FRAGMENT - LITTLE GIRL LOST

Monday, 13 November 2017 / Leave a Comment

Arthurs typed the dead man's name into a search engine. As expected, Randall’s official biographical details had been suspended indefinitely. For some time now, the Agency had tried to silence him completely. His books had been slowly going out of print. His name had all but vanished from public life. His image airbrushed from the archives. He was, to all intents and purposes, being gradually erased from the annals of social history.
      Arthurs tried to cast his mind back to Randall’s famous story, the short piece of creative writing which had catapulted him to international fame. If his memory served him correctly, it was the story of a little girl on a crowded train who had somehow become separated from her parents. Hard as she struggles through the mass of bodies, squeezing her way from compartment to compartment, along shunting corridors, she fails to track them down. When the train eventually comes to a stop at a busy station, the little girl is dragged down onto a bustling platform with the rest of the commuters. In vain, she looks everywhere, trying to locate her parents. Increasingly distressed, being bumped this way and that, it is all she can do to stop herself from breaking down in tears.
      Eventually she approaches a slightly older boy who is standing all on his own. In shaky tones, she explains exactly what has happened, how she had been aboard the train with her mother and father, how they had been fleeing some unnamed disaster (but something clearly symbolic of the one-party state movement and ensuing refugee crisis). To her (and the reader's) astonishment, the young boy tells her that he too has lost his parents, in the exact same manner in which she became separated from hers. Kindred spirits, in the same situation, they resolve to stick together, to help each other find their missing loved ones. But no matter how many different platforms and waiting rooms they search, they fail to find a single trace of them.
      Frustrated, they decide to ask a grown up for help. Only the station concourse is populated by such huge numbers of travellers, many of whom are rough, barely literate provincials, pickpockets, petty thieves, they are far too afraid to approach anyone. Towards the end of the day, they come across a man in his early twenties, sitting on a bench, elbows propped on knees, his head in his hands. Tentatively, the young boy taps upon his shoulder. When the man lifts his head, he tells him of their plight. “But I too am searching for my parents,” he interrupts. “Fifteen years ago to this very day, I disembarked from the very same platform from which you disembarked earlier. Only I couldn't find my parents anywhere. Each day, I have returned in the hope of tracking them down.”
      For the rest of the afternoon, the three newfound friends approach men and women of all ages and classes, asking if they have seen couples matching their parents’ respective appearances. Each and every traveller responds in the same way, telling them that they too are searching for missing loved ones. It’s as if everyone at the station is lost, accounting for the tumult and confusion, the sheer numbers of people trooping up and down both platform and concourse. No one is, in fact, waiting to board a train or for friends to disembark. They are waiting for parents who abandoned them to this most transient of all locales many years previous.
       There was something about the story that had always resonated with Arthurs, a subtly, be it in the backdrop of a busy station representing a world in flux, a metaphor for the chaos of modern life, or the vast number of hopeless, misplaced souls struggling to find a place for themselves in society. It was a simple yet beautifully executed, efficient piece of writing, worthy of the plaudits it received worldwide, the kind of rich, rewarding story any writer worth their salt would have wanted to have written. Why the author would choose to veer so wildly from his original artistic vision was as mysterious as his death itself.


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PICTURES OF YOU - EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM NEW NOVEL

Friday, 3 November 2017 / Leave a Comment

My latest work in progress is a novel entitled PICTURES OF YOU. This is the blurb:


When Rhea ends her long-distance relationship with Philip, telling him to never contact her again, he’s devastated. But he respects her wishes and tries to get on with his life. Five weeks later, he receives another email from her. There’s no message, only an attachment: a photograph of Rhea having sex with another man.


Posted below are the opening three chapters:

1
Around midnight time, while still working on edits for a likeable if somewhat deluded fantasy author, I received notification of an email from Rhea. We hadn’t spoken for a few days, and I had started to fear the worst, that our long-distance relationship might be over. It was painfully ironic, as only a couple of months had passed since we met in the flesh for the first time, taking the plunge, seeing if the feelings that had developed online were real, spending a whole month together at Rhea’s house just outside of Melbourne. For that reason, I didn’t really see the end coming. I didn’t think this would be that dreaded break-up email.

I've had a lot of time to think the last few days - it's been good for me. I just know that we can't work together. I need to move on and be in a healthy relationship. I need something more secure in my life. It doesn't change the way that I felt about you for all those years. I may never feel that way about anyone again, but the angst about our situation was really starting to shadow the pleasure.

I think it's best that we don't try and contact each other again. Please understand that this is what I really need.

   Her words left me numb. I knew she wouldn’t have expressed herself so strongly if she wasn’t adamant. But our relationship didn’t seem impossible to me. Only last week, we spoke about another trip out to Australia. My freelance editing work provided a steady source of income, so money wasn’t an issue. I guess I hadn’t really appreciated her concerns about long-term visas, problems with her children accepting her relationship with another man, all the obstacles in our way. Still, I couldn’t believe that she had such serious doubts. We got on so well in Melbourne, had had the perfect time. She told me that she loved me, that everything that had built up between us over five years wasn’t just an internet infatuation, something to help us get through some incredibly difficult times in both our lives.
    Back then, I was in pretty bad shape, fragile emotionally, mourning the loss of my wife after a long battle against anorexia, while Rhea was in the throes of a messy divorce from a domineering man she had never really loved. We reached out to each other on a writing website, forging a solid bond. What started out as a literary friendship, the exchange of emails, book recommendations, turned into an obsession. Every morning, the first thing I did was check my inbox to see what Rhea had sent overnight. We spent hours messaging each other, talking about our lives, thoughts, feelings. When Rhea’s divorce was finalised, we came to an impasse. What should we do? Finally meet? Go for it? We had to. Not meeting up after all that time would have been a tragedy.
    Before Rhea, I had never really spoken to anyone about Lorraine’s death; I had never really grieved or told anyone about the pain and suffering I went through, watching her literally waste away like that, how powerless I felt not being able to help her, how I never really understood why a once vibrant young woman had been reduced to such a desperate state.
  In turn, I listened to Rhea’s marital nightmares, the complete breakdown of her relationship, the arguments, lack of intimacy, the separate bedrooms. I encouraged her to be strong, independent, to not stay in the relationship if it was making her miserable. Sincere, if not entirely honourable advice. For I always felt a strong physical attraction towards Rhea. She had a waifish look, glasses, dark tangled hair and alluring greeny-blue eyes. She had her own unique sense of style, dresses with Peter Pan collars, tights, cardigans, shoes with straps. She had that intelligent, sexy look a lot of men go for. I knew it was stupid to fall for someone over the internet, someone who lived so far away, but I couldn’t help it. We had so much in common, made each other laugh, liked the same books, films, music. I told her that we had been made in the same factory, and it was true, that’s what it felt like. And now it was all over between us, after everything we had shared, after holding a torch for each other for so long. To meet and then part a few weeks later seemed absurd. I found it so hard to accept, sitting there reading her final message, trying to understand why she would want to all of a sudden do this, why she wasn’t willing to give me a chance to go out and see her again. It felt like the least I deserved.
   I was devastated. I had no idea how I was going to get over it.
   In the days that followed, I tried not to think about things too much, to wallow in misery. I went to the gym as often as possible. I tried to avoid alcohol (the last thing I wanted to do was get drunk and send Rhea a series of pathetic, desperate emails), to keep a clear head, my emotions as well as my dignity in check. I resolved to let things go, to accept the situation, to concentrate on my editing work, maybe even try and resurrect my own novel, to lose myself in writing. And for those first few weeks, it worked. I tried to see things from Rhea’s point of view. I tried to put a positive spin on the situation. I knew that what we had shared was special, the hundreds if not thousands of emails and instant messages, the hours spent talking on Skype, the month we spent together in Australia, living like husband and wife. I have never felt closer to anyone – even Lorraine. And I knew that was something to be celebrated, that not everyone is lucky enough to make that kind of connection. Short-lived it may have been, but it was intimate and beautiful, and I didn’t want to be resentful of Rhea for ending things but to always treasure those memories.
    And I almost succeeded.
   But then something happened which changed everything, something so unexpected and cruel, I didn’t know how to take it. Five weeks after her last message, I received another email from Rhea, completely out of the blue. I can’t tell you how surprised I was, how hard my heart pounded against my chest when the notification box popped up on-screen. I thought she must have reconsidered, that everything was back on, that in a few short minutes we would be Skyping again, declaring our love. But the email contained no message, only an attachment, a photograph of Rhea naked on her bed, grappling with a man in a sixty-nine position. Bar a pair of hairy legs and a large erect penis, the male’s physical appearance was almost completely obscured by Rhea’s body. In one hand, she gripped the shaft of his bulging cock, the tip in her mouth, performing oral sex upon him. I couldn’t understand it. I felt physically sick. Why would she send me such an explicit photograph?  What did she hope to achieve? Why would she want to hurt me so much? And there was such a cold, harsh, unrepentant look on her face, her glasses off, eyes staring straight at the camera, a look which told me that she was really enjoying the idea of me seeing her like this, that she wanted to inflict as much pain as possible. The whole thing was so out of character, literally the last thing I would have expected from her. But there it was, in full colour, plastered across my computer screen.

2
At first, I thought it might be a nasty practical joke, that one of Rhea’s friends had photo-shopped the image to show how emphatically Rhea had moved on, to make a point, to make me realize how futile any attempt at rekindling our romance would be. But that didn’t really make sense. The Rhea I knew would have wanted to protect me from that. She knew how sensitive, how vulnerable I was, and wouldn’t have dreamed (for the want of a better expression) of trying to rub my nose in it. For Rhea to have sent me such a picture herself didn’t seem possible, either. She was a kind, sweet, considerate, artistic, cultured woman. Never would she resort to anything as crass as to send me a picture of her having sex with another man, in the bed where we had enjoyed so many intimate moments ourselves. But I couldn’t ignore the one and only irrefutable fact: I had received the photograph from Rhea’s own personal email address.
   Briefly, I considered messaging her straight back, full or reproach, telling her exactly how much she had hurt me. But that felt weak and self-defeating. Best to ignore it, I told myself, forget that the photograph had ever existed. But once I had gone so far as to delete it, I struggled to erase that awful image from my mind. Even before I had received the photograph, thoughts of Rhea with another man, doing all the things we had done together, maybe enjoying his touch more than mine, sickened me. In bed at night, we had made so many promises, how we could never dream of being intimate with anybody else, how perfect we were for each other. I guess in my naivety I still held Rhea to those promises, that I took her at her word, that I didn’t want to believe that her gushing sentiments could have been fake or insincere, or that a love like ours could ever die.
   That evening, I was due to meet an old university friend for a drink in Greenwich. I had been putting him off for weeks, I didn’t feel particularly sociable, as if I could go out and be anything close to good company, anything like my old self. I could only see myself getting drunk and emotional and blurting out the whole story – how wonderful the trip to Australia had been, the depth of my feelings for Rhea, how much I missed her, the contents of her final email, the explicit photograph. But I think I had got to the point, a peak of emotional congestion, where I needed to speak to somebody, to unburden myself, no matter how ridiculous and fawning it made me appear.
    We met in the big Wetherspoon’s pub near the train station. As always, the place was packed full of workmen in paint-flecked pullovers, veteran drinkers in cloth-caps, and a handful of awkward-looking students, but we managed to snare a corner table near the stairs leading up to the toilets, hemmed in by a flashing fruit machine. My friend Shaun had been a qualified psychotherapist with his own practice for years now, and was perhaps the ideal person to confide in. It didn’t take long before he asked me about Rhea, the trip away, the time we had spent together. In turn, it didn’t take long before I was relaying the whole story.
   ‘Hold on,’ he said, as I came to the end of my outpouring, as I told him about the email and explicit photograph. ‘She told you that she didn’t want you to contact her again, then five, six weeks later she actually sends you a picture of herself having sex with another man. No accompanying message. No explanation. Nothing.’
   ‘No. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear from her again. And I can’t really make out why she’d do something like that.’
   ‘That’s so odd – like revenge porn in reverse. And you hadn’t been hassling her, bombarding her with messages? You hadn’t been pissing each other off in any way?’
   ‘We had a few minor arguments, but that was weeks before she told me never to contact her again. She was struggling to see how we could keep a long-distance relationship going. I was telling her to be patient, that in seven or eight weeks I’d have enough money to fly out there again.’
   ‘And you didn’t try to get into contact with her?’
    ‘Not directly,’ I replied, honestly. ‘I put a few cryptic tweets out there, posted the odd song we both used to like on social media. Stupid sentimental stuff she just ignored.’
    ‘Then maybe she felt she had to make a big statement, do something so blatant and off-key, so hurtful, you’d realize there was no way back for you, that it was really over.’
    ‘That’s what I thought. It just seems far too extreme. If she felt the need to do something like that, all she had to do was tell me she was seeing someone else. That would’ve been more than enough to make me realize she meant what she said. Believe me. I just can’t help but think there’s something not right about all of this.’
    After that, the conversation drifted, lost momentum, flitting from one inconsequential subject to another – what old university friends were up to, my editing projects, the stresses of working in the mental health sector, his new relationship with a much younger woman. They were thinking of getting out of London in a few months’ time, moving down to Brighton and starting a family. I was really happy for him, but sensed he was reluctant to go in to too much detail, that he didn’t want to express his excitement for fear of stirring up recent bad memories for me.
   Eventually, he brought the conversation back round to Rhea.
   ‘You have been redefining the long-distance relationship these last few years, though, haven’t you?’ he said, cautiously, peering up at me over his third large Tanqueray gin and tonic. ‘I don’t know if I told you, but a while back I looked into emigrating to Australia myself. They’re crying out for qualified therapists over there. I could’ve got a visa no problem. But I’ve heard that they’ve really tightened things up over recent years.’
    ‘Yeah, they have. I think we would’ve had to have applied for a de facto spouse visa. It would’ve taken time but…’
    ‘Maybe you should just try and get back on the horse.’ He smiled weakly, as if sensing that nothing he could say, no matter how well-intentioned, would do much good right now. ‘Go out, meet new people.’
   ‘I know I should. It’s just hard to see myself getting back out there – dating, the single life.’
   ‘Why don’t you try a dating website? I could send you some links. That’s how me and Becky met.’
   ‘No, no, it’s too soon. I just need to get my head around the idea of things being over with Rhea – properly over.’
  ‘And there’s no better way of doing that than meeting someone else.’
   ‘You’re right. And I will. I just need a little more time.’
   Two days passed. I started another round of edits for a first-time writer who had decided to self-publish. He was really pleased with the original job I had done, and wanted me to look at a rewritten section, a quite large section of around one hundred and seventy pages, and help him get the book ready for publication. It was much easier work than the fantasy series, diverting, interesting, seeing what another writer had made of my suggestions for improvements, cuts, changes to the text, word choice. I loved to see the way different authors worked, how they went about telling their stories, right down to the way they constructed individual sentences. It was like a glimpse through a keyhole, into a magical workshop where something truly lofty takes place, something secret and alchemical, something only a chosen few are ever granted access to.
    Early evening, after a light meal of tuna and brown rice, I decided to do another hour or two of editing work before watching a bit of television. Since last logging-in to my laptop I had received a couple of notifications. Now my relationship with Rhea was over, these usually consisted of software updates or links to photographs that one of my Facebook friends had uploaded to Instagram. Thinking nothing of it, I clicked on the icon in the corner of the screen. When I saw Rhea’s name in my inbox, a cold, uncertain feeling fell over me. I had no idea what a second message, so soon after the first, could signify, no idea of what I was about to see, only that I had to open the message to find out. With shaky hands, I angled the cursor over the notification and clicked twice, opening the email. Once again there was no accompanying message, only an attached photograph, another picture of Rhea naked on her bed. This time she was spread out on all fours, her head titled at a slight angle, hair tousled, face flushed, eyes looking right at the camera (which must have been set up on one the shelves in the wardrobe built into the wall) with the same horrible, calculated look she wore in the original photograph. Directly behind her (if only his chest and part of one leg was visible) was a naked man, pressed so tightly up against her, it was clear that they were engaged in full-blown intercourse, like a still shot lifted from a porno film.
    I took a deep intake of breath and squeezed my eyes shut, attempting to swallow back my upset. When I opened them again, and reluctantly reappraised the photograph, I realized that the man in this picture was different to the man in the first photograph. His skin was light and chest hair sandy, while the first man was much darker-complexioned, with much darker hair. So not only did Rhea (or whoever had decided to torture me with these pictures) want me to know that she was having regular sex, she wanted me to know that she had multiple partners. But why? Why did she feel it necessary to send me vivid documentary evidence of the fact?
   Angry more than upset now, I felt that I had no other option than to email her direct, telling her to leave me alone, to never, ever send me anything like this again.

This is horrible, Rhea. Don’t send me stuff like this. It’s sick. What did I ever do to deserve this? If I receive any more pictures, I’ll go to the police. This kind of thing is illegal over here, you know?

   But within twenty or thirty seconds of pressing send, I got an error message telling me that the email had failed, that that address no longer existed.
     ‘What?’ I stared at the screen in disbelief. That was patently ridiculous. I had just replied to a message sent to me all of forty minutes ago. How could the email address no longer exist? For that to be the case, Rhea, or whoever had sent the second photograph, must have closed the account down straight after sending the message. And that just didn’t seem likely, feasible, that degree of foresight or calculation.
    I tried to send my reply again with the same results.
   Copying and pasting the error message into a new message, I emailed it to another old friend, a bit of a computer expert, asking him exactly what it meant.

Just that, he came back straight away, that the email address you’re trying to contact has been closed-down, put out of circulation. It’s easily done – click on account settings, and simply press terminate account.

    If I had had doubts about the legitimacy of the original email, I was now certain that something very wrong had taken place. To what degree Rhea was involved, or whether I was the victim of a distasteful prank (maybe instigated by one of her new lovers or old friends), I had no idea. All I knew was that I wanted it to stop. All I knew was that I didn’t want to have to look at another one of those pictures ever again.

3
Next morning, I felt predictably lousy. It was a struggle to lift the kettle and fill it with water. I just couldn’t get my head around the situation. Up until a few weeks ago, I counted Rhea as one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people I had ever met. Granted, we had the odd argument over the years, but that had more to do with frustration – that I lived here, and she lived over there. I never once thought she had a darker side to her character, that she was acting out a role, that she had fooled me into believing she was the personification of human warmth, when in reality she was a twisted bitch who got off on inflicting pain on others.
   As I slumped down at the kitchen table, all I could remember were the good times, how special she made me feel, how excited I used to get when we Skyped or sent each other emails, the things we used to talk about, the plans we had made. There were so many wonderful moments, things I could never forget. Like the time I asked her for a token of her affection, something to remind me of her, something I could wear around my neck, like those lockets Victorian sweethearts used to exchange, with little photographs inside. I didn’t really think any more of it; it was just one of those gushing things you say when you’re stupidly in love. Five or six weeks later, I received a small parcel from Australia containing a silver locket with attractive jade and amber casing. Inside was a beautiful photograph of Rhea, a sexy half smile playing upon her lips. I don’t know what it was – the gesture or loveliness of the photograph – but whenever I opened the locket and looked at her, I knew with absolute certainty that she was thinking about me, about us, the unlikely beauty of our relationship, how we had found each other on the other side of the world, and all the good times we had to look forward to when we finally met in person.
   I just couldn’t believe that things had soured between us to this extent. I couldn’t believe that she would want to taunt me like this. The one person I thought I knew best, who really understood me was trying to drive me out of my mind with jealousy and despair. 
    I hauled myself into the bathroom and had a cold shower, just to try and clear my head, to jar myself back to life, to not get dragged down trying to work out Rhea’s motivations.
   But it proved impossible.
    Later that morning, I received a third photograph via the email address that supposedly no longer existed. It was far more disturbing than the other pictures, mainly because there were two men with Rhea this time around. Predictably, she was naked, kneeling in the middle of her open-plan front room, right in front of the fire. Either side of her stood two strapping men, naked also, but visible only from the waist down. Rhea had an erect penis in each hand. Her face was covered in semen. A big arrow of thick white gunk dangled from her chin. Yet again she had that horrible, conceited look on her face as she stared right at the camera, her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth, as if to lap away at the seminal fluid pouring down her face, as if to show me how much she enjoyed swallowing other men’s come.
   Disgusted, I exited out of the internet session, shot to my feet, and began to pace up and down the room, trying to think of ways of putting a stop to this harassment. And that’s what it had become: harassment, pure and simple. If the shoe had been on the other foot, and I had taken to sending Rhea pictures of me screwing different women, she would have been well within her rights to call the police, to have an injunction put in place.      
   Determined not to act rashly, I sat back down at my laptop and checked Rhea’s social media accounts. If I couldn’t reply to her emails direct, maybe I could find other ways of confronting her. But it was no good. At some point in the last few weeks, she had blocked me on Facebook. Her Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads accounts had been closed down. Why, I had no idea. It was as if she was erasing every last trace of herself with the specific intention of making my life a misery. I typed her name into a search engine and scrolled through the list of results, but found no secret cyber passageway through which I could contact her. We always used to Skype so I never had cause to ask for her mobile phone number. Not that it would have done me much good. If the situation was as malicious as it now appeared, there was no way she would be willing to speak to me on the telephone.
   At a loss, I called Shaun on his work number. I needed to vent, to unburden myself, and he was the only person who knew what had been happening.
   ‘Jesus Christ, Phil, she’s really got it in for you, hasn’t she?’
   ‘I know. Only I can’t for the life of me understand why. I just want it to stop. Okay, we’ve broken up. I didn’t take it very well. But when things came to a head and Rhea told me to never contact her again, I didn’t. I swear.’
   ‘I understand. It’s such a weird situation, though. In my line of work, I hear some real horror stories from people, proper deranged individuals on the edge, with little grasp of reality. But this is a new one on me. I don’t know why Rhea would want to do this to you. Once, maybe, to show you that she’d moved on, that everything is well and truly over between you. But two, three times is truly nasty. I can’t help but think she’s not right in her own head, that something has happened that you don’t know about.’
   ‘What? Like a cry for help or something?’ I asked, having not really considered that possibility before.
    ‘I don’t know, Phil. Whatever her motivations, I’d leave her well alone if I were you.’
   ‘But what can I do to get it to stop?’
   ‘Contact the Microsoft Outlook administrator – that’s the email service you use, isn’t it? Give them Rhea’s email address, the one she’s been using to send you the pictures. Tell them exactly what’s been happening, and get them to block her account, or redirect anything she might send you to your junk file.’
   ‘But if she’s this determined she could just set up another email account and continue to send me pictures.’
   ‘Then why don’t you close your account, and set up a new one? Problem solved. She won’t be able to send you anything if she doesn’t know your new email address.’
   ‘But I’ve had the same email address for years. I use it for my editing work. If I changed it now it would cause me untold aggravation, having to go around all my old clients informing them. I could lose work. And I don’t think I’d want to risk that.’
   ‘I see,’ he said, slowly, as if weighing up alternative courses of action. ‘If that’s the case, then why not go with my original suggestion? – contact the Outlook people. At least it will put your mind at rest for a while. And who knows? She might get tired of the whole thing soon. She might leave you alone.’
   This I did, receiving a prompt standard reply informing me that it may take 7-14 days to process my request. Shit, I thought to myself, fearing another week or two of being bombarded with constant photographs. If that proved to be the case, I could always delete the messages without putting myself through the agony of staring at Rhea engaged in sexual contact with another man, or men. But that wasn’t really the point. It was the principle, knowing that she could get to me this much, that she was going out of her way to upset me in the most extreme manner imaginable. No. I had to try and put a stop to this thing today.
   When I visited Australia, a couple of Rhea’s friends had befriended me on Facebook. One in particular, Melanie, had been really chatty. We had similar tastes in music, and had struck up a bit of a rapport. If I messaged her on Facebook, telling her exactly what was happening, she might sympathize and speak to Rhea direct, telling her that I was thinking of reporting the matter to the police.
   Choosing my words carefully, so as not to come across as hysterical or in any way weird, like I might have a hidden, underhand agenda, I ended the message with the following appeal:
I know your loyalties will always lie with Rhea, and please believe me, I’m not out to cause trouble, or to wheedle my way back into her life. Our relationship is well and truly over. I know that now. I just want to be left in peace. So please could you have a word with her and tell her enough is enough?

Yours hopefully

Philip

    Her response, all of twenty-five minutes later, shocked and disturbed me.

How dare you contact me! Rhea has told me everything. She told me to expect a message from you – sooner rather than later. You’ve got one hell of a nerve, harassing me like this. I don’t believe one word you’ve written. I don’t believe that Rhea’s been sending you anything, let alone explicit photographs. Why would she? What a crock! Men like you should be locked up. Why can’t you just do as Rhea asked and leave her alone? She’s been through hell these last few months, trying to put an end to your relationship. Only you won’t let it lie, will you? Only you keep pestering and upsetting her. I knew, from the first moment I set eyes on you, that you were trouble. Time and again, I tried to warn Rhea off. Time and again, I told her it was madness to have an internet romance with someone who lives on the other side of the world. If only she had listened! Now don’t you dare try and contact me again. Okay? And stop spreading your nasty little lies about Rhea. She’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She doesn’t deserve to have her life ruined like this. FUCK OFF!

   Still in shock, I read back over certain vitriolic sentences – which pretty much constituted the whole message. It was only by chance, as I exited out of the page, that I realized that Melanie had just blocked me as a friend, that I had effectively been cut-off from another part of Rhea’s life.
  The more I thought about it, the more her response stunned me. What could Rhea have possibly told her to make her react like that? What had I supposedly done these last few months that was so bad? Yes, I had tried to make Rhea change her mind, to stop her from giving up on our relationship. Yes, we had had a few fractious exchanges on Skype and instant messenger. But nothing that would provoke such a hateful outburst. More to the point, Rhea had been sending me those photographs, one was still sitting in my inbox right now, the other two in my deleted items folder.
   About half an hour later, I got a message from the Facebook Administrator telling me that my account had been suspended for forty-eight hours because several complaints had been made against me.

In the last two weeks, read the penultimate paragraph, two of our members have had cause to block you from their pages. We take issues of trolling, the posting of inappropriate material, and sexual harassment very seriously. If we receive any further reports against you, we will have no other option than to remove you from the site indefinitely.

   I had to smirk at the “trolling, the posting of inappropriate material, and sexual harassment” line, because if anybody had been the victim of those three specific cyber-crimes it was most certainly me. Regardless, Melanie’s response to my message was nothing if not revealing. It proved that Rhea had warned her in advance, that she was actively aware of the savage effect those photographs were having, that she had clearly formulated a plan to counter any allegations I might make against her. Still, no matter how I tried to frame all this in my head, I couldn’t help but think that something terrible had happened to Rhea to make her act this way, that there was something dark and sinister involved. Only I had no way of finding out what it was now.
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CHARACTERISATION III - LOST CHAPTER - THE BUTTERFLY & THE WHEEL

Sunday, 29 October 2017 / Leave a Comment

In an earlier post, I talked about characterization, and the editing history of my debut novel The Butterfly and the Wheel (Knox Robinson Publishing). For those who have not read the book (and to help make sense of this post), here’s the logline:

A second-rate writer passes off a stolen manuscript as his own, and ascends to the summit of soviet society

In Turgenovsky, the second-rate writer mentioned above, I wanted to create a character full of contradictions, at once odious yet charming, ingratiating yet self-interested, a man without convictions who has an unwitting impact on the earth-shattering events surrounding the Russian Revolution. Initially, the first three chapters flitted back and forth in time and place.

In the opening chapter, set in the late-sixties, Turgenovsky returns to his home town for an unveiling of a statue in his honour, but is more interested in bedding the Regional Party Secretary’s teenage niece.

In the second chapter, set in 1916, Turgenovsky gets mistakenly arrested with a gang of Anti-Tsarist students. This starts a chain of events which sees him rub shoulders with Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, the apolitical chancer becomes, through an instinct for survival, an important and trusted figure in revolutionary circles.

In the original version of the novel, Chapter Three travels further back in time, when Turgenovsky, a green-behind-the-ears provincial teenager, arrives in St. Petersburg to work at his uncle’s print works. There he is exposed to poverty, filth, degradation, working-class misery in its manifold and grotesque guises. By chance, the factory owner takes a shine to the young man. He offers to help educate him, inviting him round to his lavish apartment for tutoring, where he is ultimately groomed and seduced. Hence, a scholarship at a fine university and his induction into the finer things in life – art and literature - culminating in his role in the murder of Rasputin.

 Over the three years it took me to write the novel, I decided to discard this entire chapter. My reasons were varied. It was the longest chapter in the book, running at around 50 pages. The essential plot twists I worked into proceeding chapters, leaving out, amongst other things, Turgenovsky’s involvement in Rasputin’s murder. Now, on reflection, I look back and think it should really have been included in the novel, along with another 45,000 words that made it onto the editing room floor. For that reason, I’ve uploaded the chapter in his entirety onto Wattpad, in (0 digestible parts. If you’ve read the novel, I’m sure you will enjoy them.

Clink in the link below to read Chapter One:


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COUNCIL FLAT CAVIAR - FREE TO READ

Thursday, 26 October 2017 / Leave a Comment


MY BRUTAL SHORT STORY ABOUT A MAN STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE ON DISABILITY BENEFITS IS MODERN BRITAIN IS NOW FREE TO READ ON MY WEBSITE.

CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO READ THE STORY NOW:

http://www.neilrandall.net/?page_id=37
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WHY DO WRITERS' WRITE?

Wednesday, 23 August 2017 / Leave a Comment


People often ask: Why do writers’ write? (or painters’ paint or sculptors’ sculpt, for that matter.) In my own narrow experience, I think writers’ write in search of meaning and understanding. For instance, Hubert Selby Jnr wrote The Willow Tree to try and understand the true nature of hatred, not just what compels people to commit evil, hateful acts (be it the Nazis in World War II or the violent street gang of the book) but what that hate can do to the victim, instilling in them dangerous bitter impulses – revenge being the most prevalent - how a person has to forgive, to let go of that hate before it consumes them whole, turning them into even more evil, hateful figures than the original perpetrators of the evil, hateful act. If not, where would it end, where would we find ourselves if every calculated or random act of hatred and violence was met with the same hateful and violent force?

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky asks the question: Is one person’s life more valuable than another person’s life? Is a grubby, exploitative money-lender’s existence less important than that of an impoverished but no doubt kind and worthy student, a man of promise and integrity? If said student Raskolnikov takes that money-lender’s life but redeems himself in later years, performing countless good deeds, could he, in some very significant way, absolve himself of that greatest of all sins: murder?

In Lolita, Nabokov tries to understand the mind of a predatory paedophile, a man infected with a dangerous, sickening obsession, perhaps he tries to understand the nature of obsession itself, a mono-mania far more destructive than Ahab’s pursuit of that famous white whale, and the devastatingly ruinous impact that can have on the lives of everybody involved.

Hemingway wrote Death in the Afternoon not (perhaps unwittingly) to chronicle the drama of the bullfight, the glorious bravery of the matador, man against fearsome almost mythological horned beast, but more the essential degradation of existence, the sadistic, unnecessary cruelty we inflict upon each other in our everyday lives. And how, like the sharks attacking the marlin fastened to the fishing boat in another of Hemingway’s tales The Old Man and the Sea, there are dangerous parasitic forces at work in life, and all we can do, like the noble spiked bull at the culmination of any bullfight, is endure our pain and suffering with as much dignity as possible.

Did Kafka really write all those incredible stories – Metamorphosis, The Trial (to name just two) – to try and understand his relationship with his domineering father? Did the sense of alienation, his smallness in front of this monolithic patriarch, really make him feel like an insect, did the father/son relationship really make him feel as he were being accused of a crime he didn’t commit (perhaps the crime of being born itself).

Then we have a counter-, not so much argument, but -point. Why does anyone do anything in life? Why, since time immemorial, have we as a race of people strove to subsist, create, invent? Why have we attempted to exit the Earth’s atmosphere, walk on the moon, inoculate against disease, drop the atomic bomb? Why do writers’ really write? – because they want to express themselves, or because they want money, fame, recognition, to be seen as all-knowing geniuses, gods, immortals, far superior to any other man or woman on the street? Has, over time, the purity of expression itself, for whatever number of reasons – capitalism, the rise of the individual – become as corrupted and profit-driven and cold and calculated as any branch of science or medical research mentioned above, as any field of human endeavour.

The point, counter- or otherwise, that I’m trying to make is this: are there actually more destructive, forces in creation now than we really, truly appreciate? – power, domination, greed, envy, vanity. Why do people exist if they endure so much without ever really understanding why?

Neil Randall’s latest novel The Girl in the Empty Room is now available. Click on the link below to purchase your copy of the book today:




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Characterization II – Still Life and What’s Left on the Editing Room Floor

Saturday, 29 July 2017 / Leave a Comment


My first proper effort at a novel ran to 250,000 words and took three years to write. When it was eventually published (about a decade later) it had been cut down to 130,000 words. In the intervening years, I developed the story on various peer-led writer sites, getting the word count down to around 180,000 words. The final cut was due to publishing costs not artistic considerations (put simply: the independent publisher who put the book out couldn’t afford to publish a 600-page novel).

The first draft of my forthcoming novel The Girl in the Empty Room (Crooked Cat Books) ran to just over 80,000 words. The main character (the girl in the empty room) is a quite complex young woman. Many and varied life experiences have twisted her out of shape – drink, drugs, her parent’s divorce, failed relationships, serious debt. When I came to edit the novel, I found that, for purposes of flow, the ultimate development of the story, that I had to cut a hell of a lot of strong, interesting scenes featuring her. An essential part of the process, I suppose. But it’s always made me wonder, with books, the edited scenes, the billions of lost words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters – does the writer always make the correct decision, does the editor, agent or publisher? Who decides, ultimately? What have we as readers potentially missed out on? What rich wonderful prose, crisp dialogue, mad descriptive passages, huge characters are left on the editing room floor, consigned to history? In the same way, some people’s whole lives are passed over in preference for someone else, be it at a failed job interview, football trial or a lover leaving you for another man or woman. And we never know if they made the correct decision or not…

One of the scenes mentioned above, a pretty unpleasant story set at a music festival, is pasted below. Maybe it should have stayed in the novel, maybe not…

Still Life
Jacqueline didn't know why she'd run off like that, why she'd made such a stupid scene, dumping her friends, doing all the coke she was supposed to share with them, why she'd double-dropped ecstasy pills, and lost herself in the crowds of people milling around the festival site. She didn't know why she'd made such a big thing about coming here in the first place, pestering her parents for a weekend ticket, saving money, leaving the kids with her ex. It's not like it was a proper festival, just three main tents, some folky, bluesy shit, local bands mostly.
   She came up hard and fast.
   Dazed, disorientated, all she wanted to do was find someone with a little weed, sit down and smoke a joint, relax, get her bearings, maybe even enjoy herself a little bit–that was supposed to have been the whole idea. But all she kept doing was bumping into straggly-haired crusties in tie-dyed smocks or fishtail parkas. Discordant sounds: pounding drums, strumming guitars, thumping bass lines, muffled applause, voices and laughter. A breath of wind, a spot of rain, the smell of frying food: burgers, hot dogs and spicy Indian dishes. There was far too much to take in–fire-eaters, a mounted policeman, laughing children holding balloons, a pint of golden lager held in a rough, callused hand.
   'Can I have a sip of your beer, mate?' she shouted, tapping a man on the shoulder. Breton stripe T-shirt, cut-off denims, sandals over socks. 'I'm really dehydrated…can't seem to find a bar anywhere.'
   'Sure. You look like you need it.' A plastic glass, cool to the touch. She put it to her lips and drank deeply, feeling the cold liquid travel all the way down to her stomach. 'Hey, are you okay? You look a bit worse for the wear.'
   She handed the glass back. 'How else am I supposed to look?'
   Shambling along in another thick stream of bodies, sometimes stopping to have incoherent conversations, to hug and kiss vacant, unappealing strangers, throwing herself at one stoned, pissed up male after another, asking if she could go back to their tent, begging them for weed or booze, moving further and further away from the mundanity of her real everyday life, the boredom, the empty weeks, cooking and cleaning, the wasted hours spent waiting to pick her children up from school. It was as if she was escaping, back to a time when she was young, before she'd fallen pregnant, when there was a whole wide world, with unlimited possibilities spread out before her. 
   'Yeah, yeah,' another blurry, stretched-out-of-all-recognition face spoke right into hers. 'You can come back to our tent for a smoke. Looks like you could do with chilling out for a bit, looks like you could do with a joint or two…take the edge off.'
*
She woke up to suffocating heat, a dry mouth, discomfort, a body on top of hers, the smell of sweat, greasy matted hair, a bristly cheek against her breasts, long nails pinching her skin, warm, boozy breath, a heaving, rocking motion, she could feel someone inside of her, hear whispered voices all around.
   Desperately, she tried to push him off, but she was either too weak or he was far too heavy. She blinked her eyes and looked around: a canvas shell, a tent, darkness, two sets of eyes staring right at her.
   'Get–Get off me!' she managed, unsure if the words even exited her mouth, or if they'd made any sound at all. But they must've done–because whoever was on top of her stopped, withdrew, she could feel his penis slide out of her.
   'What is it?' Another rubber mask-like set of features, long hair hanging over face. 'You were well up for it a minute ago.'
  A minute, she thought to herself, unable to comprehend any construct of time, and what it could possibly represent.
   'Get off,' she repeated, pushing away at his chest, pushing him to the side so she could sit up. Two other men, no more than shadows, owners of those eyes, were sitting opposite, cross-legged, smoking a joint, one cradling what looked like a big plastic bottle of cider in his lap.
   She looked down at herself–she was fully naked, could feel a dull ominous ache between her legs.
   'What's–What's happening?'
   The man beside her wriggled around, pulling his jeans up over his hips.
   'Don't sweat it, baby,' he said, running his fingers up and down her arm with a familiarity that really freaked her out. 'We just had a little Woodstock moment, that's all.'
   'Woodstock?' She reached down by her side, hoping to find a blanket, a sleeping-bag, a slip of clothing, something to cover herself–but found nothing. 'What'd you mean?'
   He giggled, and didn't reply until one of his friends passed him the joint.
   'The sixties, free love,' he said, exhaling a big cloud of pungent-smelling smoke. 'And you, erm (chuckle, cough, splutter) certainly embraced the whole thing…like Janis Joplin…you wore us three out, all right.'
   Her mind, while still fuzzy, started to piece everything together. "Us three"? A cold, horrible, empty feeling of regret and shame fell in on her like a controlled demolition.
   'What?'
   'Come on,' he said, handing her the joint. Absently, automatically, she took it and drew on it deeply. 'What goes on tour and all that…no big deal, it's not like we came inside you or anything. It was a groovy scene, and you're a groovy chick.'
   A groovy chick–this she didn't repeat out loud, it sounded far too ridiculous. All she wanted to do was get out of there as fast as she could.
   'Where are my clothes?'
   One of the other men tossed a bundle across the tent, almost knocking the joint out of her hand.
   She took one more draw on it, and then handed it back to the man closest to her.
   Trying not to appear self-conscious, embarrassed or humiliated, she put on her clothes, first knickers and leggings, then fastened her bra and pulled on her top.
   'You're not going, are you?'
   'Yeah, I've, erm…gotta find my friends now. It's late.'
   'You could always stay here,' he said, shuffling close again, as if he meant to put his arm around her. 'We could always go for a repeat performance. And we've got plenty more weed and booze.'
   A horrible tense moment. All three men, the tent itself, seemed to close in on her, as if they were going to force themselves on her again, make her take off her clothes again, make her stay.
   'Look,' she shouted. 'You bastards took advantage of me while I was off my fucking face. I could probably get you done for rape.'
   'Rape! Whoa! Hang on a minute, darling. You were all over me, begged me for a smoke, said you wanted to come back to the tent. When we dished out a few lines of K, you started taking your clothes off, telling us you wanted to fuck. We only did what you asked us to do.'
   K? Ketamine? Jacqueline didn't know how to respond to that, didn't know if it was true, didn't know how far she'd gone, didn't even know who she was supposed to be anymore: mother, friend, groupie concubine, decent human being. Determined, on all fours, she bundled her way across the tent, pushing past the two other men, knocking them aside, fumbled for the zipper, slid it down, and clambered outside.
   Pitch darkness. Cold, still air. Tomb-like silence. Rows of tents spread out as far as she could see. She had no idea where her friends had pitched up for the night, was over a hundred miles from home, but much, much further away from any true sense of herself than she'd ever been before.




The Girl in the Empty Room is released on 1st of September 2017. Click on the link below to pre-order your copy:







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SNEAK PREVIEW OF BRAND-NEW NOVEL - A PASSAGEWAY WITH NO EXIT

Tuesday, 11 July 2017 / Leave a Comment


Here's an exclusive extract from my latest work in progress - a novel entitled A Passageway with No Exit. The title is derived from a Spanish expression une calle sin salida. I think I picked this up years ago from an old William S. Burroughs novel (maybe Cities of the Red Night). Hope you enjoy it!

With painful clarity, he sees himself walking into the study again. As always, he finds his son sitting behind the desk. Startled, he looks up at his father with a guilty, remorseful look upon his face. What are you doing in here? he shouts at him. He hates raising his voice, hates admonishing his son, but knows he has to be firm in this instance. Nothing, father, he says, shooting to his feet, I was just playing. It’s then, as he steps closer, that he realizes his son is hiding something behind his back. What’s that? he asks in the probing, accusatory tone he would adopt when cross-examining a witness. Nothing, father, I – I promise I haven’t touched anything. But he knows the boy is lying. It’s plain to see that he’s standing there concealing a piece of paper behind his back. Give it to me. This instant. He rushes over and grabs the boy by the shoulders. Give it to me, I said. Before he really knows what’s happening, they’re engaged in a stupid, diverting clinch, he’s twisting his son’s body this way and that, turning him around, pinning him up against the desk, using his superior size and strength in an attempt to prise the piece of paper from his hands. At one point, it feels as if they’re going to tear the sheet in half, so manfully does his son struggle. No, no, please, I – I don’t want you to see it. But it’s too late. He’s finally managed to separate the boy from the piece of paper. What is it? What’s this all about? Carefully, he turns the now crumpled sheet of paper around and stares at the three large words scrawled across it in what appears to be blood: YOU KILLED ME.
  
Part One
Chapter One
In the circumstances, Macmillan was shocked to receive an electronic message from Charles Gregory. Only a matter of days had passed since his former colleague's son was found brutally murdered – “completely eviscerated, head removed from neck, limbs removed from torso, serious sexual injuries (most likely inflicted post-mortem)” – read the official crime scene report. Quite how a man of Julian Gregory’s standing, a man still under strict surveillance, had been killed in such circumstances, executed in his own home, was a mystery. For years now, he had been an incredibly divisive figure in public life, a thorn in officialdom's hulking side, somebody the Agency had wanted shadowed at all times. So how had those responsible for his murder escaped detection?
   This, and many other baffling inconsistencies, compelled Macmillan to go against his better judgment, open the message and read the contents.

To: pmacmillan@centralstatejudiciary.net
From: gregorypersonal@cybersafe.com
19:21 July 27th 2057

Dear Peter,

RE: A Personal Matter

Apologies in advance for burdening you with this request. In truth, I really don't know who else to approach. But knowing you have also suffered the misfortune of losing a beloved son, I sensed that you might be the one person who would understand.

As you well know, my own son Julian, once considered the finest literary mind of his generation, was murdered late last week. Since then, I have given much thought to his troubled life. At the academy, he was top of all his classes, possessed of incredibly high intelligence. His early literary works were of the loftiest artistic and ideological value. He won a National Prize for his first collection of verse, composed when he was still a teenager. To this day, his acclaimed short story Little Girl Lost remains on the national curriculum. At one time, his star could not have shone brighter. But like many youngsters to whom success comes so early in life, youngsters with inquiring, searching minds, those who want to challenge themselves at all times, he started to question not only his own place in our society but the very nature of society itself. Like a form of self-repudiation, he started to reject the very foundations on which our great nation is based.

Macmillan broke off from reading. Ever since Julian Gregory's violent death, he'd heard each and every rumour which had circulated. There was talk of him being a spy, an underground operative, that he had been recruited by foreign agents during one of his many trips overseas, that the radical change in artistic direction had been the work of a cultural saboteur. There were other rumours of drunkenness, debauchery, drug use, sexual profligacy, how his dazzling early success had gone to his head, corrupted him, making him see himself as an untouchable figure.
   He pondered this for a moment or two before taking up reading from where he had left off.

Although you may not be aware, I was approached through official channels, old colleagues, men still in active service today asked – no, no, I better rephrase that – ordered me to investigate, to find out exactly what had happened to Julian. In no uncertain terms, they told me that if my son didn't alter his ways, he would soon be arrested. But my relationship with Julian had broken down some time ago. We no longer communicated in the way we used to. In truth, we no longer communicated at all. When I finally managed to arrange a meeting, I was shocked not only by his steadfast refusal to cooperate, to see sense, to save himself from interment in a state prison, or worse, but by the almost heretical nature of his counter-accusations. He started to rant and rave, saying that his whole career had been a monstrous lie, manufactured, that he'd been hand-picked at the academy, singled out as a figurehead, a shining example of ideological purity, that all his literary achievements had been false, that his stories had no artistic worth at all, that his words had been championed by the Agency to such an extent, citizens had been brainwashed into believing that he was some kind of all-knowing genius. I'd never heard such nonsense. But it was only the beginning. For he then proceeded to claim that he was being followed at all times (and by this point he was almost hysterical), that his water supply was being contaminated, that he was often doubled over in pain vomiting due to severe food poisoning, that the security services wanted to silence him, to remove him from the scene once and for all. And, Peter, he looked terrible – gaunt, painfully thin, with weeping sores all over his face. He looked like the wretched drug addict he had been accused of being in the popular press. For that reason, I took a few samples from his apartment – hair, a toothbrush, skin cells – to an old colleague at the State Laboratory for analysis, who found that there were no illicit substances in Julian's bloodstream, only unusually high levels of Zykill K (a hugely toxic substance banned under the Geneva Convention). And you know as well as I do that Zykill K has been used in Agency operations in the past, most notably in the removal of undesirable elements from society.

Once again, Macmillan broke off from reading. If Julian Gregory, no matter how powerful or revered his father, had been seen as a genuine threat to state security, there was every chance that he had been exposed to Zykill K, that he had been “eliminated”, the violent manner in which he was murdered merely an elaborate and bloody ploy to cover up any Agency involvement.
   The likelihood of this, like receipt of the electronic message itself, started to seriously unnerve Macmillan. Regardless, he resolved to read the message to the end.

Now, Peter, I come to the real reason for contacting you. Amongst his final possessions, my son left behind dozens of files on his personal computer, a veritable mountain of literary and research material. In the days since his untimely death, I have had a chance to read nearly everything in his archive, what would appear to be a sprawling treatise, a book – part fiction, part fact – social criticism, a scathing denunciation of the society in which he was raised. From my own professional knowledge, I know how close he goes to the bone, how much of the information he acquired has a basis in fact. But there are some sections of the book which go far beyond the realms of credibility, which read like the ramblings of a deranged fantasist. Therefore, I need your help. I know it is a lot to ask, that you would be putting yourself in an uncomfortable, maybe even dangerous position. But this is not just a personal favour to a grieving father. Certain issues raised in the book focus on cases in which you yourself were personally involved; cases from many years ago which may still trouble you to this day.

So I ask you, more as an old friend than former colleague, to, at the very least download the attached files and read the archive material for yourself, make up your own mind, and give me your professional opinion. I know I lost my son a long time ago, a long time before he was so brutally murdered. But knowledge that he wasn't mentally deficient, a raving lunatic, that he was still in possession of his mind before he died, would mean a great deal to me.

I trust you will act according to your conscience.

Kind regards
Your friend, C.M. Gregory

Macmillan remained seated at his desk long after he had finished reading the message through. He didn't know what to do for the best. Granted, he would like to help put Gregory's mind at rest (he was, after all, the man who gave him his first professional assignment; the man who put his trust in him during the early days of his career), to read the archive material, to tell him that although his son may well have been misguided, he was undoubtedly a fine writer possessed of a quite brilliant mind. Conversely, if the archive was found in his possession, he could get into a lot of trouble. In times such as these, where security issues were of paramount importance, it was a matter that couldn't be simply brushed aside.
   Conflicted, he opened another browsing session, and typed the dead man's name into a search engine. As expected, Julian Gregory's official biographical details had been suspended indefinitely. For some time now, the Agency in particular had tried to silence Gregory completely. His books had been slowly going out of print. His name had all but vanished from public life. His image airbrushed from the archives. He was, to all intents and purposes, being gradually erased from the annals of social history.
   Macmillan tried to cast his mind back to Gregory's famous story, the short piece of creative writing which had catapulted him to international fame. If his memory served him correctly, it was the story of a little girl on a crowded train who had somehow become separated from her parents. Hard as she struggles through the mass of bodies, squeezing her way from compartment to compartment, along shunting corridors, she fails to track them down. When the train eventually comes to a stop at a busy station, the little girl is dragged along with the rest of the commuters down onto a bustling platform. In vain, she rushes hither and thither, trying to locate her parents. Increasingly distressed, being bumped this way and that, it is all she can do to stop herself from breaking down in tears. Eventually she approaches a slightly older boy standing all on his own. In shaky tones, she explains exactly what has happened to her, how she had been aboard the train with her mother and father, how they had been fleeing some unnamed disaster (but something clearly symbolic of the one-party state movement and ensuing refugee crisis). To her (and the reader's) astonishment the young boy tells her that he too has lost his parents, in the exact same manner in which she became separated from hers. Kindred spirits, in the same situation, they resolve to stick together, to help each other find their missing loved ones. But no matter how many different platforms and waiting rooms they search, they fail to find a single trace of them. Increasingly frustrated, they decide to ask a grown up for help. Only the station concourse is populated by such huge numbers of travellers, many of whom are rough, barely literate provincials, pickpockets, petty thieves, they are far too afraid to approach anyone. Towards the end of the day, they come across a man in his early twenties, sitting on a bench, elbows propped on knees, his head in his hands. Tentatively, the young boy taps upon his shoulder. When the man lifts his head, it's clear that he's been crying; he can barely get his words out. When the children tell him of their plight, he replies: “But I too am searching for my parents. Fifteen years ago to this very day, I disembarked from the very same platform from which you two disembarked earlier. Only I couldn't find my parents anywhere. Each day, I have returned in the hope of tracking them down.” In turn, the three newfound friends approach men and women of all ages and classes, asking if they have seen couples matching their parents’ respective appearances. Each and every traveller responds in the same way, telling them that they too are searching for missing loved ones. It’s as if everyone at the station is lost, accounting for the tumult and confusion, the sheer numbers of people trooping up and down both platform and concourse. No one is, in fact, waiting to board a train or for friends to disembark. They are waiting for parents who abandoned them to this most transient of all locales many years previous.
   There was something about the story that had always resonated with Macmillan, a subtly, be it in the backdrop of a busy station representing a world in flux, a metaphor for the chaos of modern life, or the vast number of hopeless, misplaced souls struggling to find a place for themselves. It was a simple yet beautifully executed, efficient piece of writing, worthy of the plaudits it received worldwide, the kind of rich, rewarding story any writer worth their salt would've wanted to have written. Why the author would choose to veer so wildly from his original artistic vision was as mysterious as his death itself.
   Macmillan's mobile device started to vibrate. He picked it up off his desk and studied the display: Home – the one word he dreaded most of late. Reconciling himself to yet another uncomfortable conversation, he pressed the answer button and lifted the device to his ear.
   ‘Peter,’ spoke his wife Barbara, in the panicky, breathless tones he had become accustomed to. 'Where are you? You said you would be home for Nicholas’ birthday celebration. It’s past seven o’clock. I’m here all alone, with the food and gifts. I have opened a bottle of special wine.’
   Macmillan squeezed his eyes tightly shut. Every year it was the same almost unbearable charade.  
   ‘I’m sorry. Something important landed on my desk. I’m about to leave off now. I'll be home shortly.’
   He terminated the call, saving himself from any unpleasant recriminations.
   As he gathered up his things, he decided upon a concrete course of action regarding Charles Gregory’s unexpected message. He would copy the attached files onto a memory stick (something not strictly authorized, but something he had done with official documents countless times before) delete the original message, and read through Julian Gregory’s archive on his personal computer at home, thus saving himself from any awkward explanations to his superiors.
   ‘Right.’ He removed the memory stick, switched off the main light, and walked out of the office.
  
Chapter Two
Macmillan returned home to find the apartment plunged in almost total darkness. The only light came from a single candle burning on the table way off in the top section of the main open-plan living area. At the head of the table, Barbara sat very still and upright; she neither moved nor spoke nor gave any indication that she was aware of his presence. As always, the depth of silence was oppressive; the apartment had never felt more sombre, cold, empty, bereft of life, less like a home. Even during the winter months, Barbara had an almost pathological aversion to the central heating system. Some evenings Macmillan returned to what could only be described as sub-zero temperatures; would find windows wide open, curtains flapping in the blustery wind, and Barbara – oblivious, seemingly unaffected, bare-shouldered – slumped in a chair, reading from one of the spiritual pamphlets she devoured each day, the flimsy self-help books which encouraged positivity, that if you hoped and prayed for something hard enough, it would undoubtedly come true.
   He placed his briefcase down on the floor, straightened, somehow refrained from switching on the main lights, and walked across the room, up two highly polished wooden steps towards the dining area. When he reached the table, he placed a birthday card next to a cake decorated with thirty-seven unlit candles (he didn't have to count; he knew exactly how many there were), and two elegant gift-wrapped presents with shiny bows fastened to them.
   ‘I’m sorry I’m late.’
   ‘You always are.’ Only then did Barbara move, display any sign of life, as she reached for a tall, elegant wineglass, bringing it slowly towards her lips. ‘Late, I mean – not sorry.’
   ‘I'm here now.’
   ‘Yes. Yes, you are. How grand.’
   ‘Wait. Let me fill a glass so we can propose a toast.’ Surprised to find the bottle half full, he poured out a generous measure of wine. ‘To absent friends.’
   ‘Our son.’
   ‘Of course, our son Nicholas, on his thirty-seventh birthday.’ Macmillan swallowed back a mouthful of wine, just to stop himself from saying “on what would've been his thirty-seventh birthday”.
   ‘You should've been here earlier.”
   ‘I said I was sorry. Something important came up at the office.’
   ‘Something more important than commemorating the day our only child disappeared?’
   'No, of course not. Only –'
   ‘We should never forget, Peter. Our memories are all we have left.’  
   ‘How could we ever forget?’
   ‘But you never talk about it.’
   ‘It was a long time ago. I did all my talking in the days and weeks after he disappeared.’     
   It was beyond tedious. Whole evenings, weekends, entire years of their lives had passed in the interminable relay of short, terse, emotionless sentences.
   Barbara got to her feet.
   ‘The meal, it will be some way past its best now, but…’ She walked into the kitchen, picked up two plates from the work surface, and carried them back over to the table.
   In silence, they ate a stone-cold risotto with all the lifeless inanimation of masticating skeletons.
   Barbara placed her knife and fork up against a plate of food she had, at best, only picked away at.
   ‘Do you believe in karma, Peter?’
   ‘No.’
   ‘You don't believe that people can be punished for past sins – what comes around goes around?’
   'No.'
   ‘But it was discussed at the time, wasn’t it? – at the time of Nicholas’ disappearance, I mean. Your colleagues made a point of reviewing your current caseload. Those – Those people you were representing, they were investigated, weren't they?’
   ‘Standard procedure. The Agency had to eliminate any possible suspect from their enquiries.’
   ‘But what was it? – the case you were working on?’
   Macmillan didn't answer; he didn’t have to. So often had they discussed matters surrounding Nicholas’ disappearance, he knew she was more than familiar with each and every detail
   ‘You know what case. We've spoken about this a thousand times before.’
   ‘It was to do with that actress, wasn't it? – the one you'd had previous relations with – a very high profile, controversial matter, one that put you firmly in the public spotlight. Why? Why did you agree to take on such a frivolous case?’
   Macmillan poured himself another glass of wine. Wearily, he said, ‘I had little choice in the matter. My direct superior, Charles Gregory, insisted that I handle proceedings.’
   ‘Gregory!’ she almost spat the name out of the side of her mouth. ‘I never liked him, Peter. No matter how pleasant or polite or immaculately dressed or fine-smelling his cologne there was something about him that always repulsed me. Only now has he got his comeuppance. Only now has he been punished like we have.’
   ‘How do you mean?’
   ‘Does it not strike you as odd that his only son has been taken from him as well?’
   ‘No,’ he replied. And he meant it – for he could see little or no relation between two separate incidents that had taken place decades apart.
   ‘I always felt so sorry for the boy, Julian, the child star, the writer. There was so little love in his life.’
   ‘How could you possibly know that?’ Macmillan said with far more force than intended. To the best of his knowledge, Barbara had been in Julian Gregory's company on only a handful of occasions. And each time, she had exchanged no more than a few pleasantries with him – at most.
   ‘There was always a certain sadness in his eyes. A woman can tell such things. In comparison, Nicholas was so happy and carefree.’
   Macmillan took another swallow of wine, a far deeper, more reckless swallow this time.
   ‘It was no surprise to me,’ said Barbara, resting her thin veiny hands on the tabletop, ‘when he started to rebel, when he started to write such scathing, challenging stories. It was only a matter of time before he saw those people for what they really were.’ She shot him a quick, anxious glance, as if to gauge exactly how far she could abuse his superiors before he reacted. ‘Take The Bearded Women of Ronzlamabad. A political satire, if ever there was, a direct response to the civilian massacre in the Middle East, the cold-blooded murder of so many innocent women and children.’
   ‘Is that what it was called?’ Macmillan asked. On the way home he'd been trying to remember the name of that particular story – “career suicide” as the popular press called it, “an act of cultural terrorism” his superiors at the Agency.
   ‘Yes. After that, his fate was sealed. I’m only surprised that it took them this long to finish him off.’
   With affected decorum, as if she had just made a worthy and emphatic point, Barbara pushed her chair back and got to her feet. Only then, as she stood and straightened, as she tottered and had to grip the tabletop for support, was the full extent of her intoxication revealed. Instinctively, Macmillan shot a glance into the darkened, shadowy depths of the kitchen. In the fading moonlight from the window, the outlines of three empty bottles of wine were just about visible. As usual, Barbara had drunk herself close to oblivion.
   ‘I – I think I'll go and lie down now.’ She turned and walked slowly and unsteadily across the room. ‘I – I think I will say a few silent prayers for Nicholas’ safe return.’
   Macmillan let out a sad, weary sigh. At times like this, he often thought back to the early days of his relationship with Barbara, how young and vibrant she had been, how passionate. He thought back to the time when Nicholas was born, her devotion towards him, the strength of her maternal feelings. Her love for their child made Macmillan’s love for her grow deeper. Sometimes he used to watch her suckle the baby or change his nappy or bathe him in the evenings, and the purity of her affection almost reduced him to tears. Only now her grief had destroyed her. She was totally lost, a completely different person. And he had no idea how to help her find herself again.
   ‘Happy birthday,’ he whispered to the empty room.
    A moment later, Barbara switched the bedroom light off. Getting to his feet, Macmillan poured the remainder of the wine into his glass, and took it through to his study. Flicking on a powerful Anglepoise lamp, he slumped down in the room’s only chair, switched on his personal computer, and inserted the memory stick he had updated at the office earlier. A pop-up box directed him to Julian Gregory's literary archive. If the sheer numbers of files involved took Macmillan aback, the subject matter astounded him. Each file name referenced cases he had either headed or had direct involvement with, some of which had never been closed or satisfactorily concluded (just as Gregory senior had predicted). But what really struck Macmillan most was the name of the very first file – The Larissa Lombardi Case Vol. 1 – 17. It was unnerving, to see Lombardi’s name on his computer screen so soon after Barbara had mentioned her at the dinner table.      
   Unable to keep his curiosity in check, he clicked onto the file, and opened up Case Volume No. 1.

Case Ref: Lombardi/00001 Interim Report
Date: 21/09/1998
Operative Nathaniel Reid
Immediately, Macmillan broke off from reading. At the time of writing, Nathaniel Reid had been part of his own legal team, a confidant, someone he trusted implicitly. If this report was in any way legitimate, it meant that Reid had been covertly working for the security services – something Macmillan should really have been made aware of - that he was, in effect, a double agent with seriously conflicting interdepartmental interests.
   Unsure how he really felt about that, Macmillan put it to the back of the mind, and began to read from the top of the report.

Operation Blue Movie
Background
Since early 2035, I had been in the Subject’s exclusive employ, ostensibly as a driver and security guard. Infiltration of her circle had been reasonably straightforward. As soon as we intercepted a personal electronic message citing the need for added security (following a series of threatening phone calls and letters from Agency operatives), we used contacts within the entertainment industry to secure an interview with the Subject’s then management team. My bogus credentials could not have been more glowing. There and then, I was offered the job on a full-time, if probationary basis.
   Initially, my remit was simply to ingratiate myself to the Subject and her inner circle, to go above and beyond the call of duty, to make myself indispensable. Within a matter of months, I became a trusted and respected member of staff, to such an extent the Subject often insisted that I stay outside her bed chamber or hotel room overnight. In effect, therefore, I became her personal bodyguard. I rarely if ever left her side. She relied upon me completely, said (and I quote) “I don’t know what I’d would do without you” and “that you make me feel safe and secure”.
   I had, therefore, been in the Subject’s employ for just under three years before execution of the above orders.

Operation Blue Movie, Day One
On the night in question (20/09/37), I mixed a potent sleeping draught into the Subject’s cup of cocoa. In a matter of twenty to twenty-five minutes, she was profoundly unconscious (as I knew she would be until morning – such was the strength of the sleeping draught administered). Subject thus incapacitated, I proceeded to Stage Two of the operation, assembling the team of operatives that had been on stand-by since early evening. This team consisted of one camera man, one sound engineer and one lighting engineer – all experienced men – and four unknown actors from the adult entertainment industry, men considered wholly expendable (NB: they each received a fatal gunshot to the head, post-production, their bodies decapitated, transported to a classified seaside location, and deposited far out to sea).
   As the team filtered into the Subject’s bed chamber, I set about removing her nightgown, stripping her naked, spreading her legs wide open, and lubricating her genital region.
   Once satisfied, I directed the four males into position. Over the next few hours, they performed numerous sexual acts upon the Subject – penetrative, oral, group – manoeuvring her around the bed, down onto a leopard print rug on the floor, manipulating her limbs and trunk of body into various different positions. In all that time, we encountered only one major problem. For the film to look legitimate, we needed the Subject to appear as if she was fully conscious and fully participating. This we achieved by affixing her eyelids open just below the brows with a clear adhesive substance, propping her limbs and body up with pillows, and by (and this was only achieved when editing the film in the hours that followed) dubbing female moans and groans onto the final master tape (the results of which were, in my opinion, incredibly convincing).
   In all we shot around six hours of footage. In the editing room, with deft use of light and the aforementioned sound effects, we managed to splice together scenes and audio to create what appeared to be the most explicit pornographic feature ever made, starring the most famous screen actress on the planet.

Once again Macmillan broke off from reading, sunk back deep into his chair, and ran his hands through his thick, steely-grey hair. In the past, he'd heard rumours about an illicit video, a sex tape involving Larissa Lombardi, but had thought it was no more than a salacious rumour, wishful thinking on behalf of the many men who had lusted after her for years, one of those far-fetched stories with no basis in fact. But if the video really did exist, why would the Agency have gone to such extremes to obtain it? Why did they want such an explicit sex tape? What did they hope to gain?
   Baffled, he nonetheless read on till the end.

Concluding Remarks
On the morning of 21/09/37 at approximately 07:00 hours, I delivered the master copy to [name blacked out] at Head Office, receiving an official commendation for my efforts.
   On my return to the Subject’s apartment, I tidied the bed chamber, scrubbed the floors, replaced furniture, and washed and dressed her, removing all traces of what had taken place.
   When she awoke, she complained of a stomach upset (a polite way of expressing vaginal discomfort, I wrote in my original notes), and asked if I would call her personal physician, a Doctor Youngman (an operative in pay of the Agency). After a brief examination, he informed the Subject that she had contracted what appeared to be a rare and painful form of cystitis, a urinary infection that while unpleasant was easily treatable. He left a prescription and advised the Subject to remain in bed for the rest of the day.
   In the hours that followed, I monitored the Subject closely, but she displayed no signs of having any memory, or any suspicions as to what truly took place the night previous. I will continue to monitor the situation, and report back my findings in the usual manner.

Signed: Nathaniel Reid.

Macmillan tapped the escape button, returning to the contents page, and ran his eyes over the list of file names, all the cases he had at one time been involved in. It was as if Julian Gregory had been writing a book about Macmillan's career, the high profile proceedings, the controversial rulings, the professional compromises he'd been forced to make. And if that was the case, what motivation could Charles Gregory have had in handing him the files in the first place? Why did he want Macmillan to read about his own professional failings?
   'This – This doesn't make sense.'

   As he scrolled further down the list, a file name he hadn't noticed before caught his eye: The Murder of Nicholas Macmillan.
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