The Typewriter Will Sleep When The Job Is Done

He went home and wrote his book to the end. His hands were cramped and shaking by the end; finger tips stained with typewriter ink. But he felt the satisfaction of a hard job done well. It had been worth the sacrifice of an evening out with his friends.

The next day at work he realised that he’d made a mistake in the first act of the story and that its pacing would ultimately derail the whole narrative. He resolved to … resolve … the issue. He realised he’d been in trouble two words into that previous sentence and wondered vaguely when he’d started narrating his own life story.  The day passed, eventually, like a kidney stone. But that evening he was there at the typewriter, feeding it his time and blood and sweat and every last ounce of creative energy he could wring from his knackered flesh.

Done.

But then it occurred to him in the shower the next morning that he had been a blind fool to go back to the first person, a blind, stupid fool.  Sorry boys, gonna’ have to ‘ixnay on the five aside tonight – the muse is trembling in my bosom.  He didn’t notice the unresponsive … response… from his colleagues.

The next day he left work at the very second his contracted hours were up. No post-work drinks for me; I’ve a book to write.  And the next day he did the same. And the next, until it was done.

He was excited then, at the end, so he sat back and lit his cigar he said, ‘Martha, now, how about that…’ but before he could finish, he had a revelation – it’s not a third person narrative at all; it’s a dramatic monologue.  He went to bed with the dawn chorus for a power nap before work.

And so it carried on, through the changing seasons and almost as many drafts as demurred invitations: I’m sorry guys, another time, how about on the 6th,  not tonight; sorry my only and dearest brother, I can’t come to the wedding, I’ve got to re-edit the climax – it’s so close, but not quite right.

Over time the invitations dwindled then stopped completely as, one by one, his friends came to the realisation that they’d lost him to addiction, that cruel mistress. It would almost have been better if he’d had a mistress, even a cruel one. At least he would have left the house occasionally.

Eventually the invites stopped coming, but he’d long since stopped noticing them in any event.  The years went by, one draft following another – what have I been doing, it’s been right under my nose all this time – it’s an epic poem.

Obviously.

His weight plummeted – he was too busy to eat.  In time, his pallid skin hung loose from his cheekbones, and his once proud mane of hair first became straggly then started to come off in huge clumps. The drafts would come and go – here a witty take on the book-ended structure of Madame Bovary, there a playful homage to For Whom The Bell Tolls.  The hipster’s typewriter became an executive’s MacBook Pro, then a desktop PC because an artist’s tools need not be a statement.  And then back to the typewriter, the one true implement of the writer.

Finally, after decades of work it was finished. His masterpiece.  His baby.  NOW he felt the full satisfaction of a hard job done well.  He scrabbled in the dust for his phone, before remembering that it had died for the last time back in 2039 and he’d not had time to replace it. That was during his ‘second person phase’, which he remembered with the sort of wry disregard one normally reserves for an ingratiating but wildly destructive king charles spaniel.  He felt a dull ache in the long-disused lizard part of his brain and a twitch he’d not felt in all the years since he’d decided to rule out including a saucy scene in the book. Hey Martha, he called out, how about that sex? Silence.

He found her decomposed corpse in the kitchen.  She’d been there 15 years last May.

It all came crashing in at once: the nights out, the weddings, funerals, get-togethers, reunions, anniversaries, date nights; all abandoned to feed the insatiable appetite of the typewriter.  He felt bitterness then – the return home after a difficult commute only to hear the typewriter’s guttural chant: feed me, feed me.  His body shook with the surge of long-suppressed tears, he tasted ash in his mouth and let out a savage roar that caused the neighbour’s cat to go into hiding for so long her owners thought she had passed away.  He smashed and crashed his way through the kitchen, an open wound, a primitive maelstrom; a writer unwritten.

Eventually he gathered some semblance of control over himself and staggered back to his typewriter. Use this. Use this, use this, he whispered to his racing heartbeat; this could be the real masterpiece.  One letter at a time, he began to type.

A Cat’s Tail

Cat sat on the  mat and contemplated the play of sunlight on the sandstone paving of the porch.  He’d had a play date with Mouse this morning and sure, it had been fun for a while, but it was dead now.

The afternoon stretched in front of him, a great soothing expanse of empty canvas. I should probably do something positive, thought Cat, but then again there’s existential dread so I won’t.

So he didn’t.

Party Animals

The flowers were, of course, beautifully arranged. “The lily represents both marriage and death. Such a heavy weight of symbolism for such a delicate thing.” Goose said to Badger. It was the sort of thing he said.

“I heard the old man died in bed, not his own, and not from sleeping.” Hyena was such a gossip. Hummingbird slurred in agreement – poor thing was a nervous wreck, what with her condition and all. And she had noted that everyone had noted that they’d seen that little blue dress  before, at another party a few months ago.

“Why yes, thank you,” Badger accepted another drink, “I find it helps the old writing.” The others tittered dutifully but averted their eyes; everyone knew Badger was a lousy writer and a red-eye drunk with wandering paws.

Cat glowered in the corner smoking a Gauloises; he’d been stood up by Arthur Miller. Or at least someone who said he was Arthur Miller (and why would he lie). They were going to talk about Cat’s screenplay, a bittersweet coming of age tale, which he’d been working on for much of the past 7 years. It didn’t help that he was tripping balls off some violent, violet opiate. Pig had fixed his last gin, and everyone knew Pig liked his little practical jokes.

“Taste this,” he’d said, “the secret is lemongrass.” Not much of a secret, but Pig lacked opposable thumbs, so to get a cocktail at all was nothing short of astounding.

“You should see my new personal trainer,” said Rabbit, “Almost obscene the things he wears. And so much…orange…I swear his skin matches his outfits.” She glanced meaningfully at Hummingbird’s indigo feathers. But Hummingbird was too busy distancing herself from sobriety to notice. “Hummingbird, darling, are you sure you’re not overdoing things?” But Hummingbird was too busy distancing herself from sobriety to respond.

“I don’t know where you put it all with that figure,” said Cow, not quite green with envy, “I wish I could eat whatever I wanted like that.” Spider laughed a tinkling laugh (Goose would describe it as mellifluous) “Darling, you’re too kind, but if you listen closely you can hear the creak of whalebone.”

She tapped on her crystal champagne flute. “My late husband would’ve hated the funeral – he was never one for pomp, but he’d have adored the wake – he always was a party animal. I’d like to thank you all for coming to this little send-off. It’s been difficult these past few weeks.

(“I heard she did the old man in herself,” whispered Hyena)

Spider broke off, she didn’t like giving speeches. Badger teetered towards her, wrapping an octopus arm around her waist. “If you need anything…” he said to her cleavage. He stank of whisky. She dismissed him in an Elizabeth Taylor voice: “You’re too kind, dear Badger, far too kind.”

“Have you ever killed a man?” asked Cow. “No.” replied Wolf – he was a creature of few words. They stood in awkward silence for a moment, Wolf stirring his drink with a yellowing stalk of lemongrass hoping to mask the unusual flavour (Pig had made it for him as an olive branch over all that unpleasantness with the real estate last year). Wolf was a mystery – he’d made a lot of money doing something no one understood. And, even more baffling, he never talked about it at all.

Hummingbird and Pig walked back into the room, taking care to appear nonchalant. But her dress was ruffled and her eyes were glazed. It was an open secret that she’d been bankrupting herself even before her husband had been laid off.

It was time. The ladies took it in turns to rummage in the bowl. Spider went first; it was her party. She pulled out the keys to a Mercedes and looked expectantly round the room.

“You know she’s four times a widow?” asked Hyena to anyone who would listen.

Virus

President Laithewaite’s right ocular augment was on the fritz and streaming.  He tried to swear but his nose was so blocked his words came out fudgy.  He straightened his tie with clammy hands and tried to ignore the pounding in his head.

An oily knock insinuated itself against his bathroom door “Mr President?” a respectful tone (how do they manage to capitalise the ‘P’ when they speak, he wondered).

“Just a minute, please.”  A quick smoothing of his hair – he had a good head of hair, one of his proudest features.  And that chin, statistically proven to appeal to the widest voter demographic.  There were rumours of surgery, but he had never confirmed or denied.

But his jaw felt slack like his dignity, and his shirt clung to his back like misery.

Good health, he had reasoned, was only missed when it was gone.  That’s why he’d paid for the full upgrade for him and his family.  But that was when he was just another civilian.

It was moot now of course – he had all the brains of all the government agencies’ R and D departments, as well as the tech they’d begged, borrowed or stolen from abroad, at his disposal.  And they’d created a bespoke package – personally tailored gut bacteria to maximise his digestive efficiency, modified t lymphocytes (and the rest) to combat any known microbe.  His vascular system, musculature, everything was monitored for the slightest weakness.

His body was a medical Fort Knox.

Except today it wasn’t.

He left the sanctity of the bathroom and strode to his office trailing symptoms and security as though he could outrun the sickness.  A man was there waiting for him.

“Mr President, forgive me but your olfactory unit is malfunctioning.  May I offer you a tissue?”

The man from the National Security Agency.  What was his name?  Laithewaite had never been good with names: that was what the recognition software was for.   He snatched at the tissue, designed to register traces of poisons and toxins – very useful for deskbound senior security types (he thought bitterly).  NSA man continued, with respect and reproach in his voice.

“Mr President, you should have informed us as soon as you felt unwell.”

“What and spend half the night with needles in my skull while your technicians reconfigured all the encryptions, changed the nuclear codes you swore would be safer locked up in my brain than some hard-drive and everything else at God knows what cost?  Like last time?  Remind me, what was it again?”

“Uh, hay fever, sir.”

“Hay fever.”

“With respect, the codes, affairs of state, private memories – all at risk sir.  We need to make sure you at least stay under the radar until we can fortify your firewalls, especially in this city – I doubt there’s a square inch that’s not covered by wi-fi.  And our initial reports suggest that this isn’t biological.”

“What are you saying, that this is a hack job of some kind?”

“We’re not sure.  Your immune system is kicking in, but it’s attacking everything – we’ve found no trace of microbial infection and we keep your malware defences fully up to date, so it must be something new.  We think there may have been some involvement by the Chinese, maybe the Indians.  Brazil’s a possibility, among others.  Maybe even one of our European allies.  Or the Russians.  Then there are some rogue political groups we’re monitoring.  Or the private sector. Some of your opponents in the House of Representatives would certainly be interested in your private files.”

He sighed.

“At this point we need information.”  He plugged an ugly looking needle into a hard line dock hidden in the crook of Laithewaite’s right elbow (the president was left-handed).

Laithewaite felt the remaining strength leave his legs and collapsed heavily onto his chair.  It had been designed by an award-winning architect and carefully selected to give the strongest possible indication of his quiet good taste.

It was depressing to feel so frail.  A strange thought occurred to him.  Was it…doubt?  In a small voice he said “it’s…it’s not going to be fatal is it?”  He scolded himself: stupid, stupid.

“No, Mr President.  We’re confident that we’ll be able to reboot your systems individually and isolate the cause.”

“How confident?”

“Pretty confident, sir.   You’re one of a handful of the most highly modified human beings on the planet.  If it was just you I’d be more concerned but the technology is fairly well understood.  And of course we have the finest people working to fix your issues.”

Laithewaite touched his internally mounted intercom with his mind like he’d been taught.  Nothing.  Sighing he tapped his outdated desk intercom for his secretary.  A tinny voice, vibrating with steely enthusiasm, answered as she’d been taught.

“What can I do for you, right now, Mr President?”

“Get me a.. a cola, would you? A Mr Krunk.”

“We’ve got Coca Cola or Diet Coke, Mr President.  You remember the campaign contributions.”

He found himself suddenly shouting – a tantrum like his daughter hadn’t had since she was 4 years old “I don’t want a goddam Coca Cola; I hate it! Always have, since, since… always.  Just, just do what you normally do – get me a Mr Krunk and put it in the Coke bottle in case anyone sees me.  And first thing we’re reviewing that deal because I’m not drinking that, that, SHIT, any more.”  His anger surprised him; his rudeness didn’t surprise her.

He realised he couldn’t remember her name either and he’d had her for, well, since the press got wind of what happened with the last one (a precisely co-ordinated campaign – maximum deniability of course – to remind the voters of his virility and irresistibility to young women).

‘The law of unintended consequences,’ he thought, ‘when they suggested that damn software as a way of keeping track of dignitaries at official functions I never thought a cold would make me forget the names of the people I see every day.’

Laithewaite turned back to the man from the NSA.  His face was buried in a smartphone, scrolling through Laithewaite’s most intimate details.  His face had lost most of its colour except for a yellowish waxy sheen.

‘He’s starting to look a lot like I feel,’ Laithewaite thought.

“Mr President I don’t want to alarm you but it looks like your heart monitor has gone offline.  I’ve alerted the response team.  Again, just a precaution, but if we can’t read your heart rate we don’t know what’s going on.  And in your current condition…”

Laithewaite stared at him dumbfounded, “If I was having a heart attack, or it just stopped, don’t you think you’d be the second person to know about it?”  In the circumstances he felt it was kind of droll.

“We just can’t take that risk, Mr President.”

Laithewaite’s secretary almost ran in, grabbing at the TV remote.  She did not have a drink for the president.  She didn’t even have the customary smile all staff were required to wear for him – a simple, professional smile that was neither too ecstatic nor too subdued.  Instead her face had frozen into a bleary rictus.

‘What I’ve got must be catching,’ he thought and found the thought strangely pleasing.

“Where’s my Mr Krunk?” he asked, pathetically.

She fumbled with the remote (why do we still have a remote in this day and age when even the unemployed have moved on?)  But eventually she made it work and flicked through the channels, before:

Breaking news now: the Washington Post and the New York Times have both published details of an alleged short-lived affair between President Laithewaite and his campaign manager, Taylor Stone.  They say their source is unimpeachable.  And later on we’ll be asking: is America ready for a gay president?  More after these messages.

The scarlet silence – hot pink with embarrassment – was broken by the sound of the head of state falling off his chair (not even that comfortable) and hitting the ground.  Tom from the NSA sprang into action, running into the corridor to find that goddam response team.

Laithewaite’s secretary Angela stood there a moment, paralysed into inaction.  He’d always made a point of complimenting her beautiful name – she’d always made a point of spitting in his coffee, which was as ersatz as the rest of him.

Tom returned with some serious men.  Security formed a perimeter, speaking confidentially into ear-mounted speaking devices; medics prodded and poked at the incumbent, sopping mess on the floor.

“He’s fine, just in shock, needs some sugar.  Someone get him a cola, a, a… Mr Krunk.”

Angela, by now regrouped, said “We’ve got Coca Cola.  It’ll have to do.”  Which was a lie:  she’d picked up a Mr Krunk on her way in this morning.  It was hidden in her bag; the security guy owed her a favour.  The phone screamed out in anger.  Thoughtlessly, she picked it up, “President Laithewaite’s office.”  She listened for a moment to the automated switchboard.

“Sir I have three calls for you.  Line one is Mr Stone’s attorney who sounds very upset.  Line two is your press officer who also sounds very upset and line three is the Secretary of State and guess how she sounds.  Who would you like to speak to first?”

A commotion picked up volume in the hall outside, “I’m sorry ma’am, this area is currently restricted.”  “Let me in, I’m his fucking wife,” came through clearly enough, as did, “that fucking asshole better have a goddam good explanation for this or I’m taking his goddam fake balls along with everything else when I divorce the fuck out of his fruity ass.”

Angela, still holding the phone, leaned down and sweetly said “Your wife is waiting in the hall outside for you, Mr President.  Would you like me to let her in?”  She was starting to enjoy this.  Maybe the next guy would have some manners.

But all (snotty, sickly) President Laithewaite could do was sit on the floor, sobbing boiling tears.  Why’d it have to be coke?  All he wanted was a Mr Krunk.

__

Roughly 2300 miles to the West, the nation’s youngest CEO pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and opens his expensively encrypted virtual conferencing network.

“Gentlemen, this has been an unqualified success – our client’s sales are spiking through the roof; they couldn’t be happier.  Literal viral marketing uploaded direct to neural networks and spread through wi-fi.  See to it that our young genius gets a bonus, wouldn’t want him jumping ship now.” 

“We’ve really put this agency on the map, boys.  More than that, we’ve just made advertising history.”

Bane From The Dark Knight Rises On A Dating Website

A person of my acquaintance has started doing that internet dating they have now.  I was inquiring how it was going and generally ‘taking an interest’ in his life, which my mother always taught me was important in the formation and maintenance of friendships.

Obviously, talk turned to weekend plans – his revolve around watching rugby and football in the pub, doing Bane impressions and sending ill-advised ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ messages on dating websites.  (His Bane is very accurate and very loud, and he loves to dig it out, which can make public outings with him somewhat awkward).

Long story short, this happened:

 

Interested Woman: Hi! I saw your profile and thought you looked cute!  Why don’t you tell me about yourself?    : )

Bane: No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.

IW: Oh that’s a shame, but I’m here now.  : )  So anyway…who are you beneath the mask? ; )

B: It doesn’t matter who we are.  What matters is our plan.

IW: Wow, that’s pretty dark. You’re a little scary, huh? ; )

B: Now is not the time for fear – that comes later.

IW Girl: Oooh, I can be a bit dark too, sometimes… lol.

B: Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, moulded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but BLINDING!

IW: um… ok, so what do you get up to? I went to see Les Mis last night.

B: Theatricality and deception: powerful agents to the uninitiated. But we are initiated aren’t we, Bruce?

IW: Oh yeah, the costumes were really pretty. Who’s Bruce?

B: Let’s not stand on ceremony here, Mr Wayne.

IW: It’s Jane actually, with a J. So whereabouts in London are you based?

B: I will show you where I have made my home while preparing to bring vengeance. Then I will break you.

IW: Kinky. I dunno if you’ll be able to break me though. I do a yoga class 3 times a week so I’m pretty bendy 😉 lol

B: Oh yes? I wonder which will break first: your spirit or your body.

IW: Yeah I’m pretty spiritual too. I have a tattoo in Sanskrit which says “fear is a cage”

B: *Bane Block*

 

Cant

They say you should write what you know.  So he always started with the aftermath and worked backwards.  (It was what he knew)  The action would come in time – he’d always found these things worked like little excavations.  Others plotted things out, and that worked too.

The action would come in time, some details would reveal themselves. Then he’d start to see the shape of the narrative, same as always.  This wasn’t exactly his first time.

He rubbed a little life into his hands and found a new page in the notebook he carried around in case of sudden inspiration and to jot down small observations.  He already had a couple of characters so he had most of the who.  He’d flesh out the what, and the when, and in time the how and finally the why.  His characters certainly had motivations but he knew better than to force the issue.  Best just to wait patiently.

He flicked back and forth through his notebook to give his hands something to do while he worried at the details.  Some minor details – he liked to think of them as clues – were more trouble than they were worth.

For him, he found they had to be teased patiently, and followed.  Some led him in the wrong direction entirely, wasting his time, which was valuable to him, at least.  Overall it was like sex, like that cop Leslie Nielson had played in that movie had said: a painstaking, arduous process and just when you think you’re getting somewhere, nothing happens.

Other clues though, well they came in flashes revealing everything: the shape of things, the story.  And the one in his mind’s eye was a doozy.  He smiled tightly.  This one would hopefully lead him to other avenues until he’d hiked up and across the entire rotten edifice, the whole story.

All of life was stories, he reasoned, it’s how we communicate as a species.  Did you hear about… Have I ever told you how I… It’s how we learn and it’s how we remember.

He’d always felt that he had a keen ability to observe people and human nature, but for all that it had brought him it left him feeling isolated, detached somehow from the reality everybody else seemed to live.  Observe it and write it down, rinse and repeat – life at arm’s length.  Only never quite reality, perception: reality microfiltered and pasteurised through his senses then his brain.  After all, everything is made up of largely nothing but you’d never know to see it.

Everything was just perception, at least in his experience.  That was his cant.

He nodded to the uniformed sergeant – get forensics on it ASAP, make sure it’s not the victim’s hair or a cat’s or something.

18 hours since the start of his shift.  They’d stiff him on the overtime of course, but at least he finally had a breakthrough.  Protect and serve or at least clean up afterwards: that was his cant.

__

PS: A clue: this whole thing was built out of a ridiculous pun on something vaguely esoteric and massively pretentious, that’s also a glib critique.  Says everything you wouldn’t want or need to know about me… See if you can find it, no prizes for the winner.

Who Wouldn’t Want A Pat On The Back

“What’s that on your back?”

“That? Oh that’s just Pat.  She’s pretty tired.  Been running around all day climbing trees, eating bananas, picking parasites and eating them.  You might say she’s been monkeying around…”

“Ha. Very clever.” (deadpan) “She looks heavy.”

“Oh no, she’s just been on my back for a while is all.”

“She looks pretty dug in.”

“Yeah she’s like that – gets comfortable and then clings like a limpet.”

“Are you sure she ever gets off, because I’ve known you a while and I’ve never seen her running around.”

“Oh she does, she’s just shy around you is all. You can be pretty intimidating I guess.”

“I guess.  Look, it’s not really right you having Pat on your back all the time.  You shouldn’t have to cart her round all the time like you’re her minder.  It must get in the way of you living your life like you want.”

“It can do I suppose.  You must understand though – I never see you without all your baggage.”

“These? Oh it’s just a couple of weekend bags.”

“Yeah but they’re leather, must get pretty heavy having to cart all that around all the time.  Don’t you ever put it down?”

“Someone played a joke on me once and put superglue on the handles, so I couldn’t let them go even if I wanted to.”

“That’s awful, but I have some white spirit, which might help dissolve the glue.”

“That’s very kind of you but I wouldn’t really feel comfortable leaving them lying around – you never know who might be around thinking ‘oh I could do with a new holdall.’  I’m pretty used to lugging it all around anyway.”

“Fair point.”

“Ok, well if you need help getting that monkey off your back, let me know.”

“Will do.  Thanks; you’re a good friend. And likewise, if you want someone to help you let go of your baggage I’m always around.”

____

Bye-bye July – I never did really get the hang of you.  Maybe next year.

2am

“Your problem is you don’t know how to start your stories,” he said, pushing his wire frame glasses up his nose with a nicotine-stained finger.  “You need to start with a bang, a hook; a mystery.  You need to grab the reader’s attention immediately, not a few paragraphs down the page.”  He dropped my dog-eared manuscript in front of me.  It was covered in livid red ink; deconstructive feedback.

I sat there feeling mildly humiliated by him, yet again, but then again I’d joined a creative writing class for the criticism.  He moved on to the pretty girl to my right (the one who never knowingly left the house without a low-cut top) “Great work as ever, Julia.” A generous glimpse down.

The difference between a smile and a leer is drool.

He moved to the front to deliver his sermons to the class; he’d started the first class with “Most writing is banal, most writers at best merely proficient. With my help, someday you might be proficient.”  Was that a meaningful glance in my direction?

__

2am now and my vision is still fuzzy from embarrassment, mind still fizzy from the output of my internal chemical factory – fight, flight or fright.  Old, clammy sweat clings to my forehead reflecting the brutal bathroom light in the mirror.  It’s too hot to sleep – too hot in the room and too hot in my brain.

A fly buzzes forlornly against the window that’s never touched a drop of cleaning fluid.  The bare light bulb blinks so I pull the string and loiter in darkness peering at the space where my reflection used to be.

__

Each lesson had a theme: ‘conflict’, ‘character relationships’; today’s was ‘mystery’.  “The example piece I gave you opened with the protagonist’s reaction to a photograph he’d received, which caused shock and revulsion.  But really it opened by showing the reader a mystery: what is it a photo of? Then immediately: why is it so shocking?  Why 2am?  The revelation that it was blackmail raised more questions than it answered – who, how, to what end?  Why the withheld number?  Each reveal in fact increased the mystery, until the final twist that the message had come from his wife – the person he most wanted to keep in blissful unawareness of his philandering.”

To give the man his due, it was a fantastic story, profound despite the mundane subject matter.  It takes a special talent to breathe life into calcified clichés.

In reading aloud extracts to us his obvious passion for words really came into its own.  He was never more animated than when quoting himself.  He wasn’t good-looking but charisma trumps all.

This short discussion, more a monologue, had been followed up by passing a copy of an anonymous new work for the class to critique with our own indelicate tools.  “I’ll give you a moment to read through this piece and take some notes.”  But of course we knew he couldn’t wait for long to begin explaining everything the author had done wrong.

“This short story explores the father-son conflict through the conceit of two vampires: the master and his pupil, competing for the same victim,” he said, somehow affecting a quizzical eyebrow through speech alone.  My heart sank with the realisation that the story to be torn apart was my own.

“Any thoughts, anyone?”  The class shuffled collectively and avoided eye contact; as ever, no one wanted to be first.  “I’m disappointed…” he tailed off, casting a coolly appraising gaze around the room before it alighted on me.  “What about you Mark?  Any thoughts?”

From a distance it can be hard to distinguish the flush of embarrassment from that of blind rage.  “I quite liked it,” I said, “maybe…too many?.. Adjectives?”

“Too many adjectives,” his eyes blazed, “Exactly right, Mark.  Any idea why the adjective use is a problem in this story? Anyone?”

I’m ashamed that I felt grateful for the pat on the head.

Hesitant theories were proffered until the professor heard one he liked. “Yes, Nina, the adjectives make the reader too passive – and unlike with TV, the reader is active.  You need the space to draw your own picture, your own conclusions.  Well done, Nina.”

No mistaking her blush for anger.

The class warmed to the task – Antoine (not his given name) disliked the pacing, Sarah thought it would have been better written in the third person.  Ben thought the vampire idea was “lame”, Chris said he just didn’t really get it.  Antoine felt that the “lexicon was too gauche for the subject matter”.  Rachel thought the character names “weren’t very vampire”.

With each incision I sank lower in my chair, the crude cuts as painful as the sharp: my grammar was off, too much dialogue and not enough action, the victim too idealised, and on and on.

__

A fact is just a prejudice confirmed by others

A fact is just an opinion with poorer manners. 

I am a bad writer.  This is a fact.

__

Then Julia put her hand up.  “Yes Julia?” the professor gave her an amused-bemused look.  All eyes turned to her.  “I really liked it; I thought the author captured the dynamic really well.  And I didn’t feel spoon-fed.  In fact I thought it was beautifully written, adjectives and all.”

He nodded slightly then raised his voice for the class, “Julia liked it, everybody.  And that’s the point!… It’s not just about what I think – it’s what you all think too.  I am only here to show you the way to good taste.” His words dripped with the charming sincerity of the chronically insincere.

“All good points, well done.  But despite this story’s over-reliance on them, don’t be too hard on adjectives.  After all, if we never used adjectives they would die out and our language would be all the poorer for it.  However, as I’ve always said, a few go a long way.”

“My own impression of the story is this: there were some strong details – the dilation of the victim’s pupils, his quickening breath.  All very ‘bodice ripper’ as though part of him is turned on by the inevitable.  Adds a slightly sexual element to the violence.  And the writer cleverly resisted the urge to tell us this too explicitly. It’s also quite interesting that he made the victim a male when they are so often women in this sort of fiction.”

He broke off for a sip of water from the bottle he always kept full on the desk.  He believed in good hydration.

“But the fundamental flaw with this story is the characterisation.  A writer must neither idealise nor demonise his characters, which can be tricky as space is so limited and exposition so dull.”

“Likewise, in real life we might take an instant dislike to someone for no apparent reason.  But in writing we must at least imply one.  Jealousy, for example.  This also helps flesh out the players.  In contrast, in this story, the elder was ultimately too cruel to be believable.  And before that, the younger had no apparent motivation to hate him – their conflict was merely competition for the sake of it.  In your writing you must go deeper.”

He paused, bathed in the applause of 20 pens furiously scratching.

__

I stumble blindly to my bed – must clear out the hall – to a sticky bed framed by the hunter’s moon.  Nothing yet from Julia, my writing partner for the task.  After a few weeks of class it became clear that my writing wasn’t improving, that whatever he had to teach me wasn’t going in.  But I kept going. 

I’d noticed she had a habit of biting her lower lip, an endearing display of shyness at odds with her outfits.  She was the type of girl other women dismissed as ‘pretty in an obvious way’ – she hit the male libido with the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.

Julia had held out her hand politely that first week.  We’d exchanged the odd word since, nothing you’d call a conversation.  I’ve never been shy with women but with some you just can’t help yourself.  But this was the opportunity to get to know her, preferably biblically.

“He’s a bit up himself, but I suppose you can be when you’re that good.  I still can’t believe he’s teaching us,” she’d said.

“I suppose being a lecturer doesn’t pay that well, even if you’re also a novelist.”  She’d ignored my bitter barb and exchanged numbers with a promise to text a date.  Left me in my misery to clarify some points with him.  

__

“Ok, sermon over.  Now there’s a bit of a change for next week – you’ll be writing in pairs to try and learn from one another.  And don’t forget we’ll be looking at Roald Dahl’s short stories, so do try and actually read a couple.”  A wolfish smile before besotted sheep.

I sat there in misery while the class slowly dispersed.  The professor remained perched on the desk at the front fielding questions wildly and flirting mildly.  I wanted to speak to him in private but could feel the tightness of tears at the back of my throat.  Instead I blankly packed my things to the damp, ambient soundtrack of hero worship and trudged off with concrete feet.

__

2am and I stare dumbly at my phone, willing it to go off.  It does, but it’s not from Julia.  It’s from him.

A photo message, surprisingly well defined (another of his apparently limitless talents). 

Dilated pupils in kohl-rimmed eyes, a face flushed with pink.  And falling away the eye is drawn to firm, swollen breasts, down to a supple waist and beyond that… Julia’s nakedness hits my solar plexus with all the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.

And below that a caption: all the best, love Dad.

 

__

 

 

Holiday Blues Jam

My dearest Jane,

While I was on holiday (which was lovely thank you), Japan beat Wales at the rugby. This was something of an upset (he said with typically British understatement).

‘Japan harpoons Wales’ would’ve been my headline if I were a tabloid journalist still. Crying shame that unhappy business.

Back here in Blighty the weather continues very hot. I have requested of her Majesty’s government that the Spanish siesta tradition is imported for the duration, but to date my communiques have gone unresponded to. Such is life under the perpetually face-grinding boot (which my good friend Eric B so eloquently alluded to in his recent novel).

The silver lining of this sad little tale is that I remain of buoyant mood despite being forced to work in conditions that would be positively sweltering were it not for the office’s highly capable air conditioning system. As you might guess, I was recently able to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes – becoming inexplicably, albeit cathartically, angry at airports.

It never fails to enervate me that they persist with the ludicrous fiction that flying is a glamorous mode of travel. So glamorous in fact that the only things available for purchase are sunglasses, perfume, booze, poor quality, high cost clothes in lime green and hot pink, cigarettes (albeit only on one’s return) and electronics. Because nothing says ‘impulse buy’ like a desktop computer.

I suppose that if you’re going to spend that much money on a polo shirt you damn well want to make sure that no one can miss it. It seems a sad irony that the people who can be least trusted to spend money wisely and with taste are the ones who have plenty of it. Money, not taste – that’s a given, unfortunately.

And don’t get me started on the food, the purveyors of which exist to cater purely for those whose dollars exceed their quotient of taste buds.

In fact I became so apoplectic when forced to produce a passport and boarding pass in order to buy a bottle of water (you wouldn’t believe the cost) that I felt I might explode into a puce fireball. But I remembered too late that one mustn’t use words like ‘explode’ or ‘bomb’ in an airport.

At least the chap who performed the cavity search had nimble, gentle fingers that reminded me of those long ago days at Charterhouse.

I find the airport bookshops these days to stock a much narrower range of reading material; confined largely to the chart toppers and such literature as has previously been adapted into picture shows for the masses. They are indisputably harder to comprehend, with new categories like ‘genuinely true crime thriller’ and ‘dirty gubbins’ replacing those of my youth. I found an entire shelf apiece dedicated to those three fifty shades books I once had the misfortune of skimming through twice each from cover to cover. My ex-wife says she flicked through it.

But alas, happiness is fleeting and I fear the post-holiday blues will soon overcome the invigorating rage of the departure lounge.

It was dark upon my return and the seductive night air put me in mind me of you, which in turn left me with a short-lived but profound sadness. I deeply regret the manner of our parting and the pain we caused your husband – I’ve heard his new album by the way, exceptional. I received your regards and hope in turn that you still have the rose I gifted you, not to mention the lock of my hair. And I hope your husband has repaired that ratty old raincoat of his, because it does suit him rather famously.

Intermittently yours,

Simon