Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Forms of a Quiet Beach

I would have thought that the strangest night of my life would have some foreshadowing, but that’s not how it was.

I slept too late, skipped breakfast and hurried to work. Danny had the car up on the rig. We got the suspension sorted eventually. He went out for a while to drop something off with his wife. I texted Jess but she didn’t text me back. I resisted the urge to throw my phone across the garage. I hung around, feeling idle and smoking way too many cigarettes. I watched the kids outside the game shop across the road, eating chicken wings, playing music on their phones and swearing amicably at each other.

The only weird thing about it was that I felt far more upset about Jess than I thought I would. Night fell before Danny returned. We packed up and I tried to persuade him to come to the pub with me, but he was off to meet his wife again. They were taking the baby to see her mum, he told me. He rolled his eyes like it was a burden, but I could see that he was happy. I didn’t begrudge him that happiness. Nina was a nice girl, and their kid was cute as hell.

So I was at the pub alone, on a stool by the bar because I wanted to be near other people. It was a Thursday night so it was decent but not packed. I knew I still smelled of oil and grease but I’d shower when I got home. Normally Delia talked to me while she worked, and always found time to pull my pints. Sometimes she even flirted with me. I think she actually liked my company, but she knew I had a girlfriend. Delia barely seemed to notice me. She offered a quick smile and a ‘hi’, but then went around busying herself with swiping down the bar and collecting glasses. I stared into my Carlsberg and thought about texting Jess again.

That’s when I noticed him. He was sitting only a few feet away, just around the L-shape of the bar. A guy in a rumpled suit, maybe mid-thirties, dark hair. He had a notebook open on the bar and was sketching something as he occasionally sipped his pint. I was intrigued so I watched him for a little while, trying to study his face, his eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what it was he was drawing. The angle was too shallow and he didn’t move his notebook, so I couldn’t tell. The pub wasn’t that noisy but I was still surprised when he glanced up at me with a wry smile and said, “Want to see?”

I felt a little embarrassed that he’d obviously sensed me watching him so I tried my own wry smile and said, “Sure.”

He lifted the notebook. It was a very detailed drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral. I squinted at it. In fact, it was so good that it almost looked like a photocopy of a snapshot. My first thought was that he’d copied it from a photo that he had with him on the bar, but I didn’t see one.

“Wow, mate...did you paint that thing from memory?”

“Yeah. Went down there a few days ago.”

“That’s pretty impressive, seriously.” I took a long sip of my beer so as not to appear too friendly, but I was genuinely impressed. “You a professional artist, then?”

He laughed and shook his head. I could hear sadness in his laugh. “No, I’m a student. Studying literature.”

There was something odd about this guy, I realised then, but I had no fucking clue what it might be. I was tired and a little pissed off, and suddenly I didn’t care about the guy at the bar. I nodded and continued drinking quietly.

“I want to go home,” the guy said. I glanced up from my pint and saw he was staring directly at me. There were tears in his eyes. And I thought, Oh, ok, he’s a mental. And he’s gonna break down in front of me. Just great.

I sighed and tried for some compassion. “Where’s home?”

“A long way away. This isn’t my home. I’m not a man.”

I frowned at his words and the intensity of his gaze. “What are you then?”

“I’m an alien.”

I could tell that the guy meant it literally. I smiled at him and nodded. He was harmless, I realised – seriously mental, but harmless. Fuck it; I had nowhere better to be.

“What planet are you from?”

There wasn’t a trace of humour in his eyes. “I’m telling you the truth.”

“Well, I’m a mechanic, but I like to read, and I know a bit about science...so tell me where you come from.”

They guy laughed and took a sip of his pint. “Ok. I come from a place that’s kind of very far from here. It’s not a planet, exactly. It’s complicated.”

I nodded. “That’s ok. I like complicated.”

He stared at me for a long time, and despite myself I was quite unnerved. “We call it the Locked Community. Or at least, that’s an adequate translation. Do you even really care?”

I raised my pint to him, trying to ignore the strangeness I was feeling. “Sure I care. ‘The Locked Community’. Sounds nice.”

He glanced away at my sarcasm and said, “I’m a fucking idiot. And I’m drunk. And tired. I should go home and go to bed.”

For no apparent reason, a serious chill went through me. Yet it wasn’t a chill. It was more like a feeling of inertia during the plunge of an aircraft. I found myself murmuring the word, “Whoa...”

I had the strangest feeling of unknowing and knowing at the same time, and also denying what I suddenly knew or didn’t know. “Holy shit,” I said to myself.

“Do you have a name?” I found myself asking.

“Ethan.”

“Is that your...I mean, is that an assumed name?”

“Sure.”

“Do you have a name...where you come from?”

“Yeah.” He chuckled and glanced at me like I was kind of sweet. “Everything has a name. Usually things have more than one. I guess my name would be something like ‘Forms of the Quiet Beach’. Or ‘Images of the Calm Shore’. Something like that.” He took a long swallow of his pint, and added, “Do you smoke? I wish we could still smoke in pubs.”

The creep-out sensation had gripped me now, and I knew that if I continued to sit there it would only intensify. I tried to look away from the guy and stare directly at the feeling, to lessen it. But it only got stronger.

“Holy shit,” I said again.

“What’s your name?” he asked me.

“Michael.”

The guy laughed. “Infinity of El? Power of God? I’m talking to the power of God. Who knew?” That wry look was in his eyes again, as well as the sadness.

I tried to open my mouth, to speak, but everything seemed trite. Eventually I managed, “How long have you been here?”

“On Earth, you mean?  Seventeen years. Feels like a hundred.”

“Is this what you really look like?”

“No. I made this body up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I imagined it. Like, with my mind. It’s complicated.”

The L-shaped bar didn’t feel real anymore. Neither did the pub itself. It was like someone has turned down the volume on everything except the sound of our voices. Everything was soft-focus, except this guy in a rumpled suit sitting a few feet away from me, drinking sadly and drawing in a notebook like it was the most normal thing in the world.

“How the fuck...I mean, how the fuck did you even get here? What are you...?”

The guy shrugged. “I told you what I am.”

“What do you really...look like, if not like this?”

He turned a page in his notebook and drew a knot of careless scribble. He showed me the scribble. “Like that. Not literally like that, but you get the idea.”

“You’re not a physical being...?”

“Before this, no, not really. Not anymore. The Locked Community tells all different kinds of stories, and I’m not sure which of them I believe. Sometimes I believe parts of many of them. We were properly physical once, though. At least that’s our working assumption. We can become physical if we want though.” He gestured at himself. “But like I say, it’s complicated.”

“Why are you...here?” I asked. My own voice sounded so loud in my ears.

“To study literature, to hang out and meet people. To fall in love. Hasn’t really panned out the way I’d planned. Once you get here, everything changes.”

“Are there others here?”

“Sure, loads. From all over the place, but it’s not like you might think. There are some groups here who really don’t like you, but they tolerate you because you’re useful.” He laughed suddenly. “Not you, personally, Mike. I mean humanity in general.”

I nodded like I understood, and the feeling of almost understanding wasn’t disingenuous.

“You have a girlfriend, Mike?”

I blinked wide-eyed at the guy and tried not to cry. “Jess. She’s great, but I’m a selfish asshole sometimes and...she’s getting bored with me.”

“I’ve read that can happen,” he said, and that smile was there again.

For some reason I felt like he was comforting me, and that I should be glad of this little intimacy in the midst of this strangeness, but the tears forced their way into my eyes.

“She’s gonna leave me, eventually.”

“Not if you change though, right? I watch a lot of movies. And in the movies a character has to change for themselves, not the person they claim to love. When they can change for themselves, that’s when they get some semblance of a happy ending. I bet it’s kind of true in real life too.”

I stared at the weird guy at the bar. There was no pub, no other customers, no world around us – just him and me and our sadness. I felt like my mind and heart should be bursting with a billion questions, but the truth was I didn’t know what the hell to say. He took a sip of his pint and I took a sip of mine.

“I could go back, Mike. I’m not stuck here or anything. But, my exams are next year and I promised myself that I’d stay the course, so to speak. But I miss my friends, my family. I miss the magic of my world. I used to frown on that kind of freedom, you know. Now I just think about how much I miss it.  Seventeen years is a long time to be encased in this flesh. I want to feel the numinous howling in my mind again.”

I didn’t know what to say to ‘Ethan’. All I knew was that I wasn’t asleep at that strange moment, and that I was deeply sad.

Hesitantly I asked him, “Do we come...from the stars? Humans, I mean.”

He looked tired and confused, but not as sad as before. “Everything comes from the stars. We’re all related somehow.” His gaze became stern. “Don’t you forget it, Mike. Don’t let people feed you a lot of bullshit. That’s where they’ll twist the knife, in your misunderstandings. We’re all fucking related.”

He downed the last of his pint and tore a page out of his notebook. “St Paul’s Cathedral, for you.” He folded the page and slid it across the bar towards me.

“Thank you,” I muttered and didn’t expect that he would hear me.

“You’re welcome.” He smiled at me again. “I don’t usually share with people. But it was kind of fun to let it out. I need some sleep, so...take it easy, Michael.”

The words sounded so banal in my mouth and yet there was nothing more authentic to say. “Take it easy, Ethan.”

He got up from his stool and wandered away. I waited for the volume on everything to rise back into normalcy. I waited for the soft-focus to become hard-edged definition. It took a long time. I never saw him again. It was the strangest night of my life. I only fully regained my senses when my phone started bleeping. I remember mechanically pulling it from my jacket pocket and checking the Caller ID. Jess was texting me. The text read, Miss U xxx.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Crucifix

The Strike


S – Hey there, James.



J – Oh, Christ, Sam…what the devil are you doing here?



S – Came to see you, man. You look worse for wear. Glug glug glug. We all have our vices, don’t we?



J – How did you get in…?



S – Getting in is the easy part. It’s what you do once you’re inside which counts. You know that shit better than anybody.



J – Sam…Sam, don’t hurt me, please don’t. Whatever you think I’ve done, you’re mistaken. I swear it to you.



S – Wow, Father. Live the lie, huh?



J – Sam, for the love of God…



S – You’re one to talk of love, or God. I want it back, Father. I want what’s mine.



J – What? What!



S – My crucifix. The one you took from me, among other things. And I want to thank you for all the strength you gave me.



J – Strength…?



S – Yeah. You ever wish upon a falling a star? I have. You become one with it, and you come crashing down into the earth. It’s a true liberation. I speak to God now, like the mad often do. God speaks back to me. Everything we know is a dream. We hate one another but we have an understanding. I don’t judge her for what she allows me to do, and she doesn’t judge me for what I do.  You can't hide in this church forever.



J – Have mercy on me, Sam, I beg you. Please. Don’t hurt me.



S – I need to hurt you.




The Meditation



S – Get away from me. You’re puerile, and I’m so bloody tired of metaphors.



G – That’s tough shit. It doesn’t change, even in death, Sam. Death is the Las Vegas of metaphors.



S – Stay the fuck away from me, bitch.



G – I’m in your blood, Samuel, in your cock, wriggling my way up your ass…filling your mind with intention.



S – This paralyzing freedom. I fucking hate you for it.



G – Free will, baby.



S – I hate you.



G – I hate you too. And love you.  I created you.



S – A little black girl with no eyes in her damn face. If you’re trying to teach me something you’re wasting your time.



G – I am the all and everything. I have no time, Sam. It’s only your time I’m wasting.



S – I don’t believe in you anymore. If I believe in you then I have to believe in me. That’s too much responsibility.



G – You can believe what you want. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. It might feel like that sometimes but you’re free. Shit, it’s the greatest gift I could have given you. You don’t even have to be thankful. Just do something with it. Or don’t. You could suicide yourself in the name of some crude artistic statement. You would find peace eventually, even as a coward.



S – How can you allow this, all this horror and suffering…does it amuse you? Rape and genocide; is it supposed to be beautiful? Tell me. Is there meant to be some twisted poetry to it?



G – How can you allow it? Is it beautiful, Sam, what James did to you? Do you covet that violation? Is it the dark jewel in your paper crown?



S – He turned me into a horrible cliche. I still want it back, you know. I despise you.  I killed him.



G - I know you did.



S - I'm not sorry.



G - I know you're not.



S - Stay with me.



G - Ok, Sam.  Ok.

Paul

I didn’t really want to die. Mum said that it’s not normal for a twelve year old boy to think about suicide. Doctor Hiller agreed. He said that it happens but that it’s not normal. He seemed more interested in me than Mum ever did, like I was an interesting mystery that he could maybe write a book about one day. Doctor Hiller looks like a movie star, like the guy that played Han Solo in the Star Wars movies. He played Indiana Jones too. Maybe my doctor is like that character. I reckon he likes adventures too much. Not like me. I just wanted to get away.

My grades were good, they said, so they couldn’t understand it. Is it only average kids who try to kill themselves? My English teacher tried to be nice to me when I finally went back to school, but I could see the disappointment in her eyes – like she had judged me wrong, like I wasn’t ‘brilliant’ after all. Everyone at school knew. It wasn’t something I could hide. They took away all my stories. They said they wanted to check if there were signs I had been unhappy.

Such a smart boy. So sad. So sad. I got tired of hearing them whisper it. I didn’t let them take away my books, not even the horror stuff. I would’ve screamed the whole school down. What makes me really sad is that I know they were only trying to protect me, and themselves. I guess it’s not nice when one of the kids you teach tries to hang himself with his own tie. Not a correct use of the school uniform. Such promise. Such a sweet, quiet lad. I don’t pretend to be a grown-up. I never have. But I do try to understand people, why they do the weird stuff they do. Why did Mum keep going back to Simon? Why did she keep putting herself in danger? I know she believed me when I told her about the gun. Simon was part of something called the ‘Armed-Response Unit’, but even I knew he wasn’t supposed to keep a gun at home. She never blamed Simon for anything really, because he never hit me. Maybe she wanted to convince herself that she wasn’t worth anything, didn’t deserve anyone except a guy like Simon. She never really cared about me, I think. Mum was very pretty, still is. She didn’t have to stay with Simon. He’s a good man, Paul, a good man. She knew it was a lie. Dad was a good man. He never raised his hand, he never pinned mum to the bed while she begged. I guess it’s me that is disappointed in her. It hurts, you know. Even today, two years later. Why was she so weak? Why was I so weak?

All my books and the stories I write, it’s all rubbish if I can’t even be brave. I tried to cut my wrists after mum put me into the Ensler psychiatric-unit, but when I saw the blood I got so scared I passed out. I didn’t cut deep enough to die. Doctor Hiller still wrote his notes, smiling at me with his movie-star face. They bandaged my wrist. The talking-circles didn’t really help. Mum moved to Cambridge with Simon. He works with a different police station now. Mum says he doesn’t use a gun anymore. I can still taste the barrel in my mouth – a ‘banging blow-job’. He never hit me but what he did was worse.

Simon loved to read though. He even loved a lot of the same stories that I did. I remember once he told me I would be a good writer some day. Don’t give up on your writing, Paulie. Dr Hiller doesn’t believe in evil. Monsters are created, he said. What happened to create a guy like Simon? There is still war and killing on the news every day. I tell them it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s a lie, though. I still cry every night. Simon enjoyed the idea of war. I think he saw a kind of purity in it. I’m not like him. I refuse. I want to get better, I really do. But I don’t want to fade away. My name is Paul Kistri. I am fourteen years old. I have love inside me.

***************************************************************



Commentary for ‘Paul’



With the work entitled ‘Paul’ I wanted to write a piece of flash-fiction that was engaging and substantial. This seemed like a huge task considering that I set myself a limited word count. I first tried to figure out how to marry narrative, character and voice into a work that was no more than 750 words, without the resultant story seeming either too lightweight or contrived. In order to do this I took the approach that a short story told in first person would be the most effective and subtle way to achieve a distinct voice and character immediately. I then tried to figure out what kind of character Paul would be and why he would be telling the reader this particular tale. I suppose the character is not too far removed from me at that age, and I wanted Paul to be a fictional mouthpiece to convey thoughts and feelings that were similar to what I was going through during the early years of my adolescence. I envisioned my protagonist as a very intelligent but melancholy teenager, with a kind of vulnerability that he almost didn’t want to hide. Paul is not ashamed of his sensitivity to the world around him, but he does feel that it makes him different to most people who tend to wear their hardiness and cynicism as a badge of honour.

The narrative I wanted to convey included Paul’s suicide attempt, the reactions to it from his peers and teachers at school, and to explicitly convey his meditation on some of the reasons for why he did what he did. I suppose there is a certain kind of ‘reveal’ in the story when the reader learns what took place with his mother’s boyfriend, Simon. However, I didn’t want this to seem like a cheap twist or a sleight-of-hand. I wanted to affect the reader with this moment but in a way that would be chilling because of its banality and its lack of clear motivation. The characters of Simon and Paul’s mother had to be implied in as few words as possible because I was attempting to make every word of the story count. I wanted to suggest the mother character was not a bad person, rather she was selfish and weak – a woman in desperate need of love and affection. The character of Simon was harder to sketch because I didn’t want him to appear as a cardboard plot-device. I tried to imply that Simon, a policeman, was obviously an intelligent, skilled and respected man in many areas of his life, but that there were perverse undercurrents to his character. It would be a side of him that none of his work colleagues would be aware of. This character and Paul’s reactions to him were intended to be uncomfortable or disturbing to the reader, but in an authentic non-sensationalist way. Whether I have managed to achieve this is down to the personal opinion of the reader.  Also, I didn’t want to portray Paul as too mature for a fourteen year old boy because this might distract the reader from connecting with him – yet I did want to imply that Paul was perhaps wise beyond his years. This is a tricky thing to pull off and I hope I have come close to achieving it. In general though I am pleased with what I have created. I feel that I managed to be true to the character of Paul as I envisioned him, as well as conveying the overall mood of the piece. A lot of care went into crafting this piece of flash-fiction and I hope that it is evident in the text.