Blog Hop

hopLast week, I was contacted by Brisbane writer and artist Julie Kearney about participating in a blog-hop, where one writer talks about what they’re working on and their writing process, and then passes the blog off to another writer or two to do the same.

Julie herself is currently working on the second of what she hopes will be a trilogy of historical novellas set on Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) in the 1860s. The first one, ‘True Story Man’, was written in just five weeks, and she’s now working on the sequel, entitled ‘Truth is Green’. She’s been published in The Griffith Review and other journals, was shortlisted in the Fish Short Memoir Prize, and the Finch Prize, and won first prize in the CJ Dennis Literary Award. You can find her site at (http://juliebowenkearney.wordpress.com/).

Two writers will follow me next week.

One is Beau Hillier, a Melbourne-based writer and freelance editor. He won the Grace Marion Wilson competition run by Writers Victoria in 2011, and in 2012 was featured in Possessing Freedom, an integrated YA short story collection. He currently is the chief editor of page seventeen, an annual collection showcasing emerging writers and poets. His blog will appear at http://www.busbird.com.au.

The other is Donna Joy Usher, the multi-award winning, Amazon best-selling author of The Seven Steps to Closure, Cocoa and Chanel, and Goons ‘n’ Roses. Born in Brisbane, she started her working career as a dentist. After fifteen years of drilling and filling she discovered there was more to life, and put pen to paper. Now she drills by day and writes by night. When not doing either of those things she likes spending time with her husband and two little dogs, fishing and camping, motorbike riding, stand-up paddle boarding, traveling and drinking wine on her deck. She has lived in a myriad of places: Melbourne, Perth, England, Rockhampton, Roxby Downs, Sydney, Cairns and is now situated on the New South Wales Central Coast. You can find her blog at http://donnajoyusher.com/.

Now onto me …

 
What are you working on at the moment?
A few things. I usually work on a couple of things at once – something completely new, and something in revision. Revision gets me in the headspace for whatever else I might write. Writing something new is always harder, so revision acts almost like stretching before exercising. This year, I’ve added the weekly blog to the schedule.

The new thing is my current novel, ‘House of Cards’. This was originally a (long) short story (almost ten thousand words), although when I was writing the short story I knew I was skimping over scenes to get it finished. Feedback from friends suggested it would work better as a novel. I had something else I wanted to work on, but went with this first because it seemed a story ready to be told (at least as far as my imagination was going). It’s about a relationship, and the things we keep to ourselves when we’re just starting out.

I’m also working on The Other Me, my regular blog here (updated every Tuesday), which is about my experiences with neuroses and how they impacted my life. The purpose of The Other Me is if it helps anybody else who’s reading it (and might be going through anything similar), then it’s done some good.

I’m also (slowly) revising some old screenplays I wrote about ten years ago. I should work on the last novel I wrote, ‘Prudence’, which I finished after ‘Just Another Week in Suburbia’, a winner of the 2013 Hachette Manuscript Development Program, but my screenplays have just been sitting there, unattended for ten years, and I’m a much better writer now than I was when I initially wrote them, so I thought I might be able to do something with them. It’s also nice to be able to work in a completely different field of writing.

 
How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?
I don’t know if you can really differ in any way other than your own unique voice, and how you tell a story. That’s what makes your writing yours. I could say a number of other lofty things, but that’s what it’s comes down to ultimately. Whether you’re original with your ideas or you’re rehashing tropes in tried and true genres, it does come down to how you do it and tell your story which makes you unique.

 
Why do you write what you write?
I write whatever idea appeals to me, whatever gets my imagination going and which I’d like to tell as a story, although lately, that’s become more of an exploration of relationships and the way people interact with one another, and how they do (and don’t) fit into one another’s worlds. I think often, regardless of what you write, it’s a way of exploring your own head and making sense of the world (or what’s happened to you).

 
What’s your writing process, and how does it work?
I begin with the general idea of the story in my head. When I think I have enough, that I’m interested in taking on the job of writing it, I map out the world of the story. This involves naming all the characters and locations which I think might be involved in the story – so even if I think the characters might need to visit a café at some point throughout the story, I name the café, and the staff, even if they’re not used. But it gives me an idea of the world they’re navigating, and means that it’s there waiting should my characters go there.

Generally, after I finish writing for the day, I’ll bullet point any things that might happen later in the story, as well as any revisions I need to make. I usually address the revisions first thing the next day, as that helps me get back into what I’m writing.

Another trick I use is I leave my writing for the day at a relatively high point, where I know what’s happening – it’s easier to pick up and get straight back into it, rather than if you finished somewhere and were low on ideas as to what came next.

Finding Truths

stormcloudsi.
If I knew it’d be like a light going out, that one moment there’s everything and next there’s nothing and darkness, I think I’d do it, I really think I would.  But since I don’t know that, since stories of damnation and shit have fuelled my upbringing, I just lay in bed, knowing I should get up, but instead stare at the ceiling, thinking about everything I have to do today and how I don’t want to do it.
     The light seeping through the blinds covering my bungalow windows, as well as the sounds of neighbours, suggests it’s about nine.  Maybe later.  My body’s in agreement, my head cloggy from sleeping in, like somebody flipped it open and poured sand into it. 
     I roll onto my side and look at the clock radio on my bedside drawer.
     9.17.
     I try to summon the will to get up, like the day’s a freezing pool I have to build the courage to leap into.  Once I do, there’s no getting out, not until I go back to sleep, although that’ll be late tonight since I’m meeting Ash and Dylan at The Back Room for drinks.  Dylan says he’s got an announcement.  Ash has joked that Dylan’s announcing he’s going inside for having a seventeen-year-old girlfriend.
     I push myself out of the cosiness of my bed and undergo my morning routine: pull on my sweats and socks, turn on the computer, open the blinds, put on the electric kettle, drop a chamomile tea bag into a cup, and dart into the bathroom.
     My antidepressants wait for me in the medicine cabinet, an unwanted neighbour there’s no getting away from.  I pop one into my palm and dry swallow it.  There was a time I’d get side-effects: dizziness, stomach cramps, thumping heartbeat – emergency room stuff.  Not that I went.  It was bearing through the meds or facing the shit.  I bore through.  Since, the symptoms have faded to a bit of morning dizziness.
     I leave the bathroom, open the door of my bungalow, and stare across the yard at the house.  I should go inside and make myself breakfast – some toast maybe.  You’re meant to eat something with antidepressants because they’re so rough on your stomach.  But it’s too early to deal with my parents and their everyday recriminations about being thirty, not married, and living in a damn bungalow.
     At the foot of my door I spot a clothes peg.  It’s split in two – one of my mum’s victims when she’s in a hurry to pull down the clothes.  It saddens me looking at it.  It has one purpose, and now it’s done.
     I go outside, pick up the halves, and hunt around for its hinge, even as I hear my kettle whistling.  I’m just about to give up (at least for now) when I see the hinge resting by the garden.  I pick it up, reassemble the peg, and clip it back on the line.  There.  All better. 
     I return to the bungalow as the kettle shuts itself off, so I fill my tea cup, sit at my computer, and open my emails.  There’s a pile already there, including the one which came yesterday from Samantha.

    Hey! It’s been a long time.  Hope you don’t mind me emailing you.  Got your address from Facebook.  It’d be great to catch-up.  Get back to me, huh?

Samantha’s a girl who chased me all through high school, but depression and life (like there’s a separation between the two) got in the way.  She got married to some dick, which might be unfair, but I remember hearing at the time that he was a dick.  Suburbia swallowed them into domesticity, and I’d heard they had a couple of kids.  Her email is a surprise.  I don’t know how to answer it, other than to say something noncommittal, which isn’t answering it at all.
     I have other emails, which I don’t read, but I can guess what’s in them depending on where they came from.  There’s the usual circulars people send when they’re killing time at work; some from Advanced Business Solutions, as well as Healthy Plus, for whom I copywrite on a freelance basis; as well as a couple from fiction anthologies to which I’ve submitted.
     I stare at the emails from the anthologies – Collected Works, and The Bold Writer.  They’re two of the country’s premier journals.  You get published in them, you’re making a name for yourself, which is something I’d like to do – especially after ten years of trying.
     I nurture a quiet expectation that when I read these emails, they’ll be acceptances.  No, it’s not even an expectation.  I know they’ll be acceptances.  I don’t mean to build myself up.  I always tell myself not to, because it makes the fall further.
     Of course, over the years, I’ve submitted my work hundreds of places, if not bordering on a thousand, and I’ve had this feeling a lot, with little return.  The handful of stuff which has been accepted was stuff I didn’t give a chance, and had even forgotten sending out.  Journals are notoriously slow.  Publishers are little better.  I just sent my book out and am sure it’ll be months before I hear anything about it
     My mobile rings.  It’s Ash.  I answer it.
     ‘Hey, filth,’ he says.
     ‘Filth.’
     We don’t mean anything by ‘Filth.’ It’s like ‘buddy’ for us.
     ‘What time tonight?’ Ash asks.  ‘Nine?’
     ‘Yeah.’ I go through the emails from Advanced Business Solutions and Healthy Plus.  They’ve got a shitload of notes there and want brochures – usual stuff.
     ‘Okay.  I might be a bit late.  Stuff happening with Cindy.’
     ‘Okay.’ I don’t bother asking about Cindy, Ash’s wife.  Cindy’s great.  She would’ve made somebody an awesome wife.  Just not Ash.  Over the years, he’s mentioned her less and less, and we’ve seen her less and less.  It’s like Ash is making her invisible, or at least erasing her from his social circle, although that’s probably not surprising given the way Ash behaves.  It’s amazing their marriage is still going.  And strong, too.
     ‘I’ll see’ya later, filth.’
     ‘Filth.’
     He hangs up and I go through the circulars, working out what I’m going to recirculate and what I’m going to delete, but I’m really just holding onto the anticipation before I check the responses from the journals, because while I hold onto the anticipation, the unopened emails remain possible acceptances, and my dreams could still be going somewhere.  Life could still be going somewhere.
     Finally, I look.
     Rejections.
     I delete the fucking things.

ii.
The Back Room is a third-storey bar which sits on top of an Italian restaurant (Agostini’s – overpriced, but awesome pizza), and a floor that’s been vacant for as long as I remember.  I think now Agostini’s use it for storage.  You get to The Back Room through a stairwell so narrow it must violate fire-safety regulations.
     The bar itself is split into quarters: there’s a lounge with couches and little tables, like you might see in a coffee shop; there’s a dance floor, where some nights they’ll have a band – usually Incandescent X, this awesome three-piece acoustic ensemble headed by a woman with the most amazing blue eyes; a hall with rows of pool tables; and one corner out in the open with tables and chairs, like an overblown terrace overlooking the street, although you’d freeze going out there tonight.  A circular bar sits right in the middle, like an axis, accessible to every quarter.
     We’re in the lounge, draped over the couches – me, Ash, Dylan – and drinking Coronas.  Since it’s a Monday night, there’s not a lot happening in The Back Room.  The place started as a nothing bar years ago, and had its regulars every night.  But then it developed a nouveau trendiness, the way places do.  Now, it grows busier the deeper the week goes, and overflows Fridays and Saturdays.
     ‘So what’s happening, filth?’ Ash asks Dylan, but Ash has his eyes on a blonde at the bar who’s wearing tight, faded jeans which shape her butt like a pear. 
     Dylan sits on the couch opposite us, rocking, Corona between his hands.  The way his shock of already-receding hair stands up defying gravity makes his contemplation almost comical.  He takes a drink, gazes up at us, then shrugs.
     ‘Come on,’ Ash says.  ‘Otherwise, I’ve got something to say.’
     Everybody’s got something to say.  I wish I had something.  I think of the rejections from the anthologies.  An acceptance would’ve been something to talk about.  Maybe I could tell them about Samantha, although it’s hardly newsworthy.  That’s something you’d mention as a throwaway.
     ‘It about Lauren?’ I ask, as Ash’s attention drifts back to the blonde, who’s ordering drinks.  One of her friends – a brunette in a tight skirt – has joined her to help her carry.  It’s not going to be much longer before Ash’s dick becomes his rudder.
     ‘It’s not Lauren,’ Dylan says.
     ‘Why didn’t you invite her?’ Ash says.  ‘Oh, that’s right, she’s underage.’
     ‘Ha ha.’
     ‘You idiot,’ I tell Ash.  ‘It’s obviously past her bedtime.’
     ‘How brave,’ Dylan says, which is our way of wry condemnation.  It’s all mocking, in its own way – and Lauren’s great mocking material given her age.  It’s weird, because Dylan isn’t much to look at – not like Ash, who’s rugged and sporty – but he’s never had trouble with women.  Lauren’s his first relationship which has become serious.
     ‘Okay, if you don’t tell us your announcement,’ Ash says, ‘then I’m going with mine.’
     ‘I’m getting transferred for work,’ Dylan says.  ‘Interstate.’
     We’re quiet.  It’s not like Dylan’s told us he has cancer or something like that, and we should be happy for him, but we’ve been friends a long time – Ash and me twenty years; Ash, me, and Dylan ten years.  The dynamic between us meshed from the start.  It’s the way friends work.  It’s not about interests and shit.  That stuff comes later.  You click or you don’t.  But that’s relationships in general.  Life in general.
     ‘They do that in construction?’ I ask, because Dylan’s a roofer for BusyBuilt Construction.  Surely it’s not like needing a neurosurgeon, no disrespect intended.
     ‘Transfer-promotion,’ Dylan says.  ‘Boss likes my work, and recommended me to head office, so they offered me a foreman’s position on-site for some townhouses they’re putting up.’
     ‘Are you shitting us?’ Ash asks.
     ‘This is for real.’
     ‘You take it?’ I ask.
     ‘Had to for the money they’re offering.  It’s like twice what I’m getting, and they’re setting me up with a place to live and everything.’
     ‘When?’
     ‘Six months.  First thing in the new year.  That’s when this townhouse project starts.’
     Again, quiet.  Maybe it is like cancer – the killing of a friendship.  You take them for granted.  You really do, thinking they’ll be around forever.
     ‘What about Lauren?’ I ask.
     Dylan shrugs, and it’s like he wants to be blasé about it, but it must be on his mind because he doesn’t laugh it off the way he usually would.  ‘It’s six months away,’ he says without conviction.  He takes a drink from his Corona, then lazes back on the couch, trying to relax.  ‘What about you?’ he asks Ash.  ‘What’s—?’
     ‘Cindy’s pregnant,’ Ash says.
     ‘Really?’ I say.
     ‘Yep.’
     ‘No shit?’ Dylan asks.
     ‘No shit.’
     ‘Who’s the father?’
     Ash laughs.  ‘How brave.’
     ‘You’re going to be a father?’ I ask.
     ‘What?  I’ll be a good father,’ Ash says, but his eyes rove the lounge until they target the blonde on a couch in the corner.  I walked into the toilets once and Ash was banging a redhead in a cubicle while a crowd of onlookers watched.  Whatever loyalty he’d had to his vows, debauchery and drinking have beaten senseless.  Not that Cindy knows, or even suspects.  She’s the model wife living her model suburban life.  Ash, though, cheats, gets in fights, and goes on drinking and gambling benders.  He can be a prick, which is an awful thing to say, but you still couldn’t find a better friend.  Most of the time.
     ‘Well,’ Dylan said, leaning forward on the couch and offering his Corona, ‘congrats.  To your baby.’
     ‘To your job,’ Ash said, thrusting his Corona forward.
     I thrust my Corona forward and can think of nothing to add.

iii.
I stand on the terrace, looking at the street three-storeys below.  Traffic whizzes by, people moving obliviously on with their lives.  I sip on my Corona.  The night’s freezing, and the barrel of the bottle threatens to stick to my lips.  The beer’s not going down well, and it’s not a night for big drinking, but that’s exactly what I want to do.
     Taking a swig, I look back into The Back Room.
     In the lounge, Ash sits on the couch with the blonde.  She throws her head back and laughs at everything he says.  Give it an hour, and Ash will be fucking her.  His magnetism is inexplicable.  I wish I had it.  An ounce of it.  It makes you wonder why he got married.  I think he was hoping to find somebody to save him, and Cindy did, for a little bit at least.
     Dylan’s playing pool with Lauren, who showed up about half an hour ago.  Sometimes they card her, but most times they don’t.  Bars are always stricter on guys than girls.  Girls are good décor, while guys are a hazard.  It’s obvious which you’d prefer given the choice, and Lauren’s gorgeous with her blonde hair and dimpled smile.
     I turn away from them, gaze back down at the street, wishing I had a Cindy, or even a Lauren, not that Ash knows how good he’s got it, and maybe Dylan’s just finding out.  I wish for anything, but realise I have nothing.
     I know now what I want.
     And what I don’t want.
     I don’t want this life.
 


 
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in issue twenty-three (2012) of fourW, the anthology of the Booranga Writers’ Centre.

This story is actually a prequel to a screenplay I wrote back in 2004, which one day I’d like to turn into a book.

LZ.

Requiem Me

barreloffireThe email confronts me. 
     Mozart’s Requiem fills the basement.  Whenever I listen to the Requiem, I usually think about the morbid romanticism associated with it – Mozart believing he was composing it for himself, the deathbed rehearsals, Mozart mouthing its composition with his dying breaths.  Not now, though. 
     The kids play upstairs, obliviously.  I wish Beth were here.  She’d steady me.  But she’s not.  It’s just me and this unopened email.
     I become conscious of the Requiem again.  It’s the perfect accompaniment.  Or maybe it’s a portent.
     Wait.  Backstep.

***

I go through my CDs.  They’re stacked in the furthest corner of the basement, crammed together like some slipshod miniature city ready to topple.  I’ve got to get better organised – maybe some shelves.  But I’ve been saying that for years.  The basement is where all the junk has migrated since Beth and I moved in fifteen years ago.  Then my aspirations followed.  And finally I came down here to chase them.
     The opposite corner has been cleared out.  There’s an antique desk there, with shelves, books and my computer.  Beth bought me the desk, hoping it’d help me feel writerly.
     Now, it’s me and the CDs.  I try pinpointing what’ll suit the moment.  I pause.  Nothing.  So I think about the new book I want to write, hoping that’ll prompt a suggestion.  It doesn’t.  Not exactly, anyway.  I have a character.  He’s a teacher.  Wait, she.  No, he.  Well, I’ll decide as I write and see what feels best.  But he/she discovers that he/she has cancer (or has that been overdone?), comes home to find their partner’s left them and gets involved with a murder.  I don’t know everything that happens yet.  Details unveil in the writing.  But I need mood music. 
     Pop won’t work.  Forget hard rock.  And heavy metal’s out.  Oldies aren’t right, although I feel my character is nostalgic.  Maybe gets stuck on his/her past.  The story’s meant to be dark.  Brooding.  Classical – that could be it.  That could hit the spot.  Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.  Or Mozart’s Requiem.  I go with the Requiem – a favourite – and put it on.
     Then the sound from my computer of an email arriving.

***

Beth and I are in the backyard.  This bit doesn’t explain the email, by the way.  It happened six months earlier.  But it puts things in context.
     We’re standing by our brick barbecue.  The fire’s just getting going, the flames peeking out of the barbecue as they crackle.  The warmth feels good.  It’s getting on evening.  A cold wind slices through the trees.  Beth, leaning into me, rubs her hands together.  I’m holding an accordion folder, as well as a letter I have pressed on top.  The letter flaps in the wind, like a bird trying to break my grip and fly away.
     ‘Throw it,’ Beth says. 
     I don’t want to.
     ‘It’s a folder full of bad karma,’ Beth says.
     I look at it protectively, as if I’m worried Beth might’ve offended it.  I’ve had the folder for twenty years.  It’s been faithful to me, and shows that by its wear – the worn seams, the creased corners, the tarnished finish.
     Beth snatches the letter from me. 
     ‘Hey!’ I say.
     She scrunches it up, throws it towards the fire.  I reach for it as it swirls in the wind.  I miss.  It lands in the flames, flares, and is gone for good.
     I don’t mind.  It’s not liberating or anything.  Well, that’s a lie.  It’s a bit liberating.  Why should I carry all of it, like some burden?  When I bought my accordion folder, it was light.  But twenty years of filing have made it obese.
     ‘Throw it,’ Beth says.
     I hold it out. 
     ‘Throw it!’
     My arms sway, like I’m trying to build momentum.
     ‘Throw it!
     The barbecue oomphs as the folder lands inside it.  Flames smother.  Twigs snap.  Some of the flames desperately try to escape the folder.  They don’t.  Smoke billows.  The fire’s crackling fades.  The folder’s too big and fat.
     ‘I’ll get the kerosene,’ Beth says.

***

That night, in bed, we fuck.  Or Beth fucks me.  I lie there.
     Throughout, I can’t help but think about Mozart’s Requiem – I think about it a lot when I’m down about my writing.  Commissioned from Mozart by a mysterious man in black.  Count Franz von Walsegg wanted it for his young, beautiful and deceased wife, Anna.  The Count’s plan was to pass off the Requiem as his own, but Mozart died while composing it.  I wish I was that sought after.  But nobody wants to steal my work.  Nobody wants my work.
     We orgasm – well, I hope Beth does, and that she hasn’t just faked it to spare me more disappointment.  Then we cuddle, and Beth encourages me about the ‘next time’ – that my time is ‘still to come’, and all that great stuff she says that deep down I want to believe, and try to believe, but don’t think I do – until she falls asleep.
     I wonder if Mozart dealt with rejections.  Rejections.
     Wait.  I didn’t explain the folder properly.

***

I pull into the drive.  Our house is this squat brick affair.  From the street, you can see more trees than house.  When Beth and I first came to see the place, Beth liked the trees – the whole area’s rural – but I was ready to pass without taking a look.  Beth convinced me otherwise, like she always does.  Lucky.  Inside, the house was spacious, with an expansive back patio and big yard.  So it became home.
     As I drive past the mailbox, I see half a folded A4-sized yellow envelope. 
     Crap.  Hang on.  Forgot something again.

***

We sit at the dinner table – me at one end, Beth at the other, the kids to either side of us.  The kids aren’t important, though.  I mean obviously they are to us, but for the purpose of what I’m telling you, they’re just a distraction.
     I pick at my peas, prodding them, one by one.
     ‘It’s good,’ Beth says.
     ‘What?’ I ask.  I know.  But I want to hear it.
     Beth’s eyes flit to the counter.  On it is a yellow A4-sized envelope that contains three chapters of a novel I’ve just completed – Cold Burn – as well as a covering letter and a stamped self-addressed envelope.  That’s everything stipulated in the submission guidelines of Grey’s Publishing.  I’ve researched on the Net and they say it shows professionalism to always provide exactly what a publisher’s asking for.  But after writing and trying to make it for so long, I know this already.  Mozart was a prodigy, composing and performing when he was a kid.  I’m still trying to break through in middle age.
     ‘You confident?’ Beth says.
     That’s enough of this digression, actually. 
     Anyway, the envelope in the mailbox is the stamped self-addressed envelope.
     It’s my envelope.
     Stupid envelope.

***

I take out the envelope.  It feels exactly the weight of the one I sent, which means it must contain my three chapters.
     Once upon a time, I would have deluded myself into thinking that the envelope contained good news.  I’d pause, relish the anticipation.  There would be a letter in the envelope saying We love these three chapters – send us the rest!  Of course, that’s illogical.  If they wanted to see more, they could phone, email, or send just a letter back.  They wouldn’t also be sending back my chapters.  I’ve learned that from years of submitting. 
     I tear open the envelope, find a small square sheet inside it amid my three chapters.  I pull it out.  It has the masthead of Grey’s Publishing on the top, under which is a form response.  They address me as ‘Dear Author’ and tell me that while they read my work with interest, it’s not quite what they’re looking for.  They wish me the best in the future.
     I stomp into the basement, turn on the light and, just before I flick on the radio, tell myself that whatever song comes on will be a portent.
     It’s Michael Jackson’s ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’ No relevance at all.  Bloody song.
     I sit at my antique desk, lean back in my chair and – damn it – I feel writerly.  It’s the immediate environment.  The feng shui.  Everything conspires to make me feel writerly – other than me, that is. 
     Underneath my desk is a small set of drawers.  I open a drawer, and there looking up at me like an expectant dog wanting a treat, is my accordion folder.  I am about to file away my latest rejection, when I lean back in my chair and look at it again.
     Grey’s took six months to reject me – six months where I told myself not to build my hopes up, but I did.  You can’t help it.  They build – quietly and secretly – in some dim niche of your mind.  Like an aneurysm.
     Hands close on my shoulders.  It’s Beth.  I lean back into her massage.
     ‘You can try again someplace else,’ she says.
     I shrug.
     ‘The first Harry Potter was rejected umpteen times.  You know that.’
     ‘Maybe it’s just not meant to happen.’
     ‘That’s the rejection talking.’
     ‘It’s been talking a long time.’
     ‘Don’t listen.’
     I snort.
     Beth’s hands fall from my shoulders.  I think about our lives together: twenty years married, two houses (one rental!) whose mortgages we’re struggling to pay off, three kids (one diabetic, one dyslexic – OK, maybe they’re a bit important), and both of us working in dead-end jobs because that’s what’s necessary.  And we’re sitting here, end-of-the-world talk, because my hobby’s not paying off.
     ‘Come on,’ Beth says.  ‘Take the rejection.  And that folder.’
     ‘What?’
     ‘Grab them.  Now.’
     ‘But – ’
     ‘Now.’
     I take the folder out of the drawer.
     ‘Let’s go,’ Beth says.
     ‘Where?’
     ‘Let’s go.’
     I don’t ask again.
     She leads me out into the backyard.

***

Beth and I are in the backyard.  The fire’s soaring now.  I worry about sparks reaching the trees.  Who would’ve thought an accordion folder full of rejections would burn so well?  OK, that and a splash of kerosene.  The kids watch from the windows of the house. 
     ‘Feel better?’ Beth asks.
     ‘What about the next one?’
     ‘If there’s a next one, we’ll deal with it then.’
     ‘With fire?’
     ‘Whatever works best.  Then we’ll move on.  Move forward.’
     ‘I’m moving sideways with this.  Or maybe not even sideways.  Maybe spiralling.  Like water down a drain.  Maybe I just don’t know it yet.’
     ‘Maybe maybe maybe.  You write well.  Cold Burn is a good read.  It’ll happen.’
     ‘Is it worth it?’
     ‘Is it for you?’
     ‘I don’t know anymore.’ I wonder if Mozart had doubts when he was begging friends for loans.  Did he ever consider getting out?  Maybe getting a real job, selling door-to-door encyclopaedias or something.
     ‘It’s you,’ Beth says.  ‘Or you wouldn’t have chased it this long.  Wouldn’t have kept chasing it.  Maybe you just need to take a little break.’
     ‘So you can throw maybes around?’
     Beth stands on her tiptoes and kisses me.  ‘Tonight I’ll get your mind off it.’
     ‘How?’
     She smiles.

***

So I lie in bed, thinking about Mozart.  Did he ever question his ability?  Did he ever wonder whether people would enjoy his music?  What would’ve happened to him if he’d bombed out time and again?  I can’t picture him still trying at forty – not that he lived that long.  Maybe he would’ve put his energies elsewhere.
     I decide that’s what I should do.
     I don’t, though.
     Fast forward.

***

It’s five a.m.  Have fast-forwarded a whole four hours.  You probably expected more.
     Sorry.
     I sit in the basement, in pyjama bottoms and a bathrobe, shivering, as I google publishers.  There’s one, Veracity.  It’s small.  Boutique.  Whereas Grey’s is a multinational.  Also, Grey’s is interstate.  Veracity is local.  I could drive there in fifteen minutes.  There goes that nook of my mind – hoping, dreaming.  I see myself sitting in a meeting with Veracity as we talk about my book.  We talk about it, because obviously they’ve accepted it.  So it’s convenient that they’re local.  Because I could drive down there.  See?
     I check their website.  They request the entire book, a covering letter, a bio and a CV (if applicable).  All these things are ready on my computer, and I plan to print them out.  The book I’ll print from scratch, even though I still have the first three chapters from Grey’s.  But they’re tainted.  Better to get rid of them.
     Then I see a note on the Veracity website that says they’ve just gone green, meaning they won’t accept hardcopy.  Everything’s done via email, which makes everything quick and easy – no having to slip out of work during my lunch hour to get to the post office; no having to dread stamped self-addressed envelopes turning up in my mailbox like prospective letter bombs.
     I attach all the requested files to an email, paste in a covering letter, type ‘Submission: Cold Burn’ in the subject line, and hit SEND.
     I am an idiot for doing this.

***

So, I stare at the email sitting unopened in my mailbox.  I’ve already been staring a while now.  The Sequentia of Mozart’s Requiem unfolds.  The kids are being raucous upstairs.  But it’s not about them.
     It’s about the email.
     It’s from Veracity Publishing.
     The subject line reads ‘Re: Submission: Cold Burn.’
     There’s no way to tell – without reading it – if it’s a rejection.  There are no clues with an email.
     So I stare some more.
     While it sits unopened, there’s hope.  It’s not that I want to savour the anticipation.  In a way, it’s not enjoyable.  It’s too tense to be enjoyable.  But while it exists, it validates my dreams, lets me believe that all things are possible. 
     The Requiem fills the basement.  As I often do, I immerse myself in the sublime perfection of the music.  Think now about how Mozart worked on it until his death, even as he feared he was writing his own requiem.  The day before he died, friends came over to sing parts of the Requiem for him.  In his last hours, he was mouthing parts of it.
     It’s then that I realise it doesn’t matter what’s in the email.
     It doesn’t matter how whatever it contains makes me feel.
     Nothing matters but what I want to do until the very end.
 


 
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in issue one of Etchings (Ilura Press 2012).

Etchings had a submission call with the theme of music. Have always liked Mozart, and there’s some of my usual themes of a frustrated writer, so this is what I came up with.

LZ.

Publication and Criticism

shockWhen you’re a writer trying to get published, you’ll take any submission opportunity possible, irrespective of how tenuously your story might fit that target. That’s the nature of writing and submission – to paraphrase a cliché, leave no stone (nor pebble) unturned.

When I saw a submission call several years ago for an anthology that would be called Mythic Resonance (asking for stories to do with contemporary mythologies) I decided to fire off a story, A Tale of Publication: A Contemporary Fairytale, which loosely fit the theme. (Remember, no pebble unturned.)

A Tale of Publication began life as a school project for a publishing class a couple of years prior to that submission call. It was originally a flow chart for how a book goes from manuscript to publication, but instead of being straightforward, I satirized it (or at least tried), coloured by my own experiences. The teacher who ran the class, (formerly long-term with Penguin), loved it, so I thought I must’ve done something right.

As I do with all my writing, I obsessively reworked it, evolving it from a flow chart (where it was told in a series of episodic panels) into a fully-fledged story. It was never meant to be an exhaustive examination of publishing, or a genuine parable (to be taken seriously), but a farce – a self-deprecating but inside look at aspects of writing, submitting, and publishing that lots of writers face.

To my surprise, Mythic Resonance accepted it (although I’m surprised whenever anything of mine is accepted), we went through several rounds of revisions, and then I didn’t really think much of it because my leg was broken and I spent the next several months in a lot of pain, and the next two years in physio. Therefore, when the book arrived, it sat on my bookshelf, where I have rows and overflowing rows of books I’m meaning to read.

Recently, I accidentally (truly) found a review for Mythic Resonance, which I won’t repost (but it’s easy enough to Google), where the reviewer lamented my story didn’t truly fit the anthology’s theme (well, that’s not my fault – I can’t control them accepting it) and called my story the ‘low point’ of the anthology and ‘amateurish’ (which can be considered my fault, if you believe the reviewer’s words), and didn’t see the point of it.

If I had seen this review a couple of years ago, it might’ve shaken me. I may have, in fact, threatened to quit writing, or jump off a bridge, (or to jump off a bridge, which would’ve led to quitting writing). Negative reviews hurt, especially when directed at something as personal as creativity. Usually, you question whether the reviewer gets it, whether they got it and you misfired, or whether reality exists somewhere between the two extremes.

Surprisingly, now I didn’t think much of it, so I’ve either matured (unlikely), or become calloused (likelier), which is something that happens as you deal with rejection over the years, (and I’ve dealt with lots of it: shameless link to a piece I just had go up on the website Literary Rejections about rejections, entitled ‘The Purge’).

Admittedly, it did make me question putting this story up at all, but all art (not that this is art, but I’ll use that loose classification to fit this little story) is subjectively interpreted, so I’m sure other stuff I’ve put up, or had published, has met with different reactions, (and some not so good for me). It’s probably a lesson to anybody in an artistic field: don’t take anything to heart, because there’ll always be somebody out there who doesn’t like something you’ve done.

Here’s mine (well, the one that I know of), that met with a strong negative reaction …


A Tale of Publication:
A Contemporary Fairytale

printerOnce upon a time, a writer was showering when the idea for a book struck him as if God Himself had thundered inspiration into his brain.  The Writer was breathless, excited, awed.  He’d already written a couple of books — one about a blind, idiot savant serial killer who worked in a prison as a janitor, killing the prisoners one by one; the other about feral bunnies who rebelled against being hunted, got organised and enslaved the human populace.  Shockingly, neither book sold.  Each did the rounds of the slush piles, visiting almost every publisher in the country, but they elicited only rejection after rejection.  Now, the books lay forgotten in the bottom drawer of The Writer’s filing cabinet.
     This new idea, though, was The One.
     The Writer was sure of it.
     He began writing obsessively, and to the detriment of everything else in his life.  He neglected his wife, barely seeing or speaking to her at all.  The Wife was not surprised, as she was used to her husband’s idiosyncrasies — although by no means did she approve of them.  She regarded her husband’s writing as superfluous, and not only considered his aspirations foolish, but thought similarly of him, too.  The Writer also became unreliable in his job as produce manager at the local Safeway.  His boss was particularly displeased with him as The Writer would often show up late to work, and sometimes not at all.  But The Writer fawned and thanked his boss so obsequiously for his continued support that The Boss didn’t have the heart to take disciplinary action.  The Writer’s social life, which was anorexic anyway, deteriorated, and his physical and mental wellbeing declined.  His few friends hardly saw him at all during this period, but they were well familiar with his eccentricities, and he scarcely ate or washed or slept.
     How could he?  There was something much more important to be done.  He had to write! Nothing else mattered.  He needed to finish his book.  Needed to! Everybody and everything else could be damned.  The people in his life would understand once his book became a bestseller (and put him on the road to superstardom).  Maybe he’d even buy each of them a nice present.
     Maybe.
     When The Writer finished his book — a manuscript, he was certain, of awesome scope, stunning complexity and masterful storytelling — he grimaced at the thought of all the paper and ink he would have to waste in printing out a rough draft.  The reams of paper were cheap enough at about six bucks a ream, but ink…?  Toners for printers weren’t cheap.  Like a salesman once told him, manufacturers didn’t make their money on the printers themselves.
     Gritting his teeth, and bracing himself like a mother giving birth, The Writer eked out one hardcopy, and gave it to his wife to read.  Actually, The Wife had to be pushed to read it and get through it as quickly as possible.  Her ongoing comments were neither helpful nor encouraging.  Moreover, her noncommittal grunts, mordant half-smirks, and occasional rolling of the eyes, as she read the book in bed, offended The Writer.
     It was worse than having sex with her.
     It took a week for The Wife to read the book, and at the end of it all she was remarkably indifferent, conceding (with the grace of somebody passing a kidney stone), ‘Yeah, it’s good.’ This prompted The Writer to consider taking his old Olivetti clunker out of the attic and merrily burying it in the back of his wife’s head.  It’d be the best work it had ever done.
     Never mind, he told himself.  His friends would offer better insights, and he passed it around to them to read.  They were used to looking at his work and had tried to be encouraging over the years.  On this occasion, they decided to take The Writer out for a meal and make a night of it.
     They had pizzas and beers and talked about the stress of their relationships and the tedium of their jobs and how the coming Christmas was bankrupting them.  Throughout, the anticipation built for The Writer.  What would his friends say?  Come their sixth round of beers, they finally hit The Writer with the wisdom of their collective feedback.
     ’Yeah, it’s good,’ they told him.
     Annoyed, The Writer decided that a book as good as the one he’d written needed a lover, not a series of prostitutes.  The Writer reflected that should’ve been his course of action from the beginning.  Why the hell was he relying on his wife (who had the intellect and usefulness of an empty spare-tyre compartment) or his friends (whose idea of reading was looking at porn on the Net)?  He needed professional help, and sought it from a manuscript assessment service.
     Unfortunately, this path never eventuated, as The Wife, ever the practical wench, told The Writer in no uncertain terms that they didn’t have the money to spend on getting his book professionally assessed.  The Writer was resentful, and The Wife’s rejoinder that this wouldn’t have happened if he had a more practical job — like lawyer, doctor, garbage man, crash test dummy, medical cadaver — was no help at all.
     The Writer, ever the paragon of self-reliance, recomposed himself and devotedly spent the next two months proofing, revising and editing his own book.  Again, he went into obsession overdrive; again, his marital and social relationships, his job, and his physical and mental health suffered.  Christmas went by unnoticed and New Year uncelebrated.  This didn’t bother The Writer.  He told himself it’d all be worth it in the end.
     The greater the suffering, the greater the rewards.
     Becoming progressively sicklier and more financially impoverished with each passing day, The Writer put the finishing touches to his book.  He realised, with microscopic humility, that his previous works were acquired tastes.  Obviously, that had contributed to their failure in the world of publishing, but, no doubt, they’d be published retrospectively on the back of his fame after this book became, as they say, ONE BIG FUCKING HIT.
     The Writer began printing a final draft of his book.  Midway through the job, there was a paper-jam which cost seventeen pages of paper and halted printing in general.  Usually, such an incident would have enraged The Writer, but not this time.  This time he was dealing with a work of brilliance, and his tolerance and good manner were commensurate.
     These things happen, he told himself.
     Dutifully, The Writer cleared the paper-jam and resumed printing.  Unfortunately, with just sixteen pages of printing remaining, the toner ran out of ink.  The Writer stared at the printer in disbelief.  The printer stoically looked back at The Writer (if it could be said that printers had expressions).  The Writer’s anger rose.
     If not for that damn paper jam …!
     Frustrated, The Writer pleaded with God, demanding to know why these things always happened to him.  God chose not to answer.  This could’ve been for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps there was no God who could answer.  Perhaps there was a God but He was busy.  Perhaps God found The Writer’s request trivial.  Or perhaps, just perhaps, God had run out of toner Himself.
     Consequently, The Writer begged his wife for the $106.00 required to buy some new toner.  This did not go over well because The Wife had just bought a new pair of shoes.  She told The Writer there was no money in the monthly budget for a toner cartridge.  Maybe next month.  Or the one after.  And if not then, definitely the one after that.  If they saved.  Well, probably, but he shouldn’t bank on it, because she had her eye on a dress.
     Exasperation skyrocketing, The Writer considered his options.  How could he make quick money?  He could sell blood, or semen, or maybe even strangle his wife, gut her with a dull butter-knife and sell one of her kidneys on the black-market.  These all seemed perfectly good and logical options, and only one of them did not appeal — giving blood always left him feeling dizzy.
     Instead, The Writer pulled the toner cartridge out of the printer, shook it vigorously, threatened it and then reinserted it.  It printed a couple of pages, but he had to repeat the process a few times before the printing of his book was completed.
     The Writer then took his newly-printed book — his masterpiece — to the post office and mailed it to a publisher, being careful to enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope so they could mail it back to him (if required).  He did this simply to observe etiquette.  He was certain there’d be no need for it, as the publisher was going to love his book and get on the phone to him the moment they’d read it.
     When, five-and-a-half months later, the publisher responded, using The Writer’s stamped self-addressed envelope, dread heaved in the pit of his stomach.  With trembling hands he tore open the envelope and pulled out the publisher’s letter, which thanked him for his submission but lamented that it was not quite right for them.  Happily, though, they wished him all the best in the future.  The Writer was dejected but not defeated.  He scrounged the money together to submit the book to another publisher.
     Three months later, he received a rejection from them, also.  The Writer’s frustration blew into infuriation.  He forced himself to look at the bright side: at least this rejection had been quick – well, relatively quick, anyway, compared to the time it took to receive the first rejection.  Still, The Writer would not be bowed.  Again, he scraped together the money to submit his book to another publisher.  And another after that.  And another.  In the space of eighteen months he went through five publishers.
     Or perhaps it can be said that five publishers went through him.
     The sixth publisher, however, thought they saw something in the manuscript and held a production meeting in regard to The Writer’s book.  The Editors loved it.  They thought it could be THE NEXT BIG THING.  The Finance Department asserted that the book was doable in terms of expense, but they were concerned about whether it’d make a profit.  The Marketing Department suggested that the book might have limited appeal.  What if it came down to selling The Writer to sell the book?  How would he hold up in appearances, at readings, in interviews?  Would people buy the book on the basis of being charmed by the author?  At the end of much discussion and debate, the meeting yielded the result that The Noble Publisher would go ahead with The Writer’s book.
     When they contacted The Writer to tell him the good news, The Writer was understandably ecstatic, and his wife thought that maybe her husband wasn’t such a screw-up after all.  This was a notion The Wife entertained briefly then dismissed on the basis that it had no right to exist in a marriage.
     The Writer did not care.  He signed a contract with The Noble Publisher, receiving a pittance up-front and a percentage in royalties with which he would be lucky to buy a new toner cartridge.  The Wife was particularly irate, asking The Writer if this was what all his work and time had amounted to — essentially nothing.  The Writer wasn’t bothered; his book would sell so plentifully that he’d soon be rich.  Then, maybe, he’d take a contract out on his wife.
     Of course, he was being facetious.  Why let somebody else have all the fun?
     The Noble Publisher was aware of none of The Writer’s domestic issues, as they concentrated on making the book a reality.  They retained a designer, and had the manuscript edited and their style applied, oblivious to what The Writer — or, inconsequential minion, as they called him — was going through.
     The Writer recoiled in shock at the amount of edits required.  Surely The Noble Publisher hadn’t recognised the work of genius they had in their hands; how could they tamper with such a masterpiece?  Were they insane?  The Wife told The Writer not to be such an idiot (she already thought he was an idiot, so he was really just being more of an idiot).  He should be happy they’d taken his book at all.  Begrudgingly, The Writer obliged, knowing that when the money started pouring in, The Wife would have to be more gracious, and The Noble Publisher would have to give him more leeway on his next work.
     While the designer chose the style, size and leading of the text and the headings, breathing life into the words on the page, The Writer got extensions on his credit card.  The Wife bought up big on shoes.  She wasn’t convinced that the book would make a fortune, and she didn’t particularly need all those shoes, she just knew that, whatever happened, her husband would be paying.
     Just as he’d done their entire married life.
     The Noble Publisher continued industriously.  The first page proofs for the manuscript were corrected and the artwork scanned.  The Writer, indifferent to the technicalities of his book’s production, thought his life was finally gaining momentum — positive momentum — and his books would fuel a long and prosperous career.  As a reward to himself, he put a deposit on a new car — a sporty red Mazda he’d had his eye on for several years.
     The second page proofs of the book went to The Writer and The Editor.  The Writer grinned amiably and accommodated The Noble Publisher.  Things would be different for his second book!  He’d have the power then, and these insignificant assclowns (and assclowns they were, for The Writer felt no other profanity existed which truly encapsulated them) would be falling over themselves to accommodate him.
     The artwork was prepared.  The Writer disagreed entirely with The Noble Publisher’s selections.  The Noble Publisher tried to appease him by telling him they knew the market.  The Writer baulked, saying he knew his book.  The Noble Publisher told The Writer that he had signed a contract and this was their choice.  The Writer said they didn’t understand his work.  The Wife interceded at that point and told The Writer to shut up and stop rocking the boat.  The Noble Publisher sent The Wife a bouquet of flowers.  The Wife had a fling with The Noble Publisher’s designer.
     The revised page proofs were checked and finalised, the plates were set, and The Writer’s book was printed and bound.  Convinced he was going to be a huge success, The Writer waltzed into work at Safeway, got onto the intercom and quit his job, telling his boss, ‘Stick it!’
     Then The Writer celebrated — truly celebrated — his first Christmas in three years.  He lavished gifts on his wife (who was touched by the gesture and mellowed, then decided that mellowing had no place in their marriage), and his friends, much to the chagrin of his credit card, which grimaced (if it could be said that credit cards could do such a thing).
     New Year brought not resolutions from The Writer, but plans.  He mapped out his entire life: which novels he’d write and in what order; what he’d say in interviews on the talk show circuit with Ellen and Oprah; how exactly he’d use his freakishly towering success to tame, break and reinvent his wife.
     Oh, yes, things were going to be different.
     Advance copies of The Writer’s book were handed out.  The Writer took his share, showering them on his wife’s family (who had always thought he was no good), his friends (who thought he was good, but would never amount to anything) and his ex-workmates (who were largely indifferent to whether he was good or not).  The bulk stock of The Writer’s book hit the warehouse, and then filled the shelves of retailers’ stores.
     Sadly, though, very few copies of The Writer’s book sold.
     The Wife, disgusted by The Writer’s continuing failure, not to mention his accumulating debts and rapidly increasing poverty, left him for the Noble Publisher’s designer.  The Writer returned to Safeway and begged his boss to take him back.
     His boss said, ‘Stick it!!’
     So, tragically, alone and destitute, health failing, debts too much to bear, The Writer succumbed to the hopelessness of his life and threw himself from a bridge.  While this was a horrible life-choice, it was actually the best career move The Writer had ever made.
     Popularised by his death (and the glorious calamity of his life story as it emerged in the newspapers and, even more spectacularly, in the glossy magazines), The Writer’s book became a bestseller.  The Noble Publisher went into second, third and fourth print runs.
     The Wife — now The Merry Widow — told the media that she had always thought her husband would make it, and that she had always believed in him and thought his book was good, regardless of what everybody else had said.  She became unimaginably rich on the success of her dead husband’s novel.  His previous two manuscripts were published, and they also become bestsellers, and his short stories were released in anthologies.
     And they all, mostly, lived happily ever after.


Credit
This story appeared in Mythic Resonance (2011).

LZ.

Promotion

Red Booksi.
The promotion should’ve been mine. Mine! They implied they were going to choose me if I put in the work, if I put in the time. But in the end they went with an outsider, with Irena, Irena (or Irennna, as she pronounced her name) Kerkow, Irenna Kerkow!
      I don’t begrudge her. She had as much right as anybody to apply for the position. It’s not her fault – this woman, this outsider, who’d emerged from nowhere to usurp what rightfully belonged to me; this woman, who was as unimpressive as she was bland, as she was tremulous, and underwhelming; this woman who, even now, thrashed in the stranglehold of my makeshift garrotte as I choked the life, the ambition, and temerity from her.
      I hadn’t planned to kill her, really I hadn’t. Oh, certainly, you can make a case that I cut the b-string from my piano; that I brought my gardening gloves in to work; and I lay in wait, in the parking lot, enshrouded in darkness, surrounded by thickets, obscured by driving rain splattering on the glistening asphalt, wearing my aforementioned gloves; but, really, I was only trying to feel self-important.
      Then she emerged from the exit of the building, whistling a merry tune (usurpers often whistle), jingling her car keys in her hand as she made her way to her company car (a Beemer), a bounce in her step.
      A bounce!
      Next thing I knew, I had the piano string tightening around her neck – tightening so that it carved into her throat; shearing through flesh, muscle, and tendon. It felt – and sounded (for what muffled, grinding sound it made, and could be heard through our exertions, not to mention over the rain) – like leather ripping.
      She couldn’t scream, couldn’t use that voice that had inexplicably impressed the Associates into choosing her over me. But she did struggle, for what little it was worth, although I was too big. Too strong. Too determined – as determined as I had been when I’d put in the work, the time, because they’d implied the promotion was mine.
      I felt a pain slicing into the bottom half of my right hand – it was the piano string which, in my efforts, had cut through my glove and was now in the process of doing to my poor hand what it was doing to the beastly Irena’s neck. Oh, the damn woman! Would her inconsideration never end? First my promotion, then my hand! What more need I go through? Need I suffer?
      Her struggles abated and her body slumped in my grip, supported only by the piano string. I stood there momentarily, stricken. Irena’s keys fell from her limp grip, and the jingle of them hitting the ground startled my still thoughts into mania. Where to now? I had not considered this at all, and now that the act itself was done, I was unsure what to do. But I was an editor and used to cleaning up messes. Not to mention I’d also read my share of mysteries.
      The scene! I had to clear the scene!
      I went to my battered Ford and opened the boot, which was filled with sacks of remaindered books. I’d collected them periodically from the office with the intention of disposing of them but had not gotten around to it yet, (such is the busy life of an editor). Underneath them, I had a tarpaulin that I pulled out and used to wrap up Irena’s body.
      Slinging her into a fire-person’s carry (if indeed, firemen and firewomen use the same carry), I dumped her in my boot only to find I hadn’t the room! Damn remainders! I considered laying her in the backseat, but that was risky. What if I was stopped? And why have her there anyway? Laying there reproachfully as I drove. Hadn’t the damn woman cost me enough!
      The Beemer!
      I recovered her keys, opened the boot, and slung her in there. Ah, a perfect fit! Then I drove to the bay, taking a scenic route – the Beemer was a beautiful car, and who knew whether I would ever have another opportunity to drive one? It was just too good a motoring experience to abbreviate as I had abbreviated Irena.
      When I arrived at my destination, I removed Irena from the boot, unwrapped the tarpaulin enough to weight her down with rocks from the bank, wrapped her back up, and threw her into the bay.
      So much for her. Now for the Beemer.
      For one insane moment, I contemplated keeping it. Why not? It should’ve been mine! Of course, now it was connected to a disappearance so it had to go. I abandoned it in the northern suburbs – the demesne of stolen cars, (not to mention scoundrels).
      Then – via our wonderful and ever-helpful public transport systems – I returned to the parking-lot, fetched my own car, and drove home, where I washed out the wound to my hand. It stung bitterly, and I imagined it would hurt worse tomorrow. Oh, that damn woman! I wish she could feel this pain!
      Still, it was a small price to pay.

ii.
It started with the Gems – not real gems, but books, old classics, which the Associates had wanted me to repackage and re-release. They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Maybe that’s true. What’s truer is that you can sell books with really nice covers.
      I met the Associates in their conference room, taking the elevator up to their floor. The elevator itself rattled and heaved in its shaft, and had a propensity to short-circuit if you pushed too many buttons at once. The stairs were no better – their tiling cracked and shifting treacherously – and the stairwell itself dimly lighted (particularly when the single bulb was out). I thought it said something, that the Associates were hard to reach, that they oppressed us employees in poor conditions while they revelled in opulence.
      On this fine Monday morning, they sat on one side of their long marble table, mere silhouettes. But I recognised them all: Randolph Lippincott, old, distinguished, authoritative; Arturo Morgan, young (at forty-five), but ambitious, ruthless; Regina Boggs, matronly, seemingly ageless, a definite lesbian; Stanley Sikes, stoic, emotionless, rumour has it he’d died years ago and nobody had yet realised; Kay Harlow, wheezing, decrepit, so old time had forgotten her.
      ‘Codswallow!’ Lippincott greeted me. ‘There’s an opening for a senior editor.’
      The previous senior editor, Barney Sacks, had resigned for health reasons. The workload had gotten too much for him, and poor Barney – never the most fortified to begin with, (but then again, who am I to judge?) – had suffered a nervous breakdown. He voluntarily institutionalised himself, where his belt and shoelaces were taken from him, and he underwent several radical, if not barbaric treatments, such as trial pharmaceuticals, electroconvulsive therapy, and a correspondence course in Scientology.
      By right of succession (if there ever was such a right) his position should be mine. I was the heir apparent for a variety of reasons – seniority, experience, and capability. But nothing was ever that simple – particularly at a multi-million dollar publishing multinational like Grey’s.
      ‘We’d like to release a new line of books,’ Lippincott said. ‘Gems, we’re going to call them. Old classics. Which have fallen into public domain. But repackaged. Brightly. What do you think?’
      Before I could respond, Harlow interrupted with a wracking cough. Besides her antiquity, Harlow was emphysemic. Time froze in meetings while her coughing fits overpowered not only her, but the entire office, and the office building. She should’ve retired, or been retired, but nobody retires from Grey’s. Not wittingly.
      ‘I think —’ I began once Harlow had seemed to cease, but she then reverberated us with aftershocks. Finally, she fell silent, although I waited – just to be sure.
      ‘Come along, Codswallow!’ Lippincott said. ‘Don’t keep us waiting!’
      ‘I think it’s a marvellous idea, sir,’ I said quickly, just in case Harlow set off again.
      ‘Do a good job, Codswallow …’ Lippincott’s voice trailed away, as if he expected me to guess his mind.
      ‘Yes, sir?’
      ‘Well, what is it we say here? There are no black and whites, no colours, only Grey’s. Do a good job, Codswallow, and you know what!’
      What could only mean the vacant position – or why else mention it?
      I set to work immediately, dredging our backlists, communicating with the estates of deceased authors, designers, lawyers – everybody responsible to put together the Gems. We released three (of a planned series) in succession, with gold-trimmed covers, each meeting commercial success.
      When Lippincott next called me in to speak to the Associates, I was optimistic.
      ‘You’ve done an exemplary job with the Gems,’ he said. ‘And those gold-trimmed covers …’
      There were murmurs of assent from the other Associates – from all but Sikes, who remained silent and unmoved.
      ‘The new senior editor will be pleased!’ Lippincott said.
      I was pleased.
      ‘She will be in tomorrow.’
      My question was lost under an earthquake of Harlow’s coughing.
      I went home, played the piano, rationalised why they hadn’t wanted me – there was no logical reason. Did they think I was too old? Or underqualified? Or overqualified? Perhaps they just liked me where I was. Few moved internally at Grey’s.
      Well, it just wouldn’t matter. Life is full of disappointments.
      I would make it not matter.

iii.
Over the next several weeks the police spoke repeatedly, but perfunctorily, with everybody – perfunctorily, because what was there to investigate? Certainly, Irena had disappeared, but there was no real evidence of foul play – the rain had washed away the parking lot, there were no signs of a struggle, and the company Beemer had not yet been found.
      Some speculated that Irena had absconded with the car. I recall standing at the water-cooler (which was broken, but still the place for talk) with the other employees, and ruminating, ‘Do you think maybe she had a habit? Alcohol? Drugs? Gambling! Perhaps she’s taken the Beemer and gone on a bender!’ And then, the next thing you knew, rumours were flying around the office. However do these things begin?
      But I had no time for rumours, or to indulge in malicious slander.
      ‘Codswallow!’ Lippincott said, when I met the Associates that morning. ‘Tragic, this Irena-thing. But not to worry. We do have you.’
      ‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
      ‘And we’d like to ask you … ’
      ‘Yes, sir?’
      ‘What do you think of Nigel Bentley?’
      Bentley was a contemporary, a fifty-something senior editor who’d worked for many of the multinationals. He was a friend – or he had been a friend, for many years, before time and distance had seen us grow apart. But if Grey’s had managed to land him, he would be quite a coup, and I told Lippincott that.
      When Bentley arrived for work several days later, he embraced me and commended me extravagantly on the success of the Gems.
      The gloating bastard.
      We fell into the rhythm of our friendship as if it had never been interrupted. We caught the train to and from work together. We had lunch together. And he was forever dropping by my desk, asking for my opinion on all matters publishing (and, more significantly, all things Grey’s).
      After being at Grey’s for thirty years, I finally felt as if I was becoming an important cog – a mechanical feat in itself. Everybody at Grey’s knows they’re a cog, but one no more, or no less, important than any other. In actual fact, Grey’s perpetuates an environment of spiritual and emotional communism. Perhaps it is the Associates’ way of maintaining the status quo; or neutralising us, their workers, and keeping us in our place.
      I commented upon this to Bentley, as we waited for our 7.36 am train one Wednesday morning amongst a throng of commuters.
      ‘Yes, yes,’ he said, but whilst his tone was interested, his manner was distant – although that was to be expected. Bentley was in the process of a separation; he’d taken this job as a means of getting a new start. ‘The Associates do exercise a form of elitism,’ he said. ‘But possibly no more than any employer.’
      ‘But I feel it deeply,’ I told him, as our train rumbled in the distance. ‘Particularly …’
      ‘After the Gems?’
      ‘Yes.’ When Bentley had told me about his separation, I had felt obligated to tell him something in return – and had thus told him about the Gems, and what the Associates had implied if I accomplished the task successfully.
      ‘Really,’ Bentley said, ‘promotion isn’t the be-all end-all of existence.’
      Of course, he could say that. He had one – a promotion, that is.
      ‘Do not scoff, my friend!’ Bentley went on. ‘I tell you this for your sake. You must really let it go, or it will be your un —’
      I shoved Bentley as our train rattled by. He sailed over the edge of the platform and made – quite literally – a splat as the train hit him. The sound was bizarrely similar to the sound a watermelon makes when it falls from a distance and splatters on the floor. The curious editorial part of my mind wondered if it would’ve been visually similar, or if Bentley would’ve been flattened more like a bug on a windscreen.
      But I had not much time to wonder as Bentley was lost from sight.
      There was a mixture of cries from the other commuters: shouts from the more level-headed that somebody had been hit, screams from the panicked, and even a handful of astonished exclamations.
      Lamentably, there was nothing to be done.

iv.
Afterward, the police came, and asked if Bentley was perhaps pushed. I told them it was possible, that the platform was packed, but I also told them that Bentley had been distraught – his wife had left him, and he was having trouble assimilating into a new job, as well as a new town, without her. The police nodded sympathetically and later, I imagine they talked to his wife (sorry, ex-wife – the shrew!), who would’ve at least corroborated that Bentley was distraught.
      ‘Tragic, this Bentley-thing,’ Lippincott said, when I met the Associates that afternoon.
      ‘Yes, tragic,’ I agreed.
      Harlow’s coughing dominated the rest of the conversation.
      Unfortunately for Grey’s, and several senior editors, the tragedies continued. Harrison Erskine, who had forty-five years experience, was brought in from interstate to fill the vacancy left by Bentley’s apparent suicide. But Erskine was only in his second day on the job when, on his way to see the Associates, he slipped down the stairs (most unfortunately, the elevator was out, as was the single bulb in the stairwell) and broke his neck. Wilhelma Sorenson, an ambitious forty-six year old career-editor, never even made it to work. She was the victim of a hit and run driver. Bizarrely, when police later found the car responsible, it turned out to be Irena Kerkow’s company Beemer, (and this sparked a woman-hunt for her person). The bullish Thomas Whitton came next. At thirty-five, and a fitness freak to boot, he thought he was invincible. But one night, just after he’d returned home and was on his way to the front door, an unknown assailant bludgeoned him to death – forensics later speculated it was with a sack full of blunt objects like bricks, or maybe possibly even heavy books.
      Police were intrigued by the spate of misfortune that befell Grey’s and I unwittingly gave them the impression that Barney Sacks might be responsible. I hadn’t meant to, really I hadn’t. But when the detectives spoke to me, when they asked who might have it in for Grey’s senior editors, who might be so ‘deranged’, I responded, ‘Deranged? Deranged! Are you attempting to impugn Barney Sacks, the former senior editor, who recently had a nervous breakdown? If that’s what you’re trying to imply, trying to have to me acknowledge, and concede, never!’
      This was a most inopportune turn of events for poor Barney. He had just been released from voluntary institutionalisation, had just been given back his belt and shoelaces, but the police interrogation drove him to another breakdown and he hung himself in his cell with his recently reacquired belt.
      Poor Barney, a dangling modifier.

v.
I sat before the Associates, and while they were again silhouettes, I could still feel their eyes upon me, keen and unrelenting.
      ‘Codswallow,’ Lippincott said, ‘we have had the most wretched luck, just the most wretched luck! It hasn’t been very good for Sacks, Kerkow, Bentley, Erskine, Sorenson, and Whitton, either. In fact, this whole sordid affair has been very … very … very … what’s the word I’m looking for, Codswallow?’
      ‘Tragic?’
      ‘Yes! Tragic. But it now behoves us to do what we should’ve always done, Codswallow. Whilst you’ve been at Grey’s for thirty years, there’s been something about you lately which has impressed us, something intangible. Well, what do you say, Codswallow? How would you feel about being senior editor?’
      ‘I would,’ I began, beaming with pride, ‘be most magnificently, and most humbly —’
      Harlow’s coughing overrode the rest of my answer. I waited for it to abate, as it always had, but on this occasion her coughing rose and rose, building to a crescendo, only to end abruptly when she keeled forward and her face slammed into the Associates’ marble table. Then she was still.
      ‘Shit,’ Sikes said.

vi.
The paramedics came almost immediately, but nothing could be done. Harlow was pronounced dead, loaded onto a gurney, covered with a sheet, and wheeled from the conference room.
      I remained seated with the Associates, watching impassively. Death is such a rude visitor – rarely invited and often boorish. But how much death had Grey’s seen recently? It was strange that this death, more than any of the others, helped contextualise what had happened and made me wonder whether it had all been worth it.
      ‘I do suppose,’ Lippincott said finally, ‘this creates an opening, doesn’t it?’
      I swivelled in my chair. ‘An opening, you say?’
      In hindsight, I think we have it about right here: there really are no black and whites, no colours.
      Only greys.
 


 
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in issue one of Blue Crow Magazine (April 2010).

It was inspired by the treatment of a former teacher, who set up a Degree course for the school with the implication he’d run it, only for the job to be given to somebody else.

LZ.

Reflection

~

reflection78.
What was that again?

74.
Ray closed his hands upon Gloria’s and helped guide the knife into their fiftieth anniversary cake.  The throng exploded into applause and – when Ray kissed Gloria soundly on the lips – whistles.
     ‘Speech! Speech!’ the call resounded.
     Ray turned to look at their guests: their children, Paul, Matthew, and Thomas, and their wives; their tribe of grandkids; in two cases, their great-grandkids; and so many friends that Ray’s memory was beyond recollecting them all.  It was a collage of faces, old and young, a scrapbook of the people assembled throughout his life.
     In some small way, it was unreal that everything had turned out as it had.  Maybe it hadn’t all been as he would’ve chosen.  Like the hardware store.  He started as a clerk so long ago, worked his way up, and eventually bought the store.  Not that Ray liked hardware.  But he could’ve done a lot worse.
     And there were the kids, Thomas an engineer, Matthew a writer, Paul a partner in a prestigious law firm – who knew that they would’ve ever been so successful? That they would’ve made him so proud, day after day?
     Life hadn’t unfolded entirely to his design, but the tapestry that had been woven was far more intricate – and gorgeous – than any Ray was sure he could’ve managed.  If anything, he was just another thread woven into the loom.
     If anybody was responsible, it was Gloria.  Maybe that was a gratitude that was cliché (and, in this day and age, overlooked, if not ignored), but it was a cliché in which there was infallible truth.
     And in which that infallible truth was brilliant.
     What had life been like before her?
     Ray thought and thought, but he couldn’t remember.

49. 
Ray grinned like an idiot.  But it didn’t matter – that was something he was learning through his life: sometimes, things that seemed consequential didn’t matter at all.  And if his grin was idiotic, it was only because pride had erased his composure.
     He sat on a pew in church, Gloria by his side, their eyes fixed on Paul resplendent in his tux, who was staring lovingly at his wife-to-be as the priest conducted the wedding ceremony.
     Ray liked to think that he and Gloria had done okay.  Sure, Matthew, 23, was listless and still living at home, but the kid was smart (genius smart, Ray sometimes thought), and would find his way.  Thomas was excelling in uni.  And here was Paul – who’d graduated with honours and was fielding offers from several law firms, thank you very much – about to marry the woman he loved and begin his life in earnest.
     The woman he loved.
     Ray turned and looked at Gloria, quivering, her eyes moist.  She’d blubber tonight, Ray knew that.  She’d blubbered when Paul had announced his engagement a year ago, had broken into spontaneous bouts of blubbering since, and in the week leading up to the wedding had blubbered ceaselessly.  Ray couldn’t believe that anybody could contain so much fluid.
     But she was his wife, he loved her, and he wouldn’t change that, although sometimes, just sometimes, Sophie entered his mind.  Life with her could’ve been … what? Ray didn’t know for sure.  But it would’ve been something different, and he thought that mightn’t have been a good thing.

34.
Ray sat in his study, lounging back in his recliner, the newspaper sprawled open on his lap, his eyes hiccuping on the same paragraph.
     Outside, the kids shouted.  Screamed.  They were always screaming.  Paul and Matthew were always fighting.  It was irreconcilable that brothers could be so unalike.  And Thomas, the eldest of the three, alternated between arbitrator and instigator.  Sometimes, Ray just wanted to soundproof the closet under the stairs and throw the three of them in there to cool off.  Of course, that probably meant they’d never see the light of day, although sometimes that didn’t seem such a bad idea.  He was sure they were going to grow up to be lost causes.
     ‘Right!’ Ray heard Gloria shout.  ‘Matthew.  Get inside your room now!’
     ‘But I didn’t do anything, Mum! Thomas took my ball—!’
     ‘Bedroom! Now!’
     Ray could imagine Matthew walking, head-bowed, upper teeth dug into his low lip, hands crossed behind his back the way he did when he sulked, up the stairs to his bedroom.
     ‘Paul, what’re you grinning about?’
     ‘Nothing, Mum—!’
     ‘Clean-up this mess!’
     ‘But I didn’t—’
     ‘Clean it up or go to your room also! Choose!’
     There was silence.  Ray guessed that Paul had chosen to clean.  It was the sane choice in the face of Cyclone Gloria. 
     Ray closed his newspaper, leaned back further in his chair, and shut his eyes meditatively.  How had his life come to this? He loved his kids, he loved Gloria, but it seemed everyday was a new battle.  The war was ongoing, and the skirmishes grew uglier.  What would it be like when these kids were teens?
     Red hair intruded upon his mind’s eye: Sophie.  He caressed her with his thoughts, felt the tautness of her hips; the way her breasts pronounced themselves, the nipples elongated; how smooth her pale skin always felt against him.  He looked at her face, her pursed lips, Imperial nose, her hazel eyes that always seemed implicit with some challenge.
     Would this have been his life had she never left him? What sort of kids would they have had? He couldn’t imagine them being the terrorists that his three were, and he wondered if their behaviour was a product of his and Gloria’s relationship.
     Maybe their love wasn’t right.
     Maybe it didn’t relay to the children.
     Maybe.

24.
Ray stood at the altar, looking back down the aisle.
     Gloria was stunning in her wedding dress, a gorgeous strapless gown – from which her breasts threatened to spill – brocaded in silver, and with her nephew and niece bearing its overflowing train.
     She had dieted for weeks to ensure she would fit into the dress, although Ray had quizzed why she didn’t go from a size 8 to a 10.  Gloria had been horrified at the prospect and Ray let the matter drop.  When it came to women and weight, he was learning even diplomacy offered few victories.
     It wasn’t as if Gloria was fat anyway.  Maybe she was a little plump, and Ray thought that she might be the sort who had might have trouble recovering following childbirth, but it didn’t matter because she was sweet and warm and generous and he was pretty sure he loved her.
     But he was struck with the fear that maybe he didn’t, not in the right way, at least not in the Til death do us part way.  After Sophie, he’d sworn there’d be nobody else.  And there hadn’t been for a while.  But when he’d gotten the job at the hardware store, there she was: Gloria.  Daily chatter had led to going out, going out had led to more going out, and eventually Ray had resigned himself to the fact that he was swimming in the ebbs and flows of some sort of quasi-relationship.
     The problem was Gloria was just so loveable.  Not in the same way as Sophie.  Ray had wanted Sophie, had wanted to possess her emotionally and physically.  When they fucked, sometimes he pounded her with such ferocity that it was as if he wanted to become fused to her.  When they talked, Ray wanted to share everything with her.
     Gloria didn’t inspire that zeal.
     So, as Gloria reached the altar, and Ray looked into her oval face and her large green eyes, Ray wondered whether his love for this woman was real.  Whether it was love.  Or whether he developed an affiliation for her because she was non-threatening, and because there was little chance she’d find somebody else.
     He didn’t know.

21.
Ray sat at the desk in his bedroom, holding his service revolver in the cups of his hands.
     What was the point now? Life was fucked.
     He gripped his service revolver in his left hand, lifted it, and pushed the barrel against his head.  He felt the gun tap dance annoyingly against his temple.  Was his hand shaking or was it his head? Maybe it was both.  It didn’t matter anyway.
     Nothing mattered.
     Laid out on his desk before him were the pages of Sophie’s letter.  He looked at the words, but they were unintelligible through his tears.  They were something else that didn’t matter right now anyway.  He’d read the letter so often – as if by reading it over and over he could undo what it was telling him, like a sleeper urging himself to wake from a nightmare – that its message had become inescapable.
     Had become his universe.
     Sophie had met somebody.  She hadn’t been able to wait for him to return.
     The cunt.
     He slammed his revolver down on his desk, and shot to his feet.  If it had been love, she wouldn’t have done this, ergo it couldn’t have been love.  And he was contemplating suicide over her? He realised the reason for the contemplation wasn’t his despair (or at least not the despair exclusively), but he wanted to mar Sophie’s life.  He wanted her to sit there and lament his death, feel responsible for it, and have it tombstone over whatever relationship she was in now (and might be in the future).
     Fuck her.
     Ray closed his eyes, closed them so tight he felt a pain in the bridge of his nose.  What he should do now was get drunk.  Insensibly.  That seemed the best plan, and why wouldn’t it be? It was tried and true.
     As for women, he was done with them.
     Fuck the lot.

18.
Ray sat in a booth in Percy’s Diner, Sophie nestled into his shoulder, his cheek cradled upon the top of her head.  He idled the fingertip of his index finger up and down her arm.  The contact was bare, but it made her real to him, and with that came a whole extrapolation of thoughts – most of which Ray was usually embarrassed to admit to himself, but were diluted to the essence that he could not believe how much he loved her.
     ‘What’re you going to do, Ray?’ she asked.  ‘You’re not gonna sign up, are you?’
     Enlistment had been an option.  Not out of any patriotism (although Ray liked to think of himself as patriotic enough) but because it could be a stepping stone to some sort of career.  It could open doors when he got out.  How would he be able to leave her, though? Three years.  She’d wait, he knew that, but he didn’t know whether he could wait.
     ‘I don’t have many options, Soph.  What am I gonna do? I’m not school-smart.  And I don’t want to end up like my dad, working in a factory all my life.  Who wants that sort of shit? I want a job that’s maybe gonna go somewhere.  I want a career.  You know, so when we’re married–’
     She looked up sharply.  It was the first time he’d ever mentioned anything as permanent as marriage.  Her astonishment stunned the lines out of her face, her eyes and mouth as wide as they were when she orgasmed.  He loved that look so much.
     ‘Married, Ray?’
     ‘Gotta think about the future, Soph.’
     She pushed herself up onto Ray until he’d almost slid down into the booth.  Her lips closed upon his mouth, and her fingers tickled the tent of his pants.  His response was immediate.
     ‘We should get somewhere private, huh?’ Sophie asked.
     ‘I’m not saying now, you know.  I’m just saying down the track.’
     ‘Just that you’re saying it is enough, Ray.’ Sophie slid out of the booth, grabbed his hand, and pulled insistently.  ‘Come on.’
     Ray needed no further prompting.
     He got out of the booth.

16.
Ray and Sophie walked from the party, huddling close in the cold of night.
     Thoughts were manic in Ray’s mind – not just thoughts, but questions.  Should he put his arm around her? Seemed logical, given why they’d come out here, but still he didn’t know, and he half-reached out, before jerking his arm back to his side.  Did his breath smell? He’d had three beers, but surely that wouldn’t matter, would it? How far could he go? He wouldn’t want to overreach.  And what if he messed-up? Experience wasn’t something Ray had when it came to girls.  The question prevalent in his mind, though, was how the hell had he ended up with Sophie Sellar?
     They reached the end of the street and stopped, turning to face one another.  Sophie, with her copper hair that reminded Ray of that initial explosion of flame when a match ignited, her large green eyes and pale complexion, in a shirt unbuttoned low enough to tease cleavage, and pleated skirt so tight they showcased the taut, pear-shaped butt that was the talk – and idolisation – of every boy at school.
     ‘You going to kiss me?’ she asked.
     Ray took a step up to her and folded his arms around her.  Her breasts pressed into his chest, and his erection stirred.  She looked up to him, closed her eyes, and pursed her lips.  Ray kissed her, and was surprised to feel her tongue invade his mouth.  He ran his hands down her back, and over her buttocks.  Then he lifted his right hand up her side, her waist, and cupped her breast.
     She yanked back enough to relay that particular contact was prohibited, but not enough to break the embrace.
     ‘Easy,’ she said.
     ‘Okay,’ Ray said, still unbelieving that this was Sophie Sellar, a girl everybody lusted after, and he’d obsessed over since the first day of high school.  He felt abashed by his erection, knowing that she had to be able to feel it.  The head of his penis pulsed, like a bomb ticking to detonation.
     Then he leaned in and kissed her again.

12.
Ray sat in the back of English class, elbows on the table, his chin on his hands, his eyes fixed on Sophie Sellar.  Her face – with its high, rouged cheekbones, her large green eyes, and Aquiline nose – framed by unruly copper hair that beaconed her from the other girls, made her seem almost imperial, like some empress from Ancient Rome.
     He wondered what it would be like to kiss her.  What would she taste like? What would her body feel like against his, with her nubs for breasts and small hips?
     Ray squirmed in his chair as he felt his body respond to his fantasies.
     The moment he’d walked into high school and seen Sophie, some irrational attraction had mesmerised Ray.  Maybe it was love at first sight – Ray had heard such things happened.
     It didn’t matter.
     As far as Ray was concerned, Sophie was the one and only, and he knew that there would never, ever, be anybody else.
 


 
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in issue eight of page seventeen (2010).

I was in a writing workshop, and one of the teachers commented about perspective and how it can change the further away you get from something, which gave me this idea – the way time can idealize and then erase the perception of one relationship, and strengthen the reality of the other. (As an aside, Sophie’s eye colour changes from hazel to green, which was also meant to show the way memories can distort.)

LZ.

In Hope

DCF 1.0‘It’s great you’re here.’
     ‘Yeah.’
     ‘Thought you wouldn’t make it.’
     ‘Well … I did.’
     A singular frequency droning unwavering in his ears, he turned, light in the room brightening, until everybody was monochromatic, bar his family, who remained vivid, if not vibrant; his wife, Taylor, seated, fidgeting, a tremor ready to earthquake; his kids, Bobby and Emily, clutching at the lapels of her skirt around her knees; his father pacing; his mother wilting.
     ‘Are you staying?’
     He closed his eyes and as pain spider-webbed through his chest thought of a Matryoshka Doll – of a doll, inside a doll, inside a doll – and that at his core, he would find stillness and, if not that, at least purpose.  But what he discovered was nothing but an antagonism of unease.  The pain sharpened.
     ‘I don’t know.’
     ‘It’s great you’re here.’
     ‘Yeah.’
     ‘Thought you wouldn’t make it.’
     He lowered his face from Taylor, left only with the memories of the other women – Denise, who he’d fuck routinely at the Bed’n’Breakfast; of Ally, whom he’d convinced, coerced, to have an abortion; of Rebecca, whom he’d buggered on his office desk, the desk that had supported unrelenting manoeuvring, numbers becoming better numbers, clients becoming richer clients, morality and integrity shorn like damning documents in his tireless shredder.
     ‘Well … I did.’
     Poor Taylor, so faithful, so loyal, so oblivious.  He remembered their wedding day, gaping into her face, astounded that he could be so lucky.  How long had the astonishment lasted before his eyes had roved? How long had his eyes roved before his cock had? And Taylor, poor Taylor.  No wonder his chest hurt, a fire threatening to incinerate him.
     ‘Are you staying?’
     Home he would come, Taylor beleaguered, kids screaming – brats; he would’ve loathed the parents of such shits before he’d gotten married, would’ve regarded them with contempt and vowed that his kids would never be such little cunts, but he resolved now that’s not what they were, they were just being kids.
     ‘I don’t know.’
     And he, divorced emotionally, a debaucher, as good as an embezzler, indiscretions mushrooming into infidelities, cheater of wife, of taxes, of trusts, of life, a conscience eroded, dissipating, until nothing but sociopathy, until no remorse, no guilt, nothing but pillage and the pain, the agony, swelling, slivers searing from his chest and into his limbs, his scalp boiling as if it would pop from his head.
     ‘It’s great you’re here.’
     He squeezed his eyes shut, until his eyeballs jabbed into his brain, his cheeks creased, and the line of his mouth caricatured, and he knew nothing but how easy oblivion could, could’ve, swallowed him, and that the precipe upon which he stood was crumbling under his fattening résumé of immorality.
     ‘Yeah.’
     How had he not been consumed already? Or was that what was happening now? Was guilt eating him? Disintegrating him? Leaving nothing but the anguish and sorrow of conscience, and glowing in the embers of ruin, flaming to life, pitifully unbearable realisation.
     Mind open, boundaries no more, he faced the blemishes of his life, until he knew that this was not where he should be, that he wasn’t just lucky, that he was chosen, and a route many-times ignored was now open again to him if he had the courage to face it, to face himself, to go on, to atone.
     ‘Well … I did.’
     He begged his eyes to open, and through a distortion that fragmented into the back of his head and spilled remorse from where it had been secreted, he engulfed Taylor, the woman he had once married, and the kids they had conceived and reared, and whom loved him unconditionally, unmindful of his frailties, seeing him only ever as a whole and unflawed.
     ‘Are you staying?’
     Not here, not now, not this place, not this time, not this life after.  Anguish eviscerated his chest, tendrils enshrouding him in ribbons of fire, and his chest heaved until his stomach became a pit, and he was cognizant of an uninterrupted droning frequency stuttering, bouncing, pulsing rhythmically to the accompaniment of his heartbeat, a chaperone to what could be.
     No.
     He was going back.
     To live.
     In hope.
 


 
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in the eighth edition of Windmills (2011).

It was actually born from a class writing exercise years ago.

LZ.

Bicycle

The following article was first published in Cycling Monthly and looked at the benefits of cycling for physical exercise and to promote mental well-being.

 
bicycle‘You’re stressed,’ my GP told me following a check-up. ‘Is there anything bothering you?’
     Bothering me? Hmmm. Let me see. Relationship in the shitter, no social life, and work … ah, the inanity of work. People dropping in on me. Constantly. ‘Can you take a look at this?’ Courteous. Exquisitely. ‘Write this up for me. Cheers.’ Behind their fake smiles. Their plastic expressions. ‘How’s that report going?’ Their ongoing demands, always their demands, never-ending, never-stopping, never—
     ‘No,’ I said.
     ‘You need a way to unwind. A hobby! Everybody needs a hobby! Find something you enjoy doing, something that’ll help you relax. Preferably something physical. Get rid of that nervous energy. Spend it. Leave it all out there. It’ll do you a world of good.’
     I tried the gym, but company annoyed me – people offering to spot me, asking me how much I could bench, wanting to talk. I exercised in my garage, but found it claustrophobic. I tried jogging, but my feet were pounded into surrender. On and on my search went, through a variety of endeavours, until I discovered cycling and the open road. That’s when I believed I’d found the one, and I even bought all the gear – bike, helmet, reflective kit, pump, chain-lock, water bottle, and even a pedometer. The whole lot set me back almost a thousand bucks, but it was worth it.
     The first week my muscles burned with every metre pedalled, protested at every hill, and screamed for relief the further I pushed myself. Conditions that seemed mild – like a cool breeze – were exacerbated at high speeds on my bike. But I was invigorated – reinvigorated. I controlled the pace, cruising when possible, and speeding whenever the urge took me. Most of all, I revelled in being uncaged, open and free. By the second week, I couldn’t wait to finish the daily tedium of work to get on my bike.
     Then I learned the most disturbing thing. Or maybe I just started noticing it – noticing it in a way that it becomes impossible to un-notice it, and which makes every subsequent incident cumulatively aggravating.
     Cyclists have their own little sub-societal etiquette.
     Whenever I passed somebody on a bike, they’d nod their head in acknowledgement – acknowledgement that, hey, they were a cyclist just like me (in case I hadn’t noticed). If we were going leisurely enough, it wasn’t just a nod, but an entire ‘Hey’; or even a, ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’
     I tried to ignore it initially, tried to conveniently look the other way whenever these exchanges loomed. But they became inescapable, gnawing at me, overwhelming me through their sheer weight of repetition – pressing, demanding, smothering.
     Nod. Nod back.
     ‘Hey.’ Hey.
     ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ Good.
     Somebody even had the audacity to stop to talk to me one evening when I’d paused at a park for a breather. He pulled up right alongside me, hopping off his bike even before it had come to a halt, and rested it against the bench by which I stood.
     ‘Hey.’
     Hey. I checked my pedometer. Three Ks so far.
     ‘Nice bike.’
     Thanks. I took a drink from my water bottle.
     ‘Looks pretty new.’
     Yup. I took my chain-lock from my bike.
     ‘Haven’t been riding long, have you?’
     Uh uh. Wrapped my chain-lock around my right hand.
     ‘You’re probably only just starting to feel the benefits – the muscle tone in your legs, the increased fitness, the mental well-being.’
     Hmmm. Closed my right hand into a fist.
     ‘But what is it they say?’
     What? Cocked my right hand back.
     ‘Healthy body, healthy—’
     And punched his fucking head in.
     The first blow hit him – literally hit him – right between the eyes. The flesh popped, like a burst water balloon, with a splatter of blood; there was an almighty crack, which must’ve been the bridge of his nose shattering; and yet what registered first on his face was surprise.
     That would teach him.
     Something must’ve clicked in his head then, some survival instinct, because he tried pulling away. He wasn’t quick enough. My next punch caught him exactly in the same spot as the first, and he stumbled back, hitting the bench, and falling onto his butt.
     I kept punching him and punching him; punching him until he was lying back on the bench, and I had a knee planted into his chest; punching him until his face was pulped, the way an orange gets when you grind it; punching him until his skull seemed to shimmer within the flesh of his head, as if it had shattered and lost cohesiveness; punching him until I had nothing left to give, and no rage left to exhaust.
     I got up from the body, and took a moment to compose myself.
     Then I took him and ditched his body in some thickets, covering him with branches until he was hidden. I had no illusions: he’d be found, and much sooner than later. But I didn’t want him lying out in the open like that. What if kids stumbled upon him in the morning, when they were crossing the park to get to school?
     His bike I set against a pole on the far side of the park, by the road. Unchained, it was sure to be stolen. It was just a matter of time. Damn neighbourhood. You really can’t feel safe anywhere nowadays.
     I was about to get on my bike when I realised that I felt different. Something had changed. I stopped, gave myself a moment, and found my mind clear. I was filled with a peculiar but intoxicating euphoria.
     For the first time in many, many months, I felt awesome.
     Getting on my bike, I rode from the park.
     My GP was right.
     Everybody needs a hobby.
 


 
Credit and Genesis
This story appeared on Verity La, on 31 October 2011.

It was born from my own experiences riding.

LZ.

My Brother Malcolm

balanceballsLenny Dodd didn’t know where to start.  The beginning – that’s what Dr Paxton used to tell him.  And the beginning would’ve been logical.  But he wasn’t sure he remembered where that was anymore.  The beginning had liquefied into an omniscient truth which had always been there.
     Opposite him, Dr Bruner sat impassively, his face – with its deep, craggy lines – grizzled and embraced in a pair of outrageous sideburns that looked like the weeds that blossomed out of the cracks in a driveway.  His large lips were pursed, his matinee blue eyes unblinking and unmoving, making Lenny wish Dr Paxton was still here with his big, crooked grin and his explosive, infectious laugh.  Or even Dr Cook, who was stern but reassuring and reminded Lenny of his grandfather.  But, nope.  It was Dr Bruner, whom he’d never seen before, and whose look made Lenny feel as if he was crazy.
     And Lenny knew he wasn’t crazy.
     Lenny shifted his gaze to Dr Bruner’s desk, which was mahogany and big enough to play table-tennis on.  Besides Dr Bruner’s desk-set, the phone, and a word a day calendar, there was also a set of balance balls.  Lenny wanted to pull on the ball closest to him, to see it cannon into the others and begin their dance.
     ‘You see,’ Lenny said finally, looking up, Dr Bruner’s blue eyes capturing him like twin spotlights, ‘there’s a problem with my brother.  Malcolm.’
     ‘Your brother?’  Dr Bruner looked down at the file in front of him.  Lenny knew it was his, although it was so out-of-date it might as well have been obsolete.  How long since he’d been here?  Since Dr Paxton and Dr Cook?  Six or seven years?  Longer maybe?  Lenny was a new man now.  It was Malcolm who needed the help.  He needed to make Dr Bruner see that.
     ‘He’s out in the waiting room,’ Lenny said, half-rising from his seat.  ‘I can get him, if you don’t believe me.’
     ‘How about first you tell me what the problem is, Mr Dodd?  Then maybe we’ll bring him in and have a chat.’
     Lenny sank back into his seat.  Have a chat.  Lenny hated the vernacular.  So patronising.  So condescending.  So … so … he didn’t know what else it was so, but he knew he didn’t like this doctor who was judging him on his file, on the strength of stark black words on a white page.  At least Dr Paxton and Dr Cook understood the context behind what Lenny told them. 
     ‘My brother,’ Lenny said, gripping the armrests of his chair, ‘hears voices.’
     ‘Voices?’
     Lenny nodded so vigorously he felt his forehead judder.  ‘He sits there, in the corner of the room like some fuc … like some freaking idiot, nodding his head as he holds a conversation with somebody that nobody else can see.’
     ‘And what’re the nature of these conversations?’
     Lenny shrugged, his chair creaking as his hands still clawed the armrests.  He could just imagine the chair coming apart in his hands – not that he was a violent or destructive person.
     ‘I don’t know,’ he said, forcing his hands to loosen, his shoulders to slump. He needed to relax.  His eyes returned to the balance balls, and he quelled the urge to pull on that last one.  ‘Most of the stuff I hear … it’s … it’s …’
     ‘Inconclusive?’
     ‘Yeah, that’s it!  It’s inconclusive.  Most of the time he’s just yeahing.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah—’
     ‘I get the idea, Mr Dodd.’
     Lenny froze, and waited as Dr Bruner consulted that damn file again, his finger running down the page.  Why did he need the stupid thing anyway?  This wasn’t about him!  It was about Malcolm!  Surely Dr Bruner couldn’t think Lenny was making him up, not when Malcolm was sitting in the waiting room.
     ‘Maybe I should get Malcolm—’
     ‘A moment, Mr Dodd.’  Dr Bruner’s head remained tilted toward the file, but his eyes rolled up to look at Lenny.  ‘Have you ever asked your brother Malcolm what these conversations are about?’
     ‘He doesn’t tell me,’ Lenny said, recoiling, the front two legs of his chair briefly leaving the floor, but his eyes fixed on that balance ball.  It was so tempting.  ‘He just babbles.  Like an idiot.  I have no idea what he’s on about at the best of times.  Because this is him.  He’s all over the place.  He never listens to anybody.  He does what he wants.  And he babbles.  Did I mention that?’  He looked sharply at Dr Bruner.  ‘All.  The.  Time.  You try asking him a question, and who knows what you’ll get.’
     ‘From your observations, Mr Dodd, do you have any idea what these voices are communicating to your brother Malcolm?’
     Lenny remembered his own voices years ago.  They’d only ever been indulgent.  He could’ve just as easily been talking to friends over a beer.  Sometimes, they told him to do things – good things, like to help a little old lady load her groceries into her car.  But doctors had told him the voices were bad, they were wrong, they were destructive, so they’d been medicated and shocked into silence.  He missed them … sometimes.  But they seemed back now.  With Malcolm.
     ‘No,’ he said.  Then he shrugged again, his eyes darting back to the balance balls.  ‘I don’t know.’  He shrugged once more, his whole body rocking.  ‘But they’re not good, are they?  That’s what …’
     ‘What, Mr Dodd?’
     ‘That’s what Dr Paxton and Dr Cook used to tell me – that the voices were no good.  If they weren’t good for me, how can they be good for Malcolm?’
     Dr Bruner was quiet, his big lips pursing almost as though he was preparing for a kiss.  He turned a page in the file; Lenny knew he was reading what Lenny had told Dr Paxton and Dr Cook about his own voices.  But there was nothing bad there – other than for the existence of the voices themselves, (and, sometimes, in the silence and loneliness of night, Lenny wondered how bad that existence had truly been).
     ‘Does your brother give you any idea who’s speaking to him?’
      Lenny snorted through flaring nostrils.  ‘Who knows?  Could be anyone.  Anything!  He has no concept of reality!  Like … he’s always seeing things.  Things that aren’t there, Dr Bruner!’
     ‘What sort of things?’
     ‘I.  Don’t.  Know.  I ask him sometimes.  I push him!  Like those lawyers you see on television when they’re in court with a witness.  I push him and I push him!  But then he gets upset.  He screams at me!  Sometimes he even attacks me.’
     ‘He attacks you?’
     ‘He attacks me all the time, Dr Bruner!  I’ll be sitting there and he’ll just jump on me, or wrestle me to the ground.  He wants to prove he’s stronger than me.  Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and he’ll be sitting on my chest, choking me and laughing insanely!’  Lenny leaned forward in his chair, and he dropped his voice to a whisper.  ‘I think he hates me.’
     ‘Hates you?’
     Lenny nodded vigorously once more.  ‘I’m sure of it.  He’s always bad mouthing me.  To my friends.  To our parents.  To our cousins and everyone!  Always telling them I’m stupid, that I’m crazy.  Do you know what that does to me, Doctor?  They believe him …  I’m sure they do.’  He pointed at the file in front of Dr Bruner, his finger just a blur as it bounced frenetically.  ‘Because of that.  And him?  Nobody ever doubts Malcolm!  It’s me.  I’m the crazy one!  Not him!  Me!  He’s trying to break me!’  Lenny pitched his head into his hands, palmed his eyes, and repeated almost inaudibly, ‘He’s trying to break me.’
     ‘Mr Dodd?’
     Lenny didn’t move.  His mind fixed on just this morning when Malcolm had grabbed him in a headlock, had choked and choked him while cackling maniacally in his ear.  But that was also Malcolm.  He didn’t care who he tried to hurt, or what he did; it was all funny to him.
     ‘Mr Dodd?’
     Lenny pulled his hands down and, through the line of balance balls – oh, he so wanted to start them rocking – looked at Dr Bruner, whose face remained as aloof as ever.  But now his big froggy lips arched into a smile, and for the first time this session Lenny felt a connection, felt hope, felt that maybe all this might just be okay.
     Dr Bruner closed the file.  ‘How about you bring your brother in?’
     Lenny nodded his head eagerly, bounced out of his chair, and strode to the door.  He thought Malcolm might’ve gone – he did that.  He never listened.  You told him to do something, and he wouldn’t, or would do the exact opposite.  He was always bucking authority.  But when Lenny opened the door, there Malcolm was, seated in the chair right where Lenny had told him to sit and wait.
     ‘Malcolm, the doctor wants to see you.’
     Malcolm sat unmoving.  Lenny thought maybe he’d be trouble.  But then he got up from the chair and strode ever-so-sweetly into the office.  Lenny clenched his teeth so tightly that they grinded an echo into his head.  So this was the game Malcolm was going to play.
     Lenny watched as Malcolm clambered into the chair Lenny had occupied just moments earlier, sat up straight, and beamed at Dr Bruner.
     Dr Bruner gaped, his eyes like big saucers, his mouth hanging wide open like one of those ceramic game clowns you might pop a ping pong ball into at a carnival, and he teetered in his chair from left to right, from left to right, obviously so shocked that a strong gust of wind might blow him over.
     Lenny’s hands balled into fists.  Dr Bruner’s expression was exactly the same as everybody else’s.  The moment Malcolm had looked at him, whatever credibility Lenny had built, had enjoyed briefly, had evaporated.  It always happened.  This was Malcolm at his best.
     ‘Mr Dodd?’
     ‘Yes, Doctor?’ Lenny asked.
     ‘Your brother …?’
     ‘Yes, Doctor?’
     ‘Your brother is a child.’
     Lenny frowned as he came to stand behind Malcolm, gripping the headrest of his chair.  ‘Excuse me, Doctor?’
     ‘Your brother, Mr Dodd.  He appears to be a five- or six-year-old child.’
     Lenny’s frown deepened until his eyes narrowed into slits.  He thought of Malcolm holding conversations with thin air, of Malcolm interacting with things only he could see, of the way Malcolm would jump on him and laugh and laugh and laugh.
     ‘So?’ Lenny asked.
     ‘So?  So?’  Dr Bruner shot to his feet.  ‘You’ve described symptoms common to a childhood’s imagination, common to a child playing, common to … to … to childhood!’
     ‘So when I lose touch with reality, when I hear voices and talk to things that aren’t there, then I’m crazy!’  Lenny shook his head indignantly.  ‘But when Malcolm does it, it’s because he’s a child?’
     ‘Mr Dodd—?’
     ‘Malcolm, come on, we’re leaving!’
     Lenny turned for the door, then pirouetted back to Dr Bruner’s desk, leaning over and plucking the last balance ball so that it clicked into the row of others and started their merry dance.  Then, he spun back, and strode for the door, pausing only to call to his brother.
     ‘Malcolm!’
     Malcolm got down from the chair and looked at the doctor.  ‘Just between us, Doctor,’ he said, ‘I think you have your work cut out for you.’

 


 

Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in the anthology Short and Twisted 2011.

As with all my stories, it began with flashes of ideas – in this case, the conversation that unfolds. I had no idea how it would all end, though, whether it would have some shlock or supernatural finish. But as I wrote, the solution of a kid brother presented itself, which helped everything to click into place.

LZ.