Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Lender

It had been the dust in the end. Running her fingers across the tops of the tightly packed pages, wedged together on shelf after shelf Mary had caught herself imagining those same pages slowly yellowing, remaining unturned. The words contained in each book silenced by their vessel’s repose. Never thumbed, fingered, puzzled over or marveled at again. Never working their silent magic on those receptive enough to seek it out; or even forcing their will onto those that needed forcing. The unwary student. The time filling holiday maker.

The dust settled it. Her books lay dormant and unread, impotent. She plucked one from the shelf at random – Gatsby, Fitzgerald – and ran her fingers over the cover. Daisy Buchanan. How could she deny Daisy, laughter like money, the chance to dazzle and, yes, ultimately disappoint, a whole host of other readers ? With a brief smile she remembered the French doors at their first house and how she’d insisted on floor to ceiling white drapes. John had indulged her. Each and every time there was the hint of a breeze in the summer she’d flung the doors wide in the hope of recreating a scintilla of that 20s Manhattan chic; curtains elegantly billowing into the room. He’d mixed them Cosmopolitans and they’d idled away sunny afternoons. Maida Vale had never quite been Manhattan but her horizons had been unquestionably broader for having imagined it so.

What use was Gatsby on show on her shelf ? What use Pride & Prejudice ? The very antithesis of Elizabeth Bennett to sit passively, unchallenging. A worse fate for her Austen could scarcely have considered. The Handmaid’s Tale ? No foresight in grave and salutary warnings of the future that remain unread. Kerouac travels his road unheard; Kesey skewers authority to no effect; Orwell lays bare the fundamentals of how humans organise themselves and rationalise it but no-one bears witness.

Mary, fancifully, opened Gatsby in the middle, pulling apart the two halves of the book as if they were wings; the book’s pages forming a flat V shape like a child’s drawing of a seagull in flight. Since John had died she’d had little cause to come to this room, they’d called it the study but it had become more like a vault. Over the years, progressively, they’d deposited their accumulated wisdom in print here: Atwood to Adams to Asimov to Austen. That was just the As. She lofted the book around the room, opening and closing its two halves as if to encourage it, and its long neglected shelf bound cousins, to take flight. Laughing she took the book into a deep swoop, down to a row containing Tom Wolfe, James Joyce and Douglas Adams (all John’s), before circling back up and around to volumes and volumes of Shakespeare (hers), a heavily thumbed Lord Of The Rings (his), and, finally, a childhood copy of The Wizard Of Oz. Fly my pretties, fly. Why not, thought Mary ? Why not indeed.

Working through the rest of the afternoon Mary stripped her old shelves bare, neatly stacking books onto the floor. She swore that she wouldn’t get sentimental regardless of the memories bound up in some of the pages; strangely it was hardest letting go of a set of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Not because she’d particularly enjoyed them but because they’d been all John had wanted to read towards the end. He’d scarcely been able to remember what he’d had for breakfast but had no trouble recalling in which book Sam Vimes had first appeared and he insisted on regaling her regularly with quotes from Death, his favourite character. All too soon his favourite character had visited for real. There had been no quotes. Mary had found Death a brutally silent guest.

Despite giving her slight pause the Discworld novels were stacked with the others. Tidy piles of literature, spinning tales from the past, present, and future, offering up worlds and universes to be explored. Steadily Mary began to work through the books, gently sticking a piece of lined paper onto the inside front cover of each. The paper was blank save for the same line at the top of every one: the liberated library for the lost and lonely, leave a message and please pass me on.

The next morning, early, Mary rose, dressed and packed up her trusty wheeled shopping basket with her first batch of books. She walked to the train station, pausing every few houses to deposit a book through a letter box, book and house selected entirely at random. Once at the station Mary boarded the first train to arrive – an all stations to Aldgate – and rode it down six stops. At each station she disembarked, leaving a book on her seat behind her, walked up to the next carriage and re-boarded. She finally stopped at Harrow and had a cup of tea before returning home, repeating the random distribution of the contents of her basket.

All told it took four or five days to liberate the entire library. Much of it went out locally through letter boxes, some left in places that people might stumble across – trains, coffee shops, even one or two left in the surgery after Mary had to pop in to renew a prescription. There was no grand plan or attempt to think too hard about matching text to place, just a setting free of millions upon millions of words that were otherwise held captive – scattered like seeds in the wind in the hope that some might fall on fertile ground.

Three months later, as Spring stretched into the middle of Summer, there was a soft thud as something dropped through Mary’s letter box. By the time she reached the window by the front door and glanced out the street was empty. Looking down at her doormat though her face broke into a broad smile as she recognised the book lying there, face up: The Great Gatsby. Snatching it up Mary opened the first page and there, underneath her own previously written heading, were line after line of messages. Wonderful idea, thank you for sharing. I’ve not read this since I was at school: what a lovely thought. Some much needed 20s glamour, this really brightened my day. The lost and lonely finding some solace in the book and each other.

Mary turned the page and found herself reading the opening line: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice… Still smiling she walked from her front door through to her lounge where she threw open her French doors. There was just enough of a breeze to set a ripple flowing through her long, white curtains. Scarcely billowing and twisting like pale flags (if Mary’s memory served her correctly) but enough of a hint to conjure up those old Maida Vale days. Later she could whip up a cocktail and silently toast to John’s memory. For now she settled herself into a chair, murmured “for old time’s sake then Daisy”, and began to read.

……

This is the sixteenth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. I’m not sure I could ever give away all of my books but the idea holds some appeal: stories only really work if they’re shared. On which note please share this if you liked it ! If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

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Are you (and your duck) going to San Francisco ?

I know you thought it was terribly ironic. So very arch. The three of them flapping their way diagonally up the wall of your flat. Apartment. Loft space. Whatever the hell your friends are calling the places you live now. Earnestly discussing over a micro brew and a plate of sushi in some bar in Hoxton or Shoreditch or Hackney. Or a coffee or a herbal tea or whatever drink you’ve told each other is absolutely the only drink that can be drunk now. Somewhere with wifi anyway. And somewhere you can all chain up your bikes. Though why anyone would steal a fixie is beyond me. You’d catch them halfway up the first hill they attempted. Gears are progress you idiots, not some aesthetic mis-step away from some misremembered cycling purity. Jesus, if I never see you, your friends, or any of your skinny jeans, beards, or retro chic technology again it will be too soon. Casio watches were shit the first time around. Irony doesn’t make them better this time.

So, yes, you only have two now. I took the middle one to leave you a space. I’m sure there’s something you can pick up at Portobello to put there. Maybe a giant smiley face ? No one’s resurrected rave culture and remade it as some massive in joke of cool yet so, for once, you could take a lead. Strike out from the bearded herd. I know effort isn’t that cool but just do it before midday on the weekend – none of your friends will see you then. Still comatose besides their designated fuck buddy from the night before. You all declared love and intimacy passé, right ?

I stole your duck and took him to San Francisco. Fucking hell. It sounds like the sort of thing you’d say. Or read. Probably in one of those overgrown kid’s comics – I know, I know, they’re graphic novels – that lay strewn by your futon. The ones you bought when you declared that words were dead and wanted to explore your relationship to the world visually. Just before you declared print was dead and only experiences in-the-moment had validity. And then mindfulness was so over and it was all mindless hedonism. And then it was all about abstinence and simplicity (been back to your allotment lately ?). I’m exhausted from watching you make peer approved lifestyle choices. Anyway, you should clear up those comics. They’re a fire waiting to happen; one misplaced joint and the whole of Hoxton up in smoke. Thank God – or Daddy at least – for the trust fund.

So, yes, I see the irony but I’ve taken it. The duck has taken flight to the home of real counter culture and free love and Tales Of The City and LSD and flowers in hair. With me.

I’m sick of faking it. So maybe I’m swapping one set of clichés for another but me and the duck are off: we’re going to find ourselves and live.

……

This is the fifteenth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. This came straight out of a writing class exercise prompted by nothing more than the line “I stole your duck and took him to San Francisco”. I deliberately kept it to 500 words. Please share it if you liked it (or even if you didn’t…). If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring balloons, AA Milne, Sufjan Stevens and phone sex

“When’d you last have sex ?”

“Ah, come on Jen. I don’t know…”

“You absolutely do know. It’s one of those things men know, like when their car last had its MOT or the date England won the World Cup or something.”

“30th July 1966.”

“Sex ?”

“Yeah, obviously. Of course not sex. England winning the World Cup. And for the record men do not carry round a perfect memory of their sexual history.”

“So when was it then ?” Jen pressed.

“You’re really not going to leave this ?”

“No, I’m really not. I’m worried about you Pete. She would have been worried about you.” She paused, wondering if that was too much but there was no protest from the voice on the other end of the phone. “She would have hated to have seen you like this…”

“April” Pete said finally. “It was April.”

Jen exhaled in relief. “Hey, April. That’s better than me you bastard. Why’d you hold out on telling me until now ?”

“April 16th 2011. You’re right, I do know the date. April 16th. Three days before the accident and five days before Georgie died.” There was silence on the line, not even the faint hiss of background static. “Jen ?”

“I’m here Pete. I’m still here…”

“It’s okay Jen. I can talk about this, don’t make yourself feel bad. After… Well, after she died, it got to be that I felt like I was a one man field of land mines in every conversation I had. People tiptoeing through sentences until, sure enough, eventually, they’d brush up against something that set off a big Georgie blast of emotion.”

“I’m sorry Pete. I didn’t so much ‘brush up against’ as trample all over it though, did I ?”

“I think it’s alright, you know ? I’ve been starting to think that maybe the only way to clear away some of those mines is to step straight on them and take the hit.”

“Is that something from counseling ?”

“My therapist ?” Pete gave a short laugh. “God no. Poor guy. I stopped going a few months ago, put both of us out of our misery. The problem with talking therapies is they only really work if you’re prepared to talk and I just don’t know that I’ll ever have the words to explain…”

“…explain what ?” nudged Jen.

Pete sighed. “Explain the absence of her. The loss. It’s not just that she’s not here anymore, it’s that the absence of her is here. It’s tangible. Like a… like…”

“A ghost ?”

“Ha, yeah. Maybe like a ghost. Or, I don’t know. My parents used to tell a story, that they found hilarious of course, of when I was a kid and won a big, red helium balloon at the fair. I loved feeling it tug and pull on the string as we walked home, bobbing and dancing in the air…”

“Is this story going to involve childhood trauma ?”

“Brace yourself Jen, I’m afraid it is but you started this so no backing out now.”

“Fair point. Continue.”

“I loved that balloon. It must be one of my earliest memories of having something that really felt like it was mine, just for me. I clutched that string so tight, so afraid to let it go. I knew that one slip and it would be off, floating free, and not mine anymore. But, of course, balloons and five year olds is a bad combination and inevitably it popped on some sharp object in my room…”

“Your parents left you alone with sharp objects ?”

“They were quite progressive. Anyway, are you going to let me finish baring my soul or not ?”

“Sorry. I will not say another word”

“So, there I was, now with a long piece of string. No balloon. There were some trace fragments of it left attached to the string. A small red piece knotted and entwined in the end as a reminder. But where before it had soared – I used to imagine it would lift me up and fly me away – now it just trailed along the ground. Earthbound, broken. Apparently I kept hold of that string for two weeks, pulling the reminder of that balloon behind me round the house. So I wasn’t very good at letting go of things, even then…”

“How long are you going to hold this string Pete ?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. Sometimes I’m not even sure it’s entirely my choice.”

“How so ?” asked Jen.

“Okay, then, I’ll give you an example. Let’s talk about the sex thing.”

“The no sex thing. It’s been three years Pete.”

“Yeah, the no sex for three years thing if you want to get all pedantic about it. It’s not like there haven’t been opportunities.”

“I don’t doubt it. Decent looking guy like you…”

“Decent looking ? I thought you were meant to be building me back up.”

“Good looking then. Great looking. A veritable Adonis of a man. Plus you’re solvent and have your own hair and teeth. Women get less picky as they get older. Believe me, I know.”

“Alright, I’ll settle for good looking. Enough that there have been opportunities anyway. But when it comes to it the prospect of being with someone, of there being nothing but me and someone else, it’s too much. Someone else competing with the absence of her. How can I sleep with someone new when I think that the first thing I’ll do, when it’s over, is open my eyes, see that it’s not Georgie, and burst into tears ?”

“That might be a lot to deal with.”

“Quite. Ladies of Oxfordshire, form an orderly queue.”

“At least you’re imagining this happening afterwards. You know, it’s good that you can envisage going through with it” mused Jen.

“Oh, that is the best imagined scenario” said Pete. “There are various versions. The locking myself in the bathroom in tears version is another one. There’s inevitably a number of performance anxiety versions. Lots of calling out the wrong name versions, all ending in tears and recrimination.”

“Oh Pete. I’m sorry. Maybe you need to build up to it. Start off with phone sex first or something ?”

“Is that an offer ?”

“Ha ha. Can you imagine ? What are you wearing Pete ? I’m starting to get a little cold here, all naked and lonely. Why don’t you tell me how you’re going to warm me up ?”

“That was too good. You clearly have had some practice.”

“I love to practice when I’m alone” Jen breathed huskily into the phone. “What do you like to do when you’re alone ?”

“Okay. Weird now. Crazy woman stop.”

“Think yourself lucky we’re not Skyping” said Jen.

“If people actually shuddered I’d be shuddering right now. Do people really, actually have phone sex ?”

“Seriously ? You never did ? You and Georgie…”

“We were always together, there was never any time when we’d have been apart for long enough to even think about it I guess. To be honest I don’t remember telephone calls being much a part of any relationship I’ve had since I was about sixteen. Walking down into the village to use the pay phone, feeding 10p after 10p, just to keep going a series of awkward silences I was sharing with Laura Sheridan.”

“I’m guessing you and Laura didn’t… ?”

“It was pretty cold by that payphone Jen. And I’m pretty sure knocking one out in the village phone box would have raised a few local eyebrows. Questions asked at the Parish Council.”

“Now there’s an image I’m not going to be able to shift.”

“Well you started the whole phone sex thing. I was having a quiet night in, minding my own business.”

“That’s what I was worried about, that’s why I called. You’re always having a quiet night in and minding your own business. I worry…”

“You don’t have to worry about me Jen” chided Pete gently. “I’m doing fine. It’s just, like I said, not something I can just choose to get over. It’s going to take some more time I guess.”

“But you’ll let go of the string one day, Eeyore ?”

“Eeyore ! Ha.” Pete smiled. “Where’d that come from ?”

“Well, quite apart from your generally sunny disposition, your balloon story. It’s like what happens to Eeyore. Piglet gets him a balloon but falls on it before he can hand it over so Eeyore ends up with the popped remains on the end of some string.”

“That’s a new one on me. Who does that make you then Jen ?”

Jen sighed, exasperated. “I have taken on the self appointed role of Tigger, obviously. Your personal cheer leader, pep talker and grief counseller.”

“And Tigger’s recommendation is that I take up phone sex ? I don’t remember that in any of the books.”

“AA Milne had some hitherto unpublished stuff. Same homilies but more adult themes” laughed Jen before adding softly “anyway, I know it’s crap advice and I know it can’t much help but I’m all out of better ideas.”

“It does help” said Pete quietly. “You know what I was doing before you rang ? I was sitting in bed listening to music. The new Sufjan Stevens record. I was reading about it all last week, it’s about him dealing with the death of his mother, and is the sort of thing I should run a mile from. It’s brutally sad but beautiful, you know ?”

“Why run a mile ? If it helps…”

“Well that’s the thing. I don’t know if it helps or not, the consolation that someone else can express pain and loss so purely. It’s just me not letting go of the string.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s like those landmines and just one of those things you have to step on. Fall apart before you can put yourself back together.”

“Careful Jen, you’re starting to sound almost wise. I don’t remember Tigger being the wise one.”

“Ah but that was the genius of Milne wasn’t it ? Weren’t they all kind of wise in their own ways ?”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past three years.

“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.”

……

This is the fourteenth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. The title is pinched and adapted from a Sufjan Stevens song whose brilliant new record, Carrie & Lowell, was much on my mind when writing this. Please share it if you liked it (or even if you didn’t…). If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/