Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Death On The Rocks - The End and Beginning Of A Fallen Life

This is the beginning of a story.  Today I have no time or energy to complete it.  I promise you, it has a happy ending.  I know where it's going.  And it's going to be positive.  It just begins in an unhappy place.  I realise I'm collecting lots of unfinished projects.  I want to write more about Oxford Brookes.  I want to write more about the stranger on my bed.  Much more.  And I want to finish this tale.

I apologise that what I've written this morning - a shade more than 1500 words - ends at a difficult moment.  That couldn't be helped.  This person is telling me their story and that's the point they reached.  They've told me more but haven't given the details.  I know the destination.  I don't know the journey.

Okay, okay, you've convinced me.  Or rather Babylon 5 convinced me.  Joe Staczynski, the creator of that series, talked of the journey and the destination.  Episodes early on gave away parts of the destination.  We knew big parts of the fates of some of the characters.  We didn't know how they got there.  So I'm going to tell you one thing now about the character in this story.  One thing only:

They do not attempt suicide.

I think perhaps I should leave behind writing prompts much of the time.  I'm meant to be writing from a prompt on a list every day this year.  At it turns out I have only written from one of those prompts on one day in the last week.  I honestly believe it's the worst post out of the seven days.  Perhaps I should use the prompt only when I have nothing else to write about.  Not look at the prompt as my first priority for writing.

It is now the end of February.  I have posted every day for two months.  The blog is not what I had imagined it would be.  It is something more.  I've been pleasantly surprised by the experience.  Two months down.  Ten months to go.  I believe I can make it.

Rock under a cliff. Unlike the story.

To begin at the beginning.

No!  I'm not going to do that.  Other writers, more brilliant than I and with a dozen best-selling novels to their name might start their stories in a sensible place but I am known for being awkward, argumentative and just plain difficult.  So I'm going to begin at the end.

It hurt.  Everything hurt.  I can't begin to describe to you the pain.  As a life choice I wouldn't recommend jumping from a cliff, landing on rocks, breaking most of the bones in your body, getting impaled in two places on a spike and slowly bleeding out.  It's not something you might find in one of those books with names like "1001 Stupid Things You Must Do Before You Die."  If a book of methods of death was ever written, with the methods ranks in order of unpleasantness my choice of actions that day would have been somewhere on the unpleasant end.  Somewhere in between crucifixion and bathing in acid.

I couldn't move.  Screamed for help for a while although I knew there wasn't much of a chance of being heard.  I hadn't chosen my place of death for its publicity value.  Not for me the very visible statement of jumping from a skyscraper or leaping from the Pennine Way onto the M62.  If only I had.  Then perhaps the landing would have led to an instant end to my miserable being.  Or perhaps I was just as unlucky in death as I was in life.  Perhaps no matter how I'd decided to kill myself things wouldn't have gone as planned.

By all rights I should have been killed outright.  Four hundred foot sheer drop.  Onto the rocks.  No chance of surviving that.  And then the sea would wash in on the tide and carry my corpse away.  I'd studied the currents.  I wasn't going to be washing up on any beach.  Let my body be food for the ocean and do more good in death than it did in life.  That's what I'd thought of course.  Now I know better.

My death was slow.  Agonising.  And as I lay dying, in moments of clarity, I got to thinking about my choices and asked myself whether there might have been a better way.  A better way of dying.  Yes, that.  Even as blood seeped from my wounds I chastised myself for not killing myself properly.  Then another thought appeared.  I wondered whether there might have been a better way of living.  Or some reason why carrying on living might have been a good idea.  It was too late by then of course but I couldn't help but regret that I would never see the sunset again or the view from the top of the cliff.

I watched the sea.  It was getting closer and my dying was taking too long, without the pain ever diminishing.  I wondered whether it would be a lapse into unconsciousness that would take away my suffering.  Or whether it would be the sea, stealing me away and drowning me.  Drowning seemed infinitely more preferable to carrying on suffering.  I couldn't even move.  A seal on nearby rocks watched me curiously.

And then I died.  I felt myself sink away from the world.  The last I knew was the sound of the gulls and the waves that would soon claim me.  Death, when it finally came, was a relief.  Peaceful.  Death was a smile and I welcomed it.

That's the end of the story.  The very end.  Or at least it should have been.  I woke up again.  I found myself lying on the rocks under the cliff.  I wasn't in pain any more so that was something.  I lifted up my arms to check them, realising in the process that my right arm was no longer pinned on that spike.  There was no blood.  No sign of injury.  I sat myself up and looked around.

My first thought was to wonder how the heck I was going to get off the rock ledge I sat on.  The sea would cover it soon and there wasn't any way I'd be able to climb far enough to avoid it.  My second thought became clear when I turned round and saw myself.  I was dead.  Covered in blood.  A spike through my arm and side.  My body was a mess.  I walked over to it and examined it further.  Yes.  A mess.  But I looked peaceful.  Even after the torture I'd just experienced and the hurts and uncontrollable urges of the life I'd lived before.  After my hell, my loneliness, after all those years in which hope just kept being disappointed, I finally had a beatific look of peace on my face.  I was glad.

"Death, where is thy victory?  Where is thy sting?"  Okay.  I was dead.  But here I was, up and walking and with a body that made me feel fitter and stronger than I had since my teens.  I was a keen swimmer back then but hadn't even been in a pool in twenty years.  That reminded me.  The sea.  The cliff.  Perhaps I could swim out.  Maybe I'd get there.  Wouldn't drown or get caught too badly in the current.  Start walking now and I could cut down the distance I'd have to manage in the water.

I turned my back on my corpse.  Good riddance to it.  I had a new body now and it felt much better.  I began walking, as fast as I could manage without risking falling on the rocks.  As I walked, the obvious fact came to mind.  I was dead.  Wasn't I?  I didn't feel dead but I must be because I'd seen myself.  Was I some kind of ghost?  Surely not.  I had a physical body not some airy, half-believed amorphous form.  I pinched myself to make sure.  Yes.  Physical.  Definitely.  And I felt good.  Mentally too.  It was as if suffering so much on the rocks and then giving in to dying had cleared a lot of my problems away.  I wanted to live.  Found myself seeing living as a gift and this second chance as a miracle.  I stopped to catch my breath.  Before starting again I screamed out in joy.  I don't think I ever did that before.

The sea continued to advance until it washed over the rock shelf, covering my feet, my shins, my ankles.  A sudden rush of water, and how the hell did that happen?, and it covered my hips and I could hardly see the rocks below.  Walking further was going to be impossible.  I just hoped my swimming technique would come back to me and I'd be able to make it.  I knew I had to swim a couple of miles at least.  I didn't want to die.  Not now.

I swam.  Steady strokes.  It didn't take long until I was swimming like a champion again and in this new body I felt I would be able to swim the Channel.  A few miles would be simple.  I made good progress.  Fighting for new life, for the miracle, with each stroke.  It was all very exciting and under the circumstances I knew I wouldn't be overly embarrassed to climb out of the sea naked.  Even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  And I would be emerging onto a tourist beach.  Hopefully someone would lend me a towel.  After that I could work out what to do.

I worried for a moment that I'd been wrong about the currents.  That my dead body would wash up on the beach in a few days.  Complete with my ID and phone.  It would be far more embarrassing than a thousand tourists seeing my very healthy new body in all its glory.  I'd be there living my life and then I'd show up dead.  I didn't know what would happen then.

Unfortunately I was right.  I had been wrong.  But wrong in a different way.  I'd obviously made an error somewhere because the sea started to tug at me more than I'd expected.  I thought as I swam that I'd be able to stay close to the rocks.  I couldn't.  As the current strengthened I was pulled further and further from the shore.  There was no way back.  If I'd been an Olympic champion it wouldn't have changed a thing.  I grew weaker.  And weaker.  Until I had to stop and lie on my back and float.

And then I couldn't even do that.  I fought it for as long as I could.  But it was inevitable.  I had to give in at some point.  I despaired.  Just when I'd found an excitement about life it was being stolen away from me again.  I wanted to live.  Desperately.  I wanted to grow old, marry someone, make my life so extraordinary people would write books and poems about me.  It was all so unfair.  Why should I have this miraculous second life if it wasn't going to continue?

I gave myself to the water.  Sank.  Allowed the sea to fill my lungs.  It wasn't so bad.  Much better than the pain I'd felt on the rocks.  I would be food for the ocean after all.  Twice.  It didn't take long.  I died.  Again.

[1548 words]

Monday, 27 February 2017

Last Night I Woke To Find A Stranger Sitting On My Bed

During my post for yesterday I said that a story idea had popped into my head and that I would allow the story to be written at some point during the day.  This is that story.  It begins with someone waking up to find another someone sitting on their bed.  That is the only thing the story has in common with the ideas in my head this morning.

This is a first chapter.  Whether any more chapters are ever written is something I cannot know at this point.  I would like to write more.  Because at this point I don't know who either someone is.  While writing this neither of them told me the answer.  So don't write in and ask me to tell you.  I expect if I wrote more the answers would come.

Here it is.  Chapter one.  It has no title.  They haven't told me that either.

A picture of the end of my bed. Taken by a stranger.

I woke up in the night with a start to find her tickling my toes.

"Ah, there you are," she said with a look of relief on her face.  "I thought for a minute there you might be dead."

I backed away, fear and confusion combining in an unholy mess, and pressed my back up against the wall.  Pulled in my knees to my chest and stared at her.  Too scared to speak.  I wasn't in the habit of waking up to find a stranger sitting on my bed.

"Now, now, there's no need to worry yourself over me.  I'm not going to hurt you my dear."

At that I must have looked closer to terror because she said, "I shouldn't have said that should I?  That's what they say in fairy tales isn't it and then they eat you or kill you in some curious manner or imprison you or force you to work for them for a million years or trick you into sleeping for a hundred.  I must heartily apologise for my breach in positive language skills."

She looked at me and smiled warmly.  "Come my dear.  I did it again didn't I?  I can't help it.  You see I don't think they properly trained me for this job.  I was meant to gently raise you out of sleep or wait for you to wake up naturally.  But when I saw your eyes were closed and couldn't hear snoring sounds I didn't know what to do.  What if you had been dead?  They wouldn't have been pleased with me.  So I couldn't resist.  Anyway, your right foot was already exposed.  Tip time: If you keep your feet covered up you won't get so cold.  Where was I?  Any idea?"

I stared at her some more.  Began to relax a little.  She was a very strange stranger and her long blue hair was an awful mess of curls and knots.  She wore a dress made of purple bubble wrap and a mixture of rainbow colour bracelets all the way from her wrists to her elbows.  What she was doing on my bed was beyond my comprehension.  How she had got into my house was another question.  But I had to admit that it was probable she wasn't going to transform into a giant goblin and gobble me up whole or drag me into the kingdom of the gnomes.  Whoever she was, I didn't sense any danger.  Nevertheless I continued to stare at her silently.

"No idea.  I don't mind.  Sometimes it's better to have no idea.  Sometimes it's better just to take it all as it comes.  I myself lived without a clue for many years.  That wasn't my fault of course.  And it wasn't my choosing either.  It was an enchantment that did it and I never found out who enchanted me although I have my suspicions.  I know it wasn't a human so it can't have been you.  Not that you would have wanted to trap me in such a cruel way.  You hadn't even met me.  Unless of course I make some error so awful that you seek revenge and can find a time mistress to try to stop me being here in the first place.  Did you do that?  Oh, silly me."  She let out a big laugh as if it was the funniest thing in the whole world.  "You wouldn't know.  You haven't done it yet.  I'll tell you know though.  If you are going to be considering cursing me in the past there's no point.  It won't stop me.  Of course it won't.  I'm here anyway.  But it wasn't you.  I don't think.  I believe it was either one of Rose, Rose or Rose.  You probably don't know them because they don't live in your bedroom.  They're triplets.  Identical and their parents couldn't tell them apart so they all got given the same name.  It's ever so confusing.  Yes, I was enchanted.  Now I'm just enchanting as I'm sure you can tell.  Do you like my dress?  I made it myself.  I like purple.  I found the material blowing in the wind one day and had to carefully paint each individual bubble in a slightly different shade of purple.  It took ages.  And the enchantment was hard to break.  Not only was I clueless but my cluelessness reset itself every day.  That's why I was clueless for so many years.  But I'm not clueless now.  I have a clue.  Even if I did wake you so rudely and call you my dear.  I think I've explained myself properly now.  Any questions?"

I could hardly take in her story.  All that talk of revenge and spells was too much for me at half past three in the morning.  It might have been too much at half past three in the afternoon.  And as for her dress.  It was well crafted, I had to admit that to myself.  I wouldn't have thought a bubble wrap dress could ever fit so well.  Yet to my eyes there was only one shade of purple.  Struggling to make sense of her I managed to ask four questions.

"Just two.  For now.  Who are you?  And what are you doing here, sitting on my bed?  No, I take it back.  Another question.  I'm asking three not two  How did you get in?  I'm sure I locked the front door, the back door, all the windows and even the cat flap.  Are you a lock pick or something?"

She squealed and put her hands over her ears.  "Enough, enough.  Stop it right now.  That's four questions now.  I do wish you would stop changing your mind so abruptly.  It's very confusing and I'm not going to answer any questions if you carry on like that.  I'm sorry but that's just how it is."

To prove her point she stuck her fingers in her ears and started singing "La, la, la ..." loudly and without even a hint of a melody.  I wouldn't have even called it a series of notes.  I shook my head.  How rude.  To come and sit on my bed uninvited and not even answer any questions.  I could hardly believe it.  Trust me to get the one bedroom visitor who seemed to be a little unstable.  I changed that thought.  Her instability could have been much worse and she could have been concealing an unbreakable knife in that dress.  I could see she wasn't.  The whole thing was a little opaque.  Not transparent enough to reveal everything but the outfit didn't leave much to my imagination.

I leaned forward and gently touched her arm.  Looked at her with the kindest expression I could manage.  I think possibly my expression was mistaken for murderous because she closed her eyes and shouted "La, la, la, I'm not listening but I'm not allowed to leave."

I gave up and went to make two mugs of tea.  Leave her to her strange tantrum.  When I came back to the bedroom she was quiet.  Quiet and lying down.  Quiet and fast asleep cuddled up to my large teddy bear.  Great.  Now I couldn't go back to bed.  I put on my dressing gown and pulled a blanket from the cupboard.  Sat on my big bean bag and drank my tea.  Then I lay down and got as comfortable as I could without lying on my bed.  She could answer my questions in the morning and then I would see about lending her one of my own dresses.  My imagination may not have had to work hard but I had to work hard to not remember the outline of her breasts - and I confess I felt more than a little guilty for noticing them - or the way she smiled at me, or the fact that I would have loved to give her hair a good wash and then gently comb out all the knots, or the way I found all the odd things she said to be quite endearing.  Whoever she was, it didn't seem an altogether bad thing that she had appeared on my bed.

Presently I fell asleep.  I woke up with aches all through my back and bones.  I groaned as I turned to my side and remembered I was on the floor.  I could see from the clock by the bed that it was seven sixteen.  Quite respectable.  Then I remembered the stranger.  The stranger and her melodious voice and endearing giggle.  The stranger with her annoying habit of la, la la-ing.  I sat up and looked on the bed.

She was gone.

Perhaps I had dreamed the whole thing.  That seemed the most likely scenario.  A dream.  Far more likely than a blue, purple, rainbow girl coming through locked doors - and they were locked, I checked before breakfast - and rambling on about enchantments.  No.  Of course not.  She wasn't real.  Not real.  But vivid enough that I was able to fill two whole pages in my dream diary.  A new personal record.  I looked at the empty mug of tea.  I looked at the full mug.  I wondered why I had made two mugs but guessed I'd been sleepwalking.  I hadn't done that for a while.  Perhaps my dinner had made my head do funny things.  I wouldn't be buying that particular pie again.

Over breakfast I thought about my dream.  If all my dreams were similar I'd look forward to going to bed every night.  As long as I didn't end up sleeping on the floor.  She really had been quite pretty and had an amazing sparkle in her eyes and a cute way of playing with her bracelets while she talked, as if she was counting each of them in turn.  I decided that I would write up my dream.  Present it as a story.  So that's what I've done.

Tonight I will go to bed again.  Perhaps I will dream.  Perhaps I will dream of her.  Maybe she'll come and visit again and this time I won't be scared as I sleep and can find out who my brain thinks she might be.  Perhaps.  I can only hope.  I'm going to bed early tonight just in case.

I'll let you know.

[1696 words]

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Waking Up - A Ramble About Alarm Clocks, Stories, And Rejoicing.

57. Alarm Clock: Write about waking up.

Today I Love You - Salford Quays, not waking up

I hate waking up.  Another day to barely survive.  Another sixteen hours of anxiously hoping the day won't be my last.  Another sixteen days of hoping it will be.

I love waking up.  Another day to explore.  Another sixteen hours of curiosity, surprises, possibilities.  Another sixteen hours to spend loving, smiling, and living in gratitude for all I am, all I have, and for the people I share this world with.

I hate waking up.  Body aching from the night, the discomfort of lying in the wrong position and knowing that this particular body doesn't have a right position.  Legs swearing under their breath.  Back swearing out loud.  And sometimes arm screaming about having had to lie at the bottom.  This morning is one of those mornings.

I love waking up.  A chance to stretch.  Body and mind.  A time to remember that there is freedom in the pain.

This week I haven't had to set my alarm clocks.  Two of them.  Because I can sleep through the first and it is a sentient beast with a will of its own.  Sometimes its will is to not call out its chimes at all.  Sometimes its will is to make an attempt at rousing the entire city.  It's been like that for several years and, regularly, I think of replacing it.  It needs replacing.  Urgently.  It's housed in an old Roberts CD player stroke radio stroke alarm clock.  And that would be a lovely thing to own.  Except it buzzes.  When electricity passes through it, as it needs to, it buzzes.  Sometimes the noise of it is too much for me and I unplug it.  Other times it is too much for me but I lack the executive function to unplug it and I lie in bed listening to the hum underneath the sound of the radio.  Every time I am disturbed by the noise, or by the lack of a needed noise in the morning, I decide that I'm going to buy a replacement.  Every time I make my decision I lack the ability to bring it through to the point at which I have a bright and shiny new machine to unwrap, plug in, and be pleased about.

My second alarm, which I brought into my life after failing to get up at the right time too often, is on my phone.  It's a lovely alarm.  Well, not quite lovely.  The sound of it is one I would much prefer not to hear.  I wouldn't put it on repeat and play it for an hour of sweet relaxation.  But it's reliable.  I set it.  It obeys my instructions.  I can trust my telephone to chime for me exactly when I want.  And it will be exactly too.  It keeps perfect time.  I know.  I've watched it.  More often than I care to admit.  I've listened to the pips on Radio Four, chiming the hour.  And observed with a rush of happiness that my phone changes to the new hour exactly in time with the final pip.  Not so my first alarm clock.  That runs fast.  I don't have the executive function to set it right as often as I would like.  It would only take a minute to adjust it.  To at least get it right to within a minute.  As it stands it's more than two minutes fast.

I tell myself, "Why not just unplug the thing?"  Yes.  Unplug it.  Don't use it.  Unless I want to play a CD in my bedroom.  The illuminated time has become more of a curse than a blessing.  I used to love it.  Being able to open my eyes if I woke in the night and see the time.  I still find it excruciatingly difficult not to know what the time is if I wake.  Is it worth me getting up?  Is it worth trying to go back to sleep?  And how long have I lain there anyway and is a middle of the night cup of tea going to be needed?  Important questions.  But the bright light of the time is burdensome too and I tell myself I only need to press one button on my phone to see what unearthly, ungodly hour I am witnessing.  Unplug the infernal machine with it's brightness, buzzing, unreliability.  Use the radio on my telephone.  Use its faithful alarm.  Or set two alarms.

That's sensible.  At least I think it is.  The cube shaped machine remains.  Lit up.  Buzzing.  Annoying me every time it fails in its one tiny alarm clock function.  Does everyone have the same issue, that three years after observing problems they won't have done anything about them?  It's not as if it's a complicated problem or something blatantly difficult or life changing.  We're not talking about noticing climate change, the plight of refugees or even having to tread carefully due to the increasing holes in ones bedroom floor.  That's something else.  I'm not admitting to those holes or to the fact that I haven't done anything about them.  Is everyone like that?

As I said, I haven't set the alarms this week.  I have been in the envious position of being able to sleep beyond six thirty.  In theory.  It hasn't worked.  In the absence of knowing there are alarms to look forward too my brain and body have come up with a wide range of plans.  Monday's plan was to wake up at four and stay awake.  That was the start of a day on which I shut down on a bench in a city centre.

Today the plan was to wake up at five and stay awake.  It's not the plan I would have consciously chosen.  It's currently six fifty four and through the window I've been watching daylight spread.  The sky above is filled with dark clouds but away to the east, through the gap between houses I can see a strip of blue that is, at this very moment, exactly the colour of my cot blanket.  Above it the clouds are bright, slowly fading into dull greys.  Through the bright cloud I have watched as a plethora of pinks and reds were created by the rising sun.  At six fifty six they are all but gone and the day has truly begun, leaving the tree silhouetted before the dark sky.

There are advantages to being awake before I want to be awake.  At four, five in the morning there is a deep peace still over the city.  It is a time to be still, to meditate, to write in calm before responsibility and worry creeps over a life.  I am not wise.  Mostly I use the time to fret, to complain about the injustice of being awake when I don't want to be.  Mostly I lie there hoping to sleep some more, trying to will sleep, and I end up further away from sleep than I was at the beginning.  Mostly I take this gift of extra time, this blessing of quietness, and I turn it round into something to winge about.  This morning I can be pleased about the five hours I slept.  Pleased that I wake with most of my faculties intact.  Pleased that it's just gone seven and I've seen a beautiful sky, heard the news, engaged with social media, and written this post.

I may write it again later.  While writing an idea formed.  A story.  Perhaps later today I will allow it to tell itself.  Stories need to tell themselves.  They are alive, vibrant, and though this blog has included more stories than I would have imagined at the beginning of the year, it's almost the case that I haven't written any of them.  They appeared in my mind.  I just allowed them to grow and be released.  Two dozen stories in two months.  I have been surprised by all of them.  I did not know about Oxford Brookes, Miranda, or anyone else I've written about.  They knew themselves.  All I did was to let them speak.  And that, I find, is much more satisfying than what I've done this morning in writing about my own life.

It's ten past seven on a Friday morning.  I think that's a good time to stop.  Eat breakfast.  And then to return and write a fiction which will ramble less than this post has.  The day is young.  It makes no promises to me beyond coming to an end.  How I choose to fill the intervening hours is largely up to me.  I am very fortunate in that.  There is nowhere I have to be.  Nothing I have to to.  I realise that a week today I will be performing a poem or a short story to a crowded room of people at a public event.  For the first time ever.  For this, I have faith in myself.   I believe it will be the first time of many.

And now?  Breakfast and an unknown day.  The clouds are clearing.  Birds are singing.  And the day is beautiful.  Whether I shine all day or whether I shut down on another city centre bench it will remain beautiful.  And so I say with the old hymn, "Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

[1538 words]

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Oxford Brookes And The Case Of The Blyth Buddleia Burglar

Daily writing challenge.  Day 56.

Today I didn't have a clue what to write.  I didn't fancy today's writing prompt or any of the ones I've missed out.  I indulged in procrastination.  And then a silly remark made to a friend this morning popped into my head.  I typed four words.  I didn't know what could follow them.  As it turned out, another two thousand words followed.  I'm sure they all make some kind of sense!  So I present to you a short story.

Our buddleia

The Case of the Blyth Buddleia Burglar

Oxford Brookes

Private Detective

The name looked good on the door. It had taken me years to get to this point and I wasn't going to waste it. I had the champagne ready. After years of studying the intricacies and depravities of the human race I gained enough understanding to be able to see past the apparent quandaries a case would present me with. After another three years of working as apprentice to the greatest detective of them all, Lord Comfort, I'd felt ready to move on. Strike out on my own. Be my own man. I'd saved up enough money to hire an office for a year. It was make or break. If I could solve enough high profile cases I'd be set for life. If not, I'd have to give up my dream and become a journalist for a local newspaper.

Or possibly I could write a book about all the unsavoury things I got up to when studying the depravities of the human race. I didn't think you can solve crimes without truly understanding criminals. Couldn't discover the truth about adultery without being an adulterer. And you wouldn't be able to sniff out a drug baron unless you've first sniffed out a wide selection of drugs. Lord Comfort had laughed when I told him all this in my interview. He told me that he had never committed a crime, never taken an illegal drug. He admired my zealousness but not my methodology. If it wasn't for that great man I would never have progressed as I did in the fine art of detection.

I'd even solved the case of the Blyth buddleia burglar. All by myself. I'd taken it upon myself to investigate all on my own when reports came in of someone stealing entire buddleias from gardens in Blyth. I drove to the town and immediately set to work, like all good detectives should. I didn't even take a detour to a restaurant. I didn't spend some hours resting on the beach. And I most definitely didn't get lost on the way there and end up in Blackpool. Definitely not, although Lord Comfort did question me later on why it took me two days to get to my first interview in Blyth and why my driving expenses claim was for three-hundred miles rather than thirty. I explained that it had been a very complicated case and there had been unforeseen clues that needed following up.

The interviews didn't bear much fruit. Each householder told me the same thing. They had gone to bed one night knowing there were buddleias in the garden. The next morning their plants had vanished. Gone. Taken. By person or persons unknown. That person hadn't been seen or heard and hadn't left as much as a fingerprint covered spade or shovel, just a card left at every crime scene in place of the plants. It bore the inscription “Buddleias are us. Get your finest buddleias here.” There was an address and phone number too but I knew from my year spent living with a criminal gang that criminals are dishonest. Those cards could have been left by anyone. Even if they were left by the thieves I knew the information could be forged. Lord Comfort once told me, “If something is too obvious it may be wrong too.” And his teaching had served me well.

As far as clues went, these poor unfortunate souls were perfectly useless. One of them was lying too. I'm almost sure of it, since she lived in a fifth floor flat with no garden. However, since I am a private detective, rather than a policeman, I wasn't able to arrest her for wasting my very precious time, all the more precious since I'd got stuck in a five mile tailback on my way back from not getting lost in Blackpool. She protested that her buddleia had been in a plant pot outside her front door but there wasn't a hint of a sign that a pot had ever been there and she didn't have a receipt from the garden centre.

After the interviews I was left without a lead. Missing buddleias. What was a trainee detective to do? What would Lord Comfort do? I needed time to think and had passed a very nice looking restaurant on my way back from the beach I didn't go to. I would think there. And put the meal on expenses. It was a very fine meal indeed. Four courses because after the first three I still hadn't solved the case. After the fourth I had inspiration. Contact the local drug baron. He would know. And I knew him from my past scholarly examinations of depravity. If anyone was dealing in buddleias on the Blyth black market he would tell me, with proper encouragement. I headed off, without support, independent because I trust my abilities, to see the criminal kingpin.

Their buddleia
It was the right choice. I solved the case. Purely as a result of my finely honed instincts. I didn't even reach the baron. Which is quite a relief because he's a scary man and while I would have done anything to solve the case I didn't want to get injured or be forced to claim the purchase of a quantity of drugs on expenses. Lord Comfort might not have been impressed.

Three streets away from the baron's home I saw two people and in an instant, a brilliant instant of unrivalled detection, I knew I had found my quarry. Not just one thief as the police had assumed. But two. They were unloading a selection of very beautiful buddleia plants from the back of an open truck. The truck door was painted with “Buddleias Are Us” and I cleverly spotted that the phone number was the same as that on those cunningly planted cards. I checked the address too. I used Google maps, an A to Z street map and asked some people in nearby houses as well. I even checked the sign at the end of the street and the number of the thieves front door. Everything matched. Everything. Perfectly. Not even one digit or letter out. Perhaps those cards had been tiny clues after all. Perhaps if I'd gone down that unlikely route and investigated them with due diligence I wouldn't have been able to enjoy a four course meal.

I opened the case I kept in the back of the car and put on one of my best detective disguises. Sometimes it's better not to walk up to potential culprits saying, “Hello, I'm a detective come to make a citizen's arrest.” I thought it better to be in disguise. So I pulled out some glasses, a fake stick-on moustache and a cigar. Groucho Marx makes a particularly cunning disguise. Nobody sees through my Marx, whether Groucho, Karl, or and Spencer.

I walked up to the thieves. At a normal pace. Without trying to hide my presence behind the neighbours bush to observe them for an hour and gather evidence or courage. I didn't do that. Mrs. Mayberry lied at the trial. She did. I wasn't hiding. I walked up to the despicable plant thieves and said, “Excuse me, I couldn't help noticing your beautiful buddleia plants. I'm a great lover of buddleias myself ...” I admit I'd had to find out what a buddleia looked like before my journey to Blyth. “... and I was hoping to be able to fill my garden with them. These are wonderful. I'd love to have them or even come to work for you in the buddleia business. It would be my dream job. Where ever did you get such amazing examples of this horticultural ambience? …” I hoped they wouldn't see through me when I accidentally used an out of place word like ambience. “I don't want to pry into your business secrets and don't want to take over and undercut your prices or anything like that. No, no, not me. I'm just an innocent buddleia lover who bears an uncanny resemblance to Groucho Marx. Where did you get them?”

One of the thieves stared at me. He looked mean. He looked also like he hadn't understood what I'd been saying. Maybe my use of the word ambience had completely stumped him.

The other spoke. He said, “We nicked 'em, didn't we. Went round the town, couple of nights ago and nicked 'em out of people's gardens. Seemed like the best way to start a new business. Ain't our stock the best? People will come miles for all our buddleias. Miles. And loads of people in Blyth are wanting to get new plants so I've heard to replace the ones some gadger nicked.” He laughed.

I said, “Thank you most kindly sir. I would like to buy your plants. Give me an hour while I go to the bank and I'll come back and pay you a fair price.”

But I didn't go to the bank did I? Oh no, not me. I'm far too clever for that. I'd taped the conversation too. I went to the police instead. Told them of my discovery. They were ever so impressed and went off to arrest the thieves straight away. I was a hero in the town. I drove back to Lord Comfort that night knowing I had done very well to solve my first solo case and I only got delayed for two nights in a five star hotel in Scarborough. For the second time in a week I didn't get lost. It was intentional. I promise. Anyway, I needed some pampering after all my mental and physical exertion. Detective work is difficult you know. The hotel would be on expenses so it was okay.

When I returned to his office Lord Comfort didn't seem impressed with my work. I stressed how amazing I had been but he queried every little insignificant detail. The three days I didn't spend in Blyth. The hundreds of miles driven. The restaurant bill. He even seemed worried about the hotel bill and the hundred and twenty pounds extra I'd spent on room service and emptying part of the mini-bar in my room.

The next day Comfort congratulated me on solving my first case. He said I was a fully fledged detective now and said I should be starting my own company. He said I was ready and that it would make him very happy to see me working somewhere else. He said he couldn't bear to think of me still working for him after everything I'd done. I agreed. It was obvious. I'm a genius in the art of detection and it's only one step from buddleias to murder, kidnapping and plots to take over the world.

So, just a month later, there I was. Back at the very beginning of my story. Those bright red letters had just been painted on the door of my new office. I was a happy man and they looked so good.

Oxford Brookes

Private Detective

I shook up my champagne bottle and pushed off the cork so it could spray everywhere. Like at a Grand Prix except my office is far more important than a silly driving race in which it's impossible to get lost or take a wrong turn. I sprayed that champagne joyfully. It went all over me. All over the painter. All over the corridor floor. I could put the cleaning bill on expenses. And all over my new door too.

The paint was still wet. The celebratory booze washed it away. The painter quit. And the cleaner told me to mop the bloody thing up myself. I spent the rest of the day sorting out the mess. It hadn't been an auspicious first day but the only way was up.

Before I left for the night I repainted the letters on the door. I didn't need to pay a painter for such a simple job. It took another month before I noticed why I hadn't received a string of wealthy clients coming to my door in despair. A month before someone pointed out a little error in those big, shiny, bright red letters. They read

Oxford Brookes

Private Defective

[2035 words]

Friday, 24 February 2017

Do You Remember The Days In The Old School Yard?

A set of middle school memories.  Age eight to twelve.  In order of recollection.  I have included the only two photos I have on my computer taken on school grounds.  Probably I have more photos in albums.  It's tempting to look through those years tonight.

My memories have been highly edited before posting.  Because I was a weird child.  I did weird things.  You don't need to know.  And I am not ever going to tell you.

Do I remember the days?  Do I remember the times? ...

I AM the genie of the lamp. Aged 10.

That time J asked me for a kiss.  We kissed.  It was the least proficient kissing technique of all time.  I was so excited that someone like J might possibly like someone like me.  I ran all the way home and told my mum.  By the next day J had forgotten about the kiss and all it had meant.  She wouldn't talk to me.

That time I was so bored with the easiness of a lesson that I pushed myself once too often and made a tiny mistake and Mrs. B roundly told me off and humiliated me deliberately.  She told me not to be clever.

That time Mrs J said that I had to have a boy sit next to me because nobody else would talk to him.  I had to look after him.  He had Tourettes's.  But this was the early 1980s.  He didn't have a label.  Didn't have a diagnosis.  He was just the odd kid who made noises and shouted things out sometimes.  He was a nice child.  Perhaps more shy than me and who could blame him?

That time I was bored in a lesson and asked Mr. D whether he could explain the Theory of Relativity.  He could.  He did.  In detail to a ten year old.  I was left with no more understanding of Einstein than I had begun with.

That time I didn't ace a maths test and couldn't sit on one of the two seats on the back row.  It only happened once and the teacher laughed at me.  I didn't mind.  It felt good to be just another of the top set for once rather than half of the elite pair.  I got to sit next to a boy and there was no girl left unhappy, stuck at the back with me for a fortnight.

That time L went out with me once.  I used to dance with J at school discos.  She felt sorry for me.  I heard J say about L, "I thought I was crazy just to dance with him."  I later heard L say, loudly so everyone in the class could hear, "I only did it for a free meal."

That time T.H. almost broke my windpipe.  That was his idea of playing a game and I wasn't going to submit to a bully even though it hurt and was frightening.

That time I was chosen to pick lots of books for the school library when the local authority van visited and all the books I picked turned out to be the wrong ones because, I was told, I would be the only person who might want to read any of them.

That time I had to work through ever graded reading book in the school.  In order.  From the beginning.  Just in case I couldn't read.  I wanted to get back to my novels.  All I remember from those books was that John Wesley used to chew each mouthful of food the same number of times.  He did it methodically.  He did lots of things methodically.  And that's why Methodists are called Methodists.  All I remember turned out to be a blatant lie.

That time Mr. D when ballistic when we were learning to sing The Daniel Jazz.  A friend and I played with the words so that lettuce and cabbage could appear in the same line.  We were amused.  Mr. D was not.  We were nine.

That time Mr. D almost had a massive meltdown in front of the class when his carefully prepared science experiment didn't work.

That time we all first played in the middle school and realised that we were too old to play stuck in the mud and couldn't play kiss chase anymore without it being too embarrassing to survive.

That time the teacher made me go into the girls' changing room to collect the shower key for the boys' changing room.  While the girls were showering.

That time I was frogmarched into the headmaster's office so he could be shown just how awkwardly I held a pen and what a bizarre writing technique I have.

That time I lent my rock collection to the school for a display and never got it back and everyone pleaded ignorance.  I didn't see my collection again.  Until the day I was frogmarched into the headmaster's office so he could be shown my penmanship.

That time it was rumoured that Mad Mary was lurking down the bank near the school and everyone was far more frightened than they needed to be.

That time two of us got to choose which computer the school should buy for educational purposes.  We said to buy a Spectrum.  It was never used for educational purposes.  But we did enjoy getting to play Manic Miner at lunchtime.

That time I went home for lunch and came back just as my class were finishing off a game of strip poker and I missed out on the sight of the same J I mentioned above, who I was told had stripped to just her knickers.  We were ten.

That time S phoned me on a Saturday and asked me if I wanted to visit her that day.  I said I couldn't because my uncle and aunt were visiting and later my mother told me off and said I should have gone.  I thought staying for family was the rule.  I forgot to tell S I was sorry and we could meet on another weekend.  She didn't phone again.  Of all the events of my middle school years, perhaps I regret that social error the most.

That time I danced with the headmaster's pretty daughter at a ceilidh.

That time I danced with the headmaster at a ceilidh.

That time ... that whole rotten year in which I spent nearly every break time and lunch time solving everyone's bloody Rubik's Cubes for them.  My best time was less than thirty seconds.  They usually took me a minute.  That's nothing compared to the times of champions but my solving techniques were primitive.

That time I laughed in a sex education class because PB was playing silly buggers with a Rubik's Cube and I nearly got myself thrown out of sex education because Mrs B. thought I was laughing at whatever was on the screen.  It can't have been that exciting.  We were more entertained by a puzzle toy.

That time I snapped and very nearly broke someone's finger when I bent it back forcefully.  He was a perfectly nice boy.  But I snapped that day.

That time we were all taken to a big agricultural show and had to write a project about "some aspect of what we saw there."  They wanted a project about farming.  Mine was about nuclear power.

That time Mrs. J took us all to a battery farm with the hope that we might all turn out to be vegetarians.  When I saw the slurry pit I flashbacked to a public information film we had been shown some years before.  Apaches.  I still shudder at the memory of how that boy fell into the slurry pit and drowned.

That time I refused to do a piece of work on the very sensible - I thought - grounds that I had done exactly the same piece of work two weeks previously and not made an error and that my time would be better spent doing something new.  The teacher was unable to be reasonable.

That time I tied in a dead heat in the 200 metres with A.  He and his whole family would later change their names in an attempt to lessen the racial abuse they regularly received.

That time I was in a school play and had to sneeze the main character out of my nose.  I was a workman in that play.  And a clown who told awful jokes.  And a violinist.  And, my piece de resistance, a bus stop.  It was the height of my acting career.  I have never performed publicly in a play since.  I was eleven.

I AM that workman. Before the fateful, overacted sneeze.

That time we performed in a class assembly and I played a French hotel manager.  CC played one of the teachers at the school and we had a passionate holiday romance.  The teacher was not pleased.

That time I realised I was much better at netball than rugby and that it was a far more enjoyable game with far less chance of being hurt.  I didn't get to play very often.  I was a boy.

That time I finally convinced them to let me go in the big swimming pool because the little one was too shallow for me to swim in.  There were only two swimming sessions left at the school.

That time some evil swine stole one of my marbles in the playground.

That time some evil swine stole one of my Lego people at Sunday School, promised to give it back the next week, and was never seen again.  Not a school memory.  I do apologise.  I was ten.

That time we used to play Star Wars for a term and people thought I was a bizarre individual because I never wanted to be Luke or Han.  I wanted to be R2D2.  Or Leia.  What boy wouldn't want to be Leia?

That time a boy lost a shoe on a cross country and one of the teachers thumped him, not for the only time, and we made an unsuccessful petition to get the teacher sacked.

That time I went to a Christmas party at the headmaster's house and all the teachers were there.

That time my brother and I were at Mrs B's house and she showed us all the magic props they had used in a local theatre production and explained how they all worked.

That time I experienced my first real period of what was later diagnosed as depression.

That time, those many times, I tried to be myself and to use my head as best as I can.  Teachers taught me not to.  They taught me that being clever is a curse and that it inconveniences everyone.  They taught me that being mediocre is the way to go.

That time they slapped me down for being me.

Those times they kept slapping me down for being me.

That time I first chose to hide myself.

That time I was broken inside.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Shut Down, Afraid, And Helpless On A City Centre Bench

I've ignored my prompt list again.  Today's post is a diary of my experiences on Monday, 20th February.  If only the PIP tribunal experts had been there to witness my day.

Sunderland, October 2016

The onslaught to my senses was nearly too much.  I'd known it was going to be a hard day but I was determined.  I would face it anyway and surely it wouldn't be too bad.  If I had known in advance I would have stayed at home.  I wouldn't have had the courage to face it.  Or perhaps would have lacked the masochism necessary to willingly walk into such a turn of events.  That morning I felt rough.  The walls seemed to be closing in and everything felt just that bit too loud, too fast, too bright, too prickly.  Sensory processing disorder is something I wouldn't wish on anyone.  Not even a Nazi.  I'm fortunate though.  For me it waxes and wanes.  For others it only waxes.  I have days with hardly a sensory care in the world, days on which the wild mean city streets are no threat to my troubled brain.  On some days I can cross the expanses even of central London, walk where I have never walked before, and I can smile all the way and enjoy everything I see.

Yesterday was not such a day.  Had I been sensible, played the part of the wise woman, I would have adjusted my plans accordingly.  Stayed in the quiet until I absolutely needed to enter the world.  But  couldn't do that could I?  Because a plan is a plan and once it's set in the stone of my mind it's hard to change it.  Everyone knows that change can cause anxiety.  For me that problem is multiplied and, unfortunately, it's squared and cubed most on the days when sensory trauma is at its worst.  I couldn't change.  Couldn't stay home.  Because ... well, I just couldn't.  Perhaps there's no point trying to explain how to consider changing felt like my brain was being eaten by rats.  Perhaps there's no point pointing out just how heavy was the rock and how diamond sharp was the hard place I was stuck between.  At least by choosing to follow the plan there was a chance everything turn out okay.

So I left my home.  As planned.  Precisely as planned.  Of course I did.  At some point in the time frame between nine thirty-two and nine thirty-three in the morning.  Of course I did.  It was the plan.  Stick to the plan.  It's the only way.  Even when it hurts.  The metro journey was awful.  I couldn't focus on a book, on my phone, on the view, on anything.  Even with noise cancelling headphones the train carriage noise broke through all defences I tried to erect.  A quiet conversation became a killing avalanche.  The shuffling of feet became a herd of dinosaurs, fierce blood-covered teeth, hungry for my demise.  The announcements though.  They were a solace.  I know many of them so well.  "The next station is Regent Centre.  Change here for local bus services."   "The next station is Haymarket.  Change here for city centre shopping and local bus services."  "Ping!  This is Heworth."  Their regularity is an anchor.

At Gateshead things got much harder.  A man got on and sat opposite me.  A normal occurrence.  But this guy stank.  I'm sure others have smelled far worse but my olfactory responses were set beyond maximum and I'm sure the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise had switched off all safety protocols and had somehow been able to break the laws of physics yet again.  It was dreadful.  He smelled of mould.  Strongly of mould as if he was a house full of dry rot, wet rot and half eaten by fungi.  He smelled too of ammonia and it felt as though my nasal passageways were being eaten away by the acrid chemical influence.  He also smelled of urine, of death, of food left out too long.  And he smelled of things I couldn't even name.  Every now and again he would eat a peppermint.  Somehow  that only made things worse.

I wonder what other passengers thought of him.  Were they as affected as me?  Were they having to fight back vomit and travel with their hands over their face to conceal at least part of the scent?  No.  I was the only one using the hand technique.  An inefficient mask but it was all I felt I could get away with.  I considered getting off the Metro.  Catch a later one.  But I couldn't.  Because the plan.  Got to stick to the plan.  Can't deviate.  Deviation is immoral!  In the end I was able to compromise with myself.  Get off one stop early.  And walk.  I nearly got off three stops early.

Sunderland felt very hard.  Sometimes I've been there and it's felt easy.  That day I discovered all the street art.  That felt easy even though my plan for the day went completely wrong.  That day I happened to meet a bunch of strangers on the Wearmouth bridge and walked to North Shields with them.  That was a happy, easy day.  The day I photographed all the Snowdogs and argued with a group of fundamentalist Christian preachers.  That was an easy day too.

But yesterday?  That grew more and more difficult as time progressed.  Pretty much everything seemed to smell.  Everything was too loud.  I couldn't face the difficulties of navigating charity shops.  Then there was a food and drink issue.  I was meeting someone at one and was meant to have lunch by then.  From eleven o'clock I was on a food and drink hunt.  Trying to form some coherent plan and failing.  A meal in a cafe?  Or just a drink, and a pasty or some chips from somewhere?  I couldn't decide at all and spent and hour wandering the streets not coping with the fact of having to think about food.  I managed to focus enough and decide on three cafes.  The first was too loud.  The second was closed that day.  The third had completely shut down.  I went into a bit of a tailspin.  Food anxiety took over and it took all my remaining mental resources to solve my problem.

I settled with buying an "ultimate" chip butty from somewhere within the vicinity of Park Lane Metro station.  It was bloody awful!  The worst I have ever experienced.  The chips were just crunch.  All the way through.  Orange crunch.  Hollow except for where they were filled with fat.  The cheese was almost tasteless and the vendor's definition of "melted" did not seem to be the same as mine.  The garlic sauce overpowered the entire universe.  And the butty itself was dire too.  The only possible sense in which the whole thing could be called an "ultimate" chip butty would have been the sense of finality.  Eat this and you will never be able to face another for the rest of your life.  I am now able to report back on three totally crap portions of chips I've bought within the vicinity of Park Lane Metro station.  Sunderland has, so far, won in the crap chip awards.

I tried to eat it though.  Sat myself down on one of the metal benches near the station and tried to eat.  I was an automaton by this point, doing everything out of some distant habit.  I felt like giving in and wished I had been able to allow myself to not got to Sunderland at all until I was meeting a friend.  I was a wreck.  But I knew I had to continue.  For my friend.  So we could have a good time together.

And then it happened and for a while my life fell apart.

Sunderland, November 2016

She messaged me.  Saying she couldn't meet me after all.  It wasn't her fault.  Things happen.  But what remained of my mental capabilities collapsed.  The only thing that had been holding me together was the plan and the knowledge that something good was coming.  With the plan destroyed with a megaton of TNT I had no way of clawing myself back into a new plan.

I knew I had to get home.  I also knew that under the circumstances, I couldn't.  I wouldn't be able to face the Metro.  I tried to contemplate a bus but the images of a bus ride just increased my panic.  Couldn't do it.  I even considered walking home.  From Sunderland.  God knows if I would have made it.  And then I couldn't get up at all.  It took everything in my power not to just curl up under the bench for a bit of security.

I was not safe.  I could not begin to look after myself.  I was in danger.  Real danger.  From myself.

I was scared.  Bloody frightened.  I didn't know what to do.  I didn't want to cry.  Didn't want the people of Sunderland to be staring at me more than they had been all morning.  Yeah, they stared.  Over and over again I would notice people staring at me.  I get some looks in Newcastle still.  In Sunderland I get stares.  Many, many stares.  Many stares come from men of middle eastern extraction.  Don't think that's racist.  I know that saying what I said will have people making such accusations.  I'm just reporting the truth.  A horribly high proportion of men of middle eastern extraction stare at me.  At least, they do in Sunderland.  But it's not just them.  Old white men, white women, young white men.  People of every variety stare at me.  And, I hate to say this, they do it so much that I don't feel safe.

Get that into your heads Sunderland people, Wearside Mackems:  There are times I don't feel safe in your city.

So there I was.  Stuck.  Totally stuck.  I couldn't do a bloody thing about it.  Not a thing.  I just felt worse and worse and spiraled.

Fortunately the friend who couldn't meet me didn't desert me.  Fortunately technology is what it is and two people can message each other without bringing down the telecommunications industry.  She stayed with me.  Talked in sentences while I fell to using broken words.  I was terrified to realise I couldn't get myself home.  And too paralysed even to accept an offer of getting someone else to come and collect me and drive me all the way back to Newcastle.  That bench was cold.  And without those messages I would have felt more alone than I have felt in my life.

Eventually we formed a plan.  She told me of a cafe nearby that played no music.  I agreed to try to get there.  It took time.  Time to get up.  Time to start the walk.  Time to face the streets again.  But I made it to the cafe.

And I couldn't sit in it.  The smell was too bad.  Even on a day of not having to cope with my senses being crazy I wouldn't have wanted to sit and drink tea surrounded by such a scent.  A little like if you boil cabbage and sprouts for six hours and then leave them in the kitchen in an open pan for a week.  I left the cafe again.

We tried a second plan.  Why not go and sit in the library?  It's quiet.  It has space.  At a push I would be able to hire a study room.  So why not?  I'll tell you why not.  Because the old city centre library has been closed.  It's gone.  At least, it's moved.

We tried a third plan.  Since the new library is close by, why not sit in that one.  It'll be quiet.  Twenty minutes later I had reached the library.  Two hundred yards away from the old one.  I found the quietest chair there.  It was noisy!  The new library is in one room.  Not a massive room.  And the door opens onto a busy and noisy corridor.  Everything is very cramped.  It's awful.  The people of Sunderland know it is.  Sorry Sunderland Council but your cutbacks have given your city a library to be ashamed of.  It's very nice I suppose that you found the money for a new big bridge over the river.  Just think.  You could have spent some of that on encouraging literacy.  Or on maintaining support and refuges for women who have been raped.  That would be good too.

In the end it was me who came up with a fourth plan.  I would go to a cafe.  I'd seen it before.  Several times.  I'd even gone in.  Twice.  And not stayed.  I decided that it would be okay.  Even though they play music, they choice would probably be better than the music I was hearing in the library.  A child stood and played with a library supplied tablet on the wall.  In the middle of the adult reference books.  And she made it play the same song.  Over and over again.

I reached the cafe.  It was almost deserted.  I ordered coke, needing both sugar and caffeine.  And I sat down in a reasonably secluded spot.  I spent ninety minutes there.  Calming myself.  Finding that place of safety in myself.  On the way to the toilet I broke my bracelet.  That didn't help me.

By four o'clock I was ready.  I would face the Metro.  I knew I could do it and - barring anything unforeseen such as the entire Metro system being suspended - I would be able to get home.

So.  What can I say about the day?  Was it a bad day?  Yes.  I can say that.  Any day that I shut down on a bench and can't get myself to safety is a bad day.  They happen sometimes.  Today I saw the nurse for a blood test and we talked of yesterday and about other days too.  I am now officially at a moderate risk of suicide.  But don't worry.  That's not going to happen, not when I have so much to live for and when there are so many bloody good things in my life.  I want to write, perform, meet friends, sing, dance and generally have a wild time.  I want more than that too.  I want as much as my sometimes very limited capabilities will allow.  But yesterday.  That was a bad day.

Sunderland, November 2016

Strangely I can also say it's a good day.

How can it be a bad day when I wrote a blog post before going out?  A slightly wacky short story.  It'll get published tomorrow (or yesterday because this one will be posted the day after that).  If you haven't read it, read it!  I think it's pretty good.  I also wrote in the cafe.  Two poems.  One, about being stared at, is basically good enough to perform as it is.  The other is about the death of my bracelet.

How can it be a bad day when it included writing a short story and two decent poems and when this post came directly from my experiences?

How can it be a bad day when I write something that only increases my desire to be a performer?  Watch this space:  Clare Matthews solo show!  How about a first half of short pieces?  Followed by a second half mostly consisting of a single monologue I wrote a while ago?  The idea is in my head.  It turns out that I want it to happen one day.  Why shouldn't it?

How can it be a bad day when a friend stayed with me through my hours of hell and got me to a safe space?  How can it be a bad day when she later showed me hundreds of pages of writing tips she's gathered over the years?  How can it be a bad day when we've agreed that we will, another day, go somewhere nicer than Sunderland?

How can it be a bad day when I have a home to return to, and family, and when there is food to eat?

And the bonuses of the morning:

How can it be a bad day when I bought liquorice and when I found a game I like in one of the few charity shops I managed?

How can it be a bad day when an email arrives telling me dates for more drama workshops - and I know I can get to them and when I realise too that I will be able to get to the next performance poetry workshop?

How can it be a bad day when I can relax for much of the evening with an old computer game that I don't have to think about?

How can it be a bad day when someone is buying a replacement bracelet for me much like the one I inadvertently killed?  And not just one.  A whole packet.  In different colours.

Yeah, I shut down in Sunderland city centre.  I did.  And it was a horrible, horrible thing.  Yeah, I'm still feeling the effects of it today.

But I will tell you this.  It was a good day.

[2865 words]

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

It Was Beaks At Dawn When The Avocet and Curlew Went To War

Last night I said some random words to my wife.  This morning I've free written from them.  What follows is the result.  I had some ideas as I began to write.  Most of them weren't used.  One idea was to write a bird poem and include lots of bad bird puns.  Instead there's this piece of silliness!

Yesterday (Sunday) I didn't write a post.  Oh dear.  So I'm playing catch up today and need to write a second post this evening.  I didn't write but I did attend a performance poetry workshop for the first time.  And for the first time ever I performed a poem I wrote.  To an audience of poets, to be critiqued.  In many ways that's the safest place to begin.  A bunch of poets isn't likely to say, "Ooh that was total crap.  Get out and don't you dare come here again you fake poet!"  Every one of them knows how hard it is and everyone is there to encourage others to write and perform as best as they can.  Which means that all critique is constructive and even if something is total crap it's a learning experience rather than a damning one.  But I wasn't total crap, either in the words or the performance.  Far from it.  Happily, I should be able to get to the next workshop.  By that time I will have performed at least one short piece before a room full of people.  Another step in the plan without a plan.

Here then is the first piece of writing for today.  You will notice that I've totally ignored the writing prompt list.  That doesn't matter.  This blog is about writing not lists.

In the duel between the avocet and the curlew it was beaks at dawn.

Ornithological history does not record which of the birds began the argument. All we know for sure is that one small barb led to another and another until they could hardly bear to inhabit the same piece of waterway. While it is true that each would criticise the other for their plumage, and many suspect that both were jealous, the main sticking point was their beaks.

The avocet would say “Look at you, you're upside down and stupid. That beak of yours is ridiculous. Why would anyone want something as useless as that down-curving monstrosity on the end of your face?”

And the curlew would reply, “My beak is a wonder. It's the stuff of legend. Anyway, it's much better than yours. Yours is up-turned. I suppose that's apt for such a stuck up bird. You've got ideas above your station.”

A curlew. Image from the RSPB

The avocet said, “It's not my fault the bird people made me their emblem. They took one look at me and knew I was best and my beak was perfect.”

“They only did it for the sympathy vote knowing they would get extra donations when people saw just how pitiful you were. So turn your beak round now before I rip it off your face.”

That did it. The avocet didn't want to listen to any more of such talk. The marsh was only big enough for the one of them. So he said, “I challenge you to a duel. We shall fight to the death. Or until one of us gives up.”

“That's easy. I'll win. Tomorrow morning at dawn we shall meet on the waterfront and fight.”

The following morning a crowd gathered. The official duel adjudicator was there too with his case of weapons. The finest of juggling clubs, hula hoops and frisbees were combined with ribbons, bubbles, and a selection of stick on red noses. He was so embarrassed when he opened up the case and everyone saw he had made an error of judgement, bringing everything from his other job as circus clown. The duel was postponed for the day. Nobody minded too much. The birds spent the day playing as best they could. But it's hard to blow bubbles when you're a bird.

An avocet.  Image from the RSPB

The following morning a bigger crowd gathered. The official duel adjudicator was there again with his case of weapons. This time he hadn't made a mistake. He opened up the trunk and everyone oohed and aahed over the cache. The finest of wooded clubs was supplemented by a selection of swords, bottles, knives, guns, and even a pair of intricately decorated tickling sticks although the adjudicator later admitted they should have been in his other case.

The avocet and curlew stared at the case and shouted at each other.

“I'm gonna cut you up into tiny pieces. See if I don't.”

“You little ass-wipe. Go get eaten by a cat! One bullet into your bird brain and everyone will tweet and squawk in celebration of my victory.”

They continued insulting each other and the language grew more and more fruity until an entire orchard of trees collapsed under the weight of words. It took until seven in the evening before they could agree on how to try to kill each other and the whole duel had to be postponed.

The following morning a crowd gathered that was so big they could hardly fit in the wetlands at all. A family of capercaillie had travelled down especially on the night train and a video link had been set up because a blood thirsty emu wanted to watch. The duel adjudicator was there again with his case of weapons and a smile on his face because he got double pay for overtime.

The avocet and the curlew approached the chest.

“Take up your weapons,” the adjudicator intoned imperiously.

The two birds bent down over the chest and took up the weapons in their beaks. Each would have a jewel encrusted sword. A gentleman's weapon although neither thought the other a gentleman. It was then that everyone realised there had been a miscalculation.

For whether your beak is upturned or downturned it's not a swordsman's anatomy of choice. Neither bird could pick up their sword. They tried hard. For most of the day. The crowds got bored and would have demanded their money back had it not been for a troupe of eagles laying on an aerobatic display that everyone appreciated. Everyone that is apart from the pigeons who were shanghaied into being part of the display and were dined on that evening. The ice cream seller was happiest of all because she nearly sold her entire stock to hot birds, without once stopping to wonder how the birds happened to be carrying money or how they might have all managed to carry the cones.

The avocet and the curlew were encouraged to try other weapons. But it was no good. The avocet could hang a gun from his beak but such a weapon just fell off when the curlew tried to pick it up. It wasn't really any use for the avocet either because he found there was no way to aim a gun hung from a beak. Let alone reach up with is wing and fire. Even the wooden clubs were impossible.

It was an owl who proposed the solution. “I propose the solution of unarmed combat,” he said.

The curlew laughed. “Unarmed combat? You unwise owl you. Of course it'll be unarmed. Because we haven't got arms to combat with. We've got wings. And that's where the problem lies. Wings are excellent for flight but useless for weapon carrying.”

A penguin and an ostrich from the local zoo were heard to grumble at the mention of flight but that only made some of the other birds turn and laugh at them.

The owl said. “No, no, I meant you should fight without weapons. Bird to bird combat. Just use your beaks as swords and you'll soon see which is better. Or at least which is better for duelling.”

The avocet and the curlew looked at each other and nodded. They would do as the owl said. But it was getting late so the duel was postponed once more.

The following morning a crowd gathered. It was smaller. Some of the birds had needed to get home. The duel adjudicator was there. He had left his case at home, locked up in a big safe. He announced the rules. The two birds would stand back to back and take twenty paces, turn and then charge at each other and fight on his command.

They lined up on the beach happy to face away from each other. They paced. Turned. There was beak hatred in their eyes. The adjudicator shouted, loudly, “Ready … steady … GO!” and the birds ran and flapped, meaning to impale each other.

They didn't get a chance. When they were still ten paces apart a puffin suddenly flapped down between them and cried “STOP! Stop this madness.”
The avocet stopped.

The curlew stopped. Fell over. Ungracefully stood again.

They stared at the puffin. Stared some more.

The puffin said, “There's no need to fight about which of your beaks is the best. You, avocet, look fine in your plumage and with your upturned beak. And you, curlew, look just as good in your plumage and with your downturned beak. There's no denying that. Your beaks are both good so give each other a hug.”

The avocet and curlew approached each other. They had to admit it. The puffin was quite right. So they lifted up their wings and hugged each other warmly before deciding to head off to a seafood restaurant for a make-up meal.

The puffin smiled. As best as a beaked creature can smile.

My work here is done. I must return to my island now.”

He flew off and as he did so he called back to the crowds.

“Anyone with half a brain can see the truth. My beak is the best in the world.”

[1362 words]

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

What Martin Luther King Told Me When I Said His Dream Had Come True

I'm taking a break from writing from the list of prompts today.  I felt I had to at least attempt to write about something very different.

Today I attended a conference that was part of a series of events in Newcastle commemorating the occasion in 1967 when Doctor Martin Luther King was invited to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University.  While in the United Kingdom Doctor King received only one such honour and here in Newcastle we're proud that honouring the great civil rights campaigner is a part of our heritage.  Geordies have historically been proud to be a welcoming people and I am glad to live here.  Newcastle is also an official City of Sanctuary and this year is known as Freedom City.  There are racists here too of course, various social issues and we've got levels of economic disadvantages that are by no means the worst in Britain but which would be unknown to someone living in Guildford!

I was only able to make the first half of the conference unfortunately.  The second half looked very interesting and included talks about people's experiences both working with refugees and being a refugee.  I wanted to hear them but was getting pretty overwhelmed and anxious and ended up finding a quiet room that I possibly wasn't meant to be finding and hiding on the floor behind some chairs for a while before deciding that even if I did manage to get into the main hall again I wouldn't be able to take in anything that was said.  Sadly, I had to leave.

The main hall was an interesting place to hold the conference.  Because it was the place where Doctor King received his degree.  He made a speech too.  It's not as famous as "I have a dream ..." but it's worth listening to.  Fortunately it's available on YouTube.

He speaks of three major problems affecting people in 1967.

Racism, poverty, and war.

Fifty years later none of those problems have been solved.  Fifty years later there is still a need for people like MLK to speak out and act for justice.  Some of the battles today are different.  Some remain the same.  Some things have improved.  Unfortunately others have not.

During the first talk today I scribbled a few notes and thoughts.  They've formed the basis for a bit of free writing this afternoon.  I scrapped my first attempt because I could see it wouldn't work.  The second is entirely unpolished.  The form is not as I wanted but the idea is.  Perhaps one day I will return to it and change the form.

I want too to write about the churches one day.  About their involvement in civil rights both as a positive force and a negative one.  Many of the churches who fought for equality on racial grounds are the very same churches who fight against equality on grounds of sexuality and who preach against transgender rights too.  They say they're being Biblical.  They said the same in 1967 too even though there were Christians of that day telling them they were being very unbiblical, and some who even talked about all black people being cursed.  I could give you chapter and verse for that curse - at least, that's how they interpret it.  It's a sad thing too that so many churches are still totally segregated both in the UK and here in the UK.  There are white churches and black churches.  And never shall they meet together unless Songs of Praise is being filmed.  This segregation is rooted in a history of racism and oppression.  Jesus wept.

If you want to know more about the Freedom City events the website is http://freedomcity2017.com/

Free writing attempt number one:

They said we stand on the shoulders of giants.
They were wrong.
Today I caught a glimpse of a giant
Caught hold of his coat and asked him to lift me up.
He refused to carry me.
Told me to stand on my own feet, find my own strength
And become my own giant.

Today I walked in the footsteps of a hero
Until he turned to face me, held out his hand,
And pushed me away with his wisdom,
Saying "You see where the tracks in the sand finish?
That's the end of my journey,
Make it the beginning of your own."

Free writing attempt number two:

I bowed before the dreamer.
Fell prostrate before the prophet.
In ignorance I spoke:
"When you spoke out your dream
The whole world listened.
When you spoke out your vision
The whole world changed.
For justice you were matyred
But your dream came true.
In death was your victory.
In suffering you won."

He answered.  "Did I?
How can you bear to tell me such lies?
You think because we had a black president everything is renewed?
You think just because there are black men scattered
Irregularly in government that justice is borne out in the lives of all?
You think legislation has triumphed over hatred?
Whatever gave you those ideas?  Who gave such notions to you?
Just look around you again.
Look at my country, look at what we've become.
How can you say that I've won when I fought
For racial integration in the schools of America
And fifty years on they're more segregated than I ever dreamed?
How can you say the black man lives in the land of free
When our prisons are filled with my brothers
And our streets are unsafe.  When my people
Are stopped, searched, Tasered, brutalised and killed
By the government funded police forces?
How can you say we're all equal now
When my brothers live in greater poverty in a divide
That keeps on growing in ever despairing circles,
When many of us can't gain employment from the white bosses
And those of us who do end up still bottom of the pile
Working lives, underpaid and hungry in fast food restaurants?
How can you tell me my dream came true
When black and white still can't meet together in a house of God
And when the Ku Klux Klan still burns it's anti-Christian crosses
In hatred and its membership roll continues to blossom?
How dare you point to one black President and say I won
When he's gone, and racism rules in our nation again,
When every freedom that one black man achieved for us
May be wiped away as quickly as the tears that fall from my eyes today?
How can you say we all walk hand in hand when the normal response
To learning that the life of a black man matters
Is to say that all lives matter?  As if all lives are the same.
As if there is no privileged place for those of lighter skin.
And when my brothers and sisters continue to die young
And live their shortened years deprived of basic rights
You cannot tell me I no longer need to dream that dream."

I closed my ears and shook my head.
Placed my hand over his mouth.
I did not wish to listen to such words
When it was easier to rest in satisfaction
Easier to congratulate the fighters of the past
And turn my back on the fight of the present.
Anyway, that was his country not mine.
So what did it matter to me?
Why care if their justice has been trumped?

He threw my hand off, stared at me in anger.
"If you won't consider my nation, look at yours.
You think everything is perfect?  You damned fool.
Race relations acts, equality acts, every kind of act?
Do you fancifully fantasise that a mere piece of paper
Can change a million hearts?  You couldn't be more wrong.
See too how those acts are rarely enforced and impermanent.
They give out Human Rights and then take them away.
Look to the broken windows of the black family
On your own estate, how they were forced to flee.
Look to the insults you've seen on the street.
Take note for once and take action for the abused.
See how the Nazis gather even at your own freeom Monument
Under other names but full of the same hate.
Remember how many people clicked that they liked the
Fascists and racists of Britain First
Shared their ravings, spread the word at exponential speed.
See how your own government promises justice
And then turns away from it as soon as they can.
How the welcome for refugees becomes a slammed door.
Remember how many millions still buy papers
Unashamed, boasting of the racist lies on the cover.
See how many of my brothers are in your own prisons,
How many are deprived in so called freedom.
If that isn't enough to convince you, consider this:
See how many black people you can see here today.

And I looked.  He was right.
Fifty years before we had honoured him.
He'd stood on that same spot and we said we loved him.
Proclaimed him Doctor Martin Luther King.
I looked at the walls, the portraits staring down at the dreamer
I saw the ten white men in their robes.
And the one white women.
I looked too and I saw more women,
The inspiring women of the North East
Among their faces I tried to find some colour
A women I could point to as a sign of the Doctor's victory.
There was none to be found in those portraits of whitewashed inspiration.
Doctor Martin Luther King.
Alone of his colour.
As alone now as he ever was.

I bowed once more before the dreamer.
In revealed anguish I wept.
Asked what I could do.
He lifted me up, embraced me tightly
Saying "Be a brother to my brother,
A sister to my sisters."
Then he turned to the white walls and shouted.

"I still have a dream.
We shall overcome.
Some day."