March 10, 2005
Tales Of The Decongested
My friend Katy Darby blogs at Beauty and the Bitch where cabaret rules. (Their routines are hilarious, I might add)
It is surely from her extensive experience of watching tortured and dying comedy routines from the side of the stage that this gem of a short story comes: The Beginning of the End of the Pier.
Link: Tales Of The Decongested.
January 15, 2005
Look at me
You may have come across Look at me, an archive of anonymous photographs. With now over 400 images they seem mysterious and yet candid - unknown to the viewer and yet intimate with the photographer in whose position we sit. Looking through I thought it an obvious opportunity to practice a little short fiction - no more, say, than 300 words.
So, I've written something to accompany no.44 (opens in new window)
Boy it was cold! Cold as the ice on the stream out back at Ma’s house. Jimmy and me are wearing gloves, see. And hats. But we all had hats then. Especially Jimmy – looking all grown up and ready for the world with his fedora and striped tie. He was going to Chicago to work in his uncle’s telegraph business. Or so he told us: me and Dick.
Dick was older than us. Smart but without Jimmy’s ambition for himself. Dick just liked taking things apart, seeing how they fit up and then fixing them right back up together. When some guy came into town with a camera and a pack of cards Dick went and won the camera playing blackjack with him. Sure he was good but no ambition.
Not Jimmy. He told us tale after tale about his uncle in Chicago. Did we believe him? Not really. Dick and I thought we’d all be together forever. Even when Dick took the photograph, it was as though Jimmy was putting it on. That’s why I am laughing and Jimmy looks so serious. His case was so light I joked there was nothing in it. He just scowled and said that according to his uncle all you need is a clean shirt and a quick mind.
Dick took the photo and we walked to the edge of town with Jimmy, expecting him at every moment to say he was just kidding. But he didn’t, he just kept on walking. We stopped, waved, and watched as he kept on walking, till he was gone around the light blue cold of the next hill.
July 28, 2004
I've written another short story. Hope you like it (I warn you that is not exactly, shall we say, verité in style).
John’s eyes open gradually to a dim, fuzzy gloom. His chest feels strangely heavy and his arms and legs listless and drained. The blur gradually ebbs away and noises emerge: thick, wallowy words, more tune than sentence, spoken as though through honey. They too condense like the scene into being once more the world John knew before the blackness. Then smell comes to his attention: sharp and chemical the kind of odour that coats the back of your tongue. John’s tongue is dry and furry: he asks for water.
‘Sorry dear?’ A face bearing down. Lipstick and glasses. Mother.
John feels his jaw moving awkwardly and his tongue hesitant.
‘Oh. Water. He’d like some water. Geoff – fetch some water. He’ll get some water.’
John gazes back at his mother. Something is wrong.
‘You’ve been in a coma. Yes, a coma. For a very long time. Two years.’ Each statement punctuated with a longer pause.
‘You’re taller,’ mumbles John.
‘Here’s your father.’
Father holds a glass to John’s mouth. John sips, the warm, slightly clinical water dribbling down his chin. ‘No, something else.’
Father hands – there’s something wrong. And his height. ‘Hands? Too short too.’
‘He’s not making sense. That’ll be the coma. Get the doctor, Geoff.’
‘No. It’s wrong.’ John is trying to understand why his father is wearing a dress. Why his hands are smooth. And why he is sporting a pair of breasts. Articulating this is more difficult. ‘It’s all wrong.’ And his mother is wearing a t-shirt underneath which curly chest hair sprouts awkwardly. ‘It’s all wrong.’
A doctor appears at the door in the hospital room, (s)he has the body and legs of a petite woman and the head of a bear-like man. ‘Can I help?’
‘I think he’s woozy,’ says mother.
‘It’s be the headswap,’ says the doctor, confidently.
John feels his jaw dropping and consciousness slipping away.
John awakes more quickly but still with the gloopiness of ear and eye. His parents and the doctor surround his bed. His mother/father sitting at the end hoping no-one will notice as he rearranges the contents of his pockets.
‘There. He’s back,’ begins the doctor.
‘Can you tell him?’
‘Certainly.’ (S)he beams doctorly warmth at John. ‘Whilst you were in your coma – you had an accident, by the way, hit by a bus, you were on your bike – we all swapped heads. There. End of story.’ (S)he turns to leave.
‘End of story?’ John croaks. ‘Everyone?’
The doctor thinks about it. ‘Hmm. Almost everyone. To tell you the truth it was a while back and I think we’ve all forgotten about it now.’
‘But who… whose idea was it?’
‘I blame the government,’ says the head of John’s father.
Everyone laughs except John.
‘It’s surprisingly simple, really. Turns out people have been doing it for centuries. A quick twist, lift and off. I takes a bit of a knack, I’ll grant you, and you can’t do it too often or else your head will fall off!’ Everyone nods, knowingly.
‘13 August, two years ago, it was,’ adds the head of mother. ‘Everyone. All in one day. It felt a bit strange, now I think about it, but you get used to it.’
‘But why?’ John is now blinking rapidly.
‘I suppose we were a bit bored. It was the summer. There wasn’t much on,’ explains his father’s head. ‘Not that hasn’t been without a few difficulties but on the whole it’s been good.’
‘Who was that business man?’ Mother-head is smiling and waves both hairy hands, trying to put her finger on it.
‘The one who swapped with his secretary? Oh yes, that has been a real success. It’s been very democratic too. And there’s the chancellor–‘
‘–he’s become PM–’
‘–it was his idea–’
‘–not that much has changed!’
Everyone laughs again. Something dawns on John. He lifts his hand gradually to his chest.
Mother-head smiles. ‘Ah yes, we’d better explain. Doctor?’
‘At the time of the swap we didn’t have enough beds in all of the wards. So we put you in with the female geriatrics and well…’
May 30, 2004
A short short story
Regular readers may be aware that I have been deeply impressed by Dave Eggers' short short stories each week in the Guardian. I haven't been seeking to try the form myself but then something drifted into mind and presented itself best as something short - less than 250 words. Do let me know what you think.
Jerome sits on a bench in his suit outside the court room alongside his mother who is humming Amazing Grace, as she does when she is nervous. Only, Jerome cannot hear her because the voices are singing louder; not very loud, but loud enough for him not to work out the tune. She is thumbing through her scrapbook of his newspaper cuttings.
He thinks he sees his doctor talking on her mobile at the foot of the stairs on the otherside of the Victorian court house. He likes her, she listens to him, and is trying to read her lips, trying to take his mind off the voices. He gets distracted though by the late afternoon light shining onto the wall above her.
Jerome is unaware that she has been asked by his lawyer to tell the court why he stole the batteries from the petrol station. He cannot read lips so does not realise that she is asking a friend, another lawyer, if there is anyway she can ask the court to provide him with batteries for his walkman to stop the voices.
But the court won't be able to help because its his fifth offence. And in two hours Jerome's mother and the doctor will sit near each other on the bus home, unaware of each other's presence, both wondering why - however good he was - he chose to be a boxer and not an athlete.
May 12, 2004
From time to time I write short stories. I can think of no better place to put them than here, so here's the most recent. Don't forget that the address of this site is 'firstdraft.blogs.com' and I reserve the right to re-edit when I please.
GEORGE STARTED AWAKE, banged his head against the dull velvet wall of the musty elevator and waited for the doors to open. All he could think of was the bed waiting for him. It didn’t matter what kind of bed – hard, soft, lumpy or smooth – it could accommodate a metropolis of bedbugs for all he cared, so long as it was horizontal.
As the doors thunked shut behind him and whirred off to another floor, George fingered the room key in the dim corridor half-light. 2374. There could be only forty rooms in the entire hotel. How come there needed to be a number 2374? Well, so long as it has a bed. So long as it has a bed. 2372. 2373. The end of the corridor.
George wandered back. 2375. 2376. 2378. For goodness sake. George returned to the elevator and noticed the door by the elevator itself: 2374. How stupid of him. George fumbled the key into the lock and, with the full weight of his half-slumbering body and his suitcase, eased it open.
In the murk, George had the feint remembering of what light from the corridor had caught objects before the door closed heavily behind him. He reached out for the light switch and cursed his line manager for insisting he took the budget carrier. The light buzzed, enjoyed a mayfly-like exuberance, then pinged the room back into the darkness.
George was just aware that he had chosen well not to lock his suitcase but regretted packing his torch in one of his shoes.
With his clothes scattered liberally over the faded evergreen carpet – which he could now see from the light in the bathroom – George pulled his shoes and socks off, unnoosed his tie, shuffled off his jacket and pulled back the blanket and sheets.
He then remembered to do something; just what, he wasn’t quite certain. Alarm clock. Out of bed. Set alarm. 7:05? 6:55. No. 7:00. Into bed. Out of bed. Turn out bathroom light. Stub toe on suitcase. Into bed.
‘And this hotel is a bloody rip-off too…’ began George to himself before, at 3.24am after a twelve-hour flight that was six hours overdue, a forty minute taxi journey and an eventful search for his room, he fell asleep.
At 7:50am, George Lightfoot stepped as swiftly as his ancient forebear down the steps of the Hotel Paradiso. His tie was sharp, his smile insouciant and his handshake firm as he greeted his colleagues who awaited him in the taxi.
‘Sleep well, George?’ Denison wore his sneer with marmalade on his collar.
‘Never better!’ George swung his briefcase into the car.
‘Oh, come on,’ began Hartson. ‘In that dump? My P.A. knows to book me in the priciest place in town, normally. But I always like to have a look first. Glad I did. Class A pile of shit. Don’t tell me you’re not joining us at the Regency tonight, Lightfoot.’
George squeezed in and pulled the door shut behind him, not a bag under either eye. ‘Worth every penny, I’d say.’
The afternoon’s second plenary session dragged painfully along the late afternoon. George, however had a bright, furtive, if far-away look. Speakers on the platform provided the musak for his reverie. To his left three Japanese delegates were asleep, their heads nodding forward or back. On his right Denison was filling-in yesterday’s crossword and was struggling with ‘(12) mix up at the Front, call for walking formica’.
‘George! Pstt.’ Denison leant across, ‘Space space, ‘m’, three spaces, ‘b’, two spaces, ‘l’, three spaces.’
George just stared ahead.
The chairperson was summing up, ‘…to meet more of you at dinner later. Thank you.’
People began to stand up and shuffle away from the hall. George just sat.
Hartson put his hand on George’s shoulder. ‘Lightfoot, do you fancy a snifter before dinner? Lightfoot?’
George nodded and then turned to say to no-one in particular, ‘Not tonight. No, I think I ought to be getting back.’ And with that he picked up his briefcase, left the room and called a taxi.
Ah, thought Denison, inspired, ‘Somnambulant’.
George Lightfoot looked considerably less than his forty two years as he breezily greeted his compadres the following morning at the foot of the Hotel Paradiso’s steps. They, on the other hand, had aged more than a single day.
‘Should have joined us Lightfoot,’ croaked Hartson. ‘Quite a sesh.’
Denison groaned as the taxi swung round a bend and turned the full force of the morning sun into his baggy eyes.
‘You not well last night, Lightfoot old chap?’ Continued Hartson.
George didn’t bother to get his notepad out for the final workshop of the morning. Denison was taking it. Badly. George meanwhile stared first at the clock on the wall of the dark seminar room in which the fifteen of them sat, and then through the shallow windows at the top of the beige walls to where clouds drifted by outside.
Part of the reason for Denison’s halting manner was not simply the whisky he’d been drinking nor the three hours of sleep he’d got in Hartson’s bath after he’d locked his keys in his room; he was distinctly disturbed by George. He had never seen him so happy. Not when they’d been office juniors in the same company in Winchester all those years back. Not even at George’s wedding, that Denison had only been invited to because his wife was a cousin of the bride. He was disturbed by the naïve, almost spiritual look on George’s face.
‘And so we come to the crux of the matter,’ began Denison. He’s staring out of the window. ‘The crux of the matter.’ He’s not listening to a word I’m saying. ‘George Lightfoot, maybe you can enlighten us with what the crux is.’ That’ll show him.
George twisted his head round slowly, like an owl. ‘Oh dear. I think I really have to leave. Thank you, it’s been… interesting.’ And gradually, serenely, George Lightfoot rose to leave.
Hartson from the chair by the door grabbed at his sleeve as George reached for the door knob. ‘Where you going?’ he hissed.
‘See you at the airport later.’
‘I don’t think so. I’m staying on an extra night.’
At the Hotel Paradiso George tipped the taxi driver liberally, bounded up the ragged steps, pushed through the heavy revolving door and waved courteously at the useless and ineffectual receptionist at the desk. The elevator was not working – a sign that hung from the buttons said ‘Leaviator Working Not’ – so he climbed the dingy and mildewy stairs to room 2374.
George could barely bustle the cleaning woman out quickly enough, thrusting a sheaf of mangled notes of varying hues into her apron pocket by way of apology. He checked the door, pulled the curtains tight and threw his clothes onto the chair as he undressed. Off went the light. Into bed went George. And off to sleep.
‘Welcome back, Sir George,’ grins the Maharaja, his twinkling eyes beaming joy at the dreaming Lightfoot. ‘Come to it!’ he commands two nymphs who carry George’s gown to him.
‘Maharaja, such a warm welcome!’ says George, who takes the pint-pot potentate of the Hotel Paradiso by the hand and shakes it.
‘As you can only expect by now, my honoured guest!’ the prince replies. They both laugh.
George notices that he is in a gondola and one of his two attendants is preparing a long, fat line of cocaine from her ankle to the top of her thigh. She looks expectantly at George, pouting. George looks up to the Maharaja and his twirling, black moustache and indigo turban.
‘It is okay, my friend. Is this not a dream? There are no rules to be broken.’
Feeling instantly brighter than ever and toying with a glass of champagne in his hand, George looks across the golden sea to the palace, silhouetted by the setting sun. He turns to the other nymph and states, innocently, ‘I didn’t see a champagne bottle.’ At this she lightly touches his lips with a forefinger and, taking his glass with the other hand, pours the contents into the sea.
Just as silently – George can only hear the gentle lapping of the waves upon the boat – she scoops the sea into the flute and holds it up for him to sip from. Light explosions burst elegantly upon his tongue and he gulps and gulps and gulps the liquor from a single flute, his head swimming ever more sweetly as the yacht approaches the shore.
‘Here we are again.’
‘I’ll never be tired of this place, your Excellency,’ sighs George stepping out of the boat, a nymph at either hand.
‘A rub down before the feast, is in order, I think. Do you concur?’
George smiles as the gown falls from his shoulders: ‘I concur.’
The feast is languid and lavish. A thousand servants, each dressed in woven gold thread bring first fish from every sea – salmon, trout, bream, sea bass, monkfish, turbot, cod, tuna, crayfish, tiger prawns and lobster – each served with a perfect sauce, each of a different perfume and viscosity. These are followed by the presentation of a stuffed and roasted calf borne aloft by ten young maidens, one of whom carries a great carving knife, sheathed upon her back. With a great sweep and shwoosh she is on one knee before George, the knife presented for him to take the first slice of the succulent meats. Within the calf is a boar, within the boar a lamb and within the lamb several poussin. Each poussin is stuffed with a goldfinch and many oysters.
At each slice, all the assembled company gasp then applaud George, who eats heartily but is barely sated. Wines from France, Austria, Spain and Italy accompany each course, each with a different crystal glass presented invisibly by the sommeliers in the shadows beneath the tapestries upon the great stone walls beneath the high clear windows of the mighty palace.
When George begins to tire of food it simply is not there: seemingly not having vanished ostensibly, but simply not being. Instead, George’s interest is in the siren song of the women advancing progressively upon him and then in the tingle of their soft caresses.
Every pleasure and sensation rains upon George through the courses of the feast and the entertainments in between: illicit, indulgent, exorbitant – every pleasure, indeed. In the skies from time to time George thinks he can see the airplanes carrying Hartson and Denison back to their homes and it makes him sad, but then another distraction will sap his mind of all terrestrial thoughts.
This cannot go on forever, though. And George knows this. With aching regret George takes his leave of the dancers, singers, waiters, sommeliers, masseuses and attendants and settles back into the yacht that surely, he knows, will soon be a gondola. The wailing of the rapidly more distant shore propels the boat across the surf.
‘It soon will be time to leave,’ says the Maharaja.
‘I suppose so,’ George replies, ‘I suppose so.’
‘Maybe we had better settle the bill before we reach the shore. I’d hate us to haggle at your departure.’
‘You are too kind, but we expect you to haggle a little.’
‘What bill?’ George tenses and for the first time spray from the sea catches his face, salty spray, not dry and wine-like.
The Maharaja produces a tightly wound receipt coil from an invisible pocket. ‘A sea of champagne does not come cheaply, my friend.’
‘But I thought…?’
The Maharaja places the beginning of the roll on George’s lap. ‘I’ve put it in dollars – that way it won’t seem so much as it might in our currency.’ He then unwinds the roll to show an ever descending flow of numbers as endless as pi.
‘But I cannot afford that!’ George cries.
‘Then I suggest you begin to pay it off immediately another way. This is a hotel, you know. You can’t get something for nothing.’
A drum beats in the background and the shackles tear at George’s wrists.
‘Row, damn you, row! If you start now, the next twenty years will simply fly by.’