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.