February Short Story: Change

This story was first serialised in 28 daily parts during February 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Change

I can’t do this any more.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to you, with consideration. You know better than I do how the last year’s worn us both down to stubs, lead and wood slivers scattered across a professional landscape tainted with chaos.

At some point something had to give.

It might seem heartless to announce my departure in letter form especially as you’re half a world away, but that’s part of my point. The virtual paper trail is set. My phone’s off. You’ll see the blog post, and if there’s actual care and concern to read it, then the game’s afoot. Will you drop everything in Chicago when my answerphone is all you can contact? How long will it take to notice you’re blocked on all social media? Will you rush to the airport, desperate to make it back to leafy Oxfordshire, begging me to reconsider?

Fat fucking chance of that.

I became a useful scalp in your upward progression through publishing, and for a time… yes, you did love me, of that I’m certain. There was care, consideration and passion that would ignite wherever we’d inhabit, but… and there’s always one, I wasn’t enough for you to be sated. That voracious appetite. Drugs that made me uncomfortable. Random strangers via Skype. A slow drip of extra-curricular activity that prevented a long term commitment and then, when everybody else deserted your sinking ship, I was the lifeboat that never punctured.

Not any more. For the record, I was heartbroken the first time lies replaced what had been the most precious and refreshing honesty I’d ever seen. It’s still painful, uncomfortable feeling whenever your name comes up in meetings or on publications. I loved you once, now it’s officially over. I’ve paid this company a not inconsiderable amount to deliver this letter in person. You’ll assume it’s another contract or offer, that one of your many lovers is playing a game with you, and it is, after a fashion.

You see, after patching up my cracked psyche, I hired a lawyer. The one thing you’ve always been great at is deception, which fits nicely into that professional persona so carefully cultivated. It also means that there’s a couple of quite important people in your circle that would find any hint of public involvement with you quite damaging. Don’t worry, this isn’t blackmail. I was clearing out the flat, ready to move out and away from your horrible, damaging influence and found the bag you’d either hidden there because you thought I’d never find it, or were stupid enough to forget ever existed.

Either way, you lose. You already know what was in it, and now it’s been passed onto the police, because honestly? I was a complete idiot. You played me: I was stupid enough to think that actually, I mattered when that was quite obviously never the case. You’d call me your dependable port in a storm. Not any more, it’s game over. I’ll see you in court. Oh, and as I’m reliably informed by my legal team this letter is admissible as evidence, I look forward to you trying to prove this was some kind of entrapment or deception on my part.

Time to reap what only you have sown.

Mags.


The removal men drive away, battered blue van disappearing into wonderfully bright, blue Oxford morning. I never liked this town: too posh, full of self-righteous pomposity. Christopher fitted right in here, utterly in his tweed and brogue element. It was the right time to leave. His letter should have been delivered exactly as my life departed this town for good: I’ll have got him up at 4am, just as the sun is rising over his immaculate brownstone apartment in New York. He’ll think it’s a lover, probably Anton or Elizabeth, starting his day with a smile.

I imagine him standing there, immaculate white dressing gown suddenly far too hot to wear, staring at my words: more powerful than an any threat made, means by which this entire ridiculous charade will be shattered and broken for good. High time he ended up as the injured party. It is fair to assume his legal team will not simply be sharp but also extremely clever: good luck however if you even try to prove I faked those photographs or any of the video files stored on Chris’ memory stick. You won’t find a single fingerprint of mine on any of those items.

There’s pages of notes, history written up and ready to go. What I heard: lies and duplicity, playing other people off against each other whilst keeping multiple individuals in the dark. Under normal circumstances, none of this would have been of interest to the police, except… Sickness rises in an empty stomach: it’s time to walk the short distance to the station, waiting for the train back to London and my new life. No more breakfast in bed, staring across Oxford’s classical architecture, end to the late nights staggering drunk through narrow streets.

I’ve not touched a drink since the day Chris’ bag was discovered. No cigarettes either: time to go cold turkey from everything. There’d been suspicions over drug use, and now there’s documentary evidence that’s the least of his sins to consider… no, I’m not going to let him win. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: I got played, just like everybody else, except this time there’s no running away from the truth. I’ve offered myself as evidence, willing and ready to stand up in court, because there are points in life where keeping quiet is just flat out wrong.

Part of me is already considering how long it’ll be before the truth comes out.


In the end, it takes a week.

The Metropolitan Police arrest Chris quite literally running off a private plane at London City. He makes the Guardian’s front page, as publishing goes into meltdown. The sympathy garnered from my family is remarkable, who had initially been beyond disparaging at my relationship with this man, who was twelve years my senior. The biggest surprise however is how my employers firstly handle the revelations, before swiftly acting on consequences.

I am offered free counselling, plus a leave of absence. It seems only right to be up front with them over the deal with the prosecution lawyers and when I am, their understanding and support is an unexpectedly comforting surprise. It takes six months to work out their motivation. Chris is the father of my editor in chief’s six year old daughter, which only becomes apparent after a tabloid newspaper breaks the story. It’s news to everybody, including the errant father, and I’m very glad to be working in Manchester that week and not stuck at Head Office.

Trial is set to begin the week after I move into my own place overlooking Olympic Park in Stratford. The legal team are quietly confident of their case: I’m surprisingly nerve free the night before proceedings are due to kick off, using unpacking as a useful displacement activity. At 10.15pm Kim calls me, in a state of considerable shock. The lawyer’s been informed by Police that Chris has suddenly been taken ill, is possibly unconscious and that the trial may need to be halted as a result. TV news already reports that he’s been taken to a London hospital.

By the time I’ve been woken by my phone alarm at 7am, he’s been dead for three hours. Kim has no more details at this point than that, and is amazingly far more upset than I expected. Without an accused, there’s no trial, and the story of the man with many appetites will be lost. Christopher Eastwood died of a massive heart attack before his story of abuse, exploitation and considerable excess was ever publicly known. After the trial was cancelled an awful lot of people were left without closure, including me. My response on reflection is utterly perfect.

It took just over a week to write the story of my time with him; three months to interview everybody else involved, including my then ex-editor in chief. That final manuscript was rejected by my employers quite rightly on grounds of conflict of interest, but it wasn’t a problem. Nepotism might be unpalatable to many, but it was how Chris kept himself hidden for so long. My brother saw the manuscript and within a week, his TV company had mobilised one of the most famous scriptwriters in the country.

This story will soon become compulsive, must watch TV…

Free as a Bird

On my day (which let’s face it is most of them) I am a world class procrastinator. The problem with this, looking at the calendar, is that we’re already three months into 2019 and this bid for World domination is not going to move itself. So, how do you push past failure and remain focused?

The top of those two monthly planners (intentionally blurred so you don’t get to see what I’m working on) has a very clear set of outlines. Next week, without fail, I was gonna push out some poetry (despite telling myself I was done for a bit, which was clearly a lie.) Except this morning, whilst desperately looking for a way to avoid having to tidy up, brain informed the Poetry Department it had a couple of rather useful lead-ins to the work that needs to be done. An hour later, I’ve written two out of four of my initial submission plan.

What occurred to me as I was hoovering up the floor avoided an hour previously was the rearrangement of mental priorities which is freeing up more creativity. What used to be the case is that there’d be no real grasp of what needed to happen when: this would lead to a ton of last minute panics, with work being rushed. If there’d been sufficient planning, more effort could have been put in at the outset. Having used wall planners now for about six months, it’s a far more effective means of getting deadlines to stick, and not panicking over outcomes.

The visual is a really big deal, which should have been more obvious than it was. There’s a third planner up on the wall, a 12 month one, on which deadlines are slowly being filled.It allows my brain the space to grasp what there is to do, what’s coming and where everything fits together. It also, crucially, allows me to plan for surprises. That’s what, if I can do something well before a deadline, it is far more sensible than leaving everything until a week before when inevitably, there’s more pressure.

It transpires that this is how I work best.

typing1.gif

Of course, none of this wins me anything, but that’s perfectly fine. The satisfaction I now feel in being able to manage and feel comfortable in my own skin, to recover from disappointment to get back into the process of writing is worth considerably more to mental well-being long-term. In that regard, this is far more significant a win than anything else that’s likely to happen for a while.

Finally, there’s a freedom just to be that didn’t exist before.

The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul

I should have started doing this far, far earlier in my life than now. This revelation isn’t really very useful or productive, so now it’s been said let’s stick it in the pile and move on. Friday was, all told, very surreal, like it happened to somebody else, or I was slightly removed from my own body. The only thing remembered was the round of applause granted when it was apparent this poem wot I wrote was a first publication.

Everything else is a blur. I met some lovely people though, and had a long conversation with Rachel Boast, for whom the W.S. Graham project has been something of a labour of love. Lots of people were lovely about my ability and my presentation too, which all bodes well going forward. Part of me wants to do a slideshow of imagery to go with any future reading, and suspect that there may be opportunity to try this out later in the year. There are plans, oh yes.

I wish I’d taken more pictures too, but in the end the ones that exist will be enough as a start. A phenomenal amount of stuff was learnt: I need better trousers for starters, and a pair of gig boots. Then there’s material, and the route to further publication… I’m looking forward to being told I’ve not won a bunch of stuff next month so I can sort out a ton of other projects using that detritus. The biggest bonus undoubtedly from all of this is a feeling of validation. Yes, you can do this.

Yes, this is just the beginning.

The Day Before You Came

Yesterday was, without doubt, one of the most difficult days I’ve ever had as an adult. ‘Yeah yeah, it’s all hyperbole,’ I hear you mutter BUT THAT IS WHERE YOU ARE WRONG. It was apparent, going into this year, there would be points where everything could topple, but what wasn’t expected was the opposite to take place. The permanent, ongoing assumption is that things get better with time. Except, sometimes there’s a release of pressure, and amazingly everything just improves.

How that happens is often a cause of considerable surprise.

060219.jpg

Yesterday was the day I submitted probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever completed. Sitting mentally exhausted in front of my PC and Mac, I became really very angry. That same day’s events hadn’t helped, as came an understanding that all of this, countless revisions and  rewrites and polish plus everything else are not contributing to my happiness, but serve to attain a standard other people set. There needs something that is my standards alone, or else slowly, everything will begin to suffer.

Then, I remembered the Gym. Those numbers after weigh in today, let’s be honest, are a revelation. Most people exercise to get lighter, but that’s not me. I’m here, gaining muscle mass, and becoming something a world away from the woman who thought ‘thin’ would solve all her problems, which of course is so patently untrue as to be funny. For the record, there’s less fat than ever before in my makeup, but this journey is no longer about dieting.

My road to success just took a massive detour.

beautiful.gif

All of this is a complex cocktail of emotions to add to the general state of mental health, which pretty much relies on there being more to life than writing and submissions. Once upon a time, of course, writing was the therapy in itself, but that has now become the job. Therefore, I need a new means to cope, and exercise has become that means not only by which events are in my control, but that destiny is allowed to throw up some interesting possibilities.

I’ve learnt an awful lot about myself in the last month or so, and that’s set to continue. The lesson to learn, if it were needed, is that the best way to improve is often the least obvious route offered. I’m sure someone’s said that better, but that’s not the point. Talking about mental health isn’t just dealing with the issues, it’s finding the means by which you better communicate all the other stuff about your existence that matters just as much, sometimes more.

I’m really looking forward to travelling this way going forward.

Was It Worth It?

Once upon a time, I got quite obsessed over the number of people who followed me on social media. This coincided with Twitter’s public and high profile attempts to remove the legions of robots and fake accounts from their platform. The reality of this change is pretty stark: I’ve seen zero follower growth since April 2018 on the ‘other’ account. Ironically, this was the exact period that this project began to gain momentum: interest here is far and beyond what was ever thought possible in such a short period.

In my lessons and observations of Social media over the last few years, there’s been a veritable legion of people in the background, advising me how to ‘influence’ in all its forms. What is abundantly apparent is that the best success stories, people who genuinely deserve all the plaudits and numbers on their teams are those individuals who do, in fact, put in the hard graft. It doesn’t have to be sitting on Social media, either. The right combination of immediacy and backroom work pays massive dividends.

conveyerbelt.gif

I do love me some good organisation, but in the end none of it is worth the Post It notes you wrote it on unless summat budges. I’m pretty sure now the path that was originally trodden with what’s now very much a personal Twitter is the absolute opposite direction things need to head: if anything, I’d be going backwards. So, it is time to stop selling myself, and to start ‘selling’ myself. Those two quote marks are actually quite vital too. Before it was all far to serious. Now, if summat good happens, it’s a bonus, but honestly I’m not fussed.

Last time out, there was an agenda and I HATE THOSE. I’m not an influencer, just a woman with stuff to say and her own shit to sell. Not anybody else’s mouthpiece or spokesperson, just my words and stories that need to be told and might well find a larger audience if I push them. So, here we go. Gonna give it a year and see where we go. If all else fails, I might luck out and get summat published in the meantime, who knows?

It gives me something to do apart from the housework and exercise, if all else fails…

The Long Kiss Goodbye

Amazingly, we’re seven days into January already, which I have to say feels more like a full month of brain pushed to the literary grindstone. Amazingly, there is break scheduled at the end of this week, as there’s two major submissions on the board. Number one went this morning, after more than the usual portion of existential angst last night… [WARNING: Contains Swearing]

The brief, that’s sat on that wall [points] for two weeks since January calendars were created, was a 3000 word short story. Firstly there’d been flirtation with taking an existing work and refreshing, and that was still the plan on Saturday morning when I arrived in the kitchen for my pre-planning cuppa. Then, summat remarkable happened: a title hit me, followed shortly afterwards by an opening visual, fully formed in my head.

In the end, planning became largely unnecessary.

There will be those of you who will be looking at this with open-mouthed horror: you can’t write anything of note like this! On any other day there would be a definite, distinct agreement: stuff takes time to plot, then to write and finally bed down as complete or polished. This story, quite literally slapped me in the brain and DEMANDED to be written there and then, so that’s what happened. When it comes back having been rejected, then there’s an indicator it can be reworked. Now, the story’s submitted as is, because the whole thing begged me to do just that.

It also didn’t help that Mr Alt (the go-to proof reader and normal barometer of awesome) didn’t like it. Amazingly, it wasn’t because it was poorly put together or presented, it simply did not click with him. What isn’t clear is whether that’s because it needs more work, or whether the plot itself is not up to what he’d consider as a decent standard. Lying awake at 4am this morning, brain still wrestling with the comments, came a significant epiphany: I love this story.

The flow is strong, descriptive imagery complete and believable in my head. The plot is a spin on the ‘alternate histories’ of this here planet that derive such pleasure when explored and exploded as potential reality. Every major player is a woman, except one. Am I being blinded by confirmation bias, or is this indeed the best piece of fictional reality that’s been created in a decade? No, this is really good. I know it, and as a result it’s gone to be judged, and I’ll know it’s fate in a few months, because this stuff takes time.

I have two poems to finish and then edit, and the last pile of scheduling for the week.

Maybe this whole thing really is doable after all…

December Short Story: Solstice

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during December via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Solstice

In indistinct, freezing first light, Eric cannot forget why he is here. All that matters is to guard the perimeter fence, wood and wire, stretching along this natural escarpment. Scrub and frozen ground below suddenly transforms into the most dense and foreboding of pine forests. Standing tall in tower to his left is Hilda, daughter of Franz. Looking right, Melody, daughter of Rachel’s rifle is trained towards the tree line, perennial vigilance with outstanding attention. Both are barely older than him: at 16, youngest of nearly a dozen morning sentries.

Somewhere in the forest are his parents, one of the few  lucky enough to still have both alive. They are due home today, with or without enough food to last the camp for the next few weeks. The worst of winter has yet to hit Station 12, and when it does, everyone will be going hungry. Yet in the last week change has been inescapable: December’s normally brutal cold and bitter wind not yet arriving from the north. Eric is briefly distracted by movement upwards: birds wheel and shift as a group from the trees, hundreds moving in perfect, beautiful synchronicity.

A sound is coming from the forest, deep guttural rumble that is strangely familiar. The last time Eric heard this he was very young, whilst Station was in the depths of despair. This is an armoured transport heading up what remains of dirt road towards entrance to their compound. He’s scrabbling for ancient monocular, locating beast amongst fir, looking for the Saltire to confirm approaching vehicle is friendly. It is spread along the bonnet, battered blue and white flag undoubtedly his father’s. They have returned with a far greater prize than just food.

Behind the solar powered vehicle are two other, considerably smaller transports. One is obviously some kind of medical vehicle, the other a large, grey box on many wheels. Elsa, Eric’s mother is waving from the roof, second Saltire as confirmation the entire convoy is friendly. He’s not due to leave this post for another hour but there’s relief on the way: Saul’s smile tells all that is needed. Eric requires no further encouragement to sprint across concrete battlements, down battered metal ladder, jumping to ground level. He can meet parents in person.

Their convoy’s swamped as he approaches, support staff and medical team already looking beyond excited at these discoveries from the forest. The large, multi-wheeled box appears to be full of supplies: unused weapons, fresh construction materials vital for repair and maintenance. The hug from Mum is nothing compared to that of his father, more emotional than he has ever seen them both. The reason becomes apparent: the entire cache of equipment and supplies had been found hidden, area previously inaccessible northwards due to snow and large amounts of ice.

This is nothing compared with news camp leader is now reacting to: the only way out of the valley, previously completely inaccessible due to accumulated ice, has now opened. That provides unrestricted access all the way down the mountain, opening a direct path to the coastline. For close to a century, camp has been cut off from rest of the World. In the last decade their numbers have begun to dwindle: lack of food, an airborne virus and the cruellest of winters have slowly eroded away these survivors. Dense forest’s protection offers little nutrition.

Eric helps unload myriad contents of what he now knows is a refrigerated container in great condition as is everything else that parents liberated. The significance of that alone is enough to make months of harsh living and empty stomachs a memory: supplies can now be kept fresh. In the back of the container is a box full of items however that make no sense: strings of brightly-coloured, shiny material, electric cable with glass dots attached, and several smaller cardboard boxes fill of delicate glass ornaments which have not been handled for a long time.

Both parents are uncertain as to what these items are used for, but hold hazy joint memories as children of a tree being cut from this forest. It was bought into the compound before being placed and decorated with hand-made ornaments and garlands made of recycled cloth and paper. It was a tradition that the eldest member of Station’s staff had held, part of faith-based beliefs that had been forgotten over countless cruel winters, barely lived through since the base was built.

Items were instruments of long lost celebration, before World froze over.

With power, the cable easily activates: dots light up, emitting an ethereal, pulsing glow. Eric is then sent to outskirts of the forest with his father as backup, where a suitable fir is chosen and dug from ground that seems far less hard and frozen than was previously the case. Large, deep storage bin is located to act as pot, allowing tree to be prominently placed in the main compound. Suddenly, nothing else matters but process of decoration, sparking memories from the last three remaining base staff over sixty of what this process entailed: Christmas.

Eric assists with the container’s contents being sorted, listening intently to the story of how his parents had discovered, then buried remains of the Army convoy they’d come across. Six people transporting supplies to this base, literally frozen solid in a horrendous snowstorm. It was during that winter he had been born, last time snow fell continuously for almost a month. Ever since, temperatures had begun to rise, giving hope that upper atmospheric levels had finally begun to clear of dust from the 101955 Bennu meteorite’s impact in southern Algeria.

Eric still finds it hard to believe everyone knows about somewhere half a world away, but was able to forget about a holiday as important as Christmas at the same time. He might not be essential in this hierarchy, but celebrating anything well seems an idea worth working towards. It is now new task to inject a new, exciting set of events into the normal and often boring beyond belief drills and maintenance routines. The younger children are charged with a far more enjoyable task than painting and cleaning: they make cards, for exchange around the station.

Mother takes Eric to one side after evening meal that night, entire camp more energised and happy than anyone can remember for many, many years. She hands her son a small box, tied with what he knows is a ribbon, taken from one of the few non-military items of clothing she owns. From pocket comes a letter: not recently written, looking incredibly old yet is still sealed. On the front however is his name and date of birth. Asking who it is from, his mother tells him to go find a quiet spot alone, before reading what’s been given and then returning to her.

Sitting in his favourite spot, warmth from Guard Tower’s perpetually burning fire, Eric knows deep down what is held in his hands. This is confirmation that current parents aren’t his birth family: that mother died after giving birth, father was Station 12’s last adult casualty. He had perished when Eric was nearly five: remembering that day when he’d volunteered to hunt for food after weeks of punishing, crippling frozen rain. His ID bracelet, worn around left wrist, pushed into the boy’s palm: memory of kiss to forehead, tears falling onto his face.

Except, it appears, it wasn’t a hunting mission. His father had willingly taken a one way trip into the forest, in order to reconnect Station with their only supply of fresh, untainted water: that journey meant descent into cave from which there was no possible means of return. There is a second, older note too, written after mother passed away. Many apologies have been contained within, most significant at those who kept majority of planet in the dark prior to the meteor impact. In the end, father concluded, politicians allowed evolution to decide who survived.

He knew Eric grasped mother’s boundless optimism, warmth, practicality to improve the World and others. Watching boy grow, that was apparent; providing man no qualms over leaving. The right future was with his best friend and her husband, incapable of producing children of their own. With shaking hands, it is time to open box given to him by station commander who never said out loud she was his mother, yet did the job with fierceness and pride that was without equal. Inside is a badge, ancient crest of Army regiment who built this base a century previously.

Eric understands the gesture: he’s in charge of the Station, free to begin a new era of development and exploration. His first task is simple: once the solar powered explorer has fully charged there’ll be an expedition arranged: high time to leave valley and head towards the sea.