They Used to Say I Was Crazy Until It Became a Thing

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They treated me like shit until it all became familiar and famous and everyone loved talking about it – and now no one does and their curiosity has been abated and they treat me like shit again – not that I really care though, I’ve found an easy and effective way around all that; still, you have no idea how frustrating it has been to be made this way even if I’m definitely a little better these days, and, I guess, I’ve had enough time to wear this thick skin – and just in case you were wondering, no, I’m certainly not looking for your pity, but thanks all the same.
Used to be different back in the day; I used to be able to beat anyone at squash – and I mean anyone, and – when I am at full strength – I haven’t lost a game of table tennis since I was 6; look, you can see me holding a cup here in this photo taken many years ago; although, in fairness, I don’t play so much any more since meeting Mr Haydol; I used to be one in a million but now I’m just one of the millions – at least most of the time.

To the average person, I am just weird, mentally retarded and a little dangerous, but if only it were that simple. Say what you like, it’s so much more than that though, and I will never be able to completely give up living the great health as it has been called or relinquish this superpower of mine – and neither would I want to – however much those bastards have tried their best to stunt me; trying to reduce me to a mockery of myself and, perhaps, it’s not too unkind to say – they tried to render me a little more like you.
I remember some years back, there was once a doctor – one of the many – who would always tell me with her sickly soft voice that in medio stat virtus – which is just a fancy way to say that we need to find the right balance in life – which is always so easy for you normals to condescendingly say stuff like that to someone “defective” like me while – and let’s be honest – you can’t even manage to do that yourselves in your own so-called normal messed up lives: at least I know I’m mental, so what’s your excuse then?

Was she just trying to help me and reduce the risk of me hurting myself and – more importantly – the people around me? Crazy as it seems, and contrary to everyone else’s point of view, I don’t think she was: she was just trying to help herself, I could see it in her eyes; whether that was for, primarily, the British Medical Journal, a book she was writing or researching, or consequently to aid her own disturbed mind – I don’t know and cannot really say nor do I feel I really have to either – but I know for a fact that she cared little about me and her head was clearly elsewhere – like I said, it’s in the eyes; my superpower has given me plenty of ups and downs and rocked the sanity boat all too often and, yes, I get to live and deal with that on a daily basis, but one thing it also gives me is an uncanny ability to see people for who they really are; to see through the socially constructed shields or awkward masks that you all seem to forget you are wearing – especially when you’re around a “freak” like me.

Until recently, I’d started playing drums in a jazz band again – another thing I’ve always been amazing at – there, you can see a picture of me playing over here too; people simply think Tourette’s is just uncontrolled swearing, but that’s just one common verbal tic of the disorder – the truth is that it gives you lightning-quick physical reflexes and adroitness, blazing thoughts of mind, as well as a phenomenally quick-witted verbal dexterity that even seasoned stand-up comedians, improv actors, and hardcore rap artists can only dream of, and I should know, I’ve challenged the best and have never been beaten yet, although, I might think twice about doing any of that most days since I’ve been weakened and basically trapped by good old Mr Haldol – and thanks again to him, I’ve had to cut down on the drumming too; you normals have no idea how free your minds and bodies are while we are imprisoned and reduced to slaves and forced to placidly interact with all of you and comply to your rules – I still don’t have any idea how you can all willingly live this way.

It drove me mad at first, almost sent me over the edge until I found a way to beat the sentence forced upon me, to live amongst you all with your facades of sanity and to wade through the sea of self-deception you all swim in – thing is, most of the time you do this unknowingly, which just proves to me that it is you who are the freaks – perhaps we are actually God’s intended normal ones and only by some perverse fluke (or brutal culling more like) you guys are now classed as normal; we’ve learnt to embrace our condition; we’ve learnt to see this mental disorder as a gift and not a curse; I have welcomed my speed of mind and my ticcy witticisms – or my witty ticcicisms – as essential parts of my personality, as elements that define my character and I have chosen to include them in what makes me me and to openly reveal them without shame in what has been called (wonderfully, I think) my coarse and brilliant chutzpah: to hell with My Haldol…well, ha, most of the time.

Became such a downer, such a numbing of my everything that I had to reassess my relationship with Mr Haldol – I couldn’t go on letting him slowly kill me; I tried to get that doctor to understand that but she wouldn’t listen and told me that the risks were too great to myself and those around me if I didn’t use Haldol; so, basically, I had to kowtow to the catatonia of Parkinsonism instead of blossoming in the glorious acceleration of my Tourettism; it was a nightmare: I couldn’t concentrate long enough to keep a job down; I could hardly hit a ping-pong ball let alone perform any of my normal surprise shots from impossible angles that had previously made me so invincible; I stopped playing in my jazz band and lost all my love of kinetic melodies – I couldn’t even nip in and out of revolving doors any more and would smash into the thing as if I’d never really learned to walk properly: it was like being a sick, slow baby trying and failing to learn everything from scratch in a bleak world devoid of all colour, music, and, most importantly, a total lack of dopamine. A decision needed to be made, and, much to the dismay of some family and close friends as well as some other doctor I’d started seeing, I slowly and gladly began to cut down on the amount of time spent with My Haldol which freed me from the constraints that were constantly slowing me down – that took away the one thing that truly defines me, of which weaker minds would’ve easily been consumed and possessed by: my tics, I consist of my tics, there is nothing else.

Thing is, it’s not as bad as people think: I live my normal life – just like you all do, just like you all try to do – I go and work in a mundane nine-to-five job, keeping eye contact to a bare minimum on my commute to work and back before settling down to a meal in front of a screen or two – you know, nothing out of the ordinary; and, of course, I responsibly shake Mr Haldol’s hand every day of the week in some sort of subdued arrangement, but when Friday night comes around which heralds the start of my weekend, I leave that idiot Haldol at home and I get to release the real me; a loss of sanity in the Tourette’s world doesn’t always lead to a breakdown, for us, it’s often a breakthrough: I unleash, with immense joy, the surfeit of impetuosity that is me without Mr Haldol, me without your anaesthetized reality you maniacally seem to crave – without your alcohol-induced stupor that smothers and hides who you really are (although you think it’s the opposite); you hide your normal self as if you were ashamed of it, for God’s sake; whereas I, wholeheartedly, acknowledge and accept who I am each and every weekend, and I am not ashamed in the slightest; perhaps, when we really take a look at it, it is us who are really, truly normal and alive in a world of freaks.


 

Eternally grateful, Mr Sacks (and “Ray” of course).
Thank you.
Xx

It Is Never Easy to Let Someone Inside and Even Harder to Get Them Out Again

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It seems like the ultimate paradox – the unemployed careers advisor or the firefighter who accidentally sets fire to their own house, or perhaps more appropriately, the marriage counsellor who is getting a divorce – the irony is not lost on me, of course; I certainly wouldn’t claim to really know what is inside anyone’s head at any given moment like Charlotte did – although, as much as I fail, I do try my best – I wonder why it is still so shocking to find out that she didn’t really know what was going on inside her own head – as if anyone really does for that matter. Is it so weird to imagine such a thing?
Never thought she’d end up this way though after always being the best throughout her training (we were all constantly and happily – if I’m honest – always in her shadow observing and learning) and the first out of all of us to start up on her own straight after uni – as we all floundered around bathing in the sickly light of self-absorption believing we were what we thought we were, but the truth is that we just weren’t in her league.

Easy pickings it was back then: you basically walked into a job with the qualification we had, didn’t even need all these specializations and Master degrees and PGCs and we certainly didn’t need a fat slice of nepotism pie either which I’ve noticed is often on the menu nowadays – as it has always been, of course; she was too driven, too proud – and let’s be honest, she was just far better than the rest of us to be held back in any way regardless of how easy or not it was to find work; I still remember the dedication and the unstoppable enthusiasm she had as she threw herself into her private clinic with an astounding and almost pathological urgency; it still pains me today when I also recall the dismay she felt at not being able to completely support every one of her clients – especially after they stopped coming to her – something that continually tore her up inside; she once told us an extraordinary story about a school teacher who suffered from massive bouts of depression that affected her teaching so badly she had to take half the academic year off and get help from Charlotte: she knew that – as with any symptoms of bipolarism – the down side needed an upside and helping the teacher reach a balance (in medio stat virtus, as Charlotte always used to say) to deal with this and then to work towards finding the actual core thing that caused these reactions was her priority (as is it with any client, let’s not forget) and a solution, or perhaps, more appropriately, an effective treatment was needed fast; Charlotte told us that it took about six weeks of intense focus and deep listening to really start to unpack the issues surrounding the teacher’s state of mind and for her to start trusting Charlotte enough to open up (Charlotte had always been the best at not judging the person in a sitting, just simply listening with her whole self); the teacher’s story was an entertainingly lively and yet darkly complex tale too and Charlotte retold us parts of it with plenty of gusto and maybe, on occasion, a little too much; she told us about how excited it made her when the teacher started to let stories from her past flow out unfiltered and raw: some years before, for instance, the teacher had studied for a year in Mongolia and had had a fiery affair with her partner’s best friend that had cut her so deeply – as well as, unsurprisingly, ruining her own relationship with both of them – that she had to run away to the other side of the world (in Sicily, I think it was) where she fell in love again (undoubtedly on the rebound) almost properly losing her mind that time; apparently, she had wandered around for six months surviving on her savings and trying desperately to find her lover who’d just upped and left, disappeared without a trace until a photo arrived anonymously of them walking together when they’d first met in the mountains of southern Italy with, seemingly, such a stirring message written on the back by someone (I suspect it was the teacher’s ex-lover) that it was simply too much for the poor teacher to take and had driven her to spiral down into despair – no one knows what was written on it either (Charlotte has always refused to talk about it); but the effect on Charlotte was also, surprisingly, quite profound too – as we were to find out later on; the teacher – for whatever reasons which are lost to us now – couldn’t keep up with the sessions and so Charlotte had to give her up as a closed case – for want of a better word; she would tell us how the thought of the teacher still lingered and tortured her, tormented her for many weeks after their meetings ended until, one day, Charlotte had simply screamed out aloud that she had found the reason for the teacher’s depression; she’d done what we all dream and hope of doing within our daily practice: finding the basic core issue that causes all the derived symptoms of any mental disorder – which is the most important thing in our profession as it means you now know – more or less – how to treat that disorder effectively whether through evidence-based psychotherapy or another method such as the neuropsychology approach; she’d done it, she held the solution in her hands but, agonisingly, could do nothing with that knowledge as her hands were inexorably tied: you simply cannot contact a former client, you can no longer intervene – it is not your responsibility any more and all the ethical questions of whether you should or shouldn’t contact them becomes a moot point; I remember how devastated she was, how frustrated it all made her, and how, imperceptibly, the job started to chip away at her sanity, eroding and undermining her apparent stability and pushing her slowly but surely towards the precipice of desperation and denial that she was to eventually, and tragically, plunge over.

To say we were envious of all the emotional action and professional experience she was having back then is an understatement; her anecdotes and analogies were legendary and we all loved it when she would zealously talk us through what she loved to call “my working investigation wall” which was much like a detective’s evidence board but instead of photos and names of suspects all linked and crossed off, she would have categories: thoughts, actions and behaviours, causes and effects, possible primary core reasons were all elaborately networked in sublime intricacy; and, if that wasn’t enough, she would endlessly question her work the way an artist does with a new project; she was always saying the client’s condition could be this or it could be that and it might even be this; it was amazing to get a glimpse into her lucid and wonderful mind that remained brilliant right up until the bitter end; we, on the other hand, were still waffling around telling everybody how important we were (maybe that was just me, now I come to think about it) and making sure we were seen looking busy at conferences instead of actually taking anything substantial away from them (other than the free pamphlets, folders, and the odd glass of wine); while all this was going on, Charlotte continued to slog away with her work more than ever – perhaps to distract herself from, as she called it, the teacher catastrophe; every single day from morning to night, she threw herself into her work – except for Sundays which she kept for herself – which is a good thing looking back on it: she probably only delayed the inevitable burnout, the slide into despair that followed, but if she hadn’t had that one day, then, I believe, it would’ve all happened so much sooner.

Let Charlotte’s case be a lesson to all of us some have said; we rush around like headless chickens trying to cram our lives full of things to do – trying to get too much done while actually doing nothing at all, using our time inefficiently, neglecting relationships and health and diet for the quick-fix and the diabolical clickable happiness that governs us all and that permeates around us like a stinging Saharan sand storm which inhibits normal mental faculties, allows opinion to become seen as fact and which, slowly and inevitably, sends us all mad; it stops us from working on living this life to just simply working through it and missing the whole beautiful point of this finite adventure; we were so sure that she was immune to any of that back then that we never even noticed the first true signs of something being wrong – prodromal symptoms as we like to call them – we’d simply missed them, and, perhaps, that will remain the evidence of our naive presumptuousness, our criminally mistaken diagnosis that will forever haunt us, and – as so-called friends and peers – it will surely remain our greatest failure as well as absurdly comparable to the most harrowing of Greek tragedies.
Someone told me that she began to lose it properly after the first six months of her new practice, although, I suspect that it was a little later and most likely just after the teacher episode; her best friend at the time said that the intense focus needed when dealing with her clients had begun to take its toll on her socially as she started to withdraw from our parties and gatherings – even a quick coffee between clients or at lunch became a thing of the past for her; others mention how she began to doubt herself and even miss her appointments – although that cannot be true: she was way too organised for something like that, but I suppose, it’s the small things that lead to the larger more damaging things; we all noticed her mood swings though – which she had always had through uni – but these were more severe, more violent fluctuations of her mood than we had ever seen before; she had bouts of euphoria between appointments and we were told she would often sing – something we’d never imagined that she would ever do – and that would have been a lovely thing if not so ominous and out of character for her especially at her workplace where she was famous for her pragmatic intensity and fervid sense of responsibility (I still find it difficult to believe it really occurred though); then, suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, she would withdraw and slide into a morose silence and lock herself away in her office rarely coming out and treating everyone – except the clients – with the barking abruptness of the most stringent of maths teachers; I mean, Charlotte was terrifying as a rule but to become that brutal must have been quite awful for those very close to her: all clear symptoms that we seemingly refused to see and act on.

Inside everyone one of us, there is conflict, dualism abounds within all of us, of course – there’s no getting away from that: we all need those whispering demons as much as we need those frantic angels and one surely can’t exist without the other – as the shadow needs the light, as the yang needs the yin. And getting those extremes to talk to each other, to converse, or perhaps even to simply admit they exist throughout any one personality in complex shades and glorious subtleties is what we are trained to help our patients become aware of – although, put like that, it may sound rather reductive, banal and easy, but it is not easy at all; to help people start up a dialogue between the vast multitude of these intimidating dichotomies, and to help them become aware of these frightening divisions and contrasts and how they manifest within our minds and then become actions and behaviours – to guide them to an understanding and self-sufficiency, an autonomy that enables them to function properly in society, these are the things we are trained to deal with on a daily basis with the many clients that come to us – all of which is a very very long way away from easy; and yet, we often forget to look after our own well-being, to soothe our own demons too however much we are trained for such things and, as we saw with Charlotte, our colleagues and friends need support too; we don’t have to do everything alone within this often forlorn torture that is existence – it’s not a crime to ask for help so then why does it so often feel like it is? Even the strong need a shoulder to cry on sometimes which, annoyingly, everyone loves to say but not all of us know how to apply – so often the case with these catchy, decontextualised and cherry-picked quotes, memes and the like; but, she did need that support, and we let her down for realising all of this far too late – the damage was already done by the time we woke up and limply offered to help with our tails between our legs, with our heads bowed down out of shame. Harder you fall the more problematic it is to try to get back up again, we’ve all heard that one before and it remains to be seen if she will be able to do just that. To begin to reconstruct that which you may have torn down is the real challenge for us as professionals but also as people too, and I don’t know if Charlotte has that strength anymore – although, I speak for all of us when I say we are here for her, at least we can belatedly offer that much to her now. Get help, they say, speak to someone about your problem they tell you – but it is never that simple, never so straightforward as anyone who has ever fallen knows only too well: shallow words of comfort drift past the deaf ears and minds of those affected with the efficacy and superfluousness of a warm summer breeze amongst the empty desert dunes. Them vs Us and how people perceive what we do is yet another intimidating classic in the eternal dualistic cosmology that surrounds and drowns us out of ourselves, and is, perhaps, what stops so many people opening up and attempting to alleviate some of these psychological burdens we carry with us. Out of all of us, the fact that it was her that crumbled under the weight of our work, still remains disturbing as it is humbling.

Again, we might ask how this would have played out if we’d been more aware of her plight back then and, once again, we should come to question this ridiculous and damaging lack of sharing; the fact that opening up is so bewilderingly stigmatised within our society simply creates a vacuum for all sorts of horrors to rush in and germinate, proliferate and to coexist with us as part of us – perhaps it is even that which makes us what we are, I’m not sure I can say with any real certainty; add the ever terrifying ambiguous power of love and we find ourselves all walking hand in hand down roads of madness together; I suppose we could call that a sharing of sorts, and, as tragically seen with Charlotte – perhaps not the path to true happiness – whatever that really is – but, nonetheless, one of the most trodden and perhaps necessary of all the tumultuous paths we are destined to eternally wander down.

She Never Told Me Why She Had It Nor Where It Came From But I Loved It Anyway

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She had kept it piously locked away in her cupboard for many years before I eventually managed to get my dirty little hands on it, and I finally got to look inside on the one day that she had carelessly – and fortuitously for me – forgotten to hide that odious key properly. Never thought she’d let her guard down like that but I suppose it had to happen eventually, and, I won’t lie, I had been banking on such a thing as being my only way of appeasing my agonising curiosity not just with the fascinating box itself but also with her infuriating commitment to keeping it hidden, and why she felt she had to keep it all woven up in mystery like it was Pandora’s pithos with the Holy Grail tucked away in it or something; and, as I found out later, it was kind of like that; although when all is said and done, perhaps it was a little worse. Told her, I did, that one day I was going to see what was in there and that it was only a matter of time before her secret was out; although, it was a long time ago and I am making it sound like it was a big thing between us – it wasn’t, well, not really, but it did turn into something quite unexpected nonetheless.

Me and my sister were just like any normal, annoying, playful kids living in our own world and, thankfully, blissfully unaware of the more problematic side to the adults around us and their relationships, their darker less evident side bubbled just under the surface of our world; even if she is nearly two years younger, my sister has always been smarter than I am, but she says she never knew of the issues our parents were having at the time either; me and my insatiable curiosity with the box that kept on, never letting up, constantly dreaming up new ingenious (and not) ideas on how to get that elusive key and find the secrets within; she thought I was just being overly zealous about the whole “stupid box affair” – as she used to call it – which I suppose was true. Why was I so obsessed with it when there were plenty of other things for my sister and me to be discovering and experiencing in our world back then? She never had that same wonder or desire to uncover those secrets, she always had her head stuck in a book, head in the clouds, tracing tree bark and stone textures or making daisy chains – no doubt a much better type of wonder than mine: she just wasn’t interested in that shabby old box – perhaps that was even more of an incentive for me, some way of distinguishing myself from her and my jealousy of her smarts and her bookwormishness; a means to an end, an attempt to grab my parents’ attention and unconsciously place myself between their distancing as a way of trying to draw them closer together: perhaps we were not so blind and insensitive to their plight after all – although I doubt that: everything is either better or worse with the beauty of hindsight, of course; I can remember one time when I decided to give myself friction burns all over my hand by rubbing them against the coarse rug we had in the front room – my sister refused to do it (like I said, she was smarter than me) – and I still remember the surprised anguish I felt when I showed it to them and they instantly and furiously scolded me for seeking attention and being a selfish idiota and, to this very day and for the love of god, I still don’t know how they worked it out so quickly – perhaps my sister told them although she swore blind she never did; it still pains me to think that they never noticed that the real reason I had done all that attention seeking was because I did actually need some attention, some love and affection, a cry for help even – instead of being treated like a fool (which I admittedly was at the time) and being ridiculed and belittled by them, perhaps all I needed – all everyone needed in that house – was to be hugged a little more. Had my sister helped me, I think my histrionic stunt would’ve had much more dramatic effect, but we’ll never know now.

It was a weathered dark brown with warped black metal panels and strips on the sides and corners with the most exquisite silvery patterns on it that looked, curiously, like the wheat symbol you find on cereal packets; I suppose, technically, it was more of a trunk than a chest (but chest or box was what I liked to call it) as it had a thick hinged lid that would always laugh at my feeble attempts to get inside; that lid had thick metal straps with what seemed to me back then the word “MoM” all across the top as if to add insult to injury: my mum was mocking me by even having her name inscribed on to the accursed thing (I later found out that the MoM wasn’t my mum at all but the initials of the manufacturer Martin Maier with a big rivet between the two Ms); it had character, it had history, that was clear, and I was utterly obsessed by it and intolerably convinced it was full of treasures and fabulous things deep inside that were calling out to me to be touched, to be brought to the light of day: the more I was denied, the more those unsearchable and untouchable riches grew in my mind; it would creak and groan as I often tried to move it – when mum carelessly left the store cupboard door open which was once in a blue moon – and its harsh coat of ages bruised and scratched my palms and made my fingertips sore – mocking me for those brief encounters before my mum would come back furiously and lock it up again; but all my guile and wit – limited as they were – were no match for the sturdy thing – not even when I kicked and whacked it in sheer bitter frustration would it yield. Nor should I ever have insisted with it all, but, as I said, it was stronger than me – I just couldn’t give it up, I foolishly couldn’t let it go. Where the blasted thing originated from, still no one really knows; there were several theories and the one that me and my sister liked most was that our great auntie from America had brought it over with her when her husband died in the 1870s and that it had been filled with goodies from the US as well as all the stuff my mum put in it later on; there were even stories of a famous artist who used to travel to Spain on the cargo ships with my grandfather and, seeing as this artist didn’t have too much money, he used to pay for his and his wife’s passage (“gorgeous Jetta” my grandfather used to call her) by drawing beautiful scenes of Senglea in Malta and the most amazing pencil and crayon sketches of the Moorish tessellations from the stunning tiles inside the Alhambra in Granada – and these were allegedly rolled up inside that box, plus postcards and some letters they exchanged as well as some faded photos that the artist took of Catania dated around 1936 I think it was – real collectors’ items apparently to anyone who knew their modern art history; there were even stories of memorabilia from the First and Second World War in there – even some Nazi gear too – although I distinctly remember one of our uncles causing an uproar when he took and sold most of that stuff to a buyer in Calabria (apparently some of it can still be seen in a tiny museum not far from Cosenza, I believe) and he kept the money for himself which was what really made everyone so mad not the actual unlawful taking and selling of the items – I still remember being so hurt by the fact that he had managed to open the thing up before I did; there were whispers of love letters from lost lovers although I never managed to hear who exactly they were adressed to and it was not something I felt I could really ask my parents about then or ever (I never did either as there was no need to in the end), and there were many a war of words about such letters between the numerous uncles and aunties and cousins whose names could no longer be uttered aloud by us kids; but we did wonder, agonisingly, what terrible secrets they all knew and what beautiful scandals they couldn’t tell us about – assuming, of course, that any of that was true and not just family gossip gone awry as is often the case.

It was a late mid-September evening when, through a series of fortunate events (at least for me – not so fortunate for my parents as it turned out), I finally managed to triumphantly hold that much sought-after bunch of keys when my parents were unexpectedly held up out of town; my hand shook and my fingers trembled slightly as I affectionately traced each one of those keys studying their finely crafted shapes and delighting in their sharp iron smell; letting the tinkling bring a smile to my face as they fell between my fingers and over my hand and I knew that my long wait for answers had almost come to an end; the one that unlocked that large storage cupboard where the box was ceremoniously kept was cold and silver and not a pretty key at all, whereas the keys for the hefty padlocks used to seal the chest were stubby dark golden things that enticingly glistened – greeting me almost, acknowledging my long-awaited victory. Came about so suddenly and so unexpectedly that, at first, I simply didn’t know what to do with myself and this lucky find. From an unstoppable and constant urge to get inside the thing, I now, embarrassingly, found myself frozen stiff with a feeling of deflation and dread at finally being able to quench that thirst, to extinguish the fires of curiosity that had burned relentlessly within me for what seemed like an eternity – it was the most peculiar of sensations: it felt as if the sudden apprehension that fell over me came from outside of myself as if I were absorbing it through my skin – maybe it was coming from the chest itself, telling me not to do it, to let sleeping dogs lie. But would I be able to deal with and accept what I might find hidden in there or would it be too much for me? Loved, no doubt, as babies and yet mostly disregarded as young children by our awkward parents, that didn’t really give us the right to nonchalantly pry through their precious secrets, did it?

It took me some time to gather my wits together and – after checking that my sister was sound asleep upstairs – I finally moved tentatively towards the storage door which now seemed to loom menacingly before me, judging me, perhaps even challenging me to walk away; but my young impetuous mind and my frivolous attitude towards the adult world led me on, foolishly, to slide the key into the lock, and both relishing and fearing the moment, I slowly unlocked it. Anyway, in spite of everything, I opened the door which seemed to glide open far too easily – surprisingly offering little or no resistance: it was letting me in, as if it had given up, allowing me passage to the awaiting bounty that sat darkly brooding against the back wall of the cupboard; I excitedly tried the chunky golden keys in the padlocks which finally seemed to have abandoned their incessant bragging, their indomitable refusal of my intentions now seemed risible and even slightly pathetic and had little meaning as, one by one, they unclicked with a satisfying clack that echoed loudly like excessive fanfare at an event that I should never have been allowed to watch and yet would never be allowed to forget; the past reluctantly revealed itself and unfurled its secrets so long denied to me, and all was brutally laid bare before my tiny ingenuous mind.

 

First Love First

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My mum was sixteen when she had me, dad was fifteen. They got their smack in the mouth from life nice and early. It’s always bugged me why they never got married straight away – although it bugs me more that they both insist that they had planned to have a child. I mean, most young couples used to get married as soon as they found out they were pregnant, didn’t they? Maybe they were afraid of the added responsibility of marriage, although what could be more of a responsibility than bringing up a child at that age, or any age really.
My mum told me that I’d been born three months prematurely and then spent the next six weeks in an incubator. Nice start – I’d also got a good smack in the mouth from life early. Not that I remember any of that though, I was as comfy as could be, and, supposedly, we’re all born prematurely thanks to our big fat clever heads, although, perhaps not that premature. Mum and dad used to come and see me when I was in there, although mum said it was difficult for lots of reasons. They lived in Chingford, East London, and the hospital was in the city centre somewhere and they didn’t always have any money to come over except for once or twice a week, what with the trauma of seeing your child looking like a shrivelled up purple prune. I bet the phone bill was crazy during that time, assuming that they had a phone. I don’t know if they did.

They were both from East London and that’s where we lived for about a year before moving to North East London. Some huge grey concrete mass of flats, tower blocks, and maisonettes said to have been built on top of a sewer and that was slowly sinking. It was already way way under. Of course, I didn’t know that – it was great all that space and friends, the view from the eleventh floor was awesome. I remember watching the traffic and those flashing blue lights on the North Circular Road for ages. There was also a huge adventure playground – Burwood park I think we used to call it – that taught me more than any teacher ever could. I made loads of friends there and my fair share of enemies, in fact, I even had my first serious relationship there. She must’ve been the same age as me as we were always together. Sadly, I can’t even remember her name – but she was alright – a tomboy and she had an awesome imagination and we just clicked. We used to play all sorts of weird and wonderful games, such as zooming across the universe with Space 1999 or Battlestar Galactica, stone-throwing competitions (which she always won), and the occasional, how can I put it, well, cuddle game… 

  

First Love?

‘Right, you go over there.’ She ordered.
‘What for?’               
‘Just go over there a minute, will ya?’
‘Where you gonna go then?’
‘I’m gonna sit here, you sit down on that.’ She indicated a burnt log with her head. She had her hands on her hips and she kept rolling her eyes. They were beautiful big brown eyes that I’d never really noticed until now.
‘Ok. Who you gonna be then? I’m gonna be Starbuck.’
‘Nah, I’m gonna pretend I’m a mummy. And you can pretend to be a dad, right?’
‘Yeah.’
There was a moment’s silence. We usually pretended to be fictional heroes like Princess Lia, Luke Skywalker, or someone like Huck Finn, Anne of Green Gables or some characters from Little House on the Prarie or something, but not a mummy or daddy. What do adults like our parents do anyway? They don’t go blasting and rescuing, do they? Parents don’t do anything except go to work and watch telly, eat food and row a lot and tell us what to do and not do – but nothing interesting. After a few awkward seconds, we adjusted to our new roles.
‘Where are we then?’ I asked.
‘Err, you’re in the bedroom and I’m er… in the kitchen. Or maybe the sitting room watching TV.’
‘We’ve got a new telly, you know?’ I said changing the subject in that instinctive, and sometimes deadly way of kids. ‘It’s massive. My dad bought it last week.’
‘So what? That’s nothing. My dad bought a new TV last year.’
‘Yeah, well. This one’s got a special sliding door and you can cover the screen up and that.’
‘So’s mine.’
‘No, it ain’t.’
‘Yes, it has.’
‘Liar.’
‘You’re the liar.’
‘Shut up.’
‘You shut up.’
We didn’t speak for a while. Even young lovers argue you know. Then we got back into the game as if nothing had been said. Shame we sometimes forget how to do that as adults or maybe it’s more of a shame that we do.
‘Right – I’m sitting down on the settee and you’re over there in the chair.’
‘Ok.’ I said, getting into my role, enticed by the prospect of the unknown and the wonderful.
She got up and then came over and laid down next to me, almost but not quite touching. After a while, she put her arm around me. I froze, stricken by a never experienced fear. Unable to understand absolutely anything, but at the same time terrified and embarrassed by thoughts I shouldn’t even have been able to formulate back then, I simply focused hard on the bloated clouds above and tried to know them and find answers, but they looked stupid and sickly and told me absolutely nothing.

And then she said:
‘Imagine I’ve got no clothes on and you’ve got no clothes on.’
I didn’t say anything, just kept on thinking clouds. It felt like even my slow blinking made too much noise.
‘Imagine that I can see yours and you can see mine.’
I blinked and took a deep breath. What was happening?
‘What’s yours like then?’ I asked her without really knowing what I was saying.
‘It’s the same as yours.’
‘But you’re a girl.’
‘So what?’
‘I’m a boy.’
‘And?’
‘Well, we’re different, aren’t we?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘How come you don’t stand up when you go for a pee then? My dad says it because you haven’t got a ‘’thingy.’’’
‘Stoopid! Of course, we got a ‘’thingy’’!’
‘That’s not what my dad says though.’
‘Well, my mum told me that a girl’s thingy is inside and the boy’s is outside, but that it’s the same thing really.’
‘No.’
‘I’m tellin’ you!’
‘Is that why you make babies then?’
‘What?’
‘Because your thingy is inside and ours is outside?’
‘S’pose so.’
‘Yeah, a boy’s thingy can’t get bigger when it’s outside, but the girl’s can because it’s protected by your tummy, innit?’ I reckon I’d won that one, she looked puzzled and took her eyes off me and squinted at the clouds, probably wanting the same answers that I’d been looking for from their marshmallow puffiness.
‘Mum said that women have babies because they’ve got a thing called a womb.’ Looks like she’d found her answer floating up there.
‘A what?’
‘A womb! You know, the special tummy where the baby grows.’
‘Oh yeah.’ I lied not having the faintest idea of what she was talking about and finding it a little weird imagining a girl with more than one tummy.
‘Well, boys haven’t got this so that’s why they can’t have babies, I think.’
‘So, girls have got more than one belly?’
‘Yeah. Boys too!’
‘What d’you mean?’ I asked totally baffled now but still curious about the adult style conversation we were clearly having.
‘Mum reckons that boys have another tummy called a ‘’beer belly or something.’’’
‘A beer belly?’
‘Yeah, and that’s where all the beer goes that dad drinks. Maybe that takes up all the room and that’s the real reason why boys don’t have children – there’s not enough room.’
‘You ever tasted beer?’ I asked, remembering the sweet shandy I’d tried with friends at school, and wondering if beer was very different.
‘Yeah, of course!’
‘Really?’ I said wishing that I’d had that experience too.
‘Yep. Didn’t like it though. Mum says it makes dad happier. But sometimes he gets really angry too after he’s had a beer. Most times they end up just shouting and throwing things a bit.’
‘Yeah?’ I said, knowing only too well that kind of experience.
‘Yeah.’

She fixed her eyes on the clouds again, her mouth trembling into a smile. For that brief moment, I felt calm and happy, wanting to stay like that forever; wanting to stay by her side forever; wanting to touch her. But at the same time feeling guilty and naughty for thinking about doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing. Like thinking a forbidden thought, fantasizing about a cousin, or stealing from mummy’s purse – not that I ever did that. Maybe it was just a bit too early to be playing with such things, however clear it seemed to be at the time, unaware that it would one day become almost incomprehensible and no less terrifying.
Then she tightened her grip on me as if she’d been reading my mind or knew something that I didn’t, and I really wanted to enjoy it, pretend to enjoy it, but couldn’t: all I could think about was how silly my parents were for always doing this sort of thing – so, this is what it’s like to be an adult. I’m not sure I wanted that, and, in all honesty, I’m still not sure I do. The ever-changing clouds took turns to laugh down at us and just kept on with their incessant rolling, floating and as magnificent in their drifting as they were in their indifference to our harmless everything.

We stayed on that estate for about ten or so years. Oblivious to anything but my simple needs, I never noticed the cracks, the hair-line fractures permeating into the very structure of our reality – how could I, I was a child? All that shouting and fighting was how it was meant to be, wasn’t it? Besides, where could I have seen any other family situations to compare with – Tom and Jerry cartoons? Comparisons were what you did with football stickers and Star Wars figures.
We moved to a new estate in North London. A lovely house and I can remember how frightened I was by it all; leaving all my friends, the only thing that felt real to me then. I had to start again – god knows what my parents were going through – although I was far too selfish to worry about that. It was there, though, that things really changed and I look back from the comfort I have now and, surprisingly, I don’t recall their splitting apart as the saddest thing that happened to me back then – although it was splendid in its intensity – but rather the realisation that I would never get to see my best friend again, my first nameless true love, and we would never again be able to hold each other or watch the clouds together ever again.

We Had Always Done That and We Were Not Going to Stop Now

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We’ve been using this route for as long as anyone in our community can remember – perhaps only the Queen can remember a time before, but none of us can and – I think I speak for most of us here – none of us wants to either.
Had we believed at our founding long ago in the strange old stories of older ways, better more efficient ways that the more oral and eccentric of our elders hark back to from time to time, then maybe we would see things differently today and we, conceivably, might never have even settled here; but that’s no reason to mess with the normal order of things: some things are preordained – such as all of us being the Queen’s children, and you just have to let these things go; I can’t see the point in upsetting the status quo based on heresy and, basically, old wives’ tales of “better days” especially seeing how established things actually are for us all.

Always the adventurer, forever the inquisitive one, my eldest brother, Nigel, was often found wandering off on his own from the main route; head full of chemical dreams and wild fantasies of mountains piled high with golden things and the riches of the dead – as he used to call them – he swore that the time would come when he would be the one out of all of us to find the elusive great hoard, to be the chosen one to find that ever sought after treasure-trove – the Endless Source, as the elders call it; to think that reckless fables are still whispered throughout our great halls and corridors that we have, in fact, already found it and that it has become the ultimate secret of the ruling elite within our society; the Queen – rightly so I think – shows little interest in such spurious tales and the majority of us feel that there are much more pressing concerns at hand for the Queendom; real tangible concerns for us all to deal with and not the ridiculous, pointless scaremongering of those irresponsible lesser minds whose only wish is to undermine and, some say, use these illegitimate claims to usurp Her Majesty’s rule which is, of course, just as absurd as it is impossible. Done out of jealousy rather than any legitimate proof or justified political reasoning, these voices of the minority are dismissed regularly as simple and harmless stupidity originating from some of the more disgruntled (as well as imaginative) workforce we have; perhaps their ignorance regarding the well-established efficient totalitarianism of our world is just too attractive and irresistible for them to deny: and I refuse to accept the rumours that Nigel believed those heretical voices of disbelief – he was the epitome of an upstanding citizen: the only time he would ever go against the grain was when talking about our seasonal dependency of the Honeydewers and what he called the Great Fake Altruism Debacle.
That he would even consider heresy is one the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard; Nigel, however much of a dreamer he may well have been or the fact that his playful and harmless insubordination was known to all, doesn’t alter the fact that he was just as aware as all of us are that we are casteless, as we have always been, and that he bore the weight of respect and responsibility like anyone else here does without the irrational thoughts of insurgency or while harbouring the insanity of social stratification. And in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter what they all think, I knew him better than they ever did, I know for a fact that he wasn’t involved in their supposed faction – or any similar movement – he couldn’t have cared less for their delusion and was forcefully opposed to the blatant lies that often come wafting around here – he was simply a true worker; like one of the original First Workers who founded everything we know: the workers who gave the Queen her power let us not forget, that is who he was – not some adversarial dissenter cursed by some abnormality that forces them to actively shirk from their duties as if he were the Yellows or something and, let’s face it, who would all be better off being part of the Daily Disappearance.

We all have roles to play, and Nigel was the best at his; his allegiance and commitment to the Great Gathering and Farming were second to none: there have been very few that ever took the same risks to bring us such benefits as he did, and, ultimately, it was that that caused his recent tragic downfall, but that just demonstrates the doggedness and accentuates the fidelity that he felt towards his family, his devotion to and belief in the original ethos of our settlement here – a million miles away from the revolutionary thoughts and misguided superstitious paranoia that he has been so wrongly and shamefully accused of – as if any more proof of innocence were needed.
Were it not also for his prowess and devotion to the Queendom, then these walls and magnificent royal chambers would not stand so regally and proud around us: a constant reminder of the foundations for all that has come to fruition since their inception by the First Workers so long ago when the Queen was still in her youth, still only learning her relentless craft.

Not content with the loss to the family, the unbelievers were all quick to try to insinuate his involvement with their lot and fill the empty-headed among us with lies of Nigel’s affiliations coupled with disgusting slanderous talk of his connection with the Last Great Extermination; it may be true that he was one of the first to stumble upon those infamous ripe findings (again his indomitable nature to wander) and leave those unmistakable initial markers for the first party to follow, and yes, that did, unfortunately, lead to the Last Great Extinction, but he could hardly be accused of conspiracy, or worse still, treason for simply doing what we all do for the furtherment of the colony; the prize and bounty we reaped from that find is still legendary – rarely have we ever found such a similar boon, not even the First Workers could have dreamed of such a windfall back when the lands were still plentiful, fresh and unsullied.
Going beyond the call of duty was what made him special as that historic discovery showed us, there is no way that any of us could have ever predicted the savage attack that led to the Last Great Extinction that befell the hundred or so workers who were there just doing their job – of which they knew the risks as we all do every single day that we step foot outside of the realm, and let’s be honest, mass extinctions – however horrific they truly are – are thankfully few and far between (some argue that they are in fact just glorified Daily Disappearances) – there have only been three that the elders speak of and only the Queen mentions a fourth from the beginning times; we know the risks: it is what we are all born to do and what we have to live with willingly.
To even suggest that he was part of that brings shame to all of us, especially when you consider the nature of his death, the unusual and brutal way in which he left us is yet another indication of his innocence as well as a compelling, sad mystery; his skeleton wasn’t charred at all and yet his insides had clearly boiled away to nothing in the most horrific, ignoble and unjustified of deaths leaving him splayed out alone just off the traditional route with no signs or stench of combat or invaders, just the utter stillness of his seemingly cauterized yet eerily intact corpse.

Stop the mind foraging only when the body responds no more was his favourite saying, and appropriate to all of us workers more than ever now in these tense, untrustworthy times that beg for a solution, they beg for some kind of reaffirmation of our core principles; perhaps even another Great Extinction would set us to right and stop the ever-more common proliferation and tapping of hatred and mistrust that so easily seems to permeate our eusocial cooperative nowadays – however revolting and cold such a terrible thought is – maybe only that could truly realign our disoriented minds to the one true common cause we have: the Queendom.
Now, as we are appearing to enter another new phase of our ancient settlement, perhaps we can let the honourable name of Nigel Lasius rest as the true hero he had always proven himself to be and not as the conspirator that some would have him become, if the Queen be willing, of course, and if the Machines ever truly leave us be.


OK, but what’s going on here? Feels weird, unfinished…
These short stories are a spin-off from some classroom creative writing activities I’ve been doing with advanced language learners. We elicit the sentence from volunteers word for word to get out “title”; we then have to make a story up using the words in the title as the first word for each new sentence in the story. You see what I mean? Imagine we elicit THEY EAT SAUSAGES FOR LUNCH. We’d then have to start our story with THEY: They told me that breakfast was almost illegal in their house. Eat what you want but not before eleven in the morning they used to say. Sausages were not something that… etc etc. A creative way to focus on sentence structure, collocations, creativity and I thought it might be challenging to be limited to the words in the title; constraints, paradoxically, can lead to more imaginative freedom and all that. And it seemed like fun to try it.
So I did.
Ah, OK, thanks – still weird though.

Why Does It Always Feel Like I Am Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead?

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Why it took me so long to get used to it, God only knows.
Does everything really come to those who wait as the old adage goes? It doesn’t, I can assure you, there’s a lot more to it than simply waiting around for things to happen.
Always wanted to go to Britain, I’d heard so much about the place from one of my uncles when I was growing up (he was always flying off to someplace and doing all sorts of crazy things – looking for his land of milk and honey) and I just knew that one day, I had to get out there too – and when things went south for me back home, well, that’s exactly what I did.
Feel like I finally belong here, although, I won’t lie, it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions for some reason, maybe I was still attached to my past like it’s a goddamn ball and chain around my ankle – my heavy cross to bear; learning to enjoy and appreciate the sea breeze on my face every single day which – when compared to the small town where I grew up in America – was something divine the first time it happened; although, in truth, it has kind of gotten monotonous as so many things often do – nothing new under the sun, as we say; but I wouldn’t go back, wouldn’t trade that in for any version of my past, I am quite happy here even though, admittedly, there’s not much work or too many opportunities going around; still, I get by all the same and I’m well aware that it could be a lot worse, of course.
Like anyone who ups and leaves their own country, I needed to take some chances and put my neck on the line with some bank loans to get me started out here; they eventually gave me some cash and now I own an old beaten up but reliable Bedford ice-cream van from 1982 which I modified to be able to make some deep-fried doughnuts too which everbody seems to adore, although I have been known to do fries – anything to keep the limited custom here on my side – you gotta keep alive: sink or swim – as the English love to say; whether you like it or loathe it, it’s a great way to get around the town, get noticed (I repaired the original retro chimes which are maybe a little too loud but it just wouldn’t be a proper ice-cream van without that), I get to take some photos (which has always been a lifelong passion of mine), and spread a little happiness around too – lord knows this part of the UK needs it – and let’s face it, who doesn’t like an ice-cream come the summer months, or weeks, as is often the case down in these sometimes grey parts of England.

I get to see a lot of faces, some nicer than others, some quite peculiar and on occasion, I ask them if I can take their picture which most people seem happy to do; those that don’t know me or those just passing through always ask me if I’m from America – and I tell them I am; sometimes they ask if I am working on a photo project or something – and I tell them I’m not (but actually I am and have been for years); I’ll be totally honest, I don’t really get off on just straight portraiture – although I am always gracious and thankful for any I do snap up – but, I much prefer the candid shot, the spontaneous street photography that reveals happenstance and the funny improvised moments all around us: people are always so surprising and entertaining when caught unawares, I think: it’s when we’re at our best. Am I cheating by snapping great sneaky moments from the protection of my Bedford with its many large windows allowing me to see and predict so many photo opportunities?
Pounding the sidewalk in search of a great shot is the traditional method for street photographers and I don’t deny that is a great way to be amongst the crowd, but my van with its elaborate patchwork of stickers and the effective camouflage that gives me, offers me a greater chance of getting that pure, unprompted shot totally unnoticed: there’s more skill to it too, I believe: it’s all about timing and being able to foresee the coming together of elements that may (or may not) produce a great photo – arguably the true essence of street photography (as you can see, I really am a fan); I’ve taken some real beauties over the years if I say so myself: once got this wild-eyed guy zooming past me on a pushbike with such exhilaration on his face just as he looked at my van – but luckily not the camera, I’m not too keen on being seen, so to speak, that just kills the authenticity for me; another time, I caught this guy in a car just as he took the last swig from a beer can before throwing it out the window; it’s a great shot – the photo, not the beer chucking: a lucky freeze-frame from an unfortunate sad real-life movie that you get to see stuck on loop too often down here; I wanted to put that photo in an exhibition or something, but if he worked out it was me that had done it, well, it just wouldn’t be worth having my van set alight for that, no way; I’ve also captured quite a few happy accidents of kids (and adults too) who are just about to drop – or are dropping – their ice-creams and their faces are truly priceless: there’s a deep agony in the eyes and on the face of anyone who drops an ice-cream, believe me, I’ve seen it happen enough times (I always call them back and give them a freebie – almost like my conscious is repaying them for the candid tragedy I’d just secretly witnessed and immortalised for evermore); there was once a really cool shot I managed to get years back of some kid in the back seat of car just as he was taking a picture of me (although I was on the sidewalk that time though) – the exact same moment, just unbelievable really; I’ve always wondered what his shot looked like, and I wonder where that photo is now, or if he even developed it at all; there have also been times when I wish I had managed to get a shot of less pleasurable moments; times when drunken assholes slap and beat their partners up, or when gangs attack each other and inevitably end up hurting innocent bystanders, or when vandals – or just drunken idiots – start smashing things up in the street for no reason other than they are drunk, and ignorant dicks; I really wish I caught some of those people in the act, and, it’s true there are more than enough CCTV cameras nowadays, and like I said before, if they worked out it was me, I’d be a dead man, so it’s just not worth it; I know, it’s not my job and I’m not a police officer – I don’t need to move mountains here and perhaps it would be like casting pearls before swine, but the sense of belonging and caring for the local community is something I have always felt within me ever since my time in the U.S. and it’s not a bad thing to feel at all – to want to go that extra mile for a worthy cause; perhaps that feeling is stronger in me seeing as I am a foreigner – although come to think it, everyone down here is from somewhere else.

Nails and hooks strategically positioned in my roof allow me to keep my gear permanently hanging up, in sight, and ever ready to be grabbed to get that shot; too many sticky liquids to risk getting my camera and lenses wet and, however hardy my old Nikon may be, I refuse to take unnecessary risks. In all honesty, my part-time avocation perhaps gives me just as much joy as the ice-cream business itself, although I wouldn’t want to destroy the beauty of this hobby by making it a job, I think that would be foolhardy of me – even if, seeing as I’m being honest here, I really don’t know what direction my life is headed, but I definitely don’t want to be tied to any one job again – I tried that once before and failed miserably, I’m not going down that road again.

The winter months can be pretty cruel, I hardly see anyone out when the weather gets nasty, and even though it never gets as bad or as severe as the weather back home, it just stays miserable and damp for so long that you can forget what bright warm sunny weather even looks like and you can’t remember a time when it wasn’t grey and rainy, seriously, it really gets to you; not that I have travelled to the four corners of the earth or anything, but this place can really bring you down, it wears you out, drains you, and makes me appreciate just how hardy (or unfeeling?) these Brits are; I mean, they have to be to put up with the clammy air, the drizzle, the mould, oh gosh, the mould! Floor, walls, the ceiling, even the laminated units and my eight lid freezer in the van – all get covered in that son of a bitch mould; it’s a constant battle, well, at least for most of the year as it only gets to dry out for a month or two, to be totally honest – anti mould treatment isn’t cheap either; all these godforsaken bugs too: ants invade the kitchen at least once a week – although thankfully not the van; I think it happens thanks to my flat being just a bit lower than ground floor level; recently, there was this stubborn little group of ants who tried to get near the teapot which was lovely and warm – perhaps they just wanted to warm themselves a little – but when I put the tea cosy over it, one of them had gotten trapped and died: horribly scorched to death; I don’t know why, but it just seemed so wrong (I have been known to wipe out their exploratory parties from time to time when they get to close to food, but this was different) – it shouldn’t have died like that: scorched and burnt to death even though it’s freezing here, seemed such an ignominious and undignified way to go – although no doubt it happens a lot more than we ever realise, I’d bet, and I’m sure God will punish me for that too; then there’s the seagulls that patrol the coast all year round who are the underestimated masters of opportunity: I’ve had half my pie strategically removed in one silent swoop by one of those birds on more times than I care to admit – it’s really quite something and they are way bigger than you think, nasty pieces of work – although, surprisingly, I’ve not yet managed to capture them swooping down on unsuspecting pedestrians with my camera – I suppose they’re just too damn quick for me.

With all that damp, the violence, bugs and thieving birds, the lack of opportunities, and my issue of not being able to make a decision about my future and not being able to see beyond this place (being my current feet of clay for sure), you would be forgiven for thinking that I am desperately unhappy here, but that’s simply not true; there are a couple of very nice parks – one that if you keep walking turns into the beach where I love to go and sit and have a nice read; they do have some amazing second-hand shops here too (perhaps the best thing about these Brits) and I love to spend an afternoon wandering around the second-hand bookshops looking for anything that grabs my eye from impossible riddle books and science fiction classics to anthroplogy or good old autobiographies too; I recently picked up a brilliant book on drama techniques that can be allegedly used for language teachers in class (interesting but doubtful) – fascinating read, even though it cost me next to nothing, about two-pound, it was often really hard to read – not for any intellectual reason, I mean, what teacher is going to use “drama techniques” in a classroom anyway for crying out loud, and I’ve been reading all sorts since I was a kid in the States so I had no worries follwing its premise – it was rather the horribly scarwled notes and underlinings seemingly written sporadically all over many of the pages that made it hard work: so annoying when people do that, but, to be sure, for that price I suppose I can’t really complain.

My life has always been a fun ride when I think about it; I’ve gone through many phases, I can tell you, but one thing is slowly becoming clearer: my happiness (or my sadness as well) has had little to do with mould, my previous career, failed relationship decisions, candid photography, family issues, bookshops or money; it’s all about your state of mind, it’s all relative to who you are – and who I’ve always been – and not where you are living (however important that is too) or what other people’s expectations of you are.
Forehead pressed up against the glass looking out at a wall of greyness, I reach for my camera and I wonder if I’ll ever see eye to eye with my soul, or if I will ever find some true peace out there.


 

OK, but what’s going on here? Feels weird, unfinished…
These short stories are a spin-off from some classroom creative writing activities I’ve been doing with advanced language learners. We elicit the sentence from volunteers word for word to get out “title”; we then have to make a story up using the words in the title as the first word for each new sentence in the story. You see what I mean? Imagine we elicit THEY EAT SAUSAGES FOR LUNCH. We’d then have to start our story with THEY: They told me that breakfast was almost illegal in their house. Eat what you want but not before eleven in the morning they used to say. Sausages were not something that… etc etc. A creative way to focus on sentence structure, collocations, creativity and I thought it might be challenging to be limited to the words in the title; constraints, paradoxically, can lead to more imaginative freedom and all that. And it seemed like fun to try it.
So I did.
Ah, OK, thanks – still weird though.

It Wasn’t So Much the Book But Rather the Notes He Had Written Inside It

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It was back in the days when I actually cared about furthering my career by going to conferences, doing workshops and getting as many certificates for as many different specialised courses as was humanly possible, and I’d heard that there were some exciting new creative methodology courses starting at the International School; I was really lucky as I was staying in some flats just off Narnii Rd which was probably a twenty-minute walk to the school if I did it quickly so I’d have no issues getting to it; I’d heard about the courses through my close friend Ganbold – a stalwart, solid Mongolian lad who was as intellectually vigorous as he was stout physically – he was also some sort of guardian angel too although I didn’t know that then; he studied at the school and he told me I could get in for free as his guest for a creative writing course; times were pretty tough back then and I’ve never been one of those to look a gift-horse in the mouth and I certainly wasn’t going to let an opportunity of obtaining yet another CV-boosting, résumé enriching certificate like that slip by.
Wasn’t as taxing as you’d probably expect: I was lucky to have had quite flexible hours for my studies which I managed to juggle with my part-time job at the local shopping centre (that too, just a short walk from the flat in the Chrystall Town area); they were very understanding with me as a rule and my boss, Nergui – famously a fierce and often brutal dictator of a man (we called him Mr No Name – apparently he hated people, especially westerners, using his name – something about our crappy pronunciation, I think it was) who was surprisingly sympathetic to me and my need for a non-Draconian timetable; perhaps he just had a soft spot for me, or maybe I reminded him of the past, or an old family friend, or perhaps it was the fact that I never once messed him around or missed a shift, and I always wore my happy face while working there; the combination of these things, I should imagine, as well as a fair dash of Lady Luck too, no doubt.
So many years wandering around Asia, I never thought I’d end up loving Ulaanbaatar as much as I did. Much more history than we were ever taught in the West permeates that city and its peoples and I enjoyed that more cultural aspect of the city, although it had many distractions too. The mental nightlife was one of those distractions and it did its best to nearly kill me: it was incessant, raging, relentlessly tempting and I danced the risky dance with it along with the myriad of dangerous women and lunatic men that roamed all over the city once the sun started to go down; you know, if it hadn’t been for Ganbold’s gift of the gab and the sheer amount of people he knew there, I’d’ve been found floating face down in the Tuul River my first week there without a shadow of a doubt, trust me; not only was he my streetwise saviour on numerous occasions, but he also saved my ailing academic studies as well, and I will always love him for that.
Book after book, course after course came my way thanks to him and his willingness – maybe some would even call it a naive stupidity – to help an incompetent idle good-for-nothing like me, and it was thanks to him that I met the peaceful and eternally jovial Enkhjargal, the love of my life back then, at least for the brief time we burned brightly together before we burnt out so furiously together too.
But, as I sit here now reflecting on those crazy young times, I realise that I never really repaid him for all his patience, I mean, of course, I said thank you, but that isn’t what I mean; I should’ve been there for him more, supported him more emotionally instead of letting my parochial selfishness and incompetence take centre stage all the bloody time; he was always taking pictures with his fancy camera too and I never once bought him a roll of film or offered to pay to have some rolls developed – and I just wish I hadn’t recently lost all the pictures he took and gave to me while we were out there, the careless schmuck that I am; although, in fairness, Enkhjargal (and, to a lesser degree, studying) did take up all my time – she consumed all my thoughts which now seems so silly, but back then, it was simply the most beautiful thing happening in all of Asia.
Rather than help him through his own crisis, which, I was blissfully unaware of – or perhaps I just refused to see it at the time, I focused on her and, as I found out later, her unique brand of madness.
The creative writing course was amazing; I’d never done one that was so rich and rewarding; it was so full of humanistic principles, empathy – all of which resonated deeply with me at the time, perhaps because I was so head over heels, so besotted – I don’t know – or maybe it was just the right time for me and such things; the course trainer was a prominent teacher trainer from the UK, but had the most peculiar Italian, or perhaps Argentinian surname – I forget what it was now; it was much harder to forget his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that were captivating and mesmerising, as was his prowess in managing the class and his deftness in creating such a safe and warm place for learning and sharing; I was at my happiest on that course (and yes, I remember how jealous Enkhjargal had been at the time too, which I was quite happy about as I recall) and I have rarely experienced such an intense and vibrant non-threatening learning environment; it was impossible to forget his features too – as gloriously unique as anyone else’s are – and yet the magic that he created there transformed him into a caricature of himself; his face, his gestures, and his voice turned into healing tools that caressed the soul as they caressed the mind; his eyes would flash around the room as he recalled, imagined and digested everything that happened – even the tiniest trait or detail would be gobbled up by his keen and insatiable brain – and his eyebrows, boy, they were stunning: they would bounce and surf on his brow like cheery waterproof caterpillars at Playa Grande in Costa Rica as he carefully tuned in to the personalities and stories and experiences that surrounded him and joyfully swam all around him there – almost like we were teaching him, as if we were feeding him instead of what we thought was actually happening on that course – such was his magic, his spellbinding gifts and bewitching ways; after a short break on the first day of the course we all returned to the class to find a small pile of books unceremoniously placed slap-bang in the middle of the room: beautifully bound cloth hardbacks laid with cheap dog-eared paperbacks yet they all held our attention, our curiosity was piqued as he revealed that they were for us to borrow if we wanted – no obligation, of course, but for those that wanted to we could help ourselves (as long as they were back by the end of the week, he said); I remember the good-natured vibe in the room drop a little as some of the sharks present rushed in for the kill, scooping up what they believed to be the best books simply by being first there, elbowing their way to the fresh pickings; my philosophy was incredibly weak in comparison and basically consisted of not really caring too much about getting a book to take home, so I just waited till everyone had finished, and then gingerly picked up the last one as if I were the ousted hyena having to take whatever dregs all the other hierarchical waves of animals had left behind after having their fill – funny in hindsight, but perhaps a little sad too – but most probably an effective defence mechanism nonetheless; the slightly worn green cloth cover had a dusty sheen to it as I craddled it respectfully in my left palm (it reminded me of the sort of book I would have picked up in a second hand shop): it’s pages were light and yellow as I let them flutter under the inquisitive thumb of my right hand which released a light mist of dust that I felt on my forearm, then cheeks and finally the faint tickles on my nose, it was then that I noticed the secrets hidden within: every couple of pages or so there were extensively penned notes scribbled along margins with tiny monologues running between gaps in paragraphs as well as bold blocks of text claiming the right to exist on the header and footer of those pages.
Notes abounded throughout the book: lines joined ideas and allowed me to trace through the notes and decipher their chronologic flow, to unlock the insights of the notetaker, the impassioned reader who had taken the time to patiently inscribe his or her thoughts, feelings, and observations written in a present that had become a slice of past and that was now being read about in its own future; it didn’t take all that long to figure out that the inspiring trainer was the author of those revealing notes – my heart skipped a little as I realised whose book it was.
He later explained to me that he was sorry for having scribbled all over the pages with his incomprehensible dribble – as he put it – and went on to fervidly tell me a wonderful story about a woman who once knew (a fierce Baltic warrior named Anya, I believe he called her) who would fly off into a rage at him for all his note-taking in whichever book he was reading at the time and accuse him of sacrilege – of having no respect for books (I would’ve argued to the contrary); I could see there were more chapters to the story from the intense twinkle in his eyes: as he remembered and spoke about her, he would pick repetetively at the skin around his thumbnail making a dull sound like someone bending and releasing a twig, almost like it was his way of keeping rhythm as he narrated – I didn’t press him for any more on the matter, although, now I come to think about it, perhaps I should have; I had insisted that his notes were such a great way to see what he had been thinking about at the time of reading, in fact, it’s a great way to revisit the past which is not just exclusive to the beguiling immediacy of photography – text still has its place too, I am happy to declare.
Had he known that someone in the future would read those personal notes, would he have been so spontaneous and messy and genuine?
Written by hand these artistically scrawled thoughts seemed to have a life of their own to me, seemed sacred in some ways too – forbidden even, although how he resisted the temptation to write a witty remark to that future inquirer I will never know (I have done just that ever since that course in the hope that one day someone will smile – even for a second while reading my silly comments – but they probably won’t; still, it doesn’t matter – it’s the probablity of it happeneing that gives me my joy); I felt by reading those notes that I was, possibly, going too far; I studied them all very carefully, in fact, I didn’t even read the actual book – it wasn’t necessary at all and I still have no idea what it was about: the notes were just too intriguing, too special to care about the actual book contents; the notes were probably more than enough to help me get the gist of the book but that’s not why I read them; however, even though I put those notes under scrutiny and savoured them knowing that I was to be in their company only for a few days – it did feel like a type of violation, I have to admit. Inside information leaked to the stranger as if I were breaking some unspoken literary law – violating a literary code between the book and the reader, peeking into the usually hidden and intimate relationship between the words so public and the mind so private; it didn’t feel right – but I rejoiced in the moment nevertheless.
It was the icing on the cake for me and brought a wonderful course some wonderful closure; that glimpse into the mind of a great man – even if just a glance at what he had once been or how he had once thought, it was enough to keep me going, to keep me sane and prepare my soul for what was on its way: barely visible on the horizon, galloping towards me like the fury and might of Genghis Kahn’s army, it would soon be upon me and I had known all along that it was coming, and yet it still terrified the hell out of me all the same.


 

OK, but what’s going on here? Feels weird, unfinished…
These short stories are a spin-off from some classroom creative writing activities I’ve been doing with advanced language learners. We elicit the sentence from volunteers word for word to get our “title”; we then have to make a story up using the words in the title as the first word for each new sentence in the story. You see what I mean? Imagine we elicit THEY EAT SAUSAGES FOR LUNCH. We’d then have to start our story with THEY: They told me that breakfast was almost illegal in their house. Eat what you want but not before eleven in the morning they used to say. Sausages were not something that… etc etc. A creative way to focus on sentence structure, collocations, creativity and I thought it might be challenging to be limited to the words in the title; constraints, paradoxically, can lead to more imaginative freedom and all that. And it seemed like fun to try it.
So I did.
Ah, OK, thanks – still weird though.

I Am Not Surprised They Never Told Me That Things Could Change So Quickly

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I was born just outside St. Louis in Michigan, but I hope you don’t hold that against me, not everyone from Michigan necessarily comes from Detroit, you know; I don’t live there any longer and, believe you me, I won’t be going back any time soon.
Am I sorry I never grew up in a better town as did Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, The White Stripes, Eminem, The Stooges, and Madonna?
Not really – although I could never know: St. Louis was a completely different world to the bustling metropolis of Detroit – at least when I was there, so I can’t really say if I’d have preferred it there or not.
Surprised as I was – as so many are – that so many influential superstars came from Michigan State, I still couldn’t wait to get away from it all; it gave me nothing but hatred and disdain, not only for the absurdity of my so-called parents but also for the genesis, that initial starting point that the United Methodists Church put me on there and I still loathe almost everything about the place – as harsh as that may seem to anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure.
They start on you very young in St. Louis – I must’ve been, what, about nine or maybe ten when I got called up for my first Altar call; you basically get humiliated and traumatised by the whole sad affair but I was just too young back then to realise the perversity of it all. Never felt that I could muster enough strength to challenge anything that happened there – you just didn’t do that, wasn’t the done thing; but that was definitely the beginning, that was the first time the seeds of doubt were planted, you could even argue that that was the spark of my deconversion – although I didn’t really start to properly appreciate that or question what it all meant for me until much later on.
Told, bewilderingly, by the Bible Methodists that it was forbidden to watch TV, to wear jewellery and that there wasn’t even any dancing allowed either – my resentment slowly grew: no grooving to Stevie Wonder (which was ridiculously ironic given that he started to perform and perfect his talents in a Baptist church) I consequently threw myself into other things: drawing – I loved sketching in the St Louis woods up past Pine River – I still have some of those sketches too, although they aren’t very good; I got into reading all kinds of books – I was particularly attracted to horror, perhaps as a contrast to my more religious studies, or, more likely, because of it; a favourite pastime was walking and taking photographs with my favourite uncle (probably the only one thing I do truly miss about that place) – he had given me his glorious old Nikon F2 which I still have: a true workhorse of a camera, but sadly there are no surviving pictures of our nature walks up that way or the time when we found a semi-inflated tractor inner tube and went paddling on the Pine; both my mother and father were wonderfully inept at being parents and had little time for us kids aside from snide comments and continually pointing out how worthless we were and, particularly, how dumb I appeared to be always with my head in the clouds – so, apart from the kindness and genuineness of my uncle, I sought out love elsewhere, and, if there’s one thing God is very good at, that’s reeling in the lost and disillusioned; so I traded my dysfunctional parents in for (admittedly, unknowingly at the time) a dysfunctional God and all the inculcation that that path entails; still, the good things kept me going though, such things as the youth camps, they were great experiences, my only real oxygen – perhaps the only genuine social and humane moments I was able to connect with back then (beside my uncle that is) – so full of the generosity of spirit, the essence of the community (which can all be equally achieved without a God, of course) which undoubtedly set the bedrock of my future studies in theology later on down the line in Lansing.
Me and a few others found that our schoolwork suffered due to the bible studies we were doing, but we kept on regardless; as my parents came to ridicule and shun me more and more, I allowed religion to enlighten me, to be that hole-filler, to turn insecurity and psychological trauma into strength, into safety, into my guiding light, and with the fundamental need to do good and to be good; it comforted me, reassured and eased me out of my troubles and the evil that manifested itself as, for wont of another term, my parents.
That was then, that was before my move to Lansing and my studies at Michigan State University; in some ways, I kept on going to spite my parents’ incessant denigration but also to prove to myself that I had the mettle and stamina to actually complete my religious studies, that I had the belief in what I was doing, that I had faith, so to speak – and, to this day, I find theology fascinating as a wonderfully diverse way to view historical anthropology (in fact, my dissertation was on socio-cultural anthropology in the Midwest).
Things, as they frequently can be at college, got a bit rocky at times as I often got into wonderfully heated and welcome debates about religion and spirituality with my peers, teachers, and friends too – as is the norm; my colleagues Richard Hitchens and Sam Dennett, as well as my best friend Christopher Harris, tried their best back then to cultivate and harvest those seeds of doubt sown so many years before, but I held firm – after all, we were all studying for different reasons – and I never gave in to their diatribe, their weaknesses, their lack of faith (Chris hated it when I said things like that – and still does if I’m totally honest), but if only I’d really listened to them then; if only I’d really seen what they were trying to do for me, and not to me as it felt at the time.
Could they have really changed, or significantly influenced anything that I was thinking through that transitional period of my life? Change was something I had already accepted and created thanks to being brave enough to attempt to break away from my useless parents and wholeheartedly embrace theology – surely that was enough, how much change did I really need anyway?
So, frustratingly, it took me many years to truly understand what had been happening to me and who I really was, and, by the time I had realised all these things, it was far too late: I found myself trapped within my job – the profession, as it were; the turning point seemed to come out of nowhere, just seemed to remove the veil of dogma from in front of my eyes, to violently blow the shackles of indoctrination away with a moment of clarity that has brought me to readdress and reevaluate where I am today: it was the gruesome tale of the Binding of Isaac – surely, as Richard had probably pointed out to me before, one of the most appalling stories from the Bible; such an overly traumatic and unnecessary thing to put anyone through – that was the tipping point for me, I guess, that was the catalyst that set the ball rolling – and confirmed what I had always secretly known: this was not for me, this was not who I was and I had been living a lie.
Quickly and quite worryingly, I found myself unable to imagine myself doing anything other than the career I had chosen – although I was adamant that I had to, and would leave – and yet, I didn’t want to let my parishioners down, they relied on me, counted on me, needed me – I was a staple and important part of their lives; God had apparently given me a reason, a purpose, and what could be a more noble life than giving it over to supporting a whole community, guiding them through their difficulties; but I simply can’t go on like this anymore, and, wretchedly perhaps, it seems that I have to admit that my dumbass parents were right all along: I was – and am – indeed as unworthy as they always said I was, but, unlike the biblical Abraham, there would be no redemption or forgiveness for me.


OK, but what’s going on here? Feels weird, unfinished…
These short stories are a spin-off from some classroom creative writing activities I’ve been doing with advanced language learners. We elicit the sentence from volunteers word for word to get our “title”; we then have to make a story up using the words in the title as the first word for each new sentence in the story. You see what I mean? Imagine we elicit THEY EAT SAUSAGES FOR LUNCH. We’d then have to start our story with THEY: They told me that breakfast was almost illegal in their house. Eat what you want but not before eleven in the morning they used to say. Sausages were not something that… etc etc. A creative way to focus on sentence structure, collocations, creativity and I thought it might be challenging to be limited to the words in the title; constraints, paradoxically, can lead to more imaginative freedom and all that. And it seemed like fun to try it.
So I did.
Ah, OK, thanks – still weird though.

And Just When I Thought It Couldn’t Get Any Worse

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And to think that I’d lost my dear Gita that year too – the great-great-granddaughter of a slave; as hardy as they come, as loving as they come, taken from us way too early and for all the wrong reasons.
Just a simple family we were, working from hand to mouth down in the markets selling our soft handmade shawls and finest homemade pottery (Gita loved to teach our children how to do that and would’ve done it all for free too – as she often did) creating a good relationship with everyone there, never troubling anyone and never deserving of the bad luck that was to befall us back then – although, some would say that Allah had made plans for us that we would never have understood and, to be honest, I still don’t.
When I wasn’t doing rudimentary repairs on boats for just enough bida to get some sweet potatoes to go with the dry rice we hoarded, I would happily spend any free time helping my cousin Slamet with house repairs and making sure the raised houses had the right support; rainfall had started to worry us all (we had to get some fancy photographer to photograph the structures as a way of keeping track – although I lost all my photos years ago) and as it has been getting steadily worse for the last few years and no one wanted to risk losing their house, there were easier things to lose; there were more precious things to lose too.
I didn’t always work with boats, although those on my father’s side had, I managed to find my way into the palace working as a security guard; my father resented that move so much, told me I was born of a seafarer and was part of a seafaring family so that was to be my destiny and that of my sons too. Thought he’d ease up too with the whining and accusations of disrespecting the family tradition seeing as I was working for the palace now – a prestigious and, comparatively, well-paid job on the island – but he laid into me more than ever before.
It might have been the links to the Dutch East Indies that one of my wife’s uncles had had, or perhaps it was the new house we were planning on building that pissed him off so much back then. Couldn’t have been the money; I’d told him that it was only a little more than he was getting – although that was a lie, it was a lot more – but maybe someone had told him how much I was really earning and his pride had gotten the better of him: what else could’ve rattled his cage so much before the event that really put my foot in it and totally messed things up for real?
Get your ass out of that place – you got the stink of sultans on you, boy!” he would yell at me in some Wolio dialect that none save for us and a handful of old folk were able to follow. Any attempt to explain myself or to justify the many reasons we had for taking that job back then, just fell on deaf ears; there was no reasoning with people like him, and, disturbingly, especially not when he started waving his Keris around (our beloved ceremonial knife handed down from generation to generation) and threatening to migrate for good to the Maluku Islands leaving us to rot – which he would never have done, it was just his way of letting off steam; still, I think he really would’ve used his Keris on me if he’d have known what madness I was about to pull at the palace.
Worse things happen at sea they say, and they may be right, but I had gotten myself into some really bad gambling debt (a common problem on the islands) which forced me to do something that I will regret for the rest of my days – and may Gita forgive my foolish soul: I started to steal artefacts from the palace museum with the idea to sell them off in Baubau or even further away in Jakarta although it never got that far; like any delusionally affected gambler, I got greedy and lost nearly all the artefacts to some Irish madman in a now-infamous card game: I nearly lost everything (although, luckily, the museum never found out) and it took many more years than it should have to finish the house, and many drinks to calm my nerves after Gita left me to deal with my sins on my own, and many nights crying alone under the weight of my self inflicted suffering; and, even though I was tempted and bad luck continued to knock on my door, I never did work on them boats again.


 

OK, but what’s going on here? Feels weird, unfinished…
These short stories are a spin-off from some classroom creative writing activities I’ve been doing with advanced language learners. We elicit the sentence from volunteers word for word to get our “title”; we then have to make a story up using the words in the title as the first word for each new sentence in the story. You see what I mean? Imagine we elicit THEY EAT SAUSAGES FOR LUNCH. We’d then have to start our story with THEY: They told me that breakfast was almost illegal in their house. Eat what you want but not before eleven in the morning they used to say. Sausages were not something that… etc etc. A creative way to focus on sentence structure, collocations, creativity and I thought it might be challenging to be limited to the words in the title; constraints, paradoxically, can lead to more imaginative freedom and all that. And it seemed like fun to try it.
So I did.
Ah, OK, thanks – still weird though.

You’re The One Who

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You were the new angel that whispered on my shoulder
You were the snug shoe that wore my foot
You were the thick and thin of getting older
You were the diamond ring on my finger put

You were the unbeliever who believed in me
You were the turntable of time gently spinning around
You were the pitch blackness that we can’t always see
You were the ever bright silence that cannot be found

You’re the subtle fingers that goose pimples need
You’re the dryness of the morning after
You’re the advice that I forgot to heed
You’re the echo of fake laughter

You’re the music gap in musical chairs
You’re the slight dress with the unstitched slit
You’re the old plaster that pulls out hairs
You’re the bruised fruit with fruit flies on it

You’ve become the loose tooth in the dentist’s mouth
You’ve become the sacred charm on somebody else’s neck
You’ve become the broken moral compass with no south
You’ve become the sad captain’s pride in a shipwreck

You’ll always be the reason for my grass-stained knee
You’ll always be the edges of my out of sight
You’ll always be the excess charge of an over-priced fee
You’ll always be the deceptive hand of sleight

You might’ve been the soggy dumplings in my favourite stew
You might’ve been the picture in the oversized frame
You might’ve been the amnesiac that remembers all of you
You might’ve been the broken voice of regret that always sounds the same

You’re the spare tyre that is always flat
You’re the gift horse’s mouth that I can’t even see
You’re the cheap boiled bacon that keeps its fat
You’re the bite on the bullet no one wants to be

You’re still the delusion in a house of cards
You’re still the barking that has never been up the right tree
You’re still the misspelt address on never sent postcards
You’re still the writing on the wall no one ever wants to see

You were the Alfred in my toilet paper tale
You were the distant Thom in my Steinberg letter
You were the Cupcakes in my Chinaski jail
You were the only devil I knew better

You were the blackest hole I wanted to fall into
You were the brightest star to ever be blinded by
You were the bird’s eye with the best point of view
You were the unscrupulous truth told in the endless white lie