Longlisting

1 Dec

I was long-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2015 for my story Aadi Vs The World. Extract:

Hayam upstairs is well fit. She’s a Muslim and I’ve seen her going to mosque on a Friday in the veil thing that covers everything ‘cept her eyes, which are caramel-coloured, like gulab jamun, but most of the time she wears a shalwar, real pretty pink or purple ones, but then I saw her at the bus-stop with her mates in skinny jeans, looking fine. She’s a Muzzy, but she’s safe. Sometimes, when I’m gaming, I create a new character and make the avatar look like her, wearing jeans.

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My story, English Beach, was long-listed for the Pin Drop/Royal Academy Short Story competition in 2017. Extract:

I remember going for a walk amongst the sand dunes, from Maspalomas to Playa El Ingles, past the nudist beach. I stared at the men, who were mostly old and saggy, like an old sofa, but now and again, there’d be a young, fit man, whom I could peer at from behind my sunglasses, looking at his abs, his bum, his genitals, with jealousy and admiration. That’s what I wanted to look like, be like, when I grew up, not hips and tits and the horrible bleeding that had just started, giving me an excuse, at least, to not wear the bikini. I wanted to be hard, not soft. The sand dunes with their rolling curves oppressed me. The dunes were notorious as cruising grounds, so our holiday rep, in couched terms, had said, and I longed to go in to peek, but I was too shy, too scared.

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The Kids In The Club

25 Nov

First published in Here Comes Everyone, the Boy/Girl issue, August 2014

The music was too loud and the woman at the bar couldn’t hear me. ‘Gin and tonic,’ I shouted. ‘No ice. Lemon slice!’

‘Alright,’ she said, ‘I’m not deaf.’ She had razored blonde hair and one earring in the shape of a female symbol. She looked very ’80s. Gay culture would like to stay in the ’80s, or so I thought.

She plonked the drink in front of me. ‘£5.50, darling.’

I gave her a fiver and fished around for the change, counting out the fifty pence in shrapnel.

‘Thanks,’ she said, fake-smiling at me, emptying the change into the till without counting it. Sloppy, I thought. Till’s gotta balance.

I sipped the drink. It tasted flat, but it would have to last until someone offered to buy me a drink. My tastes had changed since I started on the testosterone, a strange side effect. Bitter things tasted better than they used to, sweet things too sugary. Was it true that women had a sweeter tooth, or just more tastebuds on their tongues?

I looked around. The place was about 80% women, the rest their male hags, or maybe blokes out for a night without the hassle of feeling like you need to pull. Who needs to go out any more, paying £5.50 for a tiny drink, to cop off when you can just go on the web and find someone half a mile away?

Katy Perry screeched away. The lights flashed into my eyes, making me blink. On the dance-floor, two girls were attempting to scissor standing up, they fell over and their boy pals screeched with laughter.

‘Are you a drag king,’ said a woman next to me. My gaydar and transdar is often spectacularly and sometimes dangerously wrong, but this was a straight cisgirl. she was dressed in the way ciswomen think they ought to do to be attractive: overdone make-up, highlights, a slinky dress and perfume nominally designed by a Heat-style celebrity.

‘No,’ I said.

‘You look like a girl dressed as a boy’.

Straight girls go to gay clubs to dance without being harassed but also in case a gay guy is feeling a bit bisexual that night. They don’t usually go to lesbian clubs. Of course, I only went to lesbian clubs to feel safe without being harassed and in case one of the guys out with his lesbo friends fancied a hook up. I was horny as hell. It was great to no longer have that up down, up down terrorist of a menstrual cycle but with the testosterone, you never knew when you were going to be desperate for it.

‘Are you a tourist,’ I asked.

‘No, I live in London. Muswell Hill.’

‘A culture tourist, I mean. Hanging out in someone else’s scene.’

‘I’m,’ she leaned in, whispering so her hair tendrils tickled my cheek, ‘bi-curious.’

‘You should be chatting up a girl, then,’ I said.

‘I thought you looked cute.’

‘I’m a guy, ‘I said.

‘Oh, OK. If you say so.’ I looked over at one of the scissoring lesbian’s friends. He was tall, not too muscular, standard outfit of white t-shirt and skinny jeans. I looked at his shoes. Trainers. Well, no-one’s perfect. I willed him to come over to me. He must have had a well developed sense of knowing when he’s being looked at because he glanced at me, winked, then turned away.

‘Excuse me,’ I said to Miss Bi-Curious, ‘I need the toilet. Look, she seems up for it,’ I pointed to a dungarees dyke who was watching our interaction.

I left them to it and went to the Gents. The queue for the Ladies trailed almost onto the dance-floor, but new friends were being made. Snog while u wait, it passes the time. I pushed the door to the men’s toilets, where there was also a queue: from the noise from one of the cubicles, it seemed that one of them was being used for non-urinary purposes.

The guy behind me nudged me. ‘Urinal’s free,’ he said, pointing and nudging again.

‘S’OK, I’ll wait for the cubicle.’

‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ he said.

‘One of what?’ I looked up at him. His pupils were huge and he was dancing from foot to foot, agitated.

‘I thought you were a twink, but you’re a tranny. No dick yet, huh.’

‘The preferred term is transman,’ I said.

‘You’re a chick without a dick. A guy with a pie.’ He laughed, putting his face too close too mine.

‘Thanks. You may remember that there’s a T in LBGT,’ I said.

‘What you gonna do, report me to Tatchell?’

The man queuing behind him, said: ‘Leave him alone, you prick.’ I looked around and saw a handsome, dirty-blond man, black t-shirt, pink writing: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

‘Yeah,’ said my aggressor. ‘Wanna be starting something?’

The cubicle door opened and I escaped into it, putting the toilet seat down and sitting on it. When I was out and about, I usually waited until I got home before having a piss. I did not feel safe in men’s loos. If there was a disabled toilet without a lock I used that, or sometimes there would be unisex, but all in all, I preferred my public toilets to be less public. On the FtM forums, other pre-op guys said they sometimes still used the Ladies because they felt safer, but I didn’t feel comfortable in there. Men’s toilets stank but I had been practising weeing standing up – I could pretty much aim now. I could probably use a urinal if I took my trousers off, but you know…

I unlocked the door and peered around it, hoping Mr Transphobe had pissed and gone. He and my protector were locked in an aggressive embrace, whilst some of the toilet queue looked on. No doubt they were next to use the cubicle of love. I sighed. I had hoped my knight-protector might have waited for me.

I checked myself briefly in the mirror, combed my hair neatly to the side. The look I was going for was Alex Kapranos, but although I had dad’s straight nose and dark eyes, I had mum’s round face: no angular cheekbones, unless I sucked them in with a new romantic pout. Mum. I had forgotten about her for a couple of brief hours. I looked at myself again. I looked like a mixture of both of them.

I went back on the dance-floor. White t-shirt guy had hooked up with an A-Gay, a preening queen. Out of my league. Straight experimenter was nowhere to be scene. Maybe she’d pulled. She was pretty, in an ultra-femme kind of way. I went to fetch my drink from where I’d left it, but it was gone, it had either been mine-swept or cleared away by the bar-staff. There was about £3 of drink left in there. I didn’t have enough for another. I turned to go and almost walked into dungarees dyke.

‘Hello, handsome,’ she said.

‘Hi.’ I looked down at her.

Not going already?

‘I have to be up early tomorrow.’

‘Pity,’ she said, smirking. ‘You’re the kind of butch I like.’

‘I’m not a lesbian,’ I said.

‘Labels, who needs them, we’re everything to anyone, right?’

‘Right,’ I said.

She came in close and whispered in my ear. ‘I’d like to lick your pussy.’

I jumped. ‘You’re very forward.’

‘Babes, I’m 42, I can’t waste much time.’ She laughed.

‘I’m OK, thanks,’ I said, taking a step backwards.

‘Look, I know your type, hate your boobs, hate your fanny, want to be a man. That’s OK.

Come on. The disabled toilet has lots of room.’ She took my hand and dragged me. A group of women stood next to it, raising their eyebrows.

‘She’s a bit young, Belle.’

‘If there’s turf on the pitch!’ They chuckled.

She locked the door behind us. The fluorescent light stung my eyes.

She traced my upper lip. ‘You’re starting to get a little ‘tache, she said, ‘it suits you.’ She licked it. ‘Your voice isn’t deep though.’

‘I went through puberty at twenty-one, my true puberty, that is. So my voice isn’t as deep as it would be. But it will be.’

‘Nice,’ she said.

‘Look, I’m flattered, erm, Belle,’ I said. But this isn’t my idea of fun. You’re attractive and all, but – ‘

She put her hand between my legs and started rubbing. ‘You don’t have to touch me,’ she said, murmuring into my hair.

She undid my belt, pushing me onto the toilet lid.

‘How long has it been since you had it?’

‘A while. Never from a woman.’

She pulled down my Y-fronts and started licking. I put my hand on her head to indicate she should do it harder.

She stuck her finger in and put her hand up my top, squeezing my nipple.

‘You’ve had ’em off?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Don’t talk.’ I pushed her head back and she made me come.

I wiped myself with a piece of toilet paper and stood up, re-buckling my belt

‘Thanks,’ I said, making for the door, but she got there before me. She stood between me and it, smiling, head tilting. Her eyelid skin creased around her eyes.

‘Come on, darling, do it for Belle.’

‘I thought I didn’t have to touch you.’

‘An eye for an eye, darling.’

‘Oh, alright.’ I said. ‘I’m not going down on you though.’ I put my finger down her pants. She was wet. It felt horrible. She rubbed against me, trying to kiss me, but I moved my face away.

‘Put your finger up my bum.’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Come on. ‘ As a compromise I groped her fat arse through her trousers. She rubbed against my finger and then grunted three times into my ear.

‘Come home with me, darling.’

‘No thanks.’

‘I’ve got a double ended dildo. We could go another round or two.’ She cackled.

‘I’ve got to go home.’

‘Why, darling?’

‘You remind me of my mother,’ I said.

*

There was an overpowering smell of petrol and pollen as I walked to the bus-stop. I wandered, lonely in a crowd of Thursday night revellers, drunk and disorganised. People were more attached to their mobile phones than to their friends, they clung to them like dummies. The countdown said nine minutes, but the bus, with its friendly white destination, turned up early and I went upstairs to my favourite seat, on the left, opposite the stairwell. It was the beginning of the route, so the bus was empty, filling up quickly with tired cleaners, people with way-past-their-bedtime children who smelled of biscuits and bubblegum, bar workers, nightclubbers and those with nowhere else to be. As we crossed the river, I looked out at my city: Big Ben’s face like the creamy harvest moon, the chaos of Leicester Square, the neon fantasy of the Trocadero, the drug-less ecstasy in the warm, loud air. Through Bloomsbury, Finsbury, Islington, the street-lamps orioled in the bus-mist windows. The announcements made it hard to fall asleep and wake up in Tottenham; I had trained myself, Pavlov’s dog-style, to open my eyes at the stop before mine. I pressed the bell and jogged down the stairs.

Our road was empty and quiet and dark after the night bus. The chimney pots were spiking the moon above the houses. I crossed to our side of the road and unlocked the front door quietly. Dad had left the hall light on for me, so I turned it off and went into the living room to take off my shoes and jumped. She was sitting there, drinking a glass of something and staring into the dark.

‘What are you doing?’ I said.

‘Where have you been? I was worried about you,’ she said. She stood up and turned the light on. ‘Does your father know you stay out ’til all hours?’

I looked at the DVD player. ‘It’s 1.30. Hardly late. And it’s not your business.’

‘Don’t you have to get up to go to work?’

‘I start at midday tomorrow.’

‘Where do you work?’

‘At a coffee shop.’

‘Such a waste of your intelligence. And your education.’ She paused. ‘Did you have an education?’

‘I didn’t go to Uni if that’s what you mean.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s kind of traumatic when, at the age of fourteen, your mother leaves and you don’t see, or barely hear from her, for nine years. It kind of fucks you up. I had to go to school counselling when I should have been in class, learning stuff.’

‘Oh, Jo.’

‘John,’ I said. She seemed drunk, her eyes were glassy. She took a swig from her glass.

‘Why do you dress like a boy and call yourself John? Is it some kind of late onset teenage rebellion?’

‘I don’t dress like a boy, I am a boy. A man. A transman. My legal name is John. That’s who I am now.’

‘What on earth does your father have to say about all this?’

‘He just said: “I thought you were going to tell me you were a lesbian.”’

‘He always did do nothing.’

‘He’s just let me by myself.’

‘Wouldn’t it be easier just to be gay?’

I sighed. ‘I am gay. I don’t fancy women. I fancy men. It’s not a choice, it’s how I am. Gay people don’t choose to be gay. Transpeople don’t choose to be trans. We’re born in the wrong bodies.’

‘So you’ve become homosexual? I don’t understand any of this.’

‘No-one’s asking you to. No-one’s asking you for anything.’

‘Are you, I mean have you – ‘

‘No.’

‘You don’t know what I’m going to ask!’

‘It’s the same thing everyone asks.’ I did not think she had the right to ask me that – I didn’t think anyone had the right to ask me that – but I knew she’d keep niggling and prying and pushing until she found out. ”I’ve had my top done but not my bottom.’

‘What does that even mean?’

‘I’ve had a mastectomy but I’ve still got my uterus. I’m pre-op. But I don’t have periods any more.’

‘Neither do I,’ she said.

Then: ‘Are you ashamed of what you are, is that why you mutilated yourself?’

I stuck my finger nails into my hand to stop myself from slapping her. ‘I’m proud of who I am.’

‘But you did choose, didn’t you? You chose to change sex.’

‘I deal with people staring, questioning, commenting, every day. I don’t need it at home as well, from some stranger who won’t say anything about why she left, where she’s been or what she’s even doing here.’

‘It’s a long story, Jo. John. It’s for another day. I want to hear your story. Tell me. I remember when you were eight, I bought you a cute little bikini and you refused to wear it. Did it start then? Tell me? I want to understand.’

I sat down and opened my mouth.

Stories with ISBN numbers

23 Nov

Some stories (and articles) that I won’t reproduce here, because you can buy them:

A Cuppa And An Armchair: Family Fortunes (Dec, 2011)

Coronation Street Blog The Book: various pieces and reviews (Nov, 2016)

Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 15: Aromas (Sept 2018)

On The Brussels Train

20 Nov

First published as part of Fictive Dream’s September Slam, Sept 2018

Artwork by Claudia McGill

Each day when I awake, I kill him again. I turn blurred eyes to the alarm to make sure it’s late enough to get up, stretch, yawn, and then I remember that Dan is dead. Dead as a Dodi. Dead as Diana.

Denial

He hasn’t heard the news. His mobile is on silent. He’s in a meeting. He’s lost his phone, the network is down, he’s in hospital with concussion and his ID is still on the train. He has amnesia and is wandering the streets, trying to remember where to go. He has used the attack to disappear and start a new life in Brazil.

Bargaining

Let it be someone else. Thirty-two people dead isn’t that many, it’s hardly the Somme, let it be thirty-two other people, others whom I don’t know. You actively desire the deaths of thirty-two random people. Let it be thirty-two other people’s mum, dad, friend, relative, next door neighbour. You turn into Winston Smith: Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Not me!

Anger

Why did he get on the metro when he knew there’d been an attack at the airport? Surely anyone would realise that was only stage one of a two-pronged attack. Why didn’t he get an earlier train? Why did he move to Brussels in the first place? A stupid place to live with its double language and incomprehensible disagreements between people with Ruritania-style names (Walloons: surely a hybrid marsupial, and Flems: what comes up after a night drinking Lambic beer). It didn’t even have a government for a year and a half. Have you ever been to Brussels? It may house the European government, but it’s hardly the bastion of international law. People jump the tram, park on the ornamental bits of roundabouts; once, a car decided to start reversing straight at us out of an underpass. If you ask for cappuccino in a café, you’ll get coffee topped with squirty cream.

He used to live in North Brussels, the Maghreb area, shopped at North African shops, friends with his neighbours. He didn’t deserve to be murdered by one of them. This last bit is unfair, of course. Like blaming some guy in an O’Neill’s pub for the Bishopsgate bombing. But that’s part of the anger, the them and us. This bit fades. You realise that you’re wrong.

Depression

Watching a video shot by one of the survivors, trying to spot him, knowing I won’t. Imagining his final moments. Did he know? Did he see? In our new, digital world, ‘Missing’ posts on Facebook replace posters on lamp-posts, and mine was shared thousands of times. How to be a social media influencer: have a friend die in a horrific way. For four days I was hugely popular with hundreds of people wanting to be my “friend”. I ended up worrying that he looked foolish in the photo I used, him making a face, crossing his eyes. He was too daft to die in such a serious way. If he was going to die before old age, it would be falling off a bungee jump or getting run down at a level crossing. Something stupid.

‘What, the one who’s on the news?’ said people at work. ‘It’s all so public,’ said another, as if he’d died in a car crash or had a heart attack, then the outcome would somehow be different.

I didn’t pray. Disaster doesn’t change your fundamental viewpoint. And I knew by day two that he was gone, because even in the worst chaos, someone doesn’t go missing for that long, unless they want to, and he didn’t want to. I didn’t say this. I didn’t say it to anyone. I said: ‘Everyone’s hoping to hear something soon.’

Anxiety

Not one of the recognised stages of giving, but nonetheless it is there. Usually, you can’t go through life thinking terrible things are going to happen, because you’d be in a constant state of fear. But now that the worse has taken place, what’s to stop it happening again? What if his death was the key to some sarcophagus that, now open, unleashes all kinds of misfortune? You hear about them, don’t you, the people who lose a parent and a husband in one year and now their child has leukaemia. What’s to stop the universe deciding that person is now going to be you? Why can’t the late friend be crushed under a bus? Why can’t that mole be cancerous? Why shouldn’t everything go wrong? Death is no longer something that happens to other people and grandparents.

Acceptance

I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. This interior décor should have been enough to make me reflect on the situation.

I had taken the train from the Gare du Nord through a rainscape of pylons, farmhouses, horses in fields, wheat and corn and poppies drooping in the drizzle. The sky was bruised, black and blue, the clouds as full of portent as they were of water. Why we had not met in either of the two major cities was not discussed. In between the mirrors, the restaurant had Ikea-cliché prints on the wall. An absinthe advert, Le Chat Noir, the Manet/Folies Bergeres, even the Edward Hopper one, a little out of place. He looked the same, specs, balding, goofy-looking. He looked exactly the same as in the photo I’d shared on social media. Our mirror images stretched back into infinity and beyond. I have to tell him, I had to kill him all over again.

I’ve got something to say. He eyed me apprehensively.

Are my teeth falling out? That often happens. He checked them.

No. I paused whilst the waiter brought us a cappuccino and a water, placing them on the table the wrong way around. He pushed the coffee my way. I took a sip and frowned.

The thing is…you can’t be here. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but you died. You’re dead.

I know, he said, I’ve known for quite some time now. Ever since I took the train from Midi and I was the only one on it. That’s not very likely is it? It’s obvious that I’m not really here. I know that I’m somewhere else, somewhere different. I can accept that. He took a sip of water. But how about you?

Play Dead

30 Jun

First published on Tales From The Forest website, May 2018

Everyone was in mourning. Everybody: young, old, male, female British, American, grieved for our golden boy, our North London lad who had made it big in Hollywoodland, starring in a franchise of action movies that the intelligentsia liked for their “psychological depth” and the plebs for their crashes and chases and boom!s and the internet for his rippling abs and soul-searching blue eyes. But now he was dead, killed where he was born, in London town.

Immediately, a shrine was set up at the side of the road where his car had crashed (like one of his films, but with an actual casualty), peopled by around the clock grievers, like the paid mourners in Victorian times, paid in attention as the new and old news media turned up to snap and film. I was a bit concerned for their lungs – they were at the side of the North circular in Hendon, which was now back to its busy twenty-four/seven self to match the twenty-four hour mourners. There was a police cordon, but no-one paid any attention to that. The chain coffee shop next to the site had got some good publicity for bringing out free lattes to the grieving teens.

I took a quick photo on my phone and uploaded it to twitter. Many other people were doing the same, the site had become a tourist attraction, like Jim Morrison’s grave or Marc Bolan’s tree, people wanted to witness the Steve Evans mourning experience – I was there. I was part of history. One girl was prostrate on the pavement, crying her eyes out, her friends trying to comfort her. The Samaritans had set up a special number.

I spent twenty minutes there and then, bored, decided to take the tube down to Tottenham Court road and do some shopping. I liked the side roads off of TCR, not yet colonised by chain coffee shops and chemists. I popped into a café and was pleased to bump into Jamie, a friend of a friend that I hoped would eventually morph into friend and then, maybe, lover. He wasn’t my usual type, he was shorter than me with black hair, rather than the blonds I usually go for, but he had a lovely smile and a charming way about him, as if what you had to say was the most interesting thing he’d heard that day, that week, even.

‘Hello,’ he said, ‘skiving work, are we?’ He popped off his stool at the counter to reach up to kiss my cheek.

‘I’ve got a day off,’ I said, ‘my new year’s resolution was to take at least one day off per month. This is it.’

‘And what are you doing with your new year’s resolution day off?’ He had sat down again and was chewing through a sandwich.

‘I’ve been up to Hendon to see the Steven Evans memorial.’

‘Really!’ He put his sandwich down and looked at me. ‘I didn’t think you’d be a fan.’

‘I’m not really, I was just interested in seeing it. What are you doing here?’

‘I work on the Euston road,’ he said, ‘I sometimes come down here for lunch. We have a refectory, but then I have to sit with work colleagues and talk about work, which belies the point of a lunch break, really, doesn’t it?’

‘Pretty much,’ I agreed. I ordered a cheese salad and a coffee and watched him whilst he ate.

‘What, have I got mayonnaise on my face,’ he said, touching his cheek.

‘No, you look very –’ I stopped as a man walked into the caff. He had the hood of his top pulled down low and was wearing sunglasses on an overcast day. He had the definite look of someone trying to remain anonymous and failing.

‘My god,’ I said.

‘What?’ He turned ’round to where I was looking.

‘That’s him.’

‘Who?’

‘Steve Evans. The one in the hoodie.’

Jamie laughed. ‘Good one.’ My salad and drink arrived but I ignored them.

‘Over there. Isn’t it?’

‘How can you tell?’

‘I just recognise his walk, I suppose.’ I stared at the man, who had the menu up in front of his face.

‘You’ve just been to see the memorial, he’s on your mind, you’re projecting him onto that unsuspecting person.’

I’d forgotten that Jamie had done a psychology degree.

‘Maybe he faked his own death. Excuse me,’ I said, walking over to the man’s table and without asking, sat down. He lowered his menu, looked at me, then raised it again.

‘Are you a lookalike?’ I said.

‘What?’

‘Are you a professional lookalike? Is that why you’re trying to remain incognito?’

‘Look, man,’ the man said, ‘I’m just trying to get some food here.’ He spoke in an American drawl, but it sounded like an English person doing an American accent.

The waiter came up to us. ‘What can I get you?’

‘Oh nothing thanks, I’m actually sat over there,’ I pointed to Jamie who was observing us curiously.

‘I’ll take a coffee, black, and lasagne,’ said my companion.

‘I’m sorry to interrupt your lunch,’ I said, remembering my own English sense of propriety, ‘but I’ve got to know. You are him, aren’t you?’

‘Who?’

‘Steven Evans.’

‘He’s dead, man, don’t you read the news?’

‘You know, there are already conspiracy theories about your death. About how it was the studio head that did it. After your last stretch in rehab, it was said that you needed to quit Hollywood. I mean, that’s why you’re here in England isn’t it?’

‘Look, man,’ said the man again, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about.’

‘You do,’ I said, ‘you just said you did.’

The microwave in the back pinged and the waiter brought over a plate of lasagne. ‘Coffee’s on its way,’ he said.

The man picked up his fork and started to eat his pasta. He chewed with an increasing look of horror and eventually spat it out into a serviette.

‘Not good?’ I said.

‘It tastes fucking appalling,’ he said, in a London accent.

‘Let’s see,’ I said, I used his fork to try some. It was fine.

The waiter brought the coffee and the man tried it, spitting out into his cup.

‘Everything tastes like dust,’ he said. He took off his sunglasses and looked at me, looked at his plate and then at me again. He opened his mouth, closed it, then said, in all of a rush: ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m not hungry or thirsty or tired or happy or anything. I’m just here.’

‘Maybe you’re ill? A crash like that must have affected you very badly.’

‘I remember the crash,’ he said. ‘It’s afterwards I don’t recall. I remember the lights and the fear and the krang of metal. But then, I was walking away. I don’t remember getting out of the car, but I was on the sidewalk and I was walking up the road. I went home and I passed out. What happened to the other car?’

‘The driver died,’ I said. ‘The passenger is in hospital. In critical condition.’

‘It was their fault,’ he said.

I was confused. ‘Your body was identified by your mother,’ I said. ‘She couldn’t get it wrong, surely. Is the gossip true? Are you trying to leave Hollywood?’

‘I like Hollywood,’ he said, ‘I like being rich and having a big house. I came back here to see my old mum. I was only in rehab because the studio made me. I got pissed at a party and threw up. To them, that’s alcoholism. Puritan nation, you know? But at least they have nice weather, this –’ he indicated the rain started to streak the windows – ‘is shit.’

‘Your fans will be getting wet,’ I said.

‘Fans? ‘

‘The ones at the memorial. Where your car was hit.’

‘There are always fans,’ he said.

I looked up as Jamie touched my shoulder. ‘Have to be getting back,’ he said. ‘I’m due in at quarter past. Text me, yeah?’

‘OK.’ I made the international sign for I’ll call you and he smiled.

‘Your boyfriend?’ said the man as Jamie left.

‘No, although I wouldn’t mind if he were.’

‘Nice looking boy.’ His eyes wandered after him.

‘Is that it?’ I said, ‘you’d rather be linked to Zachary Quinto or Neil Patrick Harris than the latest twenty year old starlet?’

‘Don’t be stupid. A man can’t compliment another man without being gay? That’s fucking ridiculous.’

‘If you say so.’

He tried his coffee again, making a face.

‘What happened after you got home? Did you see yourself on the news?’

‘Not at first,’ he said. ‘I think I just slept for days. Then when I woke up and checked my messages, well, there weren’t any. Nor emails. That was weird. When I tried to ring my agent, then my mum, I couldn’t get my phone or tablet to work. But I saw that I was dead on TV. I thought maybe it was a hoax by the studio to promote my new film. I saw a picture of myself that the paps took, covered in blood with a big wound through my chest. But that could have been faked. Couldn’t it?’

Would they go so far as to kill a lookalike, I wondered.

‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I do have a big gash on my chest that wasn’t there before. But how can I be alive if I’m dead, if I’m in the morgue?’

‘A case of mistaken identity?’ I mooted, ‘have you been to see your mum?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘I might frighten the life out of her. She has a dodgy ticker you know.’

‘Your friends?’

‘They’re all in the States.’

‘You’ve got no friends here at all?’

‘No.’

I felt awful for him. I reached out and put my hand on his, which was cradled around his coffee cup. It was stone cold and I pulled back my hand, startled.

‘What?’

‘You’re so cold.’

‘Well I’m dead, aren’t I. Corpses are cold.’

I started to wonder if I was hallucinating everything. Jamie, Steve, it seemed awfully coincidental that I’d bumped into both of them in one back street Italian caff.

‘Show me your gash,’ I said, and then blushed.

He smiled. ‘Come here’ he beckoned. He unzipped his hooded top and then undid the buttons on his shirt. I was looking at the chest that Hollywood Insider had said “rippled like Niagara Falls”. To be honest, he was looking a bit paunchy. The wound looked awful, as raw and red as a butcher’s window.

‘May I?’ I pressed my fingers against the scar, which was cold and hard. The waiter, lounging at the counter, regarded us with interest.

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘let’s go somewhere else.’

He left some money on the table for his meal and we went out into the rain, walking up the main road to Warren Street tube. The leaves were mulchy under our feet, reminding me of the time I stood squishily on a dead rat whilst taking a short cut through the cemetery.

‘Where do you live?’ I asked.

‘I’ve an apartment in Highgate,’ he said.

‘Shall we go there?’

We had to wait five minutes for a High Barnet train, during which time he paced the platform like a polar bear.

‘I feel like I should be glad I’m alive,’ he said, ‘but I just feel…uneasy.’

His flat was beautiful but sparse, no books in the bookshelf, no photos. It looked like it had been interior designed, but then just left with nothing to put in it except some furniture not bought from Ikea.

‘This isn’t my real home,’ he said, looking at me looking around. ‘My home in the hills is where I keep all my stuff. I used to stay at my mum’s but my agent suggested property investment, what with the London market the way it is.’

‘Yes,’ I said, thinking of my own one bed flat above a shop at the wrong end of the Caledonian road.

‘I suppose it’ll go to my mum now,’ he said. ‘That’s good. I wanted to buy her a new place, but she likes it up in Cricklewood, said she didn’t want to move. That’s where I was going you know, when I had the crash.’

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked.

‘A bit dizzy.’ He sat down on the white sofa.

‘Can I get you a drink,’ I said, and then remembered his disgust at the coffee in the café.

‘No, but get yourself one.’ He pointed to the kitchen where I opened the fridge to find a bottle of protein shake and nothing else. I poured myself a glass of water from the tap.

He was sitting staring straight ahead at nothing. ‘You could ring my agent for me,’ he said, and he passed me his phone. ‘Go on.’

‘What’s his name?’ I asked as I scrolled down the contact list. George Clooney. Jennifer Lawrence. I wondered if it would be unethical to take a note of their numbers.

‘Her name’s Susan Charofsky.’ I pressed ring.

A hoarse voice answered. ‘Yes, what is it?’

‘It’s Steve,’ I said, ‘I mean, I have Steve Evans here, to talk to you.’

‘What the hell is this?’ said the voice. ‘It’s five a.m. What kind of sick fuck prank calls people about their dead clients at five in the morning. Are you insane? How did you get hold of his phone you sick bastard, I’m going to – ‘

I clicked off. ‘She doesn’t believe it’s you.’

‘She’s a hard cow. We’ll try again later when she’s had her coffee.’

‘Do you want me to ring your mum?’

‘No.’ He sat in contemplation. ‘This is shit, isn’t it.’ I looked at him and for the first time, I saw the movie star legend, the blue eyes, the little boy lost face. He had a mole on his cheekbone that I’d never noticed in the cinema. Perhaps they airbrushed it out.

‘I’m alive and dead. I’m a survivor of a fatal car crash, I’m Jimmy Dean, I’m Jimmy Dead. I don’t know. If I’m alive, I’ve cheated death, I should be happy, but what’s the point in being alive if I can’t contact anyone, I can’t be in films, I can’t have my life? I could go to the press – ta-da – scoop of the century, but what if there is a body in that morgue, what if they prove it’s me? What then? How could I get a job now, the story’d be more interesting than my role, I’d be forever the guy who came back from the dead. The first zombie filmstar. I’m a ghost, a phantom, a fucking nothing. My career’s done. I’d never be seen as a great actor. You think I’m good don’t you?’

‘Look,’ I showed him the photos on my phone of the memorial on the North Circular.

He smiled. ‘It would be nice for them if I came back from the dead. It’d be better than Elvis. But your friend saw me, right? Him and the waiter, you all saw me. What if I take a picture and upload it to twitter – a spectre selfie? Here, you do it.’

I snapped him on my phone but when I tried to look at the picture, there was nothing there.

 

A Lovely Part Of The World

24 Dec

First published in The Ham Issue 1, December 2016

‘We’re just here for a week; we’d’ve liked to stay longer but we look after our grandson once a week and well, we miss him, don’t we Andy, when we don’t see him. Would you like to see a picture? I’ve got some on my iPad.’

Anne took the tablet out of her bag. ‘Now I always forget the password don’t I, well not the password, the squiggle you have to – there it is. Here’s one of him watching the laundry go ’round in the washing machine. He’s fascinated by it. Loves seeing how things work. Going to be an engineer, I’m sure of it.’

‘She dotes on him,’ said Andy.

‘He’s just so sweet natured. Not like Melanie at his age. Such a grumpy toddler! She was always crying and throwing tantrums. When I took her to nursery, she’d grab my leg and wouldn’t let go. Albie loves it, he’s straight in there, commandeering all the best toys.’

‘He has a look of Prince George,’ said Val. She touched the picture of the child and it moved.

‘Ooh,’ she said, ‘I don’t know how these things work.’

‘We’re total Luddites,’ said Alan, ‘we only got a computer last year so we could email our son.’

‘We like to keep up,’ said Anne.

‘Where are you from?’ asked Alan.

‘Lyme Regis. My daughter lives in Dorchester. We moved down to be near her.’

‘Lovely part of the world,’ said Alan.

‘And yourselves?’ said Andy.

‘Just outside Grantham.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘Just off the A1, in Lincolnshire.’

‘We’ve never been there have we, Andy? We do like to travel.’

‘We’re loving retirement,’ said Andy.

‘We’ve been to Gran Caniara, Malta, Cyprus, Morocco, that was a bit different wasn’t it, all in the last five years,’ said Anne.

‘Spending the kids’ inheritance!’ said Andy.

‘Well, we deserve it,’ said Anne, ‘we worked hard all our lives, we deserve a bit of fun. And now the mortgage’s paid off, we can afford it. Don’t want to be like our parents, do we, old before their time. Stuck at home.’

‘My dad died four months after he retired,’ said Andy.

‘Sixty-five’s the new fifty,’ said Anne. She smoothed down her hair.

‘It’s terrible though isn’t it,’ said Val, ‘about the young people. Mortgages, I mean. My son, he lives in London, he can’t afford anything, even a one bed flat. We’ve offered to lend him some money for the deposit, but needs much more than we could give him. And he says the only way he’d be able to afford the repayments is if he got an evening job as well. He’s in a house-share at the moment – thirty-five and still living like a student. When we were thirty-five, we’d had a three bed semi for ten years.’

‘That’s right,’ said Alan.

‘It’s the government,’ said Val, ‘they’re terrible.’

‘They’re doing pretty well,’ said Andy, ‘under the circumstances. Considering what they inherited from the last lot.’

Anne indicated her empty glass to Andy and he refilled it.

‘Have you been to France?’ asked Alan, ‘we liked France, didn’t we, Val.’

‘France is lovely, apart from the French,’ said Andy.

They laughed.

‘The northern French are grateful for our war effort but the southern French, they’re not appreciative at all,’ he continued, ‘you’d think D-Day never happened.’

‘Andy, it was seventy years ago, it’s like being obsessed with the Franco-Prussian War during the time of the second world war!’

‘Yes, they weren’t grateful then either!’

‘It was our finest hour,’ said Alan, solemnly.

‘Those were the days indeed,’ said Andy.

”They didn’t want the channel tunnel, did they, the frogs, it was us who wanted it and look at the trouble it caused,’ said Alan.

‘What, Belgians?’ asked Anne.

‘No, immigrants. They get to Calais then they’re hiding in or under the trains. It’s a disgrace. All the illegals.’ He sighed.

‘I don’t mind them,’ said Val, ‘they do a lovely biryani in our village.’

‘Oh I don’t mind the immigrants from the colonies,’ said Alan. ‘I mean the new ones. African, Poles, Muslims. OK, we’ve done our bit, but enough is enough. It’s just common sense. I mean, you’ve only got to look at the roads.’

There was a silence, then Andy said: ‘You mean the wobbly yellow lines? Are they done by immigrants? In my day, lines were straight, not bent like Larry Grayson.’ He laughed.

‘No, I mean the traffic. When I first learned to drive, ’68 I think it was, there weren’t so much traffic on the roads. Now takes us over an hour to get to Peterborough. And there’s no British left in Boston now, it’s only East Europeans. Some pubs are no-go for the Brits: a friend of mine got asked to leave because he was speaking English. The country’s been taken over. ‘

‘And gypsies,’ said Val, ‘they steal children, keep them as slaves. I read that in the paper.’

‘Our son was mugged by a black man,’ said Alan.

The waiter, hovering at Andy and Anne’s table said: ‘Dessert coffee brandy whisky?’

Alan and Val were still on their main, but they dutifully looked at the dessert menu.

‘I’ll have a Johnnie Walker,’ said Andy,’and my wife will have a Captain Morgan and coke.’

‘I’m supposed to be doing the 5:2,’ mused Val, ‘but I do like a lemon tart.’

‘We’re going on a helicopter ride tomorrow,’ said Anne.

‘That sounds lovely,’ said Val.

‘Yes, there’s a couple at our hotel who booked a ‘copter and they said we could join them.’

‘We should bung them a few Euros,’ said Andy.

‘They said free, Andy,’ said Anne. To Val she said: ‘They come here every year, they told us all the best places to eat. We’re going on a tour of the island with them as well. It’s free as long as you listen to a timeshare presentation.’

‘Very nice,’ said Alan.

The waiter returned. ‘I’m sorry sir, we don’t have Johnnie Walker, we do have Bells or Teachers.’

Andy frowned. ‘Any Jim Beam?’

‘I’ll check, sir.’

‘There’s no loafers here, are there,’ said Anne, ‘everyone works hard, they’re all in the restaurants from eleven in the morning to twelve at night.’

‘My son’s friend is on zero hours contract,’ said Val, ‘terrible.’

‘You need to work your way up,’ said Alan, ‘start with zero hours, then you get ten, twenty hours, then full time. Show willing. I left school at fifteen, no qualifications, I’ve done alright for myself, I didn’t get any handouts.’

‘Well, we all got cod liver oil,’ said Anne, ‘and milk. And pensions. And cold weather payment. And I went to university, all free.’

‘Teacher training college,’ Andy reminded her.

The waiter returned with the digestifs. Andy took a sip. ‘This isn’t Jim Beam,’ he said.

‘I hated that milk,’ said Val, ‘it was always warm. I was glad they stopped it before our Gavin started school. Mind you, they’re all lactose intolerant nowadays aren’t they.’

‘What I think,’ said Andy, is that too many people go to university nowadays. It gives them false expectations. Hundreds and thousands of kids with media studies degrees! No wonder they can’t get a job.’

‘Our Gavin’s got a media degree,’ said Alan.

‘Ooh, they do Crepe Suzette,’ said Val, ‘it’s been ages since I had a flambé. They do Peach Melba too, look Alan. Used to have those in the ’60s. The old food is the best, isn’t it.’

Andy and Anne finished their drinks and called for the bill.

‘Are we having a sweet then?’ asked Alan.

‘Ooh go on then, we’re on holiday aren’t we.’

Andy left a €50 note on the table and he stood up, pulling Anne’s chair out for her.

‘We must be off now,’ he said, ‘got to get up early tomorrow for the ‘copter ride.’ He brushed an insect off his jacket. It fell, squashed, on the table.

‘Lovely to meet you,’ said Anne, ‘if you’re ever in Dorset….’ The men shook hands and the women each kissed a cheek.

‘Lovely couple,’ said Val, once they’d gone.

‘Bit full of themselves,’ said Alan, ‘helicopter ride indeed.’

Outside the restaurant, Andy flagged down a taxi.

‘Nice couple,’ he said, as he opened the door for Anne.

‘Never met such terrible racists in all my born days,’ said Anne, ‘let’s hope we don’t bump into them again.’

Opening The Black Box

25 Oct

Originally published in Thresholds magazine, October 2016

Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, first published in 1948 in The New Yorker, is rich in meaning, imbued, like so many of her stories, with symbolism and metaphor. But it takes careful reading of the figurative language to extract an explanation of, and from, the text.

‘The Lottery’ was written in the first half of the twentieth century and is rooted in its own time and place. The story could be said to be in the modernist tradition. William Boyd states in his essay for the Guardian ‘Brief Encounters’ that, in a modernist story, ‘the inaccessibility of the subtext […] makes the story so memorable’. In ‘The Lottery’, symbolism plays a larger role. Symbolism can be characterised as attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects. Jackson never states explicitly that the village lottery exists to create a ‘sacrificial lamb’ to ensure that the harvest will be a good one. The reader does not gain access to anyone’s thoughts and none of the characters explain what is happening. The reader is an observer, and must work out what is taking place through language and symbols.

BOOK_Shirley-Jackson_The-LotteryThe central symbol is the black box, which has more than one meaning. It is black – a common symbol of death – but it also links the villagers with their traditions. The building of a new box is discussed, because the old one is shabby, but never carried out; this is a community that couldn’t alter its traditions. One could also say that the box is an icon:

There was a story that said the present box had been made with some pieces of the preceding box, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here.

It is similar to a religious relic. The black spot, which the unlucky loser of the lottery picks, again alludes to death, and the similar device in R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’.

The box, representing both tradition and death, makes Jackson’s point clearly – to carry on with tradition and ritual equals death. This can be taken both literally, in the case of Tessie Hutchinson, the ‘winner’ of the Lottery, and figuratively, in the sense that if societies don’t move on, they will be wiped out by progress. The box represents the institution of the Lottery and the Lottery represents the village: they have an annual rite that is part of their being, an integral part of their sect, and the village could be said to represent society at large. Jackson is making the point that there is evil lurking in everybody’s heart. The story was published three years after the end of World War Two and it could be seen as an allegory of the holocaust: society needs a scapegoat, a person or a group to victimise.

Names of the characters are also rich in meaning. Tessie’s friend is Mrs Delacroix: French for ‘of the cross’, making the reader think of Biblical punishments and sacrifice. Old Man Warner is literally a warning: both warning the villagers that they should not give up the Lottery – “Nothing but trouble in that” – and a warning to the reader of remaining the same, not changing. The tyranny of tradition creates a refusal to change or adapt. Warner is a winner in life’s lottery and the ritual’s most ardent supporter: he has survived seventy-seven of them. Opposite Old Man Warner are the children, who could be a hope for the future – it is only the young people who show some emotion about the result of the lottery: ‘A girl whispered: “I hope it’s not Nancy”’.

Mr Summers – the story takes place on 27th June, just after the summer solstice with its resonance of pagan festivities and perhaps pagan sacrifice – has his opposite in Mr Graves, his helper, again linking the lottery to the grave and death. According to the critic Fritz Oehlschlaeger, in his 1988 essay ‘The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in The Lottery’, Jackson used the name Hutchinson to connect the character of Tessie to Anne Hutchinson, another rebellious New England woman, whose religious beliefs led her to be expelled from Massachusetts in 1638.

Shirley JacksonAs well as names, Jackson uses specific language and actions to more strongly get her point across. We are told early on in the story that the villagers feel sorry for Mr Summers, whose wife is a ‘scold’ – a word that conjures up archaic forms of punishment such as the ducking stool and the scold’s bridle. The way of killing the victim, stoning, is a Biblical punishment, and the idea of sacrificing an innocent to help the harvest, is pagan, pre-historic. Jackson is robustly suggesting these are both ancient horrors that shouldn’t exist in 1948 society.

In the story, moral authority is based on unquestioned traditions, and unchanging, traditional practice is very powerful. Mr Summers, as the facilitator of the Lottery (and the person who runs the town’s major industry, the coal mine) has the power, whereas Tessie, the victim, and, as a woman, a second-class citizen, unable even to draw the lot for her family, is powerless. We know that Tessie would not rebel if another person had picked the black spot (she is uncomplaining before her family is chosen), but it is the power of the majority that results in her death.

Without simile, metaphor, allusions, or symbolism within the text, this story would be a mere macabre tale. But, instead, it is highly compelling. By making use of figurative language, Jackson almost asks the reader to examine her story more closely. Which, ultimately, leads to a more fulfilling understanding of her work and her intentions.