Autofiction

Notional Poetry Day

It was notional poetry day, the annual celebration of all things notionally poetry. He thought he ought try to write something, but instead spent the day scarifying his lawn, scraping out the matted, spongy moss with a rake. After that, he pruned his overgrown hedges with secateurs, chopping back the advancing branches and bundling them into a wheelbarrow, ready for burning. He made a mental note of the trees that would need to be pruned before winter. There was always more work to be done.

He had written little in the way of poetry for some time. As he raked at the mossy grass he wondered if he was done with it, or if it was done with him. He considered how many poets would be out tending to their garden today. Some would be writing, no doubt, others teaching or giving readings, editing or selecting poems for their magazines. Social media would be abuzz, with verses and comments from leading lights and lesser knows. Then it would be done for another year.

He had always felt the best poetry concerned itself with time and mutability. For him, at that particular moment, there was no greater marker of time passing, nor the mutability of things, than having to deal with a garden run rampant with weeds.

Having to deal with an overgrown garden, of course, consumed the time available to write poetry. Perhaps this was why while there were plenty of poems about enjoying gardens and landscapes, there were few about actual gardening: the requirements of digging, planting, cutting back. The only poem that immediately sprang to mind was Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw versus Pampas Grass’, which didn’t exactly paint the poet-cum-gardener in the best light.

As he worked the leaves of grass, he thought about the dichotomy between physical and mental toil. He had never seen a distinction between the two, but there were plenty who did. His parents, for a start.

There was another poet whose writing he admired, who had worked as a gardener for a number of years, and another he knew who had worked as a tree surgeon, but by and large poetry talked a good game; good at watching others work while musing in some Brechtian register on the nobility of the humble labourer.

Within the poetic world, he sensed a reversal of this position. Naturally, there were plenty of poets who had their shoulder to the wheel, in one sense or another, but when it came to work, there was something about working the earth with one’s hands that no poetic endeavour could touch.

Wheeling the barrow with its bundle of leaves, he recalled that this was how things had begun for his family. His paternal grandfather, the son of a publican, had left school with no qualifications and, with only a wheelbarrow and a shovel, set himself up as a builder. He had married the daughter of a farmer, who in turn had come from generations of farm labourers. The earth was in their blood.

Both his paternal grandparents were able to read and write, but neither had much time for literature. When he died, you could count the number of books in his grandfather's house on one hand. Nor were their sons particularly academically gifted. Which is not to say that they weren't intelligent or astute.

His father, who took over the family business, had no truck with poetic pursuits. Existence manifested itself as a life labour for financial gain, where achievement reflected reward. Life was hard, as it should be, and leisure hard-won, deserved. Earned. His father divined more about human behaviour from observing his employees than from any philosophical method. To not work was to be bone idle. Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks. On the road to ruin, idleness and the imagination walked hand in hand.

The family business was the inheritance he passed over pursue a career as a writer, albeit in a noncommittal way. He never thought of himself as a poet, but simply someone who wrote poems. He wrote poetry in his spare time, for almost twenty years, and he was aware that every time he wrote, he did so from a position of privilege, as a white, middle class man. When he sent his poems out into the world, he did it from a position of privilege. He never felt as though he wrote from a position of privilege. In fact, he felt like a fraud, neither one thing or the other. He knew that what he wrote wasn’t exceptional material, but once he had thought it might have a place somewhere. Now the ranks felt indefinitely closed to him.

A few days prior to working in the garden, he had stood in the poetry section of a large chain bookstore, studying the shelves where the canonical and contemporary sat in uneasy silence.

The hefty volumes of the poets of antiquity dominated the section, squeezing the life from the narrow, newer volumes. He had always envisioned a place for himself between William Carlos Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah. He couldn’t see himself there anymore.

This was how poetry sustained itself. With festivals and notional poetry days, prize-givings and platitudes, baubles and plaudits. He contemporary envied poets their gestative first collections, their fawning TLS profiles, lazy afternoons at Latitude and Hay, their annual stipend, meagre as it was. There were more poets, more prizes, more writing programmes, more residencies, more fellowships. More people were writing poetry, more people were reading it. At times he felt excluded by its inclusivity. 

Yet poetry remained all but invisible, absent from the majority of people’s lives, the preserve of marriages, funerals and greetings cards. Its formal advances felt like a kind of disappearing act. Remake it new. In its urgent need to reinvent itself, to reappraise problematic past incarnations, poetry had become so completely untethered from its past that he was unsure if the term 'poetry' was meaningful anymore. 

He wondered if poetry was indeed a form in dialogue with itself, or if this dialogue was a product of its formal prescriptions, with the contemporary scene being little more than a means of rearranging the furniture, of renewing and repurposing the old themes. Part of that process of renewal was the publishing industry’s obsession with youth, fresh voices and fresher faces. The older a poet became, the more they began to disappear. Supporting acts, no longer the star.

Poetry confused him. There was too much nuance, too little noise. Too little nuance, too much noise. Too much diversity, not enough diversity. Too democratic, not democratic enough.

Then there was the enduring schism between tradition and the avant-garde, poetry of the page and spoken word, noble amateurs and their academic critics. Rumours of sexual impropriety among would-be professors. Gaslighting, aggressive editors. Deranged poetesses. Arriviste Instapoets.

Verses and versus. Spats and rants. Leaves on a wet black bough.

Poetry always seemed to be at war with itself, and its critics, as if practice and praxis were a matter of life and death.

He and poetry had always had a difficult relationship. He moved to London specifically to become A Poet. Back then, he was naive enough to believe that he had something to say. He found a job in a pub to pay his rent, leaving him time to write.

He spent hours in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, selecting magazines to submit. Churned out poem after poem, hunched over a typewriter, punching its keys into the early hours; smoking and drinking, reading Bukowski. Always Bukowski. He could blame a great deal on reading too much Bukowski.

When he was offered a job as an office temp he took it without a second's hesitation, knowing it would give him financial security for a few more weeks while he focused on his writing. He started wearing a suit to work, and found a new job. More responsibility and better pay. Those few weeks became months. Months became years. Each year he earned a little more. Each year he wrote a little less. He knew his parents would be happy. 

Commuting into work he nursed a notebook in his lap, pored over first collections or anthologies, trying to find out what worked and what didn't. He turned up at countless open mics, sometimes in his suit, to mumble his lumpen prosody. Kept his counsel and hurried home. Submitted to the well established little magazines. Tore open dozens of rejection letters. Gained publication a handful of times. Stopped submitting when the poems stopped coming.  

He wanted to remain hopeful. That he might find something more to say, and that someone might want to hear it. That the poems would come back. That someone might find something in them. Would his poetry be of any interest to anyone? He had no idea.

He tipped the last of the branches onto the scarified moss and stood back, pleased with his work. The day had produced a mass of new material, haystacks of damp clumps and winnowed thatch. A satisfying feeling for a few hours graft. Not unlike writing a poem.

Malmo/Copenhagen

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

Alexander Trocchi

 

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

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

Train yourself in the art of becoming enigmatic to everybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copenhagen.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very nice, he repeated, swallowing hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

 

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

What’s wrong?

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

Why would you tell them about this?

What if I’ve got AIDS or something?

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

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

The Bird Feeder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Out

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

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

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

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

ii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iii.

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

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

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

iv.

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

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

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

Zero-hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn #1

The trees were in fall again. Of all the seasons he loved autumn most. An alternative awakening of sorts. Hunkering down to see out dark days. Springtime in reverse. Without the hope. He preferred that.

Autumn always reminded him of the new school year. Sharp shoes, crisp new uniforms and unburnished notebooks. The unfamiliarity of the weekly timetable. Structured formalities. Then beyond those adolescent framings, the time shortly after his graduation from university, the period of post-educational freedom when he felt like everything was truly beginning. A confluence of stasis and possibility.

Some friends embarked upon fledgling careers in London; others, like him, retreated to their parents’ homes. After three years of university they were cosseted and indulged. Adultescent. He was smoking a lot of weed, a hangover from his student days. Rare was the day when he went without. Much of his time was dedicated to smoking weed, sourcing weed or earning the money to procure weed. Although he tempered his smoking by only partaking in the evening, sequestering himself in bedroom with a scented candle while praying the smoke wouldn’t infiltrate into the kitchen or lounge. His parents turned a blind eye, but the stink of skunk permeated the house, like the cowshit fragrance of the fields outside.

He took a job in a chain bookstore. Ottakar’s. Now long defunct. His was a temporary role in preparation for the Christmas onslaught. Learning the ropes. As a purveyor of quality lit, to misquote Terry Southern, he thought he’d love it. He hated it. He despised the customers. Their safe, dull selections. The passive aggressive complaints. Their shrieking babies. Their provincialism. That, and the rolling monotonous cadences of the piped music. The playlist selected by head office. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. 'Wichita Lineman'. Being asked to relive the store manager at the service desk. He preferred restocking the shelves or being in the store room unpacking deliveries. Where he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, and could listen to the radio and eke out a momentary solitude.

On days off work he would walk the short distance from his parent’s house to a lake nearby. Let the autumn air wrap itself around him like an old jacket. Blown leaves crushed to near-translucence underfoot. The lake was in a disused quarry. Swimming there was expressly forbidden: many summers ago a classmate’s older brother had broken his neck on a sandbank. He’d been a bullying lout at school. Now he had to drink his beer through a straw.

Sometimes he’d smoke a joint, try to write. Often fail. He frequently regretted it. Being stoned in public during the day made him paranoid. And he simply couldn’t write. There was nothing there, no imaginative spark. He was reading the early poems of R.S. Thomas, imagining himself an Iago Prytherch type, 'enduring like a tree under the curious stars'. Living in undistinguished isolation.

He spent months working on a poem about a dead tree, abandoning it several times. Revised it and sent it to a small magazine, where it was published to zero acclaim. He hated reading it. He was dissatisfied with everything he wrote.

 

Dead Tree

 

Had the Gods

Wrenched it up and out of the earth

And screwed it back in

Upside down

 

It would not appear more pained

Its trunk twisted in the ground

It was not appear so crushed

As it is now

 

Every leaf has fallen

Every branch has broken

Every bough is bare

Even the birds

 

Have abandoned it

To the air

Abandoned it

To the cruelest elements

 

Its trunk chapped and weathered

Its boughs chopped and withered

Withered, weathered and wasted

Photosynthesising for what

 

Splayed in two from the effort

Forked apart

By a quick flick

Of flashing electric light

 

The trunk burned black

Gnarled roots grappling

With the stony earth

That could not sustain it

 

Pity the dead tree

In its mortal asymmetry

Lonely graying ghost of life

Harbinger of winter’s breath

 

Alone in his room he read constantly, finishing a book every couple of days. Mainly about the counter-cultural moment in 60s America. Biographies of Dylan and Neil Young. Jefferson Airplane. The Byrds. The Beatles. The Manson Family. The country-fication of the counterculture. Research into a kindred era. He wanted to be there in ‘66, ’67, ‘68. In a Mod suit with drainpipes and winkle-pickers; in drab garb with Dylan and the Band at Big Pink. He studied Elliot Landy’s photographs of Dylan and The Band at Woodstock at length, as if within them lay clues to their genius. A photograph of Dylan framed by crimson leaves, leaning back on the trunk of a large black car, a Ford or Chevrolet perhaps, one flip-flopped foot resting on the chrome fender, arms folded above his guitar, truculent look on his face.

He especially loved Landy’s spare, downbeat monochrome images. They were so austere, so awkwardly posed, they were almost painful to look at. The cover photo of The Band for their second album, bearded and miserable in the drizzle of Woodstock in ’69. Framed by a sludgy brown border, like the picture had been dropped in the mud. The Band came to be known as the brown album, which was apt, not for its autumnal references (‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’, ‘Whispering Pines’, ‘Look Out Cleveland’), but because they looked like bunch of addicts. The otherwise affable Levon Helm like a terrier in a great coat, the picture of irascibility. Garth Hudson an incognito wizard. Richard Manuel a junk-sick Spanish troubadour. Danko and Robertson, in his leather jacket, street hustlers.    

An earlier group portrait in Appalachian garb, The Band stony-faced and stiff like traumatized Yankee veterans. Only Garth Hudson offering a sly smile. These were autumnal photographs freighted with the ghost of Americana. He yearned to know it, to feel the cold of it in his bones. 

His smoking aided the research, or so he told himself, allowed him to share the headspace of the stoned troubadours, though it did make the process of assimilating the information much more problematic. He would read the same page over and over through a haze of hash. Smoke smarting his eyes. He painstakingly read his way through two doorstop editions of Hunter S. Thompson’s rambling letters, taking him from the 1950s to the mid-70s. Hells Angels to Watergate via Vietnam and the Summer of Love.

He was reading Hunter when he journeyed north to Edinburgh to take a ski technician’s course. Part of some fanciful escape plan. Less buy the ticket, take the ride; more do the training, get a job in an Apline ski resort. Driving to Edinburgh the furthest distance he had travelled alone, and he embarked on the trip with no small degree of trepidation. Racing north at high speed along the M6. Dreaded artery of the north. Averaging a speed of 90 mph in his crimson VW polo, a gift for his 21st birthday, in his haste to get there, in his hurry to avoid a flesh-shredding catastrophe. A red blur thunder-roading under heavy grey skies, through barren fields drained of colour. Spindle-like saplings on the embankment recoiling from the traffic’s centripetal velocity. Dylan and The Band endlessly looping on the cassette until the deck overheated and bent Bob’s harmonica and The Band’s harmonies into an indistinguishable high-pitched whine. Not that it made much of a difference.

He arrived in the Scottish capital like a protagonist from a binned Iain Banks’ novel. Dazed and confused, and lost. After miraculously finding his B&B near the city centre he drove out of town to the ski centre to do his ski tech training (ripping open his fingers on a chisel in the process), before returning to his room to read and drink to the point of insensibility. He stayed sober long enough to tramp his way to HMV on Princes Street. Bought Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Bent’s Programmed to Love. Stumbled into an internet café and checked his emails. Browsed in Waterstones. Bought beer. It rained constantly, the perpetual drizzle common to Midlothian. He walked with his beige Levis hoodie pulled tight around his ears. Shoulders soaked with drizzle. He wished he’d brought his weed. He wished he had a travelling companion. The unfamiliar city swallowed him up, was wasted on him.

He was lonely, but he felt safe in the knowledge that within these periods of extended solitude lay the dormant triggers of some latent self-actualisation. Everything was being recorded for future use. The way traffic lights looked in the rain. The press of people on Princes Street. The plastic carpet covers in the B&B. The smell of molten wax in the workshop. The course would unlock the possibility of becoming a seasonaire, which in turn would introduce him to a whole community of travelers and seasonal workers, thereby permitting him to reinvent himself as one of them, someone more than the sum of his provincial parts. 

Yet he felt apart from everything and everyone. He barely spoke at the ski centre, except for a balding Glaswegian who asked him out for a drink afterwards. They ended up in the dim light of the Hard Rock Café watching Australian expats flair cocktails. He got drunk on two beers and was given a lift home by the Glaswegian, who complained constantly about the inconvenience.

The next day he drove home. It was already dark when he left the centre, plunging back down the M6 in one long overtaking maneuver. After a cursory conversation with his parents he went to his room and rolled a spliff. Put The Basement Tapes on. 'Odds and ends, odds and ends. / Lost time is not found again'. Lit his candle. Stretched his legs. Glad to be home.

A friend returned from university one weekend with an ounce of skunk and a bag of liberty caps foraged in the Peak district. They boiled them with some tea and ate the remains on toast, then sat down to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Built a spliff, and a fire. Partway through their evening the phone began to ring off the hook. He answered it to the voice of his friend’s mother, who wanted to know why his friend had come home and not gone to see her. As his friend attempted to calm her while dealing with the incomprehensible mind-fuck of how she’d tracked him down, he felt himself being absorbed into the depths of the sofa. On the TV, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's chainsaw-wielding hero, Leatherface, was chasing a blonde girl through a forest. Her white jeans strobed and flashed against the grasping trees. He fell into a trance until his friend returned and slumped into the sofa. Palm cradling his forehead.

After the film they sat smoking in his room, listening to Big Pink. Looking through the porthole window, high on the wall behind them, through the reflection in his mirror. They spoke in the hushed, stoned tones about nothing in particular. Beginnings and endings. Stasis and possibility. Sight beyond sight.

Hair

Hair

 

i.

His parents waited two years for the hair on his head to appear. When it eventually arrived, it was fine and straight, blonde to the point of translucency. His mother let it grow out, then trimmed it into a pudding basin shape which reached his eyebrows and covered his ears, a little like Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones circa 12x5, only without the heavy-lidded countenance of the doomed guitarist. His hair stayed that way throughout primary school, and became an emblematic characteristic of his identity, his individuality. When he arrived at a single sex secondary school, it became a liability, so he took himself to a local barber notorious for skinning the heads of his customers, and came home with a short back and sides, much to his mother’s dismay.

He was a late developer, one of the last in his school year to become pubescent, still beardless when he left for university. As if to hasten his transition to adolescence, when he was twelve his mother took him to Cookies, the hairdressing salon where she worked after college. Before shopping for clothes in The Potteries Centre in Hanley, his mother treated him to a full shampoo and cut by Joe, a modish young barber with jet black hair who wore a sleeve garter and tucked his shirt in, and who with impeccable technique snipped his fine blonde fronds into a style resembling that of an early-90s male model, before pressing it into position with hair wax. Almost before he was out of the door it fell back into the straight, shapeless mass he’d grown accustomed to.

He returned with his mother for the next few months until one week Joe wasn’t there, and another girl cut it, leaving him with a huge step at the back. The sort of haircut that would entail weeks of torment at school. When he got home, he asked his mother to correct it, and she obliged, closing the door to the study so his father wouldn’t see.

 

ii.

It was sometime in his late teens that he first became terrified of going bald. His blond hair, though plentiful, seemed to fall from his head at the slightest touch. Waking in the morning, he would immediately check the fabric of his bedclothes for fibres dislodged in the night. He became convinced that his hair was retreating at the temples.

There was a genealogical precedent. His grandfathers were completely bald. His paternal grandfather sported a Bobby Charlton comb-over for much of the 70s, while maternal grandfather had the unkempt side hair and bushy eyebrows of a mad professor. His father had been balding inexorably for years. Now he began to fear he would go bald before him, like his uncle on his mother’s side, who had lost almost all his hair by his early twenties. His uncle’s predicament induced panic. If he reached twenty-five with some hair left, he felt he could live with that. He could accept this newly bald self.

Most boys his age sported large bouffants of thick, shaggy hair, but some of his schoolmates were losing theirs. One, whose eldest brother already possessed a gleaming dome, had parted his thinning sandy locks into limpid curtains. Another boy in his class had a profoundly high forehead, which they believed indicated his creeping baldness, but which was in fact simply the by-product of an unusually long distance between his eyebrows and hairline. His closest friends fell into two camps: those who had fathers with impregnable helmets of hair, who would clearly never go bald; and those whose dads were bald as a bollard, who had spawned sons destined to suffer the same ignominy. He fell into the latter camp.

A couple of his friends were already showing the tell-tale signs of male pattern baldness: hair recession at the temples and a thinning at the crown. He compared the progression of his MPB with theirs, and they with his. Conversations were conducted at hairline level, photographs taken and results compared, bets wagered over who would go first. He was convinced it would be him.

He thought of the sobriquets and insults that would be hurled in his direction. Slap-head, desert-head, baldie-locks, hair unapparent, No-Hair Man, Mr Tefal, egg-shaped Fred. Bald-headed cunt. He thought of how he would look in photographs: the chrome dome inching out of the edge of the frame, prematurely aged. He thought of the women who would physically recoil from him in bars, blinded and repelled by the glare from his cranium. He thought of the boy babies born with a full head of hair and wished them ill. He regarded with envy the politicians and news readers and TV presenters and postmen and investment bankers and artists and rock stars, especially the rock stars, whose impossibly impervious follicles would survive not the ravages of lived time, but also the effects of decomposition on the human body, settling like some grief-stricken pet upon their skull. He considered these things, and despaired.

He consulted an array of men’s magazines, with their full-page ads for Propecia and Regaine, then the cutting edge of hair replacement therapy. He contemplated his hairline every evening using his two-mirror system (one to the front and one overhead), massaged his head every night to stimulate growth in the follicles. He contemplated the adverts for Advanced Hair Studios and its miracle cure vetted by former Test cricketers and retired rugby stars and other C-list celebrities who could afford the treatment, or the Premier League footballers who appeared at the start of the new season with suspiciously rejuvenated barnets, and the grim satisfaction he felt when their transplants failed to take root, or were thrown into disarray by stadium cross-winds.

He had always disliked his hair: it was too blonde, too straight, too resistant to being styled with any hair product (and he had tried them all: hairspray, mousse, gel, wax, fudge, pomade, body lotion). Baldness should have been a blessing. Instead he grieved over those dislodged strands lying on the shoulders of his jumpers and jackets, rinsed away each day in the shower like the spermatozoa from his fist. They were his children. Never again would he visit a barbershop, nor shampoo his hair into a Mohican or twine his tresses into dreadlocks.

The very stress of going bald appeared to accelerate his baldness. The only solution he could think of was to shave his head every week, to keep it closely cropped to deflect all scrutiny of his scalp. Baldness self-imposed he could accept; baldness imposed by fate he could not. Shaving his head would preserve the illusion of hirsuteness, of having hectares of golden locks lying dormant upon the barren field of his head, ready to sprout forth in great yield at the moment of his choosing. To beat baldness, he had to become that which he feared the most: bald. Bald as the bare mountain tops are bald, with a baldness full of grandeur.

 

iii.

He read an essay by the American writer and philosopher Siri Hustvedt, titled ‘Notes Towards a Theory of Hair’, in which the writer recounted plaiting her daughter’s long, dark hair before bedtime:

I especially liked the braiding ritual, liked the sight of my child’s ears and the back of her neck, liked the feel and look and smell of her shiny brown hair, liked the folding over and under of the three skeins of hair between my fingers.

Hair, Hustvedt wrote, grows on the border between person and world, and the meaning of the ritual was granted by its liminal status. Braiding her daughter’s hair was not merely a ritual for Hustvedt. It was an intersubjective act, one which blurred the threshold of consciousness between herself and her daughter, as she felt the skeins of hair rub against her fingers and her daughter perceived that tactile process through her own repositories of sensation.

Rubbing hair between his forefinger and thumb used to trigger a tingling through his nervous system, a kind of juddering tremulousness that he couldn’t control, which was akin to hearing pieces of polystyrene being ground together. It was excruciating and made his skin crawl. Now when he cut his children’s hair, with scissors or sometimes with a set of clippers, no matter how careful he was his eldest child would often cry out, It hurts! It hurts! The more he cried, the more hair stuck to his face and body, compounding his agony. Rare was the haircut that passed without tears. As his youngest child endured his without a word of complaint, he wondered if his son had some form of associative synesthesia. The only time he hadn’t cried was when his grandmother gave him his first haircut.

As a child, his mother cut the hair of most of her family members. From childhood to early adulthood, with one or two exceptions, his mother had always cut his hair. Now he wondered if his own mother had enjoyed the ritual of tending to her child’s hair as much as Hustvedt. Somehow he doubted it. The cutting of his hair was a protracted inconvenience for both he and his mother, one which inevitable resulted in a heated exchange of words and the occasional fingernail dug into his scalp. His impatience was inversely related to his mother’s perfectionism. The quicker he wanted it done, the longer it seemed to take. Yet she continued to cut his hair, and that of other family members, as if it was another ritual in her martyrdom to domesticity.

Perhaps he was simply ungrateful, and his mother frustrated. She had trained as a hairdresser at polytechnic after leaving school aged sixteen with a couple of O-levels. Before he was born, she worked full time at a salon. After he and his brother were born, she became a mobile hairdresser, fitting it in around the upkeep of their home. On school holidays and weekends, he and his brother would accompany her to the homes of her clients, where they would watch TV with random nameless children and grandchildren, or if there were no other children, tear around their gardens, wrestle on the lawn or trample their flowerbeds.

He was fascinated by the little grey hairdressing suitcase she took with her, containing her scissors and comb and the soft brush for flicking hair from a client’s neck, or the plastic rollers and the slivers of foil she used to set the hair of the older women on her rounds. The unwieldy floor-standing hairdryer on rollers that she struggled to fit into the boot of her Renault 5. He liked to watch her at work, her face furrowed in concentration as she snipped the slick of wet hair gathered between her fingers, feathered the edges or layered it in sections. She was a natural.

When his father’s secretary retired, she began working for him while he looked for a replacement. Before long, she was handling all administrative duties and looking after their accounts, alongside her domestic duties. After his father was diagnosed with pneumonia, she took over the running of the business while he recovered. Hairdressing became part of her past.

 

iii.

Hustvedt’s nightly plaiting ritual anticipated her reading to her daughter before bed. When he was very young, his mother regularly read to him and his brother before they went to sleep. It was always his mother who read to them, never his father. Neither of his parent were particularly literary, and there were few books in the home. Nevertheless, she read to them most nights and took to the library during the school holidays. Once he was able to read, around the age of six, it seemed that she stopped. Perhaps she still read to his brother, he could not say for certain. But beyond that age, he no longer remembered her reading to him.

So many memories lost from that time. His mother told him that once when he was very little, not yet at school, not yet free from the confines of their house, on an afternoon when she had settled his new brother down to sleep in his cot upstairs, she came into the kitchen to find him playing quietly with his toys on the floor, sat in the blade of light below the window, and when she knelt down next to him and enquired, Can I play with you?, he had said, simply, dismissively, No.

Other memories. Driving back to the Warren in Abersoch many years later, once more in pitiless rain, listening to her old cassettes of The Beatles. Hard Day’s Night. Help! Magical Mystery Tour. His mother had just missed the huge social changes of the Sixties, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but she had been old enough to catch The Beatles, being part of their early target market of course. Like every girl of that generation, she had her favourite. George Harrison. He had the best hair.

Lying on a sofa with his mother watching TV, aged twelve. She had her arms around him. When the programme finished turned and kissed her on the lips to say goodnight. He remembered suddenly feeling abashed, thinking there was something wrong about it. That was the last time he kissed her on the lips.

Another earlier memory, of being bathed at the sink by his mother, her soapy hands running over his hairless body, cleaning his genitals and his backside, the odour of soap and his ordure co-mingling under his nose, a smell he still recognises today. She finishes bathing him, dries him with a towel, dresses him and carries him down the stairs of their old house, underneath the stained glass windows on the landing, the soft morning sun filtering through and casting their roseate colour on the carpet, her holding him close to her, him looking back over her shoulder, gazing up to the ceiling as they descend, feeling the gentle bounce of her feet on the stairs, the warmth of her hair against his face.

 

iv.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. How often he wondered if his mother had truly lived. Frequently he had found her exasperating. She could be overly sensitive, prone to outbursts and sulks even in the company of friends, her hackles rising at the slightest critical comment. He had witnessed many arguments between his parents where his mother would act the wounded party for hours afterwards, but even on those rare occasions where she was being unreasonable, and not his father, he had never heard her apologise.

She was painfully shy, the quiet host at his parent’s dinner parties, listening in to the conversations of her friends, waiting to be noticed or equally comfortable saying nothing. Subjected to an austere upbringing in a family where elders were respected and children seen and not heard, when addressed she responded with servile gratitude, like an exile being addressed in her mother tongue. Once the ice had been broken, and once she’d had a glass of wine or two, she would let loose a torrent of disconnected thought, with an intensity that made her guests shrink back.

In The Far Away Nearby, Rebecca Solnit described two stories that her mother had told herself: one of wanting to raise a family, the other of wanting to be independent, educated, emancipated, and adventurous. It was her failure to achieve the latter which had left her full of bitterness and regret. All this had not transpired as she had imagined it, Solnit wrote. It had, in fact, mostly taken place, within the limits of her timidities, for she was fearful as well as furious and maybe the latter as well as the former.

His mother’s furies were notorious within their family, but they came from a different place, one he couldn’t put his finger on. She always claimed to have never seen for herself any higher calling, the pull of self-improvement or self-awareness in a feminist sense. Patriarchy was a term absent from her vocabulary. After her early attempt to trail her own small wake as a hairdresser foundered, for years she was pulled behind the larger wash of his father. As the owner of a successful building business and a gregarious, socially active man, his wants and needs ran directly counter to her insecurities and anxieties, her desire to render herself invisible. Naturally his wants and needs took precedence.

He often thought that her life had been one of self-effacement. There was no defining passion in his mother’s life. The existence she had sought had been one of normative simplicity, if not quite The Good Life, then the good-enough life. She was not given to grandiosity, and her ambitions were small, her wants and needs narrowly-defined. She wanted to get married, have a family and be a housewife, and she needed to feel loved, a love which his father showed himself incapable of returning in the way she had hoped. That love was then channelled through her children, two boys with their own problematic neuroses, and how much these were due to his parent’s incompatibility he couldn’t say, but it was a love that sustained her, and a love that she knew would one day pass to another.

 

v. 

He was being unfair. Unkind. He did not wish to belittle his mother. She had given him life, delivered him into the world and fed him, clothed him, comforted him. Made him human, if not a man. Ordinary, loving and devoted, she was what Winnicott had identified in The Child, The Family and the Outside World as the good-enough mother. And as he grew older, she had lowered his expectations and limited his horizons, allowed him to make small mistakes, to fail incrementally. Now he saw in her humble ambitions how his preoccupation that some greater intellectual life lay outside his modest talents, was baseless, sans fondement. In spite of her unhappiness, she had shown him how to live.

She had dropped him on his head as an infant, and she never forgave herself for that momentary lapse of concentration. When his brother was a baby, she left a hot cup of coffee on the arm of a sofa and his brother reached up and tipped it over, scalding his face and arms, and she had not forgiven herself for that either. And between him and his brother, there was another child, whom she carried almost to full term but miscarried. A little girl, she whispered, once. Given instead to the alternative history of his family. A mother’s guilt. A mother’s grief. Her shame at these transgressions. The small things that tear a person apart.

He recognised in her selective mutism, her short temper and the small nucleus of people she called friends the troubled existence of a fellow introvert. He exhibited the self-same traits. Cancer on the cusp of Gemini. The exuberant and the depressive. Pulled between two poles. This was his inheritance. His physicality from his father, his psychology from his mother. But when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see his father.

 

vi.

For a long time he had tried to nourish her consciousness, to stir something within her. Together they had watched the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. Nicole Kidman had just won the Best Actress Oscar for her de-glamorised portrayal of Virginia Woolf, replete with prosthetic nose and unkempt hair. As they drove home, he asked his mother how she felt about the film, if she’d enjoyed it. Yes, she said, hesitantly. Though I do think those women were a bit silly. I mean, you just have to get on with things, don’t you?

After he moved to London, his mother chaperoned his grandmother on biannual visits to the city. He drew up a list of things for them to do in advance of their stay, allowing them to cherry-pick the items which most appealed. The visits had a loose structure, which became ingrained over time. Dinner and a theatre performance after they arrived on the Friday. On Saturday an exhibition in the morning and lunch in town, followed by a matinee performance and then dinner back at his house. Sundays comprised a walk in a local park, or a trip to a fringe gallery, lunch somewhere, then his mother would take his grandmother back to their hotel to share a bottle of wine and watch Antiques Roadshow. They enjoyed their visits, but immersion in art over the course of the weekend left them completely exhausted. And he was often melancholic for days afterwards.

At Christmas he gave her slim and benign works of literary fiction that he hoped she would be undaunted by. The Hours, The Reader, The Marriage Plot. The last Christmas before she fell ill, he gave her a hardback copy of Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men. Mmm, very interesting, she said as she unwrapped it. He found it on the desk in his old room. She never discussed it, leaving no clue if she had read or enjoyed it.

 

vii.

His mother had been acting strangely for months, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. After he and his brother had left home, she largely shut herself off from her wider circle of friends, preferring to see only a handful at a time, or stay at home with only the dog for company. He was certain he mother was suffering from depression but didn’t feel it was a subject that could be broached. Each time he visited home, predominantly for the festive season, she barely spoke to him while he was there, but as he left, she wept inconsolably.

When he told his parents he was going to be a father, their response was muted. After initially appeared disinterested in revisiting the bond of parental responsibility, as if the memory of its musculature had etiolated in their minds, his parents finally recognised that they would have to add the prefix grand to their familial role and accepted the latent infirmity the news conferred upon them. On the day his son was born, he spoke with his parents, who said they would come to visit in a week or so. His mother had a change of heart, and caught the train the next day, arriving on his doorstep with a teddy and balloon, and immediately bursting into tears.

In the autumn after his son’s first birthday, his family stayed with his parents in an apartment they had bought just outside the port town of Larnaca, in Cyprus, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Even in October, Cyprus was oppressively hot, dry and plagued by dust and exhaust fumes, and he and his wife spent much of their time trying to keep their young son cool by bathing with him in the apartment pool or keeping him inside. The apartment was several miles from Larnaca, and as they preferred to put their exhausted son to bed early, it meant they were frequently confined to the apartment.

One afternoon he observed his mother reading a book indoors, his son precariously balanced on the sofa beside her. When his son fell from the sofa onto the hard tile floor, his mother, absorbed in her book, had failed to catch him. When they took him down to the pool, she declined to join them, instead watching their play from the balcony. Christmas Day, a few months later, revealed something was disturbingly wrong. His mother always wanted to celebrate Christmas Day surrounded by lots of relations and friends, something which always entailed a huge amount of work for her. This would be the first year his son, their only grandchild, would spend Christmas with his parents. The previous Christmas they had been in Scotland with his wife’s parents, and when he spoke on the phone with his family, his mother had become upset.

That Christmas, her festive mania mutated into deranged yuletide hysteria. On the day itself, instead of spending time with her grandson, she sequestered herself in the kitchen. If anyone ventured into her peripheral zone, or offered to help, they were yelled at. Everyone bar his younger brother was banished from the kitchen. Then, when taking the enormous turkey out of the oven to baste it, the tray tipped in her hand and spilt hot fat onto her exposed foot. After basting her own skin with after-sun, she carried on cooking. Get out of the kitchen, I’m fine, I’m fine, she said. She was far from fine. He returned to London convinced that his mother was having a nervous breakdown.

A few weeks after Christmas his father sent him a long text message saying that he was worried about her. That she had become increasingly confused and forgetful. That she had been making mistakes at work. That she had been sleeping a lot and crying when awake. He told his father he wasn’t surprised, ascribing it to a culmination of her depressive tendencies, and that she should seek help. But when he spoke to his brother, he learned that she was unable to walk, and had to be helped up and down the stairs and into bed. For whatever reason, his father had neglected to tell him this. In his family, vital information was only ever distributed partially and unevenly.

It’s likely that his parents knew something awful was happening but were in denial. They tried to ignore it, to sweep it under the carpet. They hoped that it might clear up or correct itself, like a bad cold or a grazed knee. His father didn’t believe in depression, and while his mother could be described as depressed, she would never admit as much to a healthcare professional. Even as her conditioned worsened, she resisted going to see the doctor, and his father didn’t force her to go. It wasn’t until she fell in their bathroom one night and vomited over the floor that he finally took her to A&E, and she was admitted to hospital.

They had spoken on the phone on the night she fell. She was sobbing and barely coherent. He tried ineffectually to calm her, told her he was coming to see her. She continued to cry. She knew something was wrong. She was afraid of what it might be. What it might mean.

He travelled up from London alone. His father met him at the station.

 

The Failure

How is she?

 

The Failure’s Father

Your mum’s not good, lad. No, she’s not. She’s really poorly. Really poorly.

 

The Failure

I’m sorry, dad.

 

The Failure’s Father

What?

 

The Failure

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, that she’s poorly, that I didn’t come up sooner. I don’t know what to say.

The Failure’s Father

Not your fault. You weren’t to know.

 

The Failure

Do we know what it is?

 

The Failure’s Father

It’s a brain tumour. I don’t know what type yet, but its right in the centre of her brain. One of those. They can’t get it out. Let’s hope they can do something for her.

 

When they arrived at the hospital, his father led him up to the oncology department. As they approached the ward, his father said, Your mum is in there, and pointed to a bed around which the green curtains had been drawn. He glanced at his father, who turned his face away. Then the curtains opened a little, and a nurse and consultant emerged. On seeing his father, the oncologist approached them.

You must be the husband. She had a bad night last night I’m afraid. We were very worried about her. She was completely unresponsive for a while and had to be woken again this morning. I’ve increased her dose of steroids, which should help to slow the growth of the tumour and stop that happening again. Her condition is still very serious, so we will move her to a private room, where she will be more comfortable.

Thank you, said his father. He looked at his father again. Saw he had tears in his eyes.

They entered the ward. The curtains around the bed had been drawn back. His mother was sprawled on the bed in her hospital gown, lying slightly to one side, slumped down and immobile. She was staring at the ceiling in a distracted and unfocused way, unaware of the nurse attending to her. Her face was composed and showed little sign of discomfort. At that moment, he thought later, she looked a little like a new-born infant, her mind wiped clean of all earthly concerns and emotions, in suspended animation or at the vanishing point of consciousness. Then, as he drew nearer, she saw him and smiled briefly in recognition, before crying out I love you as he walked to the bed and gently cradled her stricken body against his. I know, he whispered into her ear. I love you too.

 

viii.

They gave his mother steroids to shrink the tumour. A few days later, when she was due to be discharged, he returned to his parent’s home with his family. That Saturday, they waited for the hospital to discharge her, rattling around the house and bickering with one another. Eventually, he and his brother drove to the hospital. There they found their mother on the ward, dressed and sat patiently on the chair next to her bed, as if waiting to go on holiday. She still hadn’t been given her medication, because the hospital had been waiting for someone to come and collect her. Finally her medication arrived, and she was allowed to leave.

As they left the ward, she began crying again. I’ve been sat here since morning, she said. Waiting for someone to come and get me. The whole thing’s been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. Please take me home. She looked like her old self, and sounded like her old self, but his mother, as she had been before, no longer existed. He knew that when she came home, everything would be different.   

Once she was home, it took a long time for the consultants to agree a course of treatment, as if they weren’t quite sure what to do with her. Then, a week later, his father phoned him as they returned home after seeing the oncologist. The consultation must have gone badly. He could hear his mother wailing while his father explained the situation. The cancer was a lymphoma, a very rare type caused by cancer in the blood. Not common in people his mother’s age. It was inoperable, but treatable with radiation treatment and chemotherapy. He searched for lymphoma online, then checked the prognosis after diagnosis. In all likelihood, it would come back in a few years, maybe before. She had a slim chance of survival without relapse.

His parent’s lives had to adapt to a new routine, one determined by his mother’s regular appointments for treatment. He was living in London and his brother was working overseas in Houston, so responsibility for their mother’s welfare fell upon his father. As she was no longer legally able to drive, his father drove her to the hospital each week, and waited while she had her brain irradiated and her veins flooded with high-dose methotrexate. After she was fitted with a cannula for the intravenous chemo, the line became infected and she was readmitted to hospital for several days. The infection left her weakened, and the treatment made her groggy and fatigued. In spite of this, she tolerated the radiotherapy and seemed to cruise through chemo. Everything else fell apart.

They had been warned the tumour could alter her personality, but that had no idea of the extent of the transformation. She was irrevocably altered. A different person. This was his mother, but not his mother. His mother’s illness, and his response to it, felt like a test, an inquiry into his emotional fortitude. His resilience. And he had been found wanting. His parent’s relationship should have been strengthened by the cancer, but it was disintegrating. So much of what was happening was happening out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. How much emotional space was too much, how much too little? How to do the right thing by his parents? How to be a good son? How to be a good parent? How should a person be? He had no answer to that question.

   

ix.

Throughout his childhood, his mother had restyled her own hair almost every month. The perm, the pixie, the bob, the Joan of Arc, the Tina Turner. Each time trying out a new identity. Her hair, like his, was a source of continual frustration, almost too straight to style, lacking any hint of a wave or kink to give it body. Before he was born, she had worn her hair long and straight, with a fringe, but by the time he was born she had re-arranged her hair in thick, dark curls. One evening after dinner, during her short-lived Tina Turner phase, he had wandered into his parent’s bedroom to find her trying to bleach the ends of her own hair, standing before the bathroom mirror in a plastic cap while holding a smaller behind her. It wasn’t until her late thirties that she settled upon a shoulder-length bob, augmented with highlights when she began to grow grey, a style she kept until she fell ill.

Once she began chemotherapy, the hair fell from her head in thin grey wisps, like smoke made tangible. With some reluctance, she went to choose a wig at the hospital, and returned with an incongruous hairpiece which made her head resemble a small thatched cottage. The steroids caused her to gain weight, and as few of her old clothes fit anymore, she had to buy an entirely new wardrobe. His mother had always dressed well, as a point of principle and a point of pride, concealing her insecurities through the presentation of a stylish alternative self. The vibrant colours and youthful clothes she had worn little more than a year ago were now replaced with muted browns and greys, unflattering outfits which, rather than concealing the change in her, merely served to emphasise it. She had become a different person, and these clothes concretised the fact.

For Solnit, her mother’s gradual disintegration from Alzheimer’s made her disappearance more tolerable, if not more palatable. Her condition would have been shocking if it had arrived suddenly, Solnit wrote, but she travelled so slowly it often seemed imperceptible until we hit another milestone. While the physical change in his mother was almost immediate, other changes occurred more imperceptibly. As with Alzheimer’s, the tumour must have affected his mother’s hippocampus, making her angry and confused and forgetful and constantly hungry, which made him wonder if she could not remember when she last ate, or whether by eating she was trying to make herself physically impregnable, shoring up her ramparts against the invisible enemy that had already stolen inside her.

One of her hands trembled constantly, and her handwriting became unrecognisable. Her temperament, short at the best of times when she had been healthy, was as fragile and combustible as a matchstick. They tiptoed around her, as if walking on eggshells. The broken fragments of her former self. When he visited with his family, she cleaned compulsively and spent hours in the darkness of their living room playing Sudoko, ignoring her grandson save for issuing some instruction or warning at him. When it came time to leave, she wept inconsolably, hiding herself from everyone until the moment of departure. Then she would emerge and clutch at her grandson, sob into his clothes as she hugged him, fearful of never seeing him again.

The five of them returned to Cyprus a year after their first trip. One evening, after putting their son to bed, he and his father had lit a barbecue on the sun terrace. The sun went down early that week. Summer ceding to autumn. They had been drinking gin since the early afternoon and were already drunk by the time they sat down for dinner. His mother was eating quietly, his father expounding on some subject or another. As they ate and talked, his father started played music on his iPhone. Rock and roll riffs music blasted out across the scrubland surrounding the apartment complex.

One particular song came on, Make It With You, a hit in 1970 for the soft-rock band Bread. A regular fixture on regional radio. His mother had a few of their LPs. This is one of your mum’s favourites, his father said between mouthfuls. She used to love this song. Used to play it all the time. His mother sat up and put her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. Sorry, she said, leaving the table. She always does this, said his father, taking a sip of wine and continuing to eat. She’ll be alright in a minute. He put down his knife and fork and followed his mother inside.

 

x.

Life went on. His wife gave birth to their second son, and his mother remained in remission. Her hair grew back, thick and wiry and grey, like a Brillo pad. She doted on her new grandson. Here was a second chance. She came to visit from time to time, with his father or grandmother, sometimes on her own. When she came to stay, he found it difficult to know what to say to her, even when it was just the two of them, when they had chance to talk. Instead, they made mince pies and took his children to the leaf-strewn park. Over dinner, she told him she was unhappy at home. He just goes off like a bottle of pop, she said of his father. He suggested they should try counselling. She ignored him.

When the day of her return came, he walked his mother back to the station, him pushing his infant son in a pushchair, her dragging her travel case several paces behind. Even when he slowed his pace to a crawl, she maintained a careful distance. At the station, he turned to say goodbye and saw she had been crying again. I don’t want to go, she said. I know, he said, and hugged her. He asked her if she would speak to a counsellor when she got back. I’ll try, she said, meaning she wouldn’t. He watched her pass through the ticket barrier and set off for home. As soon as he left her, he regretted not asking her to stay.

The tumour came back a year later, her behaviour as confused and erratic as before. He had read about radiation-induced dementia in tumour survivors and was convinced that the symptoms aligned. He tried to counsel his father over the phone. Spoke to his brother and grandmother. Everyone had a different view. That spring, his parents came to London to help him build a cabin in his back garden, a timber construction with a toilet and shower which would allow his mother to make longer visits. He had been induced to build the cabin by his father, perhaps to give him some respite. For several weeks, as winter turned into spring, he had stopped working on his PhD to prepare the ground works, digging a trench for services, readying the base for pouring concrete.

Before his parents arrived, his father forewarned him over the phone that his mother was acting strangely. When they got there, she flopped down on the sofa next to his youngest son and proceeded to watch TV for the next hour in her sunglasses and coat. She made repeated visits to the bathroom but was unable to walk up the single flight of stairs. Instead she crawled up on her bottom, one step at a time, using the banister for leverage. After announcing she was hungry, she made herself cheese on toast by lying the toaster on its side and forcing into it a piece of bread topped with a lump of Parmesan. Eventually, his father coaxed her into a chair near the patio windows, where she could watch them working. She fell asleep, occasionally opening her eyes to smile at them, before closing her eyes again.

His father had been invited on holiday and asked if he would mind keeping an eye on his mother for a few days. He agreed and travelled up to his parents’ home a few weeks after their London visit. By now, his mother was using two walking sticks to navigate the familiar spaces of her home, mainly for her frequent visits to the bathroom. Still she refused see the doctor. On the morning he arrived, his grandmother was at his parents’ house, having stayed the night. She fell this morning and was sick, she said. I had a hell of a job trying to get her up. Earlier that year, when she was less confused, his mother booked a summer trip to Paris for her and her mother. Now she was bothered that they were going to miss their flight, which she thought was that day. We’re going on holiday, she said repeatedly.

He phoned the doctor’s surgery and made an emergency appointment. When they got to the surgery, his mother decided she wanted to go to the bathroom. His grandmother took her. By chance, one of his father’s bricklayers was there, a man who had worked for his father since leaving school at sixteen. They had known each other for over thirty years and hadn’t seen each other for almost a decade. He watched the smile vanish from the bricklayer’s face as his mother hobbled across the reception area. He knew. They both knew. When his mother’s appointment was called, she announced she wanted to go to the bathroom again.

The female doctor had round glasses and a straw-coloured long bob. She asked his mother how she was.

Oh, not too bad, she said.

That’s not correct, he said. She fell in the night and was sick.

She’s having problems with her waterworks. And she’s very confused, aren’t you? His grandmother said.

Hmm, said the GP. And how long has this been going on?

His mother didn’t respond. She’s convinced we’re going on holiday, but we’re not going on holiday until next month, his grandmother offered.

For a while, he continued. But the falling over and being sick is a new development. The last time this happened was when she was diagnosed. With a brain tumour. So obviously we are worried.

OK, said the GP. What I’m going to do is write to the hospital and see if we can get her six month check-up brought forward.

He phoned his father. They agreed he should take her back to the oncology unit. He phoned his brother. Oh shit, his brother said. With his grandmother in tow, he drove his mother to the hospital. His brother met them there. They took her up to the oncology ward, where she was given a private room. They waited. After a while the consultant entered. Young, male, balding. Far Eastern heritage. The consultant asked his mother how she was. Oh, not too bad, she replied. The consultant conducted a filament test, then asked her some questions. What day is it? What is your address? Who is the Prime Minister? All of which she answered correctly, but with some fumbling. An emergency MRI was organised, and she was wheeled away.

They waited. An hour later, a young doctor in a headscarf led them through a door marked ‘Counselling Room’, a banal box room designed to limit the effect of bad news. They sat down. The doctor consulted her notes. The scan shows a tumour presenting in the same place as before, she said. So it does appear that the tumour has come back. I’m very sorry. The three of them went back to the private room. His mother was lying on the bed. When they walked into the room, she opened her eyes. He sat next to her, held her hand and told her in a low voice that the tumour had come back. His responsibility. As her eldest son, her firstborn. Her heir. She closed her eyes and nodded. After a while he left to phone his father, and then his wife. Then he sat in the empty waiting area and cried.

 

xi.

The oncologists were unable to give his mother any further radiation treatment, so instead the consultant proposed a stem cell transplant, which would allow a greater concentration of chemotherapy to be used to destroy the cancer cells. Her own blood cells would be destroyed in the process and replaced with autologous cells harvested and cleaned before the chemo began. At first his mother responded well to the treatment. Then she caught another infection and was hospitalised. She became a pale, spectral presence in a dark room, her skin livid in the fetid air. Close to death, the closest to death he had seen her. Then, miraculously, she got better, and was transferred to another hospital.

His mother forgot things. Not places, names and dates, but simple things, everyday things, things most people take for granted, like how to bathe, how to get dressed, how to go to the bathroom, how to read. She forgot how to move her legs, how to put one foot in front of the other. Her muscles atrophied from lying in bed, all the hours and days and weeks and months of sitting and waiting to get better. She was no longer able straighten her legs, because her knee joints had fused together. The skin hung slackly from her bones.

She spent that Christmas in a convalescent hospital for geriatric patients. Her hair had fallen out months before, and there was no sign of it coming back. When he visited on Christmas Day with his family, his eldest son said or did something that annoyed him, so he marched him out of the visiting room and shouted at him, grabbed at his face. Something had made him furious, but he couldn’t say what it was.

She was in hospital for almost a year. She moved from the hospital into his grandmother’s bungalow, where his father had organised round-the-clock care for her. Her hair grew back, grey and wiry. She stopped forgetting things, and things stayed as they were for a while.

 

xii.

Around the time of his mother’s relapse, a novella was published about two boys and their father coming to terms with their mother’s sudden death. Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It was the kind of book he had one day hoped to write, blending fiction and poetry, faintly autobiographical with an explicit nod to a canonical text he admired. He once asked his mother for a copy of Crow for Christmas. Back when he was doing his A-levels. Back when he wanted to be a poet, like Ted Hughes. Each time he passed a bookshop, he paused to see if they had a copy of Grief, and finding it among the displays, quickly flicked through the book, scanned the flashing pages, found a hint of self-recognition in certain passages. Grief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. I was cold. As much as he wanted to, he didn’t buy the book. Money was tight, and he had enough grief to spare.

Grief was the walk from Stoke on Trent station to North Staffs hospital. Grief the sleet collecting on his shoulders. Grief the lunch he bought at the petrol station. Grief was the hours of sitting by his mother’s hospital bed as she slept. Grief a difficult dinner discussing his inheritance with his father. Grief waiting for the last train to London. Grief two beers from the refreshments trolley. Grief longing to be enfolded in his wife’s embrace. Grief kissing his sleeping boys on the forehead. Grief stuffing groceries into a bag in Lidl. Grief finger-painting with his son at playgroup. Grief meeting his PhD supervisor. Grief picking up a book titled Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Grief the surging underground crowd. Grief rushing across the concourse at Euston. Grief telling his wife to Fuck off as he threw their bags on the train.

Grief his father’s small talk. Grief his old room at his parents’ house. Grief a freezer full of ready meals. Grief a wardrobe full of clothes with the price tag still on. Grief his parents’ oval wedding portrait. Grief the empty spaces she had painted and sewn and made home. Grief her handwriting on a slip of paper. Grief taking his children to see his ailing mother in hospital and diarrhoea pouring out under her gown. Grief drinking and taking cocaine whenever the opportunity arose. Grief not being able to put down in words. Grief another empty waiting room. Grief an unfinished conversation. Grief being useless and stupid and feeling like a fucking failure. Grief all the things he had done wrong. Grief a not good enough son.

The Failure

Ever tried.

i.

All his life he had known failure. His existence had been stitched together by its thread. He carried it around with him, like a darned greatcoat, heavy and uncomfortable, slung over his back. A tapestry of catastrophe. A favoured cardigan. Over time, failure had become his oldest friend, and his greatest adversary. It kept him grounded. Gave him something to aim at. If there was one thing he could depend on, it was failure.

There was even a term for his condition, though it was less of a condition and more of a self-imposed predicament. Atychiphobia. Failure, and the fear of failure. It arrived in childhood and never went away. From a very young age, whenever something good, something exciting, might be about to happen to him, he learned not to be overly optimistic, knowing that the disappointment would crush him, that the mockery of others would be too much to bear. Though there was once a time in his life when all was endless possibility, certain things happened to him that instilled within him this perpetual fear of failure, so that little by little he yielded to it.

As he grew older, he sought to keep his life in equilibrium, balanced between these two poles of possibility and impossibility, carefully watching the things that he thought might be possible reveal themselves to not be remotely possible at all, until he found himself being physically constricted, as if in a narrowing tunnel, a tunnel which foretold the story of his life. At the end of the tunnel was daylight, a beacon beckoning him deeper into the darkness. The further he travelled into the tunnel, the greater the distance between his starting position and the finishing line became, so that, in time, he felt as if he was simply walking on a treadmill, with the walls of the tunnel closing in on him, and the light in the distance simply a mirage, a simulation of freedom.

ii.

He was simply incapable of being comfortable in his own skin. Wherever he went he took himself with him, like a reptile unable to slough off its useless exterior. He was pursued by the ghost of failed selfhood. How its shadow stretched out before him, anticipating his arrival, determined his presence in the eyes of those who knew him. Rendering him invisible. With those he barely knew, conversation drove him to the point of exhaustion. His voice began to fail, grow hoarse, he would lose his train of thought mid-conversation, say the one thing he wasn’t supposed to, recite anecdotes back to front, miss the punchline, stutter.

Every time he met someone new or of note, he hesitated over his words, jabbered and stammered an introduction. Fumbled his lines. So many failed encounters and awkward conversations. So many glazed eyes and blank looks. Unanswered questions. On so many occasions left hanging, offering his hand to the empty air. So many times left standing in the corner of a room, staring into space, lost to some private thought or other. Plotting his disappearance.

Among his friends, his closest, oldest friends, some of whom he had known for over thirty years, his friendship felt negligible. He always seemed to be surplus to requirements. The quiet one. The extraneous body. The last one called to the pub, in a loll of sorrow. The first one to go home, in a flit of depression. For all his friends who had married, he had never been called upon to be Best Man. Never had that privilege, or curse, placed upon him.

There’s always some issue with you, one of his oldest friends said to him once. And he was right. There was always some issue. Some insecurity or neurosis. Some paranoid delusion or psychological instability. The selective mutism. The inappropriate outburst. From youth to young manhood to middle age. Always coming loose at the seams.

Always the desire to be loved.

ii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iv.

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

v.

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

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

A successful novelist publishes a quasi-memoir and self-help book titled, How to Fail.

v.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vi.

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

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

Nevertheless. He would put everything down in words, everything terrible that had ever happened to him, or that he had done to others, and in this way reconcile himself with the past. With history. His story. The story of his solipsistic self.

Scribe, ergo sum.