I’ve been told to take it all in one gulp. We practised with a plastic wine glass, which I thought was a bit patronising until my trembles made me spill it down my jumper. I thought god, I’ll never live this down, which made me laugh hard enough to spill the rest.
As I hold on to my cup of the real thing my hand takes a surer grip, as though it knows the import of what it’s holding. Surely that’s ridiculous though; if my hand knew what I know about sodium pentobarbital it would throw the cup across the room, and possibly punch the orderly in his stupid sombre face. He’d take it, too – his blank expression matches his white gown in the illusion that he is a piece of equipment. Mum and Dad wait outside, sent away so that they won’t stop me in the act, and the human cup holder waits in here, all so that I can do my part of the process.
“So, are you a doctor?” I was never good with tension.
“Ah, not exactly. I am more of a technician.” His voice has that singsong Swedish quality, like life’s fine and the air is clean, and Good Storage will solve all the world’s problems. Fuck him.
“A technician? Like you fix boilers in the morning, and do this in the afternoon?”
Bastard. He won’t even smile.
“No, just… just this.”
“Just this? So how many have you done today?”
“T-we’re not really supposed to talk about that.” He smoothens his collar like it’s a job interview, like my opinion of him matters in any way.
“Just a job, right?” Despite the pain, I smile as I ask.
“Just a job. Better than telesales.”
“No kidding! That’s why I’m here.”
He gasps, before his sees me grinning.
“Sorry,” he says. “People are generally a bit more serious.”
There’s a single tree in the garden, strategically placed to be visible from my seat. A young cedar, I think, though it occurs to me that now, I’ll never know, despite Dad’s best efforts to teach me. On the wall by the window there’s a picture of the Milky Way, impossibly big and yet squeezed onto a cheaply framed print. I imagine that if you could magnify that picture, really blow it up over and over then it too would be a picture of that tree, and a picture of me and the jumper and the orderly in his gown and Mum and Dad outside the door in their Sunday best, dressed for a funeral they are uniquely able to predict. The tree and the galaxy sit together like hieroglyphs, a sentence made of objects, forcing their meaning upon me. I clutch at the think strands of wool, grandma’s knit, and I feel like her; sitting at the end point of a narrative someone else started writing two years ago in that GP’s office.
Light catches and pools in the glass, and dances on the face of the orderly.
“Try to be strong,” he says.
And what? I think. But in that liquid, clarity reveals itself.
With a smile, I chuck the poison back. It slides down to its destination, oily and thick. So languid in its travel, as though it has all the time in the world to kill. My throat tickles as I imagine the gentle ice spreading through my body, suffusing the pain, embracing my cells and singing them gently to sleep. Fight’s over. The heart, running for twenty-six years, finally getting its reprieve. Lungs relaxing and deflating and the pain, two years of pain, being satisfied and released. The blazing sine wave that runs through my mind quietening and dying. I can see all these things in that second, and I smile.
The orderly gasps, and Mum and Dad practically fall into the room. Mum gazes at me, her face frozen. I grip the seat tightly enough to tear it off. The orderly opens his mouth to speak-
The Milky Way spins on its faraway axis-
The liquid sinks into the carpet, undrunk-
“Dad,” I ask.
Dalston has its own constellation and the official designation is the Travis Perkins C-310, but you or I would refer to it as The Crane.
The Crane is Dalston’s spindly guardian and oldest friend. At night, its red lights trace a shape for the borough to see, and one night the quiet boy decides to climb it.
He is not a climber. His mother has told him as much and furnished his head with books on chemistry and Latin and The Wars Of The Roses to prove this point. Two of his books have formed a deadly combination: an atlas of the night sky, and the diaries of Captain Scott. They have… “reacted”. He knows the word for it now.
And these two books plus a penknife, sticking plaster, and a jar of peanut butter are all that he has loaded into a small backpack to make the climb. If he left the world of the earth behind, this is all he would need.
The crane has grown taller by the time the quiet boy reaches its base. But between the iron girders he can see the humblest, faintest set of steps, black against the twilight. He climbs.
He begins well. When the boy was even younger, he would climb to the second-floor landing, and he would read. Mostly, he read automobile repair manuals. The Mini Cooper, the Ford Transit. He liked the logic they followed; if you put every proper piece in the proper place the thing must work.
The crane is full of pieces, too. But they are so tightly bound together it is like crawling up through the belly of a big snake, into the sky. The red rust flakes in his hands like scales.
And then he sees that they really are scales, red and rippling in layers. The coils of the crane shift, and the crane speaks. Who is this, the crane says, that climbs me? The boy is a quiet boy at the best of times, and now he can barely let out a sqeak.
I, he says.
The crane shifts and scrapes, flicking its chains in amusement. Hrmmmm, it says, you’ll have to forgive me, but my hearing is not what it once was.
The quiet boy keeps climbing as the stairs give way to old, untouched ladders that flex in and out like lungs. As he climbs, the crane relates its story.
I am an old crane, it says; I have watched a hundred thousand babies born through all the windows you see around you. I have stood patiently and built buildings prettier and more loved than myself. I have spotted every train that runs from Dalston Junction to Canonbury and back again. And I am tired, so tired.
The quiet boy is tired. He has little legs, and the ladders are narrow. He tries to say Captain Scott’s words to himself but what he really remembers is Captain Scott’s book, the weight of it and the sky atlas pulling him back. The air he breathes is now Scott’s air, high and thin. The crane below him disappears into black like a mineshaft, and the buildings around him look like the toys from his room. He takes his deepest breath.
The crane stirs at him, come on boy, we haven’t got all night you know. There’s only really one chance to do this.
One chance to do what, wonders the quiet boy. But he’s getting close now, to the height where the wind starts whip across you and the rain stings your face, but where down would be harder than up.
The nose of the crane is only a few metres above him now, and then he will have to climb the girders themselves. He squints to see where he should put his hand, when suddenly a burst of light illuminates the whole structure in blinding yellow.
Something has happened, because now the crane is not a great snake, but just a mess of iron in a merciless searchlight. The quiet boy follows the beam up into the night sky and there is a police helicopter. He was so sure he’d heard the crane’s whisper, but now he can only hear the booming blades. And a voice on a megaphone saying you have to come down, that’s no place for you. Below, the quiet boy hears a banging. Out of the darkness a portly policeman is coming up the ladders, so he keeps climbing.
At the very tip of the crane the boy stops, clinging to the big, metal nose. The helicopter asks kid, what are you doing up there?
And the crane gives the most subtle creak and whispers,
“Now. Tell me your name.”
The quiet boy speaks to his crane. He says, Tim.
“Louder, boy. How can you expect them to understand anything if you won’t speak up?”
The boy looks up, into the chopper’s light and speaks to God:
“My name is Tim.”
Into the roar of the helicopter but suddenly it’s not so much a roar but more of a purr above which he can quite clearly hear his crane saying come on boy, tell them all.
He’s sitting astride the nose now, riding his crane like a dragon and above the wind and the rain and the night he bellows like Thor, Tim! I’m Tim, and this is my crane!
And the policeman knows, and the helicopter with his mother in it knows, and the buildings of Dalston know, and as the helicopter carries him off into the night, the quiet boy takes a last look at the giant crane, and one of the lights lets out a single wink.
Originally read at The Crowther Club: Sharing Secrets, 23/07/12
I don’t really know what to do with this one. It was originally supposed to be a story for the Bad Dollar project, but as it got further I don’t think it really fit with what they’re trying to do, and I had a more appropriate idea. So let this just be a fragment, a silly little story in a new voice, innit. Happy friday!
“You are a well-travelled person.” She gazed into my eyes and swung her censer.
“This is Beirut,” said Beth, “everyone’s well-travelled.”
The old woman’s mask of mysticism slipped a little.
“That’s hardly my fault. Besides, what can you expect for the amount you’re paying me?” I glanced at the sorry note on the velvet cloth. “Life coaching?”
I don’t know what I was doing there. That’s a lie, of course I know - I was living the dream, wasn’t I? Everyone comes within touching distance of thirty and starts thinking where’s my adventure? Why aren’t I living? Then they decide to go somewhere they’ve heard to be slightly wild and ideally they choose where exactly on the basis of their favourite ethnic restaurant, and we’d been to Yella Yella for Andy’s engagement in Feb. And when you get to your lastminute dot com three-and-a-half-star adventure, you’ve resolved to “go native,” reenact your own version of The Beach, but the Beirutians - is that right? - know you’re coming and what you want, so they dress up and reenact a parody of their country, just like the human statues of Elizabeth on the South Bank, and a part of you knows you’re falling for a charade, but you don’t care because you’re helping to boost the Local Economy.
I didn’t feel a lot like I was boosting the Local Economy. And Madame Valanna, she didn’t look like she was going to be able to put her children through college on our donation. She held my hand like she was weighing a bag of carrots, carrots that were more mottled than she’d have liked.
“Look, I’m sorry. We didn’t really know the exchange rates and all that, and anyway- I’ll write you a review, how about that? I can…” I imagined the look on the Features Editor’s face as I passed him five hundred words about Beirutian palm-reading. He’d choke on his Silk Cut. Madame Valanna’s face had turned a similar purple, and her eyes were bulging. Beth started, but suddenly Madame Valanna made a harsh hiss, and held up a hand for silence. Her nostrils flared and seemed to hoover the oxygen from the room, and her hand clenched over mine. She was pressing and pulling, her fingernails tracing diagrams and calculations across my palm. Behind my fear, I was pleased to discovered I remembered a little of the geometry she was using from GCSE.
She looked at me. “Are you… of the goat?”
“If you mean Aries-“
“The goat! The goat, are you of the goat, child?”
I nodded. I supposed I must have been of the goat. Madame Valanna’s eyes bulged further still.
“Danger! Terrible danger. I see a hatted man. A watering can, a cat without tail, and… lines.”
“Lines? That’s obvious.”
“Beware the lines. That is all.”
Madame Valanna’s eyes rolled back into her head, and she said no more.
So, we decided to beware the lines. Even this most authentic of adventures did nothing to lift Beth’s spirits; she complained that she hadn’t seen a single camel. She complained that there were far fewer beggars in the street than Lonely Planet had promised. She complained that the hotel’s food was too Western. Over Cottage Pie, I asked her why she’d insisted we stay in a Western Hotel. Because we needed some stability, she said.
“Well then,” I said as I groped for the gravy, “this is where your stable adventure gets us - Cottage Pie in Beirut.” In the back of my mind a new feature began to form - The New Adventures, it was called. A wry-eyed, sideways look at the world of middle-class roughing it abroad. Yummy mummies in saris, some reference to The New Glamping, and of course your reporter being sent around the world to sample this new trend. I stopped myself when I realised how irredeemably facile this would be.
“Have you ever thought,” I asked her, “how we make a living out of being professionally shallow?”
She sipped at the Merlot. Her face looked as thought her thoughts had somewhere better to be, and I’d dared to drag them back. She smiled, just a little.
“I know. Not a bad living though, eh? Look, try some. It’s not total rot.”
She proffered the bottle.
Looking back now, I wish she hadn’t. And in wishing she hadn’t held the bottle out, I know that I’m kind of trying to make it her fault, which is a pretty sore deal when she’s not around to tell her side of the story. But that’s the reporter’s privilege. And cause and effect is a pretty strange thing; you start to tie everything together into these big chains of meaning. This chain of meaning had started with her and the bottle but truly lay in my hefting of the wine glass, catching my reflection in it, and suddenly realising that when I saw myself I saw nothing and nobody; one of those mannequins in the Oxford Street branch of Topman that I secretly know I’m too old for.
I gasped, and let go of the glass. It fell from my hand, rolled majestically along the tablecloth, waterfalled over the edge and crashed on the flagstone.
“Ouch,” said Beth, “Seven years’ bad luck, that is.”
“That’s me sorted until I’m trying to put kids through school, then.” A cheap response. But it played on my mind as I was served a fillet of suspiciously pink chicken. I haven’t yet learned to make a fuss abroad like Beth, so I only said, “is that, ah…?”
“Speciality.” The waiter winked from beneath his fez.
“Bullshit,” muttered Beth. That night in the ensuite, I echoed her sentiments, bodily.
On the plane home, we tried to take stock of what we’d experienced. The point, after all, is to have a good story to take home. We live a kind of future-facing life, trying to package and ship experiences even as we have them.
“This is great,” said Beth, showing me the picture she’d just taken of me. My face was alabaster pale. Even in still life, you could tell I was shivering. “You’re still really fucked up. It’s a great angle.”
“Misery? Come off it.” But I knew it was. If the situation was reversed, I’d be editorialising her.
“Tim,” she said, “You already know how to work this. Gentle, long-suffering British good humour. A kind of Therouxian comedic misfortune. With,” she smiled, “a touch of the mysterious.”
“Bad luck isn’t mysterious. It’s bad luck.” I tugged at the foil of the milk carton, and a thimbleful of British Airways’ finest ejaculated onto my khakis.
“I call it misfortune. And ever since you angered the mystic Beirutian with that dollar! How thrilling.”
“I did not anger her! I annoyed her. A bit. If anything, you angered her. Your problem,” I said, “is not that you’re annoying. It’s that you’re graceless.” I reached for the iPod to drown Beth out after my retort, but at the moment the landing lights went on and I had endure her angry silence all the way through the stowing of tray tables and the buckling of belts.
I’m not a believer or anything. Who has time to believe in things now? Still, in the next couple of weeks I decided it might make sense, economically speaking, to make one or two slight adjustments to my life. Little efficiencies: I put rosemary under my pillow. I started taking the 37, the bus that avoids the building sites. Did you know you can get four-leaf clovers from eBay? It’s true. Look under Jewellery>Charms. Only £2.99, so I guess they must breed them now. Still, it counts. The third time Beth hid it, I hit a wall. A post-it note, cut to show four leaves and a stem, fluttered on the screen of my work computer. “If you want me back,” it said, “give Beth a tarot reading.”
I dialled her extension. I heard the phone ring on the other side of our partition. “Beth, this isn’t funny.”
“You’re right Tim, I’m sorry. All I ask is one thing. Please…”
I composed myself and remembered what Dad had told me about being gracious.
“…don’t curse me.”
The phone clicked and from over the divide a quiet splutter trickled out, and formed into cackling, piercing laughter. I heard other giggles start up until the entire Lifestyle desk was shaking with laughter at my paranoia. A stuffed black cat landed on my desk. I jumped up but couldn’t bear to look at them, so I half-shuffled half-ran to the balcony for a smoke. I had to get away. The problem with being a journalist is that just once in a while, people read what you write - especially if your travel partner has the charity to stick a photocopy of your pre-subbed work on the noticeboard with the header, “When Minibreaks Go Bad.”
On the balcony was another of my new audience. I’d successfully managed to remain an unknown to Sir Charles Lathamfere, our Chief Editor, for two years.
“Ah, it’s the Pilgrim!” Sir Charles clapped me on the back. “Cigar?”
“I’m alright, thanks. Health, y’know.” I fumbled around for my Marlboroughs.
“Is that so? I thought you were rather the adventurer. That’s what I got from your piece. Have you ever thought about a column?”
Column. That was a new one. You have to understand: column to a journalist is like the word tenure to a professor because it means safety, security. Bread and water through the door on a consistent basis and then, then, one can finally work on one’s tell-all book and the fabled Exit Strategy. I would smoke a cigar with Sir Charles with for a column. I would do many darker things for a column. I wondered if he knew that.
“Interesting angle you have,” he said, “very zeitgeisty, very now, very google. Very Vice. A Pilkingtonian odyssey through the world. And we’d find budget, of course… for the right adventures… tell me, have you ever been to Compton?”
I looked at Sir Charles, his eyes were wild underneath bushy brows which wiggled like fighting weasels. I looked back, through the French windows at the newsroom. Beth and her girls had stopped laughing now and were just staring, openmouthed. Nobody ever got an audience with Lathamfere, unless they had royal honours to confer or a book deal to offer. I thought about dodging bullets in Compton, about sampling expensive breeds of marijuana in Belize, about seeing the sun rise behind Machu Pichu with a bellyfull of shrooms and putting my thoughts on paper for an adoring public. The gonzo dream. I thought about Madame Valanna’s parting words, “beware the lines,” and about possible names of a new column.
“Sir Charles,” I said, “how many words?”
Short story from lovely colleague of mine, Paula.
As usual I went home straight after work, threw my bag on the living room sofa and went about finding something to keep myself busy. My internet had died from signal failure. My next option was then to think of an interesting book to read; but let’s be honest, most of the ones up on the corner were there for a reason: I finished them before they ended.
There weren’t many options left for me other than to open the fridge and think of something to eat: a styrofoam tray with two slices of cheese and a bag of sliced bread that had seen better days. ‘Tonight is definitely cheese toastie night’ I thought.
In a flawless routine I reached out for the tray but couldn’t help glancing over the door of my almost empty fridge; it still carried some of my unresolved encounters. Whilst standing there my thoughts took me far away…
Each one of the half empty bottles in the door was more than a reason to keep myself busy. They were stories I wished I had fully lived or at least dictated the end, just like I do with my books.
There were three: my trilogy had begun with some cheap white wine, then red and ended in a bottle of still water. Boring still water… ‘It doesn’t turn bad but doesn’t taste like anything either’ I thought. And all this made me remember the bottle of generic sake that lived in my fridge a while ago, for quite a while actually; until the day I got sick of it and decided to throw n the sink the liquid still left.
I wasn’t trying to make room in my fridge; the green of the bottle even gave me hope or at least the sensation of a populated and vibrant fridge. I just thought it was time I stopped filling up emptiness with sensations. ‘I’d rather feel deliberately empty’ I thought with pride.
A strange sound interrupted my moment of glory and called me back to reality. I realised it came from my stomach and I was actually starving. But that night was only a cheese toastie night.
I got offered a job in a wine merchants...
I need to mull it over…
Wenlock the warrior
At the mascot games
fun and sweat win every time.
Dignity is last.
Fetishization of the Past + Dread of the Present + Fear of the Future= Wrong, wrong wrong
Dwindling afternoon by the Tanjong Pagar...
“In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of...”
Berlin Hack'n'tell 13: Quil: A Processing wrapper in Clojure
Sorry for the slightly gestört presentation.
Here are some links to the projects...