Things That Happened On The Way To Somewhere Else

(some good and bad things that happened sometimes by accident)

A Horrible Story I Do Not Remember Writing

It was absurd, of course it was absurd to dress for dinner when they were only two in such a grand house, but they had been married such a little time and living here even shorter, and it was such a novelty. Almost like a game between them, between two children, to be formal. Almost a game for George to offer Lydia his arm as they walked before supper, for George to pour Lydia’s wine and for them to smile at each other under lowered lids and across the partridges and the syllabub. Cook was a good cook, a village cook who had been here in the time of their predecessors (the village people had not liked them; they were, Lydia believed, of Spanish extraction). But the cook was well-used to grand dinners, and Lydia and George had garnered a taste for gourmet dinners on their honeymoon in Paris.

 

Paris had been lovely, but they had always been coming back here, Lydia thought.

 

Lydia had seen the house from a train as a teen-age girl coming home from school, and she had always loved it.

 

George had been brought up in the city, and Lydia had been at school in little sea-side towns for her health. They said she was weak, but that was nonsense, really. By the time she was finished with school she had played hockey and lacrosse and her lungs were strong enough for both and to sing. It was her singing that had attracted George in the first place;  he was the friend of Arnold Marryat, Emily Marryat’s, and Lydia had gone to stay with the Marryats in London for two weeks in Easter, and George had been there, too. Of course, Lydia loved George from the minute she saw him, for he was tall, and handsome, and undeniably male, and Lydia was at a rather exclusive girls’ school on the coast and knew none. Emily Marryat had begged Lydia to sing after supper, and she had; she had a good voice, and she didn’t mind showing it off. And she sung, quite by chance, a song that George’s mother used to sing, and George looked at the little friend of his friend’s sister, and fell in love. Lydia had finished her final year of schooling, and after that, they were married, and Lydia wore white and carried orange-blossom, and she was the most beautiful thing George had ever seen.

 

And one day, when they were lazily entwined in a few stolen moments alone together, before they were married, in the garden of Lady Rackham’s Mayfair house, Lydia had told George about the house, The House from the train. Tall and white, not too big, not too small, with acres of green around it and neighbours not too far and not too close, not too far from London, but not too close, not suburbs but real actual countryside.

 

And George had found it for her, like something from a story. Because George wanted her to be happy, and George had found her the house, and it was perfect. The house was absolutely perfect, and more than that, it felt right in a way neither of them could put their finger on. It was home, and though they could not afford to engage more staff than the cook, and two garden boys to keep up the outside, and two chars to come every day, they would do it all, and it would be fine. It would, George had said, shyly, be a fine place to raise the children, some day, and Lydia had felt her heart almost skip for joy that they would be married, and have children, her and George.

 

Lydia finished brushing her hair, and coiled it across her head, little loose tendrils falling just across her shoulders, the bare places left by her dress that George liked. She remembered..but no. She giggled a little, turned to look at herself over her shoulder. The light was autumn sunshine through the window, onto the bedspread and catching in her hair. She looked lovely, and she thought how lovely it was to look lovely, and to be married to George in THE house, and to have everything waiting. They would walk a little in the grounds before dinner- she had new kid gloves, and an autumn coat in the latest cut of light tweed.

 

She held two lipsticks out at arm’s length, deliberating. She decided on the peach.

 

There came, quite suddenly, a scream.

 

Lydia dropped the lipstick.

 

It was a scream like a child, a scream like something in pain.

 

It was scream that was too terrible to ignore, and yet, too frightening to go and see who had made it, and who it was in pain.

 

Lydia dropped the lipstick in the sound and it fell into silence, and it rolled, slowly, across the floor and stopped against the bed, and only then did Lydia gather her skirts and run, run as fast as she could towards her husband’s bedroom, and she did not want to think about what she thought she would find.

 

George was gone.

 

His suit sprawled like a body across the floor, almost but not quite intact, the sleeve a little torn, the lining fraying, as if someone had bitten into it.

 

His boots were there, and his cravat, and his gloves, and his overcoat.

 

And his pipe…oh god, his pipe, spilling hot ash onto the tiger skin George so loved, the fine little hairs smouldering and igniting…. She must stamp it out. She must not let the rug catch. She took two steps towards the pipe on the rug. They were quick steps, hard steps, faster than Lydia usually walked, and as she stepped something MOVED behind the dressing table. She was certain of it. Something moved.

 

With some courage she had never met before she brought her foot down hard on the sparks, crushing them to make sure it was out, and then she stepped back to the door, watching the dressing table. George was gone, and something moved behind the dressing table. Lydia wanted to catch someone’s hand, tell them to fix it, to find George, but there was nobody in the house. There was Cook, but she was two floors down, and the bell-pull (God, the bell-pull!) hung over the dressing table, and Lydia would not and could not touch it. Something had moved there, and Lydia tried to place the sound. A soft sound. A sound like two damped piano strings sliding over and over each other, like felt, perhaps. A soft sound, but a sound, and a horrid sound, a sound like a soundless thing walking. A soundless thing hiding, and turning, and watching her. There was a thing behind the dressing table, and George was gone.

 

Lydia stood ramrod straight, and she didn’t want to touch a thing. Her arms stiff by her sides, and her heels together, and she thought of the deportment classes she had taken at school, how proud they would be.

 

She stood stock still, and the thing behind the dressing table moved, again; she heard the noise again. Longer this time. As if, perhaps, it thought that she had gone, the thing behind the dressing table.

 

This time it sounded still like felts, piano felts, but like hair, too; like the sound of a brush through hair and the strange almost high-pitched rustling that hair makes when one runs fingers through it. It sounded like felt, and like hair, and the noise was longer, sustained; it was moving about, in the dark.

 

The noise had stopped, and there was nothing, and nobody, and George was gone; there was nobody except Lydia and the thing behind the dressing table.

 

Lydia said, into the silence, in a voice that was strong and clear and firm, “What have you done with my husband?”

 

And something came at her.

 

Something from behind the dressing table.

 

Something like a mass of hair, and felt, and a blur of black, something moving fast and dark and at her, and for her.

 

And Lydia fled, and she slammed the door shut behind her. She could feel it pressing against the door, trying to get out, trying to get her.

 

“Mrs Bunch!” she called, “Mrs Bunch!”

 

But nobody came. She called at the top of her voice, and nobody came, and she leaned all her weight against the door, and the thing from behind the dressing table battered, and battered, and battered, beat and beat and beat like the tide, over and over.

 

It seemed, after an eternity, to tire a little, its beats less strong and Lydia’s arms were black and blue with bruises, and she felt she might move her arm and lock the door. She twisted the key in the lock. It was a good strong lock, and she thought it would hold. And Lydia turned, and went downstairs. There was nobody downstairs.

 

Mrs Bunch was gone, and dinner was prepared in the kitchen, the souffle high as if it had been taken from the oven seconds before.

 

But she was not there.

 

Lydia was alone, and Mrs. Bunch and George were gone.

 

She stood, and stared at the souffle.

 

She must keep calm, and she must keep cool.

 

It was really most astonishing how calm she could be.

 

She heard footsteps behind her, and she wheeled on her heel.

 

“Whatever’s the matter, Mrs Harmon?”

 

“Mrs. Bunch!”

 

She could not explain it. She could not.

 

“I thought- Mrs. Bunch- there is a- a- a- George is missing. Mr Harmon has disappeared- there is-“

 

Oh, how to do this? How to say it, how to keep things sane and real and true?

 

“There is a thing in Mr. Harmon’s room that has probably killed him, and it tried to kill me.”

 

“Mrs. Harmon?!”

 

“I don’t- I don’t- I don’t exactly know- Mr Harmon is missing-“

 

Mrs. Bunch and Lydia looked at each other, and Lydia saw in her eyes a clean sweep of terror and herself drawn small in the centre, the black of the pupil.

 

“Something- something- killed Mr Harmon?” said Mrs. Bunch.

 

“Something killed Mr Harmon, or took him away,” said Lydia, “Mr Harmon is gone.”

 

She said it for the seventh time, and then the tears came, like she had not cried since she was a little child saying goodbye to her father at the station for the first time, and Mrs. Bunch held her as she cried.

 

She cried for twenty minutes by the kitchen clock, and then she dried her eyes, and sat at the kitchen table.

 

“We must telephone for the police,” said Lydia.

 

The police came, and Lydia showed them the locked door, and she told them why it was locked.

 

“Tell me about this thing,” said the policemen. There were four of them.

 

Lydia took a deep breath.

 

“It was dark,” she said. “Like an ink stain, like a pencil smudge. It was a blur, because it was moving quickly, and it came for my throat. It had teeth, I think.”

 

Her voice was clear, and sensible, but the policeman was not writing any of it down.

 

“It was like a semi-circle, a semi-sphere, and it sounded like felt rubbing against each other, and it had legs, or protrusions, because I heard it walk, and they brushed against each other. And it killed or took my husband.”

 

The policeman had not written any of it down.

 

“Give her a brandy,” he said, kindly, to Mrs Bunch. “She’s had a shock, no doubt.”

 

Privately, in his head, he believed that with no body, George Harmon was unlikely to be dead. Gambling debt, most likely, for Mrs. Harmon was a fine woman. But without unlocking the door they could do nothing.

 

Mrs Bunch took Lydia downstairs, and Lydia would not touch the brandy, and they waited, in the kitchen.

 

From upstairs, there came a long scream, like a child’s scream, and Lydia ran, again, without hesitation.

 

She found three of the four policemen on the floor; the fourth nowhere to be seen. They were like rugby players, and they twisted on the floor as if they were covering with themselves something that moved and wanted to be free of them.

 

“You- miss- get help,” called one, and the other simply, “help!”. The third said nothing.

 

Lydia rang for more policemen, and they came.

 

The third policeman was dead by the time the back-up policemen got there, but they got the thing into a cage in the end.

 

Lydia looked at it through the bars, and it chattered its tiny teeth at her.

 

It was- and this explained so much, so much of why George had been wearing gloves and coat and cravat, but nothing on his head- a bowler hat, a perfect bowler hat of a creature, with six moustached legs, and little eyes like a shark.

 

The policemen took it away.

 

Lydia was asked- ordered- to say nothing to anyone.

 

Lydia cried in the kitchen, and Mrs. Bunch took her home with her, to sleep in a house that wasn’t THE house. The house of dreams.

 

Lydia stayed there for two weeks while the police investigated, and every night she dreamed of George.

 

They pronounced the house safe after two weeks, but Lydia never went back, and they never found a trace of George, and Lydia heard nothing of the creature.

 

She knew she had not dreamed it.

 

They declared George legally dead, and Lydia knew that he was, without doubt. She felt it in her heart, and her very being.

 

Lydia went back to the city, where Emily Marryat took her under her wing again. She wore black, and every night she dreamed of George, and the way he had smiled and taken her arm.

 

One day she woke up and she could not remember his face exactly, and nothing, not even the moment when that thing from behind the dressing table had flown at her, had been more dreadful.

 

She spent long evenings with Arnold Marryat, talking about George. She was the most composed woman Arnold had ever met, and he told her stories about George’s school days, and he could see, so very clearly, why George had loved this girl, this woman, and he had never suspected that Emily’s little friend Lydia could be anything like so fascinating and so tragic. One evening he told her a story about something George had done at school- some silly tale about a housemaster’s hat- and she burst, suddenly, into tears, helpless, uncontrollable tears, and Arnold found himself taking her into his arms, stroking her back, soothing her, and then, to his surprise, kissing her mouth and holding her tight against him until the shoulder of his shirt was quite drenched.

 

They did not speak of the kiss again, but the conversation became, over the days, and weeks, and months, less about George, and more about other things they both knew, and loved. About fresh air, and sport, and the novels of Dickens; about Chinese lacquered boxes and the latest scandal. And Lydia found herself laughing, and Arnold Marryat’s hand was on her knee, and Emily Marryat was pretending not to look. Arnold took her to dinner, and to the theatre, to comic pieces and the musical evenings, and Lydia found herself laughing, and remembering how he had kissed her that one evening and hoping that perhaps he would do it again.

 

She was still dreaming about George. Every night, the same, and she woke up trying to remember his face, and failing, like sand slipping through her fingers.

 

She could not remember his face, and worse, she could not reconcile her desire to remember his face with her desire for Arnold to kiss her again; it seemed almost betrayal. It was betrayal.

 

One afternoon she took a nap, and she dreamed about George. His face was perfect, and he was younger, a year or so younger than he had been when they met, and he smiled at her in that George way he had, the way he had smiled at her under his eyelids and over the souffle. He smiled, and it broke her heart, and lifted it all at once.

 

She woke, and the autumn sun was falling through the window onto the coverlet. Arnold took her to dinner, and he asked her to marry him, and she said yes, and she said it gladly, on two conditions: that he would never wear a bowler hat, or sport a moustache.

 

It was just a whim, she said, and he agreed, and he did it gladly.

 

They were married quietly, two and a half years after George had disappeared.

 

Three and a half years after George had disappeared Lydia had a little boy, and they called him Harmon Marryat, after George Harmon, whom they had loved, and whom they remembered.

 

They lived in a house in Kensington, and it was perfect for them, not too big, not too small. It became known that there, the Marryats would not receive gentlemen with moustaches or bowler hats, and among their friends, it was accepted. Lydia Marryat had had a shock, after all.

 

In the house in Kensington they had many friends, and after Harmon two little girls, and a little boy, and Lydia was happy.

 

She rarely thought about the house she had loved for so long; it had been a house of childhood, and of games, and then the monsters had come, and spoiled it, the way they do, in dreams.

 

Sometimes she woke with nightmares, and Arnold pulled her against him, and she was soothed by his lips on her forehead and hands on her back.

 

This was Lydia grown-up, then; this was a grown-up love, and it was good.

 

Every autumn they went together to put flowers in front of the tablet that marked his passing, because Arnold had loved him, too, and on the way home he held her hand in his, and she looked up at him and smiled, because it was not so difficult to reconcile loving him, with having loved George, once upon a time, in a little dream, in the sweetest of all little dreams.

 

THE END

 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

So far as I know, neither Lydia, nor her husband (who I am sure heard the truth in the fullness of time) ever attempted to search anything of the creature which had killed George Harmon.

 

I, however, upon the completion of this tale, read it aloud to a cousin of mine. This cousin is a biologist in a government facility in some strange laboratory in the North. He took, from a great album of unpleasant and bizarre photographs, an image, and gave it to me. I can tell you only this: it seemed to depict the skeleton of a thing with teeth, shaped like a bowler hat, with legs made all of hair, floating in a yellow pickle jar.

 

 

 

Letters

You, just running out into the first warning little rain before the storming clouds fall, letter in hand, 22, and you are fingering his best Basildon Bond, embossed with a double-B crest and he keeps your letters in his breast-pocket next to his heart.

Superhero Garden

Superhero Garden (for Josie)

 

on facing pages

 

1. Isabella

 

Superhero, when do we learn

that it is better to be the saviour

than the saved? It is better to die trying than never

try. We would die for you. You were under the water.

You were under the earth. You are under the sky,

and under the sun, and there is a rose in Stepney with your name on it,

there is a root in the earth with your name on it.

We keep a rose for you, and set aside a little earth

for you, though in the hill-sloped rain you’re making roses of

your own. Still, we set aside the earth for you;

later you may want it, later you may need it.

Out of the earth you came. Later

you may need the earth we kept for you, we set

aside the dust for you, and keep the dark leaves clean

on your rose, a rose with no roses only roots

spreading newly forth into the dark earth, the

undertaking of being, the white I am that divides,

then conquers.

 

2. Kai

 

Out of the earth you came; out of her

earth you came, solid, unyielding, immaculate clay

where breath and dust were mixed and made

together and you put forth your winding roots, a tenderness

that came of trying. You were all trying to be; we were

all trying to be, and to be in and of the earth, we all

came out of the earth together, over and under and in

the earth where the roses come from, and the roots are,

they are, they are, they are. You are, small superhero,

you are; with your cardboard voice and your zap bang pow,

know only that you are, she was, and somewhere in the earth

we keep the tiny roots are putting forth and trying to be, too,

the smallest saving grace.

For in the knowing, and the undoing

of being saved, saving, there is a making: you’ll be the making of him,

and he of you, rose, superhero, coming up through the rooted earth.

Swans

A stone is a star that shines not; a man is a bird without wings.

 

Today we went to the river to feed the swans on the end of the bread; me and the three boys and their papa. I did some walking about in my wellies, kicking up shells and people-debris from the shore; their papa watched them; they fed the swans. The youngest one, Paul, is four years old. He is only just four, and he is quite a small four, like a chubby Cupid, a tiny fire-engine in one fist, his blanket in the other.

 

(“He’s too big for a blanket,” says his oldest brother, nine. This might be true: but the nine-year-old himself is too big, probably, to have his bunny rabbit, my best friend, nineteen, too big for hers, my granny, sixty-six, is certainly too old to have a sock-stuffed panda snuggled between Marx and Engels on her bookcase in her bedroom. We’d all like to be too big to need unconditional, uncompromising love, but we’re bloody not.)

 

Paul is four, yes, and he is at this precise point in time smaller than the swans whom he is feeding from the palm of his hand. Regardez-moi! he says, and I am trying very hard not to let him see that I am scared for him. I’m scared because a swan can break a man’s arm you know, and Paul is very much not a man; but nobody told Paul either of those facts, and Paul isn’t scared. I try very hard not to flinch when Paul puts his small fat hand on the strange slim white neck of the swan, when he strokes it, the way you stroke a cat, something friendly and familiar.

 

The swan hisses. Paul hisses back. Ca va? he says. The swan dips his head.

 

T’as vu ca? he says to me, excitedly, but quietly. Tu l’as vu? He nodded to me! He said ca va!

 

What else did he say? I ask him.

 

Nothing yet, reports Paul.

 

I am counting bottle-tops under the water. There are many.

 

What will you be, when I am gone? Who will you be, when you are grown? Who will you be when you are taller than the swans, and will you forget how it was when you were small and smaller than the swans?

 

 

Be humble, for you are made of earth, be noble for you are made of stars.

Last July

July

 

My handwriting today looked like my father’s handwriting, and I was surprised by it.

 

The place on my thumb where the glass went in is scabbing over.

 

The sky and the pavement together felt like the roads in France when I was only a little girl.

 

A text message: I am jealous of your thunder.

 

There is lightning on the river, churning up the Thamesglass. If I hadn’t picked up the pieces I picked up, they might have been smoother.

 

My mother draws planets on the telephone.

 

Everything is softening in the heat.

 

Earth is the tiny blink of light in the bottom right corner.

 

For a long time my mother was frozen in the past, just outside the gate in her tennis whites, but I looked today and they have changed the past again.

 

I have been jealous of your thunder.

 

The tiniest, tiniest hand.

 

A place: 52.280972,-1.024303

 

Another place: 48.869486,2.574942

 

All you need to know is that they are both far away.

 

The gutters are overflowing and they say it’s because of a new King and he will never be our King or maybe he will and there are a thousand points of light in the water between the wrappers and the dogends and the light is the rain.

 

My mother’s phone rings and rings and rings off and I know that she has gone back into the past.

 

A voice mail: Give my love to the churchyard, give my love to the farm, give my love to the gate.

 

When I was in France I would walk along the main road with first my book and then a child and it would be like this between the sky and the cars and the pavement and the tarmac would stick to the soles of your shoes: this never happened to me when I was in England, only in France, in the heat.

 

I have got a pocket full of Thamesglass. Some of it is smooth, but a piece is jagged, and I was surprised by it.

 

The past is a different country, they do things differently there.

 

Slowly the place where the glass went in is healing.

 

Everything is softening in the heat.

 

A thousand cameras; today I saw myself writing like my parents, I was surprised. I was surprised. The past is a different country. I am jealous of your thunder. I am jealous of your going home. I am jealous of your softness. Somewhere I am walking with The Go-Between down a road in France. Somewhere my mother is standing by a gate in her tennis whites. Somewhere I am running my Thamesglass through and through my fingers, and soon in that somewhere the one jagged one will slip in, in, under my skin. Somewhere, the thunder. Somewhere we are just a tiny blink of light in the bottom right corner.

 

 

Don’t Be Stupid, Mr. Gove: An Open Letter

Dear Mr. Gove,

I’d like to tell you a story, and it’s about my dad. My dad was the one that got away.

My dad was very stupid at school.

My dad was very stupid, and they told him he was stupid, and the tests told him he was stupid. They told him that he didn’t care because he was stupid; and he told them he didn’t care because he was stupid, and everyone was in agreement that my dad was stupid, and that he would never amount to anything. My dad’s dad, who was old, and sick, and had worked in a factory all his life until he got too old and sick to do it any more, did not think my dad was stupid, but he thought that the school knew best, probably. My dad’s mum was mostly only sad, and tired, and she shrugged and thought probably they knew best, and when they examined my dad (once, twice, three times) and every time he came out stupid, they said to him,

-Give up. School isn’t for people like you. University isn’t for people like you. Go and work in a factory. We are not for you. You cannot amount to more than you are.

And my dad did not. I have never asked my dad why not, but he did not.

And they examined him again, and he was a failure again, but less, this time, and then, because he was charming, and lucky, someone let him into university.

And at university, he did well. He did really, really well. And then he went to another university, and did really well there, too. And then a third. And once might be fluke, but three times is true, and it was true: he was not stupid. And from university he went to work, and he wore a suit every day, and rose up and up, and had four daughters, and he told them every day how clever they were, and how they would amount to anything they wanted to amount to, and he sent them all to schools where they were told every day how clever they were, how talented they were, and how they would succeed.

And we have.

My dad wore a suit every day until he could afford to not wear a suit every day, and now he sits on the patio looking at the sun on the hills, and people look up to him. We look up to him. Nobody thinks he is stupid, except  himself.

My dad thinks he is stupid. My dad is the one who got away, and everybody looks up to him, and he has made something of himself. But the teachers, and parents, and a system that should have been designed to support him, they still follow him, saying you’re stupid, you’re stupid.

My dad is the example, the exemplar. He came from nothing; he is more than he was then, he is everything he was then, he is not stupid. They will tell you, look, it is the best way, to grow yourself just by your own efforts, and maybe it is. But what is not the best way- what isn’t right, what isn’t fair, what is totally, utterly unjust in every form- is that he should feel every day stupid, stupid because they told him that at school. That at eleven they said to him- you are stupid- and when someone you trust tells you at eleven- you are stupid- it is too hard to think that perhaps you might not be. And it never goes away.It even goes against the Conservative ethos- he does not feel he has earned the things he has earned, because he is stupid, they told him so. It does not go away.

It never goes away, even if you are the one that got away. That is what we have left, when we stopped having eleven-plusses. That is what we gave up, and that is what you want to bring back, Mr. Gove. All the ones who couldn’t fight at sixteen not to go into factories to go into factories; all the ones who fought told over and over you are stupid, knowing all their lives that someone deemed them less valuable. All the ones with parents who were too old and sick and sad and tired to work with them, to read with them, to tell them you will, you will succeed, you can be more than you are.

If I am ever more than I am, I will do it because of everything I have had given to me by my dad, who had nothing, and earned it, and wears the scars of earning it every bloody single bloody day, and doesn’t believe he deserves it, still, after all the years of working, and proving to everyone.

Mr. Gove- please don’t do this. Don’t sort children into stupid and non-stupid, because even the ones who succeed- even they will remember, and even they will be harmed.

Don’t do this, please.

Love, Ella.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

I read Neil Gaiman’s new book on the tube home from the restaurant. And then I got home, and John went to sleep, and I kept reading. Somewhere about page 100 I started to cry, and I kept crying until I got to the end, and then I kept crying: big, ugly sobs, and if you had asked me why I was crying I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, not really.

Then I read it again. It was about one in the morning, and the street outside seemed very alien. I wanted to go home.

There is an essay by Laurie Lee called The Obstinate Exile, in which he is an adult in London longing for Slad, the village in which he grew up. It is a good essay; there is no copy of it online, but you can find it in the book I Can’t Stay Long. I first came across it when I was very young- maybe seven or eight- and like so many things I read then, there was so much I didn’t understand about it.

I was allowed to read anything from any bookshelf, or rather, nobody ever said I shouldn’t, which I took to be the same thing: there were lots of things I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, although I loved it. I didn’t get all the jokes in Wodehouse, or Chaucer.  I read a lot of Ian McEwan -Black Dogs, and A Child In Time, and (oh god) The Cement Garden- and didn’t understand any of it.

All sex and death and grown-up things, but I was not used to not understanding Laurie Lee. The sex and the dying in Laurie Lee were the sex and dying that is integral to childhood; the understanding of the passages and seasons of the earth that comes easily to the child, and that most adults forget. Children know so many things. Gaiman takes for his epigraph a Maurice Sendak quotation: “I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know that I knew. It would scare them.”

I knew the earth more intimately then than I have known ever since: ever since has been a getting back, a going back, but it is like going back with a map.

I didn’t understand, then, that it would be this way. I thought I would always know what it was like to exist this way. I thought I could not forget. I thought that I would never leave, or sometimes I knew I would leave, but it didn’t seem real. I could not understand why Laurie Lee left. I could not understand why Laurie Lee did not go home, if he wanted to so badly. His reasons for not going home were not reasons I could understand, and as I write this I realise that perhaps it was because his reasons were not reasons but excuses, or post-facto justifications, of the kind that grown-ups make all the time, of the kind that the grown-up world demands all the time. Nothing ever just is, in the world; nothing ever just is, in the city. Everything is bluster- the cars on the Mile End Road are bluster- everything is excuses, and nothing is. I would not have wanted to understand this, then, perhaps. I was a story-child, and everything was: the stories were, they were, they were. That was enough; I would not have wanted to understand that in the world it is not enough just to be.

Neil Gaiman’s new book is. And it is enough.

Neil Gaiman’s new book is, the way potatoes are, and cow parsley is, and the way oceans are, or duck-ponds.

Neil Gaiman’s new book made me want to go home, and going home is a thing that’s gone, and I was crying in a dark room at one in the morning, reading and reading and reading. I had not owned a book, or been owned by a book, so completely since I was very small, it made me feel like reading used to, when I was little: it made me not want to understand, and understanding, I wanted to go home. The sex, and the dying, in this book is not the sex, and the dying of childhood: the understanding of it is the end of childhood, the end of going home to that house that isn’t, any more.

I have not told you very much about Neil Gaiman’s new book- I have not told you about the people, or the stories, or the magic, or the darkness- I have not told you about anything very much, except, maybe, why I was crying at one in the morning listening to the traffic on the Mile End Road, and I think that’s for the best.

This morning I am reading it again, and it is different this time round: it is different in daylight. I can see it, almost, as a novel, instead of a myth as much mine as Gaiman’s. I can read it, almost, like an adult. I can see, almost, what is real and what is not real in it, and I can see, almost, that I am forgetting already what it was like to read it in the night, and what it was like to remember. I am forgetting already what it was really like to understand the passages and seasons of the dark earth, to understand  what came, what comes beneath.

 

It Just Gives You All The Data: Storytelling and a Start Up

 Yesterday I was at a thing, and a man gave me a business card.

“Chief Storyteller”, the boy next to me read aloud, slowly, as if he wasn’t sure of the words.

The boy next to me looked younger than he said he was; he had a blue suit and worked in predicting trends for supermarkets. I was not entirely sure of his name, even though he had said it when he introduced himself to the man with the cards.

Isn’t it neat?, said the man with the cards. We get to pick our own job titles. Storyteller.

I thought about it for a minute. It bothered me. Storyteller.

Chief storyteller, said the man with the cards.

Yes, I said to him, because there didn’t seem to be anything else I could say, without saying this bothers me.

Yes, said the man with the cards. Well, he said to the boy in the blue suit, well. Keep in touch. You’re right about the trends thing. Yeah. Yeah. He shook the hand of the boy in the blue suit.

As for you, he said to me, you look on our website. You might…yeah. Yeah. He shook my hand, too.

The boy in the blue suit and I went out of the booth together, as if we were friends. We stood next to each other outside it for a minute, thinking, and then the boy in the blue suit slicked his hair back with the flat of his hand, and we looked at each other, and he went one way (to talk about trends, and brands, and data analysis), and I went the other, and flumped down on a chair outside a little glass booth to think about the thing that had bothered me.

What was bothering me was the storyteller thing. Chief Storyteller thing. It was definitely neat, and that was the problem. The man who called himself the storyteller was a person who was making a program to tell you all the data about your life, and letting you sell that data on the internet, to companies, for money. The program sounded pretty neat, too: it could track your heart rate, and your gym visits, and how far you walked in a day, and where you ate, and what you ate, and monitor what you read, and watched, and saw, and keep tabs on your mood, and check your email and Twitter and Facebook for you, and tell you what you should be doing better, and how.

It’s a journal, the man said to me.

It’s the future, I said, and I meant it.

The journal of the future, said the man, and I was not sure how I felt about it.

If you don’t know your flaws, said the man, how can you improve them?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to improve my flaws, but I knew what he meant.

It’s about change, said the man.  It’s all about change.

 

The future of change, I started to say, but I wasn’t sure what I meant by it, so I stopped, and we talked for a little while longer about the programming, and what this man might be able to do with his program, and then he gave us the business cards, and we went away.

I sat on my fold-up chair outside the little glass box and thought about how I felt about the things I wasn’t sure how I felt about. I wasn’t entirely sure journals were supposed to tell you how to change.

I thought about journals- how the only people who have kept a journal for a hundred years are teenage girls with ingrained pretentions, and arty types, and old men- and I thought about storytelling; how the teenage girls are writing in their journals were telling a story- look, look, I’m going on to bigger things, someone will read this and know where I came from- and how the arty types were telling a story –look, I am who I say I am; I am as bold and as strange and as beautiful as my art is, or would be if I made it- and how the old men were telling a story of everything that had happened to them to people who weren’t there any more–Doris, we are still not in India, we are still at sea, luckily there is a very funny fellow in the bottom bunk, he does marvellous impressions. I was not sure that the man and his program were telling a story at all.

It just tells you all the data, said the man, to me. It just tells you everything about your life that can be recorded. There’s a dev guy working on recording ambient sound, so he can track the noise level of his days.

I wondered if the program recorded the sounds, as well as the noise.

Just the noise level, said the man.

It… would be very useful for disabled people, I said. On the autistic spectrum, and that.

The man looked at me sort of blankly, the way he looked when I said I study Literature and write things and the way he hadn’t looked when the blue-suit boy said I do data analysis for a well-known shopping chain.

Yeah, he said, because probably there wasn’t anything else he could say. It’s got a lot of uses. It’s a really useful thing. It’s the future. It’s the journal of the future.

I was pretty sure that the man was right: that his program (which was very neat) was the journal of the future. I didn’t even think it would be a bad thing. Actually I thought it was probably a good thing: I liked the way it worked, I liked the way it came together. I liked the way it condensed the world into as many orderly lines as the dev guys could think of. I liked the way it took everything and made it one thing; the way it took everything (vague as fog, and looked for like mail) into something, something tactile, vivid, orderly. It was the neatest thing I’d ever seen, but it did not seem to me to be storytelling. In my head I heard the man saying it just tells you all the data. It was so neat; it did not seem to be storytelling at all. You could take your data and sell it to companies for money, or for deals: swap your till receipts and your walk to work for twenty per cent off your usual brand of biscuits. It was clever, and it was efficient, but it did not seem to be storytelling as I knew it.

So I thought some more (feet tucked under me, fold up chair, in this room full of ideas, and people), and I thought of these things:

In a room with twenty of them, you can see that start-ups are all a kind of storytelling: we have imagined this thing, and you will imagine you need it, and we will tell each other why. Here is the story of how we came to need this thing; here is the story of how it came to be. Be part of our story, and you can be like us.  They feed off each other, growing and changing, skimming over and under each other like swallows, never quite settling: all smart in their blackboarded rooms under all the ideas, and some of the ideas too small and strange to stand up on the earth outside. Kill your darlings, they tell writers, and I think the same is true for the start-uppers, the app-makers, the up-and-coming movers and shakers of the brave new world. (Writers and start-uppers are more alike than they seem, perhaps.)

It’s a brave new world, technology, only there’s nobody before us. We have found new technology before, but it has always been tangible, visible, things that built on things we knew. New boats, new weapons, washing machines and cars, but the internet is different. Data is different. Ideas are different.  We have not explored new worlds like this for thousands of years, perhaps thousands and thousands. We have not had to look at ourselves in a new world for so long that perhaps we have forgotten how to do it on our own: every schoolchild could tell you that stories are meant to reflect life, but life is big, and people are little.

Maybe we have just forgotten what it is to have a society so small that every story is about us; maybe we have never known what it is like to have a story made for us, a story made of us. The program just gives you all the data; your data. We are so used to data belonging to companies that perhaps the idea of owning it ourselves is strange. We are so used to being told our stories- for instance, you, the teenage girl with the dyed hair and the stickered journal, we know your story!- we know all the stories. We’re told them by companies, we’re told them by advertising, we’re told them by everything.

They say that a good writer should show, not tell: maybe, ridiculous though it sounds, the skill in storytelling is the same. To give you only what you need- only the data, to let you take that story and pass it on, to let you shape it, to let you change it. We tell the stories we need to hear. I tell the story not because I need to tell it, but because I need you to hear it; I choose the data that suits me, and I tell it to you. The storyteller takes the pericopae, the basic units of the story, and adapts them for her purpose: as weaving together the route to work and the foods you buy might influence the site of a new restaurant, so weaving together other elements of your data (presented to you by this program) might let you say look, this is who I am, this is the most honest story of me I can give you. I was wrong, then: the program was storytelling, as all programs must be, but the man was wrong too. The man with the cards is not the chief storyteller. There can be no chief storyteller with a program like this: a quasi-democratisation of data, and data analysis.  The Russian Formalists believed that literature thrived on a concept called “defamiliarization”: a process in which the familiar is made strange, to make you look at it from a new angle. So it might be with this program: in presenting the data to you as if it is not your own, but letting you claim it, there is automatically and inherently a space for story-telling. You need to fill in the blanks; you need to haul through your fuzzy memory, like the old men, and remember the sounds that made up the noise; you take the data, pin it together, shape it together, hold it up to the light and say this is myself; this is my story.

It’s all about change. This is the future of change.

The man with the cards is selling your story back to you, and you’d be a fool not to take it.

Note, and some small thanks:

The thing I was at was the Enternships/Wayra UK careers fair, which was really excellent; the company making the app I’m talking about here are Narrato; they are SO interesting, and made me have a lot of probably less-interesting thoughts about stories, and the telling of them. All worth looking up, even if you already have a job/things to think about, if you’re at all interested in the way that technology is going to be useful in the Brave New World- and thank you to everybody involved. 

Alphabetical Adventures In B

Bath, (/bɑːθ/ /-æ-/,(Noun) Bath.tub: vessel or receptacle intended to contain water for the purpose of bathing. (1616, Shakespeare Timon of Athens iv. iii. 87   “Season the slaues for Tubbes and Bathes.”  1631   R. Bolton Instr. Right Comf. Affl. Consciences 341”  It is nothing to swimme in a warme Bath.”)

Everything I own is in the bathtub.
Or, more accurately, everything I own that can fit in the bathtub is in the bathtub, and everything else is spilling over the sides into the bathroom itself, and everything else everything else is spilling over the door-bar into the hall.

 

Chiefly, though, it is all in the bathtub.

 

This is including, but not limited to fourteen jumpers in various shades of purple,  some boxes of books, a red cloth bag of plastic pegs, and a little bag marked stuff from the cupboard.

 

Everything I own is in black bin-liners in the bathtub, taped at the top, and every single bit of furniture is upside down. The bedframe has been completely dissembled and the dust-sheets on the divan have literally been slashed to ribbons. It looks quite a lot like my neat little flat has been invaded by marauding barbarians, which is how I’m choosing to think of it. Partly I’m choosing to think of it this way because I am certifiably unable to cope with reality, but partly it’s because invasion, is, after all, what they call it when you call them up. Home invasion. Invasions, barbarians, things in the bath.

 

Bar.ba.ri.an (/bɑːˈbɛːrɪən/): 1. (Noun) A person who is not a Greek, 2. (Adj.)of or belonging to Barbary. Obs., 3. (Noun.) an uncivilized, rude, savage, barbarous person. (1730   J. Thomson Autumn in Seasons 128   “The sad barbarian, roving, mix’d With beasts of prey.”)

 

Everything I own is in the bathtub because my home has been invaded by barbarians; and I wish they were the Conan-sort, because a girl can have a heart set-a-flutter by rumpled leather and astonishing forearms. But they aren’t. They are uncivilized, and rude, and savage, and they are eating us alive, and they are the reason everything I own is in the bathtub, and it has taken me this long to say it because I am ashamed:

 

everything I own is in the bathtub because there are bedbugs in my flat, and I am ashamed.

 

Bed.bug (\ˈbed-ˌbəg\) (noun): a bloodsucking bug which is a parasite of birds and mammals.Family Cimicidae, suborder Heteroptera: Cimex and other genera, and many species, in particular C. lectularius, which comes out to feed on humans at night.

 

They are very tiny, bedbugs, and very creepy (they feed on the sleeping! on the sleeping!), and I hate them more than anything I’ve ever hated in my whole life. I hate them with a fervour that makes the Catholics look lackadaisical and relaxed. I hate them more than dragon-fruit and the Tube at rush-hour and injustice. I hate them, and they love me. Like the Wild Things, they’d eat me up, they love me so, and -unlike Max, because that would be a truly grotesque ending to a children’s book- I won’t be satisfied until every last one of them- every nymph, every unborn child, every last motherfucking manjack of them- is dead as the proverbial doornail.

 

That is why my belongings are all in the bath-tub. It is part of my systemic campaign to annihilate these little bastards who have taken up residence in my bed and in my wardrobe and in my curtains.  There is a man in the bedroom with a tank of poison strapped to his back, which he is brandishing at their horrible little hidey-holes.

 

“I’ve found a big one here,” he says, chirpily, and I cower in the bathroom with all my worldly goods. He is very cheerful, probably because I am about to pay him four hundred and twenty pounds. The poison man pokes at the dust under the sofa. “Bit busy for cleaning, are you?” I would like to dissolve into the ground. I am too busy to clean behind the sofa. I am too busy not to have bedbugs.

 

Bu.sy: Activity, occupation, business; the state of being actively employed; an instance of this.. 2. Anxiety, solicitude, care; affliction, trouble; an instance of this. c1425   Bk. Found. St. Bartholomew’s  “Aftir a Ioconde feiste, bisy in this place was hadde of recouerynge men yn to helthe.”

 

Really, of course, I know that it’s not about busy-ness, or otherwise. I know that bedbugs are horribly, terrifyingly common in London (don’t read this article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11165108). I know that they are nothing to do, with cleanliness.  And I know that this anxiety/affliction/trouble landed on me from the minute we ill-advisedly said yes thanks we’ll buy your sofa. That’s the greatest lesson of all, really. Don’t buy sofas from strangers. The strangers were the last tenants, and the sofa has been in the flat longer than we have. So, by extension, have the bugs.

 

This should make me feel better, but in fact makes me feel worse, partly out of misplaced guilt (it’s their home!), partly out of shame (WHY DIDN’T I KILL THEM EARLIER) and partly (this one is the worst) for a reason so horrible I can hardly bear to write it out.

 

First, I’m going to tell you about the last tenants. I don’t know much about them, except that they lived with the bedbugs, and that when we moved in there were crushed-up knock offs of various pharmaceuticals hidden in every filthy cupboard and drawer, and a Russian-English dictionary with “WOMAN AGENCY” phonetically written out in the front page, next to a number. They did not pay any bills. They never paid any tax. Their post still arrives in our letter box, all red and angry. They were not, so far as I can see, nice people. (We did not know this when we bought the sofa.)

 

 

Second, let’s talk about the fact that the bedbug (says Google) can live for years, and the fact that bedbugs feed on the closest sleeping human, no matter who it is, and that the same blood goes round and round in then, fuelling their horrible little legs and nasty shiny carapaces.

 

Third, this: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/flea.php Yes, you have to read it. I don’t care if you say you don’t like poetry. Learn to like it. Life without Donne is literally not worth living.

 

Anyway, I’m just going to leave those things there. And hope that Donnelogic doesn’t count, and I haven’t fucked-by-proxy a grubby druggie with a yen for cheap tarts.

 

It is one of the more grim thoughts I have ever thought, and if my bathtub wasn’t filled with all my worldly goods I would be boiling myself at ninety degrees from the inside out. Coincidentally, that is what is going to happen to all the things in the bath-tub once the man has gone, because this is what happens when you have bedbugs.

 

Everything you own needs to be heated to sixty-seven degrees, or frozen for 2-7 days at fifteen degrees below. You need to shake out all your books, page by page. You need to sanitise your pillows. You need to inspect all your picture-frames and papers. A man with a knife needs to rip your bed to shreds and pour poison into the porches of its ears.  And you can forget about decent sleep, because you’ll wake up, flailing, paranoid that you’re being bitten.

 

Bite, /baɪt/,  1. The biting of food or victuals; concr. food to eat; chiefly in the phrase bite and sup. Also, a small meal; a snack.  2. A sharper, a swindler: 3. The act or action of cutting, piercing, or wounding, with the teeth;

I am, at point of writing, more bitten than a biscuit; I must have been a small meal or snack for half the bugs in London. They have been ruining my nights, and my days. They have been bugging me (HA) for more than a month. But no more. They love me, and they eat me, and I hate them, and I am ashamed of them, and I am writing about them to feel better about it all, and armed with my poison-man and my tumble-drier and my insect repellent, I will destroy them all to absolute motherfucking damnation. 

Partly because they are nasty little bastards.

Partly because I’d like my bathtub back.

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