, and I took it out to baste it, not knowing I hadn't done those steel shelves right. Y'know, y'have to lower them or the turkey won't fit. So the turkey slides out onto the floor, and o'course there's chaos the kitchen after that. And then the kiddies come running in because they've knocked the tree over. They were moving the decorations around and it got a bit out of hand. So we put the tree back up, shove the turkey back in th'oven, and reckon it's time for a drink. Then the tree falls down again. Little glass balls everywhere, an' tinsel, an' we can't find the angel from the top because one of the twins has taken it. Then we can't find the other twin because she's hiding. So, we get everything on the table and crash, there goes the tree again."
"Jaysus. Talk about a nice quiet time."
"It was amazing'. It was the best damn Christmas we've ever had. Utter chaos and everyone laughing' and singin' - the twins again; they even did a dance - and the turkey was the best ever. Not at all like those Christmases we had to sit through when we were kids, Christmases that were just so, done perfectly, all control and no fun."
Putting the heavy binoculars aside James wriggles the pencil from the top pocket of his field jacket. Licking the end he begins to list the birds he's seen so far. Worm-Eating Warbler, he writes, then House Finch followed by BlueJay (3) and Cardinal (2 male, 1 female).
He takes another look at the Finch, so delicate, so much like a slim sparrow but with that lovely rosey blush on its chest. Such a beautiful bird, and such a dull name. Boring. Like the Cat bird. Surely someone would rename such an exquisite creature, call it by some wonderful exotic name. Xantrania, or Pendrassia or something. I mean, wouldn't that be better? Something that honors its superb form?
For a moment James is glad the bird doesn't know its human-given name. It'd be disappointed, for sure. And then, would it grow to be dowdy, average, dull, like its name?
Then he wonders, would I? A quick look at google years ago let him know there were several thousand James Burins in the world, and he hadn't even found himself in that list. Perhaps it's true, then. I had a boring name, he thinks, an ordinary name, and what happened to me? Not much. Just that now I'm sitting in a damp shed, a hide by the edge of the woods, looking at birds that fly free. My wellingtons are caked in mud. I have become my ordinary name.
15. Financial Planning
"Did you read that piece in the New..."
"You don't even know what I was going to say."
"Yes I do. About him facing his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer."
"Bugger it. How do you always..?"
"I don't. But sometimes I just know, ok?"
"So, ah, what did you think?"
"It made me angry. I mean, there he was saying how his life had unfolded and talking about having two homes and I thought, Christ, if it was me who'd got that sort of news I'd be thinking about will my family be able to afford the care I'll need? Will I be able to die with some dignity? Will I be a burden, an expensive burden, to my nearest and etceteras? Will it hurt? And for how long? Will I slide into a vegetative state that distresses everyone I've ever cared about? He has money to deal with all that. Yeah. Angry."
"I can see that. You almost knocked your pint over."
"Hmm" he reached out and took several long swallows. Then he began again. "And when the anger faded something else took its place."
"Yeah. It occurred to me that all this worrying about the finances of death was taking me away from the actual fact of death. Or the non-fact of not being. I seems I worry about the money, and being a burden, because I actually can't face worrying about not being alive. Or, perhaps I'd better say, I can't face the unreality of not existing. So I worry about the family money."
"Makes sense. Another pint?"
"Yeah, alright then."
14. Winter Dreams
Life hadn't always been kind to Gregori Hankajian. He hadn't been blessed with good looks or charm. He knew this. He coped with it. For the past few months, though, he couldn't help noticing the young (well, young-ish) woman who rented a room in the house across the road. Every morning around 8:20 she left to go for the bus, and he'd noticed her. Finally he came to the conclusion that she was not actually bad-looking. There was a sweetness to her.
Not that they'd actually spoken much. I mean, it's hard when there's the whole width of a road between you. Instead he made a point of being on his front walkway at about the time she would be leaving, and he'd wave a friendly neighbor-like wave, and she'd sometimes wave back.
Lately, though, things had been getting better. Since winter had arrived he'd been out chipping ice from the walk, and several times she'd crossed the road, walking past where he was. Usually she'd just stay on her side of the road. All summer she'd just come out of her door, turned left and not crossed the road at all. Well, it looked as if she wanted to start a conversation, perhaps, or at least move from the vague 'good morning' to something a bit more friendly. Perhaps she wanted to see if she liked him, a little.
Gregori made sure that even on the coldest mornings he was out there, fiddling at something in the front of his place, in case she wanted to talk. Most days she'd cross the road (his heart always gave a small lurch of pleasure) and walk past him, with a gentle greeting, or sometimes a few words about the weather. Nothing too intrusive. But she'd crossed the road. So she must means something by it.
Then, one day, warmer than the rest, she didn't cross the road. She didn't the next day, either. He couldn't understand it. They'd been moving closer to a sort of jolly camaraderie. What had he done wrong? Had he offended in some way? Or perhaps she'd found a boyfriend and didn't need to think about him? He spent several days in deep sadness at his rejection.
A few days later she still hadn't crossed the road to walk past him, and, knotted in despair, he made up his mind to say something. He watched as she locked her door, came down the steps, and turned right. "Beautiful day!" he called out.
"Isn't it!" she replied, "I'm so glad the weather's warmer. The ice on this side of the street was just awful this year. I nearly fell several times these last few weeks, when it was so bad. But you always get the sun on your side. It's so nice and clear."
13. The Beauty of Websites
It was a name to be proud of, surely. Stacey Pascou - you didn't come across those sorts of rhythmic vowels, those cadences, arranged just perfectly, every day. It was a great name, a boss name. And yes, she truly wanted this gorgeous name to become a household item, as well-known as Kleenex, perhaps, but held in greater reverence, naturally. That was why she chose to turn up every day and think of something to blog about. Pretty soon her name would be well known. She was sure of it. These were quality posts, and done almost every day, too, on subjects that were close to her heart. So they must move others, mustn't they? Write from your heart. That was the core of it. Core, like the french word coeur, meaning heart.
The thing was, though, that there were so few hits on her website. The spam filters had swallowed nearly half a million emails; she checked every day. Perhaps some of them were real emails that got sidelined as spam. If only she could disentangle this technology. Well, she'd tried. She'd paid Matt to sort it out and there was still no change. She'd tried everything she could think of, spending hours in chat rooms discussing how to get the stupid thing to work. It didn't change anything, though. Either the spam swamped her or the email box stayed empty.
Of course, she'd tried to get the stat counter to work properly, but it didn't. And no one seemed to know why. It resolutely refused to register visitors to her site, and without visitors....
She didn't want to think that way.
She didn't want to. She didn't. And then it all came clear. The stat counter wasn't at fault. It was accurate. It had been accurate all along. No one, but no one, was coming to her site. That was the only answer. No one.
She felt suddenly cold in her guts. The next half hour was terrifying with the shock of utter emptiness. No one was reading her words. She knew she was crying but nothing felt real any more. Was there any point to anything?
She walked towards her laptop, glowered at it, and raised her coffee mug, clenched in her fist, trembling.
She sat down. Placed the mug in its usual place, and began to write. So what if no one read it; it was what she did, and without it she knew her world would be intolerable. She began to type.
Eric Cadeski had always loved shooting, and now, at last, he was in Africa. On the savannah, no less. By a watering hole, in a hide, being eaten by mosquitoes, true, but, man. AFRICA! This was what all the guys at the gun club dreamed of. Real wild animals, dangerous ones, too. Not that these flies weren't a menace. The fly repellent didn't seem to work, and he couldn't light up a corona or even a cigarette or he'd alert every four-footed trophy for miles around.
It'd been seven hours now. He'd peed in a bucket (it was important to stay hydrated) and his knees ached. Actually his whole body ached from lying in wait, sandbags under the rifle barrel, loaded, cocked, ready.
A young elephant had come by but he knew his Bushmaster couldn't take it. Gazelle had flitted past, too fast for him to get a bead. But it wasn't gazelle he was after. He wanted a lion. There were a couple of females on the other side of the clearing, but who wanted a female?
Then, as moonlight filtered in to fill the space beyond the trees he saw it. A male. Eric held his breath, and snugged down into the aim. Closer, sometimes disappearing entirely into the dappled shadow, closer. He could feel it. Until it was there. One moment was empty of anything and then, miraculously, the light coalesced into a lion. Eric knew he had to wait. He put his eye against the backsight, adjusted the aperture with a flick of his thumbnail (telescopic sights were for babies; everyone knew that), and let his eyes focus down to find the foresight, the lion and the frame of the backsight. He could feel his excitement in his heart-rate, making the barrel bounce, and he changed his grip. He inhaled, let out about half, slowed his breathing. Repeat. His concentration began to distill, to collect to a tiny point of focus. The insects could bite all they wished; even the ants that had got into his underwear faded out. He knew he was slowing his heart rate. The pulse in his stomach hardly registered, and the sight remained steady, moving only the slightest amount with each rush of blood through his heart valves. He could choose the still moment between beats, squeeze off the shot; any moment now. He had the lion cold, dead in his sights, the dream of a lifetime.
The tracker came to find him ten minutes later. "Why you no shoot?" Eric shook his head. For he had fallen asleep, right at the moment he should have been firing the shot. He had let go of everything except his focus, and then he'd let go even of that.
He'd spent most of his life savings to come on this safari, to bag some big game. He hadn't managed it. But he didn't regret it.
11. Christmas Music
Benny loved Christmas music. Not that she was religious or anything like that. And it came to her one day in Target - in fact it came to her once upon a midnight clear, which is what she was humming along to. If only she didn't have to leave the store and get back to start her shift. Then she could listen to this, her favorite rendition, with the muted trumpets, the gentle electronic swell of sounds at each chorus, the shy tinkle of the glockenspiel. Magic. That's what it was.
But did she have to abandon his favorite music just because she now wanted to leave the store? It was the young man with the Bluetooth earbud that awakened her. What if... what if you could tune into you favorite store music through your earpiece? Then you could listen to it wherever you went, with it just in the background, say, if a call came through, until perhaps you went to a new store and liked their music better, and then you could switch. Then, when you were in your car you could stay with that music, too. That would be brilliant.
It was brilliant. Benny knew a good app when she heard it.
And that's how, somewhere in the mid 2020s, shopping was forever changed. People started to go to stores because of the music, and sometimes they even wound up buying stuff, drifting around the shelves, singing along, which got even more interesting when shops offered customers a choice of channels to listen to. On-line shopping was easy, everyone said, but it lacked something. It wasn't an experience. It was just an action. People seemed to want an experience, but not one that included other people, and this fit their bill.
Benny's very wealthy, now. She still loves Christmas music, and has (of course) branched out into selling sound loops that stores can buy and broadcast. She's also bought up some land in Alaska so people can visit Santa's cave. With music.
10. Writer's Despair
The conversation had an air of hopelessness about it, a feeling that it wasn't worth while to mop the rings from the coffee mugs off the table.
"I'm not going to write any more. If I can't do it as well as Graham Greene then why bother trying?"
Caroline didn't react. She was never one to react. Yet her soul let out a thin, sharp-edged sound that rose to a silent scream. What the hell is he talking about? Graham Greene? That's ancient history. That's so establishment. And what a lame excuse after all these years of writing, or rather non-writing. What sort of excuse is this if it doesn't even convince me? How the hell could it convince him?"
She breathed steadily for a moment. "The task is to write like Graham Greene, is it?
"Well, you know what I mean. To do it as well as he did it."
"No, I don't know what you mean. And I don't know why you're comparing yourself to him. The task, surely, is to write like yourself. If you don't practice you'll never get a chance to let your real self come out. Especially if you think you've got to write like someone else."
"You're missing the point..."
"No. No I'm not. You are."
Let me tell you something - mind if I talk at you for a while? Yeah? Ok then, this is the story, just to show you how things can be.
I had this man come to see me about developing his writing. It was good writing, but very much autobiographical, you know? All about his childhood and his abusive father who used to beat up half the family. everyone except him, it seems. Traumatic stuff. And he kept returning to it.
After a while, though, I began to feel he was just re-traumatizing himself over and over. Yet another tale of violence and fear. And then he started not talking about the writing but he started talking about his personal life. Fine. After a couple of sessions like that he says to me, "Listen. I don't want to talk about my personal problems here. I want to talk about the writing." Then he goes right ahead and tells me about the personal stuff again.
I let him do that for a while and then I tell him, very gently, "Look, you asked me if we could not talk about these issues, but here you are talking about them, and not about the writing. Is this what you want?"
I think he's about to cry.
So then I see it's time for me to steer this into better waters. "And yet," I say, "perhaps we have to talk about this in a new way. Because, you see, whatever it is that gets in the way of the writing is about the writing, no matter what it is."
He looks at me, then drops his eyes. I continue. "This is what you have to do, for now. But it's not going to be this way forever. It's a habit you've formed to stop yourself from having to see things differently. And now you're getting tired of the old ways of coping. That's because you're starting to grow in compassion for that abusive person who happened to be your father. So, let's try to grow that compassion, shall we?"
"Does that mean I can let go, now?"
8. Bank Accounts I Have Known
After my mother died – four years afterwards, actually – a Swiss bank got in touch with me. My mother was Swiss, you see. I live in the US, my mother died in the UK and was a British subject, and I’m now a proud US citizen. Anyway, they told me and my brother that some money was in their vaults for us to claim. All we needed to do was to submit a death certificate and a Certificate of Probate, plus copies of our passports. The death certificate was no problem. I had a copy filed. Neither were the passports difficult. But a certificate of Probate?
I wrote to the lawyers who had handled my mother’s will. They’d have one, surely. But the fellow we’d worked with had moved on. As had his assistant (who did almost all the actual work). She, the assistant, referred us to another person. She’d moved on, too. This was clearly a high turnover joint, and I began to despair. Finally we got someone who said she could do something, and who then promptly turned it all over to her assistant.
Now, I realize that this is a first world problem of privilege – thinking about money that I might inherit – but hold on. There’s something else here.
Months of emails pass by, and the upshot was this: the lawyers in England wouldn’t release any papers to anyone until they knew how much money was involved, so they could charge the appropriate tax and levy the necessary fees. The bank in Switzerland wouldn’t say how much money was involved, and wouldn’t talk to the lawyers at all.
Me to the lawyers: “I don’t know how to put this to you, but you may wind up charging a fee for what amounts to barely enough money to buy a couple of pints of decent beer and a packet of crisps. I don’t think either of us wants that.” (Notice the veiled threat: I’m in the US so they’d have a hard time getting me to settle any such bill. I was rather proud of that).
Eventually the Swiss relented somewhat. They could tell me by phone what the sum was that we were discussing, but they would not put it in writing. A lovely chat then ensued with a Fraulein Elmer, who subsequently asked me to be a contact through LinkedIn (which I became). I guess that makes us almost related. We were able to ascertain that there was a sum of money small enough to be disappointing to my dreams, but sufficiently large to interest us in liberating it.
The Lawyers in England were pleased, but they still refused to act. After all, I might not be telling the truth! Not that they said that in so many words, but you could see their point. Once I’d got my hands on the money they’d no guarantee of being paid.
Emails went to and fro. Eventually I said: why not send the money to the lawyers in England, then they can do their calculations, and we can all move on?
While working on all this I read an article about the English poet John Keats. It seems he had also some money bequeathed to him, but his lawyers managed to keep it out of his hands for years. When he needed it, when he was desperately ill with TB, he couldn’t get it. He died without having seen a farthing. Not that I’m a great romantic poet, mind you. But I think you can see the point.
The money, in the form of an investment, was then cashed and sent to England. The lawyers took a look and said it would take time to calculate but they thought about 60% would be absorbed in costs. 60%. Two thirds. Make that one pint of best bitter and leave out the crisps. The other pint you can pay for yourself.
As I recall something similar happens in Dickens’ great novel, Bleak House. Except there it was 100% of the inheritance money that got absorbed.
So I write to them and point out that I’m not a UK resident and don’t pay taxes there, so how would that change things? Great consternation at the other end. Nothing definite said, though.
Which brings me to the point. My late mother didn’t know about this money. If she had we could have got it all sorted out when the rest of the estate was settled. That would have saved a fortune in lawyer’s fees. The reason she didn’t know about it was I presume because my grandfather had bought some sort of investment for her and hidden it away just in case she should ever need it. In using the Swiss bank account he figured she’d never have to pay taxes when she cashed it in. Neat, huh? But she didn’t know, and she never cashed it. So now we end up paying taxes at a rate far above what poor old Grossvati imagined, trying to get at money we’d like to have but aren’t desperate to get. I mean, we’re getting by. This is an extra. If it ever materializes.
The bottom line seems to be that Grossvati didn’t trust my father that much, and wanted to make sure his daughter had an emergency fund.
I think the old man had a soft spot for me, though. I’d tried to learn German so that I could speak to him on my vacations from school. I’d done quite well despite the fact that my teachers knew only high German and my Grandfather spoke Switzerdeutsch, which was way different. I’d given up Geography and History to take this language. That was the way it was in those days. Sadly, I was really good at both those subjects, but because I spoke Swiss-German to my teachers they thought I was stupid. Still, I persisted. Then I went to see my grandparents. Two things were immediately apparent. The first was that they were both very deaf. The second was that they couldn’t understand my Hoch Deutsch.
Still, my grandfather was fond of me. He liked that I had become a competition rifle shooter. So he bequeathed me his Swiss army-issued competition match rifle, the one he’d won so many trophies with.
Try getting that through customs.
7. Bank Accounts I have Known #2
A second bank account comes to mind that I probably should mention. My grandfather, Grossvati, created a small savings account for me shortly after I was born. Every year, on my birthday or Christmas, he’d put some money in. And the account grew. Of course it did. I wasn’t old enough to withdraw anything, and it turned out I had to be in Switzerland to do it. After Grossvati died the account book was held by my godfather. My father told me that I had some money, but of course I’d have to go to Switzerland to get it. It would, he thought, just about pay for the expense of a trip. By this time I was living in the US, and although the money would have been nice, I couldn’t see travelling such a distance in order to break even, and then have to pay to spend a few days in the most expensive country in Europe.
When my father died, after a discreet interval, my godfather wrote to say I should do something about the account. He seemed somewhat annoyed that he’d had to remind me. Fine, said I, but I don’t have the bank book. Oh, you don’t need that, just the account number, said he, and I have that written down.
So I write to the bank and explain the situation. Do I, I asked, have to come to Switzerland to get the money? Oh no, came the reply, we can wire it to you. Just give us a phone call to verify who you are and leave the rest to us.
The money arrived, effortlessly, three days later.
It wasn’t much, but looking at it I thought of how much of a difference it would have made about 15 years before if I could have got some of that money. It was my money, after all. But I’d been led to believe it was not really mine, since I couldn’t get it when I wanted. I thought back to when I’d been offered a deal on a Brough Superior and sidecar, a wonderful motorcycle from 1934. If I’d bought it and kept it, that vintage outfit would today have been worth almost 50 times what they were asking. I’d have had the pleasure and the profit.
At the time I couldn’t get a loan from my father for this venture.
And so it came to me, forcibly, that all this pretense about the money requiring me to present myself in person at the bank had been a way of keeping it out of my hands because I wasn’t considered reliable or trustworthy. Even though it was my money, it wasn’t mine.
It’s nice to have the money now, but it’s not so much as to make me change my life. I’ll still drive the used Honda SUV I have at present. I’ll still wince at the heating bills in winter. But it could have been a game-changer. My life could have gone in a different direction.
But, you see, I was the one who was somehow regarded as unreliable. As a child I hadn’t stayed with my grandparents or cousins for vacations, the way my brother had, and so I’d never really learned their language. So naturally they saw me as stupid. The older brother can speak good dialect, so why shouldn’t the younger one? Even after I’d won scholarships that paid for my schooling and college years – yes, I went to the best schools in England for free after the age of 11 and until the age of 27 - even after I’d finished my doctorate, I was the stupid one.
It’s not what you bequeath, it’s what comes with it.
6. Snow Day
Bangs Holoescu stood gazing at the snow. The automated voice system at work had called at 5:30 am to say that the roads were too difficult (as if he needed them to tell him) so all employees were to stay at home until further notice. So he had the whole day to do whatever he wanted.
But that was the trouble. What he wanted was to go to the shed and keep working on his latest rescue motorcycle, or the 18 speed bicycle, or the lawnmower. He called them rescues because the owners usually gave them to Bangs just before they junked them. He wanted to be in the shed, or outside flushing out grime from old gas tanks, or so many other things. All of which required decent weather. Or at least not freezing. It was a free day in which he could do nothing he wanted to do.
He could shovel the snow. That would be exercise, true. But he couldn't pick the last few Hawthorn berries from the tree to make that great pie his Grandmother always made in the run up to Christmas, or pick and preserve the few remaining rosehips in honey. He couldn't put straw around the strawberry beds, or extend the vegetable garden. The ground was frozen. And when the weather got better, he'd have to go in to work, of course.
Work. It seemed to get in the way of everything he really wanted to do.
The snow continued its leisurely drift.
And then Bangs knew what he wanted to do. He opened his laptop and began: "Please accept this letter as notification of my resignation from my position."
5. Turning the Tables
After my mother died I was left with the task of clearing her house. It could have been a heartbreaking task but it wasn't. I'd long ago given up expecting much of our relationship, and even though I loved her I found her controlling ways to be hard to take. And so the distance increased over the years. Her last words to me as she gasped her last ragged breaths, were, "You really might want to take up Bridge. It's a social game." I took this as her usual directive style, telling me that I wasn't social enough, that I didn't have the right friends, that I ought to make more effort to be the person she thought I ought to be.
It wasn't what I'd hoped for. An "I love you" was what I'd hoped for.
When I began to clear the spare bedroom I tried to lift one of the small tables by the door, only to discover that it had a double leaf, and that it unfolded to display a green baize cloth. Her bridge table, I thought, and folded the flap back down. Which was when I discovered that of course the table top swiveled so it could sit square over the frame for playing cards. There, in the recess, I caught a glimpse of her cards and pencils for score keeping. And I saw something else.
Behind the cards was a small grey felt bag. I undid the top and tipped out the contents. Twenty eight solid gold Swiss twenty franc coins from 1935 slid into my palm.
She hadn't been giving me advice, after all. She'd been trying to give me a gift.
4. Faculty Chat
“Ah, Jeff, good to see you. Do you remember a student called Vanessa Blythe?”
Jeff, not looking up from his desk, grunts something vaguely affirmative, so Sandra continues.
“Well I’ve just been talking with her, and she said that your course – the exploratory writing course – was better than half the Psyche courses she’s taken. She was quite enthusiastic, actually. Said it was “life changing” for her. I thought you’d like to know.”
“Really? She said that? Um….Was she serious?”
“Of course she was! Why would she not be?”
“Well, thank you for passing along the compliment, but I have to tell you, she was a real pain all the way through that semester. It’s been a year now, and I’ve never forgotten her rejection of just about all the things I said. In fact she wrote me the worst end of semester evaluation I’ve ever had.”
“Are you sure it was her? Those evaluations are meant to be confidential.”
“Yeah, well, I recognized the grammatical errors and the spelling mistakes. She was the only student in ten years who couldn’t spell Freud correctly. Reversed the e and the u.”
“I can promise you she doesn’t feel that way now. She thinks the whole department should take your course. She’s quite vocal about it.”
“There you are then,” Jeff sighed. “Sometimes it takes them a year or more after they’ve left the classroom to cotton on to what it is we’ve said.”
“At least they get it, though. I wish some of our colleagues only needed a year until they saw sense.”
"You know this year we took our kids to Paris?"
"Really? That must have been amazing for them - and for you, too."
"Yes, it was. We did everything. Montmartre, The Louvre, Notre Dame, Chartres, then back to London, the museums. Everything."
"They must have had a great time. How old are they?'
"They're about the right age - 12, 9 and 7. I thought that this year I'd give them something special, something they could always remember. An experience of Europe."
"Wonderful. And how was it?"
"Well, when we got back we were sitting round the breakfast table at about 5 in the morning, all bleary eyed, because of the time difference, and being on British time and everything, and I asked them what they'd enjoyed most. And you know what they said?"
"Ha. I can't even recall what the older ones said, but the youngest, she said, 'Do you remember that really rainy day when we all sat on the bed and played cards? That is my absolute best memory."
Make-up, especially eye-liner, eyelashes, extensions, mascara and the many ways you can put them on and change them during the day, and there are so many, that was a hot topic here in Shanghai. (Did you know that painting on a thin layer of coconut oil before you go to apply the color will make it easier to lighten or darken your mascara during the day? Suppose you need to go to a meeting in a high rise office. High–rise, lots of windows, lots of light – your eye shadow color is crucially different from what it might seem like if you’re in a more ordinary office, with fluorescent lights, for example. These are all tips you can get from my channel. I was the first person to really exploit that, you know. But I’m getting ahead of myself). I always wanted to be an internet star. I wanted my youtube channel to generate hundreds of thousands of followers so I could get wealthy from the ads. That’s all. And I did. I was up to two hundred and fifty thousand followers when I did the Maybelline hybrid application. Brilliant. My life was going so well.
Here’s how it happened: I was talking about how to emphasize the shape of the eye to make it look more round, and I said something like “You don’t want to put too much black here or you’ll end up looking like a Uighur, and we all know what happens to them.” I thought it was funny. I thought it would make people smile, and I’d be popular.
In the afternoon the police arrived and I was taken away. I do not like to talk about that time. I am not allowed to talk about any of it, any way. But by then I already knew what I’d done – the comments on my video had already told me I’d stepped into a big pile of shit.
I was at police headquarters for eight days, they tell me. While I was gone, people noticed. My family was frantic. Rumors started. And suddenly I became the center of all kinds of protests. Was I speaking up for an oppressed minority? Was I the voice of Chinese privilege, dismissing a minority? It seemed that I could be both at the same time.
I wasn’t either, as far as I could tell.
The protests got bad, they tell me. Most of it wasn’t shown on the news, though, for obvious reasons. I just wanted to go home.
If the protesters hadn’t made such a noise I’d probably have been let out sooner.
Now I’m some sort of sensation. I’m not allowed to do any more videos about anything. I have to stay indoors a lot. I’ve got my fame after all. But I’ve lost my freedom.
Shooting Down Planes
This was a strange and uneven time for Derek. The RAF looked after him, and he was with all his old friends from the camps, and yet everything was off, somehow, in post war Britain. They were fed well in the mess hall, and yet at times at least of couple of the former prisoners of war could be seen scrambling up one of the ornamental mulberry trees to fill their hats with the ripening fruit. At night most of them would leave camp, more or less openly, just because they could, and because a simple wire fence was not going to hold them back now.
Derek’s friend Roger had somehow got hold of an Austin Ruby, a tiny and mostly rust colored car which took them to whichever pub was closest, where they tried to drink the brew that was called beer and was, of course, nothing like what they’d consumed before the war. Not even close. They got used to it remarkably quickly.
They were bored and confused by what England had become, but none of them wanted to admit that.
One night the landlord of the Plough heard them talking about pies, particularly meat pies. They seemed to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about food, he’d noticed, and he’d got to know their stories a little. He’d heard plenty of yarns and tall tales over the past five years, but not many like these. And he couldn’t get over how cheerful these men were. They’d start singing and laughing before they were half way through their first pint of bitter. And they all seemed to know each other so well. This was entirely different from the aircrews he’d seen until now. Young men with ghosts in their eyes, drinking until they could hardly stand, and morose to a degree that made him shiver. The future was their enemy. Waiting to get the chop, he’d say quietly to anyone who’d listen, but not many people wanted to hear that. Those young flyers knew a few of their companions, people they’d been crewed-up with, but they didn’t seem to know anyone else much.
The POW’s were like one huge happy family reunion by comparison. More astonishing was that each of them had a “turn” they’d be called on to do. The shout would go up “Barry! Where’s Barry? Barry – give us your Widow Twanky!” And Barry, or whomsoever, would immediately stand on a table and give a raucous sung rendition of the pantomime character from the pre-war years. The chorus was taken up each time with great enthusiasm, sometimes with several repeats. Then it’d be someone else’s turn whose trick might be to stand on a table in the middle of the room and do a jumping somersault onto the floor. The piano was never silent for long.
On occasions it all got a bit out of hand, like when young Owen (to distinguish him from “old” Owen who was all of about three years senior) was called on to do his turn. This involved him facing the bar, looking at his watch, giving a stagey gasp of surprise, gulping his drink, then turning round and sprinting across the room to dive full length out of the open window. This was always greeted with cheers and often resulted in an encore. But then one day after the third encore, someone who wasn’t paying attention decided to close the window. Owen wasn’t badly hurt, but the landlord was upset about the broken glass. But that was another day.
So the conversation around the bar that night about pies led to a discussion of the best sort of meat to put in the pies, and somehow the conversation turned to rabbits and hares, and how the hedges by the hangars were full of them, often sitting stunned by car headlights. An idea was born.
At about 10pm Derek and Roger and two others squeezed into the Austin Ruby with the landlord’s shotgun, some cartridges, and great hopes for bagging a lot of rabbits and hares for the pub’s larder.
The Austin didn’t accelerate very well at this point in its hard life, and chasing after the rabbits was a tad more difficult than they’d at first thought, swerving round the airfield, trying to get a clear shot. Twice they got stuck in some mud and had to push the car out, laughing and slipping. They thought they might almost have got one rabbit, though, and encouraged, went after a pair running side by side. Derek loosed off a shot.
An unfamiliar sound came back, and the rabbits ran on.
“I think we hit something.” Roger looked worried, “something that wasn’t a rabbit.”
“Better take a look.”
Bumping forward they saw that they had indeed hit something. Before them was a large transport aircraft, and they’d shot a ragged twelve-guage hole in its side.
Roger got out and prodded at the damage with his finger. It was a big hole, about a foot wide. “Bugger. That just goes to show you how dangerous camouflage is. We could have collided with the bloody thing!” And they laughed until they could hardly stand.
Back at the mess they hastily confided their adventure to one of their number who was dozing in an armchair, and he went and roused a chum from the Sergeants’ quarters. A few pound notes and some loose coins later it was all arranged. The next morning the hole had disappeared, and a nice fresh new coat of khaki paint hid all their transgressions.
“And that,” Roger would say, with a huge smile, “was how we came to shoot down one of our own planes!”
Behind the laughter was another story as I discovered later. Roger had flown over 100 missions on fighters in the western desert before he’d managed to get close enough to an enemy aircraft to do it some damage. Out of a wheeling mass of planes he’d found himself by pure chance behind one of the dreaded Messerschmitts, which was turning lazily back into the melee. His Spitfire was a very tired item, suffering from all the shortcomings of a plane never intended to scrape by in the desert. It was, to use his own phrase “completely clapped out.” He knew that if he didn’t hammer the German, and hammer him thoroughly, he’d simply alert the pilot to his existence and he’d be fighting for his own life very soon against a extraordinarily agile adversary. An adversary who had canons as well as heavy machine guns. He made sure to line everything up, aiming ahead, allowing for deflection so his adversary would fly into the hail of bullets. Then he pressed the firing button. All the guns opened up although two quickly stopped firing – sand got everywhere, guns jammed frequently. For a very brief moment nothing changed – and then the German flew right into the hail as plane and bullets converged.
Roger knew that his rifle-caliber bullets had very little stopping power. They could damage an adversary but rarely knock him down at the first burst.
So he made sure he gave a long burst.
The German plane lurched, seemed to lose way, and smoke appeared in a thin stream. Roger fired again. Bits fell off the wings and came back very close to Roger’s plane. Roger risked a third burst. This time he knew the Messerschmitt was not going to make it home. He broke off the engagement, looking around to make sure he was not about to be someone else’s next victim. Then he followed his quarry, which was now in a steep dive, trailing smoke. It seemed to be out of control. More wing parts fell off, small dark irregular shapes. It slowly turned onto its back. No one bailed out.
It began to show flames, licking along below the cockpit, and it continued streaming downwards.
Roger pulled up to a safe circling distance, on the alert for any of his foe’s friends.
He watched his victim crash and then burn. There had been no parachute, no one scrambling away from the wreck.
He’d just killed a man in cold blood, shot him in the back, shredding his body with machinegun bullets, possibly roasting him alive, too.
The kill was confirmed by someone from his flight, with a brief entry in the squadron’s log.
A few weeks later the boot was on the other foot when Roger followed orders to strafe a German airfield his flight had happened upon. On his second low-level run across the sandy strip an anti-aircraft battery sprayed him, and he felt the first hits in his tail. Then he felt a terrific whack on the head. The armored steel plate behind his seat saved his life, but the bolt that secured it was hit by a canon shell, shot forward, and buried itself in the back of his skull. Stunned, he’d baled out somehow, not fully aware of what he was doing. His parachute opened just before he hit the ground. He’d been flying at a mere 300 feet. Two miraculous escapes within three seconds.
Thirty years later, as he fought liver cancer, he still couldn’t forget that first kill, the oily back smoke as his victim curved towards the sand and rock below. He’d talk readily about the time they’d hunted rabbits, but hardly ever about his other kill, or how close he’d come to being someone else’s statistic.
I asked him about that and he managed a weak smile. “Everybody’s got a story,” he said. “The thing is which story you decide to hold on to and tell. There must have been a million stories like mine. No one wanted to listen anyway. Besides, everyone prefers the cheerful story, don’t they? It’s what you want to remember that counts.”
At the time he said this Roger was in a very stylish dinner jacket, presiding over a dinner dance he’d arranged for about forty friends and their wives, knowing that in a few weeks he’d probably be too ill to stand, let alone dance. But for this night he was going to have fun, celebrating friendship and life. Two months later he was dead.