Work experience

If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.

Norman Mailer

i.

The careers adviser was a prim, middle-aged woman with a gentle face. Short brown perm and oval glasses. Bony wrists protruding from the cuffs of her navy blazer. They were sat in her small office, separated by the large MFI desk, to discuss his work experience placement, compulsory for all the boys in his year. He was fifteen years old.

When she asked him where he would like to go for his work experience placement, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and said he wasn’t sure. She asked him which his favourite lessons were. English and history, he replied after some deliberation. After she pressed him what he wanted to do for a career, he said simply that he wanted to be a writer. Writing is a hobby, she replied, not a career. She suggested that he might want to consider another option, like being a journalist or a librarian or a teacher, as writers rarely made any money through writing alone. Unless he was content to be a penniless writer, starving in a garret, which she imagined his parents wouldn’t be too happy about, this might be a more realistic career plan.

Very few would-be writers are published. And of those even fewer make any money from writing. Any of those jobs – journalist, librarian, teacher - might provide a springboard into writing later in life. You need to gain some experience first, I’m afraid, before you can even begin to think about writing a novel. Most importantly, once you have finished your studies, you won’t be able to rest on your laurels. You’ll need to earning right away. Once you are earning, then you can focus on writing in your spare time. No. If I were you, I would choose a career to work towards first, and then start thinking about which A-levels would help get you into your career of choice.

A career in journalism would hone his writing skills, provide him with access to interesting stories and allow a writer’s sensibility to develop. Would he like to try a week’s work experience at a local paper? Having once watched an episode of Press Gang, ITV’s comedy-drama about a newspaper run by teenagers, it looked like lots of fun, so he agreed.

ii.

By the time he was fifteen, he had amassed plenty of work experience from doing his chores at home. Mowing the lawn, washing his parent’s cars, weeding the garden, raking the gravel paths or sweeping out the garage. Sometimes there was a wheelbarrow of sand that needed moving, or some bricks to dress. His father had been keen to instil in his sons the hard work ethic that had been somewhat unsympathetically drilled into him by his own father. Hard work meant self-sacrifice and self-sufficiency. Motivation. Drive. Success.

For most of his peers, their experience of work up to that point was a paper round or delivering the Buy and Sell on their estate. Few that he knew were expected to do chores around the home. They found it bizarre that he did.

Then there was the local market, a small encampment dating back to Elizabethan times which pitched up on the town’s common land every Thursday. After school a troop of green blazers would march, or straggle, down to the stalls to do a couple of hours packing up in exchange for a couple of quid being pressed into their palm. A rite of passage for most of the town’s teenage inhabitants.

In the summer that he turned fourteen he had found work at a fabric stall, helping a taciturn trader called David lug boxes of bed linen into the back of his battered, old Transit. Being a slight and still-small fourteen-year-old, he was ill-suited to the heavy lifting the market required, but the trader tolerated his efforts. The trader was probably in his late twenties or thirties. One of the youngest. Quiet. A lurker. Most of the older guys, the spielers and pitchers, had been kicking around for decades. They remembered the market in its post-war heyday. Long before Safeway arrived and started to suck the life blood out of it.

iii.

Work experience had long been compulsory for boys in the fifth year at his school, helping to preserve the distinction between academic, or intellectual, work, and real work, the kind that earned real money. Going to an all boys school, where one was but one among several hundred future paterfamilias, real work entailed rolling up one’s sleeves and committing oneself to a lifetime of hard and meaningful graft.

For many in his year a lifetime of employment, gainful or otherwise, was already just around the corner. A few of the older lads in his year had effectively ditched school to start working. Ironically, many of them had been among the most disruptive, unruly and disinterested students in the school. With their nascent beards and defiled uniforms and total disregard for the school’s rules, they had made the leap from adolescence into adulthood a long time ago. It was the diligent ones, the dreamers, the permanent students, the ones who might have ideas above their station, for whom the work experience programme was truly intended.

Each boy had been encouraged to select a profession or trade which at best inspired them, or else interested them, or which they would doubtless fall into once they left school. Here the social stratification of his peers became clear. The boys from the council houses and rougher parts of town spent a week scuffing around car repair workshops, construction companies, builders’ merchants, leisure centres, supermarkets, warehouses and the local ERF factory. Most of the middle-class kids spent a week with a local solicitor, at the local council offices, the law courts, at the offices of a blue-chip company on the town’s perimeter, or with one of its many estate agencies. An unfortunate few spent the week shadowing their father or another relative, knowing they were almost certain to follow in their footsteps.

He resisted that. It would be easy to follow his father into the building trade, at the firm his grandfather established. Like him, his father had resisted it but had been compelled by his own mother to take over the business due to his father’s ill-health. Running a business was rewarding, particularly financially, but profoundly stressful if it wasn’t successful. Lacking business acumen of any kind, he wasn’t sure if he would succeed in the building trade. In truth, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to work for his father either. But in terms of a career, this was the path which most clearly presented itself.

Generally, he preferred mundane tasks that required little concentration, which allowed his mind to wander, to ponder the many distractions of youth. Once with his mother he spent a couple of hours at his father’s office, sat on the scratchy carpet tiles on the cold floor, folding timesheets and slipping them into the slim envelopes that his employees would complete that week. Years later, once gainfully employed, he found a similar zen-like meditativeness folding letters and stuffing envelopes.

It wasn’t that he was averse to hard work. Outside of his chores, when he was eleven his parents bought the house that would become their home for much of his adolescence. That year, while his friends were off riding their bikes or playing football in the park, he spent most weekends with his family, pulling up floorboards and demolishing internal walls, before gathering together to eat their packed lunch on camping chairs in rooms thick with plaster dust.

If there was a pallet of bricks that needed dressing or a wheelbarrow of sand that needed pushing, he could usually be called upon to do it. On one weekend he might be helping his father to build a stone wall to line their driveway, selecting the stones and pushing them into position as his father laid the mortar. On another, he could be up a step ladder with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, helping his mother strip wallpaper.

Helping his parents. Building a relationship. Being deferential.

iv.

At fifteen years of age he was still painfully green, the gauche and inhibited product of puberty and a single sex school. Too shy to speak to girls and certainly too shy to pick up the phone and harass a councillor about bin collections or vandalism in the local park. The thought of going into the offices of a newspaper and having to do these things was terrifying.

On the eve of his placement he slept poorly. He drew open the curtains of his bedroom to reveal a clammy mid-November Monday. It was his mother who took him in. The traffic, as usual, was appalling, and he was worried that he was going to be late. She dropped him outside the newspaper’s offices, wished him good luck, and merged back into the flow of traffic.

He rang the doorbell and was admitted by a middle-aged woman with a blonde shampoo and set, whom he took to be the receptionist and editor’s assistant. Once inside he could hear the persistent ringing of a telephone. She asked him to take a seat in the hallway and wait while she answered the phone. He sat quietly and smoothed his tie, a green affair with golfing elves on it. He was probably overdressed but had thought it better to wear a tie than look too casual. Somewhere behind him, he heard the low murmur of voices. Further off, the dim echo of another conversation in full flow, but, curiously, little suggestion of any work being done. He had anticipated hearing the staccato, almost Reichian rhythm of keys being pummelled, and instead there was near-silence.

The assistant returned. She ushered him into the editor’s office, a small room lined with overflowing shelves. In the centre of the room was a similarly cluttered desk. Behind it sat the editor, a youngish looking man who might be in his mid-twenties, barely out of university. He noticed that the editor was wearing a shirt and tie and felt reassured.

The editor shook his hand and invited him to take a seat. His assistant loitered in the doorway. Adjusting his glasses and leaning forward over the desk with his hands clasped in front of him, with fingers interlaced so they could be splayed for effect, the editor gave a short account of the newspaper’s history, its circulation, the role it played as a champion of local causes and campaigns, before moving on to the importance of accurate and impartial journalism. His father had edited the newspaper for many years and upon his retirement handed over the reins to his son. Just as the editor hit his verbal stride, his phone rang. I’m sorry, I’ll have to take this, he said, and upon picking up the receiver gestured for him to leave.

The assistant took him down the hall to meet the news team. Their office was at the back of the building. Deep in the bowels. As he neared the opening, his stomach knotted with trepidation.

He stepped through the opening into a large, cramped room, where he could see five journalists seated at their desks. Three men and two women. Their desks were arranged asymmetrically, randomly, and were flanked by bookshelves packed with files. The walls of the room were barely visible for bookshelves packed with files. Each desk faced one of these walls, with the news editor’s desk to his immediate right, facing the room. There wasn’t a huge amount of work being done. Most were staring at their screens through the steam of a hot beverage, or leafing through copies of last week’s paper.

It was a distinctly anticlimactic image. He had expected frenzied typing, phones ringing off the hook, unsmoked cigarettes mouldering in ashtrays, journos screaming obscenities at each other. Here was an eerie quiet, like the morning after some collectively traumatising event that none were remotely ready to confront. A condition he would come to know in later years as Back to Work Blues.

Like the editor, the journalists all appeared to be in their early twenties, save for the news editor, who looked to be in his early forties. He had the harassed countenance of someone who wanted to be somewhere else, someone for whom time was running out. His skin was pallid and pockmarked, the pores of his creased face clogged with decades of bad decisions.

Flashing an insincere smile, the news editor indicated that he was on the phone by gesturing to the plastic appurtenance wedged underneath his chin, so he was shown around the room, passed from reporter to reporter for perfunctory introductions. Each had their own remit, a particular area of focus. Council meetings. Court reports. Planning consultations. Littering.

Eventually the news editor came off the phone, so they were able to be introduced. Hello, I’m Neil. I’m the news editor. They shook hands. I’m afraid we don’t have a desk, or a computer, for you to use, but you can sit at my desk when I’m not here. Monday’s can be a bit quiet. The newspaper goes to press on a Thursday, so for the moment we’re just collating press releases. Gathering stories. I should have something for you to do by the end of the day. What it might be worth doing for the moment is having a read through some of the past issues. The news editor pointed to a bookshelf containing bound copies of the newspaper. That’ll give you a flavour of the sort of stories we’ve been covering lately. I’ll let you know when you we have something for you to work on. All right?

He spent all of Monday reading old copies of the newspaper, desultorily flicking through a year of Rotary Club jumble sales and announcements by local businesses, planning objections and plucky schoolchildren, with the odd motorway pile up thrown in. There were few of the campaigning stories described by the editor in his speech that morning. Little of the spirit of Upton Sinclair, HL Mencken and Woodward and Bernstein. He returned home more than a little dispirited. He wanted to be a writer. Local journalism seemed more of a distraction than an apprenticeship. An artistic dead-end.

v.

The next day, Tuesday, he was dispatched by the news editor to the law courts in the next town with one of the cub reporters, Mark, a beleaguered and paunchy young father who had only qualified as a journalist a couple of years ago. They made the journey in his decrepit, grey Mini Metro, across the backseat of which were scattered the combined detritus of early parenthood and infancy. Crumbs, cassettes, cuddly toys. It took them over an hour to get there due to the traffic, and there was a possibility that they might be late for the first session of the court. This had a particularly adverse effect on what the journalist described as his recent attempts to cut back on the fags. Babysitting the work experience kid probably didn’t help either. By the time they arrived, the journalist had comfortably polished off a ten pack of Benson & Hedges.

They left the car in a nearby multi-storey car park and hurried into the courthouse. It was the first time he had been to the courts and he was looking forward to the experience, if a little worried about encountering any hardened criminals in the toilets. They had arrived in the nick of time for the first session, and after locating the correct courtroom, took their seats at the press table. The journalist unpacked his notebooks and Dictaphone.

Someone approached their table. A badge pinned to the lapel of his suit jacket said court clerk.

The clerk

He’s not allowed in here.

The journalist

I’m sorry?

The clerk

Him. He’s not allowed in here. Why is he in here?

The journalist

He’s with me. We’re from The Chron. He’s on work experience.

The clerk

I don’t care if he’s on the World at One, he’s not allowed in here. Today’s youth court. Young offenders. Him being here is contempt of court. So he can’t be here.

The journalist.

Ah. Right

The clerk

We had another lad on work experience this week shadowing the clerks. We had to tell him to go home.

The journalist

I see.

The clerk

I’m glad you do. You can stay. He’ll have to wait outside.

The journalist

That’s okay. How long do you think it will take? This session?

The clerk

How long’s a piece of string?

As the clerk departed, the journalist looked at him and shrugged.

He went back out into the waiting area and found a seat. Wanting to appear diligent, he hadn’t brought anything with him to read, just his notebook and a pen. He doodled for a little while, wrote some notes, then watched the defendants milling around the room with parents, and in some instances, girlfriends and children. It seemed slightly academic to banish him from the courtroom, as he was just as able to identify the defendants from his position in the lobby. Though of course, now he wouldn’t know what they had been up to.

All were lads from the less affluent parts of the county. The best they could hope for was an assembly-line job at Rolls Royce, if they were lucky, though this seemed unlikely given that they were about to go up in front of the beak.

Most were in possession of a regulation crew cut, complemented by neck chains and earrings. Permanent scowls. Simian-looking. Furtively smoking near the entrance. He recognised the type from his school, but he couldn’t tell if any were from his home town. Lads with limited horizons. Unpromising futures. Billy Caspers. He thought of his friend Joe, whose dad scraped a living on the market, and whose brother had broken his neck diving into the shallows of a local beauty spot that summer. Joe was doing his work experience at his uncle’s garage, but he had zero interest in being a mechanic. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. Smoking weed and going to jungle raves, and that was about it.

Growing bored, he wandered outside. On foot he made a couple of circuits of the courthouse, plodding along the pavement in his school shoes, hands in pockets. He didn’t want to stray too far in case the session ended when he wasn’t there, and the journalist wondered where he was.

Eventually the court came out of session and the journalist emerged from the huge double doors.

Sorry about that, he said. I didn’t realise it was youth court today. Neil might have known. I feel bad as its a bit of a waste of a morning for you. Anyway, we’re all done here now, for the moment, so I’ll take you back to the office.

When he returned to the office the news editor seemed surprised to see him. What are you doing back here? He explained that the youth court was in session, so he hadn’t been allowed in. Never mind, the news editor replied. I ts as well you’ve come back, I’ve got something that wants doing urgently.

The news editor handed him a black and white photograph of three beaming Boy Scouts holding certificates, flanked by two adult Scout Leaders.

We need to get the names of these scouts before we go to press this week, the news editor said. You’ll need to call the scout group. The number is on the back of the photograph. Find out what they have been awarded. Get the names and ages of the scouts, and the names of the two Scout Leaders. Then I’ll let you write it up and send it to the editor.

When he asked why the newspaper’s photographer hadn’t got those details when he went to the event and took the photograph, the news editor replied, He’s the photographer, we’re the journalists. It’s not his job. It’s ours.

The news editor had cleared a small space at the end of his desk, so he now had somewhere to work. While the news editor tersely rattled away at his keyboard, he picked up the phone and phoned the number on the back of the photograph. A female voice answered. The voice was hoarse and wobbly, and sounded as if it belonged to a woman older than his grandparents. Older than the Queen Mother. He noted the names down as she relayed them, taking care to check the spelling, then hung up.

The news editor was out all the next day. At the law courts, Mark explained. He normally comes back from there in a foul mood. While the news editor was out, he was able to type up the picture story about the scouts. This took him almost an hour of labouring over the wording. When he thought he had finished, he left the document open on the computer.

After asking the other journalists if they had anything for him to do, he returned to reading past issues of the paper. He went back several years, hoping he might spot someone he knew in the pages. Someone from school or one of his parent’s friends. Every now and then there was a photograph of someone he recognised, which made him pause and smile, as if he’d spotted a familiar face in a crowd. Occasionally he came across an advertisement for his father’s building firm in the classifieds, and whenever he did, he felt the warmth of filial affection.

It was almost dark by the time the news editor returned. Everyone seemed to duck their head down when he came in. As Mark had foretold, the news editor was in a foul mood. Snippy and tyrannical. He flopped into his chair and immediately began complaining about his day at the courthouse, directing some of his ire in the absent editor’s direction.

When it came time to look at the short paragraph for the picture story he had worked on that morning, the news editor stared at the screen for several seconds without saying anything. Then he began speaking.

Hmm. This looks fairly okay. Sentence construction is largely fine. Nothing that can’t be ironed out. One of the names I’m not sure about though. George Georghingham? Are you absolutely sure that is his surname? Or his full name? George Ingham? Can I have a look at your notes? Pass me your notes, please? Thanks. Okay. Just as an observation. Your handwriting is going to have to get a lot better than this if you’re serious about being a journalist. This is far too sloppy. I mean, is this supposed to be an H or an N? I can’t tell. I doubt anyone else could tell. There’s not really any excuse for handwriting like this. How old are you? Fifteen? Are your teachers okay with you writing like this? They are? Well I wouldn’t be, let me tell you. You’ve also made a lot of crossings out here, which worries me. It really worries me. It makes me wonder if any of the names you’ve written here are the ACTUAL names of the people in the picture. So I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to phone them MYSELF. Because I can’t send it to print like this. Pass me the photograph please.

As he handed him the photograph, the news editor lifted the arm off the receiver and punched the number into the phone. Listening at the news editor’s elbow, he heard the same female voice answer, and the news editor explained that he just wanted to double check the names prior to going to print. The lady on the line obliged, and as she replied to his queries the news editor typed. There seemed to be a lot of corrections. Far more than he expected, and he began to blush with embarrassment. Thanking the lady, the news editor hung up and turned to face him. He looked furious.

Well, what a disaster! Did you even check the name of this guy? It’s George Ingham, not Gorgingham, or whatever you wrote. George Georghingham. Ridiculous. Not surprising it was wrong given the state of your notes. When you were on the phone yesterday, I knew you were making a complete bollix of it. I didn’t say anything at the time but it’s a good job I checked it, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? We’d have got a right bollocking for that.

His fury exercised, the news editor turned to his screen and began working on his court report.

v.

He almost didn’t go back the next day, but his father persuaded him he couldn’t not go, after they’d taken the time to make the placement available to him. It would look bad. It might mean someone else doesn’t get to go. He couldn’t not turn up. So he returned sheepishly and determined that he would leave if anything further criticism was directed his way.

As it happened, the news editor was far too busy. Early that morning a substantial fire had broken out at a local leisure centre, and the news editor had spent several hours there with the photographer. With the newspaper going to print later that day, all the journalists were frantically trying to file the last of their stories by lunchtime. When the news editor returned, he was adamant the fire story should be on the front page. The editor refused to halt the presses. Neither was prepared to give ground, but eventually the editor won the day. By way of conciliation, he suggested that the fire story could have a colour front page, next week.

He wondered if local journalism was defined by these little battles over stories which would barely warrant a couple of column inches in a national newspaper. As each day had passed, he had become more sceptical about the profession.

After lunch the careers adviser visited the newspaper offices to see how he was getting on. They sat opposite each other on two plastic chairs in the space underneath the building’s fire escape. I hear you had a bit of an issue this week, she said. News about his bawling out had obviously reached her through, either via the editor or perhaps the news editor. He wondered how it had been reported, as a complaint or an apology. It shows you just how seriously they take their work here. A good learning experience, if nothing else. Other than that, have you enjoyed your week?

There was little he could offer her by way of a response. He shrugged and said he was glad it was almost over.

For the rest of that afternoon, he sat leafing through decade-old copies of the newspaper, while the news editor led a discussion about the hypothetical genital hygiene of several prominent people from the local area. He wondered if that display was for his benefit. He decided not to go back on the Friday.

On returning to school the next week, he found a copy of the paper in the library, and flicked through the pages until he found the image of the three smiling scouts, flanked by their two scout leaders, clutching their certificates. He inhaled sharply. His name was on the by-line. He hadn’t expected it, and seeing it now reminded him how bogus it was, how little pride he felt in that small endeavour. He stared at the image for a few seconds, holding his breath, as if waiting for something in the picture to reveal itself, before closing the pages and tossing it onto a tub chair in the reading area, watching it slide from the seat of the chair onto the floor. Then he walked into the library’s fiction section, looked at the spines of the books on their shelves, and exhaled.

The Iggle Piggle Dance

One of the things he liked to do whenever he was drunk or feeling maudlin, or both - the two usually went hand in hand - was to google the names of old flames and former objects of lust, to see how their lives had progressed in comparison to his. He didn’t view it as stalking so much as a form of self-insurance: ensuring that his past failures, myriad though they were, had by now converted themselves into a form of success, thereby assuring himself that decisions which continued to torment him had in fact been borne out, that he had made the correct choices in his life, or for those times in the past when he had been faced with a non-negotiable position or foregone conclusion, it no longer mattered. In this way, he was able to shore himself up against any scathing self-scrutiny that may follow, and that out there, among the images and profiles, the Rachels and the Charlottes, the Gemmas and the Naomis, the Katrinas and the Claires, for there was in reality only a handful of women he had known intimately in his life, he would find a reckoning of sorts, a soothing of his fractious nerves. It was on one such expedition, late one night, after too much whisky, too much angst, that he came across a video of a former paramour, or rather, in truth, a girl from university he had drunkenly kissed just the once and, a common theme running through his university years, with whom he had become moderately obsessed. At university she was unprepossessing brunette with a good figure and prominent teeth, just his type. Being well-endowed in the bosom was her chief appeal, though he had no doubt she was very intelligent, as a maths and economics undergraduate, but as she resisted his overtures she seemed flighty, aloof or disinterested, traits which simply piqued his interest further. In his final year, when his mind should have been on other matters, he pursued her, halfheartedly, for months, made overtures at countless social occasions via their mutual friend, asked for her telephone number, all to no avail. He gave up hope. Then, in the last week of the final year, at a party in his shared house, she turned up unexpectedly, and he ignored her for almost all the evening, until the moment when she approached him and ran her hands over his closely cropped hair, he told her to leave him alone. Retreating, she sat sullenly in a corner, arms folded across her chest, staring at the ground. He didn’t see her again until a mutual friends’ wedding, almost a decade later. He was single, and she was with someone. He didn’t speak to her. Instead, he became drunk and obnoxious, so drunk and obnoxious that, in the taxi back to their hotel, one of his friends put his elbow across his throat to silence him. And now, this very evening, he had found a video of her on youTube, filmed presumably by her husband or partner, in some slightly shabby house with a patterned red carpet and a surfeit of detritus spread about the place, dressed in a shapeless cardigan and flared trousers fifteen years after they went out of fashion, her hair not the short bob it once was but now long and lissom and without shape, almost unrecognisable but for the prominent teeth which were unmistakably hers. She had aged, as was to be expected, but he was shocked at how old she looked, given that she had only just left university. Then he remembered that she hadn’t. With much hilarity on her part, she was performing the Iggle Piggle dance, the jaunty Iggle Piggle dance from Ceebeebies’ bedtime programme The Night Garden, for some nameless child, flapping her arms and kicking her legs with scant coordination. He realised why he had never seen her dance at the student’s union. Perhaps she was drunk or high, or both. More likely neither. As a performance it was regrettably lacking in charm, a discovery which made him profoundly happy, a dopamine-infused hit of schadenfreude, though there was a gentleness about it that was unfamiliar to him, being revealed only under the gaze of an intimate other. He had never really known this woman, and even at the time he had known he never would. The video was several years old, and the children for whom it had been recorded had presumably outgrown The Night Garden by now, much as his own children had, neither of whom particularly cared for the antics of Iggle Piggle, though the narration of the esteemed actor Derek Jacobi had a mesmeric quality, providing an effective calmative in the moments before bed, for himself and for his children. He often thought about those small boys with their truncated bodies and nascent identities. They were no longer infants, and their early years had passed by in the flick of an eye. That night, as he undressed for bed, he caught sight of himself in the mirror of his wardrobe. He looked old. Not old in the sense of infirmity, but old in the sense that the remains of youth had fled from him. Physically, he felt utterly estranged from himself. It took him longer to fall asleep that night than was customary, and when he woke the next day and faced the mirror, regarded himself in the dim light of morning, it looked as if he hadn’t slept for twenty years.

The Photographer

He first met the photographer a few weeks before Christmas, at an open studio event near his flat.

His favoured prints had been framed and hung on the walls of his studio. Industrial landscapes which recalled Burtynsky and the Bechers. A stack of other prints had been arranged in a wooden crate like rare vinyl. Bunting and beachfronts. Bleached-out colours.

As he flicked through the prints, it was clear that the photographer’s technical ability was his strength. These were clean, sharp, well-composed pictures. But they were lacking in some way. Soulless. Without joy or humour. Perhaps it was the digitisation. Perhaps something else.   

The photographer was portly and balding, with a careful laugh and the finest trace of a beard. A few years older than he was, he comported himself with reserve, with a studied arrogance, as if he wasn’t completely confident of the quality of his work, his aesthetic. His perception.   

He introduced himself and complimented the photographer on his work, explaining that he was a relative newcomer to contemporary photography, trying to bring it into his realm of knowledge. The photographer listened distractedly, then disappeared into a dark room for a moment and returned with a handful of books. The photographer said he should take them away and study them.

The Hungry Eye by Walker Evans. Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith. Shinjuku by Daido Moriyama. He had already come across some of their work in the writer Geoff Dyer’s unfolding digressive essay on photography, The Ongoing Moment. While he admired the American flair for striking compositions, he was by now more interested in the mundane British vernacular of photographers such as Martin Parr or Paul Graham. He didn’t mention this to the photographer, and with gratitude took the books on loan.

The photographer’s partner was also a photographer. Their work was very different. Her work had a depth, a visual power that her partner was only able to gesture towards. Standing in their compact and stylish home, adorned with their respective bodies of work, he found himself envying their life, their art. It was one of her prints he bought that day, framed and ready to be hung in his living room, on the wall where it could be seen from the street.

He wasn’t taking photographs at all back then, but in the months that followed he became increasingly obsessed with the form, purchasing different formats of cameras, trying out different techniques, trying to teaching himself what worked and what didn’t. He studied the websites of the photographers to try to get a feel for what distinguished their work, their individual aesthetic. It was then that he truly appreciated the technical quality to their work, the precision of their technique and the delicate balance of their compositions, and knew he would never be able to replicate it.

A few months later there was another open studio event and he expressed an interest in possibly buying one of the photographer’s pipe pictures. The photographer said he would send him some small prints of the photographs, which he posted through his letter box a week later. The prints had been glued onto small squares of MDF and then joined together with duct tape to make an elaborate concertina portfolio. He looked at the prints, and the prices, and realised he couldn’t afford any of them.

There followed a slightly terse email from the photographer requesting the return of the concertina. He took it to their home and finding the large metal gate closed, dropped them into the letterbox.

The next time he saw the photographer, he had been taking photographs more purposefully, more concretely, for the past year. Upon hearing this the photographer offered him some wall space at the next open studios event. He couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

When he had a handful of photographs which he believed to be good, workman-like, or not bad for a beginner, he attached them to an email and wrote, Some photographs I’ve taken recently. Quite pleased with how they came out. Now wondering what I should do with them. Welcome any advice.

A week passed, then he received a response. Thank you for sending these over. I see you have been playing at being a photographer. Keep looking at the work of the great photographers, you can learn a lot from them. And always try to get a bit closer.

I see you’ve been playing at being a photographer. It felt like a slap down, a rebuke for infringing upon his territory. After that, they didn’t really speak again.

From time to time he would encounter the photographer in their local branch of Sainsbury’s and exchange the briefest of hellos. He always found it rather odd, seeing self-proclaimed artists engaged in everyday activities like visiting the local supermarket or walking the dog. He always felt they should be creating. As though their lives depended on it.  

Years later, after he had left London, he received an invitation by email to another open studios event. Just in time for Christmas, as always. He scanned the list of artists. The photographers were there. He wondered if they still had their little dog.

He clicked through to the photographer’s website and reacquainted himself with his work. It was much the same, a combination of the banal and commonplace, the everyday and overlooked. In his portfolio, he could identify the work of the great photographers, his influences. Few past or planned exhibitions. Waiting for that major retrospective.

He pictured him wandering in the hinterlands of some unfamiliar place, skin pinking in the sun, toes freezing inside his boots, camera lens dangling like a limp phallus. Finding something interesting and pointing his camera at it, framing the image with painstaking precision, failing at being a photographer.

Capital

By the time he moved to London, some three years after graduating, almost all his university friends had progressed their careers. Keeping true to the commitments of the milk round, most had entered the financial services sector, either as traders, financial analysts, underwriters or accountants.

He moved into a flat in south London with a close friend, a stifled creative spirit who was working on the trading desk in the London office of a US bank, a job ill-suited to his temperament. The rent at the flat was £400 per month. The flat was on the top floor of a converted house overlooking Lee High Road, just outside Lewisham, and was owned by one of his friend’s work colleagues, who was a few years older than them. This was the first flat he had bought with his annual bonus. He was about to move into the second.

The flat was a short walk uphill to Blackheath, an enclave of conspicuous affluence in south east London. Looking across from the heath, the city stretched out like an elaborate and bedevilling three dimensional jigsaw, one awaiting the piece with him in it to be complete. It was a thrilling feeling, like being an understudy about to step out onto the stage, on the cusp of some magnificent performance.

Every weekday morning at 6am he was woken by the funky clavinet riff to Stevie Wonder’s hit single Superstition when his flatmate’s alarm went off. Then again at 6.05, 6.10, 6.15 and so on, until his flatmate eventually rose from bed at 6.30am and proceeded to shit, shower and shave in the bathroom.

They threw a flat-warming party where the raucous friends from his hometown rubbed awkwardly against the serious-minded university diaspora. For his own part, he was unsure which side of the fence he sat on. Inspecting his room, one of the university girls looked at the copy of Gregory Corso’s ‘Bomb’ pinned to his wall, and said simply, That’s a bit weird.

The poetry was there to remind him of his greater purpose. Unlike those he knew from university, he had moved to London not to find work, but to become a Poet. This remained uppermost in his mind. He hoped seeing these poems each morning would bring focus to his days of idling, for much idling was done during those early days in London.

Inevitably, things soon became muddied. Prior to moving to south, he had applied for several editorial roles listed in The Guardian Jobs supplement, receiving in the post a handful of rejections entirely disproportionate to the applications mailed. He applied for jobs at bookshops in Blackheath and Greenwich, without joy. With almost all his savings frittered away, he began trawling the Evening Standard’s classifieds.

Few of the roles advertised in the Standard gave any real detail about what they entailed. Kitchen porter. Night staff. Stock supervisor. Warehouse assistant. All required at least one year’s experience. There was no clue as to how he might go about acquiring the requisite experience without first securing the job.

Then there were the roles that he was spectacularly unqualified for. Hairdresser. Receptionist. Nail technician. Undertaker. Alongside these, several requests for volunteers and general assistance, all unpaid.

He briefly contemplated becoming a librarian, before realising that librarians were now known as information assistants, and that you now needed a qualification to stack shelves.

There was, however, a surplus of media sales positions, but he wondered who in their right mind would want to work in media sales? Or be an estate agent, for that matter? There too an abundance of roles in recruitment consultancy, or people-shuffling as he’d heard it called, which had always struck him as an entirely manufactured profession, the last refuge of the useless.

All these he ignored, along with anything that involved working in a call centre. He discovered that in London, even the most nondescript job involved selling of some kind. This narrowed the field considerably.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to work. There were simply certain types of work he didn’t want to do. He had been raised to believed that it was better to do a low-status job well than a high-status one poorly. People could be roughly divided into those tenacious few who worked hard, and those who were adept at convincing others to work hard on their behalf.

A degree of romanticism had coloured his relocation to the capital. Some months before his move he had read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit, Orwell intoned.

Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?

What could he possibly know about poverty? He knew about hard work, having worked on building sites in the employ of his father, but this was something altogether different. While he was quite prepared to scrape by with next to nothing, to eke out a living in a series of dead-end jobs, he was quite unprepared for what this might entail, what would happen if he failed to find work.

If push came to shove he could always go back and work for his father. He could always go back.

He couldn’t go back.

By now he was desperately short of money. That autumn he responded to a small ad offering commission-based work in the city. Must be fit and enjoy listening to music. Little additional information was provided. When he was offered a day’s trial, unpaid, he gladly accepted.

I’ve found a gap in the market, the managing director explained during the brief interview.

Consumer shopping habits change by the day, by the hour. By the minute. They don’t listen to the radio anymore. They don’t buy singles anymore. We bring music direct to the consumer. We give them the music that they want, when they want it.

For the rest of that unseasonably warm day in November he tramped the streets of south London in his suit and jacket, attempting to sell CDs from a holdall to shop owners, passing strangers and pub drinkers.

His companion for the day was an out-of-work bassist in his early thirties. Shortish, pudgy, thinning brown curls. After starting at Peckham Rye station, by lunchtime they had slowly but surely crept into East Dulwich and stopped for lunch at a greasy spoon on Dulwich High Street. As the bassist lit a fag, he asked him how long he’d been doing it for.

Since the tour with St Etienne finished, he replied. And the session work dried up. So a year or so. No money in music anymore.

There was no gap in the market. This did not bring music direct to the consumer. They could barely get a foot in the door before being turned away. It was demeaning, demoralising and utterly fruitless.

And painful. By the end of the day his heels had been rubbed raw by his cheap shoes. They finished up in Nunhead in the early evening, before calling it a day and heading back to the office near Old Street with their unsold CDs.

As they arrived, he could hear the clanging of a bell. Walking into the office, he saw a blonde, rakish man in a sharp suit ringing the bell over his head, like a Mod town crier.

Looks like he’s had another good day, said the bassist. Sold all his CDs. Always does.

That evening, he saw an advert in the window of The Railway pub in Blackheath asking for part time bar staff. He walked in and picked up an application form. The pub was an upmarket brand, but part of a larger chain. Dim lighting, wood interiors, shabby chic furniture. Run by a couple with two boxer dogs and staffed by undergraduates on minimum wage.

Within a few days he was pulling pints and cleaning ashtrays. Meeting new people. Lee and Karen. Nikki and Guy. Iso and Alice. Kate and Nina. Naomi and Lydia. Nipon and Phil. Unfamiliar faces who briefly became firm friends. Sometimes more.

Money, Orwell wrote, frees people from work. Unlike Orwell he had no money, and a small amount of personal debt, in the form of two credit cards, which he watched slowly increase each month. There was little hope of clearing it. He barely survived on his meagre earnings from the pub, and the small white envelopes containing tips meant for the barmaids.

He registered at a local employment agency and was offered a job at a warehouse in Charlton, picking magazines bound for newsagents in Greenwich and Blackheath. For a period he got the train to work at 7am, headed home for a shower and supper at 5pm, then started at the pub around 6pm, finally finishing around midnight.

It was the hardest he’d ever worked. It was the most money he’d ever earned.

Still every decision he made remained subject to financial pressure. The ability to stand a round in a pub. To split the bill in a restaurant. Invited to join friends for drinks after work, he took the northern line up to Bank, against the flow of commuters fleeing the City. His friends favoured upmarket bars with upmarket prices, and he arrived knowing he could barely afford a single drink, much less several.

Instead he drank away his earnings elsewhere, heading to the Live Bar in Deptford after last orders in the company of his new friends, or sitting in his room, smoking and writing and drinking his flatmate’s mid-priced bottles of wine, late into the night.

That December, on a break between shifts, he sat by the open fire in the Prince of Wales up on the heath, nursing a pint of Guinness and smoking a roll up while reading J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, believing himself the reincarnation of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, or Donleavy himself, or any of the other writers who had called a great city like Dublin or London their home.

God’s mercy / on the wild / Ginger Man.

He and Dangerfield shared a certain fecklessness, both being fiscally reckless. When he moved to London, he bought his first mobile phone, a contract device. At the time he could only afford the contract itself, not the insurance to cover its unexpected loss. A few months later, he got pissed with friends in Covent Garden and left his mobile on a bar table.

The next morning, unable to find his phone, he went to the police station to report it stolen. After calling his network to block the device, the operator informed him that several calls had been made that night. These calls totalled over £300. It would have been more, but the operator viewed the calls as suspicious and eventually blocked them. As he hadn't taken out any insurance, he was liable for the charges.

Every time his bank account went overdrawn, which was often, his bank debited a £30 fine against his account. If he went further into his overdraft, they took another payment. When the standing order for his rent cashed in on the same day as direct debit payments for utilities or card payments for food and travel, he could be left with hundreds of pounds of debt, without any way of repaying it. An ill-fated trip to Scandinavia with his flatmate pushed him further into the red.

He was simply incapable of managing money, of holding onto it. It ran through his fingers like water. In a city awash with liquidity, like the muddy river coursing through it, he had none.

But he had made it. That was irrefutable. He had finally arrived. And now, like the protagonists of the many Bildungsroman his adolescent self had read, he awaited the next electrifying chapter in the novel of his life. All he had to do was sit, and wait.

The Milk Round

Until he went to university, he had never heard the term the milk round, other than to describe the antiquated, and by now redundant, process by which milk used to be delivered. But in his final term, people suddenly started talking about this thing, the milk round, with a great deal of sagacity, as if he should know what it was, when he hadn’t the foggiest. One of his friends, whose elder brother was finishing his law studies, explained that the milk round was a week-long recruitment fair or a week-long piss up, depending on your philosophical inclination.

Officially the milk round marked the arrival on campus of many of the UK’s largest corporate organisations. Their express purpose was to entice the university’s most promising students onto their graduate training programmes. They included, in no particular order, HSBC, Barclays Bank, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Arthur Andersen, Lehman Brothers. The heavyweights of global finance. The swinging dicks of big business.

Some of these he’d heard of. Others he hadn’t. Merrill Lynch for instance. Even if he had no intention of working there he quite liked the name, Merrill Lynch, thinking it apt, reflecting the method by which the company co-opted students onto its graduate programme (lynching) and the type of leisure shoes favoured by those who worked there (Merrells).

Almost all undergraduates treated it as a opportunity to get drunk for free, enduring the lengthy presentations before polishing off the complimentary refreshments. Some went determined to secure the professional career which was the culmination of several years of hard work. It was a mutually agreeable process, funnelling new graduates into the corridors of corporate power while tantalising them with the benefits of employment and the balm of money.

Entry-level employment. Fast-track development. Competitive starting salary. Annual bonus. Gym membership. Possibilities for promotion. Share options. Interest-free mortgage. Final salary pension.

Other than not studying politics, he had no clear idea of what he would do after university. Writing, travelling, earning some money when circumstance called for it. He didn’t see himself as part of anything, much less a cog in a corporate mechanism.

Even the offer of free booze couldn’t persuade him to go. Over that fortnight he remained in the living room of the shared house, watching television and smoking weed, while several people he knew came back from the milk round with a clearly mapped career path.

Where others saw a career path, he saw only a conveyor belt feeding a mincing machine in need of fresh meat. After three or more years of being encouraged to think critically, he couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would throw out that learning to assimilate the practices and operations of some corporate monolith. The very organisations whose political influence and unscrupulous he had spent the better part of his time at university questioning, if not directly challenging.

Few eyebrows were raised when one of their number, a trustafarian from a fee-paying school who renamed himself in the first week and became their dope dealer for the next three years, ended up running counter-terrorist programmes during the War on Terror.

Many years later he encountered the critical pedagogy of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, who came up with the term the banking model of education to describe the process by which children are force fed with the necessary knowledge to make them economically productive citizens. Freire wrote: The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.

He couldn’t help but link Freire’s ideas to Michel Foucault power-knowledge paradigm, the means by which knowledge and power intertwine inextricably, thereby subtly reinforcing the ‘disciplinary society’ which exercises its power through institutions, including schools and universities. Critical thought, the continual questioning of systems and selfhood by interrogating what constituted knowledge, was essential for challenging the mechanisms of power. The only way he knew how to challenge the mechanism of power was to opt out of it, to resist. Je me rebelle donc j’existe.

No one seemed to know the precise origin of the term the milk round. Perhaps it had something to do with skimming cream. Perhaps it was a play on that Shakespearean phrase, the milk of human kindness, reflecting the benign, nourishing generosity of the corporate paymasters.

The very narrative of milk as a substance, from the nurturing, precarious bond between lactating mother and suckling infant, was much like the relationship between state and citizen, underscored by the tropes of separation and detachment. He thought, almost inevitably, about the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the architect of deregulation, who had begun her illustrious political career by scrapping free milk for the country’s schoolchildren.

All which is given charitably can be snatched away. He’d rather be broke than suckle at the corporate teat. Though in the years that followed, as one by one his friends moved to London to forge careers and stake their claim to the city, he wondered if, when he had the chance, he should have milked that sucker for every last drop.

Cocaine #2

All the places he consumed cocaine. All the rooms and flats and houses. All the pubs and nightclubs and restaurants. The theatres and cinemas. Galleries and museums. Libraries and universities. Train stations and airports. Casinos and strip clubs.

All the kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms and bedrooms. Desks and bedside tables. Park benches and alleyways. Train carriages and the back seats of buses.

All the homes of friends and friends of friends and people he didn’t know. The coffee tables and kitchen worktops and toilet seats. Discrete shelves in concealed places. Strange people in unfamiliar settings. Familiar people in strange configurations.

All the portaloos and aeroplane cubicles and supermarket toilets. The cisterns and hand sanitisers and toilet roll dispensers. Boxed-in pipework. Greasy surfaces. Smeared excretions. The stale smell of urine. The sour odour of benzoylecgonine.

The bolt snicking the lock. The tentantive tipping. Preparation of line and note. The application with precise care.

All the times he had stood waiting for the man. The inquisitive texts. Hurried phone calls. Short detours on his commute home. The minutes and seconds running into hours. Waiting for the car at the designated destination. All the corners of the city he came to know from pacing the streets in concentric circles.

All the back seats and front seats and the accumulated miles of ten second rides. The small talk and bonhomie. The quick exchange. The folded cash. The baggies of coke.

Leaving the car to slip back into the jostling crowds. The empty suburban streets. Another faceless commuter. Another interminable journey.

All the times when cocaine was consumed. The specific instances. Special occasions and every day occurrences. Birthdays and anniversaries. Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Whitsun weekends. Stag dos and weddings. Club nights and poetry gigs.

All the house parties and street parties and work parties and after-work drinks. The last train home a symphony of sniffing.

If he was out drinking he was almost always taking cocaine and if he was out drinking he was almost always taking cocaine and if he wasn’t in or out drinking he was still taking cocaine just to pass the time.

Big nights out. Quiet nights in.

Dissolute Fridays. Hungover Sundays. Midweek casuals. Early morning pick-me-ups.

And every time he used cocaine, every time he bought it, snorted it, insufflated or ingested it, he moved a little further from the person he used to be and a little closer to the person he hoped to become.

All the cumulative moments. The minutes and hours and days. Weeks and months and years.

All the moments he could remember. And all those he could not.

Quotation Marks

SCENE ONE

EXT - AN OFFICE - DAY

A white building with large windows overlooking a busy street in London’s West End.

INT – THE OFFICE - DAY

A large conference room with a long table and a number of chairs running around its perimeter.

Three white men in suits are sitting at the table. They are positioned an arm’s length apart, facing door to the conference room, with their backs to the window. Several sheets of paper are on the table in front of them. Each idly scrolls the screen of their smartphone.

On the left: The VICE PRESIDENT.

In the middle: The PRESIDENT.

On the right: The JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

The door opens and three people come in: a middle aged woman and man, and a younger man. They take their seats on the opposite side of the table to the three men.

On the left: The COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR.

In the middle: The MEMBERSHIP MANAGER. The MEMBERSHIP MANAGER is THE FAILURE.

On the right: The CHIEF EXECUTIVE.

THE FAILURE

Good afternoon everyone.

The three men slowly put their phones down.

PRESIDENT

Good afternoon.

PRESIDENT

Hello.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Hi.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Very briefly, before the Board meeting, I’ve asked [THE FAILURE] to bring in the new member marketing materials for you to have a look at.

PRESIDENT

I’ve already seen them.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

I know you have but [VICE PRESIDENT] and [JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT] haven’t yet, so we thought now might be a good time. Now these are very much up for grabs so if anyone has any comments or thoughts please feed these back to [THE FAILURE] today so we can incorporate them and make the changes before they go to print.

THE FAILURE hands a small sheaf of papers to the VICE PRESIDENT and JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

VICE PRESIDENT

These are for…?

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

These are for recruiting new members primarily, but I believe they can be used as a general membership pack, [to THE FAILURE] is that right?

THE FAILURE

Yep. These are the standard membership booklet template which can be tailored -

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Remind me why we need these? What do we normally send to prospective members?

THE FAILURE

We normally send a letter inviting them to join, in addition to the annual review and an application form. These go out to any non-members who attend a recruitment event.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

If we already send them an annual review with the joining pack, why do we need this?

VICE PRESIDENT

Indeed. Seems like a bit of a waste of money to me.

THE FAILURE

It’s a marketing tool. Most membership organisations send something detailing the benefits of membership, either when an organization or individual has agreed to join or is being approached to join. We have had a membership pack for some time, but it hasn’t been refreshed for a few years. We produce it in house and it isn’t quite as slick as it could be. How we produce it, what it looks like. It isn’t fit for purpose, shall we say.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

I’m confused. What are we looking at here, a booklet and a folder?

THE FAILURE

Yes. There is a booklet which can be tailored for the different membership categories, which fits inside the folder along with the application form and other materials. The booklet details the benefits of membership and our networking events, key policy issues we are working on and a full list of members.

VICE PRESIDENT

How do you print these booklets?

THE FAILURE

In-house, on our own printers. With InDesign, a desktop publishing package, we can produce these as and when required. If the Chief Executive has a meeting with a prospective member. We can distribute them at internal or external events. We can even give our Board members a stack to display in their reception.

VICE PRESIDENT

Hmm. I wouldn’t go that far. What about the folder, how does this get produced?

THE FAILURE

The folder will be printed professionally.

VICE PRESIDENT

What sort of cost are we looking at for that?

THE FAILURE

It’s pretty reasonable. I think £300 + vat for 500 was the quote. Less if you order more.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

How big are these? The booklet and folder?

THE FAILURE

They’ll be A5, so cheaper to print and post.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Ah. Good.

The PRESIDENT, VICE PRESIDENT and JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT look over the printed sheets.

VICE PRESIDENT

I like how you’ve got a list of members at the front of the booklet here. Good to see them all listed in one place. Are we on there?

THE FAILURE

You should be.

VICE PRESIDENT

Ah yes, there we are.

PRESIDENT

I’ve already found a typo.

VICE PRESIDENT

Me too.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

And me.

THE FAILURE

Just the one?

PRESIDENT

No.

The three men scrutinise the sheets.

PRESIDENT

PLC is either upper case or lower case, not capitalised.

THE FAILURE

I’m sorry?

PRESIDENT

The list of members. You’ve got a number of companies, including mine, down as being a plc with a capital P. It’s either upper case or lower case, but not capitalised.

THE FAILURE

That’s a matter of opinion…

PRESIDENT

It isn’t a matter of opinion. Its upper case or lower case. There’s no matter of opinion about it.

THE FAILURE

Apologies. I’ll get that corrected before these go to print. I’ll probably drop the PLCs and Ltds and LLPs anyway. They’re a little extraneous.

PRESIDENT.

Hmmm.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Some of these testimonials, these quotations, from members…I like this one on the cover from [REDACTED], and another from [REDACTED] but then you’ve got one from this tiny insurance company that I’ve never heard of.

THE FAILURE

I’m still collating testimonials at the moment. I agree we do need more. What I wanted to illustrate was that membership is a broad church, and that there are a number of members of varying types and sizes. Which is why these booklets can be tailored for different membership types. If we sent this booklet to that particular type of member, I’d include that testimonial -

VICE PRESIDENT

I think you’re going need more prominent members than that.

THE FAILURE

It really depends who we are sending these to. For smaller prospective members a testimonial from an existing smaller member would be useful. Anyway I’d be delighted if the Board members could let me have a few words for these as I’ve only had -

VICE PRESIDENT

Have you asked the committee members?

THE FAILURE

Absolutely. Some just haven’t come back to me yet.

The PRESIDENT waves his papers at THE FAILURE.

PRESIDENT

Why haven’t you used quotation marks?

THE FAILURE

For the testimonials?

PRESIDENT

No, for the list of members. Of course for the testimonials. All printed quotations should have quotation marks.

THE FAILURE

Should they?

PRESIDENT

Yes.

THE FAILURE

No necessarily.

PRESIDENT

Not necessarily?

VICE PRESIDENT

Come again?

THE FAILURE

In terms of the overall design we – the design company and myself – thought that they looked better without. More impactful. Cleaner.

PRESIDENT

I disagree.

THE FAILURE

Okay.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

It won’t be a problem to put them back I imagine?

THE FAILURE

No but…

PRESIDENT

But what?

THE FAILURE

It’s not completely out of the ordinary to have a quotation without quotation marks. I agree they probably should, but in terms of the design spec and the look and feel of the booklet I feel it looks better without them. And it’s kind of clear who has made that particular comment.

PRESIDENT

How is it remotely clear without quotation marks?

THE FAILURE

Well, the sentence is clearly attributed to someone. You have a name and organisation underneath the sentence. Underneath the testimonial. That makes it pretty clear I think.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

But the testimonials should have speech marks, don’t you agree?

THE FAILURE

I do, but from a design point of view I think it looks better without them.

VICE PRESIDENT

I think it would look better with the quotation marks. So it’s clear what people are looking at.

THE FAILURE

I disagree.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Gentlemen, I’m aware that we have our next meeting in a few minutes, so we’ll have to bring things to a close. [THE FAILURE] will incorporate your suggestions for revision. Thank you [THE FAILURE], you can go now.

PRESIDENT

Before you do anything with these I want the quotation marks put back on.

THE FAILURE

I’ll put them on but if I still don’t think they look right, I’ll take them off again.

SCENE TWO

INT – THE OFFICE – DAY

The next day. A smaller conference room in the office containing a circular table and six chairs. THE FAILURE and the COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR are sitting opposite each other.

COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

[CHIEF EXECUTIVE] asked me to have a word with you about the meeting with the Board yesterday. You know, the President was very upset last night. You really upset him. Not so much the things you said, but the way you said them. In fact, [VICE PRESIDENT] and [JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT] were upset too. [VICE PRESIDENT] said ‘who does this guy think he is?’ You’re not supposed to argue with the President. You do as he says. Even if you think you’re right. You do as he says. If he says jump, you say how high? He said that if you’d have been working for him, you wouldn’t have been working for him anymore. You’d have been asked to leave. In no uncertain terms. But we don’t do that here. We don’t do that here, so I said I would speak to you instead. So consider this a warning. Not a formal warning, or even a verbal warning, but a warning nevertheless. Heed my advice. The President is not to be messed with. You picked the wrong person to rub up the wrong way yesterday. Remember, the Board has to approve pay rises and promotions. You were asking if you could go down to part time last week? You can forget it now. You’ve burned your bridges with them big time. Forget that idea for the time being. Now with that in mind, and I’m only telling you this to help you, we feel that the best thing to do, for all concerned but particularly for you, is to do what the President said and put the quotation marks back on. Whether you think that they look right or not. Put them back on. Put. Them. Back. On.

THE FAILURE

They weren’t on in the first place.

COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

I don’t care. Put them on.

THE FAILURE

“…”

Brothers in Arms

When he was eight years old his younger brother brought chicken pox home from school.

Both were kept off for a fortnight. Coming in the weeks following Christmas, being ill was much like being on an extended holiday. As they were highly contagious, they never left the house.

Only the insistent itchiness of the little red spots was agony, preventing sleep and any kind of comfort while awake. He loathed the sickly odour of the chamomile lotion his mother dabbed on the raw pimples. His younger brother, not known for his tolerance of discomfort, suffered more than he did, becoming particularly tearful and clingy.

Some time during that fortnight he and his brother were left in the care of their father. Their mother had some unspecified appointment, possibly a hairdressing job where the presence of two pox-ridden children would have been inconvenient.

No doubt this would have presented not inconsiderable inconvenience to their father, a builder, who had a number of unspecified appointments of his own to keep that day, each of which precluded nursemaiding his unwell offspring. Instead, he and his brother were dabbed with chamomile wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, and bundled into the back of his Saab, as he drove from office to building site to suppliers’ premises.

He remembered the January weather was particularly miserable that day. A few days earlier he had sat in the living room doing his homework in front of the fire, with the crisp light of winter warming the room. Now heavy rain lashed the windshield of his father’s car, swatted away by the furious windscreen wipers.

They pulled up at a red-brick building, a half-finished house without windows and doors. Their father explained that he had to go into the building for a little while, but would be back as soon as possible. He left the key in the ignition and the heaters and cassette player on.

They were listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. One of their father’s favourite records and, by proxy, his too. He was fascinated with the cassette with its sky blue insert and tiny lyrics in pink type. The image of a steel guitar levitating in the clouds. He loved the music too: the noodling intro of Money for Nothing, with its falsetto refrain surrendering to the track’s staccato drum solo and power chords, the chirpy keyboard line and ‘woo hoos’ of Walk of Life, the curling, seductive saxophone of Your Latest Trick, the rolling thunder of the title track.

Now, the music had become an instrument of torture. His brother was sobbing again, as if he too felt it, had been driven to tears by it. He was curled into a ball on the backseat, crying for their absent mother.

Side One finished and Side Two began, then Side One returned, and after that Side Two again. Still their father remained in the building.

That is what he remembers. The cold rain, the fogged windscreen, his brother on the backseat and the spools of the cassette turning with deliberate indifference, as he stared at the half-finished house and willed his father to emerge.

That is what he remembers.

The writers’ workshop

In August he attended a course at a remote writers’ centre in the Highlands. The tutor was a poet whose work he admired and whose success he once aspired to emulate. The Poet was only a few years older than him, but had been lauded from early in his career, garlanded with awards and grants. Most recently, he had won a prestigious prize for his last collection. He felt an affinity toward the tutor’s work, an affinity not reciprocated by the critical community. The Poet’s work was exceptional in a way his was not. He was able to delve into language and sift through it with an effortless precision. Every word that the Poet deployed was perfectly weighted, each line finely tuned to ring out with pure sound, singing while his mumbled, breathing while his choked.

He had always been sceptical about creative writing courses. They gave hope to the hopeless, he thought, a self-perpetuating system whereby the badge of authorship was conferred and legitimised by other authors. He’d always wanted to do it the hard way, retain the solitary edge of writing. As with any profession where success required a degree of networking, he preferred to be out of it.

You could always spot a story or poem that had been through a creative writing filter, as it had usually been finessed like an over-elaborate decorative cake. Too much artifice, not enough art. Underneath all that sickly icing, it was just a cake. Flour, eggs, butter and sugar. Too much of it was bad for you.

Creative writing courses were expensive, the preserve of the aspirational middle classes, well beyond the reach of those of lesser means. When writers had complained about not earning anything from writing, he wondered if they had considered retraining as a nurse. Caring for the elderly. Writing was a privilege, not an entitlement. It wasn’t like digging graves for a living.

Driving to the centre, he got lost twice on the back roads outside Inverness, a combination of his car’s antiquated navigational system, which didn’t recognise the address, and his own stupidity. He eventually drew up at a white walled crofter’s cottage with a small patio garden. Through the windscreen he could see an unbroken vista of pine forests, grazing pastures and, further away, the Cairngorm mountains.

The car park was almost full, and he squeezed his car into a small space near the gate. He was the last to join the group, slipping in through the entrance just as the Poet concluded his introductory remarks. They were sat at a wooden table in a long, narrow room with stone walls. At the other end of the room was a wood burning stove and a selection of sofas and armchairs on the point of collapse. As he took his place next to a young woman with round glasses and long hair the colour of candyfloss, his feet became entangled in a set of crutches.

He took a moment to glance around the table. The rest of the group was mostly made up of ladies of a certain age, some Scottish but a good number of English exiles, all clad in varying shades of purple and grey. There were a couple of younger women finishing creative writing projects, and one other man.

The Poet had the sallow look of a young man on the cusp of middle age, one who had been softened and fatigued by recent fatherhood. He asked the group to introduce themselves and say a little about what they were working on, what they were reading and what they hoped to take away from the session.

Francine mused on the simplicity of her poetry. Davina explained she was an undisciplined but committed writer. Leontia was working on a collection and a memoir, and was on the steering committee of a local literary festival. Ellen had written her first poem that year. Daniel was a retired mental health nurse also feeling his way into poetry. Lynda was a published writer, working on a new book about the people and culture of the Scottish islands. Gillian wrote for pleasure. Eloise was a postgrad at UHI, focusing on mental health and confessional poetry. Eleanor had studied at Stirling, and her writing centered upon embodiment in the landscape. Joan liked Philip Larkin and wrote regularly. Pat admired Sylvia Plath. Marjorie kept bees.

All were deep into a personal writing project of some form or other. Some had seen their work published, some had not. For those who had been published, their commitment was palpable, an urgent need to communicate. He felt it too, but when his turn came to speak, he spoke haltingly, feeling circumspect about his work, viewing it as invalid next to some of the others, particularly the Poet. How could one reasonably say they had written all their lives and yet have nothing to show for it? He disliked having to account for himself, his failure at becoming a writer, despite his best efforts.

Introductions at an end they began with a memory exercise. The Poet introduced them to a poem called ‘I Remember’ by John Brainiard, reading a short extract to the hushed group, followed by another poem, ‘I Ran All The Way Home’ by Paul Farley, which Anglicised Brainiard’s American vernacular. When Leontia asked the Poet if that wasn’t plagiarism, he contemplated interjecting with a pithy comment about Harold Bloomian anxiety and strong precursors, but, being fearful of mansplaining, decided not to bother.

The Poet asked them to use Brainiard’s model to explore a narrow kaleidoscope of experience. This, the Poet said, and the memory of atmosphere informed his own writing, lent it an immersive focus from which he was able to pluck out images, like salmon at a ladder. He suggested that they reconvene in ten minutes.

In silence the group leaned over their notebooks, nibbling their pencils or diligently scribbling. As he surveyed the table he noticed that Lynda was writing using a fountain pen. She had left one of the refill cartridges on the table, stood on its end. He had not seen one since he was at school, over twenty years ago. He decamped to a sofa and began to write.

 

I remember the yearbook with its timetable.

I remember my first Parker pen. The smaller ink cartridges, and the longer expensive ones.

I remember my geometry set. The set square and the protractor. The sharp spike of the compass. The stubby pencil and the sliver of rubber.

I remember using the compass to carve graffiti into a desk. ‘I am eating my own head’. A line borrowed from The Breakfast Club.

I remember Mr Stoker, the chemistry teacher, asking me about the graffiti. I remember flatly denying it was me.

I remember Mr Stoker playing the guitar for us in Year Assembly.

I remember Mr Stoker was such a Ralph McTell superfan that he convinced him to play a concert at our school, and years later hearing a busker in Covent Garden playing ‘The Streets of London’ thanking Mr Stoker for trying.

I remember the observatory, the second to be built at a British school.

I remember it being a matter of weeks before it was vandalized, less than a year before it was dismantled.

I remember its eviscerated brickwork remains, like a half-eaten pie crust.

I remember the school crest. The wheatsheaf. The motto. Ut Severes Seges. What you sow, so shall you reap.

I remember the Headteacher asking us first years what we thought it might mean and a small boy called Joe Tomlinson piping up, ‘Summat about a crop, sir’.

I remember kneeing Joe in the balls before PE.

I remember Joe headbutting Simon Costello in Maths.

I remember Simon wanking in Personal and Social Education.

I remember debagging Paul Jones after a gang of us tied him to a tree.

I remember the face Mr Ayers was pulling in the photograph on his office wall as he dressed us down like a sergeant major.

I remember naming names and naming the wrong names.

I remember being afraid.

i remember the letter my mother wrote to the Headmaster on ruled paper.

I remember the board rubber Mrs Griffiths used to silence our form.

I remember going on report.

I remember we had the most academically gifted boy in the year in our form.

I remember he was bullied for being born to Indian parents.

I remember being bullied.

I remember being a bully.

I remember the green blazer two sizes too big.

I remember Big School had a double meaning.

I remember wanting to act but being afraid.

I remember the Gibbons brothers. their effortless talent.

I remember rehearsals for Oh! What a Lovely War! I remember the revolving stage, the barbed wire, the Pathe newsreels.

I remember Mr Lonsdale’s rages, and his kindness.

I remember reading They Called it Passchendaele in the library on his suggestion.

I remember Mr Green’s presentation pointer.

I remember Mr Wood’s pauses. His delicate phrasing and rumoured homosexuality.

I remember thinking it didn’t matter.

I remember the ammonia odour of the toilets.

I remember the cold tiles in the games changing room. The clacking of metal studs on the floor. Rings of matted grass and mud.

I remember checking other boys for pubic hair.

I remember Mr Ayers ensuring we showered.

I remember taking my shoes off in the winter and warming my feet on the pipes running under the desk.

I remember BO in the history rooms.

I remember goading fourth years to chase us in the first year and some years later first years goading us.

I remember the backs of chairs being bent like a finger after successive forms of reclining boys.

I remember dead arms and dead legs and knuckle raps.

I remember the RM Nimbus.

I remember Mr Stanley hating his job.

I remember pretending to be Frank Skinner in assembly during the European Championships in 1996.

I remember cringing.

I remember being reprimanded by the Headmaster four times: once for singing, once for wearing the wrong jumper, once for punching a boy and once for debagging Paul Jones.

I remember keeping my nose clean.

I remember the Armistice Day assembly when eight boys fainted in the sports hall, each crumpling as if shot by a sniper

I remember the gelatinous wads of old chewing gum under the desks.

I remember watching Grange Hill after school, and wishing I went to a mixed school.

 

Each remembrance seemed to trigger a fresh one. Some had always been highly visible, but others had been buried or simply crowded out by new experiences. As words flowed from his pen, it was difficult to resist the pull of the old memories. The more he wrote, the further he was drawn into his schoolboy self. He could have spent the entire day doing it.

Their time up, the group reassembled at the table. The Poet asked how them had found the exercise. One by one they described the process of writing within this kaleidoscope of experience. Some were less enthusiastic than others. Many had found themselves unconsciously venturing into darker territory.

The Poet volunteered that he had written about several memories. A bowling ball, a tapestry and an Orthodox liturgy. Each was distinct from the others, covering a broad range of experiential possibility, and each had a particularly tactile quality. The memories were so separate and distinct, so incoherent as to appear obtuse, and yet he was envious of the disparity and their precision. He marvelled at the purity of the mind that had arrived at these specific instances of imaginative recollection.

For their next exercise the Poet asked them to use the same method to recall something significant which could not be addressed directly. A cataclysm or epistemic break. A fall. Or something monumentally uplifting that would under the normal order of things be boiled down to received observations or glib clichés.

He returned to his place on the sofa. Before he began writing he knew that he was going to write about the birth of his first son.

 

I remember darkness. Darkness and the creeping dawn.

I remember your painful, painstaking walk.

I remember massaging your back as you swayed your hips.

I remember your breathing. Your heartbeat like a foot pump. The echo in the chamber of your belly.

I remember waiting.

I remember the birthing suite looked like a room in a Dutch brothel.

I remember the harness and the birthing pool.

I remember the lure of the bed.

I remember the midwife but not what she looked like.

I remember the funeral dirge of Radio Three.

I remember the ambient temperature.

I remember my skin tingling.

I remember the view from the window. The beige courtyard, the flagstones and gravel beds, the single bench. The cigarette butts and pigeon shit.

I remember the flat greyness of the new day.

I remember the stagnant water in the birthing pool.

I remember being afraid.

I remember being helpless.

I remember thinking ‘this is it’.

I remember something yielding, suddenly giving way.

I remember the splayed arms and shocked expression of a new being.

I remember blood dripping like liquid spilt on a table.

I remember the sharp shrieks.

I remember being handed my son.

I remember my awkwardness.

I remember your gasps as they stitched you back together.

I remember weeping in the toilet.

I remember waiting for the taxi.

I remember sleeping like an old man.

 

They ate lunch outside at a long picnic table. Having neglected to bring sunglasses, he sat with his back to the sun. Usually he hated the awkwardness of these situations, the need to be erudite and intelligent and credible and funny, to prove one’s worth as a writer. For a while he listened to Leontia address the politics of charging for reading poetry submissions, before departing on a tour of the writers’ centre. He was shown a rotunda with a roof lined with heather, and a spartan cottage for the centre’s residencies.

Wild metaphors followed lunch. The Poet read from the poem ‘The King of the Cats is Dead’. He asked the group to re-write the last I-remember exercise in a more extreme form, harnessing the emotional recollections and exaggerating them, to stretch the language of memory to breaking point.

Perhaps he had eaten too much at lunch, but he had no appetite for it. He looked over the I-remember sequence for the birth of his son. There was nothing that he could harness and embellish without over-emphasising his ambivalence towards the event. He had pursued inspiration down a philosophical rabbit hole. This was not what he had wanted to do. He searched in vain for some profundity and brought up only bile.

There was no truth in it. It was fake, bogus. He loved his boys, but their birth had been a rupture of sorts. He had stopped writing almost overnight. The poems had ceased. At times he felt he had nothing to say anymore, other than how much he loved them and their mother, and how terrified he was.

He thought of his own mother, of how she had devoted her life so thoroughly to her husband and children that she became incapable of doing anything else, other than being a housewife and mother. How when he had told her that she was to become a grandmother that her initial response had been one of quiet dismay, not joy. How this dismay lent itself easily to the depression she had felt through middle age, her discomfort at growing old. Unresolved. Not spoken of.

How the symptoms of depression worsened in the year after his first son was born, how she cried whenever they parted after visiting. She began to lose her appetite, forget things, sleep for hours on end. She refused to see a doctor. After she collapsed in the bathroom, his father took her to hospital, where she was diagnosed with CNS lymphoma, a cancer of the blood which manifested itself as aggressive tumours which the central nervous system. There was a large tumour at the centre of her brain stem. Inoperable.

His timid, beautiful mother who was socially awkward and lacking in confidence yet always dressed well and carefully watched what she ate and drank, as if biding her time in preparation for grandness in old age, endured three years of treatment and remission only for the cancer to return after the birth of his second son. All the symptoms were there, the confusion, forgetfulness, physical infirmity. She needed two walking sticks to walk, but refused to go back to hospital. When he came to stay with her one weekend, she collapsed the night before he arrived. His father was away, so he drove her to hospital for an emergency MRI. Then he had to break the news to her, and phone his father.

He thought of his disheveled, confused mother now, clear of cancer but confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or care for herself or remember what she did or who she saw the day before. Another woman entirely. Unrecognisable to him. He could barely remember what she was like before she became ill.

His mother was younger than most of the women at the workshop.

There was one last exercise. The Poet asked the group to take one of the wild metaphors they had worked on, and to write within it, to slip the thing you were describing inside the skin of that other object. Sat on the sofa, as he looked out of the window he saw a gardener yanking the starting lead of his lawnmower. He decided to write something about him instead.

 

The bald, bearded man

With ruddy cheeks

Pushing a lawnmower uphill

Outside this window

Could be pushing a pram

Home from the shops

Or away to meet his mum

For coffee and cake.

 

Look how he carries

The grass collector,

Like a car seat

Nestling a newborn,

Listen how he talks

To his flowers

With the tender hush

Of a bedtime story.

 

And watch

As he clicks the latch

Of the garden gate

With the careful hand

Of a young father

Leaving the room

Where his children

Lie sleeping.

 

At the close some members of the group asked the Poet if he would read from his own work. He agreed, and chose a poem about waiting to be born, lying latent in his mother’s belly. As he began speaking the eyes around the table began to close, until the entire group was listening in rapt silence. It had been a while since he had been to a poetry reading where the audience closed their eyes. Now he remembered why he’d stopped going to poetry readings.

As the poem came to its perfectly distended close, the rest of the group exhaled a deep sigh.

The workshop over, he took a long-overdue, deeply-satisfying shit in the WC, washed his hands, thanked the Poet and bade him farewell, and manoeuvred his car out of its tight parking space to begin the journey home.

Driving back, he was overcome with a feeling of melancholy. Like he had been emptied from the inside out. Eviscerated. Disembowelled. During the I-remember exercises he had bled himself white. That hadn’t been his intention when he arrived. A sequence of memories had come rushing at him at high speed. He had intended to find more material for his novel. The novel which wasn’t a novel. He wasn’t sure that he had been able to do that. He wasn’t sure if he had achieved anything at all.

Poetry was a serious business. Some took the business of poetry seriously. Writing it, reading it, listening to it. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever taken it seriously enough. Maybe that had always been his problem. He glanced over the low waters towards the hump of Ben Wyvis, hulking like a dormant prehistoric beast. There was beauty and cruelty in this landscape of rugged vistas and cragged rock, the Highlands and its bloody history. A different type of poetry. If you closed your eyes to it, you’d miss entirely.

On the road ahead a 4x4 towing a trailer overtook a cyclist and almost crashed head-on into a white Citroen pulling out of a T-junction. He braked hard and sounded his horn. 

A serious business indeed.

Cocaine #1

I wrote of silences, of nights, I scribbled the indescribable. I tied down the vertigo.

Arthur Rimbaud

 

The first time he tried cocaine was at a friend's barbecue. It was the summer of 2004.

A warm, sunny Saturday in July. Twenty or so friends gathered in a garden of a house on a estate in an upwardly-mobile south Cheshire commuter town. They had been drinking since the early afternoon: the blokes standing supping bottles of beer in the garden, the girls huddled behind glasses of wine of the sofa. Always the same-sex segregation.

Before the food was even on the grill, one of their number started passing his stash of coke among his male friends. The men were the sole participants, sneaking up to the bathroom in twos and threes, under the noses of their girlfriends. Clandestine, conspiratorial. They came back down with moist nostrils and jutting jaws, talking in tongues. Much of the food went uneaten, left to the looming wasps.

Up to that point he had resisted the lure of cocaine. He knew how that first taste ended: addiction, psychosis or death. He had seen plenty of nights where others used it. A few cheeky lines before pub and club. He watched them snuffling up white powder off chopping boards and kitchen counters, saw them preen and gurn and check their reflections in the mirror and wanted none of it.  

When people offered it to him at the time he demurred. He was more interested in smoking weed. Coke was the preserve of the uncreative mind, he thought. It made you uptight, shifty. Too narcissistic. Too aggressive. Back then, he liked to go for a lengthy shit in nightclub toilets to upset the coke-heads. He was less-than-sympathetic to their urgency.

That particular afternoon the mood had taken him to try some. He couldn't explain why, but as one by one his friends returned from the bathroom, sniffing and jabbering, he became acutely aware of missing out on something. Something that was happening within his group of friends. Some loosening of his own principles, some experience that may never come again. He thought of the symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud's le dérèglement de tous les sens. Seeking the essence of reality in the disordering of sensation. Or perhaps it was just the beer.

Invited upstairs by two friends, he accepted. They sequestered themselves in the small bathroom. One took a small bag of coke from his pocket and tipped a carefully measured heap onto a shelf. The powder was an off-white colour, lumpy and grainy in texture. It reminded him a little of cream of tartare, and smelt faintly of horseradish.

His friend chopped up the small pile with a credit card, working the powder into three lines. He took a rolled bank note from his wallet and deftly hoovered one up. Exhaling with a sigh, he passed the bank note to his other friend, who followed suit, taking a couple of attempts before handing the rolled note to him like a miniature baton.

As he lowered his head to the shelf, note at his nose like a paper proboscis, he hesitated for a moment, uncertain if this was something that he absolutely wanted to do. Behind him he could hear his friends sniffing alternately. They were very close in the small space of the bathroom. He could feel the warmth of their bodies, their breath on his back. 

Closing his eyes, he moved the note over his line of cocaine and sniffed. Half of the coke fell out, and he hoovered up the scattered crumbs. Then he wet his finger and dabbed up the residue, smearing it against his gums.

A tingling sensation inhabited his right nostril, and as he angled his head back he could feel some chemical substance sliding down the back of his throat. His teeth began to go numb, then his lips, then his tongue, until his face felt partially anaesthetised.

He made to speak, but there was now a delay between his wanting to speak and his mouth carrying out the brain's instruction. The words caught in his constricting throat.

My lips have gone numb, he said to his friends, finally. Mine too, said the other. It's fucking good coke, said the third, tucking his wallet back in his pocket.

They left the bathroom and went back downstairs. As the cocaine entered his bloodstream, he felt his perception begin to telescope. The warm summer light had taken on a hyperreal quality. He had a sensation of floating inside his body, as if he was levitating inside the bathroom and down the stairs, his tread liquid-light and stone-heavy.

They passed through the living room and into the kitchen, to retrieve a beer from the fridge, which tasted different somehow, more synthetic, more organic. As he raised the bottle to his lips he noticed a slight tremor in his arm. His heart was beating so hard that it shook his whole body. 

He had wanted to know what it felt like. He hadn't prepared himself for the sensation visited upon him by cocaine. And now he wanted more. 

He approached his friend and asked him another line. Why not, his friend said. As they passed through the lounge again, one of the women called out from the sofa, Why is everyone going to the bathroom in twos and threes? 

They offered no response, simply hurried up the stairs, and when they got to the bathroom they locked the door. This time his friend seemed to take an inordinately long time to prepare the gear. He begin to panic, expecting a knock on the door at any moment. His chest was vibrating under the heavy beat of his heart

When his friend had finished they quickly snorted the fluffy trails of coke. The second line tasted different to the first, its impact dulled, negligible. He found himself wanting another almost immediately.

When they returned downstairs the women had already departed for the pub. This was an encouraging development. It meant they could now indulge without the attendant discomfort of being watched, judged. They stayed for a few more beers, a few more lines. Eventually a plan was formulated to leave the house. BY the time they left the sun was fading. 

As they walked out of the house and into the housing estate, he realised had forgotten how to walk normally. He could only move languidly, like Mr Soft from the 1980s Trebor Mints advert. He remembered the lyrics with a chuckle and smile. Mr Soft, / How come the world in which you're living is so strange? / Mr Soft, / How come everything around you is so soft and rearranged? He thought about the softness of this new experience, how it was like being wrapped in a big white eiderdown.

He remembered how the band Oasis had referred to the advert in their single 'Shakermaker'. I've been driving in my car with my friend Mr Soft. Liam Gallagher affected a simian gait which rivalled Mr Soft's in its absurdity. As he loped through the estate, he realised that, being a callow youth back in 1995, he'd failed to recognise how copious amounts of cocaine  coloured the lyrics and music of those first two Oasis albums. It couldn't have been any less subtle had they titled the albums Cocaine #1 and Cocaine #2.

I'm feeling Supersonic / Give me gin and tonic. I can't tell you the way I feel / Cause the way I feel is oh so new to me. All your dreams are made / When you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade. Slowly walking down the hall / Faster than a cannonball.

They felt their way into the pub. Someone ordered a round of beers. They sat round a table, sniffing and twitching, drinking their pints. Making endless trips to the toilets. Sweaty and horny, restless.

Speech was beyond him now, so he sat back and listened to the others attest to how fucked they were. He and another friend were wearing sunglasses inside without any trace of irony. Toniiiiiiiight / I'm a rock n' roll star. Behind his sunglasses he could see, but his dilated pupils could not be seen. He needed to take the edge off things. 

One of the girls came in suddenly and asked if they were going to come and meet them. Everyone at the table fell silent. He liked the girl, but by now he was incapable of responding. While he prevaricated, the barbecue host his house took his key out of his pocket, placed it on the table and said, 'Here's my house key. Let yourself in, take your clothes off and I'll be there when I've finished my beer', he watched her storm from the table.

His friends laughed. They ordered another round. And another. Last orders was called. It felt like they'd only been in the pub for five minutes. They bumbled out and stood on the pavement, deciding what to do next. His feet were rooted to the ground. They joined the lengthy queue for the local nightclub. He considered getting a cab home.

Once inside he could barely sit still, found himself pacing around the fringes of the dance floor, lurking and skulking, looking for women. By now the coke appeared to have run out, or at least he wasn't being invited to share anymore. His mind returned to the moment in the pub, what he should have said or done. Interjected or gone after her. Made something of the night. 

By the end of the evening he was sat on a sofa, surrounded by strangers, his money spent, his voice gone, watching a friend dancing with a girl he didn't know, mesmerised by their gyrations. Then the lights came on, and he realised everyone he knew had already gone home.

The Hedgehog

A few days after the funeral, he saw the hedgehog again.

It was the second time he had seen it. The first time a few months earlier, while preparing the ground for a garden shed.

That afternoon he had been levelling off the soil he heard a loud rustling close behind him. Expecting to see a pigeon, or some other bird, he was surprised to see this bundle of spikes moving ponderously, if determinedly, towards the beech hedge.

He been moving some tyres in the garden earlier and wondered if he had disturbed its hibernation. Speaking to his neighbour the next day, it emerged that the hedgehog had been resident in the garden for years.

This was only the second time he had seen a hedgehog in the wild. The first had been in the garden of his old home, on Middlewich Road in Sandbach, when he was fifteen years old.

The old house had been rented out for over a year, being vacant for several weeks. It was going back on the market, and his father asked him to help tidy the overgrown garden to earn some extra pocket money.

The previous tenants had shown no interest in maintaining the garden, and the grass on the small front lawn had grown almost to knee height. The back lawn was worse, almost to waist height. Both would need to be strimmed and mown.

That was the first time he met Len, the old farm labourer his father used for occasional odd jobs. Len had brought an array of hand tools with him, including a scythe. He had a weather-beaten face and skin the colour of pine, having spent his entire life working in the open air. He was jovial and gruff, and frequently unintelligible. There was a kind of art to his working methods. Deliberately slow, languorous, unhurried. As if he took pleasure in labour.

While Len scythed the back lawn and his father cut back the hedges, he tackled the front lawn.

As he was going over the grass with an electric strimmer, he encountered a small hedgehog. He had always been fascinated by hedgehogs, knowing that they only came out at night. Retreating to a short distance, he watched it make its way laboriously through the grass towards the hedge. Then he continued strimming the rest of the lawn.

A few weeks later he returned to mow the lawn again. This time he found a desiccated, dead hedgehog close to the hedge. Fortunately he spotted it before he ran his mower over it. He didn’t relish the thought of having to scrap it off the inside of the mower with a stick.

As he looked at this other hedgehog now, in his own garden, he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with it. It had strayed far from the hedge in broad daylight, and looked to be suffering some disorientation. As it moved it swayed unsteadily on its small legs, hesitating before making the next step. It looked incredibly fatigued, frequently stopping to lie down and close its eyes.

Taking uncertain steps over unknown ground. Looking for somewhere to die.

He asked his wife brought it some water, which she did and then drove to the supermarket to buy dogfood. Roused, the hedgehog drank a little of the water, before methodically working its way through the dogfood. Their children joined them in the garden and watched it eat. His eldest found a cardboard box and prepared a nest of straw and wildflowers for it.

They were by now incredibly close to it, close enough to hear its tiny jaws pulping the food. The food and water seemed to revive the hedgehog, and, placing a small trug over it as a shelter, they left it smacking its gums against the gelatinous mass of processed turkey and chicken.  

In the garden the next morning he found the hedgehog a short distance from the trug, motionless and curled up under some weeds. The rest of the dogfood remained untouched. Convinced it was dead, he brushed the hedgehog’s back with a broken cane, and the spines pulsed and it appeared to resume breathing. Relieved, he lay the cane to one side and went back into the house.

That morning he took his children to a wildlife park in the Cairngorms. It rained almost incessantly. They saw two male polar bears gnawing frozen blocks of blood and fat, while a seagull swept in and stole the bloody remains of the polar bear’s lunch. A tiger reared up at a man wearing a white golfing glove through the protective glass. A snowy owl peeped comically over a rock, before rejecting the dead mice laid out for it. They saw wolverines and monkeys, bison and camels and two snow leopards.

Just as they were about to leave, his wife texted him to say the hedgehog had died.

Once home he checked for himself. The hedgehog hadn’t moved. It was curled up in the same place, only now its spines looked strange, as if its had body had deflated.

He gently prodded it with the same broken cane and this time it didn’t stir.

He called the SSPCA to ask how best to dispose of it. They suggested placing it in a bin bag and putting it in the green bin. He hung up and went inside the house to get a carrier bag. When he said he was going to put the hedgehog in the bin, his wife objected. It had only just been emptied. Couldn't he bury it?

So instead he dug a deep hole in the back garden, not far from where it lay. So as not to harm the hedgehog, carefully lifted it onto his spade, before letting it slide in the hole. As he covered it with earth, he half expected it to move. To come back to life. But it didn’t.

He smoothed over the soil and put the spade back in the shed. Then he went into the house and threw away the rest of the dog food.

The Pornographic Actress

 

For some time he had nurtured an obsession with a pornographic actress who resembled his wife. Not a perfect similarity, but a resemblance of her proportions and looks.

He was no longer able to recall who had come into his consciousness first: his wife, or the pornography actress. Did he love his wife because he lusted after the pornography actress, or did he lust after the pornography actress because he loved his wife? He couldn't tell. They were two different people, and yet they were not.

He systematically scoured the internet for the pornographic actress' work, returning repeatedly to those scenes where her performances appeared most naturalistic, more committed, less forced. He could discern within those performances moments when she wasn’t enjoying the performance of her male counterpart, times when she was faking her pleasure and those when she gave a true performance.

This led him primarily to the naïveté of her early work, where she appeared wide eyed and fresh faced before the lens. More authentic, less artificial. Through these dedicated, meticulous searches, he was able to trace the development of her screen persona through the trajectory of her career, from ingénue to established star, and the returning superstar after a mystery hiatus.

His internet searches eventually brought him into contact with her true identity. The discovery was entirely accidental, but there on the screen of his laptop was her name and the county in California where she now resided, following her retirement from the industry. He learned that she was married, and had taken a sabbatical from the industry to have a child with her husband.

Googling her real name uncovered a cache of photographs taken with her friends at a bar, and another photograph of her cuddling a small child. The candid photographs were old digital snaps, and lacked the high definition sharpness of her pornography work. This imbued them with a greater authenticity, which led to an inescapable revelation: her true identity was false. 

His discovery of these private moments was infinitely more invasive than watching her being vigorously penetrated by an anonymous man. It unnerved him greatly, and it was as if the boundary wall between fantasy and reality had suddenly fallen away.

He was no longer watching the coupling of his fantasy object and his faceless alter-ego, but a simulation of the sex act by a mother whose dedication of her performance was shaped by the circumstances of her reality. She was merely doing porn to provide for her husband and child, and not for the gratification of him, the voyeur. He could see now that her dedication was only ever partial, and that her mind was almost certainly elsewhere.

Returning to her early films, he saw in those scenes flickers of pain and uncertainty pass across her face. Her later films were formulaic, the performances unconvincing. He wondered how it was possible for her to give herself physically to these men having already exchanged vows with another, and thereafter having nurtured and given birth to a child.

He thought of her breasts, about which he fantasised so frequently, being greedily gnawed upon by some bearded man-child having recently been suckled by in mouth of her infant. He saw the trace of the caesarean scar just above the hairline of her pubis and pictured her lying on a hospital bed, her slippery entrails heaped on a table beside her as the surgeon eased the child from her gaping abdomen.

Slowly he began to understand that all the time he had watched the pornographic actress being fucked he was in reality watching someone fuck his wife. This was the fantasy. Unlike the husband of the pornographic actress, he believed this had been an entirely unconscious drive, but this was a delusion. He had found this pleasurable up to the point where she became a mother. Then it was unacceptable. He was no longer able to watch her films.

But the real problem came later, when he came to make love to his wife: he found himself musing on her commitment to their lovemaking, whether it was authentic or artificial, whether those tell-tale moans and sighs of pleasure were scripted, if like the pornographic actress she too was putting on a performance while planning her retirement.