FRAGMENT - THE OLFACTORY DELIGHTS OF BOOKS

Friday, 14 September 2018 / Leave a Comment




IN THE PAST, I’ve always had a fractious relationship with chance, coincidence. But I wasn’t foolish enough to dismiss such things out of hand. For instance, when I was growing up I became obsessed with mythology (I think this had something to do with the film The Clash of the Titans, a big blockbuster released around the time I was six or seven years old). My parents, always keen to encourage me to read, learn, broaden my horizons, bought me a large, glossy, illustrated book on Greek Mythology for my next birthday. And I always remember, when I unwrapped the present that day, and started to flick through the pages of the book, marvelling over the beautiful full-colour illustrations of Medusa and Pegasus, a powerful, intoxicating new book smell assailing my senses, a smell I find hard to describe (was it the ink? the thick shiny paper the book was printed on? some chemical solution?). And I don’t know if it was the excitement of receiving the one present I wanted most that birthday, that the book was everything I hoped it would be, the stories inside so compelling, bringing all those myths and legends to life, that made that smell so mesmerising or not, that my senses were stirred to such a degree, I associated it with almost magical qualities.
      Fast forward fifteen, maybe even twenty years, and I’m looking around one of the book stalls down Spitalfields Market, and I spy a large hardcover book on Greek Mythology, not the same book as the one I owned as a boy, but of the same dimensions. Curious, I picked it up and opened the pages, and in an instant, I was assailed by that exact same new book smell, even though this book was printed in the 1970’s. And I could never quite get my head around how that could possibly be the case. Books are strange like that, I know, possessed of beguiling properties. But even if I rationalise things, what were the chances of me picking up a book on mythology that had been printed with the same ink, on the same shiny paper, with the same chemical solution that produced (and retained) that heady, olfactory delight in me? None. Zero. But it happened, and I had to respect the fact.


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LIVE READING - AN APPROXIMATE ACCUMLATION

Thursday, 26 July 2018 / Leave a Comment
Here's a reading from a new short story of mine entitled AN APPROXIMATE ACCUMULATION:



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FRAGMENT - THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CATFISH

Saturday, 21 July 2018 / 1 comment



‘You remember Jason Green, don’t you? You remember the nightmare he had in Australia?’
      I half shook my head. I remembered Jason, another old school friend, emigrating when he was quite young, early to mid-twenties, but I didn’t recall what happened to him out there – good or bad.
      ‘Well, he flew out just after he finished uni, a gap year, got himself trained as a cocktail waiter, planned to travel all over the country, working the bars. Anyway, he met this Melbourne lass online, on a dating website-type thing. They struck up a bit of a rapport, they liked the look of each other, but she said she was a bit shy, that she’d been hurt in the past and wanted to take things slow. Greeny said he understood completely, and they started sending each other emails. At first, once a day, then twice, and so on, until they were conducting this intense online relationship. By all accounts, he really fell for the girl. She told him all about her life, childhood, her family, and vice versa. They had so much in common. She made him laugh. They started sending each other steamy pictures. But whenever they arranged to finally meet up, she’d always call things off at the last-minute, always made up some excuse.
      ‘Initially, Greeny was very understanding; he really cared for her, and sensed that she was the nervous type, scared of disappointing him in some way – in fact, she said as much in one of her emails. But gradually, he started to lose patience. This had been going on for months; his visa was running out, and he desperately wanted to meet her before he had to come home. He wanted to find out if the feelings that had built up between them were real or not.’
      ‘He wanted to do what?’ I asked, struck by the way Alan had phrased that – it was uncomfortably familiar.
      ‘To find out if they’d hit it off in person. By that time, they’d said I love you to each other, and made plans to get together properly, boyfriend and girlfriend, to try and work on getting Greeny a longer-term visa. Anyway, they have this big emotional exchange of emails. Greeny really lays it on the line – if you don’t meet me this week, it’s all off, I can’t go on like this anymore, blah-blah-blah. It all came to a head – the big meet up in this flash restaurant. Greeny gets himself spruced-up, ready to meet who he was becoming increasingly certain was the love of his life.’ Alan broke off from his story, grinned and shook his head. ‘Guess what happened next?’
      ‘She didn’t turn up.’
      ‘Exactly – she didn’t turn up. But something weird happened in the restaurant that night. After it became apparent that she’d stood him up, Greeny retired to the bar to drown his sorrows. After about half a dozen or so whiskies, this quite respectable-looking young lady sits down next to him and orders a drink. They get chatting. She’s kind, friendly. Greeny, more than half-cut by this time, unburdens himself, tells her everything.’
      ‘And what?’ I said. ‘He ends up getting together with her?’
      ‘Hold that thought, Filippo.’ Alan raised a hand, and flashed an even wider grin than before. ‘Let’s fast-forward a few days. When Greeny tries to contact his online girlfriend, to ask where she’d got to, he doesn’t receive a reply. Complete radio silence. A whole week passes. Nothing. He can’t understand it. After months of messaging each other a dozen times a day, after everything they’d said to each other, the feelings that had built up between them, to all of a sudden cut things off, to no longer want any contact, really hurt poor old Greeny’s feelings. And I don’t know what got into his head, but he hired a private detective to track her down. Crazy, I know. But he’d accumulated a shit load of money that summer, and saw an ad online, a guy who specialized in this kind of thing. Know what they call it?’
      I shook my head.
      ‘Cat-fishing,’ he said, looking very pleased with himself. ‘Anyway, it only takes this private detective about three days to get hold of a name, address and phone number for the person who’d been using that email address.’
      ‘And what happened next?’ I asked, genuinely interested by now.
     ‘Greeny gets a cab straight over there, takes a lift up to apartment number-whatever-it-is, and knocks on the door. And you’ll never guess who answers?’
      ‘No. Who?’
       ‘The respectable-looking young woman who sat next to him in the restaurant bar. She’d been there all the time. She’d actually turned up!’
      ‘What? But why? Why didn’t she just tell him who she really was?’
     Alan shrugged and took a sip of cappuccino which must have long since gone cold, not that any distaste registered upon his fleshy face.
      ‘Wasn’t right in the head,’ he said, licking a bit of froth from his top lip. ‘Apparently, she’d done this kind of thing dozens of times before – masquerading as someone else online, befriending people, telling them she was someone else altogether. But the funny thing was, Greeny kept in contact with her. He wanted to help her out; he still, after everything that’d happened, after she’d made a complete dick out of him, cared deeply for her. Amazing, eh? If it were me, I’d have told her to take a running jump.’


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SNEAK PREVIEW - A ROPE MADE OF SAND

Tuesday, 17 July 2018 / 1 comment


Here's the opening scene from my latest work-in-progress, a novel entitled A Rope Made of Sand.

Log line: A loner with a dark past is made a bizarre offer: pretend to be a rich businessman’s missing friend, adopt his entire persona, go and live under his roof, and receive untold riches.

In recent years, I've got a little bored of being this side of the typewriter all the time, so I've given myself a role in the book, a la Michel Houellbecq in The Map and the Territory or Paul Auster in A City of Glass. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the extract:


1
Even though he was in a hurry, Arthur couldn’t help but notice the well-dressed stranger on the opposite side of the road, pushing past other pedestrians, ducking right and left, clearly looking for a gap in the traffic so he could cross the street. When he made a reckless dash for it, narrowly avoiding a speeding delivery truck, Arthur could tell that he meant to approach him, long before he waved and started to shout:
      “Neil! Neil!”
       For politeness’ sake, Arthur came to a stop, to tell this man that he wasn’t called Neil, that it was a case of mistaken identity, but his manner was so effusive, his words so scattergun, he didn’t get the opportunity.
      “I – I can’t believe it! After all these years, and I bump into Neil Randall by chance.” And he grabbed Arthur and embraced him, hugging him so tightly, Arthur found it difficult to breathe. “I thought you were dead. I never thought I’d see you again.”
      Relinquishing his grip, he took a step back and looked Arthur up and down, as if he was a rare, treasured antiquity.
      “You look great, Rand, you really do. Not aged one bit, still got those boyish good looks, not the hint of grey hair at the temples or suggestion of the old middle age spread.”
      He grinned and playfully jabbed Arthur in the stomach.
     “What a stroke of luck! What a coincidence! I mean, what the hell are you doing here, in a backwater town like this?”
     “Look,” said Arthur, “I’m not who you think I am. My name’s not Neil Randall. I’m not your old friend. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
    The man’s beaming smile momentarily fell in on itself, then he threw back his head and let out such a booming burst of laughter it visibly startled a few passing pensioners.
     “What are you talking about, you old kidder, you?” And he slapped Arthur on the back. “It’s me, Jimmy Howard, you’re talking to now. God, how I’ve missed your sense of humour, that look of pure piss-take incredulity you always used to flash when you were having someone on. Times we used to have, Rand. You haven’t changed at all.”
      “No, seriously,” said Arthur, as sincerely as he possibly could, “I’m not who you think I am. I’m not trying to have you on or anything like that. I guess I just look a lot like your old friend, that’s all.”
      “What?”
     Clearly confused now, he blinked eyes that had a few seconds ago been brimming with joy, as if the possibility of the man standing before him not being who he thought he was had finally started to register.
     “But you – you look just like Neil, you talk just like Neil, you move just like Neil. Christ, you’re the same sort of age, height, build. There’s no possible way you can’t be Neil Randall.”
     “I’m terribly sorry, sir. But my name’s Arthur. I’ve only just moved to the town. I start a new job today. And I – I don’t want to be late, so I really am going to have to go now.”
     Stepping to the side, Arthur made as to walk away.
     “Wait.” Howard grabbed his forearm, halting his progress. “Come on now, Neil, the time for jokes is over. I like a laugh as much as the next guy, but this has gone too far.”
     “Look, sir, like I said, I’m not having you on, or playing a prank or anything like that. Here.” He reached into his inside pocket and pulled out his wallet. “This is my identification card, if you don’t believe me. See. I’m not Neil Randall.”
     Leaning very close, Howard studied the card carefully, intently, as if taking in every detail, every last letter and digit. This went on for so long, Arthur couldn’t help but feel unnerved, worried that he may really, truly be late for his new job, that he’d make an awful impression, that he might even risk getting sacked on his very first day.
     In time, Howard lifted his head and stared hard at Arthur.
    “Then I can only apologise, Mr Ronaldson,” he said. “I’m not a man used to making mistakes. Only it’s uncanny, your resemblance to a very dear old friend of mine, someone I haven’t seen in many a year.” Looking disproportionately upset, close to tears, he took a deep intake of breath and slowly exhaled. “Sorry to have wasted your time.” He bowed his head. “I bid you good day.”    

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A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT - READ SAMPLE FROM NEW NOVEL

Saturday, 10 February 2018 / Leave a Comment


In the last few weeks, I’ve been busy writing a new novel (working title: A Sense of Entitlement). Like my acclaimed mystery thriller Isolation (Crooked Cat Books, 2017) the story is set in the mid-nineties, in and around the Essex fringes of east London. And like Isolation, the protagonist, Pete Monroe, is stuck in a mind-numbing, unfulfilling job, working for an insurance company, a job I myself endured for short period of time, answering the phone all day long, regurgitating a standard sales script, giving out incredibly uncompetitive quotes for home contents’ insurance. His whole life changes when he befriends a homeless man, a man who used to run a nightclub in swinging London, a man full of colourful stories, a man who was betrayed by his wife, tricked into signing everything he owned over to her and her new lover. Determined to help his newfound friend get justice, Pete is drawn into a bizarre, supernatural world where nothing is quite what it seems.
     Ordinarily, I would share the opening chapters with you, to give you a flavour of the story, but am currently engaged in a pretty brutal life and death struggle with the opening sentence (the other 99,986 or so words are pure perfection - well, maybe that’s going a bit far…), so it’s not quite ready for beta reader consumption yet.



Instead, I’ve pasted a short sample from a later chapter of the book, a stand-alone sample about a story Pete reads that has symbolic significance to the plight he finds himself in. To avoid any plot spoilers at this early stage (in a fit a of desperate, insomniac frustration, I could very easily delete the whole manuscript after seventeen straight days of no sleep, staring at the flashing cursor on my monitor, still unable to get the opening line right! – currently a mere fourteen words!), I will elaborate no more, and simply let you enjoy (hopefully) ten or so pages of my current work in progress:

The Dog’s Body
Even now, it feels strange to say that a book (or, more correctly, a short story) saved my life, helped me turn the corner, helped me come to terms with everything that’d happened, ’cause I’d never been much of a reader. The odd music or sporting biography, things gifted to me at Christmas, that was about it. Even the way the book came into my possession was hard to explain. One afternoon, after our exercise period, I returned to my cell to find a thin leather-bound book, no dust-cover, no nothing, resting on top of my pillow. Confused, I picked it up and opened it. A few pages in, there was a list of stories and different authors’ names, one of which had been circled in red Biro – The Dog’s Body by N.A. Randolph. For obvious reasons, that name resonated, making me think that it might have been written by the same Nigel Randolph who disappeared from a mental institute a few years’ back, the very same man who claimed to have fallen victim to The Black Brotherhood.
      Sitting on the bed, I flicked to The Dog’s Body story and started to read.
      From the outset, it was a weird yet compelling tale, written in plain, simple language, with short, concise sentences and very few big words, almost like a children’s book. The story was told from the point of view of a family dog who wakes up one morning in the grips of a debilitating depression. It can’t even look at the tinned dog food its owner scoops into its bowl. The thick pieces of jellified meat, once so tantalizing, appear gross and unappealing. The mere smell of the stuff makes the dog feel nauseous, and he trudges away and slumps down in his basket in the corner of the kitchen.       
      From this lowly vantage point, the dog observes the usual morning pandemonium as the rest of the household wakes up – the shouts up the stairs, padding feet on the landing, the sound of running water, the toilet flushing, the rumble of the boiling kettle, toast popping out of a toaster. The family itself consists of a husband and wife and a young son. A normal, happy functioning unit – the man and woman go to work each day, the son goes to school. Their lives are ordered, regimented almost, and this is perhaps (while not overtly stated) the roots cause of the dog’s malaise, how each morning is exactly the same as the morning that preceded it, how he is expected to play out his designated role – scampering eagerly over to each family member in turn, jumping up, licking hands and faces, getting under feet, being lightly admonished, pushed away, occasionally patted, stroked, hugged. But today, he has not the energy or inclination to participate in the charade. He wants to do nothing more than lie motionless in his basket.
        When it’s time for his morning walk, the dog fails to respond to the father’s calls, his usual breezy cajoling: ‘Come on, Bucky-boy, time for walkies’. In the end, the man has to literally drag Bucky from his basket, snap the lead to his collar, and tug him all the way out of the house. ‘Come on,’ he repeats. ‘Whatever is the matter with you?’     
      Outside it’s a bright, warm spring morning; rays of sun cast a revealing light over the ugly suburban estate, the rows of identical red-bricked houses, well-manicured strips of lawn, shiny hatchback cars parked in each driveway, accentuating the grey, dull ordinariness of the scene. The conformity. For it’s as if each householder is taking the family dog for a walk at exactly the same time. Sing-song greetings are exchanged. The odd car engine rumbles into life. Reluctantly, Bucky allows himself to be pulled along the pavement to a grass verge at the end of the road, where he is expected to perform his daily functions, to expel the waste products from his body. With great effort, Bucky cocks his leg up against the street sign and forces out a reluctant sprinkle of urine. Far from satisfied, the man ducks down and grabs Bucky by the chops. ‘Is that it, Bucky-boy? No number twos? We don’t want any accidents in the house now, do we?’ Due to the strict uniformity of their daily routine, the dog understands exactly what is being asked of him, that this big lumbering skin and bone presence wants him to defecate on request, that he is actually standing over him, almost ordering him to evacuate his bowels. In vague compliance, Bucky assumes the position, crouching, squeezing his eyes shut, and forcing a small, almost apologetic sliver of faecal matter out of his rectum. ‘That-a-boy, Bucky,’ says the man, with an absurd degree of enthusiasm, as if Bucky has just done something worthy of the highest praise. Ducking down, with an old Tesco carrier bag covering his hand, the man scoops up the freshly laid dog turd, deftly fastens the bag up, with a neat bow at the top, and walks both it and Bucky over to the dog bin on the corner. ‘Come on, Bucky,’ he says, after dropping the package inside the bin, ‘let’s get you home’.
       When the family finally leave for the day, Bucky returns to his basket. Such is the depth of his depression, he can barely muster the energy to swat away at the multitude of flies that land on his snout, body, hind legs. He can feel the delicate, ticklish tread of many tiny feet, but is indifferent to something that would’ve normally driven him to distraction, seen him jump up, shake his coat, head, wag his tail in a frenzy, do anything to startle the flies away. It’s as if his spirit has already left his body, as if he’s nothing more than a living corpse now.
     A little later, Bucky rises from his basket and ambles through to the front room. At the back of the house, there’s an improvised cat-flap at the bottom of some French doors, allowing him to come and go as he pleases, allowing him to relieve himself in the back garden. Ordinarily, at this hour, Bucky would go outside and root around the abundant flowerbeds, he would chase after birds and squirrels, bark at the far-off sound of voices, cars, other dogs from other houses in other back gardens, doing exactly the same thing that he was doing now. When the postman delivers the morning mail, he would usually dash back through to the front of the house, and snap and snarl at the letters deposited. But not even the creaky sound of the letterbox opening and swinging shut can rouse his interest.
      Going back through to the kitchen, he sniffs at the untouched bowl of dog food but still feels no appetite whatsoever. He laps half-heartedly at the fresh water his owner put down for him before leaving the house, but even in these increasingly hot, humid conditions, he has little or no interest in hydrating himself. Slumping back down in his basket, he falls into a fitful sleep.
       At the usual time, the front door clatters open. Excited voices and tramping feet sound down the hallway. A moment later, the young boy bounds into the kitchen, making a beeline for Bucky’s basket. ‘Hello there, Bucky-boy.’ He jumps all over Bucky, stroking and tickling him, burying his face into the dog’s familiar furry coat. But it soon becomes apparent that Bucky isn’t interested in playing this afternoon. He just lies there limply, blinking his sad watery eyes. This confuses the boy. It upsets the natural equilibrium of his day. Playing with Bucky after school is a regular thing, part of his routine. When he tries again, when he attempts to engage Bucky in a play-fight, like so many times before, the dog only whimpers pitifully and pulls away. He resents the boy’s efforts. He doesn’t want to be a clown for these people anymore. He doesn’t want to roll over onto his back and have his tummy tickled, he doesn’t want to have to sit down and get back up again, sit down and get back up again, he doesn’t want to run and collect a stupid rubber ball, or wrestle around on the floor. When this finally registers, the boy calls out to his parents. ‘Mum, dad, there’s something wrong with Bucky’. When they come and investigate, they see the untouched food and water and exchange a worried glance. ‘What’s wrong with him, dad?’ ‘Oh, he’s just a bit off colour, son. I’m sure he’ll snap out of it.’
       Later that evening, when the boy offers him food from the dinner table, chunks of prime meat glistening in rich gravy, the dog refuses it, turns and walks away. ‘Why isn’t Bucky hungry, mum? He always likes to share a bit of my tea. I always give him a little treat.’ ‘I’m not sure, love. But if he doesn’t perk up soon, we’ll have to get him checked out at the vets.’
     But the dog is exactly the same the following day and the day after that. He shows no appetite for food or water. He is ponderous and lethargic. He barely responds to the calling of his name. ‘Why don’t we take him down the park, dad?’ says the boy, hopefully. ‘Maybe a bit of fresh air will do him good.’
       While not particularly keen, the father agrees, wanting to do anything to cheer his son up, to allay his fears. But it’s a real struggle to get Bucky to leave the house again, let alone put in the requisite effort to walk to the park. What would normally have been a two, three-minute stroll full of excited chatter and the bouncing of balls, takes close to a quarter of an hour of tugging and pulling, stopping and starting, moaning and pleading, prodding and poking. ‘Come on, Bucky, pull yourself together’. In the end, the father has to pick Bucky up and carry him the rest of the way. But his exertions are wasted. For when he puts the dog down on the grass in the park, he is completely non-responsive. He ignores the other dogs dashing around him. Even when they approach, he displays such disinterest they quickly lose interest in him. There’s none of the usual sniffing and tail-wagging, the playful barking, the darting little runs, the expulsion of that mad doggy canine energy that is so endearing. ‘He’s clearly not right,’ father says to son as they walk home. ‘Maybe he’s eaten something that hasn’t agreed with him’.
       Next day, the family take the dog to the local vet’s. After a routine examination, the vet can find nothing physically wrong with him. ‘He’s in perfectly good working order,’ he says. ‘That being the case, I feel that he may be suffering from a psychological disorder of some kind. Have you just moved house? Were there any other family pets that may’ve passed away recently? Anything that might’ve impacted upon the dog?’ ‘No,’ says the father. ‘Nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Bucky used to be such a lively, happy dog. One morning, when we woke up, he just didn’t seem to be interested in anything anymore, as if he’d had all the spirit drained from him’. ‘Okay, I understand,’ says the vet. ‘If this behaviour persists, we’ll have to perform some more stringent tests’.
      Nothing changes. The dog is still morose and lethargic. To all intents and purposes, it looks as if he has completely given up on life. He can’t summon the strength or enthusiasm to clamber out of his basket, to eat or drink. It gets to the stage where they can no longer persuade him to leave the house, where he just lays around all day, where he urinates and defecates indoors. Unwilling to pay another hefty vet’s bill, in what they now see as a hopeless case, the family decides to house Bucky outside. ‘We can’t have him inside if all he’s going to do is wee and pooh all over the place, love,’ mother tries to explain to son. ‘So your dad’s going to build him his own little kennel in the garden. Perhaps it might be the ideal tonic. Perhaps being outside might help him get back to his old self’.
     That Saturday, the father builds the kennel. A skilled weekend carpenter, he takes real pride in his work, constructing a fine spacious dog house from the finest materials. The whole family join in, handing him different tools, making him cups of tea, helping him hammer in the last remaining nails. When the main structure is complete, the boy brings Bucky’s basket and food and water bowls out from the house and places them inside, making it the perfect little home.
     But this alteration to his living arrangements has negligible, if any effect. The dog’s behaviour remains unchanged. He still spends whole days curled up in his basket, only inside the kennel now rather than the house. By this time, Bucky has lost a considerable amount of weight; his ribcage protrudes through a once shiny coat that has now started to moult. A horrible smell of decay, of rotting from the inside out now pervade, not just the kennel, but the whole patio area, the neatly tended back garden space, with the wooden table and chairs, gas barbeque, the small landscaped pond, home to four impressive coy carp.
     The family don’t know what to do; so they do nothing. Each morning, they go to work and school respectively. Each evening, they cook and prepare their main meal, watch television, go to bed, and then repeat the process the following day.
     Unbeknown to them, however, something sinister is now afoot in the garden. Everyday, after they leave the house, a grey squirrel, an unrepentant scavenger known to plunder seed from family’s bird feeders, once a sworn enemy of the old, rambunctious Bucky, has become increasingly drawn to the new kennel. No doubt attracted by the smell of decay, of impending death, the squirrel has taken to creeping over and ducking its head inside, going so far as to prod the slumbering, barely breathing Bucky with its claws, testing the fading canine out, trying to get a reaction. In the past, the dog would chase the parasite out of the garden, barking, growling, attempting to clamber up trees to get at his adversary, but now he is not even a shadow of his former self, and the scavenger intends to take full advantage of this.
     A week after the kennel was erected, on a rare occasion when Bucky drags himself outside, the squirrel strikes. Leaping down from a tree branch, it attacks the dog, using its sharp claws to slash Bucky’s throat, to incapacitate him, sending him slumping down wheezing on his side, choking on his own blood. With a surgeon’s precision, the squirrel proceeds to completely eviscerate Bucky, tearing him to pieces, scooping out and feasting upon his major organs, draining his blood, tearing at the soft flesh around its haunches, greedily gnawing away at the prime meat, until all that is left is a fur and bone shell.
      When the boy comes home from school, he dashes outside to find the twisted remains of Bucky’s body, the patio awash with blood. He screams. ‘Mum, dad, Bucky’s been…’ Hearing the distress in their son’s voice, the parents rush out of the house. ‘My God!’ cries the mother. ‘Will, please,’ she says to her husband. ‘Cover it up. Get rid of it.’ ‘Rid of it,’ he repeats, confused, shocked, put out, knowing how much effort it will take to jet-wash the blood from the patio. ‘The body, the dog’s body. We can’t just leave it there, can we?’ ‘Erm, yes, of course’.
      While mother cuddles son, whispering soft, practised words of reassurance, the father digs an old hessian sack out of the garage, and with the aid of a spade, shovels what remains of Bucky’s body inside.
     After much debate, he decides to dump the body in the woodland surrounding the local park. ‘It’s the best way,’ he says, ‘hand’s-free, will save us the hassle of having to dig a big hole in the garden’. To be safe, he waits until its dark before leaving the house with the sack. But no sooner has he dumped the body deep in the woods than he hears a rustling noise in the undergrowth, panting, scampering feet, which startles him halfway out of his wits. And although her pretends he hasn’t heard anything, although he moves swiftly away, his flashlight bobbing up and down in the darkness, he knows that an animal, maybe a badger attracted to carrion, has pounced upon Bucky’s corpse, and is now stripping the remaining flesh from the dog’s body.
       When he gets back to the house, he goes upstairs to his son’s bedroom. Still distressed, the boy is laid out on his bed, sniffing and sobbing. The father perches himself on the edge of the mattress and brushes a few stray hairs from his son’s face. ‘It was the most sensible thing to do,’ he says, wanting to both comfort the boy and teach him a valuable lesson about life. ‘- dumping the body in the woods like that. It’s nature, Ronnie. Big things prey on little things. It’s part of the food chain. I know it sounds horrible, but that’s just the way the world works.’
      And that was it – the story ended.
      For days, I didn’t really know what to make of what I’d read. I didn’t know why someone had left the book on my bed even, and why they had circled that story in particular. I mean, it could’ve been a coincidence, that another inmate might’ve simply tossed an unwanted book into my cell, and that the Dog’s Body story had been circled by someone else, maybe the book’s original owner, for completely unrelated purposes. But the more I thought about it, the more I sensed that this story had been left there for a specific reason, that it symbolized the struggles that I was going to have to endure, that I was, to all intents and purposes, a dog trapped in a literal prison-like routine, that the other inmates represented that grey squirrel waiting to pounce should I show ultimate weakness. For that, and many other reasons – my growing attachment to Alice, my hopes and dreams for the future – I resolved to get my head down, to never show such weakness, to go about my daily duties with as much zeal and enthusiasm as I could muster.
      And it nearly worked. 

If you enjoyed this sample, and are keen to read more of my work (but are unable to wait for me to get my thumb out of my arse and get that opening line right), why not head over to my amazon page and check out my published work to date:





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THOUGHTS ON WRITING THOSE BIG SCENES

Saturday, 20 January 2018 / Leave a Comment


New Year. New Novel. First drafts can be quite a slog after three weeks of writing anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 words a day, when you know all you’re doing is putting in the essential groundwork before polishing and refining the story, before the real writing begins, before the novel really starts to take shape. But it is perhaps, day by day, the manner in which those big important scenes remain in early draft form that is the most frustrating part of the process, how a writer knows they will have to return time and again, how they will have go over individual words, sentences and paragraphs on umpteenth separate occasions until getting things just right.
      

Whenever I have to leave a big scene unfinished, no more than an outline, I think of all the great scenes from my favourite books and wonder how much rewriting went in to making them so powerful, effective, thought-provoking. For instance, I remember a brutal, harrowing scene from Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a story relayed by an old man about Japanese soldiers on a covert mission in China, how they are captured by a Mongolian detachment led by a sadistic Soviet officer. When one of the Japanese soldier’s refuses to cooperate, the officer gives orders for one of the Mongolians to skin him alive. It’s a hard read. Each incision, grimace, agonized scream relayed with such clinical clarity, it’s as if the reader is witnessing the barbaric horror first hand. A scene which stays with you long after you have finished the book.



Or the famous scene from Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum where the protagonist Oskar goes to the beach with his family. On a nearby rock, they see a man holding a thick rope out to sea, like a fishing line. Suddenly, he leaps up and begins to haul the rope in, pulling a horse’s head out of the water, full of wriggling eels trying to eat the remaining flesh on the skull from the inside out. The man starts to pull the eels out of the horse’s head from the mouth, through the nose, through the ears and stuffs them inside a sack. Horrified, Oskar’s mother (along with many a reader over the years) drops to her knees and vomits. Again: a scene that lingers long in the memory.





Or the poignant, symbolic scene from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea when the luckless old fisherman, after hours of struggle, eventually lands the giant Marlin, hauling it in and fastening it the side of his boat, only for it to be attacked by sharks. No matter how hard the old man tries to fight the sharks off, battering them with oars, they still manage to tear off the choicest parts of the Marlin. This particular scene always resonated with me, for I see it as hugely symbolic of life itself, how a person can work hard for decades, struggle, scrimp and save, and still have nothing to show for it in the end, how there will always be some merciless predatory bastards hellbent on taking everything from you, and by whatever means.



But perhaps a scene that made the biggest impression on me can be found in Jean Paul Satre’s novel The Age of Reason. While best known for his philosophical works, Satre’s Road’s to Freedom trilogy set in and around the Second World War is incredibly accomplished, compelling work of fiction. In the scene in question, disabled patients at a hospital in Paris are being evacuated from the capital by train. Two patients, both crippled, a man and a woman, end up on stretchers in the same carriage. As the train shunts off from the station, they strike up a charming conversation, build up a rapport, there is a hint of romance in the air, that perhaps they will see each other again when they arrive at their destination, that something good and beautiful might come out of the grimmest and most unlikely of situations. But when the train grinds to a halt due to a damaged section of rail, the two characters are left unattended for hours. As time passes, they become increasingly desperate to relieve themselves. Seen from the point of view of the man, the tension builds up, an excruciating internal dialogue plays out in his head, where he is willing his body not to let him down, to embarrass him. Vividly he pictures how ashamed he would be if he soiled himself in front of the young lady who has made such a pleasant impression on him, awakening things he thought long since dormant. Just as he feels he cannot control his bodily functions any longer, he hears an anguished sob. A moment later, the horrible, unmistakable stench of faeces starts to waft around the carriage. The young woman could hold out no longer. I like this scene because it encapsulates both a lofty sense of humanity, two people randomly meeting, potential romance, intimacy, with our physical limitations, the way circumstance can render us helpless as a new born baby, how the inexorable march of history, fate, can trigger a global conflict, can kill, maim and displace many millions of people, as if they are no more than pieces on a chessboard in a perpetual state of imminent checkmate.



Not to jinx things, I won’t tell you anything about the new novel that is taking shape each day, or any of the big scenes I’m so looking forward to working on in earnest in the coming weeks and months. If you can’t wait till then, why not check out my amazon page for all my published work to date:




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FRAGMENT - LITTLE GIRL LOST

Monday, 13 November 2017 / Leave a Comment

1. Little Girl Lost

Arthur 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 slowly been 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.
      Arthur 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 but still can’t find her parents.
      Increasingly distressed, she approaches a slightly older boy stood 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 one minute they were there, the next minute they were gone. 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 Arthur, a subtlety, be it 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.

2. Arthur
Arthur had often been mistaken for somebody else. Most memorably, the time a grizzled war veteran approached him at a supermarket, open-armed, convinced that they’d served in the same regiment, that Arthur had saved his life in the field, even though Arthur had pacifist leanings and would never have dreamed of enlisting in the armed forces. Or the time a glamorous, hugely desirable young woman claimed that Arthur had given her the most amazing sex of her life during a one-night stand in a city Arthur had never once visited. Or the day an irate stockbroker accosted Arthur in a lift, accusing him of swindling him out of a fortune in an insurance scam that took place when Arthur was still in junior school. Or, just before Arthur’s sister went missing, the time a young boy had taken his hand at a pedestrian crossing and insisted that he was his long-lost father, and when Arthur tried to dispute his claims, to explain that it was a case of mistaken identity, the boy produced a crumpled old photograph of a man cradling a baby in his arms, a man who resembled Arthur so incredibly closely it could’ve been his twin.
     Having seen the signs so many times, therefore, Arthur could tell that the well-dressed stranger crossing the street that day meant to approach him, long before he waved and started to shout:
       “Neil, Neil!”

3. Vasily Ronzakov – Spiritual Conduit
“Last year I think it was,” said Evans, reaching for his glass, “I read your piece in The Evergreen, the essay on crime writing, you know, missing persons, how it’s all a metaphor for our struggle to understand our own mortality, people dying, loss, bereavement. Or a broken heart, the end of a relationship.” He drained the last of his beer. “How did you put it? – ‘Life’s beautiful, melancholy uncertainties’.
     “And it got me thinking, about how much I used to love all those Agatha Christie novels when I was growing up, and later, Raymond Chandler, and how I didn’t really appreciate the subtleties involved, what I was actually reading. Yeah. It was a great piece of writing – your article, I mean. And” – Evans shot Arthur a quick, anxious glance – “and well, it got me thinking about your sister.”
     Arthur gave a start. He rarely if ever talked about Lorraine, her disappearance, and the years of uncertainty that followed.
      “I’m sorry,” said Evans. “I didn’t mean to stir up any bad memories. Only I was around the city the time she went missing. We were friends.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a shiny embossed business card. “And I know this will sound pretty random but a cousin of mine lost her husband recently, was in pieces, distraught, suicidal almost. And she ended up going to see this guy.” He handed Arthur the card. “And trust me, he’s not a crackpot, whether you’re a believer or a cynic, he helps people come to terms with their loss.”
      Arthur looked at the name on the card: Vasily Ronzakov, Spiritual Conduit.
      “What is he? Some kind of clairvoyant?”
      “No, no, he goes much deeper than that, the man is a spiritualist, a prophet, like an oracle. When I heard about what he did for Anne I read some of his pamphlets, and was so impressed I signed him for the Agency. His first book is out next week. And I know how close you were to Lorraine, maybe he’s somebody you should talk to.”

4. The Visitation
I walk into a room, like a waiting-room – narrow, low-ceilinged, beige-walled. To my right is a shiny leather sofa (maybe a Chesterfield), to the left a mahogany desk, with two chairs either side of it. On the desk are a telephone and two framed photographs, facing the other way around, so I can’t see them. Across the room, up two thickly-carpeted steps is an adjoining room, much bigger, with a higher ceiling.
      I walk towards the steps.
       Inside the other room, just visible, two young children, boys in matching sailor suits, are playing with toy train sets and teddy bears – but they pay me little or no attention, so I pay them little or no attention in return.
       I climb the steps.
      In the centre of the room is a light-coloured coffin. Beside the coffin sits an aged, weary-looking Labrador, our old beloved family dog, Jim. As I approach the coffin, he raises his head and looks at me with big mournful watery eyes, but is too weak to move, even though I sense he’s desperate for some affection. Repressing the impulse to kneel and stroke the dog, I look inside the coffin. Lying there is Lorraine, dressed in a strange black and purple gown, her face heavily made-up in the same shades, around the eyes and mouth, mascara and lipstick. Suddenly she stirs, opens her eyes and stares right at me.

       “I’m so sorry, Arthur,” she speaks softly. “I just wasn’t made for this world. I had to go. There was no other way. I was far too Chekhovian.”   

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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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CHARACTERIZATION; THE LEGEND OF HUGGY BEAR

Tuesday, 6 June 2017 / Leave a Comment


My forthcoming novel The Girl in the Empty Room was originally entitled The Damage Done, in reference to the famous Neil Young song The Needle and the Damage Done


It was name-checked in a chapter later cut from the book (hence the change of title). In the edited scene (pasted below), one of the main characters from the novel, a conflicted, deeply unhappy young woman, listens to a cover version of the song:

Lighting the joint, she got up and walked over to the stereo. Her favourite Laura Marling album was still in the CD player. She hit the play button, and what must've been random at the same time, as The Needle and the Damage Done started first, not the opening track. Still standing, Jacqueline took a long draw on the joint, holding the smoke in for as long as she could. I heard you knocking on the cellar door, hey baby can I have some more. She closed her eyes, her mind wandering back to the time she played the record for a bloke she'd picked up in town, Ray, the journalist or writer or whatever. Cringing inside, she remembered how stupid she felt when he told her the song was a Neil Young cover. No, no, this is Laura Marling, she argued, and felt like such a dick when she checked the album sleeve and discovered that he was right. It was as if she didn't know anything about life or music, about anything that was important to her. And after he left next morning, and she looked back over the last seven or eight years, she knew she hadn't done anything of any worth, never had a proper job – half a summer in a local pub before she fell pregnant with the twins. And what was probably worse, she couldn't see anything new, different or exciting happening in her life for at least the next ten years, when the twins would be getting ready to leave school. And ten years seemed like a lifetime. By then she'd be approaching forty, middle age, and she knew she'd have so many regrets, that she'd look back on her life, and realize she hadn't achieved anything, that her best years had been wasted, spent staring at these four ugly walls. And this really, really scared her.

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in the impact big emotional turmoil can have on people, how one tragic event can go on to define a person’s life, be it the death of a loved one, parents’ divorcing (as in Jacqueline’s case in the novel), an accident or illness, bankruptcy or drink and drug abuse. No matter how hard they try to escape they will always be trapped by the past. With the Jacqueline character in The Girl in the Empty Room, I wanted to try and depict an individual struggling to shake the same shackles – hard done by, unlucky in love, a single mum with an over reliance on drink and drugs –stuck in that one moment when her parents’ divorced and everything changed, something she could never forgive them for. I wanted to portray her as someone having the same argument over and over again, no matter what situation she found herself in, or whose company, even though the original discussion took place over a decade ago.

When I was outlining the novel, sketching out notes on the main characters, I was reminded of something from my own past. When I was growing up, we had a family dog, a Yorkshire Terrier called Huggy Bear (a nod to Starsky and Hutch). Even when he was just a puppy the Bear was a real showman, a crowd pleaser with oodles of personality and charm. Whenever we took him out for walks on the beach or cliff tops near where we lived, he’d scamper over to passing holidaymakers or day-trippers, roll onto his back, encouraging them to scratch his belly. But he was a brave little fucker, too. Many a time, he’d face off and scare the shit out of hulking Alsatians, Boxers or Dobermans. A real ankle-biter, he would never back down. When my father decided to keep chickens, the Bear had some legendary scraps with a brutal cockerel, fur and feathers sent flying high into the air. I loved that dog. He never knew when he was beaten.



There was one odd quirk about him, though – away from his various canine Walter Mitty-isms. I can’t quite remember when or how it came about, but whenever the postman delivered the morning mail, the Bear would savage the letters deposited before they’d even hit the mat. We couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t work out why he’d all of sudden developed such hatred for the post. It became a real pain in the arse. I personally lost letters from pen pals, and a pretty sweet Indiana Jones poster won in a Smith’s crisps competition. It wasn’t until years later (literally) that we finally got to the bottom of things. One morning, I happened to walk through from the kitchen to see the postman tapping on the front room window, bouncing from foot to foot, pulling funny faces, sticking up his fingers, mocking the Bear through the glass, teasing him into a frenzy. Hence, when the letters dropped onto the mat, he tore them to pieces.

No matter how hard we tried to rehabilitate him, that behavioural pattern remained. The teasing he endured at the hands of that bastard postman had shaped him forever more, scarring him for life. No matter which house we moved to, he never snapped out of it. And while his was the mind of a beast, I often see parallels in the behavioral patterns of people. I see the way a failed relationship, an infidelity or domestic violence can scar them, making them mistrustful of others. I see how bullying and teasing can force a person so far back into their shell they’ve no hope of emerging ever again. I see the no less devastating consequences of overbearing parents, or siblings given preferential treatment, things which shape and misshape, distort and transform, things carried into adult life that were engendered in us before we even had basic human cognizance. The damage done indeed. And it makes me wonder why any of us bother leaving the womb.

The Girl in the Empty Room is now available to pre-order. Simply click on the link below:




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