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!
55. New House
It's definitely a fixer-upper at this point. The first thing to do was replace the roof, as it was showing signs of rot. Then we wash everything inside and sponge it all down. Let it all dry, have a cup of tea, sort out paint brushes. Primer next, worked well into the corners. Discover that my clothes now have paint splashes all over them. Have a cup of tea. Choose colors.
I was all in favor of white, but my wife over-ruled me, and just as well too, because she found some really nice colors in our basement stash of paint cans we'd had there since the last painting extravaganza - and they worked harmoniously when once we'd sorted out the cans that hadn't dried out or gone sludgy. Just time for a cup of tea before we get back to work.
Next morning, up early, and time to do the top coat inside, plus a second coat for a couple of the exterior walls. I now have paint in my hair, and my knees hurt from doing the bits closer to the ground. My sneakers are custom decorated with modish paint splashes, but they still look a mess. Meanwhile my wife is sorting out the furniture, which goes surprisingly smoothly without any input from me at all, thank goodness. Amazon will supply and deliver, which makes it all a lot easier. The craving for a cup of tea takes over.
It's nearly done now, barring any last minute problems. I hope the new owners will like it, as they have been known to have specific tastes about these things. And that's OK, because they're learning about what they like.
Yes, very soon, at 7 and 5 my granddaughters will soon become the possessors of a rather fine, refurbished dolls house.
54. Rabbit Holes
Every so often I find myself a bit lost, happily wandering the convolutions of the web, finding out odd and unusual things. Today was no different - anything to escape the rant and rancor of the news pages. I found myself looking at maps of England and from there, somehow, I was looking at maps of London and the Blitz. The Blitz, for those of us who never knew or who have not cared about it, was the time when London was bombed by Nazi Germany, between about Oct.6th 1940 and April 1941. The map is horrifying. Just about all of London is obscured by a series of red dots which indicate a bomb and its blast range.
This set me thinking about the home I grew up in. At the corner, in Mr Newberry's front garden, was a long iron tube, said to be the remains of a V1 flying bomb that had found its way there. I recall we used to jump up and down on it, as kids in the early sixties. It was probably the jet engine's flame tube. Well, because of that memory I started to search this website (produced by the National Archives, so it was the real thing) and found that the site where my house was, twenty years before it was built, had received five high explosive bombs, approximately where our vegetable patch met Mr. Cullingford's garden. In those days it was a field, a long way from anywhere much, so I doubt anyone was hurt -- but still.
So next I looked up my father's home in Coulsdon, the other side of London, and found that, yes indeed, the diligent recorders had noted the bombs that landed on Winifred Road, including the one that had slid, unexploded, under the foundations of the house and had caused them to be exiled for several days while the Disposal Squad got to it.
Winifred Road, Spicer's Field; both miles away from London and no where near anything remotely military. That was a time the likes of which I cannot comprehend, which must have traumatized every last member of the citizenry, who grew up to parent the next generation as best they could.
53. Pub Chat
"Felling better then?"
"Oh God, yeah! I was shivering, shaking and burning up with the fever. Mind you everyone told me I couldn't have the coronavirus, so I knew I'd get through."
"The doctors told you that?"
"Naw. My wife and family did. Medical experts, all. Not a credential between the lot of them. They never go wrong."
"So it was the flu then?"
"It was worse than any flu I've ever had. At least I think it was. You know how you tend to forget pain after it's gone? Yeah. Well. I'm a whole lot better now."
"You're a bit pale, mind."
"I'm a lot better. A LOT. But there's a few things that worry me, you know?"
"Yeah. You see, when I was at my worst and couldn't sleep properly and my head ached so that I thought all my teeth were going to fall out, I had this dream. It kept coming back all night, even though I woke up about six times, and staggered out to the toilet. It still came back. The first night it was about a piece of paper I had to fold into a box, and it wouldn't fit. The second night it was about strips of cardboard that had to be changed from blue to brown. Or perhaps the other way around. I couldn't think of anything else. And all the time Kieth Jarrett's Koln Concerts was playing. Which I really like, actually, but still, all night?"
"Just your normal fever dreams, I suppose."
"No. You don't understand. In meditation they say that the thoughts that control your mind control your life. But what if you've got the flu and all you can think about is stupid cardboard boxes and Kieth Jarrett? It only takes one microbe to upset the entirety of mental peace. I mean, shouldn't we be able to transcend this?"
"Did you try to meditate when you were sick, then?"
"Tried. Couldn't do it. Brain was no longer my own. Thoughts not under control of any kind."
Many years ago, when I was still a young teacher, I'd set my classes an exercise, and it was to write about a defining moment in their lives. This always led to good discussions about what a defining moment might be. I'd get the usual sort of responses. The kid who wrote about the day his brother scored the game-winning touchdown; the first time Dad took them to a major league baseball game; that sort of thing. I realized that they probably wouldn't be writing about the day their parents announced the divorce, or the time a kid from their block was shot on his way back from school. They weren't ready to write those stories, let alone to share them.
It only really occurred to me how unfair I was being when this one kid said, "Sure, I'll write about that. But you have to do it, too. Fair's fair."
The event I chose was sports day, when I was ten. It seemed like a safe bet. I could recall that day in some detail because I was expected to win the hundred yards dash, even though I was a year younger than most of the kids participating. This was a big deal because the prize was a tennis racket, a big ticket item in our part of the world. I'd be running against Nicholas Bentz, and I knew I could beat him. He was fast and we were good friends, and I can remember his name because I used to call him Bent Fabric, which was the name of a recording artist, or perhaps a group, who'd made a 45 called "Alley Cat". It was lovely slinky tune. I bet I could look it up to check the year. In fact, why don't I do that now? Yup. There it is. 1962. He was Danish, it says here, hence his odd name. It can't have been 62. I was only seven then. Well, perhaps the record had been hanging around my house for a while. We didn't get many records.
The idea in the hundred yards dash was to run up to the tape but not break it. We were told in no uncertain terms that we should not break it, as there was no other tape. I think the idea was to run up to the tape and then rest our fingertips on it. We lined up, I ran, I got to the tape first, and placed my hands just above it, clearly indicating that I could touch it.
Well, that didn't go over well. I was declared to have come in second. That meant no tennis racket. Not that I minded much. I knew I'd got there first. Plus, I'd never actually played tennis and didn't know if I'd like it. My mother, by comparison, was furious - although she held it in until we were on the ride home. She wanted her son to have this desirable thing, so he could go and play tennis with the rich kids, and she could be proud of me.
At the prize giving Nicholas carried off the racket, complete in its four-side wooden press with little spring-loaded corner screw things, and with the Slazenger logo emblazoned on it. He seemed strangely proud for a guy who had, after all, not won the race.
My prize was Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, a charming little book with a green and yellow cover. Years later it occurred to me that I'd had far more delight from that little book than any tennis racket might have provided. I used it all through school, college, and eventually I used it in my own teaching of Shakespeare. Did owning that book steer me into pathways I might never have explored otherwise? I can't be sure. I can say that it helped to know the plot outlines in advance of reading the text in those pre-Grade-Saver, pre-Spark-Notes days. Both my parents wanted me to be a sort of outdoorsy kind of man; I actually grew to love books. Perhaps this helped me along that path.
I still have the book. The tennis racket was probably consigned to the local charity shop a long, long time ago when metal rackets became the rage.
I like to think that moment, when I got second prize, made all the difference.
"She turns the gas up way too high when she's cooking. That's one thing."
"Why would you care? I bet it doesn't add much to the gas bill."
"But it scorches the handles of the cooking pots and things get burned to the sides of the pan. I mean truly burned. It takes me ages to scrub them clean. I've had to buy special scouring pads that I can only get at the hardware store. It's so unnecessary. I can't tell you how I've sweated over those pans. I point this out to her and she doesn't get it. In fact I had to chuck one pan out. She was always burning the stuff in it, and I just couldn't take it any more. Then, yesterday, this." He waved his hand to show the bandage. "The handle of this one pan was so hot I scorched myself. All because the gas was on high, and the flame was going right round the base of the pan and heating up the handle instead. It's so, so unscientific. She already has the flame up high; it misses the base of the pot, so the potatoes won't boil and then to make them boil, she turns it up higher. I ask you!"
"Does it hurt?"
" A bit. It makes scouring the pans even harder, though. I tell you, it's driving me nuts. I'm not sure how much longer I can take it."
"How's the food?"
"Oh, it's good when it arrives. It's just the human casualty rate that alarms me. It's that I'm not listened to. It's that it feels like my side of things doesn't matter. I'm not present to her - that's the way it feels."
"I see." Pause. "I know you don't want my advice, because you seem only to want my pity. But I'm going to give it anyway. I'd advise you not to complain. If the cost is that you have to buy a new pot every so often, just do it. Buy those scouring pads and smile. Use a pot holder. This, my friend, is called investing in the marriage."
It was in the Craigslist 'Free Stuff' section, which is where he often found himself browsing when he should have been doing other things. He sometimes found stuff he thought he could use, though, and it amused him. He'd laugh at people who listed things like 'One top to a jar (jar long since lost)' or 'half a can of peanut butter, extra chunky. Easy porch pickup'. Those he copied to his buddies. Perhaps one day he'd make a compilation, just for fun.
A while back he'd found a nice-looking bicycle, but when he got it home he found it needed a new rear wheel bearing, so he'd picked up another bicycle that looked as if it might have the parts he could use a few days later. Now he had two non-functioning bikes in the hallway. But who cared? They were free, right?
This one ad made him stop, though. It read:
Free: one fancy greetings card. Unused, pristine, still in cellophane. Says inside "For the Best Wife in the World - My life would have been empty without you".
When they came in to the vet's office the first thing I noticed was the look of complete stricken anxiety on the man's face. He was carrying the labrador - which wasn't easy I'm sure as it was a big dog - and he was talking to it very gently. It had a gash on its paw and was clearly very distressed. There was quite a lot of blood dripping on the floor, too. But he kept talking, gently, softly. I could hear him saying, "It's ok Rufus. You don't need to be afraid. You know better than that." And each time he said it the dog sort of took grip on itself and got calm, for a while at least. Then it'd whine a bit, and you could tell it was in pain, starting to feel panicked again. He knew how to calm it, though. Intelligent dog, that, I thought.
When they came out of the surgery he was still carrying the dog, its paw in a big bandage. The vet's assistant, a kid of about 15, was doing something and reached over for the paw, And that was when I saw what happened. The dog, Rufus, moved quickly and bit the assistant's sleeve cuff, then pushed at it to keep the kid from handling the damaged paw. Quick, intelligent and utterly without malice. The dog had chosen to grab the sleeve, not the arm or the hand. Smart dog, really smart.
The assistant didn't see it that way, and started yammering on about aggressive untrained dogs, and lawsuits, even. Only a dumb kid would have thought like that, let alone made a fuss. Still, I listened and memorized the man's phone number when he spoke to the billing clerk. I didn't want to say anything just then, as my dog was due in next. I'd call him, I decided, just in case there was going to be a lawsuit.
I nearly walked away, I'll tell you that, just to avoid the fuss. But I didn't.
When we came out of the vet's office I saw the kid again and I mentioned Rufus, the lab. The kid scowled. So I just said, "Do you always treat people like that, here?" He tried to ignore me, so I said it again.
He didn't say anything. He went off and disappeared somewhere in the back of the office. That made me mad. I called the guy, Rufus' owner, that same evening. I'm glad I did.
48. All in a Day's Workout
It was the garburator. It wouldn't turn off. So we turned it off at the main wall switch, way at the back under the sink. Then we decided we'd better take it out to find out why it wasn't behaving, and that was when we saw that the reason it wouldn't turn off was because the magnetic switch (yes, it was one of those old ones) had jammed in the on position. Amazon didn't have one, or if they did it wasn't where we could find it. And the rest of the web was no help either.
The sensible thing to do was therefore to put everything back, because we needed the sink and small children needed bottles - and so on. This was a struggle, and we couldn't waste time because the older kids needed to be collected from school. Luckily I was at the top, pulling the unit up into the hole, while Willie tried to reattach the twist-collar thingie. He did that after only a short period of grunting and cursing, and just as he did so the sink fell on him. The whole thing. He wasn't happy about that. Yes, the supports that held the sink in place had never been much good, and now several of them had given up.
The only thing to do was to tighten the remaining clips. But we couldn't do that because (1) they're impossible to reach, and (2) they're set into the underside of the countertop. Which is granite. Not easy to drill extra holes in that. Therefore the only other thing we could do was create a series of wooden props to slip under the lip of the sink and raise it up snug against the underside of the granite. This we did, after a dash to Home Depot for wood. Now, the sink's nicely in place and we decide to run an on-off switch to the side of the bottom cabinet so we can use the thing like a real garburator. This would by-pass the broken magnetic switch thingie gizmo that we'd smashed trying to fix earlier in the day... Hammering ensues. Wires ensue. And then the dog jumped up to see what was happening and the saw fell and cut his paw. It took a while to calm him down, bandage the wound, and clear up the mess. A fast-moving lab can spread a lot of blood around a kitchen if he wants to. Then I had to get him to the vet because Willie had to be there for his kids, of course. So I took off for the vet with the dog whimpering beside me. While he was there the poor old dog got all spooked and bit the vet's assistant. So now we have a lawsuit.
Back home at last, looking forward to a quiet beer, we discovered that the connection to the drainpipe wasn't in right and we'd splashed water all over the kitchen floor. The downstairs neighbors confirmed that as it had also leaked into their kitchen. Actually, that was how we discovered what had happened. They didn't seem to have much empathy when we tried to explain. Perhaps we should have put the beer bottles out of sight for that brief interview.
Then Willie's wife came home and we told her the whole story. She laughed, and laughed and laughed. She didn't seem upset about the wet kitchen floor either, although she made sure we cleaned it up. She kissed Willie and she kissed the dog and took him off to give him a treat. The dog that is.
We were pretty tired after all that, so when the phone rang I was tempted to ignore it. After all, it wasn't my phone, it was Willie's over by the fridge. He couldn't reach it because he was still under the sink fixing the connection. "Answer that, would you?" his voice echoed from behind the pipes.
It turned out it was a lady who had been at the vet's and wanted to be a witness if a lawsuit was going to unfold. She said she thought it wasn't our fault the dog spooked the assistant and any way she'd seen that Rufus had only mouthed at the sleeve of the kid's white coat. So I said I'd meet her the next day. Willie had to look after the kids, so it could only be me.
We met at a little cafe nearby and talked. She has a dog too, a Red Setter, so that was nice. I liked her right away.
We've met every day since then.
I think garburators are rather wonderful. And vet's offices.
Dramatic? It certainly was - at least the way he described it to me. One moment he was sitting in his front room, dozing over a copy of the New Yorker from 2017, when the front door crashed open. Three men in soldier-type get up, all in black and complete with helmets, exploded into the room. His first words were, 'What have you done to my front door? It wasn't even locked!" But by then he was cuffed, on the floor, splintered wood from said door jabbing into his chest and neck.
It was, he said, all bit of a blur after that.
The bit he remembered - at least, the bit he told me - was about the questioning. It was straight out of a tv crime movie with two men on one side of the table in a grey room, himself on the other, and a large one-way mirror (it had to be, didn't it?) on the other side.
They kept asking him about the trash bins. Why had he moved them?
By now the handcuffs had begun to hurt.
So he explained, as gently as he could. He was a light sleeper. The wheeled trash bins make a lot of noise when people roll them out onto the sidewalk, and those people, his neighbors across the street, tended to put their trash out around 11pm. That always woke him up. Same when it cam time to put the bins back the next day. 11pm, rumble rumble, wake up, can't get back to sleep for hours. Therefore (he enjoyed using the word to them, the faceless ones) he'd taken it upon himself to wheel the bins out around 6pm at night and wheel them back again anytime after trash collection. No more sleep problems. At least with that lot across the road.
They went round and round on this. Who had told him to do this? Did he ever look in the bins? Who was he working for?
After a while he ventured an opinion. "It seems to me, from what you're saying," he said, "that these neighbors have been hiding stuff in their trash for someone else to pick up, or whatever, and you think I'm part of it. I'm not. I just wanted to make sure I got some sleep." pause. "what did they hide in there, anyway?"
That didn't get a reply, so he figured it must have been serious stuff.
When they finally let him go, and when he found his way back to his house again (try getting an Uber when they've dragged you out without your wallet or phone. Try getting a bus, even) his door was still smashed, but the house across the road was clearly empty.
He never did find out what happened to them. The man was a big fellow, spoke beautiful English, said he was from Russia. The wife was from Slovenia, pretty and very small beside her big husband. He'd liked them.
Spies, he reckoned - if anyone asked him.
You don't disregard a smile like that. It was so full of joy I think I blinked. You see, when she came to the table with the menus and that smile I had a flash of something, something that said I knew this person. I smiled back, of course, but couldn't for the living daylights of me remember who she was. I looked again. No, Perhaps I didn't know her after all.
The meal unrolled itself over the next ninety minutes and I focused on my companions, and on the food, of course, but I'd steal a glance at her every so often, and each time I did it seemed less likely that I'd ever met her. I began to feel foolish. I wondered if she thought I was ogling her. Because, after all, I suppose I was - but only to try and jog my memory.
The bill came. I paid and the small slips of paper to be signed seemed to multiply before my gaze. Where was she? Perhaps I should just ask her? Struggling into my coat I caught a glimpse of her at a far table and walked over.
"Thank you for your service. May I ask you a question? Have we ever met before? Were you ever a student at ------- college?"
She laughed. "So it is you." she said, "I was wondering." She told me her name and I couldn't place it, or her, and she knew it. She smiled again."You were the reason I went on to be an English major, you know? Nearly ten years ago."
"Really? So, um, what are you doing here?"
"Paying off my student loans."
I looked suitably contrite, I hoped, and began to mumble an apology.
"No need," she smiled again, that wonderful smile that had first surprised me. "I don't regret it at all. And yes, I'm very happy waiting tables."
"It's hard work, though... " I began.
"Ah, but literature, the stuff you started me reading, it taught me a huge amount. For one thing it's showed me how to find the joy in this."
And with that she was gone.
Margaret. Gretchen. Gretli. Gret. Gotti Gretli. My mother's best friend, from her schooldays. A generous friend of the family, indulgent to us kids, but a little too controlling. Gret went on to be the secretary for one of the important politicians in Switzerland. My mother married my father. Gret never married.
Driving to the funeral she talks all the time in an otherwise silent car. "Jim is dead. I can't believe it." She speaks as if addressing a convention. "Fifty years and more we'd known each other," she clutches at my mother's sleeve, a sob interrupts her. "Fifty years. Can you imagine it?" My mother, the widow, looks out of the window. No one responds. We're all exhausted and there's just no energy left. Of course we can imagine it. We lived it.
She's still doing it at the reception, making these melodramatic pronouncements. "It was only last year, wasn't it? Do you remember? We were all here laughing over dinner." My mother says nothing, knowing that Gret will want to make the event all about herself if given half a chance, and she has to maintain her dignity, make sure people are served food and drink, and that she is seen to be restrained in her own grief.
I avoid her. She becomes somehow, a manifestation of what we shouldn't be doing. We should not, we must not dissolve into tears. We know what's expected; we are to look solemn but not emotional.
Clearing up the plates and glasses, with my mother resting on the big sofa, it came to me what Gret wanted and needed. She needed a hug. A supportive arm around the shoulders of a dear old spinster, slightly hysterical in her loneliness, who had never had enough hugs in her life. That was all she needed. But she'd asked for it in a way that guaranteed she'd be ignored.
That was the last time I saw her.
This was it. Sandy was sure of it, and he could hardly contain his excitement. Sure, it was a long way away, but freight costs were steepest for short distances, and so it really didn't matter that this was in Australia. He'd get a decent rate on the shipping, considering. And yes, it was what he'd been hankering after for, well, years. Decades. And now he had the money. There it was in the pictures. A nice, running, 1918 engine for a v-twin motorcycle, overhauled and looking very complete. Sure, he'd had one a bit like it a while back and had given up on it, sold it, and regretted it ever since. That was because he thought he'd never be able to find a decent frame to put it in.
And yet, here he was, right back where he'd started over ten years ago, drooling over these pictures on eBay.
He went to bed that night sure he would buy it. The auction had five more days to run.
And then in the morning he began to feel differently. It was, he thought, a bit like a temptation - a temptation to get back into all the drudgery and sweat of putting a motorcycle together that was over a hundred years old. And for what? So he'd be the only one who had one. So he could impress people he didn't care about. So he could feel their gaze on his handiwork. Perhaps their judgment, also.
The thing about temptation, he considered, rummaging through the fridge for something tasty for breakfast, some left-overs perhaps, is that it's really nice when it's distant. Here's what I'd do if only I had the chance - that was what he'd thought now for years. But when it came close, when it started to be real, it wasn't the same. Faced with the actuality it was no longer quite so alluring. It was only when it was at arm's length, unlikely to ever come true, that he felt it, the powerful draw. The hours he'd spent combing the on-line auctions were at their most obsessive when he thought he'd never find what he wanted. But when he found it -- did he still want it?
Was he over-thinking? Perhaps. He closed the fridge door. Reheated pizza was what it'd have to be. But this engine, this beautiful engine.... Other people would just buy the thing and get on with it. But for Sandy that couldn't be the sum of it. And he knew then that the old cliche was probably masking a deeper truth. It was the thrill of the chase that was the addiction, not the achievement. He knew the trajectory only too well after all these projects he'd taken on.
Now it was time to stop.
43. The Way Forwards
"What you need... What you really gotta have, is short pieces. People like short. Write short and the world loves you. No one has time for a long piece."
"What about the New Yorker? They have longer pieces."
"Yeah, but do you think people actually read all that stuff? I mean it's way long. No one has time for that except a few retired folks."
"So - I should capitulate to the current trend for instant everything?"
"No. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying write it short and keep it pithy. Like a haiku except it's fiction. Like an advertising slogan. Short, sharp arresting. Like a Banksy image. Unforgettable."
"You think I can do that? I don't think so."
"Then you get all your short pieces and you put them together and you market them as stories for bedtime. Quick, cheery reads that will give no one nightmares but make them feel good and they'll be able to buy the book and give it to their friends at Christmas and not feel guilty that it's a real, heavy duty book." He paused for breath.
"But Banksy images aren't supposed to make anyone sleep easily."
"I've never lost out on even an afternoon nap because I'm thinking about them."
When I was sixteen, going on seventeen, I stayed for ten days or so in a rather pretentious hotel placed on the middle of a curve of sandy beach called Golfo deli Angeli, in Sardinia. The Gulf of Angels - and the waitresses in the dining room truly seemed to me angelic. Coming from England these suntanned beauties took my breath away. Especially Marisa.
My Italian was rudimentary, as I had learned French at school, but I began to talk with these startlingly lovely ladies and my Italian improved. It's funny how quickly one can learn when there's a reason to do so.
My parents were off doing their thing - looking for a home was their priority - and so I got to spend time with Marisa, who found me unexpectedly amusing, and flirted with me outrageously. The language difference allowed her to say whatever she wanted and then backtrack if she felt she'd gone too far. That was a trick I saw through, fast. And she loved that I had.
The Saturday before we were due to book out of the hotel she told me to wait for her that evening. And so I did. I was up on the balcony when I saw her arrive, perched on the back of a very new Moto Guzzi El Dorado motorcycle - the top of the line powerful touring bike of the era, piloted by a very handsome man with gold tinted aviator glasses . I took all this in and felt a pang of pain. So she'd already got a boyfriend, and was just playing with me. I sank back from the bannister and went back to my room.
A year later I had reason to go back to the hotel and I saw Marisa by the restaurant's main door. She waved at me and smiled. Confident in my command of basic Italian I strode forward with a smile. She seemed very happy to see me.
"Why didn't you wait to see me, that Saturday, when you were staying here? I looked for you. I was very disappointed." She pouted a little and laughed.
"I went and hid, Marisa. I saw you arrive with your boyfriend on his big Moto Guzzi, and my heart was sad."
"You felt that?"
"Yes." pause. "I thought I had no hope. I was very sad."
"That was my uncle."
"Truly. It was my uncle. I had asked him to come to the hotel. To meet you."
"Yes; He would have had to give his permission for me to be your girlfriend, and he wanted to meet you. And I wanted you to know him."
It's been a couple of days now since my last post here. Perhaps you thought I'd given up. Or perhaps it confirmed your sense that no one could write every few days and produce 50 different things. I'm here to tell you the good news. Far from running dry I seem to have stumbled into a whole new venture. I'm looking at The Odyssey - that well-known poem we all study in school and have no idea why - because I think I can see a deeper pattern in it than I realized. Yes, surely, it has the six archetypes in it, all in order, all doing exactly what they'll do throughout literature for the next three thousand years. But it has more. I think it also has a powerful message about allowing the animus to meet the anima, about the unifying of the fragmented self, in this case centered on the notion of war-induced traumatic stress, and how to heal from it.
Could it be that this ancient poem can give us clues about how to heal our past traumas? Yes, I think it could. For we all voyage away to a series of nightmarish places, and in the end we must come home or risk being utterly divorced from our essential self.
Yes, that's one of the core values, traced through, subtly and with great care for the details of how we change.
That's where I'll be for a while.
Call it a hobby. Actually it was a lot more than that, wasn't it? Joel had to admit that he was always keen to get back to his spare room, his brushes, paints and books, and be part of that world again. And he wasn't that keen about most of the rest of his life, truth be told. Except, he smiled to himself, he doubted if that particular truth would ever be told, out loud, to anyone. No one wanted to hear it, anyway.
Every opportunity that offered, he'd be back there, researching, comparing and above all else, painting the soldiers in their correct colors. When he was quite satisfied they were accurate, he'd get to work. This time it was the big one, the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. It would take several days to lay out the troops, move them according to what the historians said, and bring the whole to that final, fatal charge by the Old Guard, the one that wiped Napoleon's Grande Armee from the face of the earth, that ended an empire and brought in an entirely new era of politics.
Sometimes it made him giddy, just the magnitude of it all. He'd already done Borodino, Austerlitz, and a few other engagements of suitable size. He'd skipped over the Retreat from Moscow, naturally, and the Battle of the Nile.
And what Joel found fascinating, almost incomprehensible, was that just a very few soldiers, placed in some unlikely corner and refusing to retreat or give up, could change the outcome of an entire campaign. It was as if the other hundred thousand men hardly mattered, and the dozen or so trapped in the farmhouse at Hericault, say, were the deciders of everyone's fate. In politics a couple of bullying leaders could make big changes, surely; but here it was ten or twenty ordinary, dirty, dull-witted but stubborn enlisted men who could turn the tide of a battle, topple leaders from their pinnacles, re-organizing whole countries in the aftermath.
When Joel was doing this he felt more sane, more calm, than at most times of the day - a day that often felt chaotic and without any shape to understand. With each battle of the campaign he found he was moving closer to a concept of how the world worked, of how we were all insignificant, frightened and lost, but that by electing to stand by something we believed, we could be something else. Effective? No, that wasn't it. It was about choosing one's corner and sticking at it, wasn't it? Like those British soldiers in the farmhouse in 1815, refusing to give up.
Life for Joel had no greatness in it. He knew that. But when he entered imaginatively into the struggles of those men, so long ago, he felt he got a flavor of greatness.
Routine was, on the whole, a rather consoling thing. So thought Nigel, and he was happy, happy and perhaps even a little bit proud that because of routine he'd been able to avoid the stresses and strains of life that so many people seemed to suffer under. He'd got his approach to life and the office sorted out so he wouldn't be blind-sided, or any sided at all, when things fell awry. And there was always a chance they would.
Rebecca wasn't like that. In fact the very things that had attracted him to her, her spontaneity and tendency to alter arrangements at the last minute, no, the last second, now tended to make him sweat with agitation. It wasn't spontaneity, he decided. It was a basic lack of logic.
The trouble was that he was the one who was always called on to rush forward and put things right. He'd do it, of course, but some things just shouldn't have been allowed to get so out of control. When he'd met her - he'd never forget this - the brakes on her car were dreadful. Then she'd had a fender bender (because the brakes just couldn't stop her in time) and she spent money she didn't have to cover the deductible - money that should have gone to the brake repair in the first place. It was all so avoidable. But she'd been delightfully upbeat about it all and so he hadn't minded. After all, it wasn't his money.
Now they were married it was his money.
The next time there was a domestic crisis (a dinner party, and she hadn't had time to go shopping) he pointed this very example out to her as an instance where some forethought would have been useful.
"Your problem," she said, 'is that you over-prepare."
"Your problem is that you don't prepare at all!" he shot back.
"Yes," she said. "But I have a lot more fun than you do."
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.