Podcasts, Ramblechats and Interviews

I’ve not been neglecting Before and After while I’ve been writing my next book. I’ve been doing quite a lot of podcasts and interviews, where I ramble at length about the book, my brilliance and what Shanafans can expect next. I’m going to round up some of the posts in this post so you can listen (or not) as you see fit.

Reading in Bed is a podcast where Amanda Steel records extracts of her reading from various books she’s enjoyed. She kindly read from Before and After and did a great job. You can find her reading below and her website here.

Next up I spoke to Eric Eskenazi who runs the excellent Erratic Dispatches podcast. It was fun speaking to someone from America about the book and getting a different perspective on it from that point of view. This one is 58 minutes of me chatting, so if you’re really finding it hard to sleep then this is the one for you.

I also spoke to BBC Lancashire about being a writer in the North and what it was like releasing a book about being trapped at home during a pandemic (spoiler: it’s a fun challenge!)

I’ve done another couple of interviews recently and I’ll add them to the blog when they go live. In other news, I’m experimenting with taking a break from social media as it seems to be sucking my time into a vortex of self-recrimination and Trump Derangement Syndrome and I need some fresh air. Consequently, I might just make some more time for blogging and further ramblechats. You lucky things…

Short Story – Vic is not having a good September

Recent seasonal factors reminded me to put this story back up on the blog. Hope you enjoy it.

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Vic Is Not Having A Good September

Vic stops for a Cadbury’s Boost. He had seven lagers earlier so it’s time he thought about food. There’s something about that layer of a Boost just under the chocolate, it’s this sort of caramel and biscuit mash. It’s beyond sweet. It makes your mouth ache. That’s the real stuff. That’s what Vic wants. He’s never really had much of a sweet tooth, but just recently he’s become obsessed. It could be to do with trauma. It could just be because Boosts are nice and Vic never realised. Sometimes he finds that even as he’s started eating, he’s thinking of what he’ll eat next. Vic used to be focused, but these days he’s more flighty. It’s the thoughts that do that. He realises he can’t be doing with the Boost after all, so he moves on.

It’s early afternoon. Got to keep moving, that’s the thing now for Vic. Onwards. Upwards. That way. Through a door. In the atrium of a library. Into a car. Push on. Maybe that’s why the hunger is there. Maybe the hunger is fuelling the movement and the movement creates the hunger. Is that what it is, wonders Vic – but the answer and eventually the question gets lost in lager. The aim with moving is to reach that point where everything peripheral blurs and your brain can only worry about what’s coming directly towards you. It’s a form of focus when that background buzz eventually goes away, it’s probably something motorcyclists understand, thinks Vic.

Vic is in a pub. The late Summer evening sun is weak in the sky and there’s a big smash of pink clouds. Be nice again tomorrow, Vic thinks. He’s at the back of the beer garden. Not hiding, but not advertising his presence. He drinks lager. He drinks lots of lager. He’s spent a lot of time quietly contemplating the meniscus of lager, how you can almost sense from the curvature of the top of the pint that the liquid would return to being droplets if given its freedom. Vic likes to drink a proper lager with the head all frothy and white but somehow his lager always seems flat. Why is the pint nearly always gone too? Cider tastes better, but it comes in those stupid bottles, whereas lager is in those welcoming pint glasses. So it’s lager; lager is the thing. Vic drinks lager. It’s good and it’s strong. Sometimes if you have lager you don’t even have to keep moving to get the thoughts gone.

This is his sixth lager in this pub. He’ll get kicked out soon. Moved on. Don’t want you or your sort around here. Vic gets angry when he hears that. What’s wrong with him? What’s my “sort” anyway? That’s usually when it gets violent. Vic doesn’t think of the violence, never has. It’s just a fact; something that happens. He doesn’t get scared, he couldn’t care if it’s the biggest bloke in the world, some total Jason with tattoos and stubbled head, or some flappy woman screaming at him – he’ll have a dig at any of them. To be fair he doesn’t usually start it and he often loses and is forced to tactically retreat, but he’s seen more than a few off over the years.

Look at that big pink fucking sky, Vic thinks – it’s the lager that’s thinking now – I’m going to get up there and fight that sky. What a stupid drunk thought. What a pointless fighty thought. Vic moves on and finds another pub.

It’s morning and Vic doesn’t know where he is. Don’t think he slept much, but he stopped moving for a bit and the thoughts weren’t at him. That’s perhaps the best Vic can hope for now. He’s wandering round this house wondering who it belongs to. Not many photos on the wall, it’s all art and cobwebs in the corners. Trying to remember how he got in. It was late, or early. Maybe it was days ago. He’s not going to wait around now he’s up anyway. All the doors are shut up, so eventually he tries the bathroom and finds he can get out of the big window. Then he’s off and away and suddenly starving. Vic used to be one of those who would have protein for breakfast – sensible meals, sensible portions, plenty of exercise – there didn’t use to be a scrap of fat on him. He’s not fat now, he just feels like he’s losing definition. He wonders sometimes if this will be what kills him. Not violence or illness, but a gradual Gaussian blurring until he stops being recognisably him. Keep going for now.

Vic is in a pub. He’s in the back room of some dim and bad jukebox pub that smells of bleach. There was this blue-purple light in one of the other rooms that gave him a banging headache, so he’s come back here. He’s got lager and the thoughts are going now. He watches them recede as the lager does what it should. He risks a look at her, she’s still bright in his memory. She was everything to Vic. He knew that she was bigger and more than him. Everyone knew she was out of his league, but it worked. Vic didn’t even mind the others. Well, not much. Vic didn’t have much education, a number of schools made it clear that they didn’t want him there, but in her he found his purpose. His family had always been on at him about getting a trade, but it was only when he was with her that he knew what he was meant to do. Yeah, well, it didn’t last. The home, the family, the everything – it didn’t last. Bigger and more. Bigger and more lager.

Wooooh, Vic is seriously flying now. It’s lunchtime and he’s twelve lagers in. Shit. Time and place are fractured. Maybe his leg as well. It certainly hurts. There was a lorry that nearly hit him and a central reservation. Something then a roundabout. He was on a big field and a blue slushy ice drink. There was an awful smell and coughing. This family wouldn’t let him share their picnic, what are they getting so fussy about? Did you lose your home? Who do you know that died recently? Stupid fucking picnic! Stupid fucking tablecloth! It’s a fucking council park, if you want tablecloths then fuck off to a field of wheat with your tablecloths and your crying kids. Did he fight the children? Yes. Both of them. Ha! Their little faces all red and puffy and shouting. He left. He noticed the family packing up their picnic stuff as he left the park. We’ll call that one a draw, thinks Vic. Lager!

It’s night and Vic is inside again. He doesn’t care where he is. It’s a room, like other rooms. Vic can’t sleep and there’s no lager here, so he has to sit with the thoughts. Some of the deaths come back to him. Friends. Family. Vic has known murder. He’s never murdered, but he’s known it. One time he saw the insides of – he pushes that thought away and hopes it won’t complete itself. Down and away. He can’t have lager and the terror of 4 a.m. sobriety is reaching out for him, so he has to have movement. Vic bumbles around the rooms. It feels so repetitive, like he’s banging his head against a wall, maybe that would help him sleep? He tries banging his forehead into the wall, but it doesn’t help. Sleep can’t find him, so the thoughts do.

Sunrise comes. Vic feels that it’s his last day. Can’t say why. Perhaps dying is a choice. Perhaps it’s simply an awareness that has come to him – a gift from the universe to allow him some perspective at the last. Vic decides to take the universe’s gift back and exchange it for lager. Vic finds lager. Three pubs in quick succession. Thrown out of the first two for violent behaviour. He leaves the third one because he wants to find a fourth. What sort of reason is that for leaving a pub? Stupid. Vic’s thoughts are all lager and death. He thinks of her. She was my Queen, is his thought. It was an honour to serve you. He drinks lager in her memory.

Vic looks out of the window and realises with a slow surprise that he’s not far from what was his home. It will be empty now, but he could stop by if he wanted after the pub. From the window he can see the trees he used to play in. The trees bulge outwards and suck inwards as his back is crushed. The air whooshes out of his trachea and sacs. Four of his legs snap as he is pressed against the window with a magazine. Vic hears a too loud splitting noise in his head. His thoughts goo out. His vision blurs and the last thing he sees is the magazine’s pressure pushing the pattern of his wing against the window. Vic is not having a good September.

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This is a story I wrote because I’m trying to see the good in wasps. I’ve been stung twice this summer and I realised that it’s really no worse than a nettle sting, so all of the flapping and hysterical flicking I’ve been doing for years was rather silly. I hope that wasps will acknowledge this magnanimous artistic gesture and leave me alone the next time I’m eating a Calippo on the beach.

I trust that all good-hearted entomologists will forgive the poetic licence I’ve used in the story around the true nature of wasps. Perhaps most egregious is that adult wasps don’t actually eat solid foods – they use their mandibles to tear up prey which they then feed to the wasp larvae. The larvae then emit a sweet secretion which the adults eat.

That’s revolting isn’t it? Wasps really don’t help their PR cause with such grotesque behaviour.

I danced around that fact in the first paragraph by having Vic alight on a Boost but not actually eat it. I did however manage to edit the story in time to change my mistake that male wasps don’t have stingers, who knew? Certainly not me.

My thanks to Kate Feld, John Ossoway, Yolander Yeo and Emma Shanahan for early draft feedback and suggestions.

If you liked this story then I’d love it if you would share it but please no spoilers about the sting in the tale (unlol).

Listen to Before and After For Free!

Earlier this week I was contacted by a Manchester radio station who wondered if I might be interested in reading Before and After for them to broadcast. I ummed and ahhed because recording good quality audio is opening a Pandora’s box of niggles, hissing, pops and flubs.

After thirty seconds it appeared that my legs were walking me to the office and my hands were opening the Easy Voice Recorder app on my phone. 45 minutes later I’d recorded the first chapter. Given that this is one take I’m inordinately pleased with it. That is until I start listening to all the niggles, hissing, pops and flubs.

Anyway, I present it hear for you in case you fancy some listening material. I’m still available for readings and I’ve now done a few chats with book clubs who selected Before and After and I’m always pleased by how open those discussions are. It would be a bit embarrassing if everyone was just saying they liked the book because I was there. As it stands it’s clear that everyone is very happy to say what they do and don’t like – much as it should be.

Enough – pin back your lugholes and cop this:

Quick work update: hard at work still promoting Before and After and The Bossy Book. I have also finished the first draft of 232 Miles Of… the novel that’s set on the M6. There’s lots of good things in there but it’s still a bit raw and could probably do with five years in an oak barrel. I’ve now started work on a very dark tale of ghosts, fatherhood and medical-grade psychedelic drugs. Hoping to have draft #1 done by year’s end.

Anyway, let me know what you think of the first chapter.

Starter for Ten w/c 9-3-2020

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. I have no idea what Friday’s is all about, please don’t phone the authorities.

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MONDAY

It’s like being dragged unconscious from the sea. As you’re jostled around strange pressures and pains radiate out. Then as your awareness returns you realise that it’s a localised pain and that you just need to empty your bladder. There is a minimum period of at least three minutes, during which you wonder, nay hope, that you can ignore it and just return to the depths of the dream from which you were pulled. Of course, you can’t, but it doesn’t mean you can’t contemplate how wonderful it would be.

Your legs shift out of the bed and into the cold, away from the amniotic warmth of your nest. If it were done, then it were as well it were done quickly. So you stand, rather quickly and feel your balance struggle to adapt to the sudden change in position. The black bees of consciousness flit, but the room is dark and you stand and breathe and soon they disappear. You stalk your way across the bedroom, a dropped pullover would gladly ensnare your leg and make you trip but you are awake now and swiftly guide your feet around it. Your recalculated route accidentally takes in the foot of the bed which produces a crunch of a toe and sees you stifle a cry as you consider how broken the bone must be – fractured into dust probably.

Your bladder pain saves you and you hobble onwards to the toilet. Once again you marvel at the brilliance of the low wattage, movement sensor light which is triggered by your arrival in the bathroom. It emits a dull, fudgy light, enough to see by, but not enough to scar the retinas. You lift the seat and urinate. Approximately an hour passes. You lower the seat and waft your hands under the tap, arguing internally that it’s too early for germs and Bear Grylls once said that all urine was sterile. Not that you’d take an affinity for urine as far as him.

You plot your way back to the bed, moving with the exaggerated motion of a pantomime villain sneaking up on the hero. The bed creaks as you lower yourself back in and chase after the ghost of the warmth – cursing your stupidity at not replacing the duvet and letting those precious molecules of warmth out into the bedroom.

You check the time. It’s 2.03AM. The house is quiet. You have plenty of time left for sleep. You snuggle and wiggle into the bed, stretching limbs and cuddling pillows into comforting shapes. You breathe calmly, your bladder is calm and the throbbing in your toe has subsided into a distant warmth. Your mind drifts into the ether, but you find it is anchored to consciousness by the thought of Bear Grylls talking about urine. Your mind turns this over. Pointlessly. To no good purpose. You look at the clock and it is 4.55AM.

TUESDAY

The weird thing about it was that it looked a little bit like a purse. Not that it’s unusual to see a man carrying a purse, but it was the combination of that and the way that he looked as he got out of the car that drew my attention. He was a tall man and he looked willowy and tired. He looked exhausted. His face was a pale grey but his metal-rimmed glasses couldn’t obscure that his eyes were red. Not like he’d been crying – more like he was working through the final reserves of energy before total collapse. I think I felt sorry for him.

Anyway, he sort of unfolded himself from the car and as he did so his purse swung out and tapped the car next to him. This car park is a nightmare – it’d be fine if everyone drove clown cars, but everyone’s got these four by fours and everyone is always just on the line or a little bit over, so in the end if you get the last spot you’re often better getting out of the sunroof. I noticed because I was still waiting for himself to get back from the shop and I was watching in the rear view for anyone coming out of the shop.

At first I thought he was just feeling bad about tapping the car – although as I say I don’t think there was anything he could have done about it. But his eyes didn’t look sorry, and he didn’t make a sort of guilty face like I would have done, but his eyes just went wide. Bigger than the rims of his glasses almost and he held this purse with both hands to steady it. It was black leather with a white clip on the front and it seemed expensive. Don’t know why, maybe it was the way he was treating it. And then he slowly pulls this purse next to his ear and just listened for about ten seconds. Well, that was weird. So I turned around in my seat so I could get a better look and that’s when he noticed me.

He was still listening to his purse but he noticed me turning around and looking at him. Then he seemed to make his mind up and he squeezed between the car and what was weird is that he never shut the door. He just carefully placed the purse down at the back of the car and then he ran. Straight into the shop, didn’t look back, just head down and sprinted.

So, what do you think’s in it?

WEDNESDAY

“So you know what Tantric Sex is right?”

“It’s that weird shagging that Sting does isn’t it?”

“Yeah, sort of, it’s about achieving a sexual union with a partner through all of the available energy channels of the body and mind, rather than it just being about hiding the sausage.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“I watched a YouTube thing on it.”

“YouPorn more like.”

“Shut up, that’s not the point. This isn’t about sex. I think this could be a big idea.”

“How big?”

“Massive.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Shut up Mark, this isn’t about shagging!”

“So what is it about?”

“Goalkeeping.”

“Come again.”

“Goalkeeping. Or more to the point Tantric Goalkeeping.”

“Riiiiiight. You know the FA are thinking of banning heading – I think it’s too late for you.”

“No, listen. This season do you know what our goal difference is?”

“I think mathematics has lost the ability to express just how poor our goal difference is.”

“Exactly. For accuracy it’s scored – 48 and against – 339. To give us a goal difference of minus 291.”

“Shit the bed that’s awful.”

“It’s a useful metric though because it tells us what our problem is – we’re scoring all right but we’re shipping way too many goals.”

“Aye, 339 of them.”

“Now, it’s not all Olly’s fault. He’s had that thing with his contact lenses and the defence aren’t really helping him out, but that’s where I think tantric goalkeeping could help out.”

“Ok, it sounds like bollocks, but I’ve got nothing else to listen to, so I’ll indulge you. What the fuck is tantric goalkeeping?”

“It’s a holistic system of goalkeeping that involves a physical and spiritual union between Olly, the back four, the ball and the opponent’s attackers.”

“I was with you right up until the bit where you started talking. What is tantric goalkeeping?”

“Olly needs to try and unify with the universe and see that it’s not about him stopping the ball. It’s about him forgiving the ball. It’s about him being the ball.”

“Right, right. And in practice how does that work?”

“He needs to start hugging the ball.”

THURSDAY

We had the bear for 48 hours. Two days, two nights. It was enough.

I personally blame Beverly Instagram, that’s not her real name, but everything she does gets filtered through that bloody site and consumed by a ridiculous number of followers who all fawn over the lifestyle she presents. They had the bear for the same length of time and naturally turned his stay into an outrageous lifestyle brag. The bear went shopping for diamonds and got a small diamond stud bracelet which it came back to school with in his little blue backpack. The bear had a Michelin star meal. The bear watched a football match from a padded, leather seat, safely enclosed from the standard fans in the rain.

In every image she’d dressed the setting perfectly so that the bear looked smart and desirable. Say what you like about the woman, but anyone who can make you jealous of a bear has some kind of genius. The school mums’ WhatsApp group cooed appreciatively and said, “Lucky bear!” and “Wish I was him!”, but on all the sub-groups that existed under the main school group minus the insufferables we shared our real feelings. Kim said: “Fuck me ragged, can’t she get enough of showing off what she’s doing. I’d love to know what really went on.” And I couldn’t help but think, yeah – me too.

Sam told me we had the bear a week before he arrived. That gave me just five days to plan. I bought the equipment from a part of the internet that you’d need a decent VPN even just to think about. I paid double for speedy delivery and was relieved when an anonymous brown box turned up in our parcel storage box within two days. I felt nervous as I unboxed it. Was this insane? Was it illegal? I thought back through how it could be traced back to me. It would broadcast the signals to a fixed IP which you could only access if you had the password, and I wasn’t linked to any of the technology or the website. It was untraceable.

When the bear came to stay at ours he did normal stuff. We went for a walk and there was a photo of him riding on my Sam’s shoulders, she was laughing as he covered her eyes. We went for a swim and he sat on the side wearing goggles, wrapped in a towel. He had a curry. I posted the photos to the WhatsApp group and laughed about how it was a bit of a step down from the time he’d spent with Beverly Instagram. The group laughed and said it looked like a fun time.

It was fun. Especially unstitching him and fastening the tiny microphone behind one eye and the camera behind the other. After I carefully re-stitched him you couldn’t feel any unusual bumps or lumps. And on his last day with us I checked the signal. He was broadcasting perfectly. I wonder what this bear will really see and hear when his hosts aren’t aware he’s watching. Let’s see.  

FRIDAY

The smell of onions frying rises from the pan and slowly atomises its way through the floorboards, plasterwork and paint and reaches the nostrils of Karen as she lies on the floor. There is just enough brain activity that she drools and it moistens the corner of her mouth and runs up her cheek. It builds into a pool and the weight of saliva reaches critical mass and a string forms between her cheek and the floor.

The spider scuttles around the droplet and follows the outline of this shape on the floor. It traces the profile of Karen’s nose, forehead and browline and across the spill of brown hair on the floor. It also creeps around the pool of sticky red blood that rises from her head like a thought bubble. It changes tack and walks into the gap under the dishwasher.

The sound of the onions fritzing in the pan is faintly audible. The louder noise is the singing. It’s from The Muppets. Manah Manah. Doo doo dee doo doo. Manah Manah doo doo doo doo. Karen’s eyes are blank but even so they register the frog sitting on the kitchen bin. Manah manah doo doo dee doo doo. Manah Man-

Book Club Discussion Topics for Before and After

WARNING: As you might expect this post contains a number of spoilers for Before and After.

You’d be well-advised to go and read the book first. Or, form a book club, inveigle your way into the presidential position and then insist on all the members reading and enjoying Before and After.

If you don’t belong to a book club and you’d like to drink wine and talk too loudly about Before and After then jump into the comments and say your piece, just remember ALL CAPS IS SHOUTING.

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What songs did the book make you think of? As a bonus, why not add your own tracks to this collaborative Spotify playlist or just have a listen. Some of the tracks were what I was listening to when I wrote the book (especially Alexandra Streliski, John Moreland and The Gloaming) and others have been suggested by readers and book clubs! Add your own!

What do you think the wraths signify in the book? Do you feel any sense of sympathy for them? What do you think caused the change in the world?

How did the style of the book going back and forth in time change your opinion of what was happening?

What genre category should Before and After be in?

Why did Ben have such a problem with his weight and what would have helped him to change?

What do you think happens next?

Some readers have suggested that Brown was a continuation of Anne (Ben’s mum)’s love for Ben – do you agree? If not what was Brown’s role in the book?

Could you imagine staying inside your house for nine years? How would you pass the time?

What was your favourite quote or passage from the book? Did you highlight any passages as you read?

Would you read other books in this genre?

Can you understand the relationship that Ben has with Helen? Why couldn’t Ben face the prospect of moving to America with her?

Did the book give you an insight into the sort of issues that people of Ben’s size face? In 2016 nearly two billion adults in the world were overweight or obese – what could they get from reading Before and After?

What did you think of the ending? If you could have changed one thing about the book what would you change?

Ben says that he prayed for God to save him and he did – what role do you think religion and faith played in the story?

Who should read this book?

What’s your Bourbon biscuit?

232 Miles Of: WHAT?

With Before and After now out in the world and getting some great reviews (that’s been the aspect of publishing that’s surprised me the most), I’ve started to think about what comes next. It’s hard in some ways to think about moving on, without feeling like you’re somehow abandoning your first book. It feels like pushing a fledgling out of the nest in many ways. But a piece of advice I heard and that rings true for me, is that the best marketing you can do for your first book is to write your second. Also, I’m a “right, next” sort of guy.

This seems to be a recurring theme with the Indie Author career route – build momentum, keep writing, people find one book and then look into you as an author and hopefully buy and read your other books. There’s a school of thought that this approach means you should write in a very narrowly defined genre. That way people finding your sci-fi book aren’t going to look at your other output and get disappointed that you’ve written a horror and a police procedural.

I’m not sure how I feel about that logic.

I love sci-fi and post-apocalyptic and I’ve got lots of ideas that live in that area (including a sequel to Before and After – Beforerer and Afterer as my friend Jeff decreed it should be called), but I also love detective fiction and general literature. And children’s books. And Graphic novels. And very weird web stuff. In short, I’m not sure I buy into genre-grinding. I think I’m going to write what I find exciting and hope that readers respect that I’m not treating them like animals who’ll only ever eat one sort of feed. I also hope they’ll forgive me for referring to them as animals in that metaphor, and casting myself as the benevolent farmer. WTF Shanahan.

So, what’s the next book…well, it’s about the M6. Yes, the motorway.

People who have known me for a while might be aware that I have a small obsession with the M6. I’ve lived within hearing distance of the M6 for my entire life and in 2008 I wrote a sketch show about it that was called 230 Miles of Love. The slightly weird thing about that was that it was a satcom – i.e. a piece of locative media, where the sketches only played when the GPS told them to. This meant that the sketches knew where they were. For example one of the sketches was called Who Wants To Take The Toll and it ended differently, depending on whether you took the M6 toll or not. It was fairly ropey quality because it was all done in a blur of two days to write, record and produce it, but it was a great experience.

I’d decided that I’d like to write about the M6 and then the following day, I was chatting on Twitter to the world’s greatest flautist Michael Walsh (and if you haven’t given his Quarehawk a listen yet then shame on you) and he pointed me towards Song of A Road, a BBC Radio Ballad which took a musical documentary approach to the construction of the M1. It was so lyrical and vital that it really struck a chord. It seemed like a blessing on the project and locked it in that 232 Miles Of: was the next book.

The book is a thematic continuation of 230 Miles of Love. It will be 19 shorter stories, some interconnected, that all relate to the M6 in some way. Some will be personal and based on my own experiences and imagination, but others will be based on other M6 users’ input. What do you think of the M6? Do you love it? Hate it? Lust after it? If you think about the M6, what stories does it bring to your mind? There’s a form you can fill in if you’d like to share and it’s all anonymous (if you wish) and I’d love to hear your views.

232 Miles Of: fill in the form here.

What do you think of the idea? I’ve been really enjoying the looks on people’s faces when I tell them I’m writing a book about the M6. Generally, whenever I see those sort of reactions I know that I’m doing the right things.

Starter for Ten w/c 2-3-2020

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. Tuesday’s is pretty weird this week…

**********

MONDAY

The lift trundles downwards. It has been descending for nearly ten minutes now and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it stopping. Inside the lift the usual social etiquette that restricts conversations between all of those inside has thawed as the occupants realise that this isn’t a normal lift ride. Three of the occupants are sat cross-legged on the floor and the rest laze against the walls. One has lifted himself up onto the section of the drill bit that is sharing their descent and seems to be trying to sleep.

The lift passes harsh lights at roughly twenty metre intervals and Gabbon’s mind reels at the thought of being asked to wire in those lights. Did they stop the lift and work from inside, or were the electricians lowered in a cage? The thought of opening the doors and looking into a bottomless shaft fills Gabbon with horror and a wash of bile makes it to the top of his throat before he manages to collect himself.

“How much lo-“ one of the men sitting on the floor starts to ask but is cut off as the lift quietly and efficiently stops and the doors roll open smoothly revealing the largest space that Gabbon has ever seen. He thinks briefly of the Grand Canyon which he visited in his teenage years, but this is bigger. The fact that it is so far under ground provokes a mix of emotions: surprise, excitement, fear.

The team step out of the lift, working their way around the drill section and look up and around trying to make out the cavern’s roof. With a start Gabbon notices a truck is driving towards them. At this distance it makes the truck seem comically small but as it approaches it becomes apparent that this is a normal-sized truck.

A woman wearing a hard hat and safety goggles opens the passenger door and swings her legs across the threshold and climbs down the truck’s four steps.

“Gentlemen, welcome to my mine. Anyone who isn’t already wearing their hard hat and goggles put them on now. This will be the only time I ask you to do this. If I see you without them from now on then you will be escorted back to the lift and removed without pay.”

A flurry as the men all guiltily don their safety equipment.

“Very soon, you will all feel the effects of dehydration. You are in a salt mine and the salt is greedier for the moisture in the air than you are, so the air you are breathing will have typically less than 0.0004% moisture. On the surface, this can be up to 3%. Use your camelbaks or your lips will crack, your vision will fail and before a day has gone you will look like a Californian Raisin. But a very dead raisin.”

TUESDAY

We play a game at home called “BIRD!” and I’m going to explain how you can play it too. “BIRD!” is suitable for any number of players, of nearly any age. All you need is a window that is transparent and some people who can talk. The aim of the game is to look out of the window and when you see a bird then you shout, “BIRD!” No one else can claim the same bird, but it’s never really made explicit which bird you’ve seen as you don’t have to point at it. If the view from the window is relatively far, then you will end up with situations where the players cheat and just shout “BIRD!” almost constantly.

The shelf-life of this game – as in the time that you can play it for before you want to find a very heavy set of book-shelves and pull them down onto your body – is around three minutes. Despite this fact I find myself playing it with a greater degree of regularity, than I might have expected. Even now as I write this I am glancing out of the window and playing “BIRD!” with myself and extracting about as much joy out of it as I usually do.

“BIRD!” resists all attempts at strategy. It cannot be leveled-up. There is no sell-on merchandise or expansion pack. It doesn’t even have a box that we can put the majority of the pieces in and return it to a shelf, and then, in time, to the loft, and then, in time, to the charity shop. I created the game “BIRD!” and I am sorry for it.  

WEDNESDAY

At the assembly the head teacher read Jessica’s name out and she stood up from the school hall floor, with its weird glossy varnish and picked her way through the ranks of children sitting cross-legged on the floor. The head teacher had a strange habit of announcing children’s names with an ominous booming sound and making them come to the front of the hall before she declared whether it was good or bad. It was invariably good, but it didn’t stop Jessica from trembling slightly as she stood at the front. Her right foot rolled over her ankle repeatedly as she fidgeted in place.

“How do you spell locate, Jessica?” the head boomed. Jessica’s face fell. A hall full of children looked on eagerly, awaiting Jessica’s inevitable weeping.

“L-O-C-A-T-E?” she replied in barely more than a whisper.

“Correct!” said the head and another teacher moved from the plastic chairs at the side of the hall with a large box of Maltesers, which the head took from her and passed with a smile onto Jessica. “And that was just one of the words that you spelled correctly in the recent whole school spelling test and it’s why you won the prize!”

Jessica looked at the Maltesers that seemed to have materialised in her hands. The box was massive and as she held it you could hear the little chocolate globes rolling about inside. To our ears it sounded like there must have been thousands of them. Jessica blinked. The children clapped and the head moved on. Jessica and the large red box of sweets returned into the crowd of children. The box’s presence so unusual – a child, an actual child, allowed to roam freely with more chocolate than most of us saw outside of ten Halloweens.

At break time Jessica attracted a crowd on the playground. Well, Jessica was to some extent an irrelevance. Sure, she could spell, but it was what her spelling had unlocked that us children were interested in. Her right leg rolled over her ankle again as the crowd around her built until it was easily four deep.

“Show us the box.”

“Yeah, hold it up.”

Jessica knew nothing of crowd control, so she blithely did as the loud voices requested.

“Give us one.”

“Yeah, can I have one?”

Jessica could have said no. They were her chocolates. But the sheer number of them. You could hear it from the trundling sound that they made inside that there must have been easily a hundred Maltesers per child in a box of that magnitude.

“Well, I suppose-“ Jessica began and inserted her finger into the perfect circle of the box and pulled back the perforated cardboard tab that kept them all in.

The hands.

All the hands.

Jessica could do nothing more than hold the box aloft. The hands pushed past her. My own hand among them. The hands of the crowd reaching and grabbing and dispersing.

The hands were gone.

Jessica held the slightly crumpled red box without a single Malteser in it. It seemed smaller now, like a magic trick when you figure out how it’s done. Jessica held onto the box. 

THURSDAY

Barry hated the word Barista. In part this was because it opened up too many jokes about his name. “You can’t spell Barista without Barry!” his shift manager was fond of saying. It wasn’t just inane it was inaccurate. You could clearly say Barista without Barry. The joke felt too close to the truth to Barry, like some sort of nominative determinism that he couldn’t escape. He kept thinking of the card game Happy Families and wondering if he was just another in a line of Mr Bun the Baker people. It reinforced the power of branding. If only his parents had thought to christen him Billionaire instead. Barry chuckled to himself as he realised that there probably was some poor chump called Billy O’Nare, who had even more of a reason to hate his parents.

Such was his attention to this particular day dream that Barry didn’t realise that his hand was directly under the hot water spigot as he span the handle and steam gouted out of the grubby silver opening. The pain was instant and all-consuming. He dropped the cup as he reflexively pulled his damaged hand to his chest. He span on his heel and barged his way past Erin as he made for the sink. A searing belt of pain reached his senses and he risked a look at the back of his hand. It was a sweaty, red colour and there was blood leaching out from under what looked like a cut. Bubbles of yellow were raising on the skin and Barry could feel the drool of repulsion gathering in his mouth.

Erin had finally understood what was going on and was shouting for Tom. Barry heard the customer asking if he could get his drink as he ran the tap on full power and forced his hand into the stream.  

FRIDAY

I studied the blade for several years. The katana, shuriken, bo-staff, those over-sized pasta fork things. They do have a name but I can’t remember it. I was actually going to go to Japan to study at one of the temples they have but there were quite a lot of entry requirements and between one thing and another I didn’t get in.

So most of my martial arts these days are tai-chi. It’s actually pronounced TAY-CHWEE but lots of people don’t get what you’re talking about if you invite them to come to a TAY-CHWEE taster session. There was a bit of awkwardness where an older lady thought it was a sort of afternoon tea thing and then she started shouting about having a voucher from Groupon and in the end I just made her a sandwich and a brew and she calmed down.

People often mistake tai-chi for an exercise for geriatrics. Not so. It’s by far the most deadly martial art out there. It shits all over krav maga and your BJJ. There’s this story that Bruce Lee would fight anyone and all sorts of people would turn up at his dojo – wrestlers, karate men, boxers and he wiped the floor with all of them – one inch punched them out of the ring. But one day this guy turns up asking to fight and Lee asks him what he studied. This guy goes “tai-chi” and Lee turns as white as a sheet and gives him a thousand dollars to go away. This guy says I want ten thousand and Lee goes straight to the bank and gets it for him.

That’s a true story.

You see tai-chi only looks slow because that’s how it was smuggled out. There was this ancient master and he created tai-chi but it was full speed tai-chi, with punching and kicking. And the ruling emporer at the time said, “This is the best martial art in the world, a lot better than krav maga, we need to keep this secret” and they used tanks and bombs to try and kill everyone who knew tai-chi. But this ancient master escaped and started to teach it as a slower exercise. It was the same moves, he just slowed them right down to about a thousandth of the speed. The emporer never realises that’s what’s happened and tai-chi sneaks under the radar – this emporer even ends up taking lessons himself!

Oh look, seems like we’ve been cleared for take-off. I’m Martin by the way.

Starter for Ten – w/c 24-2-20

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. Wednesday’s is best this week…

**********

MONDAY

W: What is your problem?

M: I was waiting to pull into that space. You already had a space, so move back.

W: Why should I? There was no one in the space so I pulled into it. I can see now you were looking at moving into that space, but I did first.

M: It was mine.

W: If it was yours then I would have crashed into you, you arsehole.

M: Lovely attitude you’ve got. Do you talk to your husband like that?

W: Did you talk to your ex-wife like that?

M: Jokes on you, I’m not divorced.

W: Good things come to those who wait.

M: Listen, just give me that space back.

W: Why?

M: Because it’s the one that I was waiting to pull into!

W: There’s loads of space.

M: Yeah, but I want to go there.

W: As we’ve already established, you clearly didn’t have the space in the first place, otherwise I’d currently be parked on top of your head – which is an attractive thought right at the moment.

M: Oh so you’re threatening me now? Did you hear that mate?

S: What’s that?

M: Did you hear what she said about driving into my face?

W: I didn’t say that – I pointed out that it wasn’t “your space” because I was in it first.

M: That’s not the point!

B: Mum! Dad! Why can’t you just enjoy the dodgems like any other normal people?

TUESDAY

There’s a bad energy in the room. Jokes that would usually land are falling flat. He’s hoping that it’s something to do with this fucking mouth ulcer. Every time his tongue probes a certain point on his inside lip it stings and his attention is momentarily distracted. He’s changed his delivery ever-so minutely and it’s enough to screw his timing.

But he’s experienced, he’s been doing stand-up a long time and he knows enough to sell the lines with physical movements. His arm movements become bigger and his hands start to push the punchlines; after twenty minutes his face muscles are exhausted because he’s pantomiming the fuck out of the evening.

“I’m not one of those self-hating Jews,” he says and he realises that the word “Jews” is the perfect storm for this ulcer – the pursing of the lips for the J and the little thrust of the tongue for the S antagonise it perfectly and he winces. He notices a lady react to the wince and pushes quickly on. “My mother does that for me.”

A small laugh – maybe a 5. That line is usually a solid 7 out of 10 laugh and it allows him to build from it, this section is going to be tough. Mentally he computes how well this section would deliver if he had to prune the word Jews out of it. Somehow even thinking the word makes his lip wince – he bails.

“But enough about Je-ow the adherents of the Hebrew faith, let’s talk about…”

WEDNESDAY

The mouse crashed through a pile of leaf mould, scattering fragments in the air and skittered on the wet gravel. He turned hard right and ploughed again through the deep piles of oak leaves that sat on the road. The cat sprang and landed on the pile, padding at the various movements with his claws, thrusting into where he hoped the mouse would be. A noise over on the right alerted the cat that he had miscalculated and he tore through the leaves, swiping clusters of them to one side in the hope of revealing the small, damp creature. It would make no more than a mouthful, but this was about more than hunger now – it was about humiliation. The cat felt it and longed to inflict it.

The cat approached the trunk of the tree and swished at the remaining leaves. The mouse scuttled quickly around the edge of the trunk, a fraction too slow to stop the cat from driving the claws of its right paw through the bed of its tail. It peeped with anxiety and pain and the cat reveled in the moment. The chase was beautiful but the kill was art – first a wound to ensure that any subsequent chase would be very one-sided. Then a parody of the morning’s back and forth, to rehearse for the next and to celebrate the kill. Then a small meal – it’s body and innards, leaving the spine and skull for the birds.

He drove his claw in further and the mouse peeped again and shook. It shivered and looked up just in time to see the bulldog tiptoeing up behind the cat, with the largest metal skillet the mouse had ever seen, raised over its head.  

THURSDAY

There’s something really satisfying about pouring sugar into a container. Opening the folds of a large packet of sugar and tipping it into the caddy that will be its home. In part this is because the sugar is, at this stage, pristine white and is yet to accumulate the mysterious brown flecks that characterise the look of latter-stage sugar caddy sugar. You can kid yourself that this time you’ll keep to the rules, it will be dry teaspoons only that will be used. But really, who can be bothered to get a spoon to fish out the tea bag from the cup and another spoon to get the sugar. That’s where the brown flecks come from, crystallised drops of tea.

The other thing that’s nice about tipping the sugar into the caddy is the aesthetic of it. It whooshes out and builds into a peak in the centre which a quick nudge on the caddy will flatten. The grains of sugar behave according to some laws of fluids, in the same way that you get waves in banks of sand. Enough atoms of sugar are pushed into the atmosphere to sweeten the very air. The echoing caddy soon takes on a deeper sound as the weight of material builds. The entire bag fits in and means that you won’t have to fold the bag over and keep yet another scrag end of a bag in the cupboard with the odds and sods of flours and powders.

The lid sits snug on the container, a rubber seal keeping the contents pristine – a new hope that this time it will be better and that the area around the kettle will not attract chaos. This time it will all work out.

FRIDAY

Afternoon tea? A four tier platter of sandwiches, cakes, petits fours, a glass of champagne, a vole and a pot of perfectly-brewed tea. All served by a waiter who is so smart he could be off to a wedding and he’s wearing white gloves.

Yes that sounds lovely. I’m wondering though if you’d accept some feedback?

It’s the vole, isn’t it.

It is the vole, yes.

It’s an outlier, isn’t it.

I’m not sure I’d even describe it as an outlier, I’d simply say it’s an irrelevance. You’ve done really well with the rest of the offer – the good, the drinks, the service. I’m just not sure what a woodland creature adds to the ensemble.

On the first week you said that we needed a USP. I looked it up when I got home and it means Unique. A Unique Selling Point.

That’s right.

None of the other hotels do a vole with their afternoon tea.

Right.

It’s unique.

Right.

I googled it, there is no other hotel anywhere in the world that offers voles. The niche is entirely empty.

Right. Let’s for the moment establish that the vole provides the U in this situation.

It’s Unique.

Right. What I think you might want to ponder on is whether this same element brings the S.

The Selling.

Yes.

Oh.

That’s right. If I compared offerings between your hotel and the one next door would the vole raise an eyebrow? Certainly. Would it get me through the doors? No.

Oh.

How far have you gone with the marketing?

Not far. Barely anywhere.

That’s good.

Just a banner.

OK, well that can be removed.

And a thing in the paper.

Which paper?

All of them.

Anythi-

A skywriter. I’ve renamed the business to The Voletel.

Anyt-

And I’ve ordered fifteen thousand voles. And employed a vole handler.

Why?

I thought people might want to choose their vole from a bucket of live ones. Like lobsters.

Book Readings Over The Phone: The Verdict

As you might remember, I recently posted an offer that I was going to invite readers to register for a free book reading over the phone. Don’t worry, it’s not finished – you can still book in for me to read to you here. I posted that on the 17th January and it’s been something of a surprise success, with about 60 readings taking place since then. On one day I did six readings and read to people from New Jersey and Australia.

Valuable lesson: always check that your mobile phone contract covers overseas calls. Mine didn’t…

In part the popularity of the experiment has been because I got some coverage from The Telegraph and from Popbitch, who featured it in their newsletter, which goes out to about 250,000 people every week. Frustrating to see that once again I get second billing to Donald Trump’s badger obssession.

The aim of this post is really just to outline what I’ve learned about the process, so that if other writers were thinking of doing it they might learn from some of the pot-holes I hit and, hopefully, avoid them. I’m also keen if anyone has any suggestions and feedback on the idea, then fire your thoughts at me in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter – this whole thing is very much a work-in-progress.

First thing I would say to anyone considering doing this is absolutely go for it. Do it. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about getting it wrong. Just put yourself out there. You might get NO ONE taking you up on the offer, but so what – it’s just a fun project. Do it. Do it now. Set it up and do it. Stop thinking.

Absolutely, I’ve been nervous about how a reading would go sometimes, but I can honestly say that I’ve got something positive out of every single experience. I also estimate that about 90% of the listeners went on to buy the book. This isn’t primarily a marketing exercise, but it’s nice to know that it does work on that level. The best thing for me about the process is that there’s something so exciting about connecting directly with a reader through your story. It’s fascinating to hear them listening and then ask about what happens next – it validates a very real need to ensure that readers are actually excited by the book.

On a practical basis it’s really important to prepare for every reading. That sounds obvious, but it’s not just a case of getting organised. There’s a couple of angles that need thought and effort.

Technology: does your phone have enough battery? Are you in a space where you will get good signal and have a quiet background (and not sitting in the car like I was for one reading). Do you have a copy of the book?! I found it helped to have a reading copy which I could mark up with any notes or exclamations, to ensure I hit the right emphasis. I usually put my phone on speaker and sit it on a pint glass, which means that when I’m sitting at my desk, I can lean in really close and maximise the volume. It also frees up both hands, so I can hold the book and make any notes as I go.

Research: I ask people when they book in to tell me three things about themselves and I’ve been really surprised by how revealing people have been in these answers. It’s perhaps a sign that they recognise that I’m exposing something of myself to them (don’t worry, it’s not a video call) and they feel comfortable doing that too. Maybe it’s just a truth that when you ask people directly about themselves they often answer without much artifice. Those bits of information are useful for us to establish a rapport when we chat. I have to remind myself as I do more of these readings, that although this is becoming more normal to me, it’s potentially a pretty weird thing for them to be on the receiving end of. Therefore I like to make sure they’re relaxed and happy.

As part of this research, there are various questions that I ask before I begin a reading, such as “what do you know about the book?” More than I thought have actually read it and some have a specific section they want me to read, in which case I do that – this is their experience and they should get what they want out of it. Or if they’ve never heard of it before I give a very simple explanation of the book in a few sentences and then read them the first chapter. I want the book to stand on its own, rather than me issuing lengthy explanations and disclaimers. In theory, that should pull them into the book and hopefully make them want to know more.

I also ask if they’re ok with profanity – I learned the importance of that the hard way after I received the telephonic equivalent of a Hard Stare from one listener, after I casually started effing and jeffing. I also like to ask what sort of things they usually read, just because it’s interesting and I’ve got some good tips about books that I might like to read from the discussions! Finally, I ask them if they’re sitting comfortably, and tell them that if they want to interrupt me at any point then just shout and don’t feel bad about it. There have been a few guest appearances from Amazon delivery drivers and I wouldn’t want listeners thinking they can’t interrupt or tell me to shut up if they need a wee.

Finally, and perhaps the most unexpected part of the experience for me, there’s an emotional aspect to reading to people. As mentioned above – reading my book to people does put me out there and it takes some mental preparation to be ok with that. They might laugh in odd places, or they might be effected emotionally by what I’ve read them. They might hate it, or worse still, feel ambivalent towards it. I feel like it’s important to take a few minutes to make sure both reader and listener have got something out of the experience and offer them the opportunity to ask questions, or talk about what they heard. They might not want to, or I might have a question for them.

I will say that overall reading to people leaves me with a sense of calm and happiness. The love of telling people a story is what authors get involved in this business for, and reading it straight into a willing earhole is about as direct a hit of that experience as you can get. Often I’m left wanting to read them more, but I appreciate that people have their own lives and the world can’t just stop because I’ve written a book. Sadly.

From a practical point of view I’ve used YouCanBookMe to organise bookings and readings, which is about as straight-forward a platform as you could hope to get. I just use their free plan which does everything I need it to. Vitally, it cross-checks with your Google Calendar and ensures that you aren’t double-booking yourself. I was going to walk through the settings, but mostly it’s just a case of following the set-up wizard and deciding how many appointments you want to set per day and what duration they should be. You can then set up notifications before it starts. I’ve also set it so that it sends them an SMS after the reading to give them a link to the book (a small charge applies to each SMS sent) and where they can sign up for more info about me.

If you want to give this a go for yourself then give me a shout if you get stuck and I’ll gladly help set it up for you. And of course – if you’d like to book in a reading then give it a go, it’s not nearly as weird as you might think – unless you want me to make it weird?

Starter for Ten – w/c 17-02-20

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs.

I took a break from Starter for Ten while I was busy marketing Before and After, but as I start to focus on writing a new book, the plan is to do them daily again but publish them weekly, or possibly weakly. Hopefully that way it gives you a bundle to read or ignore as you see fit, in one handy package.

**********

MONDAY

There’s a little scratch on the wall and it bothers him. The walls were only painted a few months ago and to see this scratch where flecks of paint have been scraped off, reveals the colours underneath – that awful green that the landing had been painted ever since they arrived. He runs his thumb across the scratch and a minute fleck of the paint chips clings to his nail. It’s fine. He moves on with his day.

Later, he finds himself on the landing with a fine grade of sandpaper. He’s not entirely sure where he got the sandpaper from, but he dimly recalls a shop and a joke about DIY. Now here he is and he eases a sheet of the paper out and folds it carefully around a small block of wood, about the size of a chalk-board eraser. This gives him a pad which he can use to gently push at the edges of the gouge. He’s decided it’s a gouge and not a scratch – almost like it was a nail that pulled through the surface. He brushes and wipes and vacuums and soon he has a flat surface – the gouge is less prominent but underneath there’s that green colour that his wife insisted on. It reminds him of pea and ham soup. It’s a colour from another era.

The next morning he lays out a small cloth on the floor which is covered with spatters of colours. He’s mesmerised briefly and half composes a thought about Jackson Pollock, which dissipates as he returns his focus to the wall. He has a small tester pot in a colour which very, very closely matches the colour he chose for the landing when he was redecorating. He unscrews the pot and feels his tongue protrude through his lips as he daubs the paint in a neat line across the length of the seven inch fissure. In a macro he can picture the little valley of the gorge. The trauma that there must have been to create it. He pushes his face up close to watch the brush deposit the paint. As the paint hits the wall it fills the valley. It blots out any trauma and once again pushes the green walls back out of existence. It calms him to look at the now smooth walls. The paint is a good match. You’d hardly ever notice. He hopes it won’t dry darker, he’ll check again in the morning.

TUESDAY

There was a small black cat on the table. It could only have been a few months old. Its body was growing but it’s head was still kittenish and her paws still seemed a little large for her body. The children had named the cats, so this one was Bing. The other ginger kitten was Mr Tumble, which had been shortened to Tum. She pushed at a pen on the table until half of it was over the edge. All right gents, I’ve got an idea. The pen fell and skittered across the floor. The noise scared the cat and it bolted from the table, which wobbled under the sudden movement and the vial tipped on one side and rolled with intent towards the edge of the table. Just as it approached the edge, the man reached out and calmly put a finger on top of the vial stopping it a centimetre from the edge.

He was a big man, but the word fat wouldn’t have done him justice. He was just large. His head was large. His chest full. His frame was double-sized. Even the finger that now held the vial was large, the nail as big as a fifty pence piece. He wore a double-breasted white suit and his head was wet shaved so that the lights glinted off his dome. Bing circled around his foot, feeling the safety of his presence and scenting his feet. He carefully lifted the vial and placed it back in the rack, where it should have been but it was an object that called to him and demanded to be lifted and rolled between his fingers. The outright horror of what lay behind the simple rubber bung never failed to bring him a thrill. To own death and to keep it trapped in such a feeble prison amused him.

He lifted Bing onto his lap and the cat brushed its face against his hands. It circled several times and sat on one of his thighs, its entire body easily fitting. He lightly curled a finger around the cat’s ear and it lifted its chin to glory at this attention. He reached over and pulled the vial from the rack and ran it across the cat’s jawline. The cat enjoyed the game and feinted to bite at the vial. The man smiled and pulled it out of reach and secured it once more. How thin the lines were between chaos and normality. 

“Not today Bing.”

WEDNESDAY

“’…Slapped the fish on the table and said cook it yourself’ – that’s not good,” Pops looked up from the laptop. He raised his eyebrows – inviting comment. When nothing came he carried on.

“’Our party was then told that the table had been double-booked and the waitress told us we had to leave, even though some of us had already been served our starters.’ That’s not good. Marcy? What can you say?”

Marcy lifted her eyes and took an exaggerated breath. She twiddled the control stick of her wheelchair which made her fidget on the spot.

“Trip Advisor is a really important source of customers for us – if we get reviews like this then it hurts us as a business. And if we’re hurt then it hurts our staff – including you – as well.”

Pops made an awkward face at Marcy, his expression like he was witnessing a five car pile up on the freeway. “If you can’t tell me why you did it, I think we have to let you go.”

Marcy twirled the pommel of the control stick in her hand and found that it was a bit loose, so she pinched harder and screwed it back into place. Pops was still looking at her, the grotesque pantomime of awkwardness playing across his face.

“Marcy?”

The silence stretched until Pops could bear it no longer.

“Marcy – was it because of the wheel-, because of your…did it happen…”

“Oh fuck off Pops. I kicked them out because I was bored. It didn’t have anything to do with my wheelchair. It didn’t have anything to do with my leg. It didn’t have anything to do with anything, other than the fact that I was bored of looking at another table of shit-munching customers who expected me to bring them food.”

“But you’re a waitress.”

“I was a waitress until ten seconds ago. Now I’m a gin-seeking missile.”

THURSDAY

The line is nearly out of the door. It’s not even straight, it sort of circles around a display tables that has books about crochet on it. The audience is mixed, good balance of male and female, good ethnic mix and, best of all, they’re young – maybe averaging at around mid-20s. That’s all the more unusual when you consider that the city is mostly older and affluent. To attract an audience like this is surely the sort of thing his handler will take back to the publisher.

The handler was suggested by his editor. “She’ll help you make all the arrangements; it’ll free you up so you can focus on getting pages down.” That was the most appalling horseshit. The handler was there to take the temperature. Sales weren’t good on his last two books and although it still made all of the usual lists, that was now a given rather than a bonus. He briefly thought back to that magical Summer evening when he hit the best-seller lists for the first time. There had been whooping and wine and sex. The last time he hit the best-seller list his editor sent him an email asking if he had corrected the proofs for the German version.

He was saying a few words before the signing started. Generous, self-deprecating comments pushing his brilliance to one side and blaming the excellent crowd on the weather. Inside he thought about his pages. There were none. It was the book’s central idea that was the problem – there wasn’t one. He’d declared a breakthrough on this book so many times that it was becoming a bit of a cliché. Every time he thought he’d pinned the idea down it slithered from under his grasp like a squid. Fucking analogies.

“With no further ado then let me open the signing and thank you in advance for your patience.”

The table was set, a comical number of his favourite marker pens, a drink – lightly alcoholic – and, of course, his handler. The first reader came forward and smiled.

“Please could you sign this,” she asked and he took the book from her hands, opened it and fired his standard greeting into the inside cover.

“Thanks. Do we get the twenty pounds from you as well?” she asked.

The handler’s head snapped up.

FRIDAY

It felt tickly, that was a warning. It felt a bit like a cough, but also like a bit of the food had got stuck in her throat. The difference was that coughing really didn’t do anything to remove the sensation. She started to cough anyway, a light, high-throated Hrrrem noise that she repeated two or three times.

“Are you all right, Shirley?”

“Bit of a frog,” she managed to croak in-between hrrrems.

But she knew. It had only happened two times before and those were in very different circumstances. Very different.

Shirley started to panic. If previous occasions were anything to go by then within a few minutes her throat would be closing up and her breathing would sound like a punctured bagpipe.

“Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”

There was a sound of chairs being politely scraped back and a hundred cake forks hitting plates as the star of the garden party arrived. Even given her situation Shirley found the power of royal obedience compelling her legs to stand. She tried to hrrrem even harder in the hope that it would dislodge something.

But she knew. The real horror was how had it been triggered? She knew it was absurd, but she searched her mind for any way in which she could have forgotten a meeting of that sort in the last few hours. But there was nothing! Of course, there was nothing! She and Katya had been in the hotel, they had dressed and as the invitation had promised carriages had arrived – albeit a hackney carriage, where it had deposited them here and they had joined the queues of ladies, all looking so stately and perfect.

It had to be something she had eaten then. She breathed hard through her nose and looked at her plate. Two fairy cakes – which were exquisite – and three long-fingered sandwiches. A cup of tea with milk. Shirley was peripherally aware that the Queen was circulating closer to their table. She was shaking hands with a chosen few. She had beautiful, long white gloves. It was true what they said too – she was smaller than you expected. She exuded a force though.

HRRREM – another effort to dislodge the blockage. Katya was now shifting between beaming with joy at the nearby royal and looking with a dark concern at Shirley. Shirley looked at the Queen and wondered why she was so bendy. Why would the Queen have black splodges on her? The roof of the tent was beautiful. Why didn’t everyone lie on their back and look at it, like Shirley did.