Tuesday, 22 November 2011

"Don't Mention Morrissey..." - A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

(originally written for and published by Hive Magazine, November 2008)

Where to enter the world of Shelagh Delaney? How to avoid cliché, attack the ordinary and defy convention? If I hadn’t been born with such an intensive dislike of ‘puns’ it would all be so easy. But there is an elephant in the room, as the saying goes, and one has either to embrace or to banish it.

I’m talking, of course, about Morrissey.

And, there, I’ve done it already. In one instance I have succumbed to writing the name of a singer no reviewer can let alone when talking about A Taste of Honey.

‘Shelagh Takes Another Bow,’ ran the headline in The Observer when Clare Brennan reviewed the recent Royal Exchange Theatre production of Delaney’s influential play. Alfred Hickling proclaimed in The Guardian that the ‘introverted, sexually confused’ character of Geoff paved the way for Smiths fans of later decades, thus proving the two Manchester writers ‘really were hand in glove.’

Every review, it seems, tends towards some Morrissey link or other. November’s press cuttings, from the most national of broadsheets to the most regional of rags, were awash with Smithsian witticisms. Then again, I suppose this is hardly surprising seeing as Morrissey has openly championed Delaney’s work for more than twenty years. So, why does this incessant wordplay anger me so?

You’ll probably hate me when I explain. My reasons are immature, desperate, overly-protective, and sound something like this -

Morrissey and Delaney belong to me.

Not literally, of course, and I am aware that a sentence such as the one written above is something you’d more likely stumble across in the psychotic scribblings of Kevin Spacey in Se7en than at the heart of an amateur theatre review. But, ridiculously, it rings true.

There is something very personal about exploring The Smiths’ back catalogue and, consequently, digging out obscure lyrical references to cultural texts such as A Taste of Honey. Like sex in the play, Smiths records belong behind a closed bedroom door, to be played when there’s nobody else around. Each loaded verse is secretive, intimate, glorious, and to see those lyrics turned into miserable newspaper puns is scandalous. There are two words for people like me (though I am sure, by now, you will have conjured one or two more) and every so often one hears the disgust and the repulsion in a person’s voice when they announce: ‘Oh, you’re a Smiths fan…’ And can tell, by the curve of the lips and the venomous tone, that they believe all Smiths fans to be hopeless, impotent, self-righteous, unlovable miserablists with a penchant for the past. Who know? They might be right.

But what of the play? Inexcusably, I fear I may struggle tonight: I’m not really a ‘reviewer’ and I tend not to appreciate the role of the critic. (What’s that old saying about thinking you know the way?) Nevertheless, I’ll do me best.

Shelagh Delaney’s name is synonymous with a very distinct, very authentic Northern rhetoric. She is arguably the first working-class female playwright – a true-to-life Salfordian with an inherent grasp of the red-bricked language of poverty. It was a delight, therefore, for me - a Midlander, who has no real sense of regional identity, and whose affinity has always been with the North - to find myself in 2008:

a) living in Manchester
b) working in Salford
c) watching a stage production of A Taste of Honey for the first time

The first striking feature of Jo Combes’s production is the DJ. Up on the balcony, thinly veiled by a rectangular billboard advert, Jon Winstanley soundtracks the play with a host of Manchester’s finest groups: The Stone Roses, Oasis, Joy Division, even the Ting Tings. It is a valiant effort to distinguish this version as unique to its countless revivals, and on paper it looks like a cracking idea. Unfortunately it all seems a little too forced and, honestly, such modernism confuses what the costumes, props and stage-set combine to convince us of – namely, that this is 1950s England.

A thousand curses upon me for starting so negatively. I told you I’d struggle. Let’s do the Good Stuff instead.

A Taste of Honey is, primarily, about a Salfordian mother and her daughter. We are introduced to Helen and Jo while they are in the process of moving into a cold, rundown flat next to the gasworks. Poor, lacking opportunity, but nonetheless brash, Helen soothes her ills with booze, caring very little for her daughter’s well-being. As a way of getting out of the gutter, she agrees to marry a wealthy younger man – much to the annoyance of Jo. What follows is a vivid portrayal of sex, poverty, teenage pregnancy and abandonment in a Salford tenement.

I first met Jo – the anguished teenager who falls pregnant to a black sailor - at university, during a lecture on 1960s kitchen-sink cinema. The scene we were shown (which, if I recall, mentions Salford Town Hall) was that in which Jo, frustrated and depressed, is given a baby doll by Geoff, the gay art student on whom she has come to depend.
‘It’s the wrong colour!’ She exclaims, and throws the doll away.
Thankfully, none of this drama is lost in translation to the Royal Exchange stage. Jodie McNee is captivating as Jo. She is witty, abrasive and endearing, and the superior, standoffish manner in which she deals with her mother is perfectly realised.

Equally convincing is Sally Lindsay’s portrayal of tarty, self-assured Helen: gone instantly is one’s pre-performance familiarity with Coronation Street’s warm- hearted Shelley Unwin. Indeed, Lindsay has been cleverly cast as Jo’s near-alcoholic mother. It is an instance of great sadness and human tenderness when Helen explains to Jo: ‘I never thought about you. Never have done when I’m happy.’

But happy she is not, and her relationship with the seedy, eye-patch-wearing Peter (finely played by Paul Popplewell) is always destined not to last. Still, it doesn’t stop her from leaving (thus forcing a vulnerable Jo to fend for herself) as soon as she finds out Jimmie (Marcel McCalla) - the man her daughter slept with – is black. Delaney handles such flashes of petty racism with a clever hand, and at times it is difficult not to wonder how many of these prejudices the young playwright experienced herself.

This stage interpretation highlight appears, however, to be Geoffrey – or, rather, Adam Gillen, who is wonderful. Aside from the audience’s moans of pity and sympathy, Gillen places his emphases in all the right places and, in doing so, ensures his oft-disputed character does not become a caricature. Gillen appears from nowhere just before the interval, bursting onto the stage with a red balloon in hand during a full-cast Smiths dance-along, an embodiment of the kind of imagery Morrissey employed in pop videos such as ‘Ask’ during the mid-eighties.

Indeed, it is this pre-interval choreography - in which the audience is treated to ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ in its entirety - that really makes Combes’s production shine. So explosive is its celebratory air that, quite foolishly, one is almost able to envisage a future in which everything might just turn out alright for Helen and Jo. Arguably, this is never meant to be, and we can only presume that Helen’s final re-emergence in her daughter’s life will prove to be as grimly disappointing as ever.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Abandoned Children’s Home

Mike pushed the gate ajar and looked at the others. His heart quickened. The initial excitement – which had rushed through him like a sockful of Rohypnol – had faded quickly, and in its place a collective, fearful nausea now descended. He felt Rosie’s hand brush against his, linger for a moment, then disappear. Cruel lust surged inside, making him confident enough to take three substantial steps forward before again snapping his neck around to make sure they were all still there.

She didn’t look like herself in the darkness. Her hair appeared somehow wilder, her skin more pallid, and the space around her seemed to take on the dark atmosphere of an Alton Towers television advert. Mike shivered and attempted to reassure himself that his senses were merely distorted by the lack of streetlights and the wine they had stolen from Oddbins. Then, clutching a bottle in his right hand and bracing himself, he proceeded into the garden.

“It used to be a children’s home,” James, trailing last, whispered. “But the woman who ran it went a bit mental. The police reckon she killed eleven of them.”
“In one night?” Rosie squeaked.
“In one night,” James confirmed, proudly. “Well, actually, it was over about ten years. But it’s still pretty bad.”

Despite the hammer in his chest, Mike pressed on. He imagined himself the unordained leader – that quiet, brooding hero who did not want the role but who had fatefully and modestly assumed it.

“This is too weird,” Abby slurred, loudly, and the sickly-sweet scent of strong spirit infected the night air.
“I don’t like this either,” Rosie whispered. “I think we should turn back.”
“Don’t worry. We’re almost - ” Mike stopped in front of a large metal sheet which had been inexpertly nailed in place of the back door. His hand tightened on the neck of the bottle.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Rosie stuttered.
“Perfectly,” he replied, unconvincingly, and he pressed his hand against the steel door. Suddenly, from behind them, a tinkerbell of torchlight started to dance in the darkness. Impulsively, he snapped back his hand and twisted towards the light.

“Police!” A voice shouted from the front of the house. “Who’s back there?”

Mike grabbed Rosie – who was shaking violently - and pulled her down into the grass. Tenderly, he pulled the red hood of her coat up over her head so that she was camouflaged by shadow.

“Stop right there! I can see you!” A different voice announced, closer this time.

James - who was by now in the process of trying to throw Abby over the fence into the next garden – froze before the gaze of the officers’ gleeful, sobering flashlights. He turned towards them with his hands raised in surrender, causing Abby to slide gracelessly down the side of the fence into a soiled flowerbed.

“How many of you are there?” the lead officer demanded.
“Four!” James blurted out, and then: “I mean three.” And finally, with little conviction: “One?”

For the first time, Mike noticed how the blue flashing light of the panda car parked out front illuminated the garden in half-second waves. He pulled Rosie close, pressed a silent finger against his lips and stood up. Immediately the flashlight sought him out. It followed his wary steps forward.

“There’s three of us,” he said, taking control. “I’m Mike, he’s James…”
“And the girl in the bushes?”
“Hiya!” Abby squawked, enthusiastically. “I’m a bit stuck.”
“Is that booze?” the lead officer asked, gesturing to the half-empty bottle in Mike’s hand.
“Yes,” Mike confirmed. “It’s wine.”
“Can you put it on the ground please?” He obliged. The lead officer moved cautiously into the centre of the garden, her flashlight raised so as to pick out Mike’s face. He squinted.
“How old are you?” she asked. Mike stared at her, crimson-cheeked, for what seemed a cliché.
“Thirty-five,” he said. She eyed him suspiciously. “Alright, alright. Thirty-eight.”
“And you?”
“Forty-one,” James admitted.
“I’m only thirty-four,” Abby proclaimed, picking herself up out of the flowerbed and brushing the dirt from her jeans. “Most of my mates reckon I only look about twenty-seven.”

A sudden rustling in the doorway interrupted her, and the second officer scrambled like a bad simile to retrain his torch.

“Who’s that?” He gushed.
“That’s Rosie,” Mike replied, calmly. “My wife.”

The flashlight found her just as she was removing the hood from over her head.

“I take it you all know this is private property,” the lead officer announced. “And that it’s illegal to trespass on it.” She paused to look at them. “I suppose you thought it’d be a bit of fun, did you? Sneaking in… drinking… acting stupid.”
“Yes,” Mike muttered, sheepishly.
“Yes,” Mike repeated, louder this time. “I thought it’d be a laugh.”
“But it’s not a laugh is it? Being caught.”


“I said: IS IT?”
“No,” the gang chorused, and the garden fell silent again. Mike felt his bottom lip tremble.
“Do your children know where you are tonight?”
“No,” James said. “They think Abby and me are at Mike’s house.”
“Right. And yours?”
“Same. Except ours think we’re at James and Abby’s.”
“Well, maybe I should give them a call; let them know what you’ve really been up to.”

Mike stepped forward, hurriedly.

“I really don’t think that’s necessary, Officer.”
“Oh, don’t you? And I suppose I’m supposed to make a decision based on what you think is necessary.”
“No, I didn’t mean…” He trailed off.
“I’ve a good mind to shove you all in the back of the car and drive you home. See what your kids make of all this.”
“Please don’t,” James pleaded. “They’d go mental.”
“You wouldn’t do it again thought would you?”
“Won’t do it again anyway,” James sobbed. “Honest.”

The lead officer lowered her head in contemplation.

“If I let you off with this, do you promise to go straight home?”

A sea of “yeses” rang out around the group.

“No loitering, no messing about,” she asserted.
“No messing around,” Mike promised.
“Right, on your way,” she said, and James and Abby started hastily for the front of the house. “I’m going to have to confiscate that though,” she added.

Mike stopped, retrieved the wine bottle and handed it over. The officer surveyed the label and grimaced.

“You’re old enough to know better,” she declared.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I’m talking about the wine,” she said.
“Oh. My wife took it while the woman wasn’t looking. It was three for a fiver.”
“We really are very sorry,” Rosie added, her cheek now the colour of the red hooded top.
“I’m sure,” said the officer, and she started towards the police car, with her partner trailing behind, leaving just two slender figures alone beneath the broken security lights.

Monday, 14 November 2011

"All Her Books of Terrified Loneliness..."

“All Her Books of Terrified Loneliness…”
a self-indulgent 1,575 words about Charles Bukowski

“Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.”

For me, it all comes back to that sentence. It is a beautiful construction; the true essence of whichever velvety truth-speaker actually observed that “Language is the universal whore that I must make into a virgin.” The trouble with words is that they have much in common with alcoholic drinks. You have to try all the combinations you possibly can to stop yourself from getting bored. As a writer (if I may be so bold as to presume I know) one is constantly searching for new and invigorating ways in which to present a new angle on a senescent world, ways of making the prose glitter and sparkle and come alive, and – by no means least importantly – ways of elating the poor souls who have come to cast their careful, trusting eyes over the sentences you have produced. Well, Henry Charles Bukowski did all of those things. Not pretentiously, or falsely, but joyously, and with all the unassuming grace of a true visionary.

When Jarvis Cocker, the super-sexual former Pulp frontman and now superiorly-sexual bearded messiah, was hospitalised after falling out of a window in some daft attempt to impress a girl, he decided that looking up, that elevating oneself to the position of “the artist”, was futile and uninteresting. So, bandaged and broken, he started to look down. And there, in the mundane, he identified an alternative beauty.

Suddenly, the loss of a young couple’s virginity in a Sheffield park became sacred – even glorious. Had it not been for that experience (in which, like all sex-obsessed human males, he risked his life – and worse, his dignity – trying to snooker a girl into sleeping with him) we might never have been exposed to the exquisite snapshots of urban romance and decay we now celebrate in songs like “Do You Remember the First Time?” and “Mile End.” I wonder now as I write this, two beers deep on a Friday afternoon, whether Jarvis would cite Bukowski as an influence of any kind. Perhaps not, but what I’m getting to (what I’m slowly and desperately sliding towards through a haze of topped-up intoxication and gushy prose) is that Bukowski – for all the faults and terrors people so often attribute him – was always looking down.

Or, rather, he was looking SIDEWAYS - all around himself and all of the time - at the filth and the squalor and the magnificence of his country and its people. So often in his writing we are treated to the monologues of the barfly, and the piquant portraits of characters and places so few other authors are willing – or, worse, able – to paint.

It is his poetry I care for most dearly. Written predominantly in free verse and often lacking capital letters or punctuation, each poem is a spectacular love letter, a lyrical sensation. One can lose hours, mornings, days getting lost in his numerous printed collections. By degrees he is joyous, touching, misanthropic, alarming – and always fascinating. Of course I have my favourites, those poems to which I return, and will continue to return until I slip beneath the wheels of a metaphorical 86 bus. I keep with me also a collection of his most divine concoctions, those virginal sentences with their immortal symmetry. (I shan’t name them all here – there are too many - but if you want to talk about them afterwards, I’ll be at the bar...)

I risk the fierce reprisal of several friends and colleagues then when I submit that I don’t particularly find much pleasure in the canon of Bukowski novels. Admittedly, I have only read a few of them (“Post Office”, “Factotum”, “Ham on Rye”) and I am certain that, in time, when the inevitable cries of, “You mean you haven’t even read INSERT BOOK TITLE HERE?” have subsided, I will come to be proven cataclysmically wrong. However, it seems I am somewhat incapable of consuming the man’s novels with the same alacrity I do his poetry and short fiction.

It is worth noting that Bukowski began his career solely as a short story writer. Like Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway before him, he mastered short fiction’s peculiar form. He collected numerous rejection slips from literary magazines and publishing houses before a piece of his work was accepted. Unsurprisingly, brilliantly, and using a technique that would re-emerge often in his later work (specifically, taking an event from his own life and half-fictionalising it) his first “success” was entitled, “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.” This self-reflection, this investment in writing so touchingly about the blessed plight of the writer, is one of the reasons I love him so.

I was published for the first time in 2008 - two years after leaving university. I struggle to bring to mind even now a sensation which even closely rivals the strange physical excitement that grips the aspiring writer as they read the words, “Congratulations! Your fiction has been accepted for publication in INSERT RIDICULOUS MAGAZINE TITLE HERE.” It is the truest, most unbridled kind of pleasure one can experience. It is recognition: a dangerous affirmation and celebration of the talents you always suspected you might possess but have – contrarily - spent long, excruciating nights and miserable, brooding mornings fearing you most certainly do not.

That cold January, before the acceptance email dropped into my inbox, I read a lot of Bukowski poetry. So much so in fact that the protagonist of my own story, “Rain on Film”, whilst holed up in a fictional American jazz bar (it’s not as terrible as it sounds – honest) is forced to consider his hero:

“He could have, I figure, written the simplest of postcards and still made it infinitely readable.”

Indeed, there is something indestructible in the words Bukowski throws together which conjures a telepathy between poet and reader. It’s what great literature does. It communicates. It entertains and inspires. It never expires.

I have never longed to write like Bukowski (for one, his subject matter is almost entirely at odds with the life I lead); neither have I ever attempted to emulate his literary style. But he’s always there when I do write. Every time I sit down in front of this computer and start typing (often without a clue as to where I’m going to end up) he’s there, sitting in the corner of the bedroom with a bottle of beer, or hanging precariously out of the window in front so that I don’t forget what it is I’m here to do.

Bukowski is the perfect inspiration. At certain times during his life he was writing five or more short stories per week, each of which was dutifully printed (often without a carbon copy), stamped and posted off in pursuit of publication. And this is his greatest gift to writers. To me. Like the old phrase says: the muse will always find you but it needs to find you working. Well, for a writer that “work” is writing – and Bukowski wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

He smoked and got drunk and gambled and womanised but he always wrote. He was ill and hospitalised and when the doctors told him, “One more drink and you’re dead,” he wrote and drank more. Throughout countless menial jobs, throughout happiness and marriage and fatherhood and heartbreak, throughout hangovers and poverty, he wrote.

In “So You Wanna Be a Writer?”, a poem given to me many years ago by a friend and poet who in his purest moments writes with much the same force as the master himself, Bukowski tells us that if it’s in you - and if that “it” is effervescent, restless and beautiful - then it must be channelled onto the page. If on the other hand what you are writing is laboured, tedious, boring or flat, then it isn’t going to amount to much.

“Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut,” he says, “don’t do it.”

If you’re doing it because you want pretty girls to fellate your ego, don’t bother. Or if it’s the money, the fame and the recognition you long for, give up now.

“Don’t be like so many thousands of people who call themselves writers,” he goes on. “Don’t be dull and boring and pretentious.”

It is Bukowski’s informal, immortal advice and you’d be forgiven at first for thinking it was disheartening. But the truth is that we all have history weighing down upon us. Why start a band if you don’t think it’s going to be better than The Smiths? Why write a novel if it’s not going to be better than “To Kill a Mockingbird?” Come to the typewriter, Bukowski says, with anything but apathy. “Unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don’t do it.”

So whenever I’m in between stories, and the world around me appears gloomy and unforgiving, and when I feel like I can’t write anything but a dull word, I read “So You Wanna Be a Writer?” and a strange comfort settles over me.


Because -

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.

and there never was.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Please Forgive Me / Don't Forget Me

I found out I was going to have a short story published for the first time in January, 2008. I remember vividly the email dropping into my inbox, and reading it for the first time, hazy, taken aback, not quite believing the words the kind soul at Aesthetica Magazine had written. From then on in it was a relatively easy affair. I signed a contract – the first professional contract I had ever signed – and returned it to their magazine offices, all but ready to plaster on a bit of red lipstick and seal the envelope with a sexy kiss.

A month later, on February 1st, ‘Rain on Film’ appeared in print and was distributed, modestly, to Borders and WH Smith stores across the country. My dear Grandmother arrived at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena earlier than any other human being and snapped up every copy they had on the shelves. In Manchester, my future girl-wife, Laura Harper, handed real English money across the counter in the Cornerhouse bookshop. Meanwhile, somewhere on Oxford Street, me and m’friend and colleague, Paul Thomas, were all but ransacking the bookshops looking for a copy… To no avail. And it wasn’t because all the copies in London had sold out. It was because they didn’t have any – at least not in the places we looked. (Luckily, print magazines with a bit of money behind them send you a few contributor copies for gratis, and I got my hands on one when I returned to Coventry.)

I’ve been published a few times since then, both in print and online, and I’m proud of each and every story. But there was something about that first “success” that has remained unparalleled.

Until now.

On March 17th, 2011, I sent a story called ‘The Drowners’ to Monkey Puzzle Press, a publishing house based in Boulder, Colorado. I can’t remember how I first came across them. I spend a lot of time ‘surfing the web’ (to use a ghastly and completely unacceptable phrase) to find publishers with whom my work might fit. On 8th June, a man named Nate Jordon emailed me to say that he had recently read the story, and would I be interested in releasing it as a chapbook with Monkey Puzzle. Positioned as I was on the settee in my flat, all unsuspecting and self-doubting, I read, then re-read, the message and responded with a very definite, ‘I’d, like, be WELL interested…’

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to collaborate artistically with someone you’ve never met, you will know how pleasurable an experience it can be. In the three months since Nate first got in touch about doing the book we have exchanged forty-two emails. He is, I am happy to announce, one of the greatest composers of the email message I have ever come across.

At one point during our correspondence, Nate asked me about what we should do for the artwork. Having already been knocked out by the flyer Michael Fennell designed for the Cannes screening of ‘The Girl is Mime’, I politely begged him to read the story and sketch some designs for ‘The Drowners.’ So he did. And they were fucking BRILLIANT. Like, really fucking brilliant. Overnight, he cast a little spell and presented me with two amazing ideas for the sleeve – both of which were more wonderful than I ever could have imagined. We agreed on one and sent it over to Nate for his appraisal. His reply:

Brilliant! I really dig the cover design - my personal aesthetic is to keep things simple - (as the Buddha says, "The most simple is the most profound.") - it has impact and strikes the curiosity - and I think the title is genius, and says it all without decoration.

Well, I can’t take credit for the title. It is stolen – wholeheartedly and, like all the best plagiarists, without remorse – from the Suede song of the same name. Maybe Dave Sexton can take some credit for introducing me to that band (the 90’s Smiths) one exquisite evening when, once upon a happy time, we lived together.

But let it be known: I am incredibly proud of this collaboration. It is brought to you, Earnest Reader, with love and joy. Accordingly, I will sign off with the following comments –

To Michael Fennell – Thank you, genuinely and kindly, for endowing ‘The Drowners’ with such beautifully fitting artwork. You never fail to inspire and amaze.

To Nate Jordon and Monkey Puzzle Press – It is the pleasure and the privilege of the writer to be invested with your confidence, hard work and support. You do great things.

And to you, Dearest Reader – Your support, interest and – let’s not be shy – hard cash is appreciated more than you will ever know. Please visit Monkey Puzzle Press as often as you humanly can. Tell your friends and lovers about them. Together, I am sure we can keep half-drunk writers and super-sexual readers happy for a long time.

I’ll shut up now.

P.S. This one is for our Nate -


Wednesday, 17 August 2011


James Greene was dying and had been for quite some time. He realised this fully, and with all the clarity of faded intoxication, as the balloon began its slow vertical rise off the field towards a clear stretch of blue high above the London skyline. This sudden awareness was (surprisingly, he noted) perfectly welcome, and he reached for his cigarettes in acknowledgment. Indeed, so engrossing was the pleasure that by the time he brought the lighted cigarette to his lips and looked over the edge again, the balloon had risen another six feet.

Below him the modest crowd, lined up like funeral mourners or film extras, was beginning to blur. He could no longer pick out the pained expressions, thinly veiled, on people’s faces. Clothes and colours seemed to blend. The lady in black with whom he had shared a tortuous moment of mutual, regretful longing (though longing for what he did not know) was transformed at this angle into a single blackbird, perched on a rare slab of concrete. Still now he was unable to deduce which of his fellow passengers she was there to see off. He wondered whether, in time, she would remember him; whether she would awaken to the memory of his – a stranger’s – stricken expression, or recollect around a barroom table the thin, pale outline of his lips or the sunken, squalid arch of his –

He cut the apron strings of his fantasy and blew out smoke. It was this same ardent thirst for acknowledgement, for remembrance and praise, which had brought him - knees first - to his present imprisonment, to this final flight, and he would be damned if such narcissistic daydreams were to ruin him now.

“You can’t smoke on here,” a voice said, from somewhere across the wooden panels.

“I can’t...?”

“You can’t smoke,” he said again. The man – forty-five, bulky and severe – motioned to the cigarette in James’ hand.

“I’m not sure I understand,” James countered.

“It’s a non-smoking balloon,” he proclaimed, his voice strident, angry. “I know because I requested a non-smoking balloon.”

They were higher now, much higher, and James felt his legs weaken.

“I didn’t know there were non-smoking balloons,” he said, and politely flicked the butt overboard.

“Well, there are. And I paid good money to get one. So if you don’t mind...”

The stranger was flickering in and out of focus. Were they not so unnaturally positioned above the earth, James might have questioned whether the man existed at all but at this angle the voluminous figure was impossible to deny, kaleidoscoping as it was in and out of James’s field of vision.

“Not at all,” James said, and he turned away.

It was a diverse population inside the wicker basket. Across the planks, beside the anti-smoker, an elderly man of about seventy-five was quietly looking out over the city. He was smartly dressed – brown trousers, blazer, flat cap, square spectacles – and appeared totally unaware of anyone else. Contiguous to him a woman with short, hacked brown hair (who James, with an artist’s arrogance, placed at around fifty-five years of age) was listening to her iPod. And then (he had not noticed her until now) crouched down low so that she could bring her delicate, bleached legs up to her chest, was a girl in her early twenties.

Furtively, he inspected the exsanguinous translucency of her complexion, the shivery vulnerability of the human frame which was intended to hold her upright but which had failed. Even amidst the balloon’s gilded phosphorescence she appeared transparent, as if the sun itself were the radioactive light of an X-Ray machine. After a while it was obvious: both the disease and its countless failed treatments were written all over; her eyes were inked with deep pockets of blotchy inexperience. James wondered where it had started, which part of her it had stolen first. The lungs perhaps - or the pancreas. What lengthy battle had she endured so that she came to be sitting here?

He imagined her without clothes, stretched out in bed in some fictional sky-lit apartment so that her frail, wasteful body (sequestered here beneath a faded white Clash tee-shirt) was reinvigorated with life. His head grew suddenly light with promise.

A middle-aged man with anxious eyes and letterbox lips snatched him from reverie. He was repeating, with effervescent anguish, the same two lines of poetry over and over.

“That’s Shelley,” James said after a moment. The man fell silent, looked at him, nodded coolly then picked up his recitation:

“When the lamp is shattered, the light in the dust lies dead.”

It was a fitting couplet and the words seemed to comfort their orator. James glanced back at the girl to find her staring at her own hands, studying them closely as if they belonged to someone else. At such great height the bright green of the park below better resembled the synthetic cloth of a make-shift poker table, laid carefully out beneath brittle table-top trees and beer tin buildings. James was quite unfamiliar with this part of the capital, where Shoreditch gave way to the City. In all his time in London – since those first fateful flirtations with the publishing houses – he had been awarded little reason to walk amongst the burnished, gin-soaked office blocks, the Blackberry adverts, the al-fresco lunchtime diners. He imagined the bronze-statue businesspeople below him now, each one plugged in to the other as they dashed from boardroom to barroom, and the companies dreamt and the money went round. It struck him then that he had never been enamoured by wealth – at least not savagely – rather, he had become accustomed to it. Money was a narcotic: the more he acquired, the more he used. It numbed the pain of failure and silenced his intimidating conscience.

In his youth he had craved, above all things, artistic credibility and alcohol. Then just shy of a decade into an ailing, extracurricular writing career, delusional and half-defeated, fame became synonymous with achievement and he began to dissolve. The novel which at twenty-six had fulfilled his own literary ambitions – and which was (magically!) commissioned for a two hundred thousand print run – failed to reap the rewards James Greene felt it naturally deserved.

Soon after he had set to work on a lifeless new fiction. Miserably, he typed and edited and formatted until he had banished all happiness from its pages. He felt distracted, angry, bored. The industry which by then should have wholeheartedly embraced his genius had barely paused for breath. Finally, he abandoned the manuscript altogether, met with his agent, deduced (with all the craftsmanship of Juliet ascertaining the identity of her future lover) what it was the publishing houses were looking for, and then wrote it.

And suddenly his surname was on the shelf. The squalid lilywhite and lemon hardcovers soon found themselves stacked shoulder to shoulder beneath a sign which stated, quite earnestly, “General Fiction.” The fonts and plots were identical. Commuters propped them up on buses and trains (how those stifled pages gasped for breath!) and when the summer was over they began to appear in charity shops and at student book stalls. His worst efforts were cherished and despised in less than equal measure by the reviewers. They were accused of being tawdry, deplorable, devoid of originality and intelligence. For a decade he debauched and deceived himself. The paycheques were inconsequential but they kept coming. The novels were inconsequential and they kept coming too. But, he reminded himself, he had never just done it for the cash. Wealth was a by-product, the irrefutable child of success and (mild) celebrity, and whilst it had been a mocking spectre during his life it would not be the mordant assistant to his demise.

Now the balloon was warmer, higher, lighter. It was a nightclub dancefloor when the lights came on. And here they were: the remaining factions of the evening. Six doomed figures, each one stood apart from the next and each too afraid or too untrusting to make a connection. But, oh, how they clung to the possibility (the promise) that it wasn’t all over yet, that some charming presence would come along and say, “I know a place where we can go where we are not known.”

James lit an oblivious second cigarette and looked down again. His chest was tight, his vision hazy. Soon they would reach a safe distance from the ground, a height at which all of those they had left behind ( - will she remember me?) would no longer be at risk of the burning wood or the descending -

“Hey! I’ve told you once. This is a non-smoking balloon!” There was a new tension in the stranger’s voice, perhaps owing to the altitude, which made the final three words lack the impact James supposed he had intended. “That – that shit killed my fucking wife!” He was anxious, watery-eyed, tremulous. “Now, put – it – out.”

“Two minutes and it’ll be gone,” James promised. “Here, I’ll even smoke it away from you so that it doesn’t - ”

“Put it out,” the stranger repeated, more firmly this time. He took a step forward.

“Look, I can’t very well smoke on the way down now, can I? Please. Don’t deny me this last one.” James could feel all the familiar rushes of confrontation. His blood was warm, his legs uncertain.

“Don’t fuck with me.” A staccato step forward and -

The impact was refreshing. With blissful immediacy the stale ache in his chest was gone and he became acutely aware of an exquisite paroxysm in his jaw. Until now he had been punched only once, in his hometown, on the steps of a nightclub on his twentieth birthday. A cushion of adrenaline and consumption had, on that occasion, facilitated the awkward introduction of the stranger’s knuckles to his own unambitious jawline. But this – this was like coming up from underwater.

Suddenly they were grappling and James’ entire body was alight with alacrity. He heard (though barely felt) his back collide with the low wall of the gondola, and an underwhelming murmur of protest swelled amongst his co-travellers. They were too close to the edge but still the stranger’s arms flailed and snatched at James’ shirt.

“Somebody do something...”

For the first time James could feel the envelope above spitting hot air.

“Will you just stop? You’re ruining it all - ”

The stranger was hunched double and in the process of delivering a series of stalled blows to James’ midriff. James strained to return a punch or two only to have both attempts immediately stifled by proximity. He was not a violent man (he had never thrown an actual punch in his otherwise hollow, miserable life) but his reactions now were predatory. Summoning all his strength, he strained forward, forcing his opponent onto his back foot and freeing himself from the stranger’s grasp. James swiftly found his balance, made a desperate ball with his fist and threw it vaguely in the direction of his competitor’s face. It connected, imperfectly but sweetly, with the jutting cliff-face of his jaw. James readied himself to go again but before he could do anything the elderly bespectacled man stepped between the two of them.

The stranger who had attacked him was gone and in his place there stood a weeping papier-mâché model; an apoplectic brute reduced now to halcyon immobility.

“Done?” The old man asked, mapping the distance between them with a pacifying, extended arm.

James coughed and nodded assiduously.

“They – they killed her,” the stranger said, quietly, vacantly, and the old man turned from James and placed his arm around the other’s shoulders. His attacker seemed to have entered into a kind of catatonic shock. Softly, the old man eased him into a sitting position.

For a few seconds something deep in James’ being, some senescent Geiger counter, prohibited him from taking his eyes off of him. He wondered how high they had climbed but dared not look. Instead he inspected the balloon. If there had been a disruption to his colleagues’ adventure (during the height of the action a part of him had hopelessly hoped that the four remaining travellers would form a circle around the two men and instigate an adolescent chorus of, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”) there was little evidence of it now. iPod lady was already scrolling through her menu, presumably looking for something new to listen to. Shelley continued to perform his favourite lines. (James wondered idly whether he had stopped reciting them at all.) Even the old man – who appeared to have either successfully assisted or given up on his new comrade – was once more perched in his previous spot, looking out over a distant London. So where was the -

“Are you alright?” Her voice was not the tremulous jazz solo he’d imagined. James turned to face her.

“Oh, yes – yes. Could be worse, eh?” He bared his teeth in a crooked smile. Tenderly, the girl brought the back of her hand up to rest against the side of his face. “Least I won’t be around to see it bruise.”

She blushed and looked at the floor. Her hand lingered a moment on his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and then: “I didn’t mean to...”

“We don’t have long to go,” she said, shyly.

With the light behind her she shone silver and gold. Upright, she seemed to have cast off some of the malignant aura which had previously consumed her. Now James could vividly make out the fading dashes of red in her hair; the taut, red lip-sticked lips; the parched, imperfect skin – and he was suddenly quite sure that he loved her. Yes, she was his luminary, his Lolita. Why else had she been placed before him now?

Uncertainly, the girl pushed her hand into his and arched her neck to look at him. James, moved by her reticence, let his palm close around her fingers. She led him silently to the edge of the balloon. James closed his eyes and felt burnt orange sunlight.

“When the buildings are so far down they don’t look real anymore. That’s when they say it happens,” she said, and then: “Do you think they still look real?”

James opened his eyes.

“Just,” he said.

“I don’t want to be alone,” she said.


He let go of her hand and raised his arm so that she could move into his chest. And there it was – London, not his birthplace but his home, stretching out onto the distant horizon where a purplish-blue haze forbid him from seeing any further. They had drifted north, so much so that it was impossible to determine exactly the little pocket of grass and concrete they had set sail from. He wondered if the crowd there had dispersed and then, sullenly, he considered his legacy. Would the people or the papers mourn him? Would the Guardian publish his obituary? Would they paper over the cracks and pay homage to his spirit? (“Yes, the main body of his work lacked ambition, and he was often accused of selling out to the narrow-minded, business-orientated publishing houses, but there was undoubtedly something in that first novel: a spark, a wonderment, a youthful joy – but most of all a rare literary talent, and for that reason Greene will be sadly missed.”)

He longed for a familiar location to present itself below him, and he wondered if he was making a mistake. The city was a curious stranger. There was nothing left for him there – no friends, no lovers, no words. And so he found himself here, lonely but not alone, suspended above his tranquil blue planet, with the pale girl in the faded white tee-shirt.

“It’s gone too quickly,” she said, portentously, and as the balloon exploded, and the flames broke loose, he wondered if anyone had ever looked more radiant.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Stand

Twenty six years old and fumbling – delicately at first, but with gathering passion – at black lace lingerie, beneath which lies an evasive secret so often denied him. He is not himself, and his body feels awkward and unfamiliar as it clashes with hers upon the sheets, which are drawn down to the end of the bed as if to say: this is not a secret act.

He is certain then, as their bodies collide in ska-like rhythms, that this moment does not belong to him, and neither to her, but to a mutual universal biology that demands such collisions of them. He cannot tell her he loves her because he does not, and they will awaken together only once. With this, he comes – vilely, cheaply – to conclusion, heart racing, breath short, and a terrible reality descends. How many others just like him? How many human beings briefly elevated by the hands of strangers as the ice gets thinner underneath them?

The girl disappears into the bathroom, and, stretched out in the darkness, he realises that their connection is not lost because it had never really existed. It is difficult to imagine that just a few hours previously both of them had wanted this. Still drunk (but lacking now any degree of charm) he pulls up the sheets, turns onto his side, and slips into unconsciousness with one final thought:

She will never know how little this means.

Maladjusted (or, Waterloo Before Sunset)

Alice looked up at the sky and wondered why, despite the voice on the other end of the telephone, all she could think about was the clouds. They appeared purple and somehow comforting, injecting her with tearful strength. She knew it was over; it was all there in his voice. Finally the words poured down the wire:

‘I loved you. I did. But I don’t want to see you anymore.’

The girl has never been what trendy, voyeuristic teen magazines are so fond of calling ‘comfortable’ with her body and, even now, as she stands squarely against Waterloo’s fading light, eyes cast over the Thames, she is conscious that somebody somewhere might be watching her. It is doubtful (the logical part of her mind knows it is she that holds a vantage point on the rest of this little part of the world from up here) but there are cracks in the ceiling of her current psyche and it is hard to break the paranoia of a lifetime.

She has always wanted to bring James here. There is a certain romance in the idea of leading him up expensively carpeted stairs, his dumbfounded hand wrapped in her excited fingers, lingering momentarily to gawp at what might lie behind the windows of the poetry library, before finally stepping out onto the balcony. It is always winter in the fantasy, always overcast and always beautiful.

It is on the balcony, on more or less the spot she is stationed now, that she coyly lights a cigarette and waits for his reaction. In the Real World she is not a smoker. In her Fantasy she is Hepburn, minus the filter, expelling smoke as though it is air, and his words are always the same:

What if somebody catches you?

She answers with a knowing smile, offering the cigarette over without ever looking at him. He pauses, weighing up the consequences, then reaches for it.

I like it here, she says, and her voice no longer sounds awkward or unkind to her own ears.

The vision washes away, lost in the murky, rolling river below. It has been two weeks since Valentines Day but it does not feel distant. It was the last time she remembers being happy. James had taken her out for dinner at a Thai restaurant near Abney Park Cemetery and then to Camden for drinks. In the corner of The Shakespeare Inn they had experimented firstly with beer and then with cocktails, and she had told him that her father had once seen Morrissey there. This knowledge had excited her far more than it had James. At twenty-four, she knows less about life and considerably more about The Smiths than she had at sixteen. The night ended, as perfect nights have the devilish tendency of doing, at around half two in the morning, and they stumbled to the bus stop with all the abandon of youthful inebriation. They sat upstairs on the 286 amidst a small population of London’s late night workers and early morning drinkers. The windows were foggy and it wasn’t until nearly half way home that she lifted his arm and moved into his chest. Her heart was beating fast and slow, an exaggerated throb that seemed, on some hopelessly hopeful level, to tie the two of them together. She closed her eyes and it felt as though the rest of the human race were simply bit-part actors in the film of her life. Everybody on the bus existed gracefully around her and James, entering and exiting their lives on cue, saying all the right things at all the right times.

I will never go to waste in the wrong arms, she had thought.

Again she returns to the river, another daydream lost, and the wind rises and falls in the same way her body had once risen and fallen above her lover. She thinks of him fucking his new found soulmate: a blonde, self-confessed indie girl in little green shoes and drainpipe jeans; a genuinely vile modern day Debbie Harry, whose darkened bedroom boasts black and white photographs of James Dean and Twiggy. She sees them sprawled on a double bed smoking post-coital cigarettes and listening to The Rolling Stones, their bodies close and warm and well adjusted. It is this terrible image that returns, like a prodigal child, again and again; a framed photograph that burns in the back of her head, keeping her awake, worsening at midnight when it drags her out of the dream world and into the real. It is unforgiving and cruel, and yet…

It is not totally unwanted. She can almost deal with this psychic pain, just as long as she can cling onto the cold comfort of such treacherous human emotion. All is paradoxical. She does not want to feel this way, nor does she want to lose the illogical power that love, hate and confusion bring to her sedated soul.

It is the eyes that do it. If she could rid this ugly mental portrait of his eyes then perhaps she’d be able to grasp the handle and control herself. It is the eyes kill her. She cannot bear to imagine him looking at somebody else in the way he had once looked at her. This is, she feels, the one true reason for heartbreak.

She reaches into the pocket of her jeans and removes a fresh deck of Marlboro cigarettes. The pack looks big in her hands and she considers throwing it overboard; considers letting go of this whole sad twisted affair. She could tour a few bars and stumble home before midnight, lungs clear and mind hazy. It is only when she realises that, by throwing twenty cigarettes onto the streets of London, she might unwillingly entice some curious kid to light up the first of what could lead to a million little death traps that she rips the packet open and removes one of the unfamiliar sticks inside. It is a glorious feeling. For a few moments she does nothing more than stare at it: the cancerous orange filter, the tender silver print of the brand name above, the smooth white paper behind which lies the most accessibly addictive plant in the world. Her body tingles as she relapses into fantasy, and the desire to introduce a single match to this damaging instrument makes her belly rumble. She thinks of all the girls in all the bars she has ever sat in, twirling what PG Wodehouse would call ‘gaspers’ between their delicate fingers, smoke rising as naturally as rain from their beautiful young bodies. It is an exclusive club to which she has never been a member. Until James she had been alone and Paradise had dwelled within every youthful soul except hers – the dancers cosmic, the lovers entwined, the people happy. He had changed all of that.

She fishes a book of matches from her coat and remembers the night they first made love. They had slept together before that evening but that was to be expected. She’d been a virgin when she met him, choosing Morrissey lyrics over flippant flings with nightclub boys. Then, at nineteen, she made an important choice. She didn’t love James (that came later) but she was emotionally involved, and the part at the end of the night, when it came to saying goodbye, was getting harder. In the summer they lived outside, wrapped in each other’s arms on concrete curbs, and she knew how much he liked her because it was only with her that he didn’t light one cigarette with the dying embers of the last. He chose her, the rest of the world and its vices be damned.

Summer was dying by the time she found herself in his bed for the first time. It didn’t feel as though she had given anything away. Rather she had given a part of herself over to him; a metaphysical fragment of her being that bound them closer together than anyone else in the world. Everything was almost right. They slept together a lot after that. It was graceful, thrilling and it put the universe on hold for a while. There were no horror stories to be told and for the first time in her life she enjoyed getting undressed in front of another human being.

On Mondays James had a nine o’ clock lecture and after he had left she would stretch out on the empty bed wearing only a tee shirt, the covers crumpled and free. It was during one of these moments, in the company of her boyfriend’s iPod, that she realised it for the first time.

It came upon her suddenly, like knowledge or truth. David Bowie was singing about pretty things on the stereo and Alice was sprawled out, pleasantly warm in the afterglow of sleep, the dismal shadows of Britain’s rainclouds suspended in the sky outside the window. She listened to his voice rise above broken piano chords and take over the entire room. It was not Buckley’s Hallelujah or Dylan’s I Want You; nor was it one of Burt Bacharach’s everlasting depictions of romance, but somehow that song seemed to come alive, transforming one girl’s tired internal soliloquy into a feeling of the purest importance.

She was in Love.

Her mind fluttered over the words and she stared at her hands as if she was seeing them for the first time. James had recently bought her a ring, an inexpensive silver band that made her quaintly aware of her own fingers. She clenched her fists and giggled. Soon she would leave the haven of his bed and have an early beer in the student union. She didn’t know why but it felt like the right thing to do.

She thinks of these moments not with regret or longing but with quiet shame. They belong in the past, when all was well, and she quickly becomes aware of a foolish heat spreading slowly through her cheeks. She wants to hear Bowie come screaming from the Thames, his voice loud, angry and all-encompassing, but it does not come. Instead, she returns her fixation to the cigarette between her fingers. Shaking, she raises it to her lips and lights up. The first lungful is unforgiving and she splutters out smoke without ease or elegance. It tastes different to the way it had once tasted on James’s lips. At first she had not liked this and he had chewed gum to mask her apparent abhorrence to tobacco. Then one day he had forgotten and, almost unwillingly, she began to enjoy the subtle undertones of flavour that passed from his tongue to hers.

She tightens her chest and tries again, this time bracing herself for a harsh intake of polluted breath. It goes down a little smoother and when she exhales she almost feels like the wild, free character of her fantasy. Looking at the world from here, each floor of the Royal Festival Hall set in stone beneath her, she feels guilty and afraid. She wonders whether anybody will ever truly know or understand her. She is terrified that when she is gone nobody will know how she loves to walk in the rain, or find keys in the road and fantasise about the locks they might fit, or how she has fallen in love with the hands of a hundred boys without ever knowing them. These are the things that keep her lucid on sleepless nights whilst all across her beloved London a thousand lonely hearts lull themselves to sleep with the sounds of half-muted television sets. These are the things with which she will be buried.

It was almost dawn. In a few hours she would be in a lecture theatre, eyelids heavy, praying for sleep. James was next to her, just out of reach, his leg tapping ten to the dozen against the early morning chill. She wanted the dark to hold out, wanted to turn off her shyness.

‘People were talking about us tonight,’ he said. ‘It made things feel awkward.’
‘I know.’
‘Still, they’re right. It’s primary school mentality, all that “my friend fancies you”, but I do like you. A lot.’
‘I know.’ She reached out and held his hand, trembling hard, trying not to let it show. ‘I like you too.’
He didn’t look up.
‘Your hands are green,’ he replied.
‘Your hands…’ He held them up to her. ‘…are green.’
He was laughing as if this was the last thing he ever would have expected. Alice laughed too, taking in the bluish-green complexion of her palms.
‘Oh, Jesus,’ she started. ‘It’s these jeans, they’re so cheap. I’ve had my hands in my pockets because of the cold. The colour must have rubbed off.’
‘That is cheap.’ He laughed uncontrollably, enough to send her nervousness spiralling out of existence and into the dark remnants of the sky.

Later they kissed, and later still they slept, but before either of those things they simply sat on a quiet road as morning knocked at the window, laughing at the colour of her hands.

The cigarette is gone in an instant and the girl hoists her body carefully up onto the stone railing overlooking the water. She does not stand up right away, to do so would seem sudden. Instead she sits for a while, staring straight ahead, like some beautiful onscreen starlet dressed in black and white. If Waterloo is the station then she is the train soon to depart, heaving onwards with regret.

Eventually she stands and, to her left, Big Ben stands with her, its clock face crumbling with her tears, mocking with clarity and precision. Whoever she is now, it is not Alice. She is not bitter or angry or vengeful; she is only a human being with a geographical fetish for this part of the capital.

She drops her jacket to the ground and stretches out her arms. James is surprisingly far from her thoughts. There is only one sentence in her mind, and when they see her they will understand. It is not so much a suicide note as it is a final proclamation. When she lets herself fall it fills her mind completely.

Written in eyeliner on her left arm, the words:

I will never go to waste in the wrong arms.

(Manchester, 2008)

This story appears - for better or (what is infinitely more likely) worse - exactly as it appeared in "Bottom of the World" (Issue #2, November 2008)