The deep blue sea

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Pier

Holidays! Remember them? Two weeks away in the sun, drinking, eating and swimming? Sex Again, Generally August, as my Aunt Nan calls her Saga breaks?

This is called “The Pearl Divers”, and you can find it, and like-minded souls, in Suckerpunch , my first short story collection.

The Pearl Divers

The pleasure boat began to fill up with very loud French people. One little man in the group turned their conversation into a performance, prancing about on deck in his bare feet and punctuating a series of hoots, growls, grunts and keenings with extravagant hand gestures. Although he was obviously a spanner of the first order – his three-quarter length trousers were the big giveaway – the people with him laughed uproariously at his antics.

Despite being initially snarky, Caitlin and Trevor couldn’t help joining in with the mirth.

“Marcel Marceau turns in his grave,” Trevor whispered.

“Silently,” Caitlin said, and they laughed some more.

They had bagged a terrific spot on the sun-deck. Caitlin flicked through her little guide book, sunglasses perched on top of her head. “Ooh, there’s stories connected to these islands.”

“What kind of stories?”

“Gods and monsters and things like that.”

“Excellent. Hopefully there’s a nudie statue too, by way of illustration. They were a naked bunch around these parts.”

“Hmm. It says we’re going to Spyros’ Reef first. There’s a story of love and tragedy connected to old Spyros, it says.”

“If it’s a tragedy that means they all die in the end, doesn’t it? Bum note, darlin’.”

“Hmm. Not necessarily. Tragedies can still be sort of romantic.”

“A tragi-rom-com? It could work.”

“Although… it does say there’s a bit of betrayal, too.”

“Wickeder and wickeder!”

It was day four of the holiday, and they had gotten blasé about all these perfect days. Zephyr breezes, the sun, the water; anything else would have been a shock to the system on the day they’d picked out for the boat trip.

No surprises, though; it was another cracker. The engines had been churning even as they both padded across the gangway onto the boat, grinning boat crewmembers clambering over each other to help Caitlin on board. After they’d taken their seats, the foaming, bubbling sea visible from the sun-deck had drawn their eyes so effectively that they did not notice the moorings being untied. Caitlin let out a little whoop of surprise as the land suddenly veered away from the sea.

The tannoy system on the sundeck whistled, and a gruff voice speaking heavily accented English said: “Good morning everyone – welcome to Cruise Mystique.”

Caitlin and Trev had been desperate to do it: “Whoooooh!” they said.

“You are seated aboard the good ship Perseus, it is a wonderful morning, and I hope you will enjoy our voyage. Can I get a whoop whoop?”

The English-speaking people – mostly confined in the lower decks and around the sides of the tour boat – responded lustily, as did Caitlin. This outburst confused the French group, even when the boat prompted them with two toots of its horn.

The ship passed through the smooth channel out of the harbour and into the gleaming sea. Caitlin tied her hair back while Trevor rested his chin on the railings and gazed at the unfurling waters. He was a bit older than her and had been getting a bit blobby, although of late he had been hitting the gym in anticipation of his first beach holiday since he was 12. He had on a straw sun-hat which she had loathed at first, but now found cute. “That hat’s growing on me,” she’d said, one time he had worn nothing else.

“I meant to say to you,” he said. “You freaked me out a bit last night.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You started giggling in your sleep. In a really odd, high voice, like you were a little kid. It woke me up. You wouldn’t stop. It was really weird.”

“I had a flying dream. It must have been that. I meant to tell you. I absolutely love those.”

“Yeah? Didn’t know you were a flier.”

“I was moving over a dark sea, just after the sun had gone down. There was still a bit of colour in the sky, just a shade of pink. It wasn’t cold and I wasn’t scared.”

“Freedom,” he said to her. “That’s what that dream means. You’re free.”

“It felt like it. I could have gone on forever. Chasing the sun. I woke up and felt like I’d been giggling. And I had. Do you ever have dreams like that?”

“Funny thing. I dream about swimming. I’m in the blue, just beneath the surface. And I see some light in the water above my head. Dappled, like you see on the ceiling of indoor pools, you know? There’s never any danger of me drowning. I can breathe perfectly well. And I’m going at an amazing speed.”

She lowered her sunglasses to peer at him. “Trev. Are you binned already?”

“Hey, you started it!” He grinned. With his stubble, his even white teeth and his straw hat, he looked – for the first and only time in his life – like Brad Pitt. “I’m just binned on you, honey.”

“Big flirt. So… swimming dreams. What do they mean?”

“Same thing, isn’t it? Freedom.”

“I would worry about sharks. I’d think one was chasing me, if I was in that situation. That’d be nothing to giggle about.”

“There’s nothing like that in my dreams. I’m never scared. I sometimes think I might be a shark. You know, in spirit.”

“More like a whale. I mean, a killer whale,” she added, catching his look.

Another whistle came from the tannoy, prompting a massed “Aaaah” from the French people. The captain talked them through what direction they were heading in, where to find the toilets and where to buy the beer and crisps.

“Beer,” Caitlin said. “Mmmm.”

“I know. I kind of want one. I’ve got the fever, darlin’.”

“It’s bad.”

He shrugged. “We’re on holiday.”

The captain said: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the story of Spyros’s Reef, which we will shortly be passing over. Please, keep your eyes peeled for rays, turtles and even… der-dun… der-dun… yes, sharks, boys and girls!”

The boat cut across a darker patch of water. Upon closer inspection, the gloom took the form of the surreal vegetation and bony exoskeletons of the reef. Fish darted away from the boat, and plant fronds waved as it approached.

“It is called Spyros’s Reef out of a very famous local legend,” the captain explained. “Once, on the mainland, there were two famous sponge divers, Spyros and Theo. This was in the days when they dived without oxygen tanks and masks and flippers, which we have nowadays. All they had to do was hold their breath… and dive. Then they used the knives and baskets to collect sponges.

“They grew up together and they were friends, but they were very… competitive.” The captain’s odd inflection gave this word an extra edge over the tannoy.

“Yes, ladies and gentlemen, they competed over who could dive the furthest, who could gather the most sponges. There were some who said it was Spyros, others who said it was Theo.”

“Sponges are funny,” Trev said. “You know that they can regenerate and they live longer than turtles?”

“Sh!”

The captain’s voice dropped – seductively, one imagined. “But there soon came another thing to compete for. Can you guess what it was? Yes, that’s right, a girl. Her name was Dania, and she was the most beautiful girl in the village. Soon, Spyros and Theo, they fell in love with this girl, and soon they began to compete for her attention, too. Is it not always the way, ladies and gentlemen? Only a woman can come between two friends, yes?

“Dania could not decide who to choose – Spyros or Theo. So she came up with a way of deciding; the first of them who could bring a pearl up from the ocean floor would have her hand in marriage.

“They both began to search for oyster shells and the pearls inside them, but there were none to be found. And then Theo had a very wicked idea.

“He took a pearl set in a gold necklace from his mother’s jewellery case, and tied it to a stone. During the night, he took a boat out to the deepest part of the reef, with only the stars to guide him. Then he did a wicked thing… he gently dropped the stone into the water.

“The next day the pearl caught the light on the ocean floor in the sunshine, and it soon became known among the sponge divers that there was a treasure on the ocean floor. Theo knew it was the deepest part of the reef, further than anyone had ever swum before, and he knew that it was in Spyros’ nature to try to get the pearl.

“To complete the deception, Theo dived first for the treasure, and of course it was too deep for him to reach. Then came Spyros’ turn. He plunged into the water and went down into the ocean… It was too deep for him, too, but he was determined to reach the treasure and win his heart’s desire.

“But poor Spyros went too deep. He drowned trying to reach the treasure and win the hand of his beloved.

“Theo had planned for this to happen, but even so he was full of guilt. And Dania, rather than being driven into his arms, as he had hoped, was heartbroken.

“Theo confessed to his crime, and was sent to jail. But there was a strange end to the tale for the lovely Dania. One night, she vanished. Her footprints led down to the beach, and the water’s edge. No-one ever saw her again.

“Perhaps she decided to be with Spyros, for evermore. Some sailors have reported seeing a mermaid in the waters around the reef; who can say? Perhaps this is what Dania became, searching the ocean for her love. Nobody knows, ladies and gentlemen, whatever happened to her.

“And they say that the pearl is still out there, too, ladies and gentlemen… Treasure waiting in the deep for someone to find. But perhaps it would not bring you luck?

“And so… That is the story of Spyros’ Reef, and the depths of true love.”

Some people groaned.

“In half an hour, we will have the swimming. Be sure to wear your sunblock, and be sure to wear your bathing suits.

“To your left side, the sea, to your right side, the sea, and up above – God! Can I get a whoop whoop?”

This time everyone was ready for the whoop whoop.

“Swimming! Coolio,” Trevor said. “Just as well I brought my shorts along. Might go and get changed. You want something from the shop?”

“Is it wrong to want an ice cream at this point?” She pulled off her loose, long-sleeved boho top. She was wearing a pure white bikini, her skin clear and brown. As she pulled the top over her head, the lovely tight little muscles at her tummy rippled. She closed her eyes as she pulled her long, frizzy blonde hair up tight and tied it back. Many of the men on the deck stared at her. Trev giggled.

“What?” she said, alarmed, checking herself out. “Do I have a tiger tan?”

“No,” he said, choking back laughter.

“What is it then?”

“I just realised, you’re way too hot for me. I’m so far ahead of the game it’s not even true.”

“You’ve just realised, have you? Huh!” She pouted.  “So anyway… ice cream? Too soon? Will we be alright eating stuff if we go in the sea?”

“It’s never too early for an ice cream. An ice cream isn’t too heavy.We’re on our holibags.” He gave her a kiss and took the bag. “Back in a minute.”

Downstairs, he took some time to look at the white wake surging past the starboard side before ducking into the gents. He had taken his khaki shorts and boxers off before some change in the light alerted him to the door at his back. The porthole, which had appeared dark from deck-side, was actually transparent. A middle-aged woman with hair the same consistency of candy floss did a double take, looked at Trevor’s winkle, met his eyes with a look approaching grief, then hurried on.

Trev was still sniggering about this by the time he appeared back on deck with two enormous cones with plastic sci-fi domes shielding the ice cream. Caitlin was gazing out at the sea, her big sunnies on. She had a strange half-smile on her face and Trev would remember this image for the rest of his life. They ate the cones, and Caitlin took a picture of Trev licking trails of chocolate off his hands as the cone melted in the sun.

The boat toured some rocks and caves, barnacle-encrusted, foamy places not far off the mainland. Trev and Caitlin stood by the railings while the captain spun tales of heroes, monsters and deities.

“And it was here that the goddess first appeared,” said the captain, with the practised intonation of five-year-old reciting his prayers. “And it was here that she blessed the water.”

“And it was here that I began to wish for a beer,” Caitlin said.

“And it was here that I agreed with you.” Trevor, running his fingers up and down the perfectly smooth skin along her spine, hadn’t been listening to the captain.

But they kept off the beer, knowing that swimming was on the way. The boat began to slow near a dark patch of water; in the background on the mainland there was a beach, a fine yellow band dusted with people. It was time to get wet.

“We’ve probably only travelled about 20 miles. They’ve just gone the long way,” she said, pulling off her linen trousers and sandals. Long brown legs, white bikini bottoms.

Trev shielded his eyes. “Look at the water. Look at that shade of blue. It must be the mineral content or something. It’s like a crayon a kiddie would use to colour in the sea.” Off came his stripy blue and white polo shirt. There was some definition in his stomach muscles and ribs, his arms. He slipped the beads she’d bought him from around his neck and folded them up carefully in a side pocket of her bag.

A set of steps were produced at the stern and lowered into the blue. The sea was so clear you could make out stones and gently waving plants at the bottom, though it had to be at least 20 feet deep. A few people edged their way down the steps, curiously reluctant to go in.

Trevor stood on the edge of the ladder, taking quick breaths. “See you in the pool,” he said, then executed a passable dive clear and straight into the blue. And he

 

didn’t hear the unprompted whoop whoop from the rest of the boat, the roar of the water swallowing him up as he plunged down, down, arrow-straight towards the bottom. He had a sudden moment of dissonance, realising the immensity and the blue of the space he had dived into as the pressure of the water squeezed his temples, his sinuses and his ribcage. He levelled out, hung there for a moment as the bubbles tickled the side of his face, then began to kick back towards the light. It took a worryingly long time for him to get there, and the blurred image of the surface deceived him. He reached out for the sparkles of light and expected to breach, but it was beyond him. Before he could panic the whine in his ears reached a pitch and he was through again,

 

gasping, the laughter and splashing of the other swimmers assaulting him. He treaded water, looking around for Caitlin.

One of the boat’s crew grinned as he helped her onto the ladder and she padded down, her back to the water. She took an uncertain little glance at the surface before immersing herself, then finally letting go of the ladder.

Her surface dive was a graceful, sinuous move, and her feet barely made a splash as her body undulated. She was a ghostly blur in the water for a moment, transformed in that curious absence of the third dimension.

He was seized with a strange and unaccountable dread.

The figure almost seemed to melt into the sand far below; then it shot upwards, rocket-propelled. He saw her face break the surface almost in slow motion, the water forming a smooth sheen over her features as it coursed off her skin, eyes closed, mouth opening to take a breath.

She breast-stroked towards him, face screwed up and her mouth pressed into a tight line like a grandmother in a public pool. “It’s warm,” she said, “warmer than the hotel pool.”

“Fantastic, isn’t it?” They linked arms, spinning each other around in the water.

“Feels weird… Usually I’m never comfortable about being out of my depth. But this feels fine.”

“You can’t beat it. It’s like being in a bath. Minus the pubes and stuff.”

“I can’t believe we’re here,” she said, “it’s like paradise or something. I can’t believe places like this exist. The last beach holiday I took I was at Skegness!” She laughed, and he felt her body shuddering against his.

“You’re just a child of the sun,” he said, nuzzling her neck.

“Don’t get too fresh here, mister. There’s children about. You’d better think of something nasty before you climb out.”

“I’ll think about sharks.” And then he flinched, something catching his eye in the water.

“What?”

“Look, fishies! There’s fishies in the water! Ha ha!”

A tiny school of purple fish were indeed passing by them, flickers of colour in the intense blue.

“Oh! I feel them! They tickle!” She disentangled herself from him and pushed herself away.

“They’re at my toes!” He giggled, squirming.

“Oh, make sure they’re not cannibal fish!”

“Cannibal fish?” He shrieked laughter.  “What in God’s name are they? A remote tribe? A death metal band from Sheffield?”

“Shut up!” She giggled and splashed water at him. Staring into the water, her feet blurred beneath the choppy surface, she said: “It’s deep. How deep, d’you reckon?”

“Not sure… more than 12 feet anyway. I’ve been down that far in a swimming pool before, it’s more than that. More than 20 feet, maybe.”

“Hey… what’s that?” She shielded her eyes from the sun.

“What?”

“That thing down there… d’you see it? There’s something shining down there.”

“No there’s not… oh.” There was something shining, far beneath them. A glint of light, almost too bright to look at directly.

“What d’you think it is?”

“Not sure… it looks like… Ah, I couldn’t really say.”

“I swear, I think it looks like a chain or something.”

“The treasure of the Sierra Madre?”

“It is a chain. Can’t you see it? A necklace. Something like that.” Her hand went to her throat.

He laughed. “Spyros’ pearl?”

“I’m serious. For all you know, it could be.”

“You know, I could try and get it. I’m not as good a swimmer as Spyros, though. Maybe it deserves to be down there. It’s his by rights, after all.”

“But he didn’t get it. He drowned, trying to get it.”

“Two kinds of men I guess, darlin’. Theos, and Spyros…es. What the hell? I can give it a try.”

“Don’t be daft.”

“Seriously, I don’t think it’s too far down. I think I can get it.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t the town pool, darlin’. You can’t.”

“I can.” He began to build up oxygen in his lungs with quick, sharp breaths.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Ah come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Then, after one great breath, with greater speed than she would ever have credited him with, he upended in the water. His legs pincered awkwardly in the air and she turned away from the splash, suddenly unsure of herself in the deep water without him keeping her anchored. Then his legs disappeared under. He became a blurred ghost, a wavering white smudge in the blue as he went

 

Down, down, the water squeezing him. He felt the fear grip his guts as he pushed himself through, shoulders and chest aching, that terrible pressure in his head and sinuses. The blue more brilliant as the water stung his eyes, nothing in the foreground to soak it up. Beneath him the sand was fine and dotted with rocks. In the middle of it all, as he kicked lower and lower and lower, muscles on his chest tight, was that single sparkle, that shard of light.

                                  He had that same illusion of space as when he’d reached for the surface earlier; it seemed that the more he pushed himself towards it, the further away the sliver of light got. The glow was prismatic, as if shone through a crystal or a diamond; he fancied he could see a whole spectrum of colours in the centre of the ray of light.

            He stretched, his very fingers strained, and then there was sand beneath his fingertips. He scooped it up and felt the weight of the object. It  sparkled one more time before he made a fist over it. He spun around and let the momentum take him right to the bottom, feet sinking into the gungy surface, cold gluey fingers in between his toes. He had expected to find solid ground down there; the suction took away some of the forward motion he had expected to gain by using his legs to propel him upwards. When he launched himself, he did not rise nearly far enough.

            Collecting his nerve, he exhaled slowly and reached out, arm over arm, his chest aching, heart thundering. He saw scissoring legs and neon bathing suits as he got closer. But not close enough.

           He gurgled, his chest aflame; lights arced across his field of vision like lightning and he had plenty of time to panic now, knowing that he had taken it too deep, that he must soon breathe in, that this time maybe-

 

He surfaced in a burst of foam, a primal, guttural noise accompanying his first breath. He had breached between a mother and daughter, close enough to kiss them both. They flinched and screamed, causing momentary panic among everyone.

“Terribly sorry,” he said, coughing and doggie-paddling over to Caitlin as the other bathers laughed.

She looked panicky. “What are you doing? I thought you had drowned! You must have been down about a minute, there.”

“Felt like an hour.”

“What a silly thing to try and do. I could have lost you!”

“I got it,” he said.

“You what?”

“I got it.” He raised his fist. There were still traces of grime around his fingers from where he’d gripped the seabed. He opened his hand.

She snorted, then burst out laughing. In his palm, glittering in the light, was a beer bottle top.

 

Back on deck, with all the heads counted and the sunblock applied, everyone dried quickly in the sun. They had a game of reverse bingo, except the captain called it bella bingo. It involved numbers being called out and the players sitting down if their ticket stub matched it. Caitlin ended up winning the contest at the expense of a crestfallen nine-year-old girl in the final two. Sensing a diplomatic incident as the girl’s lip trembled, the captain decided to award them both a prize. The girl left with a Dinky The Dolphin colouring-in pad and some felt tips; Caitlin got a bangle made out of either coral or milk teeth stolen from the Tooth Fairy. Honour was satisfied.

Trev was shivering when Caitlin made her way back to the seat, the applause of the passengers and crew following her. He’d put his long shirt back on but couldn’t seem to shift a chill that had settled on him since he’d dived for the treasure.

“Look what I got!” She waved her wrist at him.

“All that, and a slap on the backside from the captain. Hmph.”

“Ah, it’s just the continental way, honey.”

“Hmph.”

The crew returned to their stations, and Trev and Caitlin enjoyed, at last, a bottle of beer. They sat back, both still tired from their swim, legs entwined as they guzzled the cool brew.

She admired her bracelet. It went well with her boho top, oddly enough. “Hey, spooky. I got some treasure after all.”

“Hey! Don’t forget your bottle top. Took a lot of effort, that!”

“What a shame for poor old Spyros. I can’t stop thinking about him. You wonder if his pearl’s down there, somewhere.”

“Maybe he’s still trying to find it. Swimming around, looking under crustaceans and stuff.”

“Don’t say that! Poor bloke.”

They turned back to the sea, to the receding reef that had given way to almost electric blue water. A sudden flicker on the surface caught their attention.

“Hey, did you see that? A flying fish!” Trev leapt to his feet, following the creature as it skittered across the glassy-smooth surface, parallel to the boat.

While he was there, Caitlin did something that she could never fully explain to anyone, or to herself, ever afterward. She slipped the bracelet off her wrist in a single, supple movement, as if it was a garter, and hurled it into the white wake by the side of the boat.

(c) Pat Black 2016

This Thing You Humans Call Love

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Banks

These days, days, days, run away like horses over the hill

My brand new short story collection, This Thing You Humans Call Love, is now available for you to order.

Don’t be misled, there are no space aliens in this book, though there are a lot of odd creatures and strange new worlds.

Short stories are my favourite things to write. You don’t take an eternity to plan and draft one, you can get right down to business, and if you get it wrong, it’s no big deal to redraft, or simply move on to the next one. If there is such a thing as a professional short story writer, then that’s what I’d like to do when I grow up.

With one glaring exception (which you can read here), these stories are all set in and around Glasgow, or have a very strong connection to the place.

I’ve chosen July 3rd 2016 as my launch date quite deliberately. It marks 30 years since I first started writing a big project, when I was just a kid. It’s the equivalent of Hal 9000 coming online, or Roy Batty being born… hang on, it’s nothing like any of these things.

It’s also the 30th anniversary of the day I found 50p in the street and bought a comic with it. I was delighted with that result.

Anyway, I like the symmetry of it. Hey, I bullshit for a living.

I hope anyone out there crazy enough to buy this book enjoys the tales. I put a lot of me into them. Comparatively speaking, it won’t cost you very much at all.

Motley crew books: Adrift

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20160602_102146

My fingers wanted to type “Motley Krue” there, even after I’d told them not to. 

Adrift was my attempt to write about modern-day peril on the high seas. The idea was that a small tourist boat would get lost in the Ionian, or maybe the Med, following a huge storm.

The passengers, a crude cross-section of British society, have to take command of the vessel without any navigation or seamanship skills after the captain – a chancer who cuts corners and maintains his boat on the cheap – suffers a fatal heart attack.

Things get a bit Lord of the Flies as cliques develop, alphas and betas emerge, blood gets spilled, wives are coveted, and food and water runs out. A huge tiger shark begins to stalk the boat, too. Maybe a giant squid, or a fucking sea serpent. Why not?

Sea monsters are about as plausible as a boat remaining lost in the Ionian Sea for any length of time, with rescue planes, GPS navigation, satellite distress signals and god knows what else on hand to help effect a rescue. 

The scenario still intrigues me: the notion that our ideas of home, safety and civilisation are as thin as a pane of glass in your patio door. It only takes a moment of crisis to completely change the game, and nudge us towards a more primal state. Hey, for some, the difference is only a pint of lager or two.

I was inspired by my first two “big” foreign holidays which didn’t involve being a drunken dickhead with like-minded dickheads, taken when I was in my mid-20s.

I met some strange people. Probably I seemed like a strange person, to them.

I remember one girl on an overnight cruise ship to Egypt at our dinner table who made a face like a cat’s arsehole just about every time I opened my mouth. It turned out that the three couples assigned to our dinner table were Scottish, English and Irish. My opening line: “Hey, sounds like the start of a joke!”

Everyone laughed politely, except this girl, who made a face which stuck for the rest of the trip. It became horribly obvious that I’d done something to piss her off. 

Being a sort-of good, nominally catholic boy at the time, I blamed myself. I thought: it’s my accent. It’s too rough. They don’t understand when I’m being ironic, or simply cracking a joke. My facial default mode isn’t “smile”. They call it “resting bitch face” these days. All of these factors can add up to an unfriendly picture. 

The girl came over at the end of the trip and said: “I just want to say sorry to you. I spoke to my husband; I didn’t understand you were joking with the Scots-English-Irish thing.”

So, it wasn’t my fault, after all… she was a moron.

They’re out there, alright.

Separately, we had dinner with two other couples we met, one of whom were extremely well-to-do property developers, while the others were ordinary working folk from Inverness. It was like the Frost Report sketch with the Two Ronnies and John Cleese. I think we were in the middle. Well, possibly. I know my place, anyway. The upper class couple (they passed out business cards at the end of the night) were jaw-droppingly, casually rude about the Inverness woman’s appearance.

I wondered how the clear social stratification on show at the Thai restaurant could be altered by a simple piece of bad luck, or a moment of crisis. Other writers might imagine a wife-swapping party. It goes back to that primal thing again. 

I sucked my teeth when I re-read the opening paragraphs, after a gap of more than 10 years. It’s something I was guilty of quite a lot at the time. In describing a woman, I’d start by outlining her body; and by “outlining her body”, I mean things I like about women’s bodies. Their breasts, their legs, their buttocks… possibly their eyes, if I was feeling magnanimous.

I’d probably read too many horror novels by sweaty, bulging-eyed British men in my youth and imbibed some of their prose style. I can’t even put this on the blog, I thought. 

But when I read on, I realised my 27-year-old self knew what he was doing. I follow this blunt appraisal by describing the meathead who’s making the original description – a no-necked boor who quickly asserts himself, for all the wrong reasons, when crisis strikes. The type of man who has women categorised, ticked off and possibly even verbally abused without ever taking a look in the mirror himself. Note also his second name: Tamworth.

The description of human bodies as something you might see on a hook in a butcher’s is a very deliberate nod towards what is going to happen later, when matters of the flesh don’t relate so much to idle fancies in the Mediterranean sunshine as something you might actually eat, if you were more than a little peckish.

So, a tip of the hat to my younger self, there. Although for some, head-hopping is a writing no-no. 

I received one of my rudest ever pieces of criticism from an agent when I sent the first three chapters off: “This dialogue is not believable at all. If you want to be published, you have to get that right. Can you imagine people saying this stuff in real life?”

Well, obviously, mate. That’s why I wrote it down.

But the final analysis must lie with the reader.

Perhaps I could re-set Adrift in the Tropics, somewhere remote in the Pacific – or any place on this planet where people could plausibly get lost at sea…

Out of all the Undead Books, Adrift is the only one with a premise that I could see making print. Whenever I lose heart, I always tell myself: worse books than this have been published. Much, much worse.

Anyway, here it is: chapter one. Anchors away! (Aweigh? Ole!)

  1. ALL ABOARD

Chas Tamworth could tell that she was British before he even heard her voice. That two-tone sunburn across her shoulders was a dead giveaway, something that marked out the UK holidaymaker from other white sun-seekers, almost an actual anthropological trope. Her exposed skin from the neck down was lobster red as she climbed on board, but the parts of her that peeked out from beneath the bikini top were fishbelly white.

She would’ve been a nice girl if it weren’t for the sunburn, Chas thought. Generously built. Plump. Big up top. Dimples in her cheeks and her stomach as she stepped onto the gangplank towards the boat. Unabashed about her squashy belly, which Chas liked a lot, without knowing why.

Chas turned to his wife Denise and whispered, without taking his eyes off the girl: “She’s well done, eh?”

Denise peered over the rim of her sunglasses. “To a crisp,” she said, without moving her lips.

Denise was draped over the best deckchair, her wire-frame body and tinted hair fully exposed to the early morning sun, a G n’ T in her hands and a novel face down on her lap. She watched the sunburned girl and another man clamber on board the boat, noting the folds in the girl’s exposed stomach as she bent over slightly to drop onto the deck. She seemed ill-at-ease with the gentle swaying of the boat. The man had a cute face but he was a bit stocky. He had on an eyesore of a T-shirt, a psychedelic jumble of horizontal stripes of varying breadth and shade. Denise grimaced. “His T-shirt doesn’t look well,” she said to Chas.

“It’s like a broken TV set,” Chas muttered. Chas – shaven-headed, brawny and hairy-chested – was sat on the second best deckchair, clad only in his bathing shorts and expensive little sandals. He was putting on his sun cream, forcing the last of the Factor Five out of a tube. The tube gasped as he released it. He smeared the cream over himself, squinting as he slipped off his Elvis sunglasses to rub around his eyes.

To the couple stepping onto the boat, Chas’ eyes were surprisingly small once the glasses were off. Sam Bannen, the man with the sunburned woman, thought the big fellow looked a bit piggish as he squinted into the morning sunlight and wrinkled his bulbous nose. Like a football hooligan. Definitely English. He must have a Union Jack beach towel lying around somewhere, Sam thought.

Sam’s wife Lia, the sunburned girl, took his hand as they moved uncertainly onto the deck off the gangplank. The boat was moored at the little harbour and the water was calm, but Lia didn’t quite like the way the world suddenly became unsteady both under her feet and in her line of vision. She had a horror of seasickness, drowning and fish. But she had not considered any of these things as being a possibility when Sam had urged her to go on the one-day cruise around the islands.

She glanced over the side into the sapphire waters, noting the barnacles and other creatures dotted down the length of the pier’s legs and the side of the hull. A tiny school of orange fish huddled around the structure, seemingly taking shelter in the shadow. Even by the side of the docks, it looked deep enough to drown in.

“There’s no chance of a storm or anything, is there?” she asked her husband.

“Actually, there is,” Sam grinned. “But it’s forecast for tomorrow.”

“Bloody hell. I thought there wasn’t going to be any rain at this resort?” Lia tugged her sarong, lifting it a little higher on her midriff. The material chafed her reddened skin and she suppressed an urge to scratch it. There were two other people on the deck already, and they were both looking at her. There was one bald guy with a bull neck; he looked like a rugby player or something, a big lump of a bloke. She had to squint to look at him; the sun glared off his smooth, sweat-beaded head, his scalp seemingly aflame. Beside him there was a skinny girl in a red one-piece bikini sipping a G n’ T.

Lia fancied a G n’ T. “Look, you must be able to get drinks,” she said to Sam. “Already.” She nodded at the couple on the deckchairs. They both nodded back. “I fancy one of those.”

“Looks like a G n’ T,” Sam said. “Bit early for a G n’ T, isn’t it? Even for you.”

They stopped the conversation as they approached the other couple, sitting down on two of the less privileged deckchairs set in the shade. “Morning,” Sam said. “Looks lovely out, eh?”

Chas had put his Elvis sunglasses back on. He smiled at Lia and Sam. “Blooming,” he said. “Another scorcher. By the way, I’m Chas. Pleased to meet you.” They shook hands.

Denise smiled, taking Sam’s proffered hand. She had a firm, dry grip, but she only took hold of his index and middle fingers, a child’s handshake.

“And I’m Denise,” Denise said, after a pause.

 

**********

 

The Firebird,” Amy Smart said, pulling her long blonde hair back into a ponytail. “Stupid name for a ship, don’t you think?”

Struan McPherson put his glasses on and squinted into the sunlight at the boat. There, on the side, was the black lettering etched out against the brilliant white hull. Beside the name was an abstract figure of a fiery phoenix, a sort of red arrow with a beak and orange flames undulating out from the back. From a certain angle it might have been a jellyfish.

“Not appropriate, you’re right. I suppose it’s got some kind of special meaning to the captain. Maybe he doesn’t realise that he’s mixing his metaphors slightly by applying an aeronautical name to a nautical vessel.” Struan’s Highland Scots accent ruffled the vowels, shuddered the consonants; these sounds continued to delight Amy, even after so many years.

“Do you think we should tell the skipper?” she grinned. “Ask him to change it? How about The Fiery Fish?” They were walking along the jetty, bypassing the other yachts and speedboats tied up in the little island harbour. It was still early but there was a lot of activity on board the vessels, ropes and lines rattling, sails sighing on the yacht, chatter as supplies were loaded aboard for that day’s tourist intake. Buoys dipped in and out of the water as the boats rocked gently. The dark-haired, tawny-skinned men untethering lines or loading boxes openly glared at Amy as she walked past them. A few smiled.

Struan didn’t mind this, or didn’t notice. “Perhaps we should wait until we get back to port. It could be a long swim home if he takes offence and decides to make us walk the plank.”

“Doesn’t look like there’s many on board,” Amy said. She could see a few heads bobbing about on the deck just past the gangplank. “I thought we were late. Do you think it’s normal to have just the six passengers?”

“Six is just fine,” Struan said. “It’s not that big a boat. I’m happy enough with the extra space, anyway. You remember all those French people we were squeezed up against the last time we took a boat trip? That was tres mauvais.”

“Get away!” Amy said. “They were fun. It would’ve been a boring trip without them. At least they were having a laugh.”

“Fun? They were rude. They only seemed fun to you because you couldn’t understand what they were saying.”

“They started singing Frere Jacques. That was fun. And I know what that meant. Well… I know how the tune goes, anyway.”

Bof!”

Bof yourself.” They linked hands. He gave her a kiss as they went up to the gangplank.

“Ladies first,” she smiled, and motioned Struan to go forward.

 

****

 

 

“That’s the most ginger man I’ve ever seen,” Chas said. He hadn’t meant to say it so loud; Sam barked a short laugh, while Lia’s eyes bulged in astonishment. “Sorry, no offence if any of you are secretly ginger, but…”

“Hey, some of my best friends are ginger,” Sam tittered.

Struan was ginger. His hair was of a darker tint, more like stained wood or ancient terracotta pots unearthed after being buried for centuries. His goatee beard, though, was a few shades brighter, as carrot-red as his hair had been when he was a youngster. He was tall and rangy, and had the look and the three-quarter length shorts of a surfer or an animal rights protester. Then Chas saw who was following up the gangplank and his laughter died away. Tall and blonde, with tiny little shorts and a –

She looked right at him. “Hello!” she called out. “Top of the morning! Whew!” Amy strode past Struan and sat down in the empty deckchair in between Chas and Sam. “What a day!”

“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” Lia said, from the shade. She twirled her black hair girlishly around her fingers. “Couldn’t have picked a nicer day for a cruise.”

“Whereabouts is our captain?” Struan said, his Scots burr causing everyone’s head to snap up. “Is there anyone else on board?”

Sweaty sock off the starboard bow, Chas thought. He’s got a real live ‘See You Jimmy’ hat on, too. God almighty.

“Don’t know where he’s gone,” Sam said, standing up to shake hands with the newcomers. “He said he had to go pick up some supplies, or somesuch.

****

One hand settled on his paunch, Captain Jack Mills leaned back in his chair and drained off the last of the coffee. He sighed and placed the little cup back in its saucer on the table. From this moment forth, each and every single morning, things begin to get better. He smacked his lips.

Looking up from the cup, he could see the sombre eyes of Gregoris peering down at him from behind the café bar.

“Why do you always look so upset, Gregoris?” Captain Mills said. “You should be pleased to see me.”

“You are a regular source of business,” Gregoris said, in a gritty smoker’s voice, “every morning and every night too, Jack.”

“That I am,” Jack said. “I’m in this fine establishment just about every day, isn’t that true?”

“That’s true, Jack.”

“I’m the first face you see in the morning, and the last arse you kick out at night, wouldn’t you say that was so? I’m almost part of the furniture.”

“Yes, that is so.” Gregoris scratched his white beard. The hairs on his chin, like those on his head, were stiff and spiky like a cat’s whiskers. “What do you want, Jack?”

The Captain cleared his throat and leaned forward. You couldn’t tell how heavy he was when he was standing; six feet three in his socks and almost as broad again, he carried it well. But when the Englishman sat down, it was then you noticed the belly, stoked with liquor and rich food for all the years he’d been on the island. “I’ve got a proposal for you. It just so happens, there’s a vacancy on board my ship.”

Gregoris laughed. “You have many vacancies on your ship Jack. This much, we all know.” He picked up a broom and started sweeping the stone floor. He half-turned his back on the Captain while he worked on a corner.

It wasn’t that Gregoris didn’t like Jack. They had always been civil to one another each morning Jack came in, even after those nights when Jack had stayed till long after the English women had left and the music was switched off, and Gregoris and his brothers had to lift the seafarer’s head off the table and propel him out of the door and into a taxi. Their conversations had become part of the ritual of opening the café for the owner. And yet it was more than just familiarity borne out of habit. Gregoris couldn’t deny that he had a certain fondness for the man; he could burst with the most irrational optimism, that special quality common to all truly hopeless men. But Gregoris would make any excuse to make himself busy if the mornings with Jack dragged on a little and the other customers, regulars or otherwise, took too long to arrive. There was just something tragic about the man, Gregoris decided, something desperate.

“Well, business is picking up,” Jack said. “It so happens I’ve got a charter party today. A tour of the islands. Six good English people, Gregoris. Appearing at the dock, at nine o’clock. And I’m short of a mate.”

Gregoris stopped sweeping. “I see. I thought you had taken on some help?”

Jack made an impatient gesture. “That fool? He jumped ship to work for somebody else. He wasn’t quality, Gregoris. Quality’s hard to find. And you need quality out on the sea. I need a quality man. To do an easy job.”

Gregoris thrust his porcupine chin out, a gesture which always tickled Jack. He looked like an exasperated tortoise. “I told you after the last time, I’m not happy about Yannis going to sea with you. Not the way you carry on at nights. I’m sorry.”

“Ah, Gregoris,” Jack said, leaning back in the chair. “You think I drink on the job? Come on, what do you take me for?”

Gregoris said nothing.

“Look. I just need someone to pour the drinks and untie a few lines for me. It’s nothing difficult. And it’s not like we’re going to get rough seas.”

“This is not what the weather reports tell us.”

“Not till tomorrow, Gregoris. Plus it won’t be as severe as people are saying. I bet it won’t even blow the fluff off your prick.” Gregoris winced at this expression. “Besides. We’ll be back here by ten o’clock. With British airs and graces and the girls slapping our faces.”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll pay him double whatever he’s getting in here.”

“Double!” Gregoris spluttered. “Who is your charter, Mr Prime Minister and The Queen?”

“Well, I did say it was good English people,” Captain Jack said, rubbing his thumb and fingers together and leering. “Ones who don’t argue. Ones who always think it’s a fair price. Yes? Come on. Yannis is a big boy now. And it’s cash in his pocket towards his trip to America. Let’s see if he fancies another trip on the ocean waves with his Uncle Jack. See if we can’t toughen him up a bit out there! What do you say?”

Gregoris sighed. “I might be able to spare him. But it all depends on him. I’ll call him and find out.”

“That’s more like it! For that, I’ll have another coffee. I’ll drink to our health.”

“To your health,” Gregoris said, feeling underneath the bar for his mobile phone.

 

 

******

 

Yannis killed the engine on his moped and put it on the kickstand. He could see Jack through the window of his father’s café, leaning back on his chair, his open mouth booming silent laughter. He wondered if Jack had been drinking already; wondered if the big man would be sneaking sips from the bottles he kept in the wheelhouse beside the First Aid kit during the voyage. Yannis had done the sums and he would be mad not to take the trip out on the boat with the old man. Today was his day off and he would have been happier in bed, but the offer was too good to miss. One thing he could say for Captain Jack; the old man was quick enough with his money. Too quick for his own good, maybe, but it was cash towards next year. This was all-important.

He took off his helmet and ran a hand through his thick, curly black hair. Hateful hair; every night he would try his best to flatten and straighten, to tickle and tease it into submission with gel, mousse, even his sister’s spray which made him smell like a pansy. But by midnight, like in the fairytale, it would have unravelled back to its wild, untamed foliage. Some women loved to run their hands through the hair as he served them at the taverna; some were even sober enough to look disgusted when their hands came away covered in the translucent soup he had covered his head with.

Chantelle-Grace had not looked disgusted, though. And she had run her hands through his hair a lot. Chantelle-Grace, who he would be meeting outside the Metro Bar tonight. Alone, she had said; meaning without the squawking friends who had got in Yannis’ way the past couple of nights they had gone out together. There would be plenty of time for him to go home again after the voyage was over for the night, to  get cleaned up and put on his good clothes. Chantelle. He mouthed the word to himself without realising it, this tall, handsome young man of nineteen, as he went across the square to the café to meet Captain Jack.

“Thank Christ for that, there he is,” said Chas. The others on the boat looked to the gangplank. There was a tall, heavily-built man lumbering towards them, dressed in khaki shorts and a white short-sleeved shirt with buttons missing. He wore a battered-looking cap, with strands of greying hair sticking out from beneath. There was something of an old military colonel in him, Chas thought, or maybe an ex-copper. Something in the posture, his movements precise for such a big man. Definitely a uniform guy; he decided he would chin the skipper about it later on when things got quiet.

The captain had huge hands, and the boat swayed noticeably as he pulled himself aboard. He looks like he could’ve been a bit of a boy in his youth, Sam thought to himself. Looks handy. He noticed Lia grimacing as the vessel swayed a little; her hands strayed to the seat of her deckchair and she gripped it, hard. Perhaps reading his thoughts, Lia smiled at him. “I know. If we sink, that won’t help.”

“It’s the same on a crashing plane, too. Not very effective. Unless there’s a lifeboat under there.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Gritting your teeth can work wonders though.”

“Good morning shipmates!” Captain Jack boomed, presenting himself on deck with a quick salute. “Sorry to have to abandon ship briefly, I was forced into press-ganging this young fellow on board for today’s trip.” He indicated Yannis, who nodded and smiled with his eyes downcast as he followed the captain along the gangplank. Denise looked up, her eyes peering over the rim of her sunglasses. Tasty, she thought. And only a little fellow.

“Now I’ve already met some of you,” – here the Captain nodded to Chas and Denise – “but presently I hope to make everyone’s acquaintance before we set sail for the islands. As you can see, it’s a lovely morning, and conditions are perfect for our voyage today.

“I’m Captain Jack, and I’m in charge of the good ship Firebird. My first mate Lieutenant Yannis is here to assist me, and he’ll be happy to serve you all refreshments at the bar just inside the main cabin. Please feel free to call us ‘sir’ and salute, but this is not an essential on board for today.

“Now before we prepare to cast off, a few safety notices. If, at any point during the trip you should feel seasick, no problem – give me a holler and I’ll be happy to stop the boat, and you can get out for a little walk until you feel better.

“In the event of the boat sinking, you will find lifejackets in the marked cabinets fore and aft. Unfortunately, the emergency helicopter is in for repairs, so lifejackets will need to do if you should go into the briny.

“We set sail at…” he peered at his watch, “ooooh, whenever I feel like it, so in the meantime sit back, make yourselves comfortable, and prepare for a trip into the deep.” There was a smattering of embarrassed applause, started by Sam and Lia. The Captain doffed his cap smartly, then unlocked the wheelhouse at the bow before disappearing inside.

Struan’s gaze followed the captain as he passed through the door, then arched an eyebrow as he spotted a loudhailer system bolted to the wall. “I bet you this guy’s a frustrated comedian,” he said, indicating the speaker. “He’ll be talking to us on that thing all day.”

“What thing?” Denise said. Suddenly, there was a sharp whine as the loudspeaker shrieked into life.

“Apologies ladies and gentlemen, just checking to see if you’re all awake!” Jack’s voice boomed forth. The group burst out laughing.

Yannis began untying the boat from the jetty, fumbling some of the ropes, worrying that he hadn’t got them all. He could see the whole dock collapse in the wake of the Firebird, trailing along behind the boat out to sea. Another part of him was rejoicing at the vision that was the tall English girl with the ponytail, forgetting for the moment all about his Chantelle. It would be a pleasure to serve, he thought.

The holidaymakers chattered away among themselves, pitching in the odd comment to each other about the weather, the apartments they were staying at, all the restaurants and bars they hadn’t enjoyed. The final checks were completed, and then the engines roared into life. Foam surged up from the propellers at the stern; soon the boat began to pilot away from the jetty. At first the motion was so slow, Lia began to wonder if they were moving at all; then she realised that the dock was angling away from the boat. She had a slight moment of disorientation, then a sense of the universe being out of sync, the horizon pulling away from the foreground; then the engines roared again and the boat leapt through the dock and out to sea. Even Denise cheered as the wind caressed their heads and tossed their hair.

Lia stared at the water hissing against the side of the boat, white foam creeping over the deep blue in stark, probing fingers. “This isn’t bad, this!” she cried.

The Day I Tried To Do Chick-Lit

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In those desperate early noughties, I had a crack at chick-lit.

I noticed that even people who weren’t normally into reading bought and read these books – and lots of them. They all seemed to have the same covers and the same plot. 

I’ve never looked down my nose at the genre – I read novels about prehistoric sharks eating people – but I supposed that these stories were all written to a strict formula, and if I followed it, I couldn’t miss. 

As you’ll see… not the case.

I didn’t have a title but I had the name of my main character: Minty McGee, a red-headed TV property show presenter. She meets someone she doesn’t get on with at first, but eventually sparks fly, etc etc.

More interestingly, I didn’t tell the story from her perspective, but from that of a runner/gopher called Jess – Sancho Panza to Minty’s Don Quixote.

For obvious reasons, I didn’t send my sample chapters to anyone. So this post is an act of literary masochism; but even so, I cannot bear to include the subsequent chapter where we meet Minty’s gay best friend. That would be an act of literary sadism.

I guess you can write novels to formula, and people have made plenty of money doing so for their entire careers. But you can’t reduce them to that. They’re horribly complex things to put together, regardless of whether they’re about giant prehistoric sharks or kooky interior designers. Luckily I didn’t persevere with Minty for too long before taking this on board. 

Do play along at home with your “a man wrote this” bingo cards. I’ve got my head in my hands at the part where I say Minty has “a long skirt”, and leave it at that.

I’m not sure what was going on in my mind with Minty McGee. Could she have been a fantasy figure – like Red Sonja, or Sarah Beeny as drawn by Frank Frazetta? There’s definitely an element of that in there. I was careful not to describe her body in any great detail: I thought the hair was enough for the imagination to work with.

In 2004, as now, I thought property renovation shows were the very devil. So many nights I sat at the other end of the sofa, grinding my teeth, as people on television became anxious that their £400,000 budget for a bit of painting and decorating might not be enough.

This was when people talked about a “property market bubble, heading for trouble,” but not too seriously.

I guess it’s all to do with building a secure and comfortable dwelling place, one of the most basic human impulses. But there are other impulses, and as my time as a property TV show widower went on, I began to pay attention to these. I found it difficult to get Sarah Beeny off my mind, or that lass with the red shoes. Kirstie?

I didn’t really fancy her, but I used to fantasise about a night out with Kirstie. She’d start off by telling you about her ex-boyfriend and how badly she missed him. Then she’d get horribly pissed, far too soon. Some bloke called Phil would send her dozens of texts, their tone becoming increasingly desperate, but after a while she’d ignore these. She’d launch herself at you in the taxi queue. You’d participate out of a sense of fascination rather than lust. Disgusted onlookers would tell you to get a room. I think they call this cognitive dissonance. And maybe I had a night out like this, once or twice.

My Sarah Beeny fantasies were more focused on a night in, rather than a night out. How big a house, and how much work would it need? We could convert the loft. I’d spend a lot of time re-plastering the twin room. We could investigate the basement. And so on and so forth.

The garden is strictly Charlie Dimmock’s domain, though. I’d meet her there at dusk. You wouldn’t need a drop of drink. The plants would sigh with the dying light. The air rich with scents and buzzing with invisible activity. You remember Charlie? She had red hair. There’s a lot of Charlie in Minty’s DNA. I have no aptitude for gardening whatsoever.

If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s: don’t write something if your heart isn’t in it. Perhaps even more pertinent: don’t try to write positively and without irony about something you hate.

Had I continued with this folly I might have called it The Ballad of Minty McGee. It’s a better title than it deserves…

 

“Minty, don’t you think this is a bit-”

The car lurched over a speed bump. Jess’ chin touched her chest.

“-Fast?”

Minty slid her sunglasses down her nose and winked at Jess. Her red hair burst out behind her in the wind, streaks of flame flickering against the sunburnt paint of her convertible.

“We’re going to be late,” Minty said.

“We’re not going to be late. Minty, I think I saw sparks there.”

Minty smirked. “Well. You’ve got your seatbelt on, haven’t you?”

“That’s hardly the point,” Jess said. “If we crash and explode, they’ll hardly say: ‘Well, at least they died with their seatbelts on’.”

Minty barrelled through amber lights. Behind other windshields, Jess could see open mouths, bared teeth, bulging eyeballs. “Don’t you like this car?” Jess said. “In one piece?”

“We’re going to be late,” Minty said again.

“We are not going to be late,” Jess said, exasperated. “We meet Jim-Bob and the crew outside the house at one o’clock. It’s ten past twelve. It takes ten minutes to get there. How can we be late?”

“We’re taking a detour,” Minty grinned, her hair caught in the slipstream like a fighter pilot’s scarf.

Jess glanced at the organiser in her lap. “A detour to where? Minty, you know you have to film today, then later on you’re meeting Peter. What detour is this? When did we organise this? Jesus, what was that?” The car lurched again, stuttering over some small obstacle on the road. But Jess hadn’t seen any speed bumps. “A dog? Or a child?”

Minty looked unsure for a moment, biting her lip. “A hole in the road? I dunno.” She glanced at the mirror and wrinkled her nose. “Poor design, that’s probably all it was.”

Jess shook her head. “Okay, so where are we going on this detour?”

“We’re taking a drive. Up the Boulevard.”

Jess snapped shut her organiser. “The Boulevard. Why?”

Minty turned off onto the main road. Trees appeared by the side of the road, brilliant green in the afternoon sun. “This is why. Look at all this,” she said, smiling. “Greenery. Now this is good planning.” The trees lined up on either side of the road, planted in perfect symmetry, all roughly the same height. The road tapered off towards the horizon, white lines shooting forwards. “This is design Jess, my love.”

“Now I know you’re mad,” Jess said.

“Just look at it,” the girl driving the red convertible said as they hurtled down the neat, ordered rows. “It’s all so simple.”

 

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

 

“We’re late,” Minty said, sliding out of the car. She took her time about it too, smoothing down the long skirt, tousling that hair. She slid her sunglasses back on top of her head and clicked a button on her key ring to activate the alarm. Jess always expected this car’s alarm signal to purr, the contented sound of a lean cat curling up on itself. But it simply gave out a cheerful boop and the hood stretched itself out, wrinkles straightening, the soft top resolving itself into hard angles and leather sheen before clicking into place.

Minty watched all this coolly. Then she looked around the street she was parked in. Terraced houses, dirty red brick, sparse patches of grass with concrete bald spots. “Does it say which number we’re supposed to be going to?”

“Well it’s not exactly a number,” Jess said, turning pages back and forth in her organiser. “It’s a house name, but I can’t make out…I can’t even read my own writing… here, what does this say?”

Minty peered at the slanted lettering. “Hmm. ‘Pick up two pints milk, cotton buds, baby wipes’,” she said.

“Funny girl.”

“That’s why I’m the one on TV, honey.”

“Look at the other part of the note,” Jess said. “At the bottom.”

“Ah. The house is called ‘Rhiannon.’ That’s nice.” She looked around the street. “Celtic. Earthy.” Here she bunched her shoulders – “I like it.” She spotted the Orions and the Fiestas, the Puntos and Saxos and Cinquecentos and Bravas. “Not sure if it fits into this neighbourhood, but I like it. Rhiannon. Yes.”

“‘Yes’? Wasn’t it Fleetwood Mac?” Jess said.

Minty took a few seconds, then pretended she got it. “You’re the one who should be on the TV,” she sighed. “Okay. Suppose we’d better get looking. And you should take your time, love,” she added, as Jess began to root around in her bag, trying to find a slot for the organiser among the threaded hairbrush, the torn envelopes, the fingers of lipstick. “We’re late already. That means we have to take it slowly. We don’t rush.”

You Be A Pirate, I’ll Be A Cowboy

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Pier

You must admit, it’s a decent title.

I’ve changed the cover, as the last one was too busy. I’m not sure about that shade of blue on the banner at the bottom, mind, but that’s easily changed.

This is a full collection of original short stories, and it’ll tide you over until the next one (due out in the summer).

Help push me into the Amazon top one million!

https://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Be-Pirate-Ill-Cowboy-ebook/dp/B01DGOM31A/

The Man In The Plasticine Mask

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Always on my mind, baby

I’m a writer. But I don’t use my own name. I don’t show my true face. I wear a mask.

My wife isn’t quite sure about this. “Psychologists would have a field day with you,” she says, during playful moods.

At other times, she is outright suspicious. I wonder if she thinks I’m like Kevin Bacon in that dirty invisible man film. Creeping around the internet with my mask on, cackling like a Victorian villain, tying decency to the tracks.

I have my reasons for this disguise. (None of these involve being a dirty invisible Kevin Bacon.)

First, I’ve always thought that, until it starts bringing in money, I’d be embarrassed if my workmates knew about my typing habit.

My job has a little bit to do with this – I’d feel demeaned if colleagues knew I wrote. Most folk would be supportive, I suppose, but it isn’t “most folk” that make the biggest impression in life – it’s the bastards.

It would certainly give some people ammunition to take a pop at me. I have a thick skin, but I know the laws of the jungle. You present a possible weakness, it gets exploited.

This also has a fair bit to do with my childhood, where my activities as a seven-year-old writer and comic book artist were laughed at by some family members.

“Why do you bother with that stupid stuff? Does that girl you drew have boobs?”

An older brother used to find it hilarious to steal the stories and comic strips I wrote and show them to his girlfriends and mates, then delight in telling me how much they laughed about it. When I was nine I wrote an entire illustrated Choose Your Own Adventure-style book about – what else, in 1986? – a Ninja. He was probably a crap Ninja, as I recall, because you could see him on every page. Having conversations with people, etc. He had a cool ninja mask, though.

It took me months. My brother stole it and I never saw it again. I saw him do it. When I asked him what happened, he swore he didn’t know a thing about it.

Where I come from, creativity is a bit effete. It was something I loved, but it became something furtive, something hidden, of necessity. In the closet, you might say.

Secondly, in a world where image is very important, my face isn’t an advantage.

It used to be that writers with actual writing careers could be faceless, an almost perfect scenario where you have a chance of success and even a level of fame while still being able to walk down the street, unrecognised. Nowadays, that’s becoming less likely for authors. You need an online profile to sell yourself, a face to go with the name.

I am increasingly horrified by what I see of my true face in photographs, the changes that time has wrought. Of course, you don’t have to be a writer to realise that you could be this month’s cover star for Faces of Fuck Magazine.

This feeling certainly involves some ego. To paraphrase a chilling statement uttered by  a female relative a few years ago: “When you were a wee boy, I used to think you would grow up to be the most handsome man. What happened?”

A while ago I was compared to former Doctor Who actor David Tennant by a drunken woman in a pub, which, while hilarious, I must admit I found flattering. To be clear, I don’t resemble him in the slightest, and I think the woman was off her head. I’ve got dark hair and eyes and a Scottish accent, but that’s it.

Well… I say it was flattering. That was only for a moment, until a friend I was with at the time made a more truthful comparison: “Yes, he’s like David Tennant… in a hall of mirrors.”

To counter this very favourable review, and to give you a more complete picture of what I look like, another drunken woman in a pub a couple of years prior to this compared me to portly breakfast TV host Eamonn Holmes. I should hope there’s no resemblance at all there, either… but she must have said it for a reason.

If someone had handed me a literal mask that day, I should probably have worn it. Certainly I stepped it up in the gym from that day forth.

The truth of my appearance, regrettably, lies in the centre of these two extremes.

So, a mask preserves some dignity.

But on top of that, I enjoy the mystique of the false identity; the hidden face, even though it is mostly in my head. Obviously, a stuffed Highland cow avatar isn’t quite as thrilling and mysterious as being Batman. And I’m not looking to solve crimes or bring justice to people, or indeed do anything remotely important.

But there is the thrill of being part of a conspiracy, no matter how small. And like the masked heroes and supermen, there are some people who do know my real name, the supporters and confidants. They help me get through, and give me a push to carry on.

The thing which some people find hard to grasp is that being Pat Black isn’t about putting a mask on. I feel as if I’ve taken a mask off.

I’ve written about topics and scenarios that I wouldn’t have dreamed of addressing had I written under my own name, out in the open. My writing feels more honest, more real, as a result – and in some cases much more personal, too.

Masks aren’t always a good thing, of course. We all know that internet anonymity can be corrosive, a cover for sadism, spite and jealousy. But rather than indulging my dark side, being Pat Black has set me free. There’s no pressure to be anyone or anything, and that’s liberating.

Pat Black feels like the real me.

This is a smudged picture of the man behind the mask. His identity is safe… for now.

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to take the mask off, and it won’t matter if friends, family or former colleagues know what I get up to in here and elsewhere, under cover of the night.

But for now… you’re stuck with the furry face.

Undead books: Mortis Lock, part three

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And last…

The package contains the Subbuteo Brazilian World Cup squad. The real Subbuteo, not this cardboard shit you get nowadays. Little plastic men, black, bright yellow shirts, the pale blue shorts, the tiny little flicker of the badge on the jersey. Brilliant. How could you not love Brazil? How could you not want to be Brazil?

It might seem like the kind of thing that would make you cry, if you lived in a daytime TV movie. Scott Breely sending me his treasured Brazil squad. Part of his suicide note, I was told. Deep stuff. Days of innocence. Is that… is that a tear in your eye? Compose yourself, come on.

I looked at the little plastic men, resolute little creatures with their hands at their sides in their plastic holders. One of them had survived serious injury; yellowed glue joining his little shins back together after coming to some grief, not a bad job. But he wouldn’t be featuring in any first eleven of mine, I had to be honest.

No-one knew that these plastic men had a secret. In particular, that the box they came in had a secret compartment.

Scott and I would use our Subbuteo sets to take drugs paraphernalia to each other’s houses. Kids’ stuff. Scott’s World Cup edition – with the floodlights and everything, he even had a fucking stadium with fake fans in it, the spoilt bastard – was used to hold bongs, pipes, a rolling machine, the merchandise itself. There was probably no need for all this secrecy, but you know how it is when you’re a kid, especially if you live in a white bread middle class area; the fear of getting caught, the paranoia. The disgrace. We never were nabbed, of course. The plan was foolproof. Even if our mothers ever spotted the bongs and the rollers, they’d never find the drugs; Brazil held the drugs. The aristocrats of world football were also the viceroys of illicit substances and moonlight transactions in our town. There was a little secret compartment in the bottom of the box, quite carefully constructed by Scotty, I must say; just enough to conceal a little deal of hashish we’d get from the stoner guy who worked at the petrol station off the main road.

One last toke, I thought. He wanted me to have one last toke. I unfolded the box parts – carefully, just the way we used to; that compartment would have to get used again, after all – and there wasn’t a deal there. There was a shiny silver key. And a note.

“No-one but you.” It said. And beneath that: “ROSS STREET. BOX 211.”

 

*****

Ross Street has a storage depot. The depot is synonymous with the street; if you want to take something to storage, you would say you were taking it to Ross Street. It’s a big old warehouse, once used by a tea merchant back in the day, I think. There had been plans to buy it over and turn it into a concert venue, or a car park. But it turned out there was more money in storage. People have a lot of shit out there they want to store, it turns out.

I take my own car in, ignoring my dad’s pleas to stay for some breakfast. It’s easy to get parked in Ross Street; it’s not the busiest part of the town.

As a relic of the city’s mercantile past it’s not the best one there ever was. It’s in a part of town that gradually became run-down; there’s a lot of boarded up shops there now, To Let signs. The lovely sandstone facades are intact on all of the buildings; some of them have just the facades, and nothing else. The stonework is listed, so it can’t be demolished, but everything behind the front has had the wrecking ball put on it. I think of Buster Keaton, the front of the house falling on him, but he goes through the open window and doesn’t get squashed.

Ross Street depot was a handsome building at some point, I suppose. It looked like it had come through a major air bombardment, but escaped with fleshwounds while the neighbours got pummelled. The sandstone is more black than red, and there are little cracks in the windows here and there. The gargoyles have been scared away. Once inside the front door, I’m taken through to the warehouse area by an old guy with a massive gut and a jangling set of keys on his belt. “Right at the back,” he grunts. “Follow the numbers on the signs.”

I walk past row after row of containment units. You wonder what’s in them. Antiques. Missing masterpieces. Munch’s the Scream, boxed up there, shrieking away in the dark. Dead bodies. Shergar. Some of the containers are monolithic, towering over you. Listening to my echoey footsteps in the gloom, I just know there are rats in here somewhere. There’s something about the smell. It’s Ratropolis in here, I think.

You make jokes sometimes because you’re scared.

When I reach section 211 in a series of wooden racks there’s just a trunk in there. When I say trunk, it’s more like a box file of some kind. It’s new and shiny and it has wheels on it, a long handle. Interesting. So I lug it back down the way I came. There’s a little skittering sound to my left and I look just in time to see a pink tail flicking past one of the containment units. “Fuck me,” I say aloud. “Fuckin’ knew it.” I don’t like rats.

Then there’s the sound of a much larger animal behind that containment unit. The stamp of a foot. The rats sprints back the way it came, crosses my path, and disappears behind some of the other units.

I’m aware of the buzzing of the lights. The blood fizzing in my ears.

“Is there… is there someone there?” Even now, I feel it’s best to be polite.

Silence from behind the container. I’m going to have to walk right past it, lugging the container with me. I heard it alright. There is someone behind that container. I don’t move.

“Hey!” A square of light opens in the distance. I hear a set of keys jangle as the outline of the old doorman appears in the portal. “You need a hand up there or what?”

Heading towards that light, I hurry past the container. There’s nobody there of course.

*******

I’ve traded a cupboard in Melbourne for one in the city. I’m on the top floor of some swish new-build flats and taking that container all the way up the stairs is an effort for a little fella like me. I think of old ladies lugging their trolleys full of messages up old tenement steps. Those bitches could probably turn me over no problem at arm wrestling.

I’m not sure what I expect to fly out at me as I open it up. One of those octopus things in Alien maybe, that suck your face off. A giant Looney Tunes boxing glove, an Acme anvil. The world’s most elaborate parting shot. “That’s for Summer ya bass,” a note taped to the glove might say.

I peer inside.

Liked this? Start from the beginning

…And that’s pretty much all he wrote. There is one other chapter about Jason meeting up with his friend, a lesbian policewoman (“I deserved as much… it’s like every stupid, smutty joke I ever cracked on stage got me in a headlock and snapped on the cuffs, and not in the sexy way, either”). Spot the expository role…

Despite some banter, I haven’t included it here because I wrote it out of sync, and it wouldn’t make much sense.  

I have a few of these fragments – I may ping them out here. Next up: terror on the high seas… sorta… in Adrift.

Undead books: Mortis Lock, part two

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Growing dim

You know how they advise you to show, not tell? Guess what?

So, Summer. Okay, I slept with her. I don’t think Scott ever knew. There it is, short story.

It wasn’t while they were going out. It was when they had a mid-term break when they were 21. But maybe I’d better explain what happened before all that.

There was a time when I thought I loved her. Not when I slept with her, of course. This was a wee bit before that, when Scott and I were eight.

Summer was the girl I saw on the bus every morning going to her posh school in the city. She was still on the bus, being carried to her posh school, when I had to get off. I doubt she ever once cast a glance at me when I made my way into the hellhole of St James’. Her school may have been exclusive but their uniform was not the height of fashion, even then. She had to wear a hat and a hideous brown uniform, all of the time. They got reported if they got caught without their hats on, she told me later. On that bus she got a lot of heat from the shitweasels who went to school with me. Not quite your shining knight in armour, I remember joining in the slaggings one morning with a group of pudding-faced gits who were in the same class as me.

It was all down to jealousy. You could tell she was special. Blonde, blue-eyed, tall, composed, much fairer than she is now. She dismissed all the abuse without so much as a flicker of those cornstalk eyelashes.

Listen to me. Cornstalk eyelashes. Christ. But that’s the kind of thing you say about a girl like Summer.

It turned out her father knew Danno, Scott’s father. He’d been a sound engineer back before he made it big in electronics and had even been on the road with the Rivets. So now and again my folks and Scott’s folks and Summer’s folks would all get together at parties and such and so, despite the bus, we became friends. She remembered me from the bus that morning, too. “You were the snottery kid, Mr silver sleeve,” she would tell me, years later.

The best laugh is, Scott didn’t like her back then. Or he made a very good show of not liking her. We all merrily ran around together at house parties and social occasions, skinning our knees, breaking ornaments, digestive biscuits crunched into carpets, glasses of Irn Bru at the Bells, skeleton faces peering into doorways at Hallowe’en. But there was something about her then that he didn’t like. Maybe the fact that his mother Irene always made such a fuss of the gorgeous little girl, the fact that she was adored wherever she went, that she had such perfect manners. I think maybe that got on Scott’s wick, jealousy, an attention thing. I think I asked him about it years later and he told me he didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

Anyway. She got older. Things changed in a birds and bees sort of way. Those fair eyelashes I told you about? The eyeliner came in, dark, thick. And she grew taller still. Then other bits and pieces became apparent. Things grew complicated. Teenage parties. Serious downtime at school to allow for me daydreaming. The blonde hair got that little bit darker. The first time I saw her with makeup on at a church hall disco. Flaming jealousy when she started knocking around with kids from her posh secondary school, even further out of town.

I’d always had it in my mind that I’d marry her. She was the great matrimonial fallback in my mind, as other girls came and went for me. I was seriously distracted by Evey Hayes in my fourth year, and I thought; if it doesn’t work out with our Evey, I could always go for Summer.

I’d give anything to feel that arrogant again.

Scott took an interest, and somehow managed to kiss her at a party after the exams were done. It was at some kid’s house. Silly parents, leaving him alone, going on holiday. Someone had told me not to mix cider and beer. So of course I did. Literally. Mulcahy’s Mixer, I called it. It was just exuberance, boisterousness, joie de vivre after the end of the intellectual oppression of examination halls, indecipherable notes, stuffy revision rooms. And the girls losing some of the clothes in the warmer weather. Why the fuck do they have exams in May and June? Couldn’t they do it in a time when you don’t want to go out and have sex with girls all the time?

Anyway. At the party, Scott kissed her. I missed all this, as I was locked outside this kid’s house, vomiting. It wasn’t the vomiting that did it for me with Summer; someone – I think it had been big Cairney, a monster even then – had punched somebody and amid the screaming and breaking glass we were all disgorged into the street. While I spat and moaned against some roughcast at the side of the house, Cairney was swinging a traffic cone around, marking distance with three or four people who had nothing to do with the original incident. Big drama queen that he is.

A couple of days later, when I heard about what had gone on inside the house with Scott and Summer, I was… Well. In recent times she had seemed more unattainable than usual. Seventeen years old, gorgeous, everything going for her. She was withdrawing in my mind at that point, receding from a friend into an acquaintance. She had gone out with guys who were a lot older, guys who her father knew, guys with degrees and cars and paying jobs. So fair play to Scott. When the chance came, he went in for the kill. And they became an item. And I had to swallow it.

And I always wondered: what if I’d kept the head at that party? What if I hadn’t been such an idiot?

Whatever feelings I had, I stowed them away and forgot about them. University next for us all, and a parting of the ways. Scott and Summer both got into Glasgow, I made it into Dundee, and our lives blossomed in different ways. She became my Best Friend’s Girl. I had no feelings for her at all, I’m sure of that. Besides, I had my own scene happening up at Dundee. The only person who kept on about Scott and Summer was my mother. Any time I was home, and any time she spoke about seeing the pair of them together, the coda was always: “She went for the wrong one, son.”

“Why’s that then?”

“They just don’t look right together.”

This I don’t know about. I’m not the tallest kid on the block, so quite how an Amazonian beauty is going to “look right” with her pygmy lover, I don’t know. Now Scott – tall, dark, angular – he looked just fine with Summer. I admit that. What my mother was on in those days, I couldn’t tell you. But what my mother should have said was: “They don’t fit together.” Because, as it turned out, myself and Summer fit together just nicely. Snug, in fact.

Okay, enough of the teasing, here’s how it went down.

Much to my parents’ astonishment, I didn’t immediately pursue a teaching career after four years’ nonsense up in Dundee and another one doing Postgrad in Glasgow. Don’t ask me why. I was twenty-one. Twenty-one-year-olds don’t know shit, I can confirm that. So anyway, with Beat dreams and a wandering spirit I worked my balls off… well, kinda, along with a few loans… in pubs and clubs and suddenly I was in Australia, suffering the indignity of people telling me I talked funny while I waited tables and sweated my nights away in a cupboard in a tower block.

I waited for my first month to be over with, for the culture shock to subside, and for it to get better – more like Kerouac, less like Solzhenitsyn. But it didn’t. I was thinking of getting back home and looking for employment. And suddenly, Summer was in Australia as well. It was out of nothing, an e-mail exchange in an internet cafe. She was on my “jokes list” of e-mail recipients –  the people you rarely communicate with other than forwarding them gags and chronically unfunny JPegs (but not those cheese-dick chain letters about sick little boys and cancer-addled grandmothers wishing upon a star; no, bin them, and bin them again). But one day, her name was in bold in my inbox: Summer (1).

She told me that she was in Australia travelling for a while and that she would be in Melbourne soon, and she’d heard that I was there and was wondering: did I want to meet up? And, PS: she’d split with Scott.

I hadn’t seen a great deal of them in the intervening years. Not together anyway. Myself and Scott, sure, we were out whenever the chance came up. Best mates. And Scott had, in truth, been a naughty boy at uni. He played rugby and had misbehaved several times on away trips with his university team. He told me about this and trusted me with that information. Believe me, I was in no position to judge the guy, but all the same this had shocked me. I knew Summer was still beautiful. How could you want to do that to Summer? I wondered.

He called me up about it at my flat. He was pretty low. He was sure that there was someone else involved, some reason why she’d left him. The truth was, they’d outgrown each other. They were heading in opposite directions, new jobs, different cities with their jobs – he was an architect, she was a graphic designer – and maybe they had grown apart.

When he called me, it was a shock. At first I thought he knew about my meeting, but he didn’t. I felt like a kid caught with his hand in the biscuit barrel.

I never did tell him she was coming to see me. I’m not sure he ever knew.

It was all cool and composed of course. She was just a laid-back flighty hippy gal seeing the world on her own, and I was a cool guy sampling the delights of the new world with lemon juice in my hair making me look like “the gayest little surfer on the beach”, or so she told me. It was cool. Cool was a word often repeated in our e-mails. Cool. That’s cool. Cool, no worries. See you there, peace. Sweet. Cool. When I met her in bleached blasted sunshine at a café I could hardly believe what I was embarking on. And I swear to you, although I’d be lying if I’d said it never occurred to me what might happen, I had no designs on seducing her.

Something happened. That’s what they say, isn’t it? “It just happened.” “It was one of those things.” “These things happen.” “We never meant for it to happen.” The weather was fine and we had some drinks and there was a lot of laughter, and only very very rarely did she mention Scott, and… and then… and then again…

Back in that cupboard, limbs entwined, with a breeze rattling my blinds through a crack in the window and chilling the sweat on our bodies, we agreed never to tell him.

It was the best I’d ever had, the best circumstances, the best beginning, middle and end, and then a few more. There was something so organic about it, nothing forced, nothing contrived. It was like I’d been with her before, been with her all my life. When we were in the dark, that cupboard could have been a palace, a football pitch, down a mine shaft, the bottom of the ocean, deep space. Nothing else mattered.

I knew it was a one-off deal. There was something final about it. It added to the experience maybe, who knows? We held each other for a few hours and then she was gone. I was in shock; it was like making love for the first time. On the outside, nothing’s different about you. But inside, nothing is the same.

I’d like to tell you that I moped around for the rest of that summer in Melbourne, tortured my work colleagues with poetry, listened to some Nick Cave and thrown myself to the sharks. But there were other things on the go as, at last – perhaps Summer had broken the levee – things did get interesting Down Under. It was by no means the last Australian shag. Nor was it the last with some other guy’s girl. There was a fist-fight with a surfer who came into the restaurant to kick things off. I punched the guy and then prayed for the rest of the staff to hold him off while I made good my escape, which they did. Then there was the hippy girl from Toulouse with beads rattling along the hem of her jeans who wanted to be a marine biologist… there were concerts, there were beers, there was the sea, there was the smell of sunblock on a girl’s back, which always makes me think of having sex… Summer was part of the way of things for me then, and maybe symbolised it the best. A brief, intense burst of pleasure and high living, a young man behaving badly, but doing it well.

And, they got back together. I’m not sure when it happened. Scott e-mailed me six months later, when I was back home and starting teacher training, saying we should all head out for a meal.

Another slight, sickening moment there. Did he know? Did he want to pull the same moves as the restaurant-crashing surfer? He never did say. We went out for dinner, very civilised, and Summer was with him and they held hands and sat close and got all giggly. And that was that. They were on the road to engagement, sharing a house, spending their lives together. And I had to forget all about Summer again.

All went well for the pair of them. Their career graphs started spiking. The cars got bigger and more expensive. A ring appeared. A date was tentatively set. Scott had asked me if I would be his best man; the final slap in the face. I grinned and said, yes, of course I’ll do that for you.

And then, just recently, a couple of kids found Scott in a car off the roadside, several days after he went missing, his wrists opened from the heel of the hand to the elbow with a carpet knife, apparently bubbling with maggots.

Put down that mac n’ cheese and read part one, if you like.

Undead Books: Mortis Lock, part one

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Look back in manger

I have a file on my computer labelled “The Book of Misfires”. It’s a collection of novels which I started but did not finish. It contains 10 abandoned projects and runs to just under 130,000 words in total.

In mitigation, most of these stories were not abandoned because I couldn’t finish them; instead, they were cut short rather cynically.

Having had my dreams of literary stardom dashed after grinding out 200,000 words of not so much deathless as deathly prose with Meat, I felt I had to be a bit more businesslike in my writing projects. That book took me more than four years to finish. That’s a lot of huffing and puffing for something so high-risk, I thought, employing something resembling reason.

I theorised that I could sell novels to discerning agents after having written just three chapters. Upon reading these, the underwear of the London literati would simply melt away, and they’d beat my door down for the rest of the book. Which I’d then provide, of course, with a not-so-fond-farewell bid to my colleagues, and a chunky advance smouldering in the bank. 

And to think some people say an imagination is an unhealthy thing… 

I sent the opening chapters of Mortis Lock to lots of agents in my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, spending a small fortune in printing and posting in those not-quite-digital days. I’ll never forget the look of horror on the woman’s face as I approached the counter at the Post Office with my envelopes and paperclipped sheets. “No’ you again!”

I got no bites whatsoever, and so another 10k was filed into the trunk, unseen by anyone else… until now. 

Mortis Lock is a crime novel about a stand-up comedian who smells a rat when his best friend dies unexpectedly, supposedly a suicide.

I started writing it in 2004 – it astonishes me that it was so long ago – and I vividly remember the day the idea first occurred to me. While I was reading Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue on a sun-lounger in my back garden, I realised that a man I deeply disliked bore a close resemblance to an artist’s impression of Glasgow’s still-at-large serial killer, Bible John.

The man I knew is just about the right age, and the likeness is uncanny. He was also quite psychopathic in all the right ways for someone you suspect to be a strangler of women, although he had no biblical leanings whatsoever. I was strongly minded to tip off the cops, anyway. Some dark nights, I still am.

Among the many things which date Mortis Lock, you will notice one part where people are smoking inside a social club. It’s like when you see goalkeepers picking up passbacks in vintage football highlights. “Hey! You can’t do that!” 

If any agents feel like beating down my door for the rest of it, don’t be shy… Remember, no project is finished or unfinished… Not dead, but undead. 

Seven men, one coffin, six shoulders braced against the wood. Only one of the men was not a beanpole basketball-playing cloud-bothering bastard, and that man was me. Thanks to my stature the coffin was hanging like the shelf in the basement your father doesn’t like to talk about. It was ludicrous, but no-one said anything. It was my best friend’s funeral, after all.

I hadn’t realised Scott Breely’s little cousin was a good three inches taller than me until he lined up opposite me by the side of the box. When we lifted it up and finally allowed it to come down on our shoulders I was literally letting the side down. In fact, I literally could not keep my end up. I was on my tiptoes, trying to make my right shoulder reach its underside. Talk about tilting at windmills. I thought: this is how Tom Cruise felt, attending all those movie premieres with Nicole Kidman.

If anyone in the church noticed, they didn’t laugh. I glanced at the pews as the six pallbearers shuffled past the congregation to the strains of the closing hymn and all I could see were white faces and red eyes. I focused on Scott’s father’s lapel in front of me, tiny beads of water dotted around the black fabric, until we got out of the church and loaded the box into the hearse.

There was a little bit of waiting around while they got the cars ready. I was travelling with my mum and dad, but of course we had to wait until the black cars were away first. The hearse went first, with all the floral tributes bunched up against the windows. It looked a bit choked in there; too many tributes written in white petals: ‘ZORRO’, his nickname at work – answers on a postcard to the usual address, please – ‘SON’ and ‘BUD’. ‘BUD’ was from me.

I watched the first Roller fill up with the top team for today. Scott’s dad, Danno Breely, Danno’s latest squeeze (Tess, or Tricia, this one was called), along with Scott’s mother Lucy and her new husband Len. They were all looking old, even Danno’s bit of fluff, who might have been a blonde bombshell 20 years ago. Danno, with his long hair tied back, flecks of silver showing, put me in mind of Willie Nelson.

One other person climbed in after them, helped by gentle hands; Summer.

I’d not been looking forward to seeing Summer again. It was awkward enough when Scott, her fiancé, was still alive; the air kisses, the banal chat, insipid conversations, masking the tension.

The girl was shattered, and every eye followed her as she made her way out of the church into the car. She looked numb, fragile. Her face was clear of lipstick, long blonde hair pulled back into a secretarial pleat and her milk white face a sharp contrast to the black dress. You got a sense people were crying for her, her especially.

“The whole world in front of them,” I heard one old dear say.

“Terrible,” someone else said. “How do you rebuild from that?”

“Terrible.”

“It must be the not knowing that’s the worst.”

“Terrible.”

All the boys were there with their partners, as well as a few of Scott’s university pals who I didn’t know so well. I nodded to all of them. Big Cairney tipped me a wink as he shepherded his tiny little missus past us towards the car park, and as he did so a tear rolled from his eye into his black beard, lost forever. That ridiculous sight – did King Kong cry? Did Godzilla? – might have brought on a sniffle in me had my father not put a hand on my shoulder at that moment.

“Best we get to the cemetery,” he said. “Rain’s coming on.” I nodded and followed him, my mum and dad and my little sister Collette into the car. My older brother Raymond and his wife followed behind us.

My mum, bless her, tried everything she could to inject some levity into the journey from the chapel to the cemetery. “Well he’d be glad he got a service in the old church, eh? That was his style.” Scott was an architect. He liked Gothic things, imposing buildings, soot-blasted old places. She may have been right. I didn’t say anything. My mother looked terrible, I thought. Like something had taken residence under the skin of her face. Something to do with HRT or pills or lack of them, I wasn’t sure. My dad was driving, saying nothing, reading my mood but letting her prattle on. The radio was on low and it was raining. I’d have taken my own car but I knew there were a few drinks to come. To tell you the truth, I’d had one or two already.

It was at the graveside that I felt my chest starting to hitch. It was a bit like hiccups, and I tackled the spasms and hitches the same way I would the windipops, by holding my breath. I made fists to keep it together. Squeeze, and release. In, and out. I couldn’t stop the tears though and I brushed them away, shaking, ashamed. I didn’t look at anyone’s face and the priest’s words melted into the rain.

I kept my head down as I took the strain of the cords – Christ, the box was heavy – and I helped lower my best friend into his hole in the ground.

Danno, Lucy and Summer all spread the dirt over the box. Danno nodded at me and numbly I did the same, taking the crisp earth from what looked like a cigar box and letting it escape through my fingers into the pit. Then Summer came back to the grave, openly weeping. That beautiful face disfigured in grief, like a bloom pressed into a book. She let a blood red rose drop onto the coffin.

I had a couple of conversations with the boys when it was over. There were a few hugs, plenty of promises to meet up for a drink at the wake, and beyond, invitations to come and stay, pledges to go out for a meal or a drink or anything. And we filed down the hill past all the tombstones. I took a look back at the grave, the gravediggers’ little putting green carpet framing the wound in the earth, and the white letters by the side of the hole:

‘BUD’.

 

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

 

The wake was worse, and I told myself to keep a lid on the drink. The jocularity, the little bursts of laughter and pockets of smiley suits got on my tits. Cairney came over for a while and we tipped a couple of jars and ate a few tuna and onion sandwiches by ourselves by the social club bar for a while. He was the only person I asked: Does anyone know? Does anyone know why?

Cairney looked away from my eyes and got very serious. “Easy fella. Drink up. Me and you’ll have a convo about this later. Just drink up. My advice? Get out of here as soon as you can.”

I didn’t catch what he meant. I thought he meant Summer. But he couldn’t know about that. “There’s too much going on at wakes, fella. Too many things in the background. And there’s a great big thing in the background in this one. You get more fights at wakes than you do at weddings. Even in this town. Just split as soon as you can. My advice to you.” Then he grinned, crooked teeth pushing to the surface of his thatched face. “But man, can you believe he died mid-season? Imagine not knowing if we’d won the title or not?” I loved Cairney but I couldn’t take the stand-up routine from him. Not there. Thankfully he took his own advice, and disappeared with his brassy little wife before long.

Mum and dad left early. My dad approached me as I was enduring a long blether with Scott’s auntie, a woman I’d never met, and gently asked me if I wanted a lift. “No? Okay. Well, give us a call if you want us to come and collect you later. Mind yourself, eh?” He made it sound like he was concerned for my well-being in general, but from the look in his eyes I knew he was echoing what Cairney had said.

I didn’t know that it was getting late and that I was drunk until I passed Summer on my way to the toilets. She just appeared, a phantom, as I rounded a corner. I lurched a little to get out of her way. She didn’t change direction, but instead clapped her hands on either side of my shoulders. “Well soldier,” she said, rubbing my arms, “you look like a wee lost soul there.” I hugged her, hard. For a few seconds her head was pressed against my chest, and she held onto me by the fingernails. Then it dispersed into a vague Funeral Cuddle – lots of slapping and patting on backs and shoulders. Her eyes were moist. “How are you?” she whispered.

“Just swell,” I said. I swallowed. “I’m awful sorry, Summer.”

She nodded. “We’ll have a talk later, yeah?”

“Of course, of course.” I looked away from her. Meeting Summer Donahue again at last, and that’s all I could say to her. Summer’s mum and dad interrupted the chat, such as it was. I had to restrain myself from pulling back suddenly.

Steenie Donahue looked like a bit like Lurch from the Addams Family. Everyone had said so, especially Scott. He had given Summer her long limbs but thankfully not her features. “Now then,” he bellowed in his best stage tone, “how’s young Jason doing?”

“Fine Mr Donahue,” I said, nodding at Summer’s mum, a timid figure at his back. “Yourselves?” Scott hadn’t liked him, hadn’t taken so well to the man’s bluster. I could dig that.

“Oh, bearing up, you know.” Stock replies for a funeral. They were all on their way out, and I walked them to the front door of the club. It was still raining outside. Steenie had a new Beamer, I noticed. Newly minted judging by the licence plate, black as the hearse we’d taken Scott in.

“If there’s anything you need,” I said to Summer, “give me a call, okay?”

“Sure,” she said, managing a smile, following her folks to the car. She indicated the chapel hall. “I didn’t like to stay, you know? It gets sort of…” she made a fanning gesture at her throat.

“I’m feeling you.”

“I’ll drop you an e-mail.”

“You take care now.”

Steenie flashed the lights at me as they pulled out of the car park.

 

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

 

Back inside, Danno Breely’s ex-wife and his latest bird were locked in intense conversation, both of them with lit cigarettes in their hands. Scott’s mum’s husband sat at the other side of the table from them, nodding vigorously and laughing when he was supposed to. The total package was that of a bank manager with this guy, but you could break him down into his constituent parts. The tweed jacket of a bumbling academic, the dry handshake of a clergyman, the baldness of a coot. He was all wrong. In fact I think he did work in a bank; I’m sure Scott had mentioned it once. He seemed plain, nice. He couldn’t have looked less like Danno Breely.

Danno was holding court at the bar with a load of people I didn’t know. Occasionally there were whoops of laughter. People who had been on the verge of leaving found themselves staying to listen to his patter. Names like Danno Breely only sound right if they belong to rock stars, and he was one. Danno Breely, singer and rhythm guitarist for The Rivets. A rock band made up of Clyde shipyard workers. Hairy bastards, very loud, often misogynistic, vague leanings towards the occult, coming on like a souped-up Black Sabbath. Better, in my opinion. Big in the seventies, middling in the eighties, dead for much of the nineties, resurrected for the odd comeback tour and album in the noughties. Not a superstar by any standards, but his name and his face always rang a bell, as did his songs on the rare occasion they made it to the radio.

He had partied with the best of them but had managed not to fritter away his modest fortune. Royalties from their one big transatlantic chart smash, which Danno had written – a big favourite with advertisers throughout the years; even now it was hard to think of the crunchy riff without thinking of chewing gum – kept rolling in. He was a record producer now, mainly based in London and still doing alright, but The Rivets still made the odd appearance. In fact they’d opened up one of the big festivals last year, or the year before.

He had been an embarrassment to Scott, his only child, for most of the boy’s adolescence of course (even when grunge came about, and you would often hear the odd bored-sounding American superstar mention The Rivets as a big influence), but he seemed impossibly cool to me and the rest of the boys.

Danno had split with Lucy when Scott was four. He hadn’t really been around when Scott was growing up, just the odd exchange trip once a month to his big house somewhere up north. But pity the idiot who doubted he’d loved his son. So he said, anyway.

“Jason Mulcahy,” he said, gallus as ever, seizing me as I went past him and his entourage. “Now this kid could play his guitar. D’you still keep up with your pickin’, son? I was going to give this boy a spot on one of our tours, you know. Dagger was just about falling asleep on stage every night, and I thought, fuck it I’ll get our Jason in instead. Turned out he was too expensive!” Dagger was Bill ‘Dagger’ Daggett, the lead guitarist for The Rivets. Nigel Tuffnell to Danno’s David St Hubbins. He overdosed in 1985, three days after Live Aid. Danno had kicked him out of the Rivets two years before. A sort of Brian Jones situation, but slower and without the swimming pool.

“I thought I was the comedian,” I said. “I’ll crack the jokes.” Everyone laughs at this, of course. I’m famous too you know. Oh yeah.

Slowly, people drifted away and I got talking to Danno at the bar. Drinks were sank. We couldn’t help ourselves. He kept saying, “I was meaning to talk to you.” He told me that his son had adored me, that we were like soul mates. He said it a few times. I couldn’t say anything. He was upset and pissed and I was embarrassed.

“He was going places,” Danno said. I was glad there wasn’t much bitterness in his voice. “He had that new job. He’d just got engaged to that lovely lassie.”

“I know.”

“It didn’t make any sense, Jason.”

I didn’t want to say it. Had told myself over and over, don’t say it. “Danno, I had no idea. I had no idea there was something wrong. If I’d known…” And shit, I’d  said it. There it was. And yet I didn’t say it. What I meant was:

I didn’t know your son was going to kill himself.

“It wasn’t… I’m not prepared to believe it was that.” He didn’t want to say suicide, no-one did. “Someone was out of line.” He was shouting. Worried glances from the bar staff. “Some fucker… was out of line. And when I find out who it was…” He drew a finger across his throat then took a long, slow sip from his glass. “Mark my fucking words.”

 

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

 

I’ve been meaning to talk to you.

I walked home. The chapel hall wasn’t too far from my parents’ place. I stumbled along, feeling sorry mostly for myself, encountering no-one on the streets. The odd car fizzed by in the wet road. I let myself, my new black suit, take a soaking. I felt I’d earned it. Danno had asked if I wanted to come back to the house for a nightcap. He and his bird were staying over with Lucy and her man. They’d have a wee party. Thanks but no thanks.

“Not that kind of party, you cheeky cunt!” Playful slap.

There was something Scott wanted you to have.

Contrary to popular opinion no fights or arguments had developed. I had a walk in the rain, feeling sorry for myself. But even sad bastards get sick of the rain and soon I made it up to my street. Scott’s mum’s place was round the corner where the bigger houses were; I fancied I could see the flashing lights, the muted thunder of a sound system up full blast. Summer’s parents were somewhere beyond even that, behind the black tree-line. She’d be staying there tonight, I knew.

I think he knew something was going down, son.

Good old dad was waiting up for me, of course. Sitting in his chair, back rigid, a book open on his lap. The pose I’ll always remember him by. “Good night?” he asked. He looked better than me even with his glasses on, the old bastard. Lined but lean, a three-times-a-week man down at the gym. Like Danno, showing signs of his mileage but not looking his age.

“Not bad. I’ll just crash if you don’t mind, dad.”

“Of course. You remember the way to your room, I think.”

I only just found it two days ago. I’ve no idea what it is. I didn’t look. Don’t have the heart just now.

I hadn’t stayed at my parents’ since last Christmas. My room and Raymond’s rooms had been transformed from teenagers’ dungeons to minimalist chambers, stark white walls and wooden flooring, tiny little pictures placed here and there. Scandinavian. A touch sterile for my tastes. An ensuite bathroom as well, now, I noted – that was new. How I would have killed for that when I needed a spew during my teenage clandestine drinking years.

Raymond had gone back home with his wife. Collette was asleep in her room, I guessed. It had always been assumed I’d come back, though no-one had raised it. I sat down on the bed and unlaced my shoes. The bedding felt fresh, smelled fresh. I felt a burst of nostalgia.

“Jason?” My dad appeared at the door.

“Hey there,” I said, peeling off a sock.

“You did well. I’m proud of you. It was a hell of a day.”

“Thanks dad. Goodnight, eh?” I felt my voice falter. And all of a sudden my dad looked drawn. His bottom lip twitched. He took his leave then, closing the door firmly, before it got any more sickly sweet.

But please, Jason. Please. If it’s anything relevant… anything at all… you’ll tell me, won’t you?

I fell asleep soon enough. I forgot all about the package in my suit jacket until I groped inside the pockets, fearing I’d lost my wallet, when I woke up the next day.

Slow Beats, or: Butterfly in a box: An introduction to fiction

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Wings – the band the Beatles could have been?

1.

I’m not sure when you arrived. You may have been that same fluttering thing which delighted the baby one bright summer afternoon. Something I pointed out when we went for a little wander around the house. The walls gilded by sunshine as we named the parts: Window. Tree. Sky. Birdie.

Butterfly.

When you floated past us, you felt like a blessing. That’s another way of saying you made my baby laugh.

Probably you got in by the skylight, wedged open to let the steam from the shower escape. I thought to myself: I’ll have to get a window open, and make sure you get out. But of course, I never did, and nor did you.

Perhaps you’d gotten to the end of your time, naturally. Perhaps that corner was a choice you made, a place to stop, indefinitely. Nine-hundred and ninety-nine beats out of a thousand, this would have meant finding you where you lay, on a windowsill or mantelpiece. Or perhaps you’d never be found, your quiltwork matched to curtain or carpet, nature’s plumage enjoying one final deception. You’d be something too delicate to pick up with our crude moving parts, something so soft I would have needed tissue to make sure you were not crushed or torn, your death smeared with indignity.

But you did something different. When I saw you on the ceiling, defying gravity, I’d thought you were still alive. This would have been while I was bathing the little one, too busy to pay close attention to much else.

The penny dropped in slow instalments as winter wore on. Finally, I realised you were dead, and expected you to fall at any moment. I should pluck you off the ceiling, I thought.

But it is not a simple matter of standing on tiptoes and picking you like low-hanging fruit. You’re in an awkward spot, you see, and up on high with it. I’ll need to dig the stepladders out of the garage to retrieve you, but the garage is a big job in its own right, a Gordian knot of piled belongings, not an urgent task but a curiously insistent one, throbbing away in the far corner of the building. There are files and boxes in there that might go unpacked until the next move – or until I am placed into a box myself.

So in order to reach you it’s either the ladders, or balancing on top of some chairs. That precarious latter scenario might bring this tale to a grimly ironic close. You would still be unnoticed, long after your passing, though I daresay I would not, should the chairs give way. But whose death would be more beautiful to look at?

I’m not sure what forces keep you anchored up there. Perhaps you were trapped in some minuscule pit in the paintwork, too small to see with the naked eye, but I prefer to think not. You look unhurried. I hope this is how it ended. I’ve heard police and other first responders describing the face of death – even sudden death – in this way, in situations where calm has no business being there. No sense of shock, a curiously peaceful visage. You’d be fooled into thinking their passing was serene.

So you now have to go, as we all do. I think the best thing would be to wait until another stormy winter’s night, when the house quails and flinches against the wind and rain. Then I’ll pluck you as delicately as I can, and cast you out into the turbid night, your last resting place at the whims of the four winds.

You’ve already been gone a long time, but you will stay in my mind for as long as it lasts. This is as near permanence as anything, living or dead, or never alive, can get: a lasting impression.

2.

Thanks for the kind words, big guy, but to paraphrase the King: I ain’t dead, baby. Just takin’ a break.

I chose bathroom number two because it never got too hot, nor too cold; and of course I was safe from all those airborne feathered bastards who might spoil my day. Spiders were more of a risk in-doors, but those eight-legged flavour bastards would need to be determined to snare me, away up there on the corner. Determined, or luckier than they look.

If you’d done some research, you’d know I was hibernating. That’s right – same thing the bears and badgers do. And I’m going to stay up here and do just that. Don’t worry about my leggies; they’re made to cling on, even when I’m fast asleep. Just think of me as Batman, only beautiful.

Night night. See you in springtime.

3.

So, it turned out you weren’t dead. I should have done some research. That would have gotten a bad school report, maybe even an invitation to speak to the teacher.

Thank god I couldn’t be bothered disposing of you.

Here’s how I found out:

Testament to my laziness, you stayed up in that far corner of the bathroom all through the winter, like a Christmas decoration even the kids were getting bored of looking at. Then, events took over. The shower on the top floor stopped working; we had to bathe ourselves, as well as the baby, in the bathroom where you were perched. When I was bathing myself at high temperature: the revelation. Your wings beat, once, twice, very slowly.

Who knows what tempests this act wrought on the far side of the world? Perhaps there’s a storm with the same name as you.

It was all to do with the heat. The steam had woken you up – when we bathed the baby, the water was necessarily tepid, but with big people, the heat is on. You’re not meant to be exposed to high heat. This interruption soon set you a-fluttering all over the house again.

The advice on the websites I should have checked in the first place stated: “Put the butterfly in a box, and keep in a cool, dry place.”

The box I used once contained the bottle of white port I was given last year. It had the face of Christ on it. After capturing you as you rested on our front door, I finally had you where I wanted you. I cut a few holes – not just to keep the air moving, but to let the light in, to tell you when the springtime was here.

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Christ!

Spring came and went. And then it dawned on me – this time, you were truly dead.

I had high hopes for Easter. I’ve long paid my dues when it comes to religion, but I was tickled by the idea of me being wrong again, and you being resurrected on Easter Sunday, inside a box with Christ’s face on the side. But no-one rolled away the stone. You didn’t move. Worse still, you weren’t hanging upside down. You were flat, brown, and dead looking. Schrodinger’s cat I don’t know about, but there was a definitive answer to the problem of the butterfly in the box.

When I saw two of your kind performing a thrilling mid-air courtship on a walk, I knew that the game was a bogey. You couldn’t sleep in with that sort of action happening just down the road.

“We’ll give it until May,” I said to the missus, more in hope than expectation. “It might surprise me.”

But I was in denial, of course. You were still dead. You had ceased to be. You were extinct, etc.

So today I went ahead with the original plan. I opened the window, waited for the wind to rise, and shook you out. You went a fair distance on the spring breeze; I don’t know where you ended up.

But this is no way to end a story, even if it’s true. So here’s another idea:

4.

Fooled you again big man. I’m already shacked up with a lady. Keep an eye out for a Tripadvisor review, but don’t get your hopes up, okay? I’ll visit with the kids. For sure.

5.

Out you went, across the rooftops towards the park, alive as I’d hoped. The wind caught you and bore you away. Maybe your wings beat on; I like to think they did.

You can’t say for sure that’s a lie. It probably is, but no-one can prove it. Maybe that’s as much of an impression as we can hope to make in this life.