Monthly Archives: October 2014

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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3636

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.

Writing Whimsy: The Walk

 

“Some walks you have to take alone.”

– Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay (Used with permission)

 

I remember the first time we came this way, the two of us. I didn’t know you then, didn’t know your middle name or where you lived. Didn’t know the name of your first pet or the dreams you had.

I didn’t know about the nightmares either back then, the ones with the blade slicing down. I knew you’d wake with a start, and I’d ask you about it. All you remembered, you said, was the knife coming down, the bright light from the edge that reflected into your eyes and dazzled you, the last thing you ever saw before you woke. Never his face. If you’d seen his face, maybe it would have helped. It would have been something, anyway. Something would have been better than nothing.

I stop where we always stopped, looking out over the village. There are new homes now, people who don’t know who you were. What became of you. Only a faded footnote in the newspaper, page four and then forgotten, a face on microfilm.

But I remember. How could I forget?

I remember the first day we walked out here. Right under there, that rich oak clothed in a green finery of summer, we kissed for the first time. I was so nervous you said you felt my heart tripping away under my clothes like a trapped sparrow.

Spring came green and summer came greener, winter on bare winds and skeleton trees, all through the walk we loved. How beautiful autumn became when I saw it through your eyes, the trees set on fire and burning with the last embers of summer. The anonymous plants you named for me, the birds that seemed to wheel and spin above, just for us, just for us.

It’s gone now, the warmth of autumn. Just dying leaves and the cold kiss of winter await me at home. An empty table and a silent night. There’s no laughter anymore, no lovers touch after midnight. No joy to come home to. Only the empty seat beside mine. My laughter is that of a lunatic, condemned to an asylum of pain.

I close my eyes, and still see you beside me, walking. Feel the easy warmth of your hand in mine. I inhale the scent of your hair and the taste of your skin. But then I open my eyes and you vanish, only atoms in the universe.

I leave the flower where I left the others, cleaning out the dead petals to make a space. For a while, there were others left flowers here, flowers and cards I didn’t read. For a while, others shared this walk we loved, coming here to stand and mourn. For a while, they came. Then it became ours again…mine again, alone again.

This walk that we loved.

 

——

I was working my way through Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of The Hunger Games, and had just started number three, Mockingjay, when a sentence leaped out at me. I had to jump out of the story to bookmark it and then keep reading – the book was too good to put down – but I came back to it later that day…and this was the result.

There’s a footpath that my wife and I enjoy walking along at the back of my home in the village where we live, and I imagined walking it alone…not out of choice, but because I had no one to share it with any more.

Some walks you have to take alone. Oh, yeah, ain’t that the truth.