Category Archives: Fiction

Dying on the 5th September


This is a short piece based on the writings of David Eagleman contained in his book SUM. I first heard his ideas of death on a RadioLab podcast, and I decided to embellish one of them. Many thanks to him for allowing me run, or rather stumble along with it. To understand where this story is based, you need to read this short excerpt.

It’s just past midnight and this 5th of September is only a few seconds old. There are many recognisable faces on the functional cream mezzanine. There is the core, the ones that gather every year to mark the anniversary. These are the ones most likely to crave to hear The Callers call their name, but fear they never will. And there are those that have never been here before, or just once or twice. These are the ones that both fear they will be forgotten and also fear the better place.

Many are missing from last year, their places taken by those debutants. They came in through the huge entrance, watched from this same mezzanine by every Uncalled soul that passed away one 5th September.

Throughout the vast hall, souls are spread and have collected in familiar groups. Mostly by geography and nationalities, but often by interest too – sometimes centuries apart. Discussions are stilted, as opinions and knowledge remain at the level they were when they died. Although no one feels pain any longer, they are all left with the bodies they had in their final hours, containers that move without effort.

Watching over the arrivals, Teresa sits waiting for friends. She likes company on the anniversary, as opposed to her usual penchant for solitude. They say she died in a state of extreme spiritual dryness, that for many years she felt unable to reach God. Her contemplation on eternity should weigh heavily on her, but today she looks amused.

Further back, uninterested in everything, Crazy Horse is looking forward to returning to his family at the end of the day. He struggles with this place. It doesn’t take him closer to the real world that was meant to be behind the shadow world of Earth. The paint on his face can’t hide his tiredness, his disappointment. He is without his horse, there are no animals in this hall.

Arrivals are reunited with those that passed before them. Malcolm is overjoyed to see his darling wife. He understands they may not have long before The Callers demand him, as their closeness and childlessness means he will be forgotten soon. With luck, Dorothy will be too. She may, or may not, sit on the mezzanine next year. She tells him she loves him and they walk away, completed.

A baby, a resident of earth for just a few hours. A lonely soul will sit him on their knee, quietly waiting for someone to cleave them apart – a relative, a Caller. In the distance a Caller can be heard now, followed by the murmur that accompanies each time. Is this soul relieved or upset? Are they ready for their third death?

Jane is away from her husband for the day. The hall is a confusing place for her, like it is for many people, but her questions are unusual. And while she sits, sipping coffee and seeing rather than watching the influx, her mind turns to Seth. He was of huge importance on Earth, her connection to what she then called the spirit world. When she first came to the hall 29 years ago, and she realised where she was, she looked for him, restlessly. All the while her first thoughts on Earth, that Seth was perhaps a part of her personality, clung to her like moss. Until people stop remembering her, until she can pass, she won’t know if she channelled Seth from the better place. In previous years she has had long, pointless discussions with a man called Kennedy. Most learn that you can’t change another’s mind in this hall, but some don’t. Jane hopes that she can avoid him today – it’s a large enough area in which to take cover, but still a fraction of the size of the entire hall.

At a table close by, some younger souls are in the process of sitting down together, having just met up. There are many of them. A man with long hair is joking with a Japanese teenager. Their smiles are easy, and there are several others with them. Happiness is not rare but laughter almost never echoes around the high ceilings. Of all the tables over-looking the entrance, this is one with the sense of reunion. The first man, Evan, has the physique and face of a brawler. The Japanese man is slight. In contrast, a fat, short twenty-something cradles a large cup of coffee. This is Ally, bought here by an accident of youthful bravado. Of course many of the younger ones are here because of accidents; some could have been avoided, some were foolish, some just happened. Almost all left a great sense of loss and almost all carry that youthful sense of immortality with them – it will be a long time until they are forgotten, and they don’t expect their names to cross the Callers lips soon.

A Cardinal joins Teresa and greets her as ‘Little Flower’.
“Every year, Basil. Your instincts to play my older brother bring me joy. Tell me about your stay.” He sits down gracefully.
“My grandfather was called this past year. But so much of my family remains, and it was his time, a release. He has gone to the better place, as must we, one day.”
Her smile folds away, “One day? I feel forsaken, abandoned by God. In my years on Earth I rarely found him, and thought my death – or at the least my second death – would reveal him. And now I will never be Called; perhaps my sole calling was when I was a child.”
“But your family, Sister, do you take relief from being with your family here?”
“Of course…..but I feel I have cursed them as well, for as long as I am remembered, so are they. The permanent memory of me provokes a lesser, but as frustrating, memory of them. They are no more likely to receive the Call than I. I have denied them the better place.”
Their conversation continues, and another Cardinal, Alberto joins them. He and Basil greet each other and the three sit. They are joined in faith here as they were on Earth.

Jane is joined by Alan. His clipped accent and charm are far more welcome than Kennedy’s brusque manner.
“Have you found your dogs, Alan?”
“Have you found your Seth, Jane?”
Side by side, they stand. Alan looks at an invisible horizon beyond the arrivals, Jane into her coffee. The repetition of the place provokes disappointment for a moment. Jane ponders, to herself as much as Alan,
“Do you think the Catholics are right? That there is an answer in the better place?”
“I think you are going to find Seth, and I am going to find Tom and my other dogs.”
Perhaps hope is kind.
“How’s your husband?” He asks, moving to the mundane.
“He’s well. We wonder when his second wife will join us, we joke about it. I imagine you have quite the flock to be reunited with?” she teases.
“All will be well, Jane. My Jane will join me in her own time.” He stiffens. “Shall we sit?”

Clem and Alan sit together often, not just on the anniversary. Friends and team mates in life, they entered the hall twenty-seven years apart. They banter with one another, and Haydn happily referees and laughs along once a year. Their Australian burr carries across the viewing area, and they are too involved in one another to watch much of the action below. Hadyn was a footballer on earth, often regarded as one of the best. But he is modest, almost timid in contrast to the boasting of his compatriots. With just a cigarette paper difference in ability, Hadyn still doesn’t know who’s the better cricketer; or he’s not saying.

Below, the stream from second to third death continues, imperceptibly heavier than the day before. They want to be remembered, memorialised. But for how long? They sit there knowing that this is to be continued.

K For Krakow


I’d walked into the bathroom, and there were my new pals, nonchanantly carding powder into small thin lines. There were three or four of them, rolling zloty notes, sniffing the dust, holding their heads back. It’d been a while, but it looked tempting. I chanced it with this group that I’d know less than an hour, “Any chance of a bump?” “Sure, but it’s only speed, easier to bring over than coke.” “Fine by me, cheers man” and I took the proffered note. “Want another?” It was the older guy, one of the Outlaws. I accepted and he tapped a larger quatity out. It was fine and dusty already, and the preparation took only a few seconds. I bent over the sink and snorted greedily. It felt like glass granules. It felt like ketamine. I knew this because two months earlier, just before I’d set off on my trip, I found myself polluting a Friday night that had been dedicated to sobriety at the house of a friend’s parents with the same substance. Said parents returned from the theatre and offered us a line, with the caveat, “It’s not coke….” It altered me considerably.

It was late March in 2007, the trip to Kalmykia. After a depressing couple of days in Warsaw, I found myself in Krakow. I was staying in an empty hostel which was being run, through tragic circumstances, by a lovely girl, Agnieska. We struck up a friendship quickly, and she showed me around the city on my first night. One bar we visited, The Irish Embassy, was decked out with quite a few flat screens showing the cricket world cup – not everyone’s idea of fun, but they were loving it as the Irish had just recently scored their famous victory over Pakistan (that game being the highlight of my time in Warsaw). And as for me, well, I devised a nifty strategy of sightseeing in the mornings and then pulling up a stool and watching a match most evenings. I got friendly with the bar staff, and The Embassy became a second home.

Agnieska was very welcoming, and I was often invited over to the flat she shared with some EFL teachers for dinner. During one of these dinners, I discovered a very common attitude to drugs in eastern Europe – anything, pot, mushrooms, coke, E, anything is as bad as heroin. I just agreed, as I didn’t want to be rude or have a poitnless discussion. I’d been flirting with drugs, or rather, had been involved in something of a dirty, destructive affair with them, before I left England, and I had no desire to talk about it.

The clientele of The Embassy was as you would expect. Transient, and I would rarely see the same faces twice. Weekends were busiest, naturally, with stag parties and weekenders taking advantage of the cheap flights that service John Paull II airport. On the Friday in question, I was sat in front of the big screen upstairs and the rowdy early evening crowds were mostly uninterested in the match. I was male multi-tasking – watching the game, watching the people, reading my book, drinking beer and smoking fags. I was at a large table, alone until an Irishman asked to join, with his party of pals over from Dublin. Happy to have the company we started talking about the usual, and it turned out that this was a birthday party away from the judging eyes of girlfriends and wives.

They bought over a pint of Zywiec lager for me and I explained my journey, they showed polite interest. In amongst the usual shuffle of a busy table, I found myself sitting next to two fellas wearing leather and patches – members of the Dublin chapter of The Outlaws Motorcycle Club. In my youth, a friend’s sister had dated a couple of members of The Cheltenham Wolves MC that were “over-patched” (I’ve only got this parlance from Sons Of Anarchy recently, it could be way off) by The Outlaws during the few months some of us spent hanging out in the clubhouse and The Nightowl club in Cheltenham. It was a world of speed, prospects and the faintest smell of criminality and violence that we chose to ignore.

With a lubricated tongue I shared my limited experience with these almost comically stereotypical bikers. I say almost comically, because they were every inch the calm-before-the-storm violence that one might expect. Facing limited conversation with them, I turned to some others in the party and after three pints, I was ready to break the seal. And that’s when I foolishly accepted the offers.

I walked out of the bathroom and dialled Agnieska’s number. Could I come over? I needed to get out of the bar before a reapeat of the evening in the Cotswolds took hold, where I was convinced, for over an hour, that my left hand operated a digger control for my right arm. It was the only way I could get the tea I’d been given that night, and I was worried how a much larger dose might react with the beer I’d had.

Much of the rest of the night disappeared. I came to, although I hadn’t been unconscious, in the living room of Agnieska’s flat, watching Kill Bill Volume II, dubbed in Polish. I was drinking tea. She turned to me and said, “Wow, you were really drunk.”

A Snack Whilst Driving


As he left the Tesco Express he reached into his pocket and thumbed his key fob, clicking him access to his driver’s side door. He pulled it open and dumped his plastic bag onto the passenger seat. Standing between the door and the interior, Shaw took a glance around, feeling more guilty party than hunting policeman. No one saw him, and he fell into the car, pulling his body around with a practiced swing from the steering wheel. With the key stashed in the ignition, he took a sausage roll from the bag and let the greasy pastry sit between his lips, the thick smell drift into his nostrils and even stared at the brown food down the length of his nose. As his teeth delivered his first mouthful, his eyes fell shut and dopamine flooded his brain, satisfaction his mood. For a few nanoseconds Shaw was nothing – gloriously void, nothing, an atom in an infinite universe. But the feeling was like greased lightening, and Shaw finished the rest of the junk in less than a minute, fruitlessly chasing that initial feeling. He pulled a Pepperami out of the bag, and pushed it clear of its sheath and down his throat equally quickly. A briefer, sharper pin prick of pleasure accompanied this snack, and Shaw began to rationalise.

The journey back into town was about 20 minutes, studded with patches of immobility at traffic lights. This meant that whilst the thick milkshake was gripped between his thighs, on the passenger seat the coleslaw could sit against the backrest and a couple of sandwiches could remain within reach nearby. The pouch of chicken bites were opened and placed back in the plastic bag, as was the plastic tray of assorted sliced meats; chorizo, prosciutto and salami. Bags of pork scratchings, Mini Cheddars and Twiglets were opened and allowed free in the plastic bag. A small bucket of rocky road bite-sized treats sat next to the coleslaw, without its lid. Finally, a packet of premium tortilla chips was prised apart, to be used as a fork for the mayonnaise heavy coleslaw. This was the one flaw in the meal, and Shaw resolved to only consume this dish when stationary. It needed two hands, after all. He felt dreadful already; on the near horizon was a sugar crash, dragging his guilt further under to depression. Then there would be the firm, utter commitment that that was the last time. He was getting ahead of himself however; how was he to enjoy this moment with fears of the future. What did it say in Desiderata? “But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.” Not really the future, he thought, but appropriate. Or was it? “Imaginings” can be regarded as the future, he decided. And his were dark; the darkest times were always before a session. Some crap about the darkest time of night being before the dawn sprung to mind, but almost without realising, Shaw was on the road and pushing a large slice of salami into the shape of a flower as his mouth enveloped it.

Shaw wiped his fingers on the chamois cloth that he took from the door pocket. He had to reach across his body with his left hand, but kept his eyes on the road ahead, keeping the car to the correct side of the cat’s eyes. Not one bump. The brightening of the red tail lights ahead bought a terrific surge of excitement to him. He palmed a handful of chicken bites into his face, only one spilling free and rolling the length of his tie before lodging in the fold of his trouser fly. He found it, blindly, and after depositing the errant strings of flesh into his moist cavern. As he braked, the absolute control of the car was the complete reverse of Shaw’s ability to control his appetite. Stopped, he took a handful, too large, of tortillas. He half dipped, half poured the coleslaw onto them and crammed them in. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and Shaw’s eyes darted from the rear-view mirror to the massed red lights ahead. Three cars ahead of him, Shaw could see his wife’s car, the back door adorned with the distinctive legged-fish symbol encasing the name Darwin. He just looked at it for a few seconds, checking, re-checking and then breathed in hard. Tortilla dust tickled his throat and coleslaw got pulled so far down his windpipe that he coughed like a first time smoker. Saliva flecked the windscreen, chunks of carrot hit the dashboard and corn-based chip went everywhere.

A Short Story Inspired By This Painting


On Reflection

“Honey, you gotta stop rushing me, you know I hate these things.” Buzz Word was stroking his thinning hair back across his scalp. Fifth anniversary or not, he was none too keen on the person he saw in the mirror of the bathroom.

“Buzzy, I just know how long you take, we got time, I just want everything to be perfect, I want you to be my big handsome man in a picture that lasts forever.” She was excited and nervous as she shouted through from the bedroom. She took her dress from its hanger and lay it down on the bed, with the pride and tenderness of a new mother.

Buzz stopped staring at himself. There would be time for regret later, but before the act it was completely without point. He filled the sink with steaming water from the kettle, contaminated it with some cold and plunged his hands in, pulling a wash over his whole face at once. He allowed his face to drip into his soap and submerged his badger brush. In one movement the brush left the sink, took three fast circuits of the soap and landed on his face, carelessly smattering his cheeks and chin with lather.

Sadie dropped her robe from her shoulders. In the full length mirror she examined herself. From this distance she could reflect on her trained posture, but also her detail such as the lace trim of her new panties. Despite closing in on thirty, she had a body that she was still proud of; apart from her Worry, as she had taken to calling it. Of course, having not yet been blessed meant that her stomach was quite flat, and certainly not stretched. As her eyes lifted she settled on her breasts. She sighed, picked up the second part of her new underwear set and turned away from the betraying, polished rectangle.

Meanwhile, across the hall, a man with a pit in his stomach tapped his razor clean on the porcelain. He was staring at the image of his fingers running across his now smooth face (not the eyes, Buzz, not the eyes) and then dropping (keep away from the eyes Buzz) to his neck. He felt himself lucky not to have the impossible wilds of chest hair with which his father was cursed. The poor man knew not where to end his daily scrape, whereas Buzz had just a flourish of hair crowning the top seam of his undershirt. He pulled the plug on the scummy, flecked water and idly wondered how he could do the same to his marriage.

At her dressing table, a gift from Buzz two years ago to the day, Sadie peered as close to herself as she could without blurring her second face with condensation. Carefully she painted her lips, but even with this concentration she looked at her Worry, now cradled in the cup of her brassiere. Had Buzz realised the lump before her? He was so reserved at times, so quiet. Just recently the withdrawal had been worse, and Sadie feared of telling him of the Worry. It had been the taking of her mother, but she had been 10 years older than Sadie was now. It really was a Worry, she thought, as she lay down her thin brush and dried her lips on some weak tissue. She cursed lightly when some of the paper remained on her upper lip, but it didn’t ruin her gloss once she had removed it. Besides, she had bigger worries, such as making sure Buzz was ready in time. She wanted to enjoy the short walk to the chemist’s shop in this beautiful sunshine.

His left thumb pushed the button through the hole where it was received by the opposing thumb and its neighbouring forefinger. Buzz’s eyes rested on his wedding band. Maybe he shouldn’t leave. He loved Sadie, after all. But he had to be with Jane, and they had agreed that they would leave their spouses as one, tonight, and take the drive to Canton, Ohio, so far away from here. There was work in the Dueber-Hampden factory for them both; Jane’s brother had assured them. In the months of conversations, agreements and finally planning, Buzz had never seen this day truly coming. He snapped the collar closed and looked at the eyes staring back at him through the light mist. Taking the Brilliantine from the shelf, he palmed a little between his hands, warming it before flattening it over his hair. He took his comb and with each stroke of his scalp considered how he was to tell Sadie, and when. After we have had this infernal photograph taken, he mouthed at the man about to break his sweetheart clean in two.

The good wife, lost in the motion of brushing her hair, saw the bedside clock reversed over her shoulder. Looking around, she realised she had been dwelling a little, and that they had only a few minutes to walk to Billy Howard’s store. “Buzzy, darling, are you ready?” “I am now,” he said as he walked into the bedroom, fastening his tie, smiling an unsure little crease across his square jaw. Sadie’s thoughts brightened. (What a handsome man, how lucky I am.) But darkened so soon, as often happened nowadays. (How sad I am that I have the Worry, and what it will mean.)

She put the brush down, stood up. Without a word, she took his arm and they left the apartment block, Buzz locking the door behind them. They soon arrived at the chemist’s and Billy showed them to the back room, with the warm greeting of a man entranced by his new photographic equipment, and the money it might make him. He positioned his subjects as he had been taught; this was the classic composition, apparently. Any awkwardness that Buzz and Sadie felt left as they caught one another’s eyes in the camera lens. They smiled and thought as one, “I’ll share my bad news later.”

Sveta Wonders Why Nic Plays With Her


The result of playing and practicing chess for so long was restless and ill-tempered tossing and turning in bed. Normally it would take Sveta just a few minutes to fall asleep; more and more her days were empty, and she was left with nothing more taxing than imaginings of the outside world as she embraced the freedom of dreams. A certain knowledge that she was safe from the outside world of drunks and hooligans, behind her sturdy two doors, and five floors and a concierge between the violence of the street, tended to envelope her at night. It was as if she was able to click off the anglepoise spotlighting and x-raying the horrors beyond her door, and the darkness was ignorance to the illumination before.

But there was no release from the game. Or rather there was no release from one problem the Nic had posed. She enjoyed the intellectual challenge of chess puzzles, and this was a recent one, from a game she should have been aware of. An advanced white rook, d7 was attacking the black king c8, and was meant to be able to go on to win, with a pawn to assist against black’s remaining bishop and pawn. The rook, more mobile than a solitary bishop, should make short shrift in the situation, but Sveta could not see it. The black pawn was diagonally adjacent to its bishop, offering only a rook gambit for a pawn at best, the poorest option available on the board. Over and over in her head she moved the white king and the rook, the pawn immobilised behind the black pawn. Her closed eyes drew light from somewhere, and the monochrome 2D pieces moved bottom to top, right to left and back.

Eventually she lay still, and accepted that sleep was a horizon, and she could remain stationary and take the moment without stride, or she could chase helplessly, never fatiguing to the point of collapse. With one realisation came another – her rigid routine mattered little. It had been weeks since she left the house, the university had all but given up on her (had she not been so senior in such a small department, it was almost certain that she would have been asked to stand down some time ago) and if she desired she could have spent all night solving and setting questions with Nic. In the three days that they had been playing, Sveta was yet to turn to the computer and be met without response from him. She sensed he either didn’t want to or had no reason to work. Sad that he should seem to spend so much time playing chess, but no sadder her than her life. She resolved to try to find out more about him tomorrow, rather than just the quiet online formalities that they were clearly well versed in.

Arriving At Volgograd Station


Arriving Volgograd

Nic leaned out of the window feeling the air fresher on his face than he expected. The Baku “Express” was about halfway to its ultimate destination and he’d had none of the trouble warily predicted by those that had never used the train. The Azeri train guards, truly Caucasian with clipped moustaches, who had regarded him with amusement throughout the journey, grinned and nodded when he pointed to the floor and asked, “Volgograd?” He sought further confirmation with the childish Cyrillic scrawl that he had copied from his guidebook which made them laugh from their bellies. A little embarrassed that he had not just shown them the book, he stuffed the paper into his pocket and set about readying his backpack. The late morning sun was bright through the coupe window and Nic felt like a pioneer. There was a true sense of some inspiring adventure before him. It bathed him with new found peaceful anticipation instead of the bile that had leeched into him during much of the journey so far and he was surprised to note that he was not at all worried about finding the driver who was to take him directly south to Elista, the city home of City Chess.

The train slowed to oil tanker rate, and during the last 200 metres it was difficult to notice that it was moving at all. This served to maintain the calm, and with a surprising lightness Nic bounded from the train and onto Russian soil, the door held open for him. He reached up behind him and shook hands with the two still smiling guards leaning to meet him halfway. It had been a tiny education for all. He fished his cheap sunglasses from his pocket and threw his head back to take the sun on his face. Then he just stood. He didn’t know where to go and really didn’t care.

He dropped the ‘pack to the floor and perched on it, the weight of his body taken more on his haunches and flat feet. Ignoring the no smoking signs, he licked the microscopic holes on the speckled brown filter of a Marlboro Light to marginally increase the strength. Once the end was glowing he sucked in deeply, imagining the cloud filling his lungs and blew out with the satisfaction of a deep breath rather than a nicotine hit. In fact he gained satisfaction from expelling the noxious fumes, but that did not stop him from poisoning himself once more. He stared at the carriage, 3 metres from him. Looking at all the parts, he went back to the time when a friend of his, a train driver, took him on an illicit journey.

Kenton referred to himself as a “basher”, and as far as Nic could work out, he was essentially an extreme trainspotter. The extreme part was that to tick the engine from his list, Kenton had to ride up front. Nic wasn’t sure whether Kenton had become a driver because of this obsession or whether the obsession had overcome him once he had begun his career. In either event, Kenton had been travelling through Nic’s local station late one evening, and had promised to call to see whether he had wanted to make the three hour round trip with him. Nic decided to give it a go and he and another friend, Bruce, had jumped on the Class 38 train as Kenton slid it through the station at about the same pace as the Baku Express had docked minutes before. It was dark, sometime after midnight and once the diesel engine had got its full head of steam back up, or whatever it was that diesel engine’s had to do to get to a decent pace, Kenton had let Nic drive. There was nothing to it, the most demanding act was to sound the horn before entering the tunnel (against the rule book at that time of night, but this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff), an act which in itself elicited child-like excitement. The fun of the horn was replaced with the horror of an alarm ringing directly behind him. It was a full 1960s fire alarm and it wrenched Nic from reverie and planted him firmly in terror. Kenton responded by coolly stuffing a canvas glove between the bell and the hammer and explained that “this old thing is forever doing that.” The adrenalin breaking down in Nic’s system was making him nervous and after Bruce had declined taking the controls, muttering something about the Titanic, Kenton took over once more.

“Why don’t you two look at the engine?” he suggested above the roar, and with a nod the two of them had headed out of the door behind them and into the engine. Directly into the engine. The noise was incredible, really louder than anything either of them had heard. Bruce punched Nic on the shoulder to get his attention, and although he was clearly shouting from just a metre away, Nic could hear nothing but the din. He turned away from Nic and motioned to the other end of the roaring lump of iron, encouraging Nic to follow. He instinctively knew that this was because he knew he wouldn’t follow and now he felt compelled. With great cloaks of claustrophobia enveloping him, Nic made his way along the chamber, back pressed against the wall as if it offered some protection and arrived at the back where Bruce had already opened the back door. It was like a Bond movie, looking out over the roofless carriages that carried the cargo, a bright moon behind them slightly to the right. They just stood there for a while, appreciating the wind, the terrific feeling of movement and the receding countryside. It was exhilarating and calm all at once.

And that was what Nic felt now. The peace of just sitting and smoking belied the knots in his stomach. He was pinching the end of his smoke and flicked it at the gears and gauges underneath the carriage, and it landed perfectly still on some horizontal bracing between wheels. Pleased with this exceptional omen, the knot slipped straight and he got up, wrestling the backpack happily into place as he did. The driver that he had managed to arrange should be easy enough to spot, a Kalmyk with his distinctive Mongol features amongst a crowd of Russians. He could not make out the size or design of the place as he strode across the tracks, but walking through the building he was impressed by the high ceilings and marble walls. It was lighter than Lviv and less modern than Kyiv, but typically Russian. It seemed that everyone was travelling with a plastic, gingham, zip-up case, of the type used for laundry back home, but used for pretty much everything here. He kept up his determined pace to the front of the station and at the top of the stairs outside took some water from his bottle and settled on his haunches to have another cigarette and see if he could spot someone. Resting back against his pack, against the wall, Nic surveyed the crowd and judged that it should be simple. The sun was on his face and he thumbed the half smoked stick into a crack in the pavement before tossing the butt into the bin. As he stood up, someone was in front of him, speaking to him in Russian.

“Ya ne govoryu po-russkiĭ,” he spluttered under his breath. As it fell from his lips, he confused himself wondering whether he had just lied, by explaining he didn’t speak Russian in Russian. Before the thought could take hold the stranger was speaking English no better to him.

A Pint With Gavin James Bower


It would be easy and lazy to review Dazed & Aroused, by Gavin James Bower, as an easily written, lazy pastiche of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. And whilst the similarities are evident, and the author himself has spoken at great length about the influence the book has had on his novel, very few reviews of Orwell’s 1984 began by referencing the fact that it was a direct take on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It simply isn’t an issue.

But let’s not get caught up in the name checking of the greats. Bower’s book is an accomplished, wry take on the world of modelling. For a debut novel, written in the first person, the simple assumption to make would be that this is more memoir than fiction. Not so, says Bower when we meet in a West End pub to discuss this book and his next, Made In Britain.

“Consciously, at the time of writing it, it wasn’t me. I took a lot of examples as an observer, of the photo shoots and scenarios that I found myself in and creating characters from there.” After two more sentences, and a draw on his pint of stout, Bower continues, “The disposition of Alex and how he views the world is very much a part of me…”

This isn’t as contradictory as it at first sounds. Bower modelled for “18 months, on and off” and never knew the success that Alex enjoys in Dazed. (“I was never a rich or successful model”). I use the term ‘enjoys’ advisedly. The arrogance and ennui that is so much of his character, the unquestioning acceptance of having a successful look always leaves the reader feeling that the best restaurants are not quite enough, and even partying hard after fashion week is an empty experience. Bower impresses on the point, “In all seriousness, Alex is an extension of me in many ways – a parody.” When discussing the limited amount of drug taking in the book, Bower is “making it up”, a charming reinforcement of the fact of the fiction here.

As we sit outside the pub, the day starts to close and the chilly spring evening takes hold. Royal Mail vans return to their nearby base, sirens wail and rubbish bins are seen to. Over Bower’s shoulder I can see a man pleading for a cigarette from one of the patrons that has ventured outside in the hope of an unmolested smoke. I am relieved when the beggar walks past, happily puffing away. This scene is startlingly similar to a repeating theme in Dazed;

“London is always about juxtapositions, always about that horrible clash – checking your Blackberry and emails on the way to work, whilst stepping over a beggar in a sleeping bag.” I mention that it felt close to being overdone. “Maybe remarking on that is not that clever to point out, but it is there.” Alex gets that there is the poverty there, he sees it, but “he refuses point blank to engage.”

And there it is. Graffiti, clothes, even the silent models are more interesting to Alex than people.

Bower started writing at university in 2002, which led to journalism jobs for Dazed & Confused amongst others. In 2007, suddenly unemployed, he set to paper the story that had been gathering momentum in his mind since his move to London, two years previously. He’s modest about the success of Dazed, and optimistic about writing the screenplay for it, and the forthcoming publication of Made In Britain, his second novel.

Made In Britain is the story of three 16 year olds set in Every Town. Charlie, Russell and Hayley are dealing with their issues, reacting to the world about them. Was it difficult writing about kids of this age? “I don’t know why I’m writing about 16 year olds, maybe it’s a fucking big mistake,” he laughs. There’s disarming honesty to this phrase, but clearly a confidence too. A sneak peak of Made In Britain is available here. Have a look around the rest of the blog; Bower is no Bret Easton Ellis, what he is, is a writer finding his own voice, in his own time.

Nic & Sveta Meet For The Second Time


i

She stepped from the marshutkra, one of the distinctive yellow Volga Gaz’s. It occurred to her that this clumsy internationally utilitarian van would never achieve iconic status, like so many Soviet designs. Distracted by sentimentality for just a few seconds, she stood still, allowing the foot traffic to move around her. Quite a transformation in just four days, from the woman trapped in her apartment to one that could muse idly about such trivial matters.

A Russian babushka, her Slavic features in contrast to the Kalmyk faces around her, hurried past, muttering “izvinite” as she did. Sveta, shook from her reverie, looked up at the four storey hotel and saw Nic looking down from the window. He waved warmly and beckoned her up to the third floor, signalling and mouthing “3,0,4” to her. This she already knew. She walked through the spacious atrium, taking in the kiosks to the right and the front desk to her left. At the bottom of the grand (but far from ornate) staircase a guard asked her if she was resident. She replied that she was here to meet her friend, Nic, in room 304. Sveta was directed to the front desk and once her business was explained to the expectedly cool receptionist, she was allowed on her way. She took the stairs and was greeted on the second floor by a huge billiard table, the large white balls of the Russian version of the game being frowned over by an elderly Kalmyk man, chalking his cue with the automatic but sure intent of a long-forgotten soldier charging his rifle. Swinging round to her left, she took in the next flight of stairs and witnessed a carbon copy scene, without the players. Turning to her right, she passed room 301 and continued along the hall to 304 and knocked.

The door opened and Nic stood in front of her, ready for the day’s sightseeing.

“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Certainly am, I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the city rather than the White House. How is your apartment?”
Sveta described the modern, yet ill-maintained block of bungalows. She had been lucky to secure the last available lease.

ii

From her SMS, Nic expected Sveta at any moment. Looking up from the sink, he stared as the water dripped from his surprised face. He padded his smoothed cheeks with his towel. He walked across the cold linoleum floor and sat on the bed. The refrigerator, of the size usually found in a family kitchen, hummed and rattled restlessly. It really was a stray-dog of a room; flooring damaged like tattered ears, walls stained beyond remedy and a sadness. Still, it was sufficient and cheap. He pulled a t-shirt over his head, and socks onto his nearly dry feet. Nic fumbled for a Marlboro from the packet beside him.

For a second he just sat there, the brown filter clamped between his teeth. And then, as if remembering what he was doing, he dragged his right thumb down the wheel of the lighter, the flames dancing up in the windshield of his left palm that he’d created automatically, unnecessarily. Pulling on the smoke he pulled his trousers on, relieved once he’d got them to his waist, so that he could remove the cigarette and breathe again. He fumbled with the button fly and belt buckle, knocking ash onto the floor as he did so.

He opened the window a little and watched the progress of the Elista day below. Yellow transit vans set down and picked up passengers at the fairly busy bus stop. Across the road was the end of the park, unkempt and wild. He looked back to the vans coming and going, and noticed Sveta disembarking. There was no denying her beauty, and her timidity. She looked so lost and a little afraid, stood stock still on the pavement. It wasn’t until an old lady knocked her that she seemed ready to move. She’d looked up towards his window and he waved at her. Once they had locked gazes he mouthed the number of the room, adding a swirling mime of the figures with his right hand. He took two last lungfuls of smoke, the first exiting his nostrils as the second fell down his throat. Not for the first time, he was frustrated at his inability to play the didgeridoo the one time he had been shown one.

As the cigarette smouldered in the ashtray, not fully extinguished, Nic sat down again and slipped into the comfortable trainers. The muscle memory of his fingers threaded laces and tied bows, and as he stood up Sveta knocked shyly on the door.

Spiked


They asked, so who was he to refuse? He was sat as one at a table arranged for 8 or more on a Friday night. There was no reason to be the usual antisocial loner. This might be a chance to try and talk to people again. His enforced loneliness was a ridiculous guard against something that wasn’t there, he told himself. They were Irish lads, celebrating a 30th birthday en masse, and they were just the ticket. They got in the way of the television, but for fuck’s sake, he motored on in his head, his internal conversations and decisions taken in milliseconds, talk, TALK.

Mossie was the birthday boy and easily the most gregarious. Hand out for the shake and an explanation as to why they were there, “My birthday, have a drink, will ya?” Sold. He realised he was four ahead in this bar, but the lads were buzzing and the synapses made the decision, “I’m in, happy birthday.” They’d been somewhere before, he wasn’t ahead at all.

The social geography was awkward. Finding himself at a corner with two of the older boys in the party, and somewhat established as an expert on all things Krakow because of his week long experience, he groped for a conversational entrée. Then he saw the patches on their jackets. They weren’t just older, they were from some different tribe. Instead of asking about their relationship with the birthday boy, he blundered in with “Like the patches, I used to hang with some Outlaws in Cheltenham.”

Synapses snapped – “hang”? Prick, prick, prick. However he was treated with grace and they responded with courtesy, asking about his involvement (which was limited to a few speed based nights in some rock nightclub as it was.)

“To be sure.”

The phrase rattled in his head. What a pure cunt, getting “Da Oirish” shit out to patronise. Utterly unmeant, utterly English. He could try to backtrack but they seemed oblivious. His empty stomach grumbled, his addled tongue conveyed messages that his swimming mind was only half forming. One, Tom, went to the toilet. To escape the horror of one on one chat with the other, Den, he followed – he was just an inch through his beer, the bar was not an option.

In the toilet most of the party seemed assembled and thick as thieves, laughing at the blown up sequence of pictures of a famous tennis player inspecting her Brazilian on the beach so intently that a sharp paparazzo had got his money shot. Turning around after his piss and faltering banter, he spied a crouched figure. He heard a sniff. The crouched figure threw his head back and gagged slightly. A dormant, or rather suppressed, ache spread through him. His legs weakened at the thought, although he was hungry and needed food or something to get him through….

“Can I take a line from you, please?” He even avoided saying “yous” or “ya” or “ye”. Even congratulated himself in a nanosecond, that internal monologue worked well.

“Its not coke,” said Brian one of Mossie’s inner sanctum, “just speed, easier to bring in bulk,” he winked, but not quite at him, at someone past his shoulder. A blink, small shake of the head and Brian was looking at him directly, offering a rolled 100 Zloty note to his nose.

“I’m meant to be stopping, I’m not meant to be doing this. One night though, I’m not buying it, I’m taking a gift, it’s not against our rules, Sveta won’t mind, Dad won’t mind.” Justification happened in a shorter time than anything else. Mind and body did not work, just as mind and tongue failed. Feigning nonchalance he grabbed at the note, whereas he had instructed himself to pluck it from Brian’s fingers at most, slip it from his grasp at best. It blurred. Desperation hit him and the line went up his nose, a bit sharp.

“Want another? It’s not great.” It went through his mind that he’d not done speed for ages, much less snorted the shit, but the bitterness was horrendous. Lying beneath that thought was “in for a penny……” Shit or bust, fuck it, powder up the nose, high high high high. Racked and ready the next line seemed to be available before he’d finished his lightening thoughts. Left nostril held by left forefinger, head pushed along by the same finger (like a bogus Wigi board), his head went back. Fuck, that hurt. Like coffee gone bad. Hold on. Once before. Ages ago…….

Three months before he’d had a quiet night in. Limes came over with his girlfriend on a Friday and for some reason they’d decided no booze, no pot, no coke, no nothing. Telly was the drug and it was enough for them all. Slightly anxious about sleeping, but happy with trying, they all muttered and half laughed at the shit on the box. At around midnight there was a knock on the door, it turned out to be Lottie and her ex Jake, on the way to a party after a session in the Fountain. Everyone, as always, was welcome, so they came in with their bottle of Bargain Booze vodka and three cans of Red Bull. Not one of the original three would express their relief, allowing it to be disguised as forced upon them. Lottie then retrieved a wrap of powder from her jean’s watch pocket before the drinks were poured, but with a joking warning, “Its not coke, I’m afraid, its K.”

Without a second thought he’d said, “Why not? No other time I’ll be this sober offered it,” and declined the vodka iced in front of him. He bent, crouched over the table that offered up the seemingly tiny lines beckoning him, took the note and inhaled sharply. Ground glass ripped his nostrils, acute hell assaulted his throat. Like bitter, old coffee.

This was the same shit. But with pints on board, how many he’d not cared to count. All he knew was the effect was rapid and he had maybe 5 minutes. The cunts had spiked him, he was furious.



The Auction Room (so far)


Nic steered the Volvo into one of the three remaining spaces. He had left the café with his father at a little past 8 and was surprised to see that the Victoria Rooms were already busy.

“Something good here today by the looks of things, Dad.”
“Only thing I heard of is that Morris Minor. That Keith Davies is after it because of the number plate, so say.”

Keith Davies ran a local coach company, each 72 seater adorned with a number plate that began with the letters “KD”. When he had just three vehicles, the residents of the village from which he ran his empire forgave this conceit, but over the last two years he had won several school-run contracts. His fleet now stood at 7, and neither the yard nor the village could house another mechanised centipede. Someone had told the landlord of the Roses that the Minor was up in the auction, and not forgotten to add the detail of the number plate. It wasn’t long before the great and the good of the village were horrified and word had leaked across the fields to Geoff’s workshop in Highford, an unwanted accompaniment to a carriage clock with a crippled spring.

The heavy doors of The Tank, as father and son referred to the Volvo with an ironic lack of imagination, clunked shut, and they walked to the hall. Directly outside was the Morris Minor of myth, bearing the legend “KD 4736”, picked up and out in silver on the fading grey background of the tin plates. Nic hung back at the large entrance doors, and indicated he was going to roll and smoke a cigarette before going in. His father raised his eyebrows, rolled his eyes and smoothed the last remaining hairs on his scalp in a comically disapproving coordinated move. It was much practiced and Nic always expected it.

Nic circled the old car, an 1100 cc model in good condition. In fact, it looked to have been loved and cherished and its new owner would surely want to keep it intact. To re-register it would harm the provenance and it was certainly not destined to be the base for a kit car, as was the one his uncle had bought years ago. Stripped down to the chassis, and then rebuilt with fibre glass and canvas, the Magenta had resembled a boxy dune buggy, without the clearance or power, but with a Morris grill. It had taken a year to build, and Nic had distinct memories of flying around country lanes in the red curiosity piloted by the long-estranged uncle. No, whoever bought this would cherish it entirely, unless Davies got his hands on it, which would be a shame. Crouching on his haunches, Nic pulled the roll-up from his lips, leaving some shreds of tobacco on his lips. He pressed the smoke out, spitting the remnants as he did so. He really had no idea what he was looking at, but it passed the time, and he spotted some small bubbles of rust near the rear wheel arch. A small blemish for a car so old. The cigarette dropped into a small puddle and Nic made his way inside.

The hall tapered ahead of Nic, long and wide, to the dais where the auctioneer sat. At that moment, his head was cocked stage right with empty hand pointing in the direction of one bidder, whilst his eyes looked stage left along the arm holding his hammer. He pointed at a portly gentleman, kept white beard and what was left of his grey hair well cut. He was a regular in the rooms, and often went up against Geoff for horological lots. Whilst not as knowledgeable as Nic’s father, this opponent had deep pockets and the kind of unquenchable fascination with movements that picked him out as a regular and formidable bidding foe. Geoff referred to him as ‘Buggerlugs’.

“With you, sir, £18.”

He swung his head theatrically around to face the other bidder. Nic let the scene play out without his attention and scanned the room for his father. It took some time, but he spotted him just a few tables of crap away. Every now and again, this fortnightly sale would contain some pieces of genuine worth, but mostly it was the preserve of bric a brac merchants and car booters. Boxes of loosely related junk sat on the tables; typically there were boxes of weights and scales, books, coins and stamps and of course, watch and clock parts, a box of which Geoff was investigating now. Occasionally there were complete examples in amongst the springs, wheels and cases, but mostly the two of them collected pieces to use for repairs. Unbeknownst to one another, Geoff and Nic held a dusty and dim ambition to construct a watch of their own. Neither had the skill to develop one from scratch, and they were both satisfied with repairing the timepieces bought to them by others, as well as giving new life to some of the busted and ancient examples found in the boxes. In fact, Nic could see his father was more focussed on the box than usual.

“What you found Dad?”
“Not sure really. Could be nothing, let’s grab a coffee and I’ll tell you. Don’t want Buggerlugs over there seeing I’m interested.” Geoff darted his eyes across to the winner of the last lot, his bearded adversary.

In a side room, a man and wife team manned the small stove offering bacon sandwiches and the urn that gave life to granules of instant coffee and bags of own brand tea. Geoff and Nic both had coffee, Nic handing over the pound. They moved to one side and perched on a radiator.

“There’s a nearly complete pocket watch in there, a Russian one,” Geoff said quietly to his son. “There’s something odd though; it’s a Russian face but has got a lot of American parts in the movement. Some of the early Poljots used American movements that went to Moscow with the machinery that Stalin bought. Don’t ask me how I remember. Really got me interested, it has. You just know Buggerlugs will want it. So schtum, ok?”

They stayed there, sipping the hot, cheap coffee. Nic watched the steam swirl above the polystyrene cup and felt for his pouch of tobacco. He placed the drink on the floor and slid a paper from its packet. He held it between his right index finger and thumb, whilst he opened the pouch and clasped that automatically between the little and ring fingers of his left hand. Strands of tobacco were evened along the length of the paper by his thumbs, and after two rolls the paper was sharply folded in on itself, creating a satisfying tube. Geoff had watched the whole process. It never failed to amaze him how his son could complete this dextrous task so effortlessly and with a certain dashing panache. He’d never liked to smoke himself, but was of the school of thought that it was quite attractive in others. Not that he’d tell Nic, as he disapproved of the nihilistic nature of the habit.

Nic returned to the hall to make his way outside, and found that there was an exodus in place. The auctioneer was leading the way, and Nic surmised that the car was the next lot. He turned around to fetch his father, but almost knocked into him as he did so.

“The car’s up now,” said Geoff pointing at the catalogue he’d picked up on the way out of the pitched café.

Outside, the auctioneer topped a three rung set of steps, and began the description of the car, to an audience of fifty or sixty. Keith Davies was across the bonnet from Nic and Geoff and offered £500 as the first bid. Nic saw him as the kind of buyer that liked to get to the point, and this lot was bound to go above four figures; others may have started low in the vain hope of a bargain, but in Keith Davies the auction had a realist.