A gull stands guilty over the decapitated body of a pigeon. Its breast has been ripped open and its heart and entrails torn out. It lies on its back, wings spread out to the sky. The gull flies away over the water. Other pigeons peck the dirt a short distance away. Life goes on. 9.46 am.
Someone’s painted a box on the ground beneath a cash machine. For demarcation against intrusion. For the protection of the PIN. For the exclusion of undesirables. The slot for the card has a green light flashing on/off, begging for custom. A man and a woman approach. I can hear the click of the slot opening. The woman is pressing the buttons, the man stands in the box as well. They leave. The light starts flashing again. The screen too is busy. It advertises Halifax financial services and exhorts users to protect against fraud or theft. In the corner of the box, dropped by a left hand as the right worked the machine is the torn, curled peel of a satsuma. 9.43 am.
It’s hard to count them, hard to measure them, hard to evaluate them. All of them on their way, all of them the centre of the Universe. It’s easy to hate them. It’s not so easy to love them, but I’m going to try.
People with instruments over their shoulders – I’ve seen several. Violins, guitars common. People with their faces fixed in an outsider grimace. People with their headphones in their ears. People with bags over their shoulders, people walking with a slow strut, figuring things out.
People flicking nervously with Railcards.
Fat people with their bellies overflapping their tight jeans and their breasts lumping hopelessly over their tight bellies. People who would look more comfortable naked, stripped clean of the grime of their city clothes. People sneezing and wiping their hands on their combat trousers while they talk on their mobile phones. Fat men reaching into their suit pockets for their tickets and then struggling with the machines. A lady pulling her wallet out of her pocket and at the same time a receipt pulling clear and dropping to the ground. She dials a number on her touchscreen mobile phone.
A running man with a guitar. It could be a bass. A man walking slowly, talking on the phone, with bags poking out of his bags. A woman on crutches, bent over, in a pink cardigan, slowly making for the ticket gates. A pause to get her ticket and then through as quickly as she can before they close on her hobbled legs.
Two young girls in electric blue dress and long leather coat strut past, both earphones in and faces on. A man in a button-down shirt, pink with checks, and sunglasses on his coiffured head walks past with his telephone in his hand, looking very sure, but at the same time trying to organise his head around the station concourse. His shoes are tan brown and he walks with a clip. A man walks past in fresh jeans and a polo shirt, a jumper neatly folded on his shoulder.
A family of pink child and empty pushchair.
A fat woman dragging a red bag along the floor. Two old fat women, struggling to walk but with their feet in sports shoes. A young girl, fat, with a bright yellow Selfridge’s bag. A man delicately holding a blue coffee cup – to take away, to throw away – picking his way through this unsuited mass to his train.
Woman running, another trying to, her breasts bouncing with the effort in high heels. Another trying to walk the floor into submission, determined. A woman runs past. And again. One end to the other. A lady with curly red hair pulls her suitcase past, smooth. Two young girls flop their sandals into the floor, their bellies thrust out, forcing their path with their sexual organs. Teenagers.
An old woman reaches into her bag, a pink and white check shirt thrown over her body, sizeable but in a friendly old woman kind of way. She walks with a limp and asks the platform attendant of the correct train. A man with an umbrella furled follows her and asks the same question. A man with a pencil moustache and a matching blue bag and two-tone blue jacket strolls past with his family.
A woman in violent green shirt.
All of these people breathing and thinking and calculating. Sweating, their skin and their flesh folding around their clothes. Nothing could be further from the truth, could it? Exhausted people, with hairspray and glasses, with their chins shaved that morning, their shirts ironed at some point recently. Their shoes polished – or not.
Their hair managed. A turn, a wave, a turn. Make up. A scratch, a bite of a fingernail. Belt tightly wrapped around corpulence. Phone pressed to ear. Wrist wrapped with watch. Shoes tied, jeans pulled up and fastened. Wallet with ticket, bank card, else. Shopping bag with items. Tears. A scarf. Hair tied back, pushed forward. A newspaper. Eyebrows managed – or not.
Healthy afternoon snack. Unhealthy life. Earphones. Mouths moving, feet walking. Breast and bellies. Attraction – or not.
Walk with a bounce, with a stutter. Feet damaged, groaning under a weight. Tears. A suitcase with a telephone number on.
A girl with tears in her eyes – or is that just the way she looks? I don’t know, but here she is again, walking slowly around the concession kiosk at my back. Tears. Can I count those tears? Can I measure those tears? Can I evaluate those tears?
Sitting facing the north bank, facing the city. Hays Galleria is behind and to my left. But in front of me, with her guns aiming at the men and women responsible for the financial market crash, is HMS Belfast. She is painted in two shades of grey. I wonder who designs the camouflage pattern? Does it change with each season? Of course there is building work going on even on the destroyer. Scaffolding swaddles two structures that I can’t make out. A man walks to the bow and presses a button on the bare flagpole. I can’t see what it is. CCTV? There is a red light shining at me. Two, in fact. They give the mild impression of a very small party boat. A rope of lights are strung over that bow section, above where the anchor is run. There is the sound of a hack saw working and the lapping of water around an motorised dingy.
A man poses for a photograph in front of the HMS Belfast, next to my bicycle. The man swaps places with his friend and the taker gets taken. He wears a circular patterned pink shirt. They speak foreign, words tumbling out of their mouths. Hindi, I think. Their camera is, of course, a telephone.
The city opposite, from where the rumble of cars drifts, is a hotchpotch of buildings, vying with each other in architectural folly. The Gherkin looms over a mock gothic / modernist building. A church pokes its spire up amongst them. Spread out on the riverbank is a regency mansion, but obscured by trees, the Belfast and daunted by the stature of the buildings behind it. Two British flags peer over the Belfast. A jogger, female, pants past behind me. Red buses cross London Bridge. I can see the heads of commuters in a steady stream crossing, mostly south to north. From London Bridge train station to offices on the north bank. The gulls have no such respect and fly west to east, towards the strengthening sun. 7.00 am.
Facing the cathedral, from the opposite bank, with the Tate Modern at my back. I can hear a constant hissing of water sprinklers for the small area of grass behind me. The wind in the birch trees shakes early falling leaves to the concrete, where they tumble about, scratching. Now the patpat of a jogger. Occasionally the squeak of a small bird. Underneath it all, the steady muffled traffic from the opposite bank, like the roar of waves onto the shoreline, wipes sound away, white noise over an orchestra. Another jogger, a boat engine, a gull, a jogger, a man walking to work with sunglasses on and earphones in. A leaf. 6.37 am.
The river divides London. The sun shines in my face. Ripples of the river look confused, striving one direction, pushed another. Birds, gulls, dip into the water, crawing. The bridge is quiet. Two men fall off the horizon towards the Tate Modern. Straight ahead is Tower Bridge, a landmark. Its perfect H is broken by some construction work in the background, there’s always some construction work. The wind is blowing her way, cold, pushing my jumper into my back, bringing up goose pimples.
Just to my left are the steps of St Paul’s. To my right is Shakespeare’s Globe and Bankside. The Tate Modern, a converted power station, looking like nothing more than a converted power station. Or possibly a piece of monumental Mesopotamian architecture, the blocks of structure riven by grooves that tear glass windows through the building. A jogger walks past me. A cyclist cycles the other way. It is forbidden to cycle on this bridge and the plates of the metal floor ripple like the water below as his weight rolls past. In the distance there is the syncopated rhythm of an alarm. It comes and goes with the wind, sometimes clear, othertimes indistinguishable from the background noise. Two police sirens, one from the city, one from Parliament converge. A boat powers through the water below the bridge. A private vessal, manned by white haired old men, pointing the way ahead.
I turn and face upstream, the wind in my face now. Five cranes on trucks are evenly poised on the next bridge west. Another three, static, crouch on the banks north and south. Building work. A structure is covered with scaffolding, a train station, I believe. Floating on the surface of the river to my right is a rubbish collector. A flotilla of gulls take in the sun near the bank to my left. A man in a suit carrying a green plastic bag walks towards the city, his hair, fine and grey, caught in the cross wind. 6.29 am.
A short walk from the steps of St Paul’s is Paternoster Square. The once tall monument stands, topped with golden thistle. Once tall, now surrounded by the same brushed limestone buildings that abut the cathedral, if in a more modernist style. At the foot of the monument are two table tennis tables, some summer event for the people. The square is faced by a chain supermarket, not yet open, two chain coffee shops and several restaurants. There is the sound of a barista pulling chairs and tables out onto the flagstones, a sound more suited to France or Italy, but transplanted here to London for the last of summer. I imagine they shall be pulling those chairs out, in hope more than expectation, well into winter. A place of refuge for smokers to huddle with their espressos and their cigarettes. A few people cross the square, heading for work in suits with no tie. Tie in pocket. A couple sit, as I do, on the stone benches that surround that extraordinary monument. A man near me drives sheep across the square, in bronze or cast iron. 6.09 am.
For the naval of the Anglicans, St Paul’s cathedral is a soulless place. There’s a cramped plaza in front, a road curving around it. It’s a simple road, one lane in either direction, lined with chain restaurants. In the pedestrian plaza, covered in swept stone, there is a chain supermarket, a chain bank and a chain coffee shop. The buildings are brushed limestone, uniform, grandiose. The statue in front of the cathedral, a king perhaps with divine advisers at his feet – is that Britannia? – is dwarfed by the buildings now, camouflaged stone. Pigeons scatter about the steps beneath me, working in uniform lines, like scenes of crime officers, scouring the steps for food or cigarettes. They make their way, walking steadily along the step and then up one, hopping. They don’t fly, careful, their heads bent to the ground. Occasionally they’ll peck at some unseen morsel. The clock strikes six am.
And I’ll stalk you.
My ears are bleeding. They’ve been bleeding for about three days now. I’m not going to go to the doctor. There’s no point. I’ve diagnosed myself: it’s my girlfriend. We had an argument three days ago and I haven’t apologised. I know it’s her because they started bleeding as soon as I said, ‘You can take the damned rubbish out!’ I’m pretty confident it’s voodoo or a curse or something. I’d never noticed her interest in black magic before, but it just goes to show: you never really know people do you?
I am leaving, you shall be glad to hear, on the 9 a. m. train. You shan’t see me again, I can assure you. But there are one or two “home truths” I feel compelled to deliver before I depart. One: I have never appreciated your dress. You should know that opulence will never conceal a poverty of spirit. It reminds me, in fact, of eighteenth century whoredom.
Number two, a related point: I should hate to acquaint myself too closely with your kind for fear of contracting some terrible “social disease”. I cannot believe that our ancestors shared common genetic material, but it is not unknown for a stubborn virus to cross from a degenerate species to a more successful genotype, like a rat fleeing a sinking ship.
Thirdly, I love you; I shall bring you dysentery from the Amazon and cholera from the Indus.
Introduction to deliberate sacrifice
The word ‘sacrifice’ has very negative connotations. It is my aim in this essay (2000 words) to break those negative connotations and turn the word into a powerful tool to get you motivated and achieving the things you want in your life.
Everybody in their life makes sacrifices. Every time you choose one thing over another, you are making a sacrifice. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, certainly not in terms of sacrifice. My decision to have a beer is very rarely taken in the light that the next morning I will sacrifice some mental acuity.
But if you start making deliberate sacrifices then you will create a coherent life, where everything you do is targeted towards your goals. Drinking heavily is not coherent with my chosen goal of writing – so I will sacrifice drinking.
The basic idea is that most people need to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Most people have to earn a living to look after themselves, their families, their homes. This means that if they want to achieve something over and above these basic demands on their time and resources, then they must make sacrifices, deliberate decisions to forego things that damage their chances of success. But this need not be negative. I argue that deliberate sacrifice is a great thing, giving you purpose, motivation, drive and achievement.
5 Reasons why deliberate sacrifice works
1. Deliberate sacrifice commits you to your goal
If I decide to wake up every day at dawn, then every morning I’m going to think: ‘What the **** am I doing up this early? I could be in bed!’ But if the decision was a deliberate sacrifice, then I will have a convincing answer to this question. I am up at this absurd hour because I want to write. I want to be a published writer. I want to entertain readers. Without this sacrifice I realise that I won’t make it. So I had better make good use of the time, or it will be a wasted sacrifice and I really might as well have spent the time in bed. The more you sacrifice, the more you had better succeed.
2. The act of sacrifice gives you a strong motivation for your goal
From the commitment, comes motivation, almost without asking for it. Doing something a lot forces you to ascribe value to it. This increases your motivation for doing this valued task.
3. The act of deliberate sacrifice gives you purpose and drive
Because you have chosen the sacrifice to direct yourself towards your goal, your life becomes a conduit for that goal. It makes you appear driven and feel driven, which becomes a virtuous circle. The more you do it, the better you feel about it and the better you become.
4. Deliberate sacrifice makes your life choices easier
You now have a convincing answer – convincing both to yourself and to others – to queries and temptations. What are you doing to achieve your goal? Do you want to come out and get smashed tonight?
5. Sacrifice is noble and will give you respect and self-respect
Saints make sacrifices. People will respect you for making the sacrifice. It shows that you are serious about achieving your goal. Of course, a lot of writers have found success from writing 10 minutes a day for 25 years, but making large sacrifices to find 2 hours a day will vastly increase your chances of success. Sacrifice is a noble pursuit, it gives structure to your life where before there was just a hotchpotch of unstructured haphazard ideas. I had the goal of becoming a writer for about ten years, but until I started making big sacrifices, it never felt like a realistic prospect. It was always just a loose collection of dreamy ideas: some day I would make it. I would write one day and not again for a week. I would jot down a bunch of story ideas. I would read a couple of books about writing. But after making significant, deliberate, sacrifices, people can see that I take myself seriously. I have their respect (until they read my book – ha!) and I have my own self-respect.
Sacrifice and Priorities
Sacrifice is not the same as prioritising.
Sacrifice is the action that backs up your priorities. A priority (or a goal) is meaningless if it doesn’t require a sacrifice to achieve it. It would have no value. It would be farcical to ‘prioritise’ eating lunch. It does mean something to prioritise writing a novel. This is a huge commitment and demands huge sacrifices.
Prioritising is the decision to do something, sacrifice is the doing.
For example, I have prioritised writing. But what does that mean? The only thing that means is that I need to find time to write. It is the sacrifice that tells me what I should do. It tells me that I should get up early, which means that I must sacrifice my evenings, which means that I must sacrifice a large part of my social life and that I should sacrifice drinking alcohol. OK, now we have some actions.
Because the sacrifice is deliberate (directed towards my goal) I now know why I am getting up early, why I am not going out late, why I am not drinking.
How to sacrifice deliberately
Know your goal
Make it one goal. There is enough going on in your life already. Focussing on one goal at a time will greatly increase your chances of success. If you have many goals (like me), just start with one.
Work out what it is you need to achieve the goal
Usually just time. Sometimes space, sometimes resources.
Work out the sacrifices
Work out if you think the goal is worth each sacrifice. Usually, any sacrifice is worth it if you want your goal enough. If you don’t want the goal enough to make the sacrifice, then you probably want to find another goal – or you are happy with your life as it is!
Work out the secondary sacrifices
These are sacrifices that flow from your initial sacrifices. My initial sacrifice was simply to get up early. But that means no evenings, no social life, no drinking. Make sure you are OK with these secondary sacrifices, otherwise your primary sacrifice will collapse and your goal will fail.
Choose the sacrifices
Now choose to make the sacrifices. Think about your justifications for the sacrifice, be ready for your own doubts and the doubts of others. Get that glint in your eye, the determination for your sacrifice and for your goal.
A Sacrifice Audit
There are four varieties of sacrifice. Examine the sacrifices you are making in your own life and decide what type they are and (ideally) make sure that they are voluntary and worthwhile.
1. Voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you have decided to make
You know why you are making them and you are happy with them. It is important that these sacrifices are also worthwhile. If they are not actually helping you towards your goal, then you are just playing a martyr for no good reason – relax and stop making things harder for yourself. Also keep reviewing your sacrifices. I might find in a few months that I become more disciplined and that I am able to write 2 hours a day without making the evening sacrifice. Who knows.
2. Sacrifice by extension: Sacrifices that flow from other sacrifices
These are the secondary sacrifices that flow from your primary, voluntary sacrifices. Make sure you are aware of these AND are happy with them. If you are not, then your primary sacrifices won’t last either. For example, for the sake of my writing, I have sacrificed my late evenings for early mornings. That is fine. But it also means that I am sacrificing a large part of my social life. I really need to be in bed by 10.00 or 10.30 at the latest. Any later than that and I suffer the next day. You can see the conflict with this sacrifice and my social life. Especially living a good 30 minute cycle from most of my friends.
3. Non-voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices that you have not consciously decided to make, but that you are making anyway
Make sure you realise what these are and that you are happy with them. If you are happy, then they are after-the-fact voluntary sacrifices. If you are not then they are after-the-fact involuntary sacrifices. Turn these non-voluntary sacrifices into deliberate sacrifices. If you can pin these phantom sacrifices down, then you will become much more self-aware and even more focussed. For example, because I’m not going out in the evenings a lot, I’m not socialising a lot and because I’m using my time for writing, I’m not putting time and effort into my romantic life. So I am single. I have only recently become aware of this sacrifice, yet it is a sacrifice that I am inadvertently making anyway. Am I happy with it? It is impossible to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. But I know one thing: it gives me more time for writing!
4. Involuntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you are making that you really don’t want to have to make
You have deliberately decided not to sacrifice this, but you are anyway, against your will. The more of these that you have in your life, the unhappier you will be. Don’t expect to eliminate all of them, but try to come to terms with them. You may find that some of them are sacrifices by extension without which you will blow your goals. I regret having to spend less time with friends, but have come to terms with it, transforming it (sometimes) into a voluntary sacrifice. If these sacrifices become overwhelming, take a sacrifice holiday. Break your involuntary sacrifices for a day and come back tomorrow, refreshed and more focussed. I have toyed with the idea of taking Sundays off, but I haven’t yet because I have been enjoying the focus and determination that comes with the sacrifices. Just make sure that you are sacrificing the right day – for example, if you want to take Sunday off, make sure you drink on Saturday night – not Sunday!
A road map of sacrifice (thanks to Dan)
- Our time on earth is scarce.
- We can’t do everything.
- We must make a choice.
- To enable this choice we must make a trade-off with other potential choices: a sacrifice.
- By consciously sacrificing the things we haven’t chosen, we give value to our choice.
- The more it hurts to make the sacrifice, the more we value our choice and the more determined we are to achieve our goals.
- Sacrifice gives value to our goals. It gives meaning, drive, motivation and, perhaps, happiness.
Where this idea came from
This theory of sacrifice grew out of my own experience and my readings of how other people have achieved the things that they have wanted to achieve in life. Because of my interest in writing, my examples come from writers. Murakami wrote in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ of the sacrifices that he made in his life when he decided to work on his writing full-time. He wrote of the decimation of his social life. He wasn’t upset by this sacrifice, but it really brought it home to me: for this to work, you must make sacrifices. Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hours theory of success. Whilst I realise this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I am nowhere near that figure. This isn’t going to work without hard, hard work: so where am I going to fit those 10,000 hours in? Sacrifices must be made.
You don’t have to look far for writers who made sacrifices – and they are generally not the clichéd ‘starving artists’: Jack Kerouac lived with his mum, Vladimir Nabokov lived in hotels most of his writing life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a house in the woods and lived there for more than two years. By simplifying theirs lives and making those sacrifices, they carved out the time and resources they needed for their writing. Sometimes the sacrifice isn’t voluntary and this inadvertently becomes the making of the writer. Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in gaol, Anne Frank’s horrific sacrifice was the writing world’s gain, likewise Primo Levi. Erwin James was just a brutal murderer until he was imprisoned and became a famous diarist.
I am lucky enough to be in a situation where my sacrifices can be deliberate choices and that I have the opportunity that sacrifice brings to make my life the life I wished for.
I loved her from the minute I first saw her. You didn’t think that could happen, but it does. She didn’t show much interest in me. She didn’t even seem to see me, to be honest with you. And she was talking on the phone to her boyfriend. So there was no point trying to talk to her, was there?
A year later we got talking, me and her. I found out that she didn’t have a boyfriend any more. To my surprise we really got on. For a month or so we spent every minute we could together. But I was scared, not like I was with you. I couldn’t deal with it. A couple of times I stayed over at her house, but nothing happened. A couple of times she stayed over at my place, but nothing happened.
Then she got another boyfriend. And I met you.
That’s the facts on the ground.
A review of: What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is a writer (and runner). That, according to the final pages of this book, is how he would like to be remembered on his tombstone. And, according to the vague thesis of this book, writing and long-distance running are not dissimilar. In fact, Murakami says that everything he knows about writing, he learnt from running.
So what was that?
To be able to write, you need the write tools.
As you appear to be reading this website, I will assume that you already have a computer. If not, then skip the next two items: they are for people with computers. I should say now that computers are not essential for most of the phases of writing, but they sure as hell save a lot of time later on (unless you have a secretary.)
1. Download this program: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html
yWriter is an incredible (free) tool for creating whole novels out of thin air. You create Chapters and then Scenes in Chapters and then fill them up with words. You can also use all kinds of complicated extra things like Characters, Locations and Items – but I don’t bother. I just focus on the actual writing bit. You can even set a writing targets and the program will chilly-chally you until you’ve finished.
2. Use this website: http://750words.com/
Very very (stupid) simple website that practically forces you to write 750 words a day. You can use this to make sure you write a bit on your novel every day (you get points for hitting 750 words on a day, which then doubles up to make bowling-esque streaks) – or you can just use it like I do for a morning brain dump. Morning brain dumps will make you happier and healthier (apparently), encourage you to get writing and hopefully get all your rubbish words out in one fell swoop, leaving your gold-encrusted mots for the main event.
3. Buy books with blank pages.
This is not a facetious comment. You wouldn’t write in a book that had words in it, so why write in a book that has parallel lines all over the page? How on earth do you hope to write creatively cramped between ruled lines? It just makes no sense to me. Moleskine do nice ones with blank pages. They’re not too big either so will get filled up fast, leaving you with a great sense of achievement. Once you have notebooks, carry them around with you. Note how I use the plural for notebooks. Different notebooks for different occasions. I have little Moleskine ones for portability and big open-up-flat ones for my desk and – important – for my bedside. Always have a notebook by your bed. This is where your best ideas will come. There and on a long walk somewhere. Make sure you have notebooks in these two places.
4. Buy pens.
A lot of pens. Have pens everywhere, in every coat pocket, on your desk, in your hat band – you do have a hat, don’t you? Pens are more important than paper. Paper you can improvise, pens you can’t (without getting blood everywhere.)
So those are your tools. Not too hard, not too expensive. To be honest, the tools aren’t the thing, the thing’s the writing.
I’m looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. It is brown-red and made from cement. Discoloured in places, chewing gum pressed into its surface. At least, I think it’s chewing gum. I control an urge to fall down upon the floor, to feel its smooth stone, to feel its dust, to press my face into its cold comfort. But I won’t because I know that, if I do, they might I-don’t-know-what me.
This floor has felt the shuffle of endless feet over the last four years, felt those feet force themselves over its warning floors to the security machines and search areas ahead. Lines of people, patiently everyday, submitting to the architecture of the checkpoint, squeezed through cattle cages, cramped between bars, sent across this floor for the impertinent approval of occupiers.
I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look at the walls, covered with the language of occupation:
‘Insert your documents into the window and await further instructions.’
‘Deposit your bags in the conveyor belt, stand back and await further instructions.’
‘Keep the terminal clean.’
I cannot read these signs any more, especially not the one over there that reads, ‘Emergency Exit.’ There are some I can’t read anyway, written in those block capitals, another angry order.
I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look into the faces of the people waiting beside me. In front there’s a mother, a baby lolling over her shoulder, its eyes fixed by my foreign face. The little boy there, no more than eight, carrying a box of chewing gum for sale, hopeful my foreign pockets will hold change. The pretty young girl behind me, dressed in blue, heading for school. The teenager leaning on the bars, his first moustache faintly showing, an echo perhaps of his father – where is his father?
I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look at the soldiers who hide behind bullet-proof glass, whose orders distort the intercom, who target these unwanted citizens. I cannot look at this soldier, just a youth, as he interrogates the young woman in front – Where is your brother? Where is your father? I cannot look at that other soldier, her feet up on a soft chair, insolently idle on her mobile, talking in a tough voice about something.
I am looking at the floor because there’s nowhere else to look any more. I cannot look outside, beyond the cages, to the cars crawling past soldiers who carry weapons like magic wands, turning princes into frogs. I cannot watch as families are kicked out and the search begins for they-don’t-know-what. I cannot face the watchtower, standing sinister with battlefield views over the wall, the concrete strips of the wall, each one connected like Lego to the last, the least imaginative construction, the efficient architecture of control.
No, I can’t look anywhere else any more so I am looking at the floor. This brown-red cement floor, the foundation of this prefabricated building, this prefabricated checkpoint, this prefabricated state.
I’m eating her apricots.
They’re all I have left.
They’re fleshy and sweet and soft from time. The innards make my fingers and my mouth sticky. Every ravenous bite reminds me of her sweetness. But she’s long gone.
‘You’ll want these,’ she’d said, as she threw me the bag of apricots. That was almost a week ago and now, reluctantly, I agree that she was right. I didn’t want to eat the apricots, the last of our love, but I’m going to have to. I’ll intend to save one or two in her honour, but I know that I’m going to eat the whole bag and then all I’ll have is gut trouble. It’s one of those times in life when a metaphor imposes itself so strikingly that you can’t do anything about it. You know that you’ll fulfil the misery of the metaphor and your life will disappear down the wrong course.
I’m down to the last one already. I’ve eaten so quickly that my fingers are sticking together and my mouth is dripping with juices. The bag hangs like a sling shot, heavy with the last fruit. After this there will be nothing left of our love except an empty bag and my gut trouble. I take the apricot out of the bag and admire it. It seems to be the most delightful apricot that ever grew. It’s perfectly globoid, perfectly coloured, perfectly scented – a temptation of biblical proportions. It is without blemish bar a single mole near the stalk – like she has above her mouth when I kiss it.
She could have simply left me quite alone with nothing more than a goodbye if she had wanted to teach me a lesson, but she wanted me to suffer. She understood the metaphor. She knew that I would be forced to devour the apricots one by one as my hunger overtook my love. Yes, she knew about the metaphor already. She wanted me to see the bag and the apricots, to feel the pangs of hunger as they grew and grew, to smell the delicate apricots as they teased my taste buds. So she had thrown the bag down in the hole with me, after she pulled up the ladder.
‘I’ll be back in a month,’ she said, ‘If you really love me then you won’t be tempted, but if you don’t, then you’ll want these.’
Then she threw the apricots down.
There’s a hill overlooking Jerusalem that you can get to in a couple of hours. The view from the top is splendid and so peaceful. So a friend and I headed out there one morning, to get away from the city dust. We took bus number 185 to the end of the line, which set us down at the bottom of the hill in a small village. We reached the summit just as the heat was becoming stronger and rested under the shade of a few olive trees. Neither of us said a word, but just admired the view of the white city, the hills and the valleys spread out before us in the sparkling sunlight. Then, as we caught our breath from the walk and the beauty, we were surprised to see an old man approaching us carrying an urn and some glasses.
‘Good morning. You want tea?’ he asked.
I looked over at my friend, ‘Thanks. That would be lovely.’
Dropping a tea bag into each glass, the man poured us the most fragrant tea, scented with cinnamon. As we held the hot glasses, he stood with us, looking out over the city.
‘Do you live around here?’ I asked with interest, for there was no habitation on this particular hill, just the old olive trees and the view. The old man must have walked a long way just to give two tourists a glass of tea. The old man didn’t move his gaze from the valley below.
‘No, my home is down there, do you see? Where the red roofs are.’
My companion and I looked down on the bright new villas that he indicated.
‘Oh that’s beautiful!’ I exclaimed.
‘Not for me,’ the old man answered, ‘That is my home, but I haven’t lived there for sixty years. Those houses are new, other people live there now.’
The old man didn’t say anything.
We continued looking down in silence, but the view had changed and the air suddenly became a little stifling. After a moment or two more, the old man shuffled behind us with his urn and sat down. I took a sip of tea. It tasted good, sugar and cinnamon. I took the tea bag out of the glass and hurled it in the direction of the settlement. It flew towards the sun, glinting with its moisture, before starting to dip down towards the earth. But as it did so, something happened. Its spinning arc evened out and it began to return, to home in on us. Startled, I ducked as the tea bag flew back at me and my companion. Then it landed gently in front of us, on a rock. It was the origami of a beautiful butterfly, with iridescent wings and drops of tea for eyes. It sat on the rock before us, a miracle.
We turned around to look for the old man, but he had disappeared.
In the bus station everyone is waiting. Buses are coming and going and we could jump on any one of them. But we don’t. We always wait for the bus that we have bought a ticket for, the one that we intended to catch when we arrived at the bus station. It seems perverse that, in a world where pretty much everything else gets fucked up, we are so militant about catching the buses we bought tickets for. I reckon we should be forced onto almost any bus except the one we intended to take. That would make more sense here.
I tried explaining that to my girlfriend, on the phone, as my bus left the bus station. She was waiting for me at the restaurant and was pleased I called. But then she got angry so I hung up, my bus heading into the night, god knows where.
Quarter farthing, half peasant,
Walks into a lonely pheasant,
Two of each and four of none,
When time and tusk is said and done.
The fallow rumble of the tweed,
Whilst my hands and feet do bleed,
The twisted wrench of father time,
Is bitten in the wind of rhyme.
Distant cross of twitchy tales,
Are floating in the foaming gales,
All is one and one is fun,
When in the nighttime death is done.
Shadows on the wall are deep,
And crowded all about are sheep,
I cannot hear the thrust of knife,
As twitchy wench departs this life.
It could be me, it could be thee,
And devils in the wake make three,
For thine is twine and mine is crime,
And now her blood soaks in the grime.
I cannot sorrow, sorrow tell,
For one and all is raised and fell,
Ditchy death departs at dawn,
And this house is to be forlorn.
Once upon ago, there was a young genie called Eric. Eric grew up just like all the other genies, he played with magic carpets and stayed away from lamps, he went to genie grad school and learnt to do amazing cool things. He could fly like a bird, swim like an otter and eat like an elephant. He could turn princes into princesses, princesses into peas and peas into war. He could Open Sesame, Open University – even open walnuts. He could stir up love potions, hate potions or soup oceans. He could part the waves, part the heavens or just part your hair. Eric could do all these genie things and more – but there was something wrong. No matter how many princesses were turned into peas, Eric was still dissatisfied.
Eric didn’t want to be a genie just like all the other genies – he longed to be different. One day, a day much like all the other days of his adolescence, Eric the young genie was sulking. He was sitting on a rock, among lots of other rocks on a rocky seashore, throwing peas into the soup ocean while grumbling to himself. Suddenly there was an almighty crack and a gigantic genie with a big beard struck down in front of him like a lightening bolt from the sky.
“Hey, you,” the newcomer bellowed, “You, young genie – what are you moaning about? Don’t you realise how lucky you are to be a genie? Are you not a spectacular magician? Do you not make the sheep walk on tiptoes and compel all the cats to speak Russian?”
Eric squeaked in fear at the sight of this awesome genie, but managed to stammer a reply, “Oh yes, Master, I’m a very competent wizard all right, but…’
“But what, boy?”
“But…I feel a bit ordinary,” said Eric in a small voice, designed for mice.
“Ordinary? ORDINARY? Would you call producing a rabbit from a reservoir ordinary?”
“Well, no, but…”
“But what, boy?”
“But, everyone – all the other genies can do that as well. I’m not a particularly special genie. If someone wants their cows enchanted or a magic potion made, they can go to any old genie anywhere. Maybe they’d come to me, maybe not – I don’t give them anything different. I look it up in the big old tomes of genius that we all have and there we go – just like anyone.”
“Hmm,” (when this genie “hmm-ed”, all the rocks rattled and the earth shook) “You really are a dissatisfied little genie, aren’t you?”
Then Eric grew bold, “And, honestly, I think turning princesses into peas is a little pointless – if only I had a good reason for humans to come to me, then maybe…”
At this, the gigantic genie with the big beard cracked his staff on the rocky cliff face (which promptly split in two) and cried out in a mighty voice, “Well, if you’re so miserable as a genie, boy, then I shall strip you of ALL your powers and turn you into a pathetic pauper, forced to labour on the King’s farm all year!”
Eric opened his mouth in protest –
“But,” the gigantic genie continued, “For the month of January alone, you will become a genie again. You will be responsible for one thing only: making sure humans stick to their New Year’s Resolutions. You will be the genie that makes people change their lives – you will be the Genie of January.”
Eric leapt up for joy and shouted, “Oh thank you, thank you, Master!”
As the gigantic genie vanished in a puff of perfume, Eric ran off with great excitement and set about helping people change their lives. He gave a love potion to an old friend who wished but never spoke, he taught a defenceless old woman karate overnight, he won a sergeant major the ballerina contract he’d always dreamt of and, on a kitten, he put a set of angel wings so that it could dive bomb the neighbourhood dogs.
Oh yes – you’ve never seen a busier or happier genie than the Genie of January! But every year, on February the 1st, Eric sets down his genie’s staff and turns into a common labourer, just like you or me. He works long hours in hard labour for eleven months, but, even so, there’s always a smile on his face. Eric doesn’t grumble any more because he knows that, come the New Year, he’ll be bringing hope, motivation and courage to people all over the world. Every year there are millions of people who change their lives for good and never look back. They don’t know who to thank, but the Genie of January is always smiling.
Nah, this isn’t some kind of stupid ass fan love-in. I’m not going to go on about the deep philosophical meaning of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan’s written some real rubbish you know? ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is kinda funny, but it ain’t no deep and meaningful classic that’s for sure.
But that’s the point. He recorded a lot of pretty dreadful songs – his muse completely deserted him for long periods of his career – but he still wrote songs, he still recorded them, he still turned up for work, waiting patiently, putting in the hours until lightening struck again. And it did.
And when it did, he was still there, ready to put it down.
There are three elements to this philosophy of his (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t call it that, but hey):
- Just turning up is heroic. The Never-Ending Tour is symbolic of this. He does 100+ shows a year and of course not all of them are mind-blowing – but he still turns up, in case it is.
- There is no such thing as personal creative genius, just hard work. Bob has shown us that it’s OK to have creativity problems (jesus, if Bob has problems then I reckon we can), but we’ve got to make sure we keep working at it.
- The art work is a life commitment, don’t rush in, take your time, relax and it will come. When he didn’t include ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Infidels, one of his diabolical mid 80s albums, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:
Relax. It’s just an album – I’ve done thirty of ’em.
Sure enough, it turned up on the excellent Bootleg Sessions collection – a much grander setting for one of greatest blues songs ever written.
So here it is, the answer to the question every writer asks themselves: how the blue blazes do I manipulate the Nobel committee into giving me a prize?
I copied the extracts (presumably the most representative quotes) of the Nobel prize for literature citations from the Wikipedia page. Then I copied it into the AntConc corpus program. These were the, revealing, results:
- Write poetry – or, at the very least, literature in a poetic or lyrical style.
- Drama and epic novels are next best.
- Consider yourself an artist, produce pieces of art.
- Write about the human condition and the world, ideally paying attention to historical truth.
- Don’t stop: the Nobel prize rewards your life’s work, it will take time.
- Force, power, strength and realism are rewarded.
- But so are lofty spirit, deep thought, rich imagination and idealism.
- Ideas are good, style is important – but neither are as important as narrative.
- It is good to be contemporary, better to be traditional, but best of all to be new.
- Your work should be great, inspired, brilliant, clear and outstanding – in that order.
- If you follow these guidelines then you will claim recognition and tribute – and possibly freedom.
What is it to write stories? How do you come up with them? Is there any secret?
No. You just have to wait and listen. Every minute of the day there’s a million things passing through your brain and if you’re ready and listening it’s not hard to catch hold of the tail of a story and just reel it in.
I don’t sit and plan, I don’t think hard with sweat and blood of something I want to say and then hack out a scenario to fit; no. I just feel around for a few words to start and then push the ball off the top of the hill. The story does the rest.
For example, Chemistry was just a couple of words that came to me as I walked up Wittenham Clumps: ‘The second time he came…’. I knew this wasn’t enough so I added ‘…I was ready.’ to finish off the first sentence. That was plenty to get me started when I sat down on a bench overlooking the woods of the Clumps. That suggested the forest location and the rest was just one word following another.
Last night a story passed through my brain as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t sleep too well and so I thought I’d just have a little play with some words, the beginnings. The beginning is always the best bit of composing. It’s just getting a feeling and a flow. If you get the beginning right then the rest tends to follow.
In terms of inspirational habits – I don’t think it is a case of inspiration. It’s a case of relaxing and opening your mind. Never go hunting for a story: you might catch one, but you’ll probably have to kill it first. Walking is very good, as is any exercise. Going somewhere else is very refreshing. I wrote a lot in Egypt, for example. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story just sitting at my computer. That’s where having a little typewriter like the AlphaSmart Neo comes in very handy. Last night Snowcat came to me in a state of relaxation; after lying in the darkness, after reading a little fiction, after eating a little dark chocolate. Did these things help? Probably, but they’re not necessary.
I didn’t see a damn thing, but she seemed pretty convinced.
‘I saw him! The Snowcat – over there – I did!’
‘OK honey, just keep hold of my hand, it’s slippery out here.’
I scanned the ground quickly for paw prints, but you don’t see paw prints of the Snowcat.
‘I saw him, I saw him! Let’s go!’ You could hardly tell the ground from the sky, everything was so white and grainy, like an old black and white TV on the static channel after the shut down. But I guess Ellie had sharper eyes than I did.
‘Which way’d he go honey?’
‘Thatta way!’ Her paw thrust out in her red mittens, out into the snowscape over there, towards the forest. The light was beginning to gloom, ready to play tricks on the eyes. It was only about four o’clock but already the horizon was submerging into the ground. They’d be no sunset tonight.
‘We’ll just walk a little way, OK?’
‘Aw! I wanna track Snowcat properly! You promised!’
‘Yes I know I promised, but that was this morning. It’s getting late now.’
We’d been walking the snow fields around the cabin for about four hours now, she never got tired. This was one game she never got tired of. Every year since my father, her grandfather, told her the story of the Snowcat about six Christmases ago, she’d wake up too early on Boxing Day morning and go running into dad’s room, yelling, ‘Granpa, Granpa, wake up – it’s time to go Snowcat tracking!’ And off they’d go, all wrapped up in new mitttens and coats and boots with a pack of left-over turkey and they’d traipse around the snow fields and the forest for hours until she got tired. Then they’d come home as the sun was going down, totally exhausted, and she’d fall asleep with a mug of hot chocolate, listening to dad’s stories about the Snowcat. This was the first year without Granpa, so I was conscripted as tracker. I wasn’t surprised, but today we’d not seen any sign of the elusive Snowcat – until now.
‘Please mommy! Please let’s track the Snowcat properly!’
I looked warily at the horizon, at the few flakes drifting down and at my daughter, her lower lip red from the cold. If I turned around I could just see the sun disappearing through the clouds over the town and, up ahead, the light of the moon filtered weakly over the forest of the Snowcat.
‘OK honey, but we’ll track him just to the forest and that’s it, your father will be wondering what’s happened to us.’
She gave a little yelp and dragged me off in the direction of the invisible tracks.
I had been worried about how it would be without dad to lead this mischievous wild goose chase. Ellie was always so excited about tracking the Snowcat, it was all she would talk about for weeks before Christmas and all she would talk about for weeks afterwards. She had been getting increasingly desperate as the day wore on without any sight of the Snowcat, without my father to help her. But she was a persistent little madam and we kept on through the snow, searching the ground for the invisible tracks. As we tracked him, she recited the story of the Snowcat, word for word, as she’d memorised it from dad.
‘The Snowcat is a very rare beast. He sleeps all year round tucked in the hollow of a tree – except for one day a year and one day only. He only wakes up when he hears the laughter of the little boys and girls – but it’s got to be loud and clear, not just any old laughter. You can’t fool the Snowcat!’ She shouted the last bit happily, like he’d always done.
‘And what’s the day that all the little boys and girls are laughing? Why it’s Boxing Day of course! That’s the day when all the little boys and girls are let out to play with the presents they got for Christmas. So the Snowcat walks the earth on just this one day of the year and he’s almost invisible because his coat is so so white and snowy that he just blends right into the ground and the snow. And the Snowcat doesn’t leave any footprints at all because his feet don’t melt the snow because he treads so softly, like a snowflake. That’s why he’s called the Snowcat.’
She looked up to check I was still listening. I smiled and squeezed her hand.
‘The Snowcat walks all around the town and the fields – no one sees him and no one hears him because everybody is so happy playing and having fun and his tracks are invisible and his coat blends in with the snow. He listens to all the little boys and girls laughing and playing and then, when the sun goes down, he goes back to his hollow tree to sleep the rest of the year. And – I forgot a bit! – And he’s got huge ears, like trumpets, and they soak up all the laughter so that he dreams happy dreams all year when he’s sleeping!’
Her arms swung happily, swinging mine almost out of their sockets.
‘So if you track him before he disappears into the hollow tree – if you can track him with his invisible footsteps and his camouflage coat – then he will share all the laughter with you and you’ll only dream happy dreams for a whole year!’
She finished triumphantly just as we reached the edge of the forest. I looked nervously ahead. The forest was dark now, completely dark. There was no way we’d be able to get in and out without a torch. I sighed.
‘Come on Ellie, it’s too dark now. We can’t go in without a torch.’
‘No! We’ve got to! Granpa would let me! We always tracked the Snowcat right to his hollow tree and I always had happy dreams afterwards – we’ve got to – otherwise I’ll have nightmares!’
I sighed again. There’d never been such a cat. It was just a story my father made up to entertain her. And now with him gone…the memory was painful.
She tailed off, ‘Granpa would let me…’
I turned around and looked back across the fields. There was something very gloomy and grey and fuzzy about the scene. Just a barren snow field and a few shapes that must have been hedgerows underneath the snow and the vague traces of telephone wires against the grey fluttery sky. And way back there, beyond the furthest hedgerow, the town and our cabin on the very outskirts of that. You could just see the faintest little trickle of smoke escaping from the chimney. John must be sitting there, in front of the fire. Maybe dozing, maybe watching an old movie on TV, maybe reading. I felt the little hand in mine – not tugging, but an urgency, an energy, an impulse. I turned back.
‘OK honey, just five minutes, just for granpa.’
‘Yay!’ And she tugged away down into the path of the forest.
The frozen leaves crunched and crackled under our footsteps – a different kind of crunch to the deep snow that we’d covered over the fields. A twigletty crackle.
‘I see him up ahead! He waited for us – good Snowcat!’ I still couldn’t see a thing. My eyes were just getting used to the new gloom of the forest, but Ellie was surging ahead, following whatever her eyes imagined for us.
‘Look mom – can’t you see? Up there, by the old tree with the burn mark!’
I knew the tree, but couldn’t see a thing. There were no tracks, but then there wouldn’t be. I couldn’t even hear a sound in the muffled snowscape.
He was always telling the tallest stories, my father, always playing around, always making something out of nothing. The smallest little trip would have to be an adventure. You couldn’t just have a quiet family walk – it would turn into the great escape from a jail house or hunting down a Russian spy – or tracking the Snowcat at Christmas time. In truth it was annoying and embarrassing for me growing up as a kid. It might sound great fun, but he used to do it all the time, every little thing would get his treatment and it used to wear us down, me and my mother. I remember once – I must have been having a teenage temper tantrum – we were just out doing the shopping and he was trying to turn it into a secret mission to gather ingredients for a nuclear bomb and it just got too much. I dropped the basket right there in the middle of the shop and shouted at him – ‘Stop it! This is not a munitions store, this food is not depleted uranium, this is not the Second World War and you are not General Eisenhower – I am not your toy!’ And I stormed right out of that shop while my poor dad had to decide whether to pick the broken eggs up from the floor or come after me.
There was a squeal from beside me –
‘Look – there!’
I turned my eyes up from the snow.
The moon was shining a narrow beam of light through the trees and there, with his front paws resting on a big gnarled root of the hollow tree, was the most beautiful cat I ever imagined. My breath caught in my throat – he was the purest white – I can’t describe it. His coat was made of the finest snowflakes that have ever fallen – made with the purest water from the purest stream. He had huge ears, like…like trumpets, alert, listening to our heart beats. He was so still and watchful, the air turning to ice with the warmth of his breath. My heart was pounding and I felt the little hand in mine, hot and alive. Ellie and me and the Snowcat stared at each other – it was only a few seconds – until a cloud passed over the moon and the apparition was gone.
The second time he came, I was ready. I raised my wooden staff above my shoulder and I waited. I couldn’t see him of course, but I knew exactly where he was, what sounds matched what movements, the precise creak on the wooden boards as he moved closer towards me across the bridge.
The darkness was complete – but it would have been even at noon, under these trees. He was nearly fifty yards away, but I heard every movement as clear as night. The trees seemed to trap the sounds and pull them down to my ears. I’d stamped out the fire and the smoke was drifting across, towards the bridge, towards the approaching figure. He knew nothing, that was his mistake. He knew nothing of his future and he misunderstood his past, like she had before him. Was that why I was doing this? I don’t think so, I didn’t choose this – it’s sort of forced upon me by the decisions other people make – hapless decisions to move forward unknowingly, unthinkingly – like little bugs creeping along a branch into the web of a spider.
The first time he came, we were still friends. He bounced over the boards of the bridge like a simple kid.
‘Nick!’ He shouted, lifting up some sort of a package, wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘I’ve brought some hash beef, here, we can cook it up.’
We settled down over the camp fire in this clearing I’d made in the middle of this gloomy old forest, where the wood scarcely ever got dry enough for tinder. Luckily, I’d brought some little sticks and things with me from the edge of the forest, where the late summer sun still beat down on the ancient bark.
By the light of the fire we brought out my ma’s old skillet and set about making up the dinner. After a while, with the hash beef browning in the pan and a kettle of water boiling up among the flames, we ran out of things to do and sat back, waiting.
‘She won’t be long,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. He was looking into the fire. I broke up one of the big logs with my staff. It made a little burst of red hot sparks.
‘We’d better take the beef off the heat just a touch, so it’s not burnt for her.’ John slid the skillet off the heat just a fraction. That wouldn’t do anything.
‘I wonder what she’s found,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, just prodded my staff into the fire a bit. By now the beef was beginning to lose any moisture it had to begin with so I took it off the heat altogether.
‘We might as well eat ours. There’s no point in it going cold.’ John didn’t agree, but took the plate I passed him.
‘I bet she’s caught up picking blackberries or something.’
‘Probably,’ I say.
The forest wrapped around us, in cedar silence. There was just the silence of the creak a little way off through the trees, running under the rough old boards of the bridge. This was my new home and I was happy to share it with pretty much the only people I’d liked at college. John was my room-mate from way back and now he’d got together with Susie things couldn’t have been rosier for them. I was doing fine too; I’d spent the summer camped out somewhere along the river, moving along slowly for a change of air every few weeks. But now it was nearly autumn and I needed somewhere a bit cosier, with a bit more cover from the October rains that hurl down in this part of the country. So I moved to the forest. From here I couldn’t even see the sky and, like I said, the sun barely made its way through the tall tall trees. But that didn’t bother me. When it rained I felt hardly a drop and the tarp I used was more for privacy than cover. Not that I needed too much privacy in these parts. I hadn’t seen a soul since July – apart from John and Susie of course.
I’d picked them up from Forgotten Creak railway station just two days before. When I say pick them up – I didn’t have a wagon or anything, I just walked right up to the station and we walked right back down the six miles or so with all our bags and gear and everything on our backs. I carried Susie’s stuff of course. We had an understanding, me and Susie, that John didn’t get. Don’t get me wrong, John’s a great guy, but he’s not very – subtle, do you know what I mean? Well me and Susie were walking up ahead, catching up on the good times, and John was crawling away down behind us, scrambling on the stony path. Me and Susie flew on up ahead – me because I knew the path like the back of my hand and Susie because she was high on seeing me and didn’t have any bags to carry. After about four miles I could see John was struggling. The sun was beating down still in this dog-end of summer and he was looking pretty red and sore. But I didn’t stop, I kept on walking – even faster if anything, with Susie by my side.
I’d met John almost by accident in fact. We were both in the same chemistry class at college. Not that either of us were studying chemistry, it was just a cool subject back then. We liked messing around in the labs, with free access to all kinds of fun chemicals. When I say by accident, we were both called up by the professor at the time and asked to take part in an experiment together. I don’t know why the professor picked on us, maybe because we were the oddest pair going, but he made us put on all the chemistry gear, all the eye glasses and lab coats and everything and took us down to the quad. He said it was going to be a pretty dangerous experiment – for one of us. He told us that one of us was going to set the other one on fire. I know – he must have been some kind of sadist or something. But we went along with it. As you can imagine, that was a pretty awkward moment. No one wants to be set on fire, but you don’t want to be the one who sets some poor guy on fire yourself, do you? I was lucky John was chosen with me. After a little moment of silence he said ‘Alright, you set me on fire.’ You can imagine my relief. Anyway, it turns out that this sadist’s told the whole damn college that there’s going to be some kind of a show and they’re all looking out from the windows all around the quad, looking out on the student whose going to be set on fire.
Don’t ask me how he did it – I wasn’t a chemistry major, remember – but he made John strip right off, with just a pair of shorts and a stupid looking net hat that was meant to protect his face. He looked like a naturist bee-keeper to be honest. Then the chemistry professor gave me some real plain looking gel. It could have been for your hair piece, you know? I guess this is why he needed another student to do the experiment; he could have been accused of molestation, rubbing this gel all over another student’s naked body. So there’s John in the middle of the quad with all the students hanging out of the windows, hooting and hollering, stark naked covered in this flammable gel. Me and the professor have retreated to a safe distance and he hands me a box of matches. I can’t believe it’s this crude you know. That’s why I reckon he was a sadist. I’ve got to open the box, strike the match and throw it at this poor kid who I hardly know, just some small town sophomore who thought he’d do a bit of chemistry to broaden his mind. Course the first match broke and the second one got lost in the wind, by which time John’s beginning to look a little grey. Third time lucky though and I’ve never seen anything like it.
As you can imagine that bonded us pretty closely and we ended up rooming together for a year, well, it was almost a year. Just around exam time I met a girl, Susie, who was always hanging around the labs. She told me about the day I’d set John on fire and how brilliant it had been and we kind of had a thing going. I told you we always had something that other people didn’t understand, a kind of chemistry. Anyway, it didn’t last and it’s not as though I was sore about it or anything, it was kind of inevitable that it wouldn’t last. I was too complicated I suppose. She wanted something a bit more dependable, someone who would take one for the team. Someone like John, that poor son of a bitch who volunteered to be a human torch. So like I said, after that summer me and John stopped rooming together. I went and lived in a tent just off campus for a while and eventually John and Susie got together.
It was kind of with my blessing to be honest. Neither of them ever really made a move. Susie kept coming out to my tent trying to talk to me, trying to make my come in and live on campus. Eventually I had to move camp without telling her before she finally got the hint. And John I saw between classes sometimes – junior year you can’t take electives any more, it all gets pretty serious. You know – I can’t remember what he did any more? English literature? Art history? some such crap anyway. So they got together and our lives went in separate directions. I think I came out the better. But then everyone would say that, wouldn’t they? I never really saw them again until Susie sent a postcard to my ma saying they’d got married and about how they’d love to come and see me during their honeymoon, for old times sake. I don’t know how they got ma’s address, she doesn’t even live there any more – it was forwarded on.
So that was that. They came down here to Forgotten Creek and I came down to pick them up, although it was hardly picking them up and then we’re sitting around eating and taking and they’re going off into their tent at night and I’m retreating to my tarp and that’s all there is. Then tonight, their last night, she disappears and me and John are just sitting eating beef hash in the silence with the trees all around and not a sound. She’s gone off for some scavenger food – blackberries she saw or something. And then he gets worried and all of a sudden he gets up and goes looking for her and then he’s coming back over the bridge for the second time and I’m ready and waiting.
My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?
So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.
From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:
- Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
- The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
- The Answer is No: 1600 words
- The Time and the Place: 3600 words
- Blessed Night: 3600 words
- The Ditch: 2600 words
- Half a Day: 1600 words
- The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
- The Lawsuit: 2200 words
- The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
- A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
- By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
- The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
- The Wasteland: 3600 words
- The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
- His Majesty: 1200 words
- Fear: 4400 words
- At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
- A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
- A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words
That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.
Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:
- Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
- The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
- The End of Something: 1050 words
- The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
- The Battler: 3150 words
- A Very Short Story: 700 words
- Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
- The Revolutionist: 350 words
- Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
- Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
- Out of Season: 2100 words
- Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
- My Old Man: 4200 words
- Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
- Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
- L’Envoi: 150 words
That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.
So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.
I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.
A crowd had gathered. I couldn’t see why at first so I moved closer. They seemed to be gathering about a tree. Of course a crowd standing around a tree is nothing to do with me, but I moved closer anyway. There were about ten or fifteen people, pointing and – not shouting – but raising their voices at the tree’s upper boughs. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the tree, there were branches and the branches had boughs and the boughs had leaves, which were just turning the colour of autumn, but none had yet fallen. It seemed a perfectly ordinary tree, with bark and little growths of lichen. But there it was: a crowd, pointing and raising their voices at a tree.
It’s nothing to do with me, but I moved to the edge of the crowd. There was nothing unusual I could see about the crowd either. They seemed to be people just like me, with clothes on their backs and rings on their fingers, with handkerchiefs in their pockets and some with ties about their necks. One woman in particular, wearing a head scarf, was pointing high up into the tree and almost shouting. I followed her finger and saw a tree with leaves and boughs and branches, with bark and with lichen and a man in a bowler hat.
He was perched high up in the tree with his fingers curled around the branch like a bird. He was frozen still, but his muscles were taut as if he were about to fly away. Which of course he wasn’t, because, aside from being a man in a bowler hat perched in a tree, he looked perfectly normal. In fact, I found my hand nervously moving to my own bowler, as if my choice of headgear might bring association with this most odd fellow.
The crowd, as I said, were not shouting, but were speaking in raised, almost coaxing, voices to the man in the bowler hat. Perhaps this was what made him look slightly tense. He seemed to want to make the flight, but was nervous of his ability; a nestling, needing a push. I noticed that the woman in the headscarf was also wearing an apron. She held a wooden spoon in her right hand and, as I said, was pointing at the man.
‘What are you doing bird man? Get back to work! Stop wasting our time! Come down and we’ll forget the whole thing!’
For the first time since I got there, the man in the bowler hat moved. With a quick shuffle he edged a little further along the bough, which shook its leaves. One or two may have floated down on to the heads of the crowd.
‘Come on,’ the woman with the wooden spoon was speaking again. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go, bird man! Come back down – you can have the rest of the day off – I’m sure the office won’t mind.’
This provoked no discernible reaction from the man in the bowler hat in the tree. And it was nothing to do with me, but the woman in the apron spoke again.
‘We’ve called your wife – she won’t be impressed at all. She’ll leave you for sure if she finds you sitting up in a tree when you should be at work! And what would your children think?’
The woman in the headscarf shook her wooden spoon and the crowd rumbled. The bird man flicked his eyes over to me, I’m sure. There was an awful look in them, an awful pleading. I couldn’t look back, it was painful, so I just looked down. It’s nothing to do with me anyway, a man in a bowler hat in a tree. The woman in the apron with the wooden spoon raised it still higher.
‘If you won’t come down, bird man, we’ll bring you down!’
And with that she bent down and picked up a stone. It was just a small stone, but she was accurate. The bird man made a funny noise that could have been a squawk, but couldn’t have been because men in bowler hats don’t squawk, not even when they are in trees. A few more stones flew from the hands of the crowd. Some hit, some didn’t. The bird man flapped his arms in defence and his branch lurched. A few more leaves floated to the ground.
The woman with the apron seemed unimpressed with her ballistics and directed the crowd to the tree trunk itself.
‘We’ll shake him down!’
Well, there’s nothing for me in a crowd looking at a man in a bowler hat in a tree. It’s nothing to do with me. I thought I should walk away, so I did. I felt the crowd surge forward. From behind me I heard the rumble of a tree, the heavy rustle of boughs and the light falling of leaves. Then an inhuman squawk, a loud thud and a cheer. It’s nothing to do with me, a man in a bowler hat in a tree.
I pat my brow and take a bow and all the world’s beneath,
I take my hat and pat my cat and then I’ll brush my teeth.
After the show, after the climb and reach –
Do I dare to eat a peach?
Things like these – like playing up (not throwing up),
Learning to love and learning to teach –
(And here’s another – hand in hand with mother – walking on the beach) –
Seem too short and all we’re taught
Is hold on, hold on…
A letter stolen,
Taken from a postman’s bag;
Bad news won’t arrive.
Dampy skin otters,
Swimming against the current;
Do they realise?
Men not quite aged,
Clinging to the cliff of life;
Why don’t they let go?
Even mindless jobs
Need concentration and an
Eye for detail.
The office is hushed;
A bustle of lowered heads,
Slowly wasting time.
Query: How to log?
Or all together?
Wait for the download,
Watch the megabytes drip through.
Stare out the window.
Focused concentration and
Distant voices are
Arguing loudly about
Someone else appointed to
Do your job better.
She kept looking for the answer. The little girl was running from shop front to shop front, shouting her question: ‘When will I die? When will I die?’ She had long blonde curls and a fierce look in her eye that made the shop keepers laugh.
‘In a very long time!’
‘Ten minutes if you keep up that racket!’
The answers were always different and the little girl started to get confused. She ran to the shop of her favourite grocer, Pierre. Pierre was an old man; surely he would know the answer to her question. Pierre laughed softly, not like the others, and hoisted her onto his knee and began to tell her a story:
‘A long time ago there was a little girl just like you who always questioned everything. She always asked ‘Why?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This little girl, who had lovely blonde hair just like you, cherie, learnt so much that she grew up to be very clever. She quickly learnt everything that anyone in her small village could tell her, but still found she had questions. She started to get frustrated with the villagers who could no longer answer her. The old people of the village looked on with sadness in their eyes because they knew that soon they would lose this beautiful little girl who asked all the questions.
‘She grew up fast and soon she was a beautiful young woman, impatiently counting the days until she would be allowed to leave the small village and go to Paris to study at the Grande Ecole there. That day arrived and all the old men of the village wept as she boarded her carriage, knowing that they would not see her beautiful face again, that they would die before she returned – if she ever returned. The old women of the village wept also, knowing that this curious young woman was going to learn secrets that had evaded them all their lives. Everybody wept because they knew that the young woman would not return for many years and that the village would not see the benefit of her great intellect and curiosity.
‘Well, the young woman, whose name was Therese, left that day by carriage and arrived two days later in Paris. This beautiful young woman had never been in such a huge city and knew nothing of the ways of the townspeople. So she started asking her questions: ‘Where can I stay the night?’, ‘How do I operate the trolley-bus?’, ‘Where can I take a carriage to the Sorbonne?’ She learnt the ways of Paris very quickly and soon settled into city life.
‘One day she decided to move from her room in the Hotel Cosmopolitan and so she asked a young man, ‘Where can I rent lodgings?’ The young man led her to a house where an old man sat outside, whittling a piece of wood. He stopped when he saw her and looked her up and looked her down. She started to feel uncomfortable, for she was very beautiful, so she asked, ‘Why do you look at me like that?’ The old man replied, ‘Because you are beautiful, I will give you good clean lodgings.’
‘Thank you. But how much will it cost me?’
‘Oh very cheap,’ the old man’s mouth cracked into a smile, ‘very cheap for a face like that.’
The young woman felt uncomfortable, but followed the old man into the house. He showed her a room, which was satisfactory and she paid a deposit of 15 francs.
‘The old man was a very attentive landlord and Therese would often find him waiting outside her door when she went to bathe. This made her uncomfortable so she asked, ‘Why do you wait outside my door when I bathe?’
He replied, ‘Because you are beautiful. I am an old man and it gives me great peace to see such a beautiful young woman.’
Therese couldn’t find the words to deny this old man his pleasure so lowered her head and didn’t say anything.
‘All this time Therese was studying at the Grande Ecole, asking her questions and getting her answers from her very intelligent tutors. One tutor, whose name was Jean, took a particular interest in her development and took it upon himself to ensure that she had full access to whatever materials she needed and also to his personal library. One day, after she mentioned that she was struggling to find money for tuition as well as food and even her very cheap lodgings, Jean offered to help pay for her room in the old man’s house. Therese thought this very kind and, because he was very intelligent, she trusted him and confided that the old man with whom she was staying made her feel uncomfortable. Upon hearing this, the tutor immediately offered her a room in his house until she could find more appropriate lodgings. Therese accepted with relief and immediately hired a carriage to move her few bags across town.
‘Jean’s house was much more convenient for the Grande Ecole and Jean himself was a very convivial host. They would spend the evenings talking in great depth about her interests and he would spend hours and hours answering her questions, sometimes even before she asked them. They would have long, relaxing dinners with wine and cheese. He had a taste that was delicately refined and he reveled in teaching Therese the subtleties of society. She had many questions about this of course, coming as she did from a small country village. She had scarcely thought about the village since being in Paris: the old villagers had been right to cry.
‘After two weeks of wine and intellectual lodging with Jean, Therese suddenly realized that she was supposed to find her own lodgings. When she told Jean of her intention, however, he grew offended and insisted that she remain with him. This made her puzzled and so she asked, ‘Why do you insist on me staying here?’ He did not reply, but left the room.
‘This was the first time that somebody had given her no answer at all and it made her think. He had not said, ‘I do not know.’ He had not said, ‘Please ask someone else.’ He had not said, ‘You can find the answer in this book.’ He had not said ‘I shall try to find out for you.’ He had not said ‘Examine the evidence and you will find out for yourself.’ He had not said anything. He had simply left the room. This confused Therese deeply and she went to bed that night with her mind in a frantic state. She could not sleep and tossed and turned until midnight. Jean’s house overlooked a church square and Therese could see from her bedroom window the tower of the church. The moon was high and shone its light over the clock face. The two hands of the clock were pointing straight up to the stars, as if pointing to the answer for her question. She stared out of her window as the clock struck midnight. She opened the window wide; perhaps the air would help her sleep.
‘As the twelfth note sounded there was a commotion of wings and, to Therese’s astonishment, a white barn owl landed on the eaves of the house just in front of her. She didn’t dare breathe as the owl surveyed the square below, seeking a mouse for prey. She was close enough to reach out and touch the soft down of the owl’s wings, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. The owl stood there, alert, its head rotating as its eyes penetrated the gloom. Its claws gripped the straw of the roof thatching and Therese felt like she was in a dream. The beauty of the owl in the moonlight haunted her and she grew bolder, inching her head closer to the owl’s. The owl caught her movement in his wide eyes, but stayed calm and rotated his head all around to consider her. The two stared at each other in the moonlight as the last echoes of the church bells drifted over the sleeping city roofs. Time seemed to stand still; the two creatures staring deep into each others eyes. Therese realised this was the moment she would find her answer. So she whispered, very faintly, ‘Why did he run away from my question, Owl?’
The owl looked deep into her eyes, his claws twitched on the thatch. He had her question and Therese waited breathless for the answer. But the owl batted his wings and, with one last look, took to the skies. Therese sighed and watched him disappear over the sleeping rooftops.’
There was a pause as Pierre stopped talking and smiled at the little girl.
‘Well what was the answer to her question?!’ The little girl almost screamed. ‘That’s not fair! Tell me the answer!’
Pierre looked down at the furrowed brow underneath the blonde curls of the little girl on his knee, ‘Sometimes, cherie, there are no answers; just moments.’
The streets would not forgive him. Cairo revealed herself, but at a price. Bert could feel their eyes, pricking his conscience, taking him apart limb by limb. The hawkers carried on their shouting match, but he knew their eyes were on him, the foreign. What were they selling? Was it the piles of plastic combs at their feet or was it something more precious? This man had all manner of plastic toys. Where had they come from? China probably. The new colonialism. We shall conquer the world by exporting plastic toys. First plastic toys, then… The business model worked, incredibly. In this world it worked.
A few others sold sweets wrapped in lurid plastic wrappers. Here and there were traditional food sellers. A man with a rough wooden cart was roasting sweet potatoes. An old woman, fat and wrapped in black was crouched beside a pile of tissues. All their eyes were upon him. Overhead the bridge flew over and down below micro-buses hurled past screaming their destinations. Even the birds stopped their pecking in the dust as he walked through the bus station.
What had brought him here? What unlikely, unnatural turn of events had brought him from middle class rural Germany to a bus station in downtown Cairo? Astonishingly, in this world, it was common. He looked up and could see ahead of him another blond man fighting to board a micro-bus. He had just past a Dutch looking woman heading down the subway. Suddenly he hated that blond, the unknown Dutch woman and, above all, himself. What right had they to be here? Bringing their Euros, easily buying the life that these hawkers could never attain despite working twenty-four hours a day, sometimes more. What sheer fluke, pure chance, unkind fate had bestowed upon them the right to jet into other countries and live it up with scarce a thought to where the next meal was coming from, when they would next wash with warm water or how they would sell enough plastic toys to shelter let alone school their children?
Bert knew where he was going. He was going to cross the road past the bus station, climb the stairway above the hawkers and stroll across 6th October Bridge in the evening air over to Gezira and on to his clean, comfortable hotel in Zamalek. His life was etched out ahead of him, he could see it, plain and clear in frustrating detail. What could go wrong? What event could possibly happen that could not be settled with a call to his credit card company or a visit to a cash machine? Even if he were hit by a car crossing this road now, he would be well looked after in the finest hospitals of Cairo and the man who hit him would doubtless spend the night in jail. His place in this city was cosseted away behind the security at his hotel in the tree lined boulevards of colonial Zamalek. There was no obstacle to his comfort and it was all thanks to pointless, aimless luck. Of course he worked but, in this world, incredibly, one hour’s work in Germany was equivalent to perhaps three days’ work for these hawkers. Probably more. Bert didn’t like to think about it because there was nothing he could do about it.
As he lowered his head a shout and a look caught his attention. A man about his age was waving a flashing elephant in his direction. Bert heard his name in the look. There was a flashing plastic train careering around a yellow plastic track at the man’s feet. Bert walked over, entranced. The man looked at him, “Seer! Mister!”
“Bikem?” Bert heard himself say.
“Da?” the man said, indicating the elephant.
“La,” Bert almost whispered through dried throat, “kull haaga.”
“Kull haaga?” The man’s eyes grew half an inch in diameter.
“Yes – it all. How much for everything?”
The man hesitated, calculating, measuring disbelief against opportunity.
“I want everything you have. The table, the stool, that cloth.” Bert was warming up, pointing at everything the hawker used to hawk with. The man was clearly unnerved by this mad foreigner and glanced across at his neighbour, who was beginning to take an interest. They fired a few sentences between themselves. The other man laughed and said, in surprisingly good English, “You want to buy all Mohammed shop?”
“Yes. I do. I want his entire stall. Everything.”
The man laughed and explained to Mohammed, who stammered a reply.
“Ok mister, Mohammed want 500 pounds.”
Well, eid has come early for Mohammed, Bert thought.
“I don’t have that much on me, but here is 250 pounds Egyptian,” Bert started emptying his pockets, “50 dollars US…and my watch.” Mohammed looked stunned.
“Is that enough?”
Mohammed laughed this time and took the money eagerly, counting it out for himself.
Bert laughed as well and said, “Now go, my friend, go and enjoy yourself! I’ll take it from here.”
Bert had never done anything so reckless. He felt like a new man. He had a vocation, he had comrades in the fight for survival. He and Mohammed had swapped places. Now Bert was the plastic toy hawker under 6th October Bridge. Mohammed was free, without a care in Cairo. Bert slipped into the world of a real Cairene. He grabbed the flashing elephant with zeal and started hawking. The other man, who introduced himself as Mahmud, was laughing heartily. Mahmud had never seen anything like it.
Bert hawked all that night, all the next day and into the night again, shouting himself hoarse. He stayed there twenty four hours straight, high on the intoxication of freedom. He didn’t sell a thing, but he didn’t care. Egyptians wouldn’t buy from a foreigner and foreigners would never buy the rubbish he was selling, certainly not from a mad German. He drew a lot of stares, but he didn’t care one bit. He was a Cairene hawker.
The police arrived after about eight hours and tried to get him moved on. They asked him where his hotel was and threatened to call the embassy, but Bert held firm and the hawkers, his new friends, argued his case in impassioned Arabic. The police moved to a respectful distance but stayed watching, clearly suspicious of this extraordinary foreigner. A gang of baladi kids came up to him and started teasing him, “Mister, mister! How much mister!”, delighting in this reversal of fortunes. Then they started trying to steal from him, mobbing him with their strong little hands. But Mahmud had eagle eyes and whipped a length of knotted rope at them. The kids fled, screaming in delight.
After about fifteen hours of non-stop hawking, Mahmud offered Bert half of his sweet potato to keep his spirits up. Bert gratefully accepted, they were equals, sharing food like true comrades. A few ragged looking men shuffled past on their way back from sweeping the roads, most just stared at him with dull eyes, but a few hissed. The police tried to get Bert to leave again, stating that it was against the law for him to work. Again Mahmud defended him by arguing that Bert hadn’t sold anything so technically could not be working. The police moved off again, buzzing into their radios.
About twenty hours in, an old lady shuffled up to Bert. It was clear that she was very poor and as she got closer Bert could tell that she was half blind. She used her hands to rummage through Bert’s collection of plastic and finally selected one, a chicken with furry feet who played a banjo when you twisted its neck. Bert looked into her darkened, unfocused eyes and felt his heart plunge. He was still far from equal. He could not sell her the chicken and shooed her away before his weakness showed. Mahmud noticed but said nothing. They watched the old lady shuffle off the kerb onto a bus, the chicken merrily banjo-ing the tune to Achy Breaky Heart.
The old lady had shaken Bert and he began to feel increasingly uneasy about shouting his wares into the night, increasingly self-conscious. He grew quieter and less eager for customers, fearful they would expose him for what he was. As his twenty-fourth hour approached, Bert started panicking, he started seeing the desperate eyes around him, he no longer saw comrades. How Bert had wanted to join them just twenty-four hours before. Now he could not imagine anything more claustrophobic.
As the twenty-fourth hour passed Bert saw a familiar face approaching his stand from across the bus station. Mohammed was returning and he did not look in the mood for conversation. Halfway across the road he started shouting at Bert. Bert couldn’t understand most of the words, but gathered that he was not welcome.
“Imshi! Get out! Get out! Thief!”
Mohammed was waving his arms around the stand of plastic toys. He picked up the flashing elephant and waved it in Bert’s face. Bert sensed the other hawkers closing in, forming a circle around him. The night was dark, lit from the fires of potato ovens, reflected in the dark eyes of his former comrades, the men he had spent the last twenty-four hours side by side with. Loneliness struck him in the chest. He lifted his arms as Mohammed started to beat him with the flashing elephant.
“Go! Get out! Thief! Steal my life! Get out!”
Mahmud raised his knotted rope and bared his teeth in the gloom. The cars and taxis raced overhead and Bert eyed the staircase. He ran. The mob chased him out of the bus station, out of the market and up the stairs, where they watched him flee across the Nile into Gezira. They watched him run until he was swallowed up in the night among the tall trees of Zamalek where he could do no harm.
6th October Bridge shook with traffic as the hawkers carried on their shouting match and a flashing plastic train careered around its yellow plastic track. The streets had forgotten him.
It was a time of dust. It was a time for decay.
The year was turning, slowly, from quiet winter to noisy spring – but Cairo doesn’t notice. The cars barricade the roads and buses blockade roundabouts. A woman sitting behind a cart of roasting chick peas, shoe shiners scrub, scrap metal merchants clatter from gutter to gutter and the dust settles around them.
He awoke with a choke. Thick mucus caught in his tonsils and he’s bolt upright hacking into his sheets. Scrambling for consciousness, scrabbling for a fight or flight response. This was the return to Cairo. The Hilton looked over into his room, across the Nile. The constant lazy motion of the Nile washing steadily to the sea, the constant frantic jerk of the cars beating their way to City Stars, to Talat Harb, to Agouza, the smiling swagger of loose limbed Cairenes swaying through the dust.
But he didn’t have time for metaphors, for adjectives vermilion; she was here. He could sense her in every speck of dust, even if she was only three parts per million, he could detect her in the air, on the pavements, in the dust thickened trees. They took on the appearance of a house plant that hasn’t been taken care of. Left in a corner, forgotten. No rain touches them, no cleaner dusts their waxy leaves. They lean over the roads in Zamalek, begging to be touched, begging to be shaken out of their torpor.
But he had no time for trees either. He hacked one last time into a tissue and got out of bed. He moved over to the bathroom and washed his hands. There was dust on the mirror and his face looked back through the haze. He looked older. Or younger. Or foreign. Happy. Sad. Tired. Excited. But he didn’t have time for making faces either.
Downstairs in the hotel he left the key with the manager and stepped into the evening. The dust rose to meet him carrying smells of gasoline, of searing meat, of crushed herbs, of sweat. He cleared his throat and set off towards her. He felt like a blood hound on the scent of a memory. He turned instinctively, feeling his way towards her. He could find her blind, he could stretch out his arms and his feet would carry him to her, borne like the dust on the loose wind of Cairo. Mohammad Mazhar, Mohammed al-Maraashly, Bahgat Ali: the names floated back from a year ago, binding memory to reality. The embassies and the days they walked these streets: there’s Iraq surrounded by tall palms, Myanmar isolated behind crumbling walls, Sweden with every brick in place like it was sent over flat-packed. As he walked, the Nile pleaded with him to drag his feet, but he bent his head and turned towards her scent.
Broken pavement, crushed Baraka bottle, branches with leaves resigning, dog shit smeared. The road passed below him, marking time, playing a show reel of human waste. The cafe was ahead. He could see its lights. He could remember its lights. His memory was racing to meet him. He was suspended in time and his memory was swelling every moment. Soon it would join his reality and he would be enveloped by the same words, the same touches, the same caresses that belonged a year ago.
The entrance swallowed him and the cafe was delivered to his senses. He must have looked lost because an immediate waiter bobbed into his vision, “Sir?” He looked down, his head beginning to throb and said automatically through mucus, “ayiz shay min fadhlak”. The man nodded curtly, “hagga tany?” What? He paused, then remembered his lines, “shay bas, binayanaya, shukran.” The man gestured to a chair nearby. He sat down heavily and became aware of the other patrons. Men. Mostly. Mostly smoking. Mostly staring at the new arrival. The tea arrived and he took it in his hands. Too soon. The glass burned, the skin of his palm shriveled in self-preservation.
She would come. He could feel her coming. Like he used to. He could feel her so strongly that he thought it idiotic that they were meeting in a cafe at 7, as if they needed to arrange a time and a place. He could have found her in a sandstorm. He started to relax and replaced his hands on the small glass cup. His hands, reluctant, grew bolder and soon sunk into its warmth. The glass was patterned in gold around the rim. Of course it wasn’t real gold, probably just an alloy. He turned his gaze on the cafe. Its high ceilings and carved decoration spoke of an elegance that it barely tried to maintain. Dust lay everywhere human hands did not care to reach. But the bar was clean enough and there was a man polishing a window. He had seen him doing that earlier in the day. Was it the same window? Was the man a memory? Was there a persistent stain, refusing to be polished, refusing to be scrubbed out of existence?
She would come. She was here. He took a first sip of the tea and the warm liquid left a breath of mint before sliding down his sore throat. He could feel, now, a warmth in his stomach. The tea had settled and was making itself at home. It was a shame, he thought, that in a short time the tea would cool and digest and he would be left with nothing but an urgent need to relieve himself. A short moment of warmth followed by a repulsion. He looked at the tea in disgust. He was just looking at his future. He was inevitably on the way to pissing out the contents of that glass, gold rimmed cup. In fact, looking at it closely, it was already a sepia yellow colour. It wouldn’t even look any different coming out as it did going in. Maybe his piss would even taste of mint. Why should he piss? Why couldn’t he enjoy his memories of mint tea without the hassle of pissing? After all, this particular cup of tea would add nothing to his memory. He could already classify, identify the taste and feeling of mint tea, the warmth, the slight clean taste, the roughness of the scorched tongue – so why should he bother with the drinking and the pissing? He knew he would though, eventually. Just like he knew she was going to come, eventually. And what else could he do whilst he waited? So he lifted the glass and put his lips to the gold rim and tilted his head back a little.
The liquid, predictably, slid over his lower lip and over his tongue, which he lifted so that the mint flavour slipped down onto his lower palate before gently swallowing through his thick throat. Thereafter the sensation was of warmth. He tried to follow the warmth down to his stomach but was disappointed to notice that only the first sip can be traced that far. Subsequent sips seem to get stuck somewhere higher up. He almost felt full. He should stop focusing on the tea. It was just tea. Just something to do while he waited. Time didn’t seem to be passing. The same cars droned past outside, the same combination of lights and horns, shouts and breaking screeches. The waiter in the cafe made the same movements, back and forth, sheesha, tofaah, shay, ahwa, sukkar. The patrons made the same gestures to one another and the speech was indecipherable. They seemed to be talking about the football. Or the weather. Or memories. Or the dust. One is pointing. One raises his glass. One pulls on a sheesha pipe. One just sits, still. An old man is sitting near a large plate mirror, staring. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t smee toby moo thing at all. Team dad int smeethabee moofin atorl. Moofin atorl. Orl.
He jerked up with a start. What had happened? The waiter looked over at him sharply, but continued his movements. He was choreographed and couldn’t miss a step. She was coming, wasn’t she? He could feel her coming, just like he used to. He could. The smoke in the cafe mingled with the dust, filling his lungs with a weight. That must have been what made him drift off. It had got so smoky that he wasn’t even sure if he could still see the old man across the room. He could see the mirror, or thought he could, it was hard to tell what was reflected and what was real. He could feel time receding now, the moment was reeling away from him. His memory was clouded in a haze of smoke and dust, he wasn’t sure anymore about anything. Was she coming? Was she still? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but behind his eyes his memory was out of control, it was lurching about, making him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was forgetting, it was that the time was gone: an impenetrable haze of dust had settled between him and his past. She wasn’t coming. It was a time of dust. It was a time of decay.
Right now outside Mornington Crescent tube station in London (at 1825 on Thursday) a man in a green, black and pale blue striped jumper, peaked cap and khaki trousers talks on his mobile telephone, one hand in his pocket, he just strides up and down the street.
In the background some scaffolding has been erected against Greater London house and there is graffiti against the slate grey hoarding. The trees stand and at their foot are eight mopeds and an assortment of parked cars. The traffic on the main road is busy.
The man is wearing earphones around his neck and a bag slung over his shoulder
“This area is covered by CCTV.” A yellow sign with a stark black image of a camera in 2D above the lettering. A discarded television lies beneath this sign
Two cyclists drift across the main road casually, with no regard for the traffic. Three black youths, one riding standing up, tall on the back wheel with his hands on the shoulders of the guy pedalling. They are not wearing helmets.
The scaffolding is by a company called Beacon. There is red and white tape around some of the poles. The building rises to six stories high. The trees are patterned like camouflage, mottled lichen greys, ash whites, greens, browns. The leaves are dark green, light green, leaves cut out from a pattern using those scissors that automatically cut serrated edges.
The warmth of the sun and the idle chatter of Spanish transports me, a dog sniffing the ground and people walking, talking, sitting, relaxing, soaking up the sun. Mothers with young children – one fallen flat on her face – the dangers of her scooter are obvious. The fountain blows foaming water. She’s back on the scooter, the Spanish turns faultlessly to English as a friend approaches. Round and round the fountain goes the little girl on the scooter. Another girl joins her, observes the water’s edge, doing nothing but enjoying the movement of the scooter. She pushes, pushes, pushes and then lets it roll – oop – one foot in the water. She goes and parks up next to mother.
A man in a scarf, thick black coat, heeled leather shoes and a black hat walks swiftly by – a swarthy look contrasting to the pink and fuchsia of the little girl.
Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss. The man talking to the police I can see is holding a can of beer – seems a little early to be enjoying that. Perhaps they are homeless. The mothers are beautiful, well made up and sporting sunglasses and accoutrements of fashion. You can tell the people who were dressed by seven a.m. – they have coats folded over their arms, not expecting the heat of this sun, which has been hidden by the cold winds blowing through town.
The gardener talks to the old woman during a break- he is a Rastafarian – gumboots, green combats, black t-shirt and black hat holding his hair in. He seems to be an engaging man and I’ve frequently seen him in the parks around here. He does a good job and I like to think of him, living with the land, even in the city. His beard and face bear the marks of a life lived. His priorities are obvious: the land comes first. The city would be nothing without the green of the earth and spring. What would the office workers do without the thought of a stroll through the park en-route, or the lunch hour spent lying flat out on the warmed grass? He has a couple of jumpers and a rainbow scarf of some description – a piece of fabric he always wears.
A group of three men sitting on a bench split up to take their leave – the third stands slowly – they are all old, but he is older and moves even more slowly in the same direction, his blue coat having a waterproof complexion.
The Spaniards say goodbye – I say goodbye quietly. Everyone is very casual around here, the circular shape of the centre of the park provides a natural cat walk for the passing people, in a good mood on account of the sun and vaguely smiling because they know they are on show, the runners even more so – not running around the park but bisecting it – cutting a diameter through it.
The Rasta laughs loudly and the old woman’s body shakes quietly. They are talking earnestly and happily. The child wants to play in the water and the fountain doubles in size. The girl lets out a controlled squeel of excitement. The wind catches the water and blows it softly over them, air-conditioning two blonde girls, daughters of two black-haired beauties.
A man walks through the park, head bent low, suit grey and open but head and shoulders still tucked over himself, still in winter stance, a typical Englishman, broken by the weather. The weather which governs our constitution coats, which breaks our necks and our spirit. Heavy clothes which can only weigh us down, lead coats that take us to the bottom of the ocean of drizzle.
The Rasta has gone, the old woman too. The dog plays on the bench between the two old men, the police are gone, the old men stand and drift away, stopping to talk to a woman on a wheelchair motorised, the dog yelps excitedly and jumps up at his master. A woman is making the rounds with a microphone asking questions, getting vox pop (which I suppose is Latin – vox populi – voice of the people). She has red hair.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She’s from SOAS radio. She almost vanishes in the sunlight. The girl next to me answers, “Romania, because that’s my home.” I answer, “Vietnam, because my friend’s there.” I don’t tell her that I study at SOAS too.
The man in the grey suit walks back again, the same step, the same stride and the tie flowing over his shoulder. The Romanian’s perfume fills my nostrils. The raven haired mother’s husband arrives – he looks Mediterranean and plays with the girl, lifting her and attacking her with his teeth, burying his face in her side.
An old man, grizzled beard, wearing a woolly grey-blue hat with Tottenham written on the side comes to empty the bins. He is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a marker of his officialdom. The fountain falls to an ambient trickle of water, just a small puff of water surrounded by two rings of six acolytes – twelve, like the apostles. A man comes to the centre of the circle, mutters something and then sprints off in the direction of the tube. The girl splashes in the water, the sunlight sparkling off the surface of the concrete. They are in silhouette and the flakes of sunlight, starlight, jump up and she tries to go deeper, but is drawn back – where did the scooter girl go?
An old man in a wheelchair, thoroughly wrapped up, takes the air, pushed along by his aide. His aide, wearing a mischievous grin, pushes him towards the water, but swerves away at the last. The old man leans up and mutters something to him from inside the folds of his scarf and hat and coat and blanket. The aide beams on.
I could stay here all day, but the family have left in unison and the pigeons go back to their paddling. The Romanian reads, the tourists struggle with a map, the bin-man finds more litter. Two more tourists enter the scene, a man on the phone enters the circle, stands and leaves the way he came. A woman with a puffa jacket and a shoulder-swinging stride goes from left to right and the whole world is a stage, everyone is performing, even the old man, eyes closed, hands folded in his lap, his stick between his legs, relaxed, facing the sun, whispering, “Take me away, take me away.”
It’s Spring in the city!
But how can you tell?
The concrete’s the same,
And so is the smell.
It’s Spring in the city!
But how would you know?
The bus is still late,
The tube still runs slow.
It’s Spring in the city.
You haven’t a clue.
Your pay is still bad,
Your rent is still due.
Spring in the city.
One hour’s less sleep
Is all that you notice.
Monday morning. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.
But look! In the parks, the gardens, the squares-
All the accountants have abandoned their chairs,
The stock-brokers have forgotten their shares!
Secretaries, actuaries, bankers, newsanchors-
All the adults have turned six in the sun.
Boys – Frisbee toys radio noise all the joys –
Girls – dancing whorls spinning twirls hair that curls –
Looking sooooooooooooooooooooooooo pretty –
And that’s when we know it’s Spring in the city!
I wrote this last night after reading a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy – where he writes so beautifully it makes you want to give up trying – on the subject of an unrequited love. But it got me thinking about the phantasma that is the imagination and specifically about the water and powder of fantasy and memory…
I have a fantasy about lying in the summer grass with a girl – we lie at right angles to each other; she rests her head on my chest, and plays with a piece of grass, laughing sporadically and gazes, twisting her head back, into my eyes which focus on the skies above. One hand rests, cradling her head; the other, holding a straw, casts a swathe across the heavens.
I’m talking into the soft evening twilight, speaking gently of Cassiopeia, of Cygnus, of Cepheus. As the pink fades into violet velvet, the stars pick their patterns through this tapestry thrown across the horizon. Summer suffocates our senses and the evening releases a hundred herbal scents into the air, the earthy planet warms our bodies and the softening grass supports us. Continue reading Orion, DC From the days of Gilgamesh, the days of Achilles, the days of Saladin he’s been drawing that bow and the barb will always lodge in my heart: a merciless wound that, never fatal, will bleed whenever the night draws in.