Five by five

It’s now that time of year when the Clarion West students are settling in to the six weeks of the writing workshop and some of the rest of us are shadowing them in the Writeathon.  This year I am using the writeathon to kick-start my writing in the Five by Five challenge: I have five writing projects and I intend to write 500 words on each of them every week.  I’m giving myself the weekends off, and each weekday I shall write 500 words on one of the five projects.  I will also spend at least five minutes a day on each of the other four – thinking, reading, researching, plot noodling, whatever.

Today it’s stupidly hot so I got up early to make the best of the cooler hours of the day, so I’ve already written my quota (616 words) on the near-future economic-change (“tax punk”) novel.  Plot noodling later. #fivebyfive

The Old Man and the Stars

I was looking back at my old LJ (here) and remembering the year of the 100 Rejections Project, when I was submitting stories regularly.  The first one accepted for publication was called The Old Man and the Stars, and it was first published by a now-defunct publication called Mixer Publishing.  Here it is again:

 

The Old Man and The Stars

Wendy Bradley

 

“Your name isn’t Jim,” she said.

She was human today; female, probably. Beige skin, china blue eyes and bright red hair, red the colour of strawberries. He remembered strawberries. That wasn’t right. Strawberries were red, not hair.

“Maybe not,” he said. “I could change, too. I’m an amiable guy.”

He thought about it for a moment. “Jim’s a good name. I could be a Jim.”

“Come back to bed,” she said sternly. “It’s cottage pie.”

That wasn’t right either. You don’t eat cottage pie in bed. Food goes on tables while people sit on chairs. Beds are for sleeping. And he wasn’t sleepy, he was almost certain.

He hadn’t killed her for a while, he thought, and there were bricks. In fact, now he looked, he seemed to be building a low wall on a dirt floor under a marmalade sky. The wall was three or four courses high, stretching in lazy curves with the lie of the land. He seemed to be adding a fifth course, round about knee height. He found there was a brick in his hand so he hit her with it, clean, smashing her skull like an egg. She lay awkwardly across the dirt floor on the other side of the wall like a broken doll.

“Really, Mr. Antrobus,” she said, “it’s time for some tea. And a biscuit, if you’re good.”

“Cottage pie first,” he said, “biscuits after.”

 

Today it was sand. Pale green, like ground glass, like walking on the remnants of a billion bottles of beer. He thought he remembered beer.

The ocean reminded him of beer, too. Straw-coloured, the colour of lager, the colour of piss. It rolled back and forth over the edges of the green glass beach making a sound like the hiss of the foam out of a bottle.

He thought she was a crab, but it might have been a lobster, scuttling alongside him, all claws.

“Come now, Mr. Antrobus,” she said. “This can’t go on for ever. Come inside. You must be cold. Have some hot beer and biscuits.”

“Nothing here is right,” he complained. He tried to stomp her but she was tricky, and he wasn’t wearing shoes. Barefoot in the head, he thought, but he couldn’t remember why.

“I’ll tell you what I DO remember. My name is Jim. And my surname isn’t Antrobus.”

“Oh Mr. Antrobus, you are so funny,” the lobster said. Or it might have been a crab. “Have some Bakewell tart.”

It was hopeless.

No, it wasn’t, he remembered. That was the point.

The sky above the bottle beach was bright and navy blue. He looked out onto the yellow ocean, but never thought to look up.

 

He was tied down on a bed with his feet in the air in stirrups. Green ceiling tiles looked down on him, the bubbles in the tiling making little smiley faces. He struggled against the stirrups, lifting his bottom off the bed and feeling the spikes beneath him as he squirmed, like lying on hairbrushes.

“Why are you doing this to me?” he said, pretty reasonably, he thought, under all the circumstances. She was wearing purple scrubs that brought out the fuchsia of her eyes, and her skin was the color of porcelain, Wedgwood blue. “I’m very fond of you, Mr. Antrobus,” she said, tightening the straps on his wrists.

“Please,” he said, “call me Jim.”

“Your name isn’t Jim. And you have to eat the rabbit.”

He was pretty sure he didn’t eat rabbit. But if he did, it was usually cooked first. And skinned. And dead.

“I only want to please you,” she said. “Tell me what you want.”

He tried to relax his muscles, let himself sink into the bristles. “I want a cup of tea,” he said carefully. “And a lemon meringue pie you eat with a knife and fork.”

It might have been the right answer. The bristles itched him, and the straps were gone. He used the fork to stab her in the throat. Her blood was purple too, he noticed.

“Mr. Antrobus!” she said crossly, “You haven’t touched your cake.”

 

His name was still Jim; that, he held on to, (although was his middle name really Tiberius?). He was stupid hungry and there wasn’t any tea.

He was back beneath the marmalade sky when he suddenly thought of the moon. When he glanced up, the world wavered, and she popped a champagne cork next to his ear that made him bleed, a little.

It was coming. Something. Something was coming. He held on to the skies. Marmalade or maple, neon or navy, day or night.

She meant him no harm. He was almost certain of it. But he was so hungry.

He steeled himself.

(“Mr. Antrobus. No,” she said faintly in his ear.)

He looked up, finally, through the casket window to the hanging stars.

 

 

Another year older…

I had a birthday.  (There are fabulous photographs here: the Sekrit Password is Bespin)

There are two things that have annoyed me about birthdays for the past, what, forty years or so.  First of all, for some reason I have always wanted to be given a Surprise Party, in the cheesy way they have on American tv shows, but having no Significant Other to organise one for me, it’s never happened.  But it’s a no-win situation: once you’ve got the thought in your head you are always going to be disappointed.  Every year I do something for my birthday, but every year however brilliant it is it fails to live up to the platonic ideal of the surprise party in my head, so it’s never quite enough.  And you just know that, if I finally do walk into a room and find everyone I love wearing party hats and yelling “surprise!” there will still be a part of me grumbling “well finally!  I’ve only been hinting for half a bleedin’ century!”  The things we do to ourselves!

No, I’m not asking you to *organise* a surprise party for me, I’m just trying to explain what’s going on in my head every year when it comes to my birthday.  I’m putting it out here now, officially, that I have accepted I will Never, Ever Have a Surprise Party and I’m putting it on the list next to Giving Notes to Keanu Reeves on His Hamlet and Having Lunch With Benedict Cumberbatch.  You know, the It’ll Never Happen list.  I’m OK with it, really.  I had a great time this year, and I really did have (just about) everyone I love in one room, and I’m letting it go.

But the second thing about birthdays is that I had this bloody therapy thing back in the day, when I was working at HMRC.  They sent me off for some individually tailored development sessions with a remarkably groovy advice/counselling/NLP service that included all sorts of useful 360 degree feedback, career planning and goal-setting stuff.  Trust me, it was excellent.

However.

One of the exercises was imagining your retirement party or your 60th birthday party and looking back on your life.  What would it be like, how would you feel about it…. and what did you have to do in the here and now to make the exciting possibilities you had envisaged actually come about.

And here I am.  I had a retirement party when I left HMRC.  And now I’ve had a 60th birthday party.  And, you know, there were speeches.  Kind friends and relatives looked back on my life with me and drew me a picture of it that made me go, yes, I think you’re right: it wasn’t so bad after all.  I can be a grown up, after all.  Thank you.

There was no-one there from the world of science fiction.  No-one.  And now I see that’s the part of my life I have let go, the plate I stopped trying to spin.

No, I have no conclusions to draw from this.  I just notice it, and move on.

 

 

The Abominable Bride

OK here’s my personal fantasy about the making of the Abominable Bride. Because you must have noticed, there was no Vinette Robinson (Sally Donovan, Lestrade’s sergeant).  Why not?  Did the writers miss Sally out because there were no black people in the nineteenth century? {insert eye roll here}

No: my theory is that the part of Watson’s random inefficient servant girl Jane was originally written for Sally.  And then Vinette Robinson (in my head anyway) read the script and went “you want me to be a maid? Who isn’t even any good?? Because she’s too busy fangirling S/W??? And then she puts on a Klan hood as part of the Evil Female Conspiracy???” And then in my head Vinette said many, many blunt anglo saxon words to Messrs Moffat and co and departed into the night. Possibly twirling a cape.

As I said, personal fantasy. (OMG I’ve committed RPF!)

If I still lived in London…

…I’d go to Harrods and walk around the food hall, and buy some quince jelly and manchego cheese and maybe some of their hand made ravioli with walnuts.  And I’d call in at Konditor and Cook for some lemon chiffon cake, light as air, and a box of the little fondant fancies that they call magic cakes.  Maybe pick up a chocolate croissant for tomorrow’s breakfast – but who can choose between the chocolate and the almond?  And then the brownies and oh, the walnut bread rolls!  I’d fill a freezer drawer with them, and have them with the manchego and the quince.  And then I’d go to Fortnums, for the milk chocolate coffee creams and perhaps a tiny, perfect, box of marron glace.

No, I don’t miss living in London.  That much.  But, if you wanted to send food parcels…

Good neighbours

Are you afraid of flying?  Spiders?  Clowns?  Most of us are afraid of something or other.  Let’s say spiders, like Ron in Harry Potter.  So if you were afraid of spiders, would you be happy to find Aragog the spider in your living room if someone said helpfully that “he won’t hurt you”?  Of course not: whether or not he’ll hurt you isn’t the point.  You aren’t afraid that a spider might hurt you, you’re afraid of spiders.

So let me tell you about the family who live up my road.  I don’t know them – they’re a fair bit further up my road than leads to casual conversation.  But since my operation I’ve been walking up and down the road a fair bit, because it’s half a mile to the bench and a mile to the Garden Centre, so I often get in my daily steps by walking either to the bench or to the garden centre and back.

The other day I walked past the house, and the kids were doing something or other in the front garden with their dad.  And their big goofy labrador was sitting just inside the gate watching the world go by, and the gate wasn’t shut.

Now I’m not phobic about dogs, but I’ve never had one and I’m not terrifically comfortable around them.  And I had abdominal surgery and I am (and I think legitimately) terrified of a big friendly dog jumping up and putting its weight on my scars.  So when big goofy dog saw me coming and wanted to make friends (and he was out of the minute gap between the gate and the fence in a flash) I froze.  He lolloped up to me… and the kids and dad all yelled “No Igor!” (or possibly Ivor) and the dad was out of the gate almost as fast as Igor/Ivor, collared him and firmly escorted him back inside the fence.  And shut the gate.  And said sorry.

See, that’s what you do if your dog is friendly to someone you don’t know.  You don’t let him have his moment and say “he won’t hurt you”.  Because it’s not up to you to judge what constitutes “hurt” for someone else.  You don’t know if the person is just a bit nervous around strange dogs, or has just had abdominal surgery, or feels about dogs like Ron Weasley did about Aragog.  That’s not within your control, or your responsibility.  Whereas your dog, is.  Thank you, thoughtful neighbours, and responsible pet owners everywhere.

The problem with fennel

Yes, I have a problem with fennel.  Every since we saw Star Wars in 1977 and wondered what Aunt Beru was cooking for breakfast, fennel has been one of those words which can make me laugh inappropriately.

(It’s also a vegetable that tastes like aniseed, and who wants a vegetable that tastes like aniseed?  I don’t even like aniseed balls much, and I have to be really drunk to start wanting absinthe or pernod.  And as for slicing it up and eating it raw in salads, are you insane???)

I forgot bloody Shakespeare, didn’t I?  There were four of us at #Hamletbatch last week, and I happened to be sitting next to my Old Friend From 1977, the person who had identified Beru’s Breakfast in the first place.

So if you were sitting behind us last week, and wondering why the two middle aged ladies started spluttering hysterically while poor old Ophelia was going off her head, well, blame Shakespeare…

…and Aunt Beru.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference…

So don’t talk to me about fennel.  Seriously.

Hamletbatch

This is not a review.  Because we went to see #Hamletbatch last Tuesday, when it was still in preview, and not tonight when it’s the press night. Although we still paid £85 a head and aren’t preview tickets usually, you know, cheap?

But anyway, this is not a review; just a few impressions.  And my first impression was the size of the Barbican stage.  I mean, it is big.  Build a castle banqueting hall and still have room for a grand staircase big.  A banqueting hall with room for a functioning antechamber off it big.  And then another room beyond that.  A staircase with a functional landing, with doors leading to other rooms or at least which are functioning entrances through which actors can come and go, big.  I mean, it’s a stage, but it’s big.

And of course this is not a review, but I couldn’t help noticing that everyone arrived and left at a rather athletic jog, because with a stage that size and a set that elaborate, you could hardly saunter thoughtfully off after a soliloquy without the audience expecting the characters in the next scene to go “Yo, Hamlet, how’s it hanging?” or the Elizabethan equivalent.

This isn’t a review, because we didn’t see the finalised production, so I can’t tell you whether “to be or not to be” finished up at the start of the play or whether it wandered back to its rightful place, but I can say that when we saw it, the opening scene was the wedding banquet.  Which, if I had been reviewing it, I’d have said was rather good: the banquet table set out with those grotesque animal relics posh people seem to collect.  Horns and antlers and an atmosphere of decay and decadence, like the production design we saw on the teaser posters.  And, if I were going to review the production, which of course I’m not, I’d say that the way Hamletbatch defied gravity and leapt up onto the table was quite… fetching <fans self>

No, this is not a review, but I have to go back to that set.  I mean, it’s BIG, I think we’ve established that.  Big enough for a banqueting table and a grand piano, big enough to bring in a toy fort big enough for an actor to play climbing up and down stairs inside it.  But once you’ve built it, it’s just there. So when you’re wandering around on the landing, doing the scene that usually takes place on the battlements, some members of your audience are going to think, well, why doesn’t he just go back to bed?  And why are there guards pacing around on the landing anyway?  And in the second half, when the same hall is ankle deep in what looks like coal and coke but which must surely have been largely foam rubber or else they must go through a lot of barefoot actresses, I kept thinking why has no-one noticed they’ve emptied a coal lorry into the living room???

But that’s just me, and this isn’t a review, so let’s move on.  I thoroughly recommend the gin and tonic ice cream.  But don’t have an actual gin and tonic, because (especially if you’re in the really good seats) there’s a hundred stairs between you and the ladies’ loos in the interval, even if you’ll move very slowly down some of them because that’s how far the bloody queue extends.

If this had been a review I might have mentioned the after-show ambience. Because the four of us decided that, as our collective ages added up to more than 200, we probably weren’t going to to and queue at the stage door for an autograph.  So we bought four drinks and found a table and sat down…

…only to find that the bar had almost instantly put its shutters down, and that, before the ice in my G&T had even started to melt, we found ourselves entirely alone in the cavernous wastes of an empty Barbican foyer.

We appeared at that point to be starring in a Pinter play as the only other life evident in the Barbican was the mouse truffling around the bins over to our left.  And then, after a Pinteresque pause, a solitary homeless man shuffled backstage right to front stage left trundling his possessions with him.  At which point we decided we didn’t want to be locked in for the night and left.

The queue for the £10 tickets for the following night were already camped out in their sleeping bags.  Who needs reviews?

Dalek

So I’m watching Dalek, the Dr Who episode where Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor comes face to face with the last remaining dalek imprisoned in a basement by a mad billionaire collector.  And, as daleks do, it escapes and a lot of redshirts get killed trying to stop it with bullets.

I mean, you’ve just watched all your colleagues get zapped and all their bullets bounce off it, but still you carry on firing?  There’s a bullshit line from the Doctor about the dalek being protected by a force field and if they concentrate their power they *might* get through, but really?  Does no-one think laterally?

What would you do if faced by a dalek?

Chuck a blanket or your coat or something over its eyestalk?

Drop a five ton weight on top of it?

Pump concrete into the room where it is till it’s encased?

Good grief, arm all your soldiers with cans of silly string and spray it till it disappears under a giant multi-coloured ball of string …

But don’t just keep firing bullets at it when you can see that it doesn’t work, OK?  Feel free to leave further suggestions in comments.

Hiatus

You might have noticed I haven’t been around on this blog for a while.  I had cancer, basically.

In February I was feeling depressed and a fellow PhD student suggested I get a sick note to take the pressure of a university deadline off me.  So I went to my doctors and explained I was depressed and they, bless their hearts, wrote me the sick note but also said they wanted to do some tests to rule out a couple of things.  So we ruled out ovarian cancer and … then we found endometrial cancer.

It was a Grade III (which means it was the tricksy kind of bugger that’ll kill you) but, after I went and had a hysterectomy, turned out to have been at Stage 1a, which means it’s wholly contained within the womb (and the womb is an organ they can take out and throw away so #fuckcancer to you, endometrium!) and hadn’t yet spread to the blood vessels.

So my fellow student and my GP between them more than likely saved my life, or at least made the difference between a 5% survival rate at five years (for a Grade III Stage 4) and a 95% survival rate at five years, which is what you get if you’re Grade III Stage 1a.

I have to go back every three months to be checked, and at the moment I’m getting over what turned out to be major abdominal surgery – they were originally hoping to do a robot assisted piece of Living In The Future wizardry but it turned out I had to have the Old Style zip-fastener-up-the-midriff version – but I’m remarkably OK.  And remarkably grateful still to be here at all.

Repeat after me.  #fuckcancer.  And, god bless the NHS.