Rambles: The Book Six that never was

“Never apologize and never explain–it’s a sign of weakness.” – John Wayne, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, attributed.

 

But then again, why not?

I’ve done one of these posts before in 2013 (The Book Five that never was), so since I’m now into the flesh and bone of Book Six, I decided to do one again.

So, anyway, there was going to be a Book Six, but it was going to be very different from the one I’m writing…more of an odyssey than the one-location tale it is now.

However, the ideas I was developing weren’t wasted (as they weren’t when I did The Book Five that never was) – most of them found their way into what would become Medusa, and I don’t want Australian fellow writer Anna Hub to think her feedback was wasted; I took it all on board.

Sometimes the stories do get away, but that wasn’t the problem here. The problem was that I wanted the protagonist to have a new voice, something different.

So I abandoned it and started again. It’s a shame; I think it’s one of the most powerful openings I’ve ever written, and I would have liked to have known where this path through the forest went.

But as the song says: Let It Go.

I get the feeling sometimes I have to do these little opening chapters to warm myself up for the main event. That’s why they call them drafts, folks. :-)

Anyway, The Book Six that never was:

Day Four
I shot a man tonight.
I handled the rifle the way my dad taught me: Pushing the stock hard into my right shoulder, steadying my racing heartbeat and squeezing down on my rushing breath, sighting down the barrel so the world shrunk to only him and me.
Still he came towards me, convinced I wouldn’t do it perhaps, or just desperate for our supplies, coming on almost as though he didn’t hear my warning or care one way or the other. That was possible; he could have been one of the last of the Sueys, after all.
I squeezed the trigger and the rifle bucked and rose to the left, enormously loud, as I knew it would. I pulled it back to the right and down again, already lining up for another shot. The man spun a half turn, a hand rising to his shoulder. The echo of the shot came back from the mountains, scolding me.
I didn’t wait for him to turn back to me, aiming between his shoulder blades. This time there was a spray of red and white as the bullet blew him open. He fell to his knees, still facing away from me and his head dropped. He seemed to sigh.
Then he fell forward onto his face without putting his hands out to stop himself and lay still.
I just killed a man. Shot him in the back in cold blood. Took his life.
It did no good to justify it, to say to myself that it was him or me, it was him or us. It did no good to say that everyone left on the planet will be dead in a few days anyway. If I used that argument, there was no reason he couldn’t have shared his last meals with us, no reason for me to take his life.
Maybe all he wanted was not to die alone.
I just. Shot a man.
The shaking started then, the delayed shock of what I’d done rising from somewhere in my stomach. I tossed away the rifle as though it burned and my outstretched fingers convulsed, flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing. Bands of steel tightened around my spine and spiders rose towards my neck, ice spinning behind them. My stomach convulsed and turned, the gorge rising into my throat. Every muscle in my body loosened and shook, and I fell to my knees, staring at the stony ground between my hands, not feeling the harsh rocks cut my knees or palms.
The remains of dinner brushed the back of my throat, and I vomited and vomited until bile burned and it mixed with my sobs and mucus from my running nose, my whole body shaking and thrumming like a man in a high fever, my body a shaking wire. I couldn’t stop myself, couldn’t even look up at what I’d done.
Beside my hand, a familiar pair of boots appeared, then dad’s grip was on my shoulder and pulling me up. I fell into his shoulder, still sobbing as he led me back to the cabin, his voice full of singsong reassurances that meant nothing.
I shot a man tonight. I have to find a way to live with that in the few days we have left.
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Writing Whimsy: First Flight

I was there when it first happened. The first time he ever did it, I mean. The first time he saved someone.

The media were all over it the next day, of course. With that many smartphones in the city, there were no shortage of eyewitnesses who caught him on the move. A million hits on YouTube in the first hour.

The footage is all the same in essence: Shaky, blurry movement as the camera pans up and up the side of an apparently endless skyscraper. Then it steadies, and the eye can focus on the shape falling. A second later, and it becomes clear the shape has arms and legs and long hair streaming behind her, arms and legs that are flailing at nothing, trying to grab air as though it will save her, her mouth a black hole and her eyes wide. On the good phones, the sound of her scream follows her down like a merciless harpy. Then an updraft smashes her into the unbreakable glass of the building, and the screaming stops. The arms and legs become limp, the left arm twisted to an unnatural angle. At least she won’t feel the ground when she smashes into it at a hundred miles an hour is your cruel and merciful thought as you watch, powerless.

Then the impossible: The grey blur rising from the bottom of the screen, nothing more than a smudge. But it slows as it nears her, and it becomes obvious that this blur also has arms and legs, ones that are under a lot more control. And then the blur slows and slows, and it snatches her from the air as easily as I would catch an apple falling from a tree.

From below, the screams turn to disbelief, disbelief turns to laughter and finally become relief as he reaches the ground and lays her on the cold cement that should have killed her. Then he is gone, rising and rising into the evening sky, breaking every law of physics that humanity has ever known, and everything we knew about the universe changed with him. Everything we thought we knew was blown away. Even something as simple as gravity couldn’t be trusted anymore.

We knew a man could fly.

There were the usual cries of fake and hoax, as everyone expected. Then he saved that oil tanker, and then there was no doubt who he was and what he stood for. Not after something that big.

Comic books – or graphic novels, if you wish – would have painted him in bright reds and blues. We all knew what to expect from our superheroes after all, even if they didn’t actually exist before he appeared.

He wasn’t anything like they would have you believe though; no cape, for a start. And he managed to wear his underwear under his clothes. At least, I imagine he did; I don’t believe any reporter he’s ever spoken to has ever asked.

I know something about him though, something no one else knows. I watched the first steps he took. I saw the look on his face when he saw that woman falling to her death. I saw what it took, that first time.

I was checking the stock on the deal I’d just signed in a boardroom forty stories above me, my head down when I came out of my office. So I didn’t really pay attention when someone pushed me back out of his way. Not until I looked up into his eyes.

He wasn’t even looking at me, but at the building across the street, his eyes raised and calculating. The brightest shade of blue I have ever seen, like a Caribbean sea in the mid-day sun. As I said, no bright blues and reds here, no capes or symbols across his chest. Simple grey boots and a tight grey outfit. The spandex was the only part that looked right. Nothing that made him stand out in a crowd or blend in. Apart from his eyes, so intense and focused.

It was one of those odd empty gaps in the city crowds, and of course, by now everyone was watching the woman drop from across the street. So I was the only one who saw him, the only one who saw what happened next, the next few seconds that decided whether that falling woman lived or died.

He stared at his feet and the ground between them as though willing something to happen, taking in a breath and clenching his fists until the knuckles were white. His jaw clenched and shook and the muscles in his arms and shoulders jumped and danced; there was no doubt that what he was doing required his every ounce of strength. He inhaled once more and his eyes closed. And there was no doubt, at least to me, that he had never done this before.

Then it happened, something I had never seen before, something that no one on the planet had: The man I was staring at rose an inch from the ground, then an inch more, wobbling as he did. He spread his fingers as though to steady himself on invisible supports.

Then he smiled, and his face was transformed. His eyes opened and his arms spread wider. Only now seeing me, he winked once in my direction, then was gone across the street.

Everything changed for the world that day. But it changed for me as well. I watched someone try something they had never done before and succeed. And the result was a difference between life and death for us all.

It took a long time – years – for me to track him down, and took even longer for him to teach me what he did that day. But he was patient with me, and tonight I’m ready to fly. To claim my place beside him.

He’s going to push a man out of a window across the street from me in five minutes, as his predecessor did for him. A rite of passage for me, and my first flight.

I hope.

Writing Whimsy: The Man of Your Dreams

Heston Strongthigh strode into the room. Heston always strode; to describe his method of getting from one place to another using his feet as walking would be like describing the Pacific Ocean as a bit of damp.

Heston always strode because the wardrobe he had for the…shall we say, lower part of the body…was always tight. Tight enough to inspire jokes about reading coins in his pocket and other witty ripostes I feel should not be mentioned in polite company.

“Woman!” Heston roared towards the female in the room.

The female in question rolled her eyes, inured to his shouted proclamations after three months. She found it particularly annoying when she was the only woman within a hundred yards and Heston issued his shouts from right beside her.

Heston stood with his feet far apart and thrust his stomach forward, his hands on his hips. This had the unfortunate effect of emphasising part of his anatomy that needed no emphasising, which is why he did it. Constantly. When he wasn’t striding, he was thrusting, if you know what I mean.

“Woman!” he roared again. Heston was also a fine one for roaring, if you hadn’t already guessed.

She sighed, barely flicking a glance in his direction before she carried on what she was doing (which we will get to in a minute). “My name is Jennie, Heston. How many times do we have this conversation?”

Heston rolled his head back, opened his mouth and roared with laughter, the cords on his strong neck popping out like high voltage cables. The rolling of the head wasn’t really necessary, but it did give you a nice view of his very flat and very muscled stomach and pectorals that would put The Alps to shame. Heston inhaled and almost ripped his shirt in two. It helped that it was already split down to the navel.

Heston raised one thigh and slapped it with the flat of his hand. “Thou art so amusing, wench. What is thy bidding?”

“Bidding?”

“Thoust did call me from my slumbers. Doest though wish to dance the dance of love?”

At this point Heston did something with his hips and hands that doesn’t bear describing.  Jennie sighed again. Despite his pantomime antics, she had to admit Heston was good at the dance-of-love thing. She smiled. Heston was very good at the dance of love thing, actually. She felt a tingle down her stomach and decided to throw Heston a bone. As it were.

“Mmm, maybe later. Right now I need you for something else.”

Heston faltered. His hips stopped doing the thrusting thing and he seemed to shrink.

“There…there is something else?”

Jenny studied him. She really shouldn’t have played around with that magic kit and that Barbara Cartland book when she was drunk. But it seemed so harmless…have the man of your dreams, just a little bit of dust blown on the pages. She’d woken up the next day with a huge hangover and a huge over hung man beside her.

Not being able to go out with him in public was the worst part. She got stares and children pointed. Adults pointed, for that matter. And they pointed at things they were not supposed to point at.

She reached beside her and threw a dishcloth at him. It was time to domesticate this beast. “Can you dry these dishes?”

He looked at the shiny wet things beside her. “These?”

“Those.”

He blinked. “I rub them with the cloth?”

“You rub them with the cloth until they are dry, yes.”

Heston pondered this for an ice age or two, looking from the cloth to the pots and back again. He pursed his lips thoughtfully.

“Then we dance the dance of love?”

Jennie sighed through her nose. Men, she thought, always one thing on their mind.

“Yes, then we dance the dance of love.”

Heston smiled, his teeth a brilliant white against the dark tan of his skin. He thrust his stomach out again and Jennie regarded the proffered part of his anatomy.

Could be worse, she thought. Could have been reading Inspector Morse.

 

Rambles: I am what I am

I remember one New Year’s Eve party in particular. My dad was in the Territorial Army (An army reserve he went to on weekends) for most of his life that I was a part of. This was a NYE party they were holding in their big hall in their barracks, and the whole family were there, plus about a hundred other people. Lots of food and a disco – you know the deal, right? It must have been perhaps 1982 or 1983; that’s the best date I can put on it, anyway, and the year doesn’t really matter.

The reason it doesn’t matter is because here’s the thing I remember the most about that year-going-into-the-next, the thing I’m here to talk about: I spent the seconds across midnight in the empty and mostly dark gym that looked over the hall. On an exercise bike. Alone.

I was more comfortable up there than down on that floor singing Auld Lang’s Syne with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I was more comfortable in a dark room than taking part in the fun down there below me.

Does that seem strange to you?

Parties, you see, even ones where I know people, aren’t my thing. Even small ones at some-friends-my-parents-knew house, with ten people there. I’m just here for the food thanks, please don’t talk to me.

Neither are wedding receptions; park me next to the buffet and leave me alone, please. Neither are meetings where you have to talk or contribute (You know…most of them). Neither are being parts of a team and networking, something my work friend likes doing constantly. He likes talking to people you see. Mostly, I probably come across as rude and indifferent; mostly I only talk when I have to.

Social situations of any sort are exhausting to me, and I want to get out of them as quickly as possible. Stay and make small talk? No thanks. Office parties? Never been to one; never want to go to one. If someone invited me to one, I would decline.

What always puzzled me was how many people think this was (and is) a deliberate choice on my part. How many teachers would write in my school reports “Tony needs to get more involved and speak up more” as though it was as easy as changing socks.

There seem to be a lot of people who want to cure me of the way I am by “getting me involved”; not to draw too many parallels, but I see the way introverts are treated in much the same way as homophobia: “Have you tried not being quiet?” Well…have you tried not being noisy?

I always ate my lunch alone when I was in college, and never in the canteen (eating in public is something I avoided for years), hunting out the quietest corner I could find if it was too cold to eat outside – and you’d be surprised at how high that outside-eating bar could be raised. I’d eat with freezing fingers on a park bench and only move inside if it rained. If I had a free lesson, I’d go for a walk rather than socialise.

If you’re curious about how I was able to make any friends with all this static, believe me it wasn’t easy. So I tend to keep the ones I made, and if they vanished, I didn’t make many new ones.

And if you want to know what it was like being a teenager in a world like mine, go read Black Shark, my short story. A friend read it and commented, ” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with the level of anxiety that the main character experiences.” Well, yeah…you kinda have, albeit virtually. ;-). (This isn’t a plug for the story, by the way)

So I thought there was something wrong with me for not enjoying being at a loud disco or nightclub. I used to think it was only me who had this odd affliction for not wanting – not needing – to be around people, but I discovered only recently that there are many people out there who are like me. They very rarely get together, you see – as you can imagine, the annual meeting of the Socially Anxious and Introverted doesn’t get many people turn up, and when they do, it’s a quiet affair.

Growing up, of course, forces you out of your shell whether you like it or not. For the most part, that is. But I will always be on the edge of the crowd and looking in. I will always be the last person to speak up, and certainly not voluntarily.

This drives my wife a little mad at times. She’d love to go out dancing at a nightclub. I’d love to sit in the car and wait for her to come out. Or I’ll sit at a table all night and be uncomfortable, thanks. You go have a good time and try not to drag me to the dance floor. Please.

I’d rather not have anything to eat than have to order it myself, and she’ll do it for me if we’re in Starbucks. I’d rather not go into the chip-shop and order if she’s willing to do it for me.

Don’t get me wrong (and don’t call me lazy) – I can do these things if I have to. But I don’t enjoy doing them. I don’t relish going into a shop and making small talk with the girl behind the till or the chip-shop owner. I don’t enjoy crowds. I don’t like people’s leaving parties at work and meetings are to be dreaded and sat through like a dental appointment.

And you know what it’s taken me a long time to realise? It’s the way I am, and the way I’m made. And I’m good with that.

Finally, after all the years of people saying there was something wrong with me standing on the edge and looking in: I’m good with that.

I am what I am.

Writing Tips: Show-not-tell with dialogue

One of the things they always tell writers to do is show and not tell. “Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass” to paraphrase playwright Anton Chekov. Chekov was talking about describing the world, but here’s another way you can use that show-not-tell: to describe your characters using only their dialogue and body language.

It’s certainly one of my favourite ways of doing it. Here are some snips from my own Eight Mile Island:

Mum comes out onto the deck from the cabin behind me and weaves along it towards me. …

“Dylan?”

I ignore her for a minute, pretending not to hear my name until she says it louder. I turn from the waves and face her. “What?”

“You’ve got to come inside. You’ll be washed away.”

“So?”

“Please, Dylan. Don’t start. Not today.”

And these are the first word you hear Dylan say…half a page in, one surly question and you know you’re dealing with a boy with attitude and a mother helpless to do anything about it.

Neat, isn’t it? And it’s not magic or sleight of hand. We all make conscious and subconscious judgements about people we meet by the way they talk and the words they use. It’s the same for readers, and it’s something you can use – should use – in your dialogue and your character’s body language.

What I’m not talking about here, by the way, is stereotyping. Don’t bother with the gay character who talks in a high pitched voice and is flaming all of the time. Most of them don’t, and you shouldn’t either. Make it subtle, folks. One hand movement or high-pitched comment can be enough.

I wrote a story recently for an Australian competition and sent it off to a ‘Straylian friend for her input. She returned it with a comment about stereotyping an uneducated train driver and I cleaned up the dialogue. Here’s the first version:

He smiled, but it faltered and failed quickly, and he returned to gnawing his lip. “Thought so. That aftershave your wife buys you stinks somethin rotten.”

“Tom, I don’t think I’m the right person for you to be talking to right now. You need a doc.”

“Siddown, Bill. I gotta tell someone. Cops out there wouldn’t believe a word of it.”

I moved to the table and sat down opposite, looking towards the two-way mirror Tom couldn’t see. The man I am looked back at me, and that man looked scared out of his wits.

Tom leaned back as far as his bolted down chair would allow. “What did they tell ya?”

Now I fidgeted. “That you wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. That you, uh…you –”

“I killed em both, Bill. Merciful, it was. Best thing for em.”

“Uh, Tom…I really think you need a doc. For that lip, at least.”

His tongue tasted the blood and darted back into his mouth. “Let it bleed. Maybe it’ll be enough to end it.”

“Is that what you want?”

He leaned forward and his breath was foul, his body odour sweet and sickly and I retreated from it. “What I want…is for them to kill me.”

Here’s the modified version:

His nostrils flared. “That you Bill? I can smell that bloody aftershave your wife buys you.” Even though spasms racked his body, the voice was still solid.

“It’s me, mate.” I paused. “Tom, I don’t think I’m the right person to be talking to. You need a doctor.”

“Siddown, Bill. I gotta tell someone. Cops out there wouldn’t believe a word anyway.”

I sat opposite him and glanced at the two-way mirror. The man I am looked back at me, and that man looked scared out of his wits.

Tom leaned back in his bolted down chair. “What did they tell you?”

I fidgeted. “That you wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. That you, uh…you –”

“They think I killed them? Yeah, merciful if I did, I’d say. Best thing for them.”

“Uh, Tom…I really think you need a doctor. For that lip, at least.”

His tongue tasted the blood. “Let it bleed. Maybe it’ll be enough to end it.”

“Is that what you want?”

He leaned forward, his body odour sickly. “What I want…is for them to kill me. So I don’t have to dream about those women anymore.”

What I’ve done is make Tom and Bill’s dialogue slightly more formal throughout, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For instance,

They think I killed them? Yeah, merciful if I did, I’d say. Best thing for them.”

…instead of the more direct

“I killed em both, Bill. Merciful, it was. Best thing for em.”

You can also subvert dialogue. A good example is in John Wyndham’s Day of The Triffids. A character named Coker – working class, superficially poorly educated – sometimes pops up with words and references beyond what you would expect him to know. The main character asks him about it, and discovers that Coker found out that the better educated wouldn’t listen to him unless he spoke as if he was educated; and poorly educated people wouldn’t listen to him if he did. Sometimes he drops it for a word or two, just for effect.

Give your characters different voices and you won’t many need dialogue attributes. It’s a way to show who’s speaking and not just tell again. Here’s a phone conversation from Eight Mile Island:

“Yeah?” a rough voice speaks in my ear.

“Hello, is this Mr Yates?”

“Who the hell wants to know at this goddamn hour?”

“Uh…you don’t know me, my name is…is, uh…” I look round the kitchen and a box of cereal catches my eye. “Uh, Teddy Graham. I’m trying to contact Cassie. About a reunion we’re having at the school for former pupils.”

“What the Christ you callin me at this hour for?”

“S…sorry, I forgot about the time difference. So, anyway, if I could talk to her, maybe…?”

“Well, son, if you want to talk to her, go ahead. I got no objections to it. Why not ask her yesself?”

What?

“You mean she isn’t there?”

“No, for Gods sake, you stupid or sumthin’? She’s at the school, ain’t she?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. I misheard you, sorry.”

“Yes. Cassie is happy at the school. Doesn’t ever want to leave there. Happy there. Don’t even have to call her to check she’s all right.”

I hang up as quickly as I can make up an excuse, my legs going weak.

…because we have a good idea how Mr Yates ‘sounds’, when something odd happens at the end of this conversation, it jumps right out.

 

So, just a final exercise: How old is this character from Fidget? How did I show you without telling you?

One morning in the big school holiday, when I got up after a long sleep, I went downstairs into the kitchen. Mummy was outside, hanging the big white bed sheets out on the clothesline, and I went outside to see her, even before I had breakfast.

I ran my hands down the sheets, pretending I was a pirate and they were sails on my ship, the wind making them blow and huff. I got to the end of the clothesline and stopped. The big red flowers were in front of me off to one side, and the big trees behind them were bending with the wind. The day was bright and blue and hot on my head.

 

I hope all that helps you see how you can make your characters do the work for you when it comes to show-not-tell!

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Review: You’re Next

4/5

Four year old Mike is dumped by his father at a foster home, with no real memories of who he is or where he came from. For years, he sits and waits for him to return. He grows into trouble as he matures, minor law breaking that will inevitably lead to major crimes and trouble for life.
He’s given a chance to redeem himself and grabs it, eventually becoming a successful housing contractor. He’s married and has a precocious (Aren’t they always?) eight year old daughter.
But the past is coming to claim him…

The book starts with the mystery of who Mike is and where he came from and builds in pace from there. The pacing doesn’t stop to take a breath until three-quarters of the way through, and by then, you have to finish it. I read this in thirty minute bursts at lunchtime and regretted leaving it every time. Mike is always on the move.

What worked really well was the easy way the villains are able to manipulate him. They know exactly which buttons to press to get him moving without thinking, and the logic is so scarily perfect that we would all act the same way. See one of the villains standing over your daughter? Race to her side…only to find it’s a distraction for something far more sinister.

For all his teenage life of crime and knowledge, Mike is three steps behind the villains most of the way through the book. That’s what makes it work so effectively: If a man with the street-smarts of Mike is losing, how would the rest of us manage?

The short sentences tumble together and roll into a stream-of-consciousness style, picking the pace up even further, like Dean Koontz without the endless weather descriptions. It’s only when The Big Reveal happens that it slows down.

I won’t give away The Big Reveal, but it was unexpected…and…pedestrian. It’s not above believability that someone would kill Mike for it. It’s just mundane. People have killed for less, but from the unstoppable determination of the villains, somehow you expect something grander.

The pace does slow with The Reveal, but it didn’t bounce me out of the story at all. I wanted to see Mike in full Papa-Bear mode, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Great book.

Writing Whimsy: Lunch Break

When I was younger I was told never to put a plastic bag over my head. This was because if I did, I would die. Apparently I would suffocate to death. At the time I didn’t know what suffocate meant, but I knew it was bad. So I’ve never put a plastic bag over my head.
Anyway, I tell you this because during the week I was eating lunch at the shops. And a guy sits down next to me with his lunch in a take away plastic bag. The bag has writing on it: “Use me again and again!”
And I freak out because I’m thinking, “He could use that to murder the entire shopping centre!” But I’m also wondering, “How many take away shops are giving away murder weapons with their meals?”
- Reprinted from https://waitwhatsorry.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/would-you-like-a-murder-weapon-with-that/

Joseph smiles when he sees there is someone already at his favourite bench at the mall. He knew when he awoke this morning that today would be a good day, that today would be one of his special days. And here was proof in the shape of this man staring at the fountain while he eats his Panini and sips from a white and green cup that could only have come from Starbucks on the lower level.

Joseph takes a seat just far enough away to be polite and not invade the man’s space. The man looks over and smiles, but his eyes are nervous and tight. Joseph smiles back and looks away to the three-storey fountain. The sunlight streaming from the windows five storeys above them catches the droplets of water and turns them into flying shards of gold. The effect is quite stunning, especially on such a beautiful day as this. It took a while for Joseph to find the best bench to appreciate this, and he’s glad to have someone to share it with, even silently.

That look though. He needs to do something about that look. It’s too hard to make friends on the benches as it is, and starting with suspicion like that is a bad thing.

It’s not hard to understand though. The newspapers are full of it, and the media are covering it and hyping it, as they always do. The Lunch Break Killer they call him, whoever he is.

Truth be told, they don’t even know if it’s a he. They only assume so because all victims have been male. All of them suffocated in the male bathrooms between mid-day and one in the afternoon. No one has heard or seen a thing, even though it’s the equivalent of rush hour in there. Security guards stand in the bathrooms and search everyone for weapons, much to everyone’s annoyance. Twelve times this year he has killed.

Joseph sighs at the fountain and brings the plastic bag up between himself and the man beside him. As he expects, this brings a raised eyebrow and the start of a conversation.

“Wow.”

Joseph pats the bag and smiles at the man. “I know, right? I just can’t bring myself to get rid of it, though. I know I can get one for free anywhere.” He waves at the hundred stores around them. “But it’s…I don’t know. It says on the side Use me again and again after all.” He shrugs.

The man laughs, a happy sound, so Joseph will know his next words are a joke. “But the masking tape is a little…excessive.”

Indeed, brown tape covers the bag in a dozen different places, all crazy angles and crossovers. The writing is so faded that even Joseph doesn’t remember where and when he bought it. He runs a hand over the thin plastic, almost caressing it. “I just hate to think how long these things sit in landfill before they rot away. It’s still good at what it does, right?”

The man smiles back and returns to his Panini and Starbucks. Joseph reaches into his faithful bag and takes out a simple peanut butter sandwich and a thermos. They sit in easy silence for a while, alone with their thoughts. The man brings out a tablet and scrolls through the news headlines: Lunch Time Killer Strikes Again!

“What do you think of that?” Joseph asks.

The man looks up. “I think he’s just lucky so far. You’ll get him eventually though, right? You or the cops.”

Joseph brushes crumbs from his mall security issued jacket. “Yeah, we’ll get him. I gotta tell you though, having to stand there all day is a major pain. The smell, you know. Not to put you off your lunch or anything. It sinks into your skin even after a shower.”

“I can imagine.” He downs the last of the Starbucks and shifts, the first movement that will eventually bring him to his feet and walking out of Joseph’s life forever. Or so he thinks.

“Good to meet you, anyway. Hope you catch the guy soon.”

Joseph waves. “Me too. You have a good afternoon.”

The man waves back, already moving away and forgetting that Joseph even existed.

Joseph watches his progress until he starts to melt into the crowds. He folds the creased and tape-covered plastic bag carefully and smiles at the only legible writing: Use me again and again.

He rises and follows the man at a careful distance, his smile returning when he sees him heading for the bathrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Books of 2014

2014Books

Thirty two books this year! That’s roughly half a book a week…some of them were monsters of 500 pages and some of them little snippets. Any that jump out at me now I look again?

Looking through them, I’m glad I managed to get so many good books out of my choices. Of all of them, I can see three stinkers I’ll never go near again: Solaris (Nothing but dull exposition), The Bunker Diary (No resolution) and The Giver (Passive hero doesn’t do much).

And I don’t remember anything about Resist, the second part of the Breathe series. I had to check back to see the names of the characters and my review on Goodreads. Two stars for that one, it seems.

I found some genuine emotional books this year, ones that moved me to tears – A Monster Calls, and the social anxiety felt by Lochlan in Forbidden really resonated with me. The simple heart-warming tale of A Street Cat name Bob was wonderful as well.

There are books this year that are really pushing the boundaries of young adult writing, and they’re invigorating to read. Every Day has a character without gender; The Chaos Walking trilogy has a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Speaking of which, I’ve soaked up a lot of Patrick Ness this year with Knife, Ask, and Monsters and A Monster Calls. He’s definitely an author I’m on the lookout for now.

Another new author for me this year was Neil Gaiman and Coraline. This collection of short stories was variable, but I like his style enough to look for more in 2015.

Of the three Stephen Kings, I would read Carrie again over The Regulators. Brilliant story, streamlined and powerful. As was Doctor Sleep, a great sequel to The Shining.

Two classics this year, quite short ones: Emma, which clicked for me half way through, and The Great Gatsby, a sensual trip back to the 1920s.

Finally, a special shout out to my friend and antipodean author Anna Hub and her two books Beyond the Shadows and Shadow Hunters. Love those covers!

Happy reading for 2015!

Writing Whimsy: The Long Walk

The campfire was down to its last embers before Jonas turned to me and asked me to tell my tale. I smiled, but it didn’t reach my eyes.

“It’s not really a ghost story, Jonas,” I replied. Circled around me, the kids of class nine yawned and rubbed their eyes. Billy McAllister was the only one really still awake; the rest struggled and stared vacantly at the fire, eyelids drooping.

They were a little old for campfire ghost stories anyway. What would I tell them? The story of the hitchhikers and hook hand? They’d laugh that one out of the ballpark.

For an answer to my complaint, Jonas only shifted and tossed some more sticks on the fire, shrugging away my denial. “Give it a shot anyway,” he said.

I started at the fire, not seeing it.

“I was about the same age as you kids when it happened. But before we get to that, you need to know what happened before…if that makes sense.”

Billy nodded and the rest turned sleepy eyes towards me. I couldn’t have been much more than a shadow to them against the light of the fire, and that was fine by me. “Before…

 

…then. My brother had been killed in a car crash a few summers before, and my family was still picking up the pieces and wondering where we all went from here. We all had our ways of dealing with it.

Me? I went for long walks. Twenty five mile, six hour long walks. I was out from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. Once a week I’d find a day and walk. Solitude was my silent partner, and a welcome one at that.

Through sleeping fields of corn and wheat, I looked for some answers, and tried to come to terms with what happened. It was good to get out of the house and away from it all for a while. On a long walk, I’d slip into a quiet Zen state, my feet moving automatically over what become well-known footpaths and fields. Long walks and silence. It was beautiful.

Except the countryside is rarely silent; there would always be a tractor or a car moving somewhere in earshot. Radios playing, or people moving in the dozing villages and hamlets I passed through without stopping. Always moving, always walking, that was me.

Something you should know about the car crash – there was another car involved. Yes, my brother was racing – new car, hot pair of wheels and a feeling of invulnerability. All it needed was a wet road and the laws of physics took over. Seatbelts don’t help when you roll a car that fast. The other driver – Andy, I think his name was – survived. Death by dangerous driving. Five years in jail.

Anyway, I walked and I walked, and I dropped into a Zen sleep. You walk a footpath often enough, even a twenty mile one, and you don’t even need to look at your feet anymore. Or think anymore.

Except this day was different.

 

I paused in my story, and the kids shifted and fidgeted. They were all listening now, more awake. Some of them had brothers, after all. I looked away from the fire and up at the night, endless and infinite before I told them…

 

…I was on my way home that day. A route I’d taken a dozen times before. A narrow road with high hedges, a gate, a farmer’s field. Five miles from home. Nothing I hadn’t seen or experienced before; nothing out of the ordinary in any way. A little quieter than usual, that was all.

I stopped to take a drink of water from my backpack when it started: That feeling on the back of your neck, the one that stretches its way up your spine and down your back. You turn, and there is no one there; but the feeling remains. The footpath and the field you stand beside are empty, the sky a deserted blue apart from the islands of floating clouds. Not a soul in sight.

You tell yourself it’s nothing, but the feeling stays there.

The feeling of being watched. The feeling of being followed.

And it’s a feeling that gets stronger the more you stay and the more times you look back. Whatever it is comes closer, and whatever it is, you don’t want to meet it. Even in broad daylight on a hot summer day, you do not. Want. To. Meet. It.

The silence behind me was thicker than usual, the bird song muted and the trees silent and watching.

So I picked up my pace a little…and the feeling faded again. Until I stopped, and there it was again. Still nothing behind me but emptiness and solitude. Only that solitude felt like a threat now, a danger I never recognised.

I turned my back on that feeling and walked on and on.

Then at about three miles from home, something odd happened. From nowhere the thought popped, complete and relating to nothing:

Maybe I’m needed at home.

But that’s not the extraordinary thing. The instant the thought about being at home came into my head, the feeling of being watched vanished instantly as though it had never existed.

I still didn’t look back though, or pause to rest. I must have made those three miles in record time.

It would be simple now to check something like that…a text message or a phone call, and you’d have such a random thought cleared up in a few minutes. But this was twenty years ago, kids. Nothing so advanced back then. I was alone and no one knew where I was. I was three miles out and an hour away from knowing.

 

I made it home, of course, with no one following me. There wasn’t anything out there but my imagination. Nothing at all.

Except:

When I got home, my mother told me that the other driver in the car crash – Andy – had received an early prison release that day.

 

Billy was the first to ask, the others turning to him as though they’d forgotten he was there.

“You think it was your brother, sir? Haunting you or something?”

I could have lied to them, I suppose. I could have told them something. “I don’t know, Billy. I really don’t. I only know it scared the life out of me.” I stretched. “I’d been walking twenty miles a week until then…but I didn’t go for a walk the week after.”

Billy nodded, seemingly satisfied. “What was your brother’s name, sir?”

I coughed and cut my eyes to the empty log to my left. “Jonas.”

 

(Excluding the framing story of the campfire, this did happen to me – all of it. What was following me that silent summer day? I really don’t have a clue…but it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.)

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Review: The Giver, Lois Lowry

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3636.The_Giver

3/5 – Spoilers throughout

When Jonas reaches the age of twelve, his career will be chosen for him, as it is for every twelve year old in the community where he lives. Some will become labourers, some mothers, some doctors.

Jonas is the reciever of memory – every memory in the history of the old world, passed on by his tutor, The Giver. The question is, what will he do with that knowledge?

This is a short book, only about two hundred pages, so it only took me a few hours to read. The premise, though an old one – Utopia with a dark heart – is unique in its width. The community (it’s never named) has pushed blandness to an art form. Even colour (somehow) and music are banned, for fear of the population going wild and rioting if they see a patch of green grass or hear some Mozart, or something. Sex is forbidden and love controlled with drugs. Procreation is moved to a rotating group of birthmothers (who are presumably inseminated artificially).

However, they have taken the smart move of delegating everything ever learned onto one person. Most Utopias seem determined to forget the past ever existed.

Early in the book, Jonas talks about elderly patients and miscreants being sent ‘Elsewhere’ and ‘being released’, and it was very obvious from the first references that this is a community that not so much enjoys euthanasia as revels in it; ‘sub-standard’ infants and the elderly all go through the procedure. So it’s no shock to witness it when it happens late in the book to a baby.

The technical aspects of this book – it’s all telling and no showing (“Jonas was angry”, not “Jonas clenched his fists”) – and the oddly stilted dialogue make this book feel like it was written in 1955, not 1993. The writing is at the level of a children’s book; this is not YA, people! Eleven year olds have moved on – you don’t need to spoon-feed them by telling and not showing.

On the other hand, that stilted approach works well in the community as presented – everyone is bland and two-dimensional as the colourless world where they live. But here’s the thing: For effect, that tell-not-show should have changed when Jonas began his lessons with The Giver. And it didn’t.

Because of that, I felt nothing for Jonas or anyone else. I didn’t connect to him because he remained so two-dimensional. He could have been given so much more depth, but he’s never given the chance before he’s running away from home.

Jonas is also very passive. His relationship with The Giver is there only for exposition. Instead of Jonas finding things out for himself, instead of him pushing the boundaries of his life, instead of him maturing into an adult, he asks and The Giver explains the world to him on a plate. Spoon-feeding again. So the hero in this book does nothing until the last twenty pages.

Let’s talk about those last twenty pages, which is when the book really starts to fall over. Jonas crests a hill, finds a sledge and slips through the snow. It’s the first memory The Giver passed on to him. I had the feeling that Lowry wanted some deep metaphorical ending, but it didn’t work for me; Jonas is obviously hallucinating, or already dead. So the passive hero who does nothing but flee dies at the end. Lovely.

I rated this three stars, but I hesitated between that and two. Lowry creates a solid world, and one that works, but the hero in it is bland, even when he has the chance to become much more. The only colour in the book comes from The Giver, and all he does is exposit.

For a better time with a Utopia with a dark heart, read Mel Cusick-Jones, “Hope’s Daughter” – teenagers who actually discover things for themselves.

Disappointing.