Tag Archives: RPG

Riffs and variations on Abba, Dark Souls, charity shops, and bad analogies for grief

“It is not about Agnetha’s sexual awakening.”

“I didn’t say it was Agnetha…”

“Okay, then,” said Jen. “It is not about either Agnetha or Anna-Frid’s sexual awakening, no matter how much you might wish otherwise.”

“We’re just going to have to disagree,” replied Pete. “The whole song is one extended metaphor for learning about sex. All that stuff about being under a spell, finding new horizons, riding on the breeze. Spreading my wings. Spreading. C’mon, it’s not subtle.”

“Really? Learning about sex? It’s not that at all. It’s just Abba doing a 70s stoner anthem. Benny and Bjorn – probably Benny, he always looked like he liked a smoke – stayed up one night wired to the gills and wrote a song about soaring with the eagles. Maaaan. They even made the girls emphasise the ‘high’ in the chorus. You’re right that it’s not subtle but it’s about drugs, it’s not about sex.”

“You’ve got to view it in the context of their broader work,” said Pete.

“How so?”

“Name Of The Game. All that ‘I’m a bashful child, waiting to grow’ stuff. Does Your Mother Know. Possibly underage girl propositioning older man. Gimme Gimme Gimme. Frustrated, repressed desire. When I Kissed The Teacher. Do you need me to go on? They had loads of songs about young women being shepherded into womanhood with the help of an older man…”

“I don’t agree on Eagle but you’ve got a point about some of the others,” said Jen. “To be fair I don’t think you could release Does Your Mother Know now.”

“It hasn’t aged well. I know it was the 70s but…”

“Which one was your favourite?” interrupted Jen. “Agnetha or Anna-Frid?”

“Agnetha, obviously. Mostly for her voice. I barely noticed her blue eyes, blonde hair, or her perfect behind in those purple jump suits.”

“Now we’re getting to the bottom of your sexual awakening…”

“Boom and indeed tish. Very good,” acknowledged Pete. “She can’t lay claim to that though. I was too young. Maybe something stirred in my sub-conscious but it was really Jenny Agutter in American Werewolf In London that made me a man.”

“It was Simon Le Bon for me. Maybe Nick Rhodes. Maybe the thought of both of them together. Possibly on a yacht.”

“Easy tiger.”

“I was never the same after that ‘Wild Boys’ video,” said Jen.

“Georgie hated Duran Duran,” said Pete. There was a pause as there often was at mention of her name.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Jen. “After we first met it came up, I can’t really remember how but I presume we were drunk. She said she hated them but I used to put on ‘Planet Earth’ sometimes when we came home from the pub when we lived together and she knew all the words. I think it was like me pretending to hate house when she got into that.”

“I’ve still got all of her records, back from when she was DJ’ing a bit, a load of limited edition, white label, 12 inches that I don’t recognise. They’re with all her stuff. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“I think I can understand that. I don’t think she’d have wanted them to stay unplayed though. She always loved it when she could fill the floor and she wasn’t too snobby about what she played to do it, Duran Duran notwithstanding. In fact, speaking of Abba, didn’t she used to occasionally slip Mamma Mia in? Said it used to tip the night into a mess – place would go insane or everyone would go to the bar but either way it ended up in a mess,” said Jen.

“Yeah, she did. Maybe you’re right, maybe I should get rid of her records at least. She’d want someone to be making a mess with them if they could. Where’d you get shot of stuff like that though?”

“Charity shop?”

“Not much chance round here anymore, they’re hardly ever open to taking things now,” said Pete. “I think people were just dumping stuff off on them all the time. It was like middle class fly tipping: great piles of Dan Brown books, Fifty Shades Of Grey, three quarter size guitars that little Harry didn’t take to after all, Friends boxsets on VHS, twice worn tuxedos that used to fit, and stacks and stacks of CDs long since replaced by Spotify playlists.”

“I guess you could trek over to Notting Hill, see if the Record & Tape Exchange would take them?” suggested Jen.

“That would involve leaving the house and visiting a place we used to go to together. It’s been three years and I still don’t know if I’m ready for that. Every time it feels like it’s getting a little easier I trip over something and I’m right back where I started.”

“Two steps forwards and one step back?” offered Jen.

“It feels more like one step forwards and two steps back most of the time,” said Pete.

“Sorry, I guess it was the wrong expression.”

“It’s okay. There’s no way to get it right in words,” said Pete. “I think I’m going to write a book called ‘Bad Analogies For Grief’. I’ve been collecting them. The ones people offer by way of condolence, the ones you pick up in counselling, the ones you come up with yourself. There’s no proper way to express how overwhelming it is so you come at it from an angle, think you can pin it down and force it to make sense if you can put it into some sort of words… Want to hear my latest one?”. Jen didn’t fill the pause and so Pete continued. “I was pulling a glass down from a cupboard last week and it slipped, fell, and broke on the floor. Pieces everywhere. And the first thing you do after it happens is that you don’t move, because if you move you’re probably going to get cut. You freeze. And then you notice the big pieces. So you pick those up first because you know they’re going to hurt like hell if you step on them. But broken glass is hard to handle and even when you see a piece that looks like it broke clean it’ll sometimes surprise you with a sharp point and the more you pick up the more you start to notice that there are fragments everywhere, small diamond slivers scattered across the kitchen floor. And then you remember it’s the kitchen floor you both used to walk barefoot across in the morning. And you remember something stupid like making coffee and toast and taking it back upstairs to read the papers under the duvet on a Sunday morning. And then, as you’re remembering, you stand on a piece of glass you hadn’t noticed and the shock of it, the pain, makes you step again without looking and before you know where you are you’ve stepped into more and more unseen pieces. Each one a tiny broken fragment of the perfect, whole thing that you remembered. Just the smallest splinter, the tiniest memory, is enough to start it. Enough to bring you back to a halt.” It had come in a rush, Pete’s words tumbling over themselves. Neither spoke until Pete finally concluded. “That’s my latest one. My new analogy. The breaking glass one.”

“God, Pete, you know I don’t know what to say,” offered Jen apologetically. “I guess I’m supposed to say that eventually you sweep up most of the pieces?”

“Yes, you are,” said Pete. “Only grief doesn’t work like that. It’s like there’s a new glass dropping on the floor every single day. Maybe you’re supposed to say that eventually you go a day when a glass doesn’t drop. All I know is that I haven’t had one of those yet.”

“But you will.”

“But I might. That’s my best guess. Right now I think I’m getting a little better at spotting the shards even if I can’t stop the glass falling,” said Pete. “I guess I need to git gud.”

“You need to what?”

“Oh, sorry.” Pete laughed. Some of the tension on the line dissolved, eased. “It’s from Dark Souls. Video game I’ve been playing a lot instead of having to interact in the real world. It’s a really hard RPG where you die over and over again and when you get stuck and look up advice online people tell you that there’s no short cut to it, just that you have to git gud…”

“Get good?”

“Yeah. But spelled g i t and then g u d.”

“Why don’t they say ‘get good’, then?” asked Jen. “What’s with the ‘git gud’ thing? Doesn’t sound very nice either way.”

“I don’t know where it came from,” said Pete. “Gamers with too much time on their hands. The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound very nice but there’s a weird kind of community in the game. If you get really stuck you can ask other people to come into your game and help you out – online obviously, you don’t literally invite them into your house or anything.”

“There you go. That’s a ready made metaphor or analogy if I ever heard one. You need to add a chapter to your book – maybe a post script – about ‘Bad Analogies for Help With Grief’.”

“People helping? I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I guess you’re right. There have been moments, stupid as it sounds, when some random character popping up in my game and getting me past some impossible boss fight has been the highlight of my day.”

“I like the sound of this game,” said Jen. “I thought all those online things were just people trying to shoot each other and shouting abuse about getting owned.”

“I feel bad for spoiling it for you and wrecking the metaphor but people can invade your game in Dark Souls and just randomly attack you too. It’s all a bit arbitrary and chaotic.”

“Like I said. It’s a ready made metaphor. Analogies aside, Pete, are you alright?”

There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“This is just like Dark Souls, Jen. Repeating the same thing over and over again until you’re strong enough to move on. No. I’m not alright. Not today. I need to level up. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

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Pyre

It was still warm even as the time approached midnight, all the nights that summer were like that, the heat of those long days settling and cooling into the darkness but never quite fading away. We looked at each other in the dancing light from the torches velcro fixed around our heads. Jones had said it made us look like the colonial marines in Aliens. I was pretty sure they had lights that sat just behind their shoulders, attached to their back but I wasn’t a hundred percent. Sam would have known. He always knew that stuff and it pissed him off when people got it wrong. Little things that shouldn’t have mattered – didn’t matter to anyone else – but that really riled him. I remember one time Jones had persuaded all of us to wind him up by saying that we thought it was better that Greedo shot first, that Han’s code of honour would never have let him kill something else without provocation. He made us watch the original scene frame by frame on his battered old VHS copy of Star Wars (never, never A New Hope, always just Star Wars) whilst he ranted about Solo’s narrative arc from rogue to hero and how Lucas had betrayed his own mythic principals of storytelling in making the change. He didn’t speak to us again for a week and for the next month he’d pepper his conversation with “Han shot first” like it was some kind of mantra.

Maybe we should have realised. Afterwards people put it all together as if it had been obvious, like it had been staring us in our faces all the time. He sat around in his room a lot listening to Joy Division. Or lost himself for hours in video games and unreal worlds. Scribbled out rambling, scrawling diary entries – that came to light later – that spoke of feeling isolated and anxious and lonely. Wore a lot of black. But that could have been any of us and we were still here whilst he was gone. That was just being fifteen and a bit awkward, wasn’t it ? None of us liked the way Sam’s life got retro fitted to his suicide, as if everything had led, neat and tidy and processional, to the point where he felt like there was no point carrying on. It just wasn’t like that. He just wasn’t like that. Not all like that at least. We remembered lying in the park looking at the stars and listening to him run through his terrible Star Trek impressions. He could make the sound the doors made pretty well but Patrick Stewart’s baritone always eluded him until he settled on repeating “make it so” and “Mr Data” over and over again until we begged him to stop. Or the time he cleared the floor at the school disco after finally persuading the DJ to put the Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” on and he’d turned the now empty space into his own personal piece of performance art, a mosh-pit of one until reluctantly we’d joined in at the end. He must have bought his own copy with him. That was Sam. All of us had slunk off embarrassed afterwards when the DJ, presumably as some sort of revenge, had teed up Rick Astley. All of us except him. He’d just laughed and pogoed harder and harder round the floor bellowing “never gonna give you up” until we dragged him away. Like I said, Sam’s death wasn’t the only thing that happened in his life.

We’d made him a character sheet. I guess it was for old time’s sake. None of us had played a paper and pen RPG for a while but it had been the thing that had brought us together in the early days. Sam had started it, albeit by accident. That first year at school he used to carry a full set of dice – three sided, six sided, eight sided, all the way up to the d20 – around with him until one of the older kids had tried to flush them down the toilet. I’d managed to salvage all of them by rolling up my sleeve and hooking my hand up and around the U bend. From then on they’d always made me play as a thief or some kind of character with a high Dexterity stat: my role as the retriever of stolen treasure was set. Jones always ended up playing a fighter. He was the smallest in the group and always had the most trouble at school, his mouth forever throwing better jabs than his fists.  He was brave though. He’d been the one that had really saved Sam’s dice as he’d pulled the perpetrator away before he could hold the flush down fully. It had cost him a couple of blows to the head and a scuffle that ended with him ripping his trousers at the seams and having to spend the rest of the day flashing Spiderman boxers every time he wasn’t sitting down. None of us ever mentioned it again and none of us ever said anything every time he picked a warrior or a berserker or a knight or some big, strong archetype to project himself into. We all did it. Maybe Jones was just a bit more honest about it. Rob was always the magic guy which I always chalked up as some kind of ironic acknowledgement that he lived the least magical, most ordinary life you could imagine. Outwardly at least. I always liked how Rob held whole worlds in his mind. He used to write poems. None of us were supposed to know but I saw them once, discarded notes stuffed under his bed. Outwardly you’d never have known but inside his mind he soared. And Sam ? Sam used to mainly run the sessions. Dungeon Master. DM. In hindsight maybe it was the only time he got to feel like he was in control but you don’t think that at the time. Back then he was just the one with the graph paper and the imagination to plunge the rest of us into an adventure.

We’d written up his character sheet as a Cleric. It was sort of a joke about his family and sort of because we liked the idea of him being a healer. A slightly dark joke I guess but it wasn’t disrespectful. Not that we’d have ever said it but all of us loved him. Boys just don’t do that stuff very well. Just don’t say that stuff. We did crap jokes and head locks and arguments about whether Star Fleet was essentially an oppressive, militaristic organisation. We had endless conversations about girls who would never speak to us and whether The Cult had sold out with “Electric” and headers and volleys because we could never find enough people to make up a proper game. All that stuff we did well but none of would ever have told him we loved him. As well as making him a Cleric we’d given him really high stats. He’d have hated it because he always hated it when someone kept re-rolling to cheat their way to some ridiculous Strength score or insisted that they wouldn’t play unless they could have an Intelligence of 18. We knew he’d have hated it but I suppose it was our way, our useless boys’ way, of telling him that we loved him. The sheet was stuck to the side of the coffin.

I didn’t remember whose idea it had been to steal the body. I knew we’d all been uneasy after his death with the way he seemed to be reclaimed by his family as someone we didn’t know. Grief does funny things to families I guess. Before it happened we never really used to think too much about why we never convened at Sam’s house or why we never saw him Sunday mornings or even really why he sometimes left stuff with us rather than taking it home. Especially anything related to fantasy or magic. Just tame stuff like his copy of Lord Of The Rings or his Predator video, it’s not like we were reading Crowley and reaching out for the dead. Rob brought round an Ouija board once but we spent the whole time tilting it to spell out the name of some girl Jones was trying to ask out. Eventually he caved in and called her with the three of us whispering and giggling like idiots in the background. Obviously she said no. Funnily enough she spoke to us after Sam died. Said she was sorry for what had happened and that she’d always liked him. Not, you know, liked him but thought he was a good guy. It was awkward but touching. At the best of times us talking to Alison Miller would have been awkward but throw our sense of loss into the mix and the best we managed were mumbled thanks and intense scrutiny of our shoes.

After his death it sort of all fell into place, things became clearer. We were all told to stay away, that the family wanted privacy. No one ever came right out and said it but we all felt that we’d been recast as somehow culpable in what had happened, that we were part of the problems that Sam had, and not the outlet that we knew we were. The friends we knew we were. It hurt when they told us to keep away from the funeral and hurt turned to anger when we heard the details of the service. It just wasn’t him or what he’d have wanted. I suppose if we’d been older then maybe we’d have realised that the service wasn’t for him anyway, it was for the people left behind. His parents were the ones that needed their god and their church and their prayers to mark Sam’s departure from the world. I don’t know. Maybe we did realise on some level but we were angry just the same. We knew exactly what Sam believed in (punk rock, Ellen Ripley, some ill defined concept of magic) and what he didn’t (God, religion, Ewoks). He was passionate on it, angry even. A few months before Sam had killed himself Jones had briefly declared that he’d found God. After we’d traded various gags (“where was he, hiding behind the sofa again ?”) we realised that he was serious, or at least as serious as a fifteen year old can be whilst trying out various bits of identity to see what fits. Sam debated and argued with him for days. It was like the Han and Greedo and who shot first thing all over again but ten times worse. Quietly me and Rob thought the group might break up because of it, that this might be the point friendships fractured and fell apart. Then, as quickly as he’d declared himself a believer, Jones declared himself an atheist again. Or agnostic. He wasn’t really sure but, either way, whatever faith he’d discovered vanished like it’d just stepped on to a Transporter on the Enterprise and Scotty had beamed it away. Or O’Brien if you preferred Next Generation like Sam.

We even knew what Sam had wanted after his death. I don’t think he’d told us because he was planning it. I get that it might look that way now, knowing what happened, but it was just one of those conversations we had. He hadn’t even started it. I think Jones was going through a Trek phase and, inevitably given his warrior fixation, had latched on to the whole Klingon idea about good and bad deaths. This was after he’d found and lost God. He’d spun out some stuff about how he hoped he’d go out fighting, like Vasquez in Aliens or Boromir in Lord Of The Rings, and so there’d be no need for a funeral because there’d be nothing left of him. That was what had sparked Sam off, it was the chance to be pedantically right about something rather than some grand plan foreshadowing his own death. In painstaking detail Sam proceeded to tell Jones that his examples were flawed because, in fact, there had been all of Boromir left at his point of death, enough indeed to have a brief chat with Aragorn and to confess to breaking the Fellowship. He’d wound up being set atop a boat and cast adrift towards the Falls of Rauros. If anything illustrates why girls like Alison Miller didn’t really talk to us until catastrophic circumstances prevailed then it was this conversation. That’s where the boat came from though. Sam and Jones had argued for a bit about whether Boromir’s boat had been set ablaze by a flaming arrow before agreeing that it hadn’t. In turn that had set Sam to talking about his own wishes.

That’s why we’re here now, carrying a stolen coffin in the dark down to the river.

“Who’s going to do it ?” hissed Rob. We looked at each other, pupils shrinking as our eyes were caught in the glare of the torches. We hadn’t really discussed it, as absurd as that sounds. There’d been so much other stuff to plan that it must have just slipped attention. None of us had really spoken as we’d dug up the coffin and then replaced the earth to cover the theft. We knew there was something terrible about what we were doing but to us it was the lesser evil than not carrying out what Sam wanted. Grief does funny things to friends too I guess. We didn’t talk because there was nothing to say and, besides, we were terrified of being caught. So we remained silent as we wheeled the coffin, wedged across the back of two bikes, down through the woods at the back of the graveyard towards the river.

“Who’s going to fire the arrow ?” Rob tried again. Jones stopped sloshing petrol across the rowing boat we’d tied up earlier in the day. Rob had sorted it out and we hadn’t asked him how just as nobody had questioned Jones on the jerry cans full of petrol or the cords of rope and nobody has asked me about the bow. That one was legit. It was mine, dusted off from under some old sheets in the garage, left there ever since the end of a brief period when I’d taken up archery. Abandoned along with a telescope, my BMX, and a set of lifting weights: no future awaited me in astronomy, trick cycling, or body building. There might not be much of any kind of future waiting for me if we didn’t do this right.

“I’ll do it,” I offered. “Tether the boat so it stays close to the bank so I can hit it though. I don’t know how these arrows will fly with the lit cloth on them. We can always throw one on if I miss and then cut it adrift. Hopefully the current will take it straight down to the sea.” There were nods of assent but I could see the doubt. None of us knew how this would go. It must only have been half a mile to the mouth of the river, if the wind dropped you could just make out the sound of waves hitting the shoreline in the distance, but we didn’t really know what would happen.

We lugged the coffin on to the boat.

All of us were to blame for what happened next. Jones blamed himself because he was holding the matches. Rob blamed himself because he was holding the rope that was keeping the boat hugged against the river bank. I blamed myself for all of it. For not seeing the signs, for not joining up the dots into the bigger picture of Sam’s sharp decline. They were there now that I looked back at them: changing the subject whenever we talked about his life at home, evasive when asked about his random bruises, that time we got caught swapping notes and wound up in detention and the look in his eyes when he was told there’d be a letter to his parents about it. They pinned it on the washed out, faded black clothes, and the escapism, and the devil’s music, and the unhealthy obsession with the occult. Fuck all that. He was a kid that liked small f fantasy and capital F Fantasy. Just a kid that liked to shut out the voices around him by listening to fast, loud songs. And, yeah, maybe to shut out the voices in his head too.   Just a kid like we all were.

Jones had tried to light a match. That’s when it started to go wrong. His hands were trembling, in the dark none of us had noticed that he’d started crying and he would never have told us. Boys just don’t do that stuff well. As he struck the match he managed to lose his grip on it and it tumbled over and over, a faint flickering light, to the floor. Everyone panicked. Jones tried to catch it, like trying to grasp a dancing firefly, throwing the box with the rest of the matches away to free up his hands. There was barely a ripple as the box hit the water and all of our other chances to make fire drowned. Rob saw the box leave Jones’ hands and he went for that, in turn relinquishing his grip on the rope holding the boat. He missed the matches and the eager tug of the river’s current pulled the boat, topped by Sam’s coffin, out away from the shore. I just stood, numbly watching the scene unfold in a kind of slow motion by the light of the twin torches strapped to my head, holding the bow and a solitary arrow.

None of us really know what happened. All I’ll say is that I saw the match go out and hit the floor and then it sparked back into life as Rob picked it up. Later on, when we talked about it, none of us ever used the word ‘magic’ but we were all thinking it. Back when we used to play D&D, if things were going badly, Sam would always find a way to even things up. Holding the game universe in balance, he called it. Not cheating exactly – there was always a pre-determined chance for something extraordinary to happen and there was always a dice roll – but something to tip the scales. As the match flared Rob held it against the damp, petrol soaked cloth skewered on the arrow that I had resting on the bow. It caught and I gripped tighter, fighting the impulse to move my hand away from the heat. The boat had drifted quickly, maybe thirty or forty feet from the shore, and I pulled back on the string, smooth as I could, arms shaking, lined up my shot and then released.

Some god we didn’t really believe in rolled a twenty sided dice somewhere and we held our breath. One last check against my Dexterity stat. Maybe it was Sam, wherever he was now, holding the game universe in balance one last time for us. The arrow arced up and out over the water, its flaming point streaking across the surface as a blurred reflection. The scales tipped. The arrow dropped soundlessly into blackness, there was no splash. Gradually flames appeared, seemingly on the surface of the water, but as they tightened their grip on the wood, burned through the petrol, we could see the silhouette of Sam’s makeshift funeral pyre stenciled between the night sky and the ink of the river.

Enough smoke blew back to the shore that all of us could later say that was what brought the tears as we watched in silence as our friend made his final journey, the boat drifting out towards the sea, a trail of embers in its wake.

 

……

This is story 38 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is the first longer one for a while. Was nice to stretch out a bit. Your mileage may vary of course. I really like the characters in this one and hope I did them justice. Perhaps I’ll return to it later and tidy up the ragged bits.