Here’s an extract from another short story in progress. Hope you enjoy…
After leaving his seat, Alfred was still in the habit of looking back to check if he’d left anything behind, like his umbrella, or his scarf, or his body. He’d told me that he’d rarely been present in his youth; always lost in a daydream or marinating in thought; always forgetting something-or-other. Now, as a mindful, meditative septuagenarian, he lived in every moment like a tableau figurine, entirely aware of his surroundings and inhaling the perfume of life.
The gilded chair that Alfred had just levered himself up from was upholstered in red velvet and framed by an ornamental, gold-leaf backrest. He was dressed in keeping with this opulent perch: a charcoal morning suit he’d acquired from Saville Row, tailored to make his hunch seem corrected, his pot-belly hidden, and his chest puffed like he was ready to swim the English Channel. Alfred’s suit was the most expensive purchase he’d made since Margret’s engagement ring (and that was over fifty years ago).
Why the big effort? Two reasons: Today, Alfred was meeting a woman he was in love with, but had only ever met in a dream. And the second reason? Alfred was about to receive an OBE for services to education. You see, Alfred was in love with The Queen of England, and the gilded red velvet chair he was now slinking away from was in the Ballroom of Buckingham Palace.
His name had been called, and he was now walking towards The Queen to receive his honour, using his large palm to flatten the long wisps of hair he persisted in lacquering and combing to his scalp. Perhaps, in his youth, he would have been trembling with nerves, his mind considering every potential mishap on the short walk from chair to monarch; a stumble, a wet sneeze, a foul word blurted in error. But I could see that Alfred was now completely calm; his focus was on his breath, on his steps, on his tingling flesh. He was profoundly present and aware.
Margret had been the one to introduce meditation to their marriage. After the loss of their daughter, she’d been recommended ‘mindfulness’ by her GP as a method for baring the pain; for somehow accepting it. Alfred had been sceptical at first – I know, what a cliché – but remember, he’d been born in the 1940s, when men were men and never spoke of feelings other than those mustered by their empty stomachs.
However, behind closed doors, I knew Alfred worshipped Margret and only wanted to see her happy again; so without complaint, he’d meditated alongside his wife twice-a-day for the next twenty years. That is, until, Margret herself passed away, some four years ago.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but my writing’s been picking up some pace since my wedding (those things take up a lot of time). Here’s an extract from one of several stories I’m currently juggling. I’m not sure it’s the most efficient way to work, but I always seem to have several pieces ongoing at various stages of completion. Other writers might draft and redraft the same story until it’s polished and ready to go. That just doesn’t seem to work for me. The drawback is that I have a lot of stories that aren’t polished and ready to submit. Here’s a bit from one of those:
Two noises dominate when it’s just me and The Meat in here: Beep and Shhhp. Beep. Shhhp. Beep – The Meat’s heart still beats. Shhhp — The Meat’s lungs still breathe. I’ve tried to tune them out: impossible. I’ve tried to extract a beat or some kind of musical pleasure from them: nope. There is a sort of rhythm, but it’s not exactly one you can tap your foot to.
I saw The Meat tap his foot once. Well, it was more of a twitch. The nurse saw it too while she was in here changing his shit bag (that’s right, he shits). His big toe started twitching away like Thumper and the nurse yipped with excitement and called in one of the leaden doctors – they’re all leaden when they come in here; gravely serious and pissed-off and put-out. I mean, I get it – they want to heal the living, not flog the dead horses down this end of the corridor.
So, this doctor lopes in and sees The Meat twitching and he says, “It’s nothing.” The nurse looks crestfallen, so he explains a bit more: “By week six, his brain will have liquefied.” The nurse’s eyes fill up with liquid. “I’m sorry,” says the doc. “This,” he points at The Meat. “Is a corpse. The family need to understand that. Please don’t tell them about the twitch. They’ll just use it to prove their case.”
When he says ‘The Family’, he’s talking about my wife, Jenny. She visits every day. A black cloud of guilt brings her here around 9am, after she’s dropped off poor little Alistair at primary school. On weekends she’s here from 7.30am and stays until the solicitous nurses timidly ask her to leave.
Jenny arrived one morning and became hysterical because she saw a dried out bogey hanging from the tip of The Meat’s little finger — she was convinced he’d been scooping out cadaver snot in the night. “Proof!” she screamed, holding The Meat’s lifeless arm aloft like he’d vanquished Death in a bloody fistfight. “Proof, he’s still in there! He was always picking his nose.”
True as that may be, it was in fact poor little Alastair who’d left that bogey on The Meat’s finger. The little scamp.
Below is an extract from a short story in progress. The working title is, “In Acceptance”…
There were three things I had in common with my father: whiskey, writing, and sleep-walking. According to him, I was an uncultured whiskey drinker and untalented fiction writer. ‘But, my God, you might just be the greatest sleep-walker there ever was,’ he said one morning after he’d seen me juggling semiconscious in my flannel pyjamas. To this day, I’ve never been able to juggle whilst awake.
He hadn’t left me much: a few unpublished manuscripts, a signed first-edition of his debut novel, and his RemingtonPortable typewriter, which he was found slumped over, with an empty bottle of whiskey in his lap and the final words he ever wrote stamped into the furled paper — I’m tired.
The RemingtonPortable was a beautiful thing. When you held it in your hands it was heavy and cold, like a chiselled lump of iron ore. But when you placed it on a desk, it became an intricate, miraculous object, like a miniaturised munitions factory, with hundreds of delicate cogs and levers working to your bidding. I’d always loved it. My father was repulsed at the idea of using a computer or word processor. ‘What’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for the rest of us,’ he said once, grinding his teeth down to the gum as he wound a fiddly ink ribbon into the Remington (Orwell used the same model, but my father had been duped into thinking he’d bought Orwell’s actual typewriter. As such, he treated the thing like a literary totem, with powers beyond mere mechanical virtue). When I heard that he’d stipulated in his will that I should have it, it was the only time after his death I came close to crying. I just didn’t expect it — he wasn’t a sentimental man.
I awoke with renewed clarity, owing to a rare Saturday-night free from binge-drinking. Eight hours of undisturbed sleep had ordained me with new abilities and confidence. I was ready to tackle a task which had previously seemed impossible.
I padded out of the bedroom, being careful not to wake Nicola, and opened the cupboard under the stairs. Inside, the route to my target was blocked by a thicket of mop handles, hoover shafts and ironing boards. On another day, this would have sent me retreating back to my warm bed. But not today. I parted the Forrest of Domesticity and launched an arm towards the shadowy whereabouts of the neglected object. I had it. I pulled sharply, bringing the surrounding brooms and buckets careering out of the cupboard. My bare feet took some blows, but I was not deterred. The tool-box was out.
My ‘tool-box’ was actually just a plastic storage container that had been reassigned to house ad-hoc instruments I had collected over the years. Rather than being stored in neat compartments, as with a traditional tool-box, the items formed organic layers, like a sedimentary cross-section in a geography textbook. At the top were larger, bulkier items, such as a power drill which had been passed on to me by a friend who had mistaken me for a ‘real man’, and an electric screwdriver whose maiden voyage could yet prove to be its last. Underneath this solid outer crust you will find a hammer, wrench, miniature saw and Stanley knife, untidily arranged like torturer’s bedside table. At the bottom of these layers, the smaller items rattled around — nails, screws, nuts and bolts of all varieties, never to be touched again by human hands. It was too dangerous to try and save them. If I ever required the use of these items in the future, I would need to buy new ones and then empty the surplus into the tool-box, letting them slip through the porous cracks to find their resting place amongst their long-lost brothers.
Like a surgeon intent on not slicing his own hands and livelihood, I removed the instruments I needed with great care. In this case: some miniaturised screwdrivers which specialised in ‘precision’, for this was a job which required a deft touch. I rustled into a plastic Wilko’s bag for the subject of this delicate procedure: a ‘dimmer switch’.
The recently updated lighting in the kitchen was powerful enough to illuminate the pitch at Wembley Stadium on a dark January night. Filth and muck stood out like acne under the unforgiving LED spotlights and should a guest enter the room and switch on the beams unsuspectingly, we could well be liable for irreversible retina damage. Worst of all, the fearsome light made everyone look revolting and our friendships would likely suffer as a consequence. Something had to be done.
I glanced over the dimmer’s instructions as a courtesy — someone had gone to the trouble of putting the thing together — and began unscrewing the current switch (merely capable of ‘on’ and ‘off’ functions). I decided to turn off the power at the mains. This seemed a sensible reaction to the revelation of the nest of wires behind the switch’s casing, one of which was red and looked angry at being exposed to the world without warning.
I had assumed this would be an operation akin to removing and inserting a Game Boy cartridge, but with the discovery of the wires, a more challenging puzzle had presented itself. However, my confidence had not waned and I felt reassured by a faint memory of an episode of The Crystal Maze, where the contestant had to connect an over-sized battery to an oversized-door bell. I could not recall if they were successful in obtaining the crystal.
I ploughed on, reassured by the safety precautions I had now put in place.
It was time to perform the keyhole surgery required to remove the minuscule screws from the back of the dimmer switch. I shed the packaging from the precision screwdrivers and using nothing but my naked eye, selected the tool for the job. On realising it was too large for the job, I picked another tool with a slightly smaller head.
I engaged the screw and felt some resistance. I began to turn the corrugated metal grip of the screwdriver.
‘What’s all that swearing about?’ Something had stirred Nicola from her Sunday lie-in. Some of us had things to do around here, you know?
I used all the force I could muster, but there was no give. I went to the fridge for a hit of orange juice to lift my spirit so I could tackle it again.
I hardened my grip around the narrow neck of the screwdirver, digging the grooved grip deep into the pad of my thumb. I pushed the instrument into the screw head and turned with all the power that Florida oranges instilled in me.
This was simply a hurdle I could not overcome. The tip of my thumb had blistered into a plasma dome the size of an M&M (normal variety, not peanut).
I gathered the tools, packaging and light-switch confectionary and dumped it all back into the tool-box, letting nature organise them into the correct layers.
Dejected, I climbed back into bed and inspected my throbbing thumb. I poked and pinched it. The thick skin showed no signs of rupture, so I continued to prod and twist. It was a satisfying distraction from my reaffirmed failings as a handyman.
An epiphany: Had I been turning the screw the wrong way?
The blister broke, spotting the duvet in an impressive amount serum. I turned over and went to back sleep.