Saturday, 13 October 2018

Episode Seven - The Family By the Side of the Road

I met this family by the side of the road, late at night, at the bottom of a lane, which they said led up to their house which was on fire. But when I looked up above the tall pine trees, there was no smoke drifting across the full moon above the canopy. Dressed in their night clothes, the mother and her two children pleaded with me to help save Dougie, their pet dog, who was trapped inside. How could I say no? ‘We’ll wait here,’ said the mother, ‘for the fire engine.’
The lane went on for a long time. I could hardly see in front of me, and all I could hear was the odd crack and rustle of the wood on both sides. Strangely, no smell of fire touched my nostrils. It was only when I got to a clearing that the house appeared, and was raging flames and radiating heat, which immediately scorched my skin.
A man was kneeling in front of the house and I assumed it was the husband. I put my hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up at me, tears and anger in his face. ‘My family are dead,’ he said, ‘I was too late, even though I ran through the woods.’
That explains it! ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I have just spoken to your family by the side of the road.’ At first, he didn’t believe me, then he sprang up from where he knelt and started running back down the lane.
I was rooted to the spot for a few seconds, before running after him, hoping his grief and trauma would be short lived. But when I arrived, there was only my car and the confused husband. It was not a cruel trick on my part and I suggested they may have gone back through the woods. He was anxious, frantic to be reunited with his wife and children, so shot-off into the woods to find them. Were it not for my own anxiety about his well-being, I might have stayed to flag down the emergency services, but there was something of a desperation in his voice which worried me.
I tried my best to follow, shouting for him to slow down, but he was elusive. Foliage constantly blocked my way; a sense of direction was impossible with no path. Eventually, I was left with a quiet eeriness, back to the same sounds and dullness which had followed me when I had first walked up the lane.
Just when I felt I was thoroughly lost and bemused, I noticed lights from my car and another poking through the trees. As I stepped out of the dark a friendly face greeted me. I reassured them I was not in distress, but there was a family and husband whose house was on fire, and they had gone missing.
‘That family,’ he said, ‘up the lane… the mother and two kids you say? They died six months ago. The husband was too late to save them… off shagging his mistress instead. He hung himself in those woods only a few weeks back... sick with guilt they say...’ As I shuddered all over, I heard barking in the back of his car. ‘That’s their dog,’ he said. ‘Someone had to look after it…’

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Episode Six - Meeting in Purgatory

You might think, if you are more rational than spiritual, more literary than practical, that purgatory (the assessment and waiting room for entering heaven or hell), is not real but imagined. Perhaps you may have loosely used the term to describe tedious moments, laborious conversations, Christmas with the parents or in-laws, or a regular commute. It is purgatory, because each second, minute and hour, is a painful drain on your precious time and resources.
And finally, some of you, who have a job and career which requires you to attend and sit in meetings, may have found the need to express yourself internally with the term: purgatory! But what would you do if it turned out the dreaded meeting was that gap between heaven and hell?
As is the case in all large corporations, I meet with people who I have never met before, who introduce themselves with grand job titles, which mean nothing to everybody present. This is where I find myself: in a windowless room in the basement of the offices, with no mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity, having listened to the loud-mouths having mouthed-off and the quiet ones spoken sensibly.
In fact, we all thought it had been a good meeting – which meant none of us were any the wiser on a range of unrelated subjects to the initial purpose. It was only when we were ready to leave, that a voice through the spider phone (which had not been working), stated that none of us could leave until a decision had been made.
Initially, we all blamed each other for failing to come to a decision, but once we had decided that a decision was unlikely, we agreed to reconvene the meeting. However, the heavy metal basement door would not budge, even when we banged and kicked it. We were, in effect, cut-off from the world, and so implemented an emergency response to our situation.
We established that we had no contact with colleagues in the office, the world beyond the office or satellites circling the earth. We had a half bottle of water in the water cooler, which we started to ration. As the hours passed, we discussed the notion that our incarceration was a consequence of failing to come to a decision. As inhuman as it may sound, it was not implausible to some, although neither was it credible. Having utilised a matrix drawn on a flipchart, brain-storming, amateur counselling, combined with leadership and team building exercises, we concluded that this was, purgatory, real and not imagined.
One by one we revealed our sordid lives: the affairs, the drug and alcohol dependency, the physical and mental abuse inflicted or received, the drowning of a cat, the neglect of elderly relatives, and a possible homicide.
So, we wait, to be assessed, evaluated and allocated to heaven or hell. And I returned to my laptop; only just now to be interrupted: ‘What are you doing?!’ exclaimed a woman, who I believe disliked me from the beginning. ‘Writing a story,’ I said, ‘Exercise Six, Management and Training manual.’

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Epidode Five - J Randell’s Schadenfreude

J Randell and Felix Metric were both successful authors of the dark and disturbing, but they developed a rivalry which was to lead to the demise of one and the imprisonment of the other. Their titles always topped the best seller lists, with sales at the high end and sometimes stratospheric. For their agents and publishers there was nothing not to like, especially when a little competition created positive publicity.
It was only when Felix Metric tweeted that much of his life was spent staring at a blank screen, that their rivalry moved up a level.  J Randell could not resist the opportunity to respond with some mischievous mockery. Incensed, Metric set a challenge that he knew his fellow author would eventually struggle to complete.
They had a year, he said, to see who could successfully publish more stories in the short form, either published or submission approved for publication. The forfeit for the loser would be a substantial financial donation to a charity of the winning author’s choice. Moderated by their agents, on the first day of the New Year, the starting gun for their write-off began.
At the first quarter, J Randell was able to prove he had taken a lead of four stories to one. Metric, well known for his sanguine demeanour, knew time was on his side, predicting J Randell (notorious for his mood fluctuations), would struggle to compete come the mid-way stage.
Six months in, they were neck and neck, but J Randell faced a dilemma all authors fear: 
Creative block.
Now normally this crisis could be overcome, given time, reflection and therapy. But the one thing J Randell did not have was time. He needed stories, fast and furious, and took a dangerous step from imagination to reality, to fill the creative hole.
His agent noticed the marked change in J Randell’s writing. There was a harshness, a coarse realism which punctuated each new story he produced. It was as if, his agent remarked: ‘the stories were true.’ But J Randell was on one, locked in creative mode, in the zone and not to be disturbed on any account.
However, come the third quarter it seemed Felix Metric had taken an unassailable lead, and by the final quarter nothing was heard from J Randell until a few days before New Year’s Eve. It appeared he was seeking a magnanimous ending, when he arranged with Metric and their agents, to attend dinner at his home on the top of the hill.
Unfortunately, this is where J Randell was to demonstrate how far he had departed from sanity, how far he had become absorbed in his own distorted reality. After Metric was crowned the undisputed winner, J Randell announced he had a great story to read, to round off a year of literary achievement. As they listened to his tale, he laid bare how he had committed the crimes in the stories he had told. Then, to their horror, the final scene revealed the poisoning of the food and wine at their celebratory dinner, to complete J Randell’s schadenfreude.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Episode Four - Stranger Then Fiction

At my last scout camp strange things happened: I cooked sausages forty feet up in a tree, our Scout Master showed us his willy, we were passed through by a ghost from the battle of Waterloo, and the Assistant Patrol Leader was accidentally decapitated. Facts are often stranger than fiction.

Our Scout Master was a gregarious man, who encouraged those of us who needed it and pushed those who were idle and sloppy. Perhaps that was why, on the first day of our last scout camp, I ended up a tree with a frying pan, a tub of lard, and a butane gas cooker, swaying nervously in the wind and cooking sausages.

However, it was when our Patrol, of half a dozen middle aged teenagers, stood to attention in the fading light, that we were told one thing by our Scout Master and shown another. Both were of interest. Our camp, he had said, had once been the staging post for troops preparing to cross overseas to fight at the battle of Waterloo. How exciting, I thought, but was confused by the constant childish giggling of our Assistant Patrol Leader. What the rest of us had failed to the see, in the dappled shadows, was the Scout Masters floppy flesh, unzipped and on display.

In our green tent, we laughed, extrapolated and feasted on our teenage hormones. Then everyone lay down without thinking, as if we had been told to go to sleep. We hid inside our sleeping bags to warm our faces, and felt the ground penetrate.

Then I wondered if I was asleep or awake?  There was an aura, a soundless state. In the darkness, the green canvas flapped. Odd, because the night had been so still and windless.

But this was how it all started: a vacuum sucked out the air and fear rushed in. I had to stand up, because I was expecting someone, something. I could hear running from the top of the hill, at an inhuman pace, sounding like flesh flapping inside old fashioned boots. Then we all heard it coming. Keep quiet, keep quiet, we all said, as the boots pounded and rushed in!

The ghost of Waterloo Hill, I said, as the torches went on. We swore, rationalised and speculated. Whatever the truth, nobody denied they had not heard and felt the same thing. 

In the morning, we were handed old cutting tools by our unapologetic Scout Master and headed out to a thick field of dew drenched ferns, to make the roof for a bivouac. Our scythes of long curved blade, stripped easily, but also bleed juices down our hands. This was how the flying blade cut off the Assistant Patrol Leaders head, as our Scout Master swung and slipped the cutter just above the neck.
He was found guilty of manslaughter and various health and safety regulations. We were treated for trauma. And we agreed amongst ourselves that we must have been possessed by the ghost of Waterloo, or why else would the Scout Master chop off his head?

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Episode Three - The Funeral Parlour Game

When Julie left school, she started her career as an apprentice at the local funeral parlour. Within six months she had killed the son of James Hogg & Sons (the eldest son surviving) and achieved some degree of local celebrity for her heinous act.

Fortunately for Julie, at the end of the trial, the judge was minded (considering her barristers plea of mitigation), to reduce her time in jail, but it will still be years before she is free. Perhaps she always knew that, before she took her revenge.

Throughout her young life Julie had worked hard to perfect an androgynous look. It was not because she thought her gender a mistake - she was happy to be a woman -, but ambiguoity was an over-riding compulsion. It also meant, in all things social and cultural, that Julie considered her orientation and paradigm as gothic.

This had amused James Hogg Junior, who had first noticed the flat chested teenager in college and was even more surprised when she turned up at his father’s business as the apprentice.   

Julie excelled in her work placement. The best part of her job, she told her friend, was the crematorium, where she provided aftercare service. Dressed all in black, wearing a slightly oversized top-hat, she would support either of the Hogg brothers presenting the ashes to grieving relatives. It was also how she achieved a little notoriety as the strange man/woman, who was just like a member of the Adams Family.

For Julie, there was an aura which pervaded the crematorium, an oblique peacefulness which was not obtainable anywhere else. She would love to wander around the grass expanses and patches of rose bushes, wondering how often she trod on the dust of people. It was also how she came to mention to James Hogg junior that it was a long-held ambition to personally experience the ceremony of death without dying. On hearing this, he was more than happy to oblige, although a foul trick was not what Julie could have anticipated.

Back at his father’s funeral parlour he persuaded Julie to lie in a coffin and then placed the lid over her. Once he had done this he left the shop with Julie on her own until the morning.

It was cruel and thoughtless prank which was repaid in kind a hundred times over.

What was never clarified at the trial was how James Hogg Junior had remained silent for so long in the coffin of his own incarceration. Julie herself admitted she had failed to anticipate the last-minute change in the order of services.
And another thing which was speculated on, but avoided by both legal teams at the trial, was if James Hogg Junior was alive or dead by the time he was incinerated.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Episode Two - the man who ate himself

I don’t know whether this is true, but I recently heard a story about a man who ate himself, how he ate almost everything apart from his hands, his arms, his torso and his head.

No one believed me, but they said: how can you do that? Well, I said, what I do know is he started having bits surgically removed.

But no doctor would do that!

They would if they were paid enough and he was a very rich man. They said he started on his toes, one after the other; then his feet, then both his legs. Of course, the big thing about it is, he did it, so he could eat himself. Every part removed was cooked by his personal chef. Flesh, bone and muscle, all made into a special stew, flavoured, so they said, by the rarest spices and herbs. The bone was crushed, and the flesh was wrapped around the marinated muscle. He said, it was the best food he had ever had, and that was why he became obsessed.

Then someone said: what’s that body thing… dysmorphia? Yeah, must have loathed himself, said another. It’s like suicide, but you do it slowly and surgically.

No, I said, it was the opposite: he loved his body so much that he wanted to eat himself. Instead of hating what he saw, he fell in love with his mirror image. He had to devour as much as he could, before stopping at the point where he would no longer exist.

That makes him a narcissist, came the reply. But he must be ugly now. Who would want half a man?

You’d be surprised, I said, and after all he is very rich.

I think, someone said, the moral of this story is that money does not buy you happiness.

Yes, it does, I said! He was happy. However distorted or sick he is, he had the money to do it. But none of us could do that. If I went to the GP they’d only give me pills or lock me up. They’d say, like you said, I had some body image problem, because no normal person would try to eat themselves.

But I don’t think he’s happy anymore, I said, because he’s had to stop. There’s not much left except for his hands and arms. Although I suppose there’s technology, because he’s had his legs replaced and they are bionic.

And then we started talking about something else. It was my turn to buy the next round of drinks. But I kept one hand in my pocket because I did not want anyone to see the bandage.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Episode One - the man with enormous feet

I was once very good at telling lies before I stopped and realised it was a type of emotional cancer.

Even today, I think I live a duplicitous life, playing roles, being good at one thing and trying to be good at another. Can I really call myself a writer or am just pretending? Some of the dead voices start echoing back: ‘you’re wasting your time… you’re never be a writer!'

As you can hear, low aspiration in my past was a virtue.

On the road down to the river is a sign that says: No Entry. That’s the sort of road I like to go down. There are always two horses on the other side of the water and some long carriageway shuffling cars along. If you sit on a bench you can meet a man with enormous feet and he can tell you:

‘See the world, don’t waste your time being in one place. I have been everywhere and seen everything.’

That was good advice back then and so I’ve started travelling.  

But it is hard this journey. I had to decide on a destination and found a story from my family which meant I might end up at Fiction Point. I am not sure if it is real or imagined. It seems real enough on a map, the middle of nowhere across the vast tracts of land in North America, population 438.

Migration and invitation, some of them headed out for a better life; stoke the fires, produce a brood, farm the land. Until things went wrong. No one said anything when they came back.

I think reality caught up with the lies because you can’t rid yourself of the past. Starting out with nothing, frontier life, less rules and law than there had ever been.

The dirt gets in the teeth, the sand drifts north then south, the sun is hot, and the cold is worse; the pots are fired, the land is broke, the money stretched until the money runs out. Old habits die hard in the harsh life and brawls in bars mean somebody is bound to get hurt. Perhaps it was their own fault, but murder, manslaughter all adds to one thing: it’s time to get out.

I don’t think this is what the man with enormous feet meant when he said you should travel the world. Above, they had made a mistake; they had only made it to one destination. But I think I am going to go there. I have imagined that I will look in the register of births and deaths and see something which intrigues me because I am a writer. I will be invited to stay at someone’s house, be fed and watered and sleep the night. In the morning I will notice something strange. I don’t know what it is. There is a young girl on a swing, and she is swinging like crazy, back and forth, back and forth, swinging in the chill of the morning.

Episode Seven - The Family By the Side of the Road

I met this family by the side of the road, late at night, at the bottom of a lane, which they said led up to their house which was on fi...