From the train that passed along the quays and between the skyscrapers, he saw the ticker every day, the headlines from the wires scrolling around, bringing summaries in a dozen words of the day’s happenings, keeping the surroundings informed. Sometimes it appeared that it was arguing with itself, failing to impose order on the world it beheld:

‘Suicide bomber kills at least ten in north western Pakistan —– Suicide bomber kills at least five in north western Pakistan —– Suspected suicide bomber kills five in north western Pakistan’.

At other times, headlines shorn of stories would pass silently by, conveying nothing except, occasionally, a vague sense of surreality:

‘WORLD NEWS FROM REUTERS —– Brexit would “spoil everything” – Cameron —– Fukushima’s Ground Zero – No Place for Man or Robot’.

Anyone who saw it saw it in passing: looked up from a book or from thumbing a phone, noticed a headline, went back to their own distractions while the train passed overhead. Sometimes, he would be aware of the angry light it cast on the shiny surfaces of the facing tower, apprehend the movement of the letters but pay no attention. Who was it for? The people in the offices couldn’t see it, and in any case had their own screens to turn their suppositions about the meaning of events into bumps and dips in a bottom line.

Once, passing that way on a Saturday, the plazas below filled with shoppers and the development’s absurdly-uniformed security guards, he looked at the towers and saw the lightless windows of a few offices, gappy between the pointless weekend glow of empty offices with the lights left on. He saw, too, that the ticker, was glitching while it scrolled, broadcasting a jagged stream of news and nonsense:

‘Tesco reports prof     $&”(^ ng as acc*(T^&E% to City’.

On Sunday, the silent ticker had been silenced completely: no broken reflections of its smooth LEDs in the cold water of the dock below, no reassuring right-to-left passage of events. Its silence made the movement of the few people below seem choppy and chaotic.

Its absence brought home the strangeness of its daily presence, and he reflected that he did not know why it was there at all. It offered no context or explanation, and nobody paid it a moment’s thought. Insistent and shallow, it silently informed him that he must be informed, that its selected flow of events was what mattered in the world, that these were things worth reacting to. Among the avenues of glass and steel in the business district, it declared that he would be fed what he needed, interpreting nothing, meaning nothing. The headlines rendered the world as a constant stream of ephemera passing over sixty feet of building, before disappearing with no one the wiser, leaving only the remote sense that the immediacy of their own lives was of no moment.

Photo credit: Ben Jeffrey via Flickr

The difference between starting and finishing

to do is not to finish

I wrote last week about how ideas were coming thick and fast, and they still are. Turning them into something that hangs together is actually quite a challenge.

Last week I was given the task of turning on the radio and writing a story starting with the first thing I heard. I had an absolute gift of a first sentence from an obituary programme:

“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?”

I wrote something that was more like a character sketch than a story, which I’ve posted separately. It came out of nowhere, in the weirdly uncontrolled way that I wrote about last week. It was obvious to me on reading it back that Thom’s personality is a composite and an exaggeration of different people I know. I wasn’t very happy on a first read-through, mainly because it didn’t seem very finished – we were given the job of writing a 500-word story, and instead what came out was a character sketch. On a second read I was a bit more satisfied, mainly because I realised that it could be a part of something else, and that once written it’s there to be played with and reworked and edited later, so that if I ever discipline myself to finish anything, it could be a fragment of the whole, probably unrecognisable from the original. But for all the crazy momentum that ideas get when you give them free rein, you do need to have some order and structure for all of the things that are boiling over.

The other thing I’ve discovered is that every time I try and write dialogue, I chicken out, because I read it back and it sounds hollow. Passages of description have come easily, dialogue less so. I think this has to do with trying to write in someone else’s voice – or perhaps with liking the sound of my own too much.

It’s also very typical of me to have passing and even fleeting interests in many different things: a jack rather than a master. It’s one thing to give space and time to ideas that bubble up. It’s quite another to catch up with them, knock them over, tame them, and yoke them to some kind of purpose.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee via Flickr Search

Let the radio decide


Turn on the radio, take the first sentence you heard, and then use it as the start of a character sketch…

“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?” Simon’s eyebrows were raised in question. I permitted myself an inward laugh.

I hadn’t seen Thom since the argument, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was true. Even as a boy, he had always gone around the neighbourhood like a pinball caught between the bumpers, as furious and careless in his movements, a demented marionette. In all my memories of that time, Thom had scabs on his knees, or tape around his glasses. We would return to the classroom covered with mud and grass stains from wild skidding kickarounds, and mum would insist on me wearing my tattiest clothes before Thom came over to play.

Age did not tranquillise Thom. His chaotic energy deepened in adolescence. The essays that Mr Harrington used to describe as ‘quite brilliant’ would be yanked from the depths of Thom’s bag; we all remembered the time that he delved in the bottom of his bag for one of them, and hauled out a ball of scrawled A4 loosely wrapped around a decaying banana skin. With his left hand, Thom underarmed the banana skin halfway across the classroom into the bin. With the inky fingers of his right he flattened out the paper on the table and scraped away the slippery worst of the banana, before presenting Harrington with his work, pushing his glasses back up his nose, hooking one thumb into his belt loop to give his wilted trousers a yank, and sagging triumphantly back into his seat.

He was the kind of person about whom you could believe any rumour. My first thought on hearing about the teeth was not about the fight – the ‘how’ of it hardly mattered – but about his playing. Knowing Thom’s luck, the finger would have been an unimportant one, used only to hold the instrument rather than depress the valves. As for the teeth, I could picture him turning up, bloodied and with two teeth wrapped in toilet paper, grinning a wonky grin at the dentist: “I’ve had thish acshident, could you put theshe back in plashe for me?” He would then have phoned whoever he was standing in with that week, lying and charming his way out of the gigs, telling them that his trumpet had been stolen, or that his mother had died (for maybe the dozenth time), or that he’d been kicked out by a girlfriend – this at least being plausible – or anything else that would get Thom Bishop off the hook.

And that was the thing with Thom: the antics and the scrapes would amuse you, and you’d dress for yourself the thousand tiny cuts made by his inattentiveness, his disorganisation, his forgetfulness. You indulged him, because your own existence seemed sluggish and grey by comparison, and because on some level, you wanted to be him. When you fell out, if you bullied or cajoled him into listening to your grievance, he would make some clumsy gesture of redress; often, these had their own ham-fisted charm. But they never resulted in change, he never learned, and you’d soon be back where you’d started. And after the argument, I no longer wanted to know.

Image credit: Mark Anderson via Flickr search

Thank God it’s not Friday


On Friday afternoon I was on a bit of a high. I went with a friend to see a film, then went for a meal in a completely empty Indian restaurant.  The lack of other customers somehow made the waiters slower, surlier and resentful.

At the end of the meal the card machine wasn’t working, so I walked off to find a bank. The weather had taken a turn for the chilly and I was regretting leaving my coat behind as I passed a sad man smoking a joint at the bus stop, and approached the bars and restaurants on the northern edge of the square.  In the corner of my eye the door of a bar burst open, and someone stumbled out onto the pavement.  It was a woman in her thirties, falling out at closing time and then picking herself up. But then a tall, broad man with a bomber jacket and a scarf followed her out, shoved her back to the ground, stepped back, and aimed a powerful kick at her stomach.  And then another into her face.

Before I had realised what I was seeing, a shorter man with white hair came out of the bar, called to the man in the bomber jacket, and was shoved back at the bar window. He slipped, fell backwards, and bashed his head on the newspaper stand, then sat there dazed, holding his head.

My memory of what happened next is like a series of photos. I see the bar door, where someone is half-dragging the woman back inside.  Her cheek is swollen and her nose is bleeding. The tall man is yelling, throwing off his bomber jacket to the ground. I am between him and the bar, my arms outstretched, pleading in English, ‘leave it, just stop’. His spittle flecks my cheek, his nose touches mine, he rages at me: ‘ne me fâche pas’. Panic deepens as he starts counting down from five.  I weigh it up; is she back inside? I step aside and he spits into my face.

Altogether it has probably taken no more than twenty seconds. By the time I have wiped my eye, he’s inside the bar, with a lot of other drinkers standing around him, arguing. I don’t hang around. By the time I get back to the restaurant I am shaking. We pay for our meal, and after a few minutes our walk back to the bus stop takes us past the bar. Bomber Jacket has gone; the woman is sitting crying in a booth, talking to a policeman. I want to go home.

Image credit: Simon Blackley via Flickr