There are times when what is to be said looks out of the past at you – looks like someone at a window and you in the street as you walk along. Past hours, past acts, take on an uncanny isolation; between them and you who look back on them now there is no continuity.

Alexander Trocchi


His friend proposed the trip shortly after he moved to London. A celebration of sorts, to mark his arrival in the capital. The beginning of bigger, better things. 

The dizygotic possibilities of visiting Malmo and Copenhagen appealed to him. Here were two cities of similar cultural outlook, divided by a large body of water; two nations separate and distinct, linked by a slim bridge of steel and concrete. There was a strange familiarity to Scandinavia, an enhanced Britishness in their way of doing things, politically more liberal and socially more conscientious. It was a fanciful notion, for he knew next to nothing about Scandinavian culture. He hadn't actually read Kierkegaard, though he had taken the time to familiarise himself with his more notable quotes:

Train yourself in the art of becoming enigmatic to everybody.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

There are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.

They flew from Stansted early one overcast November morning, touching down in a bitterly cold Malmo a few hours later. Frigid air from the Baltic Sea bled into the city. The icy wind wove into the fibres of their clothing, insinuating itself against their flesh.

Lacking a winter coat, he had brought only a threadbare corduroy blazer he found at a flea market in Liverpool several months earlier, back when he was studying to be a journalist and trying to be a poet. He combined the blazer with a pair of brown boot-cut cords, topped and tailed with a brown beanie and brown desert boots. His only piece of luggage a brown Dunlop satchel containing his notebooks and his father’s old Canon SLR, which he didn’t know how to use; his smoking tin, for his rolling tobacco and liquorice papers; a change of underwear and a clean shirt; and the novel he had just begun reading, Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam.   

After finding a cheap hotel they ventured out into the city, through its nondescript central plaza and the shopping district where over lunch they watched Swedish mothers awkwardly manoeuvring bulky heritage prams. From there into the Kungspark with its nearly-naked trees and unromantic ornamental lake, before returning to the centre to find a bar and try their first stor stark, drinking steadily into the night.

The next morning, hungover, they bought train tickets to Copenhagen and rode across the Oresund Bridge into Denmark, under a sky so blue it might have been made of glass. As they crossed the Oresund strait, the struts of the bridge flickered like a movie reel. Sunlight glinted on the scuffed water.

They found a room at the Comfort Hotel in the Vestboro district, a short walk from the central station, followed by more walking. His head ached from staring dumbly at the map, from attempting to navigate the incomprehensible names of streets and the crowds of the shopping district.

Passing the city’s university buildings, its library with a huge glass façade, the tiered floors where Denmark’s brightest minds toiled behind perfectly-aligned ergonomic desks, he thought about the missed opportunities of his time at university, the entropic years spent at his parents' house post-graduation, sequestered in his room smoking dope, the six months in a bedsit in Liverpool, his aborted career as a journalist, his pallid attempts at poetry.

What is a poet? wrote Kierkegaard in Either/Or. An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart. He couldn’t say when he and his friend had stopped speaking, but they had exchanged barely a word as they crisscrossed the city, pausing only to consult the map or retrace their steps. It grew dark. Brown leaves blew about their ankles. As the sun began to set they reached the edge of a large canal, or a river. The water had caught the deep blues and bright white light of the evening sky, in a near-perfect mirroring, divided by the silhouetted buildings of the opposite bank and disturbed by the concentric wakes of a handful of water birds. They stood side by side and took near-identical photographs of the scene.


As the evening wore tempers began to fray. He wanted to go to Freetown Christiania to score weed, but his friend wouldn’t entertain the idea. He sulked and tried to strike up conversations with random strangers to make his friend uncomfortable. In an Irish bar that evening he disrupted a pub quiz to provoke an argument. He drank so much, so fast, that he spent more time at the urinal than seated at the bar. The booze was coursing through him, his sullied flesh melting.

He woke in the hotel room late the next morning with no memory how they got back. As they ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant he saw his hands were shaking.

As they set out again that morning his friend suggested that, by way of conciliation, for their last night in Copenhagen they should go to the lap-dancing bar near the hotel. They had passed the bar the day before and had their heads turned by the posters of scantily clad ladies near the entrance. He had never been to a lap-dancing bar before, viewing them as a last resort for the hopeless and incapable. Even their sense of spectacle didn't appeal. Now the bar beckoned him like a siren call.

There was more perfunctory sightseeing that morning, then after the lunch the first Tuborg of the day. Then the second, and a third. By now they were in agreement that Copenhagen was best seen from the inside of a pint glass.

They drank all afternoon and stumbled into the lapdancing bar in the late evening. After paying the small surcharge to gain entry, they walked into a large room, almost entirely black, spot-lit and adorned with red drapes. In the left corner of the room there was a small bar; in the right corner, a circular stage with fireman’s pole in the center. Arranged around the room’s perimeter a number of sofas, where sparse groups of males sat drinking and laughing; one or two solitary men perched on stools, staring at the women writhing on the stage.

No sooner had he and his friend ordered their drinks at the bar than two women approached them: a older blonde with an elfin haircut, and an Asian girl with a black bob, in a black basque with deep cleavage. They women linked their arms through theirs – the Asian girl favoured him, the blonde his friend – and ushered them towards two vacant sofas.

They asked him if they wanted to buy a bottle of house champagne. His friend demurred but he, being inebriated to the point of idiocy, agreed, and was immediately presented with an ice bucket containing an opened, lukewarm bottle of barely-sparkling wine, accompanied by a bar bill for 2000 Danish Kroner, the equivalent to two months’ wages.

The Asian girl clapped her hands with delight, and poured the champagne into four flutes. As he sipped the tepid liquid she began running her hand up and down the buttons of his shirt, and into the small openings between the buttons, so he could feel her nails on the bare skin of his chest. The first intimations of arousal. The Asian girl initiated her first lines of enquiry.

I like you. You are very handsome. A very handsome man. Do you like me? Do you find me attractive? Do you like my outfit? How about my body, baby? Do you like my body? Hmm?

She began rubbing herself against him. My breasts are fake, she continued, but they look good, and feel even better. Just imagine them in your face. Would you like to feel them?

She asked him if he wanted to feel them. He declined, but in response she took his hand and placed it upon her bosom. She looked at his and smiled. Very nice, he said and took his hand away. Then she hooked one of her legs over his and pulled him closer to her, so he close he could feel her breath on his lips.

Do you want to fuck me? The Asian girl asked.

He glanced over at his friend, who was still talking to the blonde.

Not right this second, he replied, I have an expensive bottle of cheap champagne to finish.

You can bring the bottle with you, she said. He asked her how much and she told him it would be 2500 Danish Kroner. Any wriggle room on that? He asked, and she shook her head. 2500, she repeated.

She stood and attempted to pull him up by his arm. Come on, let’s go, let’s go, she said. Stalling, he asked her if he could have a dance instead.

Okay, one dance, she said. I do it on the stage for you, and then we go upstairs, ok?

Ok, he said, and quaffed his champagne. There was no way he was going upstairs.

His friend was still talking to the blonde, with an intensity that he was loath to dispel. Their faces were almost touching and it was impossible to hear what they were saying over the music. He drained his glass and looked over his shoulder. Onstage the Asian girl was peeling off her lingerie and strutting around the pole, eyes fixed on him as he self-consciously sipped his champagne. That said, he was enjoying the absurd turn their blundering into a brothel had taken. He had no intention of sleeping with her, irrespective of her persistence. 

Now completely naked, the Asian girl returned to the sofa. Did you enjoy?

Very nice, he repeated, swallowing hard.

Come on, she said. Two thousand Kroner. I want you to fuck me. He apologised and explained that he could not afford it, as much as he wanted to. She asked him again. Once more he refused. She sighed, then stood and walked away from him, shaking her head. He watched her opalescent body sashay away from him, the goose-bumped behind disappearing through a curtain beside the bar.

He finished his drink and descended the stairs to the bathroom. Swaying gently, he emptied his bladder and chuckled to himself.

As he left the gents he noticed a doorway leading to another room with mirrored walls and red banquettes. Curious, he wandered through the doorway, and found himself in a room full of semi-dressed women. For a moment, silence descended over the gathered women as they regarded him, and he regarded them. It was undeniably surreal. He paused for a moment, as he considered whether to walk out of the door, before making for the bar and ordering a beer.

He could feel the eyes of the women on him, and in the mirror above the bar could see them looking at his back while whispering to each other.

Standing there at the bar, drinking his beer with his back to the room, feeling upon him the expectant eyes of the two-dozen women in the basement, he felt both empowered and powerless, at once enthroned and emasculated. He could choose to sleep with any of these women, or not, and for a simple financial exchange, could have access to their body. Or not. He had never been in this position before. It was both unsettling and liberating.

As he sipped his beer he came to understand that these girls were the unfortunates, the girls who weren't permitted onto the upper-floors, where the premier girls plied high-rolling punters with booze and tantalised them with compliments. It was the girls in the basement who handled the less-salubrious clientele, those too drunk, too broke, too ugly or too damaged for the high class girls. It was pity, not lust, which overcame him then, and he resolved to finish his beer and leave.

As he was mulling this over, a petite brunette quietly positioned herself between him and the door. At first he ignored her, but as she moved increasingly close, he turned to allow her to speak to him. She was plain but not unattractive, wearing a light-pink crop-top to emphasise the shape of her breasts, with black leggings and hi-heels. Unlike the girls upstairs she wore very little make up. Just lipstick and blusher.

She asked if he would buy her a drink. He said no, but said she could share his beer. As she tipped the bottle into her mouth it frothed slightly. She wiped her mouth with her fingers, and asking if he would like to come and sit with her for a while. He agreed, and they took a seat on a banquette around the corner from the bar, where there was another couple: a man of Middle Eastern appearance, and a blonde girl in a white dress.

When the brunette spoke he noticed her Eastern European accent. He asked her where she came from. Poland, she replied. Where in Poland? Near Krakow, she replied. How old are you? Nineteen. What’s your name? Lena.

She moved her head close to his and they began to kiss. As they kissed she moved her hand onto his leg and began to knead his inner thigh. He felt himself respond to her touch. She began to kiss him with more insistently, pushing her tongue in his mouth and caressing his crotch with her fingers. She broke off the kiss and asked if he would like to go somewhere with her, and he, recognising the trap was about to be sprung, said no, he couldn’t but would like to continue to kiss her, and she complied, sliding her tongue in languid strokes over his, her breasts pushed against him. As he raised one hand to caress them a soft moan escaped with her breath. She broke off to repeat her inquiry. He agreed.

She rose from the sofa and gently pulled his hand. He stood, and she walked with him to the entrance, where he retrieved his jacket from the cloakroom and she donned her own, a black raincoat. On the way out he saw that his friend and the blonde had gone.

She ushered him out of the exit and across the street, pausing to allow a car to pass, then hurried him down the street to a hole in the wall. How much, he asked. Two thousand, she replied, and he paused to consider it. He wasn’t even sure if he had that much money in his bank account. That was the moment at which he could have said No, I can’t, I’m sorry and walked her to the club and gone back to his hotel, slipped into bed alone and counted himself fortunate. But at that moment, he couldn’t stand the thought of her fucking anyone else. It was ludicrous, it made absolutely no sense, but there it was: he wanted her more than the money, he needed it as though his life depended upon it. So he emptied his account, more money than he’d ever had in his possession at one time, and quickly pushed the roll of notes deep into his underwear, looking around in anticipation of the fist or cosh or club that would come crashing over his head.

It didn’t come. Instead they walked arm in arm up the street to another building, a small, anonymous apartment block. She pressed bell on the intercom, and was buzzed in.

They entered a dimly-lit reception area where a middle-aged woman with short, brown hair and an Asiatic appearance was sitting behind a desk. Unlike the bar, the place was absolutely silent. There was no noise, no movement, no sense of human presence. Nothing but stillness, an early hours of the morning silence that almost rang. 

He took the roll of notes from his underwear and handed it to the woman, who counted it wordlessly, while the Polish girl stood mutely beside him, resting her head against his arm.

The woman nodded that the transaction had been completed, and he and the Polish girl walked arm in arm down a short, dark corridor. He was still drunk, not so drunk that he couldn’t focus on his surroundings or walk straight, but he was operating on autopilot now, being guided by the hand of another into the small room with a single bed, chair and table with lamp, which she clicked on and started to undress, shrugging off her coat and draping it over the back of the chair. He followed suit with his jacket, and moved towards her, began unbuttoning her blouse. She raised her face to his, kissing him as he slid the blouse off her shoulders and threw it over the chair. She returned the favour, unbuttoning his shirt and trousers, slipping her hand inside his underpants.

Then they were naked on the bed and things had changed. She lay inert on her back, eyes closed, so much so that he wondered if she was about to fall asleep. Her skin was beautifully pale and goose-pimpled in the lamplight, her thighs plump and soft, her buttocks pancaked against the mattress, her breasts soft, downy mounds. He kissed her from neck to stomach, and asked if he could kiss her between her legs. She nodded. For several moments he tried in vain to elicit some arousal. She asked him to stop and hurry up and fuck her. He realised then the true value of his choice. 

He stopped. She told him to lie on his back, and she got up from the bed and moved to the table. Taking a packet from a bowl of condoms she opened the wrapper and placed the nipple of the condom in her mouth. Crouching over his lap took his manhood in her mouth, unrolling the latex around his flaccid penis, and slowly moved her mouth back and forth until his cock began to grow, slowly engorging the rubber sheath. Once she was satisfied he was hard enough she squirted some lubricant into her hands and rubbed it over his member and over her sex, and straddled him. Her breasts, pendulous and pearlescent, brushed his face as she rocked back and forth over him, her nipples at touching distance. When he felt himself soften and start to slide from her, he asked her to stop. Why? I need to go to the bathroom. She dismounted, staring at him balefully as he pulled on his underpants.

Where is it? He asked. Down to the right, she replied.

The corridor was still empty when he stepped from the room. He felt his skin tighten in the cold air, and shuffled to the bathroom in near-darkness. Closing the door behind him he pulled off the condom and urinated hopefully in the direction of the toilet.

Returning to the room, the Polish girl was still naked on the bed. He slipped off his underpants and joined her.

As they kissed he tried to touch her between the legs, but she stopped his hand and moved it to her breast instead. We have to be quick now she said and pulled him on top of her, taking his limp dick and slipping it inside her, squeezing him with the walls of her vagina. Fuck me now, she said, you must come, we cannot stay in the room any longer, and she pressed her lips against his once more, flickering her tongue in and out of his mouth, and he began to grow hard, but not hard enough, and now he knew it was useless, he would never be able to ejaculate, the moment had come and gone – it had left him back in the club, it evaporated when he withdrew the cash, it fled when he disrobed in the dim light of the box room; it was always doomed to failure – and when she drew her knees up against his chest the pointlessness, the absence of intimacy, the sheer futility of what he was doing began to pulse in his head like a thrombosis and he stopped, breathless, and hanging his head weakly whispered, Fuck.

He withdrew and sat on the edge of the bed to pull his clothes back on. When he left the room she was still dressing. He opened the door and stepped through it without a word.

He walked down the icy street to the hotel. He asked the night porter what the time was – 3.43 am – and took the lift back to his room. His friend was alone, and asleep, lying on his side facing away from the door. He undressed, slipped into his own bed and passed out.

They were awoken the next morning by housekeeping. Neither of them had put out the Do Not Disturb sign. After the housekeeper retreated, bleating apologetically, they showered and dressed and went down to the lobby to catch the buffet breakfast. He was still drunk, and walked unsteadily through the reception area. His friend looked sheepish and shell-shocked. His bottom lip and chin were quivering, an involuntary tic that revealed itself in moments of fatigue or stress. They ate very little, and said even less, merely exchanging cursory accounts of their exploits the night prior. Much of the bravado and bonhomie of the first day of the trip had disappeared. His friend seemed disgusted with himself, and depressed.

They left Copenhagen that morning to return to Malmo, crossing the strait just after lunch. They walked through the city once more, laden with their overnight bags, taking desultory photographs, in uncomfortable silence. Compared to the light of Copenhagen, Malmo’s under heavy grey clouds left it feeling cold and ugly.

They found a café for coffee and cigarettes. His friend had brought with him a poetry anthology. He took the heavy book in his hand, flicked ash from his cigarette and flicked through the poems. A succession of succinct, pithy, apposite psalms. A vague sense of unease settled upon him. Here, in microcosm, were the forms he had wrestled with and failed to master. All the poems he could not write. Work that would never see the light of day.

The last poem in the book was Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment:


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.


That afternoon, at their hotel, he emerged from the bathroom to find his friend lying in the foetal position on his bed. He was sobbing, his body jerking in sharp spasms. 

What’s wrong?

I’m just worried what my mum and dad will say, his friend replied, when I tell them about this.

Why would you tell them about this?

What if I’ve got AIDS or something?

That won’t happen. If you wore a condom, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Anyway, I’m sure those girls look after themselves. They wouldn’t be allowed to work if they didn’t. You can’t let something like this spoil the rest of the trip. Don’t worry, mate. Everything will be absolutely fine.  

His friend continued to sob. Moving away from the bed, he sat at the small table in the corner of the room and fiddled with his camera. Started to roll a cigarette. Noticed his hands were shaking again.

The Bird Feeder

He was a few weeks into his job as a handyman at a care home when he saw the lady.

Finishing up his daily rounds, he was replenishing the bird feeders when he spied one pinned to the frame of a ground floor window. It was almost empty. Taking a jam jar filled with bird seed, he was about to tip the contents into the mesh feeder when he saw the figure within.

Inside the room lay an elderly lady, partially raised in bed, pink covers drawn up to her throat. Her eyes were closed, her mouth wide open and her skin was as grey as the thinning curls of her short hair. On the walls around her bed were photographs of her family: husband, children, grandchildren.

Never before had he seen anyone so close to death. He had witnessed the slow demise of two grandparents from cancer, but he had never gazed upon someone on the threshold of extinction before, where the breath that they were drawing at that moment might be their last.

He considered the lady and considered the feeder. Then, he tipped the contents of the jar into the feeder, and continued on his rounds.

Some weeks later he was back at the home to repaint the lady’s room.

She died last night, said the other handyman. It wasn’t a surprise, really. She’d been like that for months. Months. Anyway, they want to move someone else into her room, so we’ll need to repaint it. I’m away next week, so that’ll be your job. I don’t think it’ll take more than a couple of days. There’s plenty of paint. Magnolia for the walls, white for the ceiling. Make sure you do the ceiling.

When he came to paint the lady’s room a few days later, there was no trace left of her, save for a small houseplant on the window sill, and a framed pencil drawing of a house hanging on one wall. The wardrobe, chest of drawers and bathroom had been emptied, and the window of the room left open, bringing in fresh air from the garden.

He took the drawing down, and pulled the picture hook out of the wall with a pair of pliers. Taking the curtains from the wooden rail, he laid them on the bare frame of the bed and covered them with newspaper. He shoved the wardrobe and chest of drawers into the centre of the room, and spread dustsheets around the perimeter.

Using a roller, he re-painted the walls in magnolia emulsion, and touched up the woodwork with quick-drying white satin. As he was painting, he looked at the bird feeder in the window. It was empty.

Once the paint had dried, he put the furniture back as he found it, and re-hung the curtains, ready for the next occupant. Surveying his work, soft light streamed in from the low winter sun. A fine room, he thought to himself, and pulled the door closed.

Inside Out

It was a bright and clear spring morning on the day he went to see Inside Out with his wife and children. They caught the London Overground service from Sydenham to Surrey Quays, riding the hybrid line with its continuous carriage and orange and brown seats that resembling an abstracted landscape by Anni Albers. The Sunday morning streets of south east London were cool, wet and woozy. He enjoyed the quirks of the line on weekend mornings, though the journey at times felt like returning to the scene of a crime. 

His wife and eldest son usually sat together, his eldest absentmindedly sucking his thumb and running a car up and down the patterned seats, while his youngest gawped at the other travellers from his pushchair. He often sat by his youngest son, or if the carriage was more crowded stood by his chair to shield him from the obtrusive tendencies of the metropolitan crowd. He delighted in driving the pushchairs directly towards the assisted seating area, deliberately dislodging anyone who had the temerity to sit there.

That morning it wasn’t busy, and they were able to make the journey together. He watched his children in their nascent individuality. Patted his wife’s knee for reassurance, to check she was still there. Perhaps he was nursing a hangover. A not uncommon condition on the weekends. Three days on, four days off. Not that his drinking was a problem. He was always careful about that. No, his problems lay elsewhere.

At Surrey Quays they disembarked, and he carried his youngest son, still in his pushchair, up the short flight of stairs to street level. His wife followed with their eldest son and his scooter. From there, it was a short walk to the cinema complex on the nearby retail park. Once they arrived they bought their tickets, ushered their bipedal eldest son into the screen and sat in the front row. It meant for an uncomfortable viewing experience, being bombarded by the hyperreal animated images and the Dolby THX audio system demonstrated at unnecessarily high volume, but it was a routine they slipped into as easily as the wheels on a set of rails. He handed his children the lunch he had made for them before they left home, and sat back to watch the film.


He had suggested going to watch Inside Out to his wife that morning. He wanted to see how Disney Pixar had managed to distil and compress the complex and multifaceted interdisciplinary debates about nascent selfhood and the mechanics of memory - the so-called ‘hard question’ which continued to cause conjecture between contemporary philosophers and neuroscience practitioners - into an animated child’s movie.

Much of the action took place within the psychic realm of an eleven year old girl named Riley, with consciousness styled as a control-booth named Headquarters and staffed by the personification of five competing and complementary basic emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger – whose interactions and responses to physical and emotional stimuli determined Riley’s self-identity and the forging of interpersonal relationships.

As the film neared the close of its tumultuous second act, Riley’s relocation from the idyllic Minnesotan backwoods with her parents, to a run-down neighbourhood in San Francisco, had been deleterious to her emotional stability. On the first day at her new school, Riley cried in front of her new classmates, creating an unhappy core memory, a glitch in her overridingly joyous persona. Joy, Sadness and Riley’s core memories – the foundation of her personality – were accidentally ejected from Headquarters. Her old personality began to disintegrate and a new one established under the erratic management of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Riley hardened against San Francisco and her parents, and decided to run away from home.

By the close of the act, the ever-optimistic sprite Joy, the central character and Riley’s principal emotion, and an elephantine biped named Bing-Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from infanthood, had fallen into the girl's memory dump: a deep chasm within her psychic realm where her long term memories disappear. Surrounded by orbs of memory which, having already turned to grey as Riley’s recollection of them faded, crumbled like balls of ash, Joy and Bing-Bong realised they were unable to escape and that, in time, they too would be forgotten. The previously ebullient Joy began to weep, cradling a batch of Riley’s memories which, in her grief, tumbled from her hands like an armful of bowling balls.

He watched an orb of Riley singing and drawing in infancy fragment into nothing. A lump rose in his throat, and he began to weep. He stayed incredibly still, so his wife wouldn’t notice. He had never wept openly in a cinema before. He’d been close on several occasions, but this was the first time he had yielded to sadness, surrendered himself to the emotional manipulations of a story. He knew he was being manipulated, and by a schmaltzy Disney movie fetishising childhood, of all things, yet he accepted it. And when, in the most pernicious instance of mawkish heart-string tugging he’d witnessed for some time, Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong confined himself to the memory dump throwing himself from the rocket she built with him so that Joy could escape, tears streamed down his gullible face.

His children were still very small, too small to understand who or what they were yet, or the words and images being presented to them on the screen, and yet as he wept he recognised he was weeping for them, for the memories that they would be unable to hold onto, their memories of being young and uninhibited; and he was weeping for himself, self-indulgent tears for the memories he had of them that would fade and diminish and disappear, the memories he had of them now and his experiences with them that had already left his consciousness, and would inevitably leave theirs.

As he watched Joy cradling the orbs of memory, he was reminded of the passage in Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Memory’ where the author described caring for his three year old son Daniel.

All the thousands of hours that A. has spent with him during the first three years of his life, all the millions of words he has spoken to him, the books he has read to him, the meals he has made for him, the tears he has wiped for him – all these things will vanish from the boy’s memory forever.

Some time after his first son was born, they were reading Goodnight Moon together at bedtime, his son as he sat in his lap, bathed and dried and dressed in a babygro. Reading the book, he was distracted by the fact that his son would never again be as young as he was then, and that every day he would be a little older, and a little changed, until he was no longer a baby but a boy, and no longer a boy but a young man, and if he didn’t pay attention it would happen without him noticing.

His son was then a small, helpless being needing constant care, utterly dependent upon him and his wife for affection and protection, but there would soon come a time when they would no longer read Goodnight Moon together, sat in that precise position on the bed, reading and listening in symbiosis.

He made a conscious decision to remember this moment. He would never allow himself to forget it. As he read the book to his son he wept, bewildered by this strange confluence of joy and sadness, at his good fortune at becoming a father and his unpreparedness at the responsibility.

After he finished reading he took his son in his arms and laid him in his bed, wide-eyed and excited, arms and legs flailing under the blanket, tiny bubbles extruding from his mouth. He could not picture the boy the infant would become then, the second son who would follow, the calm moments and the joyful, the fearful and the fraught, the bedtime routines, the tears and the tantrums, the refusals and the discipline.


After his second son was born, he moved with his family to a new house, a small semi with three bedrooms. They put their youngest son’s cot in the small box room next to their bedroom. Their eldest son now had a room of his own. In time, the younger sibling would join him but for now he and his decided to to keep them apart. Unlike his older brother, their youngest son slept poorly, frequently waking to be fed. At six months old he also took a long time to settle and had to be patted to sleep at length, a laborious process that was akin to massaging a prop-forward after a hard-fought rugby match.

After a few nights in his new room, his youngest son developed a cough and cold, and would presage his waking with a series of protracted cries, bringing his mother or father to his bedside to comfort him. One particular night, after almost a week of broken sleep, he was woken at four in the morning by his son coughing and crying. He went through to calm his son and in his fatigue and frustration roughly lifted him from his cot, and found himself a hair’s breadth from shaking him. As his son wailed out in the dark, he pulled him close and held him tight, lightly patted his back, and felt the boy’s small hand patting his shoulder in response.

There was a sweet, fusty odour in the room, which he put down to his son’s cold, but after he laid his son back in his cot he traced the smell to a part of the wall which was concealed by their packing boxes from the house move. As he pulled them boxes away from the wall he discovered a web of black mould had formed behind them, mould which his youngest son had been breathing in for weeks, drawing in through his tiny nose and mouth and down into his developing lungs. His sheets were streaked with snot and catarrh. He put his son in bed with his wife and dragged the cot across the small landing into the room where his other son was sleeping. The next day, he removed the mould and bleached the wall.


After watching Inside Out, he was overtaken by a profound and overwhelming sense of sorrow. Much of his life seemed to have been unhappy, or at the very least, at times unhappiness was all he seemed to be capable of feeling. He knew that this wasn’t true, that he had been loved and had loved in return, as he loved his wife and children now, the dearest things to him, but so many incidental moments of happiness, of unadulterated joy, had been lost and forgotten or subsumed by a narrative of unhappiness that he couldn’t control or master, a chronicle of failings that emerged from the vaults of his long-term memory to torment him.

It was Kierkegaard who wrote, in his late work The Sickness Unto Death, with every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair. This was the narrative of his self as he understood it. He also understood that he was passing on his unhappiness to his children.

He had been a bad father. At times like Joy in Inside Out: clinging on to his children to preserve his own inclination for happiness; and at others, too many to mention, like Anger: hot-headed, severe, quick to rage. Inconsistent, his wife said. It was a failing within him, something in his nature or a product of his upbringing. Every day he struggled against it. He hoped his children would forget more than they would remember. He hoped they might forgive him, in time.


Just as he and his wife were about to run out of money, he found work as a contract cleaner. 

We saw your cv online and thought you’d be perfect for this, said B--- at the agency. It’s a large construction site, outside of Aberlour. Do you know where Aberlour is? Good. The site needs a deep clean ready for a client inspection. Do you know what a ‘deep clean’ is? Good. There are seven days work to start. If they are happy with you, happy with your work, there will be five days on, two days off going forward. Do you have your own car? Good. Do you have a CSCS? Don't worry. Do you have safety boots? You will need to bring them with you. They will not let you on site without them. First I need you to register with us. Can you fill in these forms and get them back to me by the end of the day? You will need to meet Jim, the team leader, at nine thirty tomorrow morning. His number will be in the body of the email I will send you. You will need to call him when you arrive on site. Then you will need to be inducted and get your PPE. Jim will tell you what to do after that. 

He arrived on site just before nine. The car park was the size of a rugby pitch, and crowded with vans and utility vehicles. Nearby, a small portakabin village housed the site reception, canteen and toilets. The ground around the village was a quagmire, the earth churned into cloying mud by caterpillar-tracked vehicles, endless trudging boots and near-persistent rain. Today, however, the sun was out.

He met Jim, the team leader, a flamed-haired, softly-spoken Scot from Edinburgh, who had spent the previous day on site. Jim was less than positive about the day ahead. Its absolutely soul destroying, he said.

With Jim was Miranda, a spiky blonde woman in her late thirties from Inverness, who seemed particularly aggrieved. Did you speak to B----? She asked. He’s full of shit. He told me this was a cleaning job. It fucking isn’t.

The site they had been sent to clean was a vast distillery in the heart of Moray. Hundred of millions of pounds had been sunk, or invested, into a colossal hole in a picturesque glen. Much of this money had been spent on poured concrete and reinforced glass, and thousands of manpower hours. A leading firm of architects had designed the distillery, a subterranean cathedral with geodesic roof in celebration of this centuries-old, high-end brand of Scotch.

The construction company was pushing to get the site ready for a visit from the architecture firm’s project leaders. This meant that every area, every surface, every nook and cranny had to be cleared of grime and dust. While construction work carried on around them. The materials favoured by the architects served a dual function: to act as a magnet for grime and dust, and to resist cleaning. It was, in other words, an impossible task.

You clean a floor and someone else just walks all over it, lamented Jim.

We spent all morning yesterday cleaning one room, came back after lunch and it was worse than when we started, said Miranda. We had to walk for miles to get water. Then there was a fire drill, and I wasn’t allowed off site. They told me to keep working.

The three of them were joined by two men in their early twenties, who had driven two hours over the Cairngorms from Stonehaven. They were Lucas, a bullish, bald mechanic, and Lee, a laid-back indie-boy-cum-welder. Both had been unemployed for over a year after the bottom fell out of the oil industry in Aberdeen. They carried an air of fecklessness typical of young manhood. He admired it, recognising something of his younger self in them. They were also permanently stoned. Lee rolled the joints while Lucas drove, in a barely-roadworthy two-door BMW. Lee had just been to Benicassim festival, and still had the entry pass around his wrist.

They sat in the canteen, waiting to be inducted. There was a handful of workers around them, slowly chewing their breakfast and staring into space. A portly man called Simon did their induction, before showing them a health and safety video pertaining to the finer points of being safe on a construction site. 

After being successfully inducted, and presented with the hard hats and yellow high-vis vests that constituted their PPE, Jim took the four of them into the site.

Together they tramped slowly down the long entry ramp to the construction zone. Everywhere he looked were men in the same yellow hi-vis vests attending to a range of tasks. Men snipping wires, wiping walls, welding pipes, raising ladders. Men collapsing scaffolds, screeding floors, sawing timber. Men scoring plasterboard, hammering nails, fixing screws. Men drilling holes, tightening nuts, drawing out a tape measure, making a pencil mark. Men shouting and swearing and throwing tools. Men laughing and joshing and patting each other on the back. Men clomping past them in black boots, hands stuffed in their pockets, off for a fag break or to the canteen. Men weaving between and around and underneath plant machinery, mobile street cleaners, cherry pickers. Men clocking the blonde woman as she moved among their number, staring open-mouthed, unabashed. Men surveying the posse of contract cleaners arriving on with a glance of disdain and a low murmur of annoyance.

There was a group of men in orange vests conferring and gesticulating. Jim approached them. One, a Welshman with the sharp features and physique of a middle-aged cycling fanatic, broke off his conversation.

Right. How many have you got here, Jim? Five? Okay, good. Right, go to the storeroom, get as much cleaning gear as you can, then go up to the public toilets, back where you were yesterday, I’ll see you up there, we’re gonna redo those rooms properly, then I’ll have two more rooms for you when that’s done. You'll need scrapers. There's mastic all over the floor. We need to get it off pronto.

They trooped down to the storeroom to collect the cleaning gear, passing a series of huge copper whisky stills. Miranda and Jim leading the group, Lucas and Lee following, him at the rear. The storeroom was a small electricity cupboard, with a ‘Danger of Death’ sign on the door. Everything in the storeroom was covered in a thick layer of grey dust, including the cleaning materials, the mops, cloths and scourers, they were to use to clean the rooms upstairs. There were several industrial hoovers and floor washers, none of which were in working, according to Jim. They each took a mop and bucket. Jim grabbed a bag of cloths and an industrial sized bottle of lemon-scented cleaning fluid. He showed them two metal scrapers and said, These are for the mirrors and floor. Whatever you do, don't let them out of your sight.

Attempting to ascend a circular staircase to the upper levels, they were turned back by a gang of irritable sparks. They doubled back and ascended a metal staircase which led to a raised walkway parallel to the sills. They passed through a fire-door which said ‘Do Not Enter’. As they reached their destination, they entered one room to find it still being painted. They backed out and tried the other room, where two electricians were about to start commissioning the overhead air conditioning units. The Welshman came in, and told the electricians to leave. He turned to Jim and said they were to clean the room from top to bottom. All paint and mastic had to be scraped off the cauterized floor, and the residue of tape picked from the mirrors. All dust had to be wiped from the paneled cladding. The floor had to be scrubbed and mopped and scrubbed and mopped again. Then gone over with the motorized floor washer. No cleaning fluids were to be used. Hot water could be collected from the tea urns downstairs. There was no running water on site yet.

When he started cleaning the toilets, he saw that some had been pissed in. The liquid in the bowl was a lurid yellow. 

Jim said to the Welshman, Before we start, have you seen this?, and opened the door to one of the cubicles to show him the sledgehammer-shaped hole that had been smashed into the cubicle wall. Don’t worry about that, we’ll get over that with some filler, the Welshman said. He didn't say anything about the piss.

They walked their buckets to the tea urns. There were two tea urns to service the hot water needs for the entire site. According to Jim and Miranda, this was an improvement on the day before, when there was no hot water. One of the urns was empty, the other two thirds full. As they were filling their buckets, a man in glasses approached Jim and said, Oi. Cleaner. Don’t you fucking use all my fucking water. Then he walked off.

They took the buckets back upstairs and cleaned the room, five of them cramped together. Jim dusting the undersides of the sink. Miranda wiping the mirrors. Lee scraping the floor. Lucas mopping the cubicles. The only job left for him was to run a mop over the walls. Conversation ebbed and flowed. Miranda wanted to be a yoga instructor. Jim had once owned a high-end menswear store that went bust. Lee was a musician and producer. Lucas had no car insurance.

Partly because he was reading a book about Hemingway's boat and partly because he'd always believed it to be true, he told them he was a writer and Jim asked him, looking up from scrubbing the floor, What are you doing here then? He couldn’t answer. Something had happened, and there he was.  

All that day they swept and scrubbed and swiped and scraped. They brushed and mopped and dusted and pushed a motorised floor washer around in ever-decreasing concentric circles. Then they crossed the small corridor to the other bathroom and began again. After finishing that room, they checked back on the room they had finished earlier. The floor by now was crisscrossed with muddy boot prints and a painter’s emulsion-flecked ladder stood squarely in the centre of the room, a can of paint at its feet.

On the second day he developed a kind of delirium. Cleaner’s Fever. He was light-headed, unsteady when standing. He couldn’t get a handle on the work, couldn’t perform a meaningful task without falling over Miranda or Lee or Lucas trying to do the same. There were too many bodies in too confined a space. He felt claustrophobic, nauseated.

Jim had gone back to Edinburgh that morning, leaving the four of them on their own. Without Jim, a new rhythm imposed itself upon the day. It was Miranda who had told him that contract work required a certain languor. Look busy, but don’t over-exert yourself. Walk swiftly, but not quickly. Don’t rush. Take your time. If a job’s worth doing, its worth doing slowly. Only work your contracted hours, not a second more. They took an hour for lunch, rather than the requisite thirty minutes, sandwiched between two half hour fag breaks.

They returned to the public toilets they cleaned the day before. Since they left, the plumbers had completed their commissioning. There was sawdust in the sinks and over the floor. I asked them not to do that, the bastards, said the Welshman. Then he pointed at the mirrors. Alright boys you need to get those bits of tape there. All the little bitties. They really wind me up. They had already lost both the metal scrapers and had to cadge one off a painter, which they promptly lost.

The entire site was utterly chaotic. Every trade that they spoke to said that it was the worst site they had worked on. Which was why one of their number had smashed a hole in the cubical wall. They’ve fucked so many people off, said one of the painters. The painters had been there for months, painting the same walls over and over, only to find that someone had scraped something along them.

That evening another agency worker, a labourer with a thousand yard stare who it later transpired had been on site for six months, accused him of stealing a box of scrubbing brushes. Earlier in the day, he had seen the same labourer screaming at his orange-vested leader, railing against some work-related injustice. He looked perpetually furious and they kept well out of his way. Miranda dubbed him The Angry Man. He knew how he felt.

By the third day the team had taken to calling him Nigel, on account of his refusal to reveal his real name to the Welshman. Nigel was soon commuted to Nige. You're a fair boy, Nige, said Lee. The Stoney boys revelled in attributing the false names to people. Joining himself and Welshie were Tired Mike, Little Ian and Paedo Steve. These were the more favourable names. Burning ire was reserved for that fucking B---, the faceless face of the agency.

There was still some uncertainty about the hours they were expected to work. On the fourth day, while Miranda was on a yoga course, the Welshman asked the three of them to stay late. He, Lucas and Lee spent the evening cleaning the perimeter of a huge floor area, using cold water and mops, while the senior facilities management team took it in turns to drive round on motorised cleaning machines. The company gave them fish and chips for dinner. He left the other two, still working, at ten o’clock. Lee texted him later to say they had been given three extra hours pay and tomorrow off for staying late. They left an hour after him.

The next day, the fifth, he returned to site with Miranda only to be told by the Welshman that they were not needed. The site was now ready for the client inspection. However, as they were already there they should make themselves useful and dust the metal balustrades in the sills hall. They took a blue roll of hand towel paper and two spray bottles of window cleaner, and worked their way along a hundred foot long stretch of galvanised steel handrail, wiping away the thin layer of dust that had gathered on its horizontal elevations.

Miranda removed her helmet and sat cross-legged on the floor. Her working methods were like her conversation: forensic, but noncommittal. She’d worked as a cleaner for Global for a few years, until the oil industry went belly-up and they paid her off, in her words. Now she was focusing on her yoga. She had a son, who was in his twenties. He was making two thousand pounds a week as a welder in Stornoway. He would be home for his birthday in a week. She was deliberating what to get him. She asked him, what do you get someone who earns two grand a week? Something ironic, he suggested. He’s lost lots of weight clean eating recently, she said, so I’ll probably bake him a chocolate cake. That ought to do it, he replied.

The clients walked by while they were wiping. Three architects in stretch chinos and pointy shoes. Square-framed designer glasses. One hundred pound haircuts. How he dressed in his last London job. He observed their comfortable ease navigating in the vast space they had designed, their knowledge and familiarity with the minute aspects of the design. The two male architects spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the interior of a lift. The female architect walked a couple of steps behind, taking notes.

He thought of the small variations in fortune that had brought him here, wiping dust of metal with a blue cloth for ten quid an hour to feed his children, while three architects ten or more years his junior were putting the finishing touches to a multimillion pound project, a huge milestone in their careers, before flying back to London later that week, back to well-apportioned neomodernist flats in some new build high-rise, in Hackney perhaps, or Southwark, overlooking the Herzog de Meuron extension at Tate Modern, midweek Michelin-starred microcuisine and Phedre at the National, VIP passes to Glastonbury and Coachella, citybreaks in Copenhagen and New York and villas on Santorini and Ibiza.

He looked at Lucas and Lee slouching and shambling below him, chatting as they refilled their buckets. The right parents, the right school, the right university. Small variations.

They worked three further days, and were given the weekend off. Expecting more work, Lucas and Lee booked local accommodation for the rest of the month. Lee was going to teach Lucas to play guitar. And they were going to get stoned.

When they returned after the break, things had soured. Arriving on site they were told again they weren’t needed. Lucas was particularly vexed, phoning B---- at the agency before hanging up and calling him a fucking paki. Before the day was out Lee was doing the same. He considered asking them if they had heard of Rene Girard's theory of the scapegoat. He didn’t. Not because he was a coward, but because he didn’t want to sound like a cunt.

The next day brought further confusion: Miranda showed him the print out of an email sent to B---- from the site manager the week before. In the subject line: Competency of the cleaners. The body of the email was a list of tasks to be carried out as part of the next phase. It suggested that there was enough work for another month at least, mainly in the vast sills hall. Mainly dusting and wiping. It was tedious work, but the income would solve his family’s financial woes for the immediate future.

After a morning of cleaning steel struts with extendable mops, Lucas stormed off to sleep in his car. He didn’t return the next day. Instead Lee turned up with another friend, Andy, an unemployed chef with a croaky voice. Tired Mike told them again that they weren’t needed. Instead, he gave them the job of picking duct tape off the floor of the distillery. Removing the tape meant scraping at the surface of the floor until it was gone, leaving a white scar in its place. It was as futile a task anything they had done on the first day.

That lunchtime Lee and Andy shared a spliff. He almost joined them. Instead he spoke to B----. There won’t be any more work after today, he said. They’re hiring their own cleaners to complete the work. They think they can get people to do the same work for less. I don’t think they can. But that’s up to them. Between you and me, they’re not that happy with the work that is being done. I’m hearing there are health and safety issues. Miranda won’t wear her hard hat.

And that was that. He was disappointed, but not surprised. Lucas and Lee had asked every orange-vis for more work, and they had been rebuffed. He wondered if the agency had got wind of this. But he couldn’t really complain. For the bare minimum of effort he had made good money at the cleaning job, enough to see his family out for the next few weeks. And had there been more work he would have kept up the hour-long drive to Aberlour. He was fortunate to have found the work at all.

He bade farewell to Miranda, Lee and Andy, and drove away from the site. As he left, he passed a gang of men planting saplings on the slopes overlooking the distillery.

On the outskirts of Elgin, he spotted the flashing blue light of an unmarked police car in his rear view mirror. Pulling over to let them pass, he was surprised when it drew alongside, and the window lowered. Facing him in the passenger seat was a female officer, but it was the male officer who spoke, leaning across her to address him.

Good afternoon, sir, he said. We’ve been running checks on the cars driving through this area. Our records show that you are driving without insurance. Would you mind following us?

As he sat in the back of the police car, he castigated himself for his stupidity, his arrogant assumption that he would not get caught. They had him bang to rights. He had delayed renewing the insurance. Because he was broke. Because paying it would have left him short for something else. Something more important. Because he thought he was a good driver. Safe, attentive, assertive. He’d taken a calculated risk, and it had cost him. He had broken the law many, many times before, too many to mention, but this was the first time he had committed a criminal offence for the want of money. Not that the police officer gave a shit about his situation. He was too busy revelling in being right, on the right side of the law. Morally circumspect. Condescending. Unsympathetic. He resented the traffic policeman’s officious persona. He had forms to fill out and boxes to tick. Other drivers to nick. He wondered if the officer had read Girard. Or Thomas Hobbes. It seemed unlikely.

When he tried to explain why he hadn’t renewed the insurance and where he had been working this week, the officer pointed at the child’s seat in his car and said, You’ve got kids. Imagine if you had a crash, they lost a leg. Imagine if that happened to the person you hit. Imagine if it was their child. You wouldn’t be insured. You’d be liable. You could go to jail for dangerous driving. Now how much was the insurance again?

He had a point. After a long lecture from the traffic officer he was handed six penalty points and a £300 fine. He now had nine points on his license. Three more and he would lose it altogether. He could forget finding work after that. It would cost £150 to recover the impounded car. He had had his old address on his license and might receive a fine of £1,000 from the DVLA. He could also expect his insurance premium to double.

He handed over the key to his car, and started walking towards the station. Then he phoned his wife to give her the good news.


Ever tried.


Atychiphobia. The irrational and persistent fear of failure. All his life he had known it, felt its breath upon the back of his neck. It nipped and snagged and needled him, like the yapping of little dogs at his heels. Or hovered over him like a sodden cloud, dispensing buckets of grief. At other times, he carried it with him like a discomfort blanket, or a tapestry of catastrophe, into which the narrative of his life had been woven. Failure and the fear of failure. A self-negating principle. Like a child with a favoured toy, he nurtured it, kept it safe from harm, close at hand. Soon, failure became his oldest friend. His closest ally, his greatest achievement. It kept him grounded. Gave him something to aim at. If there was one thing he could rely upon, it was failure. Failure and the fear of failure. The unbearable impossibility of being. Of being made to look or feel like a fool. Of being thin-skinned, a snowflake, a pussy. Though it was less a condition and more a self-imposed state of mind, one which he had another term for. Hypersensitive narcissism. Fear of being proven inadequate. Fear of one’s genius going unrecognised. In this, he was a fool.


It was true he felt the barbs and mockery of others acutely. From a very young age, whenever something good, something exciting, might be about to happen, he soon learned to dispel his optimism, to keep his counsel, knowing that the crushing disappointment might destroy him, that the laughter of others would be too much to bear. As he became older, he sought to keep his life in equilibrium, balanced between these two poles of possibility and impossibility, carefully watching the things that he thought might be possible reveal themselves to not be remotely possible at all, until he found himself being physically constricted, as if in a narrowing tunnel, a tunnel which foretold the story of his life. At the end of the tunnel was daylight, a beacon beckoning him deeper into the darkness. The further he travelled into the tunnel, the greater the distance between his starting position and the finishing line became, so that, in time, he felt as if he was simply walking on the spot, the walls of the tunnel closing in on him, and the light in the distance simply a mirage, a simulation of freedom, which in any case was merely the freedom to fail again, and again.


After using the toilet one morning in reception class, he was told off by the teacher for using too much paper and blocking the system. She took him by the scruff of the neck and showed him what he had done. Her fingernails upon his neck, the heat of her anger. He would never forget the feeling of being demeaned, belittled. After that, he stopped using the toilet at school, and sometimes at home. He regressed to the habits of infancy. His mother didn’t know what to do with him, this strange little boy who refused to use public conveniences, and could not stop soiling himself. She took him to see the doctor, a family friend, who listened with concern as she detailed his indiscretions. But still he could not explain why he did it. For even he did not truly know. It wasn’t that he liked the sensation. It disgusted him. He felt as if there was a fault in him, something broken, and he was punishing himself for being alive. Eventually a solution presented itself. One weekend his mother handed him with a bucket of soapy water, and he was made to scrub the excrement from his underwear. The humiliation was enough. He stopped.


Wherever he went he took himself with him, like a reptile unable to slough off its useless exterior. He was pursued by the ghost of failed selfhood, incapable of being comfortable in his own skin. How its shadow stretched out before him, anticipating his arrival, determined his presence in the eyes of those who knew him. Rendering him invisible. With those he barely knew, conversation drove him to the point of exhaustion. His voice began to fail, grow hoarse, he would lose his train of thought mid-conversation, say the one thing he wasn’t supposed to, recite anecdotes back to front, miss the punchline, stutter. Every time he met someone new or of note, he hesitated over his words, jabbered and stammered an introduction. Fumbled his lines. So many failed encounters and awkward conversations. So many glazed eyes and blank looks. Unanswered questions. On so many occasions left hanging, offering his hand to the empty air. So many times left standing in the corner of a room, staring into space, lost to some private thought or other. Plotting his disappearance.


Among his friends, his closest, oldest friends, some of whom he had known for over thirty years, his friendship felt negligible. He always seemed to be surplus to requirements. The quiet one. The extraneous body. The last one called to the pub, in a loll of sorrow. The first one to go home, in a flit of depression. For all his friends who had married, he had never been called upon to be Best Man. Never had that privilege, or curse, placed upon him. There’s always some issue with you, one of his oldest friends said to him once. And he was right. There was always some issue. Some insecurity or neurosis. Some paranoid delusion or psychological instability. The selective mutism. The inappropriate outburst. From youth to young manhood to middle age. Always coming loose at the seams. Always the desire to be loved.


When he was sixteen years old he asked a girl he knew if she would accompany him to a his school’s Christmas ball. After school one evening, he leafed carefully through his parent’s hefty Yellow Pages, with its mustard-coloured crinoline leaves, to find her telephone number. Having established which one was hers, and after hesitating and dithering before the telephone in his parent's hallway for close to an hour, he finally picked up the receiver and cautiously pressed the buttons, before stopping halfway through and hanging up. This went on for some time before he plucked up enough courage to keep the receiver at his ear, heart thundering against his rib-cage, tongue heavy and thick in his dry mouth. He finished entering the code and waited until the ring tone came through the ear-piece, sounding out its piercing bark in another hallway across town.

The phone rang out for almost a minute before someone picked up. An woman answered, presumably the girl’s mother, sounding flustered. After he asked to speak to her eldest daughter, in the brief pause while her mother put down the handset and called her daughter to the phone, he silently plotted the course of their conversation, and tired to ignore the murmurings as the girl and her mother conferred about who was calling, although it wasn’t late, just after tea-time. 

The girl picked up the phone and said Hello, her voice sounding strangulated over the line. He could hear her breathing gently, and thought of her chest rising and falling as she held the phone to her ear, and he allowing himself to imagine talking intimately with her, placing his hands upon her hips as he kissed her in a darkened corner just off the dance-floor, or perhaps unbuttoning her blouse one night after school, and as he began his preamble by inquiring as to her general well-being and state of mind, his libidinous urges made their conversational awkwardness all the more pronounced.

He worked his way to the inevitable question, in spite of her noncommittal answers, the ill omens, the foreboding, he had come this far, he had to force the moment to its conclusion, and finally he got to the point, stopped beating about the bush, asked Will you come to the ball with me?, and was answered with prolonged silence, an audible pause, as if he had let slip the images in his mind. 

When she didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, in that silence he could feel his molecular structure begin to disintegrate, as if every cell in his body was denaturing. A sensation of self-evisceration, like he had walked unwittingly into a trap, a terrible self-inflicted personal disaster. Then he heard her voice again as she answered, Oh, I don’t know, and Oh, I’m not sure, and with crushing finality, I’ve been invited by someone else. Then she hung up.


Many years later, after he had all but forgotten the phone call, he came across a quotation by the American psychologist and Harvard professor William James.

With no attempt there can be no failure and with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.

James went on: There is a strange lightness of heart when one’s nothingness in a particular area is accepted in good faith...All is not bitterness in the lot of a lover sent away with a final inexorable ‘No’.

Actualities and potentialities. Lightness of heart. All is not bitterness. His sixteen year old self would have thought James was talking out of his arse.

A few weeks later he went to the ball on his own, and she went with that someone else, a taller, darker, more mature boy with a more established moustache and bewildering range of facial tics. From his table, he watched them dancing together, the other boy resting his hands on her wiggling hips, just above her plum-shaped behind, and he could tell that they had already slept together, and he felt an envy so pure coursing through his being that he vowed never again would he ask anyone that question.  


To fail. From the Old French verb, failir. To be lacking, miss, not succeed, run out, come to an end, err, make a mistake, be dying, let down, disappoint, to be unsuccessful in accomplishing a purpose, to cease to exist or to function, to come to an end. From the Latin fallere. To trip, cause to fall.

Hard to recall a time when failure was less prominent, less culturally resonant. Now failure was everywhere. In internet memes. Twitter feeds. Transport announcements. Political incompetence. Financial impropriety. YouTube compilations.

Epic fail. Leap of Fail. Fails of the Week. Failure as the common argot, the lingua franca of foolishness and ineptitude. A taxonomy of hubris.

A successful novelist publishes a quasi-memoir and self-help book titled, How to Fail. Failure as the blip in a perfect life. Success as the recovery from failure.

An hypersensitive narcissist is elected President of the United States.

All politicians are hypersensitive narcissists. All men are hypersensitive narcissists.


On his bookshelves he found an old copy of the Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a book he had tried to read once and failed to finish. A dog eared page, page 22, marked the furthest point of his progress. He had bought the book almost as many years ago. Pessoa wrote,

I’m always afraid people will talk about me. I’ve failed in everything. I’ve never even dared thinking of making something of myself; I never even dreamed of thinking of desiring something because in my own dreams, even in my visionary state of mere dreamer, I recognised that I was unsuited for life.

Impossible to write about failure without first acknowledging its antecedents. The weight of literary tradition.

When he posted his thoughts on failure to his Facebook page, someone he knew, a female poet, an acquaintance but not a friend, posted a comment consisting of two unattributed paragraphs from John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner.

A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure--as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

He had read Stoner several years ago, and found it unmemorable. Much had happened since then and he had forgotten most of what he had read. But he was surprised at the congruence, the equivalent cadences.

He did not see himself as a Stoner, or indeed a Williams, a writer whose work he had next to no familiarity with. He felt closer to Bob Slocum, the narrator of Joseph Heller's 1974 novel, Something Happened, whose paranoid observations chimed with his own.

Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur.

He had lived much of his life through literature, surrounded himself with the voices of various losers and loners, his extended family of failures, The Failures, that he now wondered which of these drove the inner monologue of his own consciousness. It was no longer possible to identify one singular voice. Perhaps there were a plethora, a heteroglossia, of voices. Every time he spoke, he did so through the language of others. The language of literature.


He knew his life had been a failure. He saw that now. When he was very young he had believed that his existence might transcend its origins, his limited birthright. Nothing had happened.

Even his attempts to apprehend his very personal sense of failure were a sort of failure. There was no press of urgency to his writing, but the brute facts of a partial existence. He was himself, and he knew what he had been. A man without qualities. A man without qualities writing turgid prose in the hope that someone would notice. In this, too, he would fail.

Nevertheless. He would put everything down in words, everything terrible that had ever happened to him, or that he had done to others, and in this way reconcile himself with the past. With history. His story. The story of his solipsistic self. Nothing would be left out. Everything up for grabs.

Scribe, ergo sum.