Tag Archives: Short Stories

SHORT STORIES // My Name Is Shoko (2006)

Where do stories come from?

Paul Simon, in response to being asked where he got the inspiration for his songs, once said something along the lines of songs being out there all over the place, floating by like invisible gases, and he just happened to act like a receiver that picks up on the signals going past him. His songs didn’t come from him but he just picked up on something that was drifting past. It was a nice analogy for the often mysterious creative process.

There are many other ways that songs and stories come into being though. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of fiction draws in some way, however small, from traces of personal experience. A writer looks around them, sees something of interest or intrigue and then uses their imagination to forge the observation or experience into something resembling a tale that they then have to tell.

In the spring of 2006, I was sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Kyoto enjoying the morning warmth and a pleasant hotel breakfast, when a woman came onto the terrace, sat down behind me and began talking to herself. She followed it up with ordering a beer and having a right old time – entirely alone.

I wondered what it was that made somebody do such a thing, especially a woman who looked like she was usually such a respectable character. It’s not really the done thing in Japan to sit and stare at that which seems out of place (unless you’re a child on a train gawping at a ‘foreigner’, for example), so I tried to be as subtle as possible in casually looking over my shoulder to try and figure out what the deal was with her.

One can never know what demons plague the strangers that surround us, but imagining why can go some way to filling in the gaps. What may be a thing of complete innocence, a stranger momentarily dropping their guard and losing it in public, can become an elaborate fusion of plot and counter-plot when twisted through a writer’s mind’s eye.

So it was with Shoko. The main character in this story was inspired by that woman on the Kyoto hotel terrace. The rest is filled in myself, attempting to sketch out some of the expat experience of living in Japan with fictional writing about Japanese characters too, and ways that their lives sometimes intertwine.

‘My Name Is Shoko’ has yet to be published elsewhere so this posting is a first appearance anywhere. Be forewarned though – it’s a pretty long tale!


My Name Is Shoko

Frank Grunwald sighed as he placed two espressos on the table and squeezed into the bamboo chair that faced his colleague. Ed Wade had joined the agency a few years before, Japan being his first overseas assignment. Having arrived a couple of years earlier and remembering some of the struggles he’d had settling in to Tokyo at first, Frank had taken Ed under his wing. On their first night on the town, they discovered a shared and deep-rooted passion for jazz that sealed their friendship.

When his memo had originally come through, an electronic missive from the comparative calm of the bygone Clinton era, Frank had squared up the changes that this would mean for his settled life. Even with Columbine, Mogadishu, Iraqi no-fly zones and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the government building in Oklahoma, when viewed through the fear-laden spectacles of these times of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, it seemed like such a peaceful period in American life. Then again, as the past is lived through and the present is lived in, it’s easier to focus the memory on what was good and obliterate the bad.

Despite the sackful of change that was about to rain down on the family, a part of him was delighted at the prospect. All the greats dropped by Tokyo. Yokohama had its own Blue Note. The secret joints squirreled away down some unknown side street in the middle of nowhere were legendary to him and his band of fellow true believers.

‘You’re sounding tired, Frank’, started Ed, kicking off their traditional Saturday morning get together with a sympathetic ear. Every week they followed the same pattern – they’d meet at 10, set the wives off shopping down Omotesando, then retire to their usual café, sitting in the same seats, ordering the same drinks and talking about the same things. The mundanity of routine provided comfort and relief from the pressures of their work and the quantum shift needed in human behaviour to make their work unnecessary.

They’d kick off by getting the working week out of the way – a new development in Japanese solar power research, the latest threat to their agency from the fossil fuel lobby or a pending paper being presented at a carbon trading conference in Delhi. Once the in tray was cleared, they could get down to what really mattered. A Bill Evans reissue, lovingly remastered and with extensive liner notes, picked up in Shibuya on Wednesday evening. A newly discovered Japanese bass player, plucking pure magic from his strings and chanced upon in some Kichijoji basement dive. Who’ll be on the bill with Herbie at Big Sight this year.

Outside, the street was already in full bustle as the shadows on the paving shortened in line with the ascension of the spring sun. A light breeze murmured along the boulevard, brushing the leaves, pregnant in their green brilliance, against each other with sighs of their own.

‘Another tough week, Ed. I’m really in need of a break.’

Convinced that the dark circles under Frank’s eyes had grown larger since last weekend and aware that his boss was unlikely to get a vacation this summer due to the G8 Advisory Panel he was chairing, Ed thought it better to get the shop talk out of the way faster.

‘So how was Kyoto?’ he enquired, keen for a few scraps of good news but also hoping that Frank had followed up on his suggestion of taking a little time for himself whilst there.

Across the table, Frank knocked back the rest of his espresso and his eyes glazed over for a moment. He’d had a gruelling week running a series of workshops on environmental responsibility for US corporations operating in Asia, and rewiring DNA is hardly falling off a log.

The caffeine kicked in and the tiniest of smiles began a slow crawl across his face.

‘Stumbled across this great little joint I’d never known about before. A hot little trio…nothing but Monk tunes. Broke my heart, man, broke my heart…’ he paused for a moment to recollect the sumptuous notes coaxed out of the keys a couple of days before ‘…and made up for that damned Exxon asshole I had to deal with in the morning.’ His brow furrowed again. ‘I don’t know Ed, some people just can’t seem to comprehend what we’re facing. They just don’t get it.’

‘Well my friend, if biology decides to continue this experiment with higher intelligence, natural selection will take those fossil fuel dinosaurs out eventually.’

‘And it’s precisely that long term view that helps me hold my tongue,’ Frank replied. ‘Still, the hotel was nice.’

Ed enjoyed comparing places to stay and he was generally impressed with Japanese hotels. They had a smooth consistency in their operations and tended to work like well-oiled machines. He’d stayed in some pretty rough joints trekking round Europe after graduation so the service he got in a Japanese hotel would always remind him of having come up in the world since his earlier youth. As far as Frank was concerned, they were purely functional boxes that kept him away from sleeping next to his wife. It was unusual for him to have actually remembered this one.

‘A funny thing happened at breakfast on my second day there,’ Frank leaned in, warming Ed up for a story.

As he was usually stuck in the office during the working week, he was always keen to hear Frank’s ‘on the road’ tales from the provinces outside of the metropolis.

‘I went down for breakfast at 6.30…’ Frank went on, ‘…can’t think so clearly on an empty stomach so I went down early. I loaded my tray from the buffet – miso soup, fish, eggs, coffee, the usual kind of Western-Japanese mix, and took a seat outside with it. You remember the weather in the week?’

‘Sure. It was really warm here. There too?’

‘A glorious spring morning. Anyway, I’m chowing down my food, no-one else around, sun on my back, when this woman came onto the terrace. The staff were all scurrying around in their uniforms, seating people on the inside and clearing away the trays from the early birds who’d finished their breakfasts and gone. She was pretty well dressed in a smart business suit, and fully made up for the time of day it was. Not overdone or anything, tastefully applied an’ all that, but enough of a mask on to face the day.’

‘How old was she?’

‘From her clothes, I’d guess at mid forties, but I can never tell these things. Might have been in her fifties for all I knew. She walked past and sat on the table behind me, so we’re back to back. Now, this place is self-service, right? There’s nobody else but me on the terrace. Soon as she’s sat down, she belts out a ‘Sumimasen!’ – trying to get the waiter’s attention.’

Ed expected this to be a good story and began to pepper Frank’s tale with comments of his own. ‘Not a great move in a self-service buffet. Must have caused a scene. Anyone answer her call?’

‘Not straight away, no. There’s no one else on the terrace bar her and me anyway. She tries again, this time booming out so the staff inside will definitely hear her and asking for a beer.’

‘That’s a bit early.’

‘Just what I thought. She’s sporting a navy blue business suit, offset with gold jewellery, and I can sense a sadness in her that is not written on her face. She’s smiling to herself as her long fingers raise a Pianissimo Slim to her red lips and her gold lighter clicks open. Beer and smokes at that time of the day, she’s tougher than I am.’

‘At college I sometimes started a day like that, but sure couldn’t keep it up for the rest of it,’ sympathised Ed.

‘Right. When nobody comes out to serve her, she stands up and purposefully walks inside, cigarette dangling off her bottom lip. I’ve got my fish and eggs down at this point and am working towards the coffee to get my brain in gear for the day ahead. Trouble is, I can’t think about work ‘cause I’m trying to figure out what’s the deal with her.’

A couple of minutes later, she’s back with a large glass of beer in her hand and a big smile on her face. She sits down and knocks it back, like she was Harry Dean Stanton just outta the Texas desert.’

Shoko fumbled around in her bag a second time, to find the card that served as a key for the door of his hotel room. Had she given it to him to keep safe after all? A foolish mistake she’d not make again, if so. Junya was always forgetting things – his wallet on top of a parking lot toll machine, an umbrella under the table at a restaurant, even his own suitcase on the shinkansen. He wheezed next to her, catching his breath and not bothering to check his pockets. The alcohol had gone to both of their heads and he was more concerned with straightening out his vision so that there was only one door handle, not two or three.

The same size and shape as the business cards that littered the bottom of her purse, she eventually located it amongst them, extracted it carefully and dropped it into the awaiting slot above the handle.

A satisfying click and they were inside.

The hotel room was dark and cool. When they had gone out earlier in the evening, they had closed the curtains, left the air conditioning on cool and switched on a small table lamp in the corner to provide some subtle illumination of the room. The bedclothes were still the same highway pile-up they’d been left as earlier.

First, shoes off and left by the door. Junya had kicked his off and stumbled into the darker recesses of their hideaway from the rest of the world and the reality of the lives they usually led. Shoko took her left heel in her hand and slipped the shoe smoothly off her foot, repeating the well-worn action with the right one. She subconsciously followed the same pattern every time she removed her footwear, with the same unthinking and lilting rhythm of a river passing over the stones on its bed. Placing her shoes carefully next to each other, she did the same for the ones he’d cast off so carelessly.

As he stumbled into the room, Junya’s hand automatically found the remote control and flicked the hotel TV on. The screen showed a parade of pretty young things – actors, actresses, singers, models – on another cooking show. Their hairstyles were meticulously tousled and their expensive designer threads looked casually thrown on. Each one was enjoying their 15 seconds of passing through the spotlight’s orbit – Warhol’s maxim reduced yet further for the blip era. The pretty young things were taking it in turn to sample the delights or horrors of each others attempts at cooking a range of seafood dishes, brandishing expressions of delighted joy or cutely constrained repulsion.

As he tried to focus on the glaring box that had taken over the room, Junya struggled to figure out whether he’d already seen this show once or twice today, or if it was a new one.

Although his drunkenness caused him to lose some of his sheen, he usually cut a fairly dashing figure. A sharply chiselled jaw, hair cut in an Elvis style plus the diamond-studded cufflinks he usually sported had made him stand out from the other gentlemen when they had first met. That was two years ago, and the bar in the Gion district where the encounter had taken place was no longer in business.

Junya lived with his wife and daughter, out west in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa, although he was rarely at home. A salesman for a major electronics company, he was often out of town on business. Even when he was in Tokyo, the combination of having to work hard and entertain his clients after hours, plus his weakness for the Russian dancers that kept many of Roppongi’s ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in a steady supply of bottle blondes meant that he spent very little time with his wife and barely even knew his daughter.

Shoko was a little younger than Junya, but not by a great deal. In the 1980’s, during the ‘Bubble Era’, she and her husband Hirotaka had run a highly successful advertising agency in Osaka. As they always do, the bubble burst, the Japanese economy slumped and their agency eventually hit the skids. Hiro was utterly ashamed of what he perceived to be his failure to be successful in business, but took a different route to many of his contemporaries. He didn’t jump in front of a rush hour commuter train. Instead, he picked off one of the young company secretaries and ran off to Hokkaido with her.

To Shoko’s astonishment, she never heard from him again. Accustomed to the good life as she was, the lean years following the collapse of her former life were a great struggle to adjust to and after a few years, she slipped into hostessing. It kept her in diamond smiles and having worked in advertising, she became very good at targeting her clients exact needs. In time, she worked her way upwards through the ranks and became one of the city’s best-known Mama-sans, Kyoto being her new start to Hiro’s Hokkaido.

Junya’s exact needs had been more difficult to identify. To her, he had a mystique to his character, a faraway look in his eye that, dangerous as it probably was, attracted her. He had a notorious weakness for women, but the restless spirit that marked him out as magnetic seemed to spring from somewhere else, somewhere distant.

One thing she could be sure of, although they were both finally in the same hotel room again after another month apart, he was drunk. He’d been drinking on the train on the way in that evening already, which she’d picked up right away despite his best attempts to hide it with breath mints. He’d carried on at the restaurant, clearly drinking with a purpose. When asked over dinner whether there was anything wrong or that was troubling him, he batted her concerns away and replied how glad he was to see her. Shoko couldn’t help but notice that his hand kept loitering near his chest, fluttering as if unable to make a decision yet trying to clutch at something.

Sprawled on his back, Junya took up most of the bed. After a brief glance in the mirror whilst passing, shoes neatly aligned near the door, she gingerly sat on the edge of the bed and turned to face him. His eyelids were drooping and sporadically jerked upwards as he struggled to stay awake. Shoko tucked her legs underneath her behind, so that she was sitting on her feet. Then she reached her long fingers out and placed them on his cheek. As he drifted off, the touch of her hand on his skin produced a ripple of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

Perhaps it was the disappointment of him being in this condition after the long absense. Perhaps it was the combination of the alcohol itself and the medication that she’d been taking for recent yet chronic cases of depression that had been happening. Perhaps it was the unavoidable breaking down of some neural pathway that was on its way out. Whatever the reason, something snapped in Shoko. She grabbed his necktie in one hand and slapped him hard across the face – back and forth, once, twice, three times. Sluggishly, his eyes began to open, slow as a lizard trying to move around in the winter sun. The speed of his reaction caused her anger to rise yet further. She clenched her fists and began pummelling his chest, screaming no words yet exhaling her growing rage.

As one domino knocks down another, whatever snapped in her caused something to snap in him. His eyes shot open and his chest jerked upwards. His face wore a shocked expression and his hands jumped to clutch at his heart. Shoko was still trapped in her rage, and continued unabated. For a brief moment, Junya found his voice and implored her to stop. The first utterance had the force of an angry man, the second was the sound of a balloon gradually letting out the rest of its air, the third – Junya’s last word – barely even managed to limp out of his throat before it died on his lips.

Slumping back down again, his arched back snapped straight and his eyelids flickered for one last time before clamping shut.

Shoko had no idea that he was suffering from a fragile heart condition, he’d hidden it so well. At first, the momentum of her anger carried her rage into his state of stillness. After a while however, she realised that her actions were having no effect and the life drained from her fury. She poked at his chest, shook his shoulders and implored him to give her some kind of response. Like the sun’s slow crawl into a new day, it dawned on her that Junya had stopped breathing altogether and was dead.

The moment this realisation struck, her mind flooded – thoughts, fears, likely consequences, gushed unstoppably across her conscience. She had killed a man. Would she go to jail? What would happen when his wife found out? Why had she been so angry? Why hadn’t he told her about his condition? Would she be able to find another partner at this stage in her life? How could she get out of the hotel without being found out? Who was going to sing to her, make love to her, buy her jewellery now?

Wildly contradictory emotions battled each other. Panic arose from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat. As her body began to shake, she sidled into the corner of the room and curled into a ball.

A few hours later, shafts of sunlight stubbornly broke through the gaps in the curtains and began staking footholds on the hotel carpet, waking Shoko up to the fact that tomorrow was already here. She snapped out of the trance that had held her captive behind the armchair in the corner of the room and carefully got on her feet. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of Junya’s prostate form lying exactly where she’d left him, not yet fully cold but statue still. The bedclothes were piled up around him. What a shock that would be for the chambermaid!

Stepping into the small bathroom, she let her clothes fall to the floor and left them unfolded, an early chink in the armour. She slipped into the shower and the hot water coursed all over her body, making her skin tingle. After the shower, she rubbed herself dry, then wrapped one towel around her body and her hair in another. The morning routine followed to the note – mirror light on, sit down facing mirror, open vanity case, apply foundation, catch glimpse of corpse in background, eye make-up and lipstick, off with the first towel, underwear on…

Shoko checked her reflection in the mirror one last time. Her hair was fine, make-up perfect, smile still in place, clothes looking good, earrings matching outfit – altogether quite beautiful! She was ready for breakfast. Leaving the room exactly as it was, she removed the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign from the outside, closed the door behind her and walked off in the direction of the elevator.

Frank continued with his story.

‘So she starts calling the waiter over again. There’s some really familiar song in the background, just casually tripping out of the restaurant pa. It’s kind of jolly and sorrowful at the same time, plenty of keyboards and a little harmonica. Sounds like it’s meant to be Dylan, but I know it’s not him.’

‘She get a better response from the waiter this time?’ enquired Ed.

‘Oh, for sure. They were watching her like hawks now, only from the background. One of them came onto the terrace and over to her table. She asked him for a bottle of wine!’

Traces of the song began coming back to him and tugging away at his memory…(’it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday’)…(‘making love to his tonic and gin’)…

‘It was perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen a Japanese waiter refuse to serve somebody at breakfast. And you know how reluctant they are to turn down a customer.’

‘For sure. Was she pissed at that?’

…(‘can you play me a memory?’)…(‘not really sure how it goes’)…(‘I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes’)…

‘She seemed to pretty much accept it after a while. I heard the click of her lighter and she just settled on smoking instead. I’m sitting there, with my back to her. There’s a few other guests scattered across the terrace now too, all quietly tucking into their food.

All of a sudden, I started hearing conversation…‘Why won’t they serve us?’…‘I know it’s early, but I’d like a drink’…‘we can do that later, you bad boy!’…‘Let them look, I don’t care’…

Something was wrong though. As casually as I could manage, I turned around, pretending to stretch and also happening to catch a glimpse of this lady.’

‘So what was the deal?’ Ed enquired, picturing himself on the terrace with the sun mottling his face and the fresh smell of morning and coffee in the air.

…(‘we’re all in the mood for a melody’)…(‘you’ve got us feelin’ alright’)…

Frank paused a moment, as if for dramatic effect, knowing he had Ed’s full attention. ‘What was that damned song?’ he thought to himself. He drummed his fingers on the table for a second, stretched out his arms and then leaned in, conspiratorially.

‘I’ll tell you what the deal was, Ed. There was nobody else there. Not a soul. No-one.’

‘So she’s just talking away to herself? Schizophrenia? Imaginary friend?’

‘I don’t know, man. I was wondering the same thing myself. The strangest part for me though (…‘they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness’…) was what happened next. She’s chatting away to this imaginary friend, real bubbly and like she’s having a great time. Of course, she’s getting pretty funny looks by now – people are really staring at her (…‘but it’s better than drinking alone’…) even though she seems to be completely oblivious. Then, all of a sudden, she’s up on her feet and really laying into whoever she thinks she’s with. ‘My name is Shoko!’ she shouts, ‘not Candy, or Star, or Rosie, or Moonlight AND I WILL NOT TAKE THIS ANY MORE!!’

‘My God,’ cut in Ed ‘What a scene!’

‘I didn’t know which way to look. Next thing I know, she slams her fist down on the table – it’s one of those lightweight, round aluminium ones – and her beer glass bounces off and smashes on the terrace paving. The waiters jump into action, more concerned by the fact of the broken glass on the floor than what’s probably the biggest scene they’ve ever seen over breakfast. And she storms out!’

And at exactly that moment, the song came back into his head.

‘Billy Joel! ‘Piano Man’! Got it!’

Ed’s expression veered from the astonishment that was spread across his face at the tale of the Kyoto hotel breakfast to puzzlement at why his colleague had suddenly switched to AOR balladeers (Ed had always much preferred Tom Waits’ bar-room tales).

Yes, they were sharing a drink they called loneliness.

But it was better than drinking alone.

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Filed under 2006, Fiction, Short Stories

SHORT STORIES // My Little White Box (2004)


Pop music is a constantly changing force, always renewing itself, reinventing itself, fracturing itself into infinitely diverse forms. I’ve lived through roughly more than half of modern popular music’s changing faces and it constantly holds my fascination. Musical revolutions come from instruments, technology, musicians, formats or cultural movements, the most recent wholesale re-evaluation in the pop world has been the little box that is small enough to hold in your hand yet can hold thousands of songs inside it – the iPod.

Stored away in many boxes in a loft in the UK are the hundreds of records and CDs that make up my music collection, meticulously and lovingly built up over about 20 years. There was simply no way to take all of this to Japan when I made the move back in 2003. Then the iPod came along and I was able to carry close to the whole lot and barely even feel a weight in my pocket. It was the kind of technology that I had subconsciously been waiting half of my life to be invented.

Portable music players such as the iPod are ubiquitous across Tokyo, with almost everyone on any given train carriage having small wires dangling from the sides of their heads, immersed in their own private space. ‘My Little White Box’ was the first short story that I had written in many years, inspired by both the urban scenes I was part of and by the wonders of this technology, and is a piece of writing I’m rather proud of.

It has been published twice – first in Tokyo Notice Board and then on a Canada-based yet Japan-focused (!) website called ‘The Foreigner – Japan‘.


My Little White Box

My little white box is small and light. My little white box looks like a medical device, an instrument of measurement for some unknown human condition or an add-on appendage for some greater hospital machine that enables the functioning of the whole system and which, if it were removed, would cause the patient to die. My little white box has the whole world in it – or my world at least.

It has become an extension of me. I am connected to it from the moment I leave my house. It guides me on my walk to the train station. It allows me to ignore the fact that there is a whole carriage load of people around me on my journey (many of whom are also immersed in their own alternate realities too), and is only switched off when I am forced to interact with the others around me by my arrival at work. The same routine is repeated in reverse at the end of the working day. Once I am home, I plug my bigger black boxes into it and what’s inside comes out and carries me through the evening. Since I bought my little white box, I am never without it.

Sometimes, when I’m sitting on the train and yet I’m also in Jamaica, Harlem, Mali or London, I marvel at the number of other worlds orbiting round inside the heads of those I share my carriage with. I wonder whether their scope is as broad as mine, or whether all that is between their ears is drawn purely from these islands. They are easy to spot as, just like me, they have the telltale thin white cables dangling from the sides of their head. Usually, those without the white wires but with a flex of a different colour have their own alternate realities too but they are shorter and tend not to be drawn from such a diverse pool as mine.

I love the fact that without having to crawl my way up from the bottom and without having to put up with inane interferences from somebody talking nonsense between pieces or companies trying to coerce me into buying products that I have no need for or desire to own, I run my own radio station. I listen to my own fantasy playlist where all I hear is utterly tailored to my tastes and I hear nothing that I don’t like.

My little white box is both a time machine and a teleportation device. In a matter of seconds, I jump from soaking up Delta blues from the 1930’s to getting a taste of the latest sounds from the Okinawan underground. From Parisian street café stories to Black Moses, live at Wattstax. From a bustling and lively dancehall in 1960’s Kingston to deep morning ragas that feel as old as time itself.

There are entire social histories in my little white box. One such story begins in a Britain that is beginning to drag itself out of the austere and monochromatic post-war period – Twentieth Century, second half. It tells of four young men from the North of England who find a beat in the late fifties/early sixties and work that groove until it explodes all over the world. The beat begins simply enough, replicating its straightforward yet driving roots. Later sequences of zeroes and ones trapped in my box unveil further mutations of that simple beat. They begin by feeding back. Harmonies develop in more and more intricate patterns. Eastern influences blossom over the straight Western structures. Later still in the sequence, the influence of a vast array of chemicals can be heard, altering the course, shape and sound of the beat yet further and in considerable ways. The beat ends up so multi-layered and lush by the end of the story that it’s a completely different strain from the original source rhythm. By the time it has reached its final resting point, it has undergone a huge range of mutations, each twist, turn and development has inspired and influenced hundreds to thousands of other beat stories.

Many of these other tales are also in my white box. One bar becomes an infinitely mutating rhythmical fractal, always changing, never ending. There are stories and beat histories that began in London, New York, Mississippi, San Francisco or Liverpool and then mushroomed to spread across the world. They affected millions of different people in millions of different ways and mostly all spawned legions of imitations. An infinity of stories in one little pocket-sized box. Remove yourself from your environment and become absorbed in historical beat patterns read as viral traces.

I have a chip in my head that allows me to receive signals from all the other little white boxes in my proximity. I descend from the station concourse and find the spot on the platform where I know the front of the train will stop. Then, I step onto the first carriage and stand back to back with the driver. As the short journey through a smattering of small stations begins, I walk slowly from one end of the train to the other, immersing myself in the sweet balm of sonic chaos. No journey is ever the same as the infinite varieties of box data all collude to produce eternally unique disorderly symphonies at every step. Hints of structure phase in and out if the pace of my footsteps slow down. It can sound almost like a beehive if I move too quickly, too swift to pick up patterns as broken beats swarm around my head like angry insects. As I walk, the passengers standing or seated on one side of the carriage form a left channel whilst those on the opposite side make a right channel. This provides the effect of a stereo output but never makes for a balanced mix.

I sometimes make a sport out of tuning in to the complexity and searching for something I am familiar with. The man standing ahead of me by the doors will provide me with a sweeping string arrangement that may make me loiter as I recognise a symphonic refrain I vaguely recollect from the shifting sands of my memory. A few words of a rap I once heard on another radio some time ago come in from the kid absorbed in his phone. A guy with a beard and a book generously but unintentionally donating a horn stab from the Godfather into the mix. A teenage couple sharing, with an ear each. What on earth are they listening to? That’ll turn their brains to mush! A brightly coloured high school student wrapped up in the sugarcoated world of The Mouse. Brief sample dialogues in English from businessmen bent on self-education. Splintering chords from a sullen youth to contradict the soothing tones just in from the old lady. For the unwired, all is silent bar the motions of the wheels and the occasional announcement from the driver, which also fade in and out of my mix.

The other day, I left my house and accidentally forgot my little white box. In my neighbourhood I could hear children playing with each other and laughing as the birds whistled and sang in the trees.

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Filed under 2004, Fiction, Short Stories

SHORT STORIES // Now Will You Wear A Helmet? (1995)

As is so often the case for many people at University, I didn’t fully appreciate the academic possibilities I had on my plate until it was almost too late. During my first couple of years at college, I was rather a lazy student, more concerned with the pleasures of partying and determined that ‘dropping out of college’ was the cool thing to do in order to become an authentic artist.

Fortunately, such delusions ran out as my time began dripping away from me, and a little into my third and final year, I became very engaged with what I was studying. A little too late perhaps, but it just about managed to scrape me a degree at the end of it. The final seminar that I was due to present was probably the first one that I actually worked really hard for, in collaboration with another student in my seminar group. I don’t recollect the subject now, but it was probably something or other about post-colonial literature.

Anyway, unusually prepared as I was to give a killer seminar, I still managed to get up late and have to rush off from the house in order to get there in time. I got on my bike in the pissing rain and hurtled off towards college. To my dismay, mere minutes away from the college I was involved in the only traffic accident of my life and was knocked off my bike – left sprawling in the middle of the road, stunned and waiting for the cars to beat down on me.

The old man who had accidentally done this, on his way round to console the wife of his recently deceased best friend, got out of my car, shocked at what he had done, lashed my bike to the rook, offered me brandy (for the shock) and tried to give me money. When I turned both down, he dropped me off at the college anyway, where I wandered in in a daze. I sat down with my friends and told them in my glazed state that I couldn’t make the seminar as I’d just been involved in an accident.

I was given hot, sugary tea and the college paid my cab fare to the nearest hospital. I sat in the waiting room for a couple of hours. The British NHS‘s best cure for shock – sit around waiting for a while and it’ll eventually wear off!

At home that night, I wrote about the incident in my diary. Instead of telling the tale of what actually happened, I decided to use the experience and make a short story out of it. Thus the tale that appears below.

Ironically, a couple of years later, I also ended up working in a bookshop – just like my protagonist Victor.

Art imitates life…life imitates art…

Now Will You Wear a Helmet?

The wind blew the rain even harder into Victor’s face. We’ve only just put the clocks back, he thought to himself. This is supposed to be the beginning of British Summer Time. Winter has just loosened its grip and now it’s tightening it back up again. No wonder there’s so many long faces in this bloody miserable country. Victor found himself almost unable to see as the rain continued it onslaught in cruelly cold horizontal sheets. He shivered as he pedalled.

Mr Wilson would be furious if he was late again. Not for the fourth day running. Victor’s department in the bookstore, local history, was already in a poor state. He had to order some new stock that morning or he’d run out. Mr Wilson did not like to see any of the departments run down to any extent. And since the BBC had set a recent historical drama in one of the big Regency houses in the centre of town, interest in Victor’s department had shot up.

But his lateness hadn’t been his fault. On Monday, the gasman had turned up to disconnect Victor’s supply, so he had had to run down to the bank to try and scrape enough money together to pay the man off. The next day, he had called his aunt in New Zealand to wish her a happy birthday before he left for work and once he had got her started, she wouldn’t let him get a word in edgeways. Victor never relished the prospect of being rude to his aunt and cutting her off so he was late for work again. OK, so yesterday it had been his fault as he’d forgotten to set his alarm clock the night before and he had overslept. We all do that. But he simply couldn’t make it four lates in a row. Catherine was finishing her A levels in a couple of months and was chasing a summer promotion. She had also had her eye on the local history section ever since she joined the store.

Victor tried pedalling faster as the drips gathered on the end of his nose and the water ran down the back of his neck. It wasn’t easy. He did still have fifteen minutes before he was due to start work. He was concentrating so hard on making it on time this time that he hardly saw the white electrician’s van cutting in front of him. Braking as hard as he could, which wasn’t easy with such a wet road surface, he skidded a few feet and lost his concentration. In doing so he failed to notice the battered old grey Triumph Acclaim that was jolting undecidedly from out of a side road. The two collided and Victor found himself lying in the middle of the road, waiting for the lights to turn green and to be faced with a huge onslaught of traffic.

He’d never held much sway with any of those ‘minutes seemed like hours’ arguments in the past but that seemed like a suitable analogy to draw now. I’m sitting in the middle of the road. I’m not hurt. What am I doing here? How come I haven’t been hit by another car yet? Words filled his mind like a family of Catholic sardines in a shrunken tin. The only thing that didn’t occur to him was to get his ass off the road. Shock tends to play havoc with your rationality.

The Triumph pulled over and the door swung open. A wizened old man with a dented hat and a grease stained overcoat fell out and ran over to Victor. Victor stared at him, not sure whether he was God or the Devil. Or neither. Sorry was all he could think of to say.

Ohmigodwhathaveidone. Quick, let’s get you out of the road. The old man sat Victor down in the passenger seat and lashed his bike to the roofrack. Are you OK? I did see you but I just couldn’t stop in time. Terribly sorry. Are you hurt? My friend has just died and I was on my way round to console his wife. Your nerves must be shattered. Where……

Victor stared at the rain coursing down the windscreen.

…………were you going? I’ll take you there. Would you like some money? Look, my name’s Alfred. The Blue Moon Tavern is just around the corner. I insist on you letting me buy you a brandy. It’s great for shock.

Alice started to polish the glasses for the third time that day. Why were Thursday mornings always this quiet? She’d only taken up the bar job to alleviate the tedium of the dole queue. As her thoughts turned to foreign holidays in the sun and sitting on the barstools instead of standing behind the bar, the door swung open. They both looked like zombies; the old man for his deathly dishevelled appearance and the younger one for the vacant stare set in stone on his face. Oh well, first customers of the day, what can I get you sir?

They sat down in the darkest corner of the pub with two large brandies. The old man started jabbering away like there was no tomorrow but Alice couldn’t hear what he was saying except for the occasional are you sure you’re alright? As the level of the brandy dropped, so did the intensity of the young man’s stare.

Look, it’s very kind of you but I can’t sit here drinking with you all day. I’m alright now. I was just a little shocked. Now I’m late for work as it is and I really ought to let them know what has happened. And I should get to the hospital just to check that there’s been no serious damage, said Victor, standing up to leave.

But I just want to talk. Please don’t go, said Alfred, grabbing at Victor’s sleeve and finding nothing but air. By the time he had got to his feet, Victor had already limped out of the door and was heading for the bus that would take him to the casualty department. The bike he’d pick up later.

Shit. Another large one please love.

The rain beat hard on the windows of the top deck. I hope it clears up this weekend. I need to kick back. It’s been a long week, pondered Victor. He had decided against trying his chances on cycling in the rain and opted to take the bus to work this time. At least I can make it to work on time for one day this week. The bus stopped at the lights as Victor’s gaze wandered through the window. Poor bugger. I wouldn’t like to be cycling in this weather. He looked up at the side street that had been the site of the accident the day before. Another Triumph Acclaim. You don’t see that many of them these days.

Alfred spotted the cyclist. He turned the key and started the engine.

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Filed under 1995, Fiction, Short Stories

SHORT STORIES // Midsummer (1995)


This was an attempt at a short story with the same setting, but looked at from the perspective of three different characters. It’s really more of a ‘snapshot’ or a sketch of character thoughts than a story.

Near where I once lived in Brighton, there was a large and beautiful open area called Preston Park. It was a fine breathing space away from the cluster of the city’s streets. Sometimes, in those student moments of staying up all night, I’d wander around there with my friends and wait for the sunrise. There’s something very special about the dawn and the way that a new day gradually comes alive. It tends to smell fresh and has a cleansing quality about it too. We’d often see the odd other person loitering around as the night faded, so I tried to imagine the different circumstances that brought these people to this space.

In this brief sketch, we have a kid on his own pyschoactive inner explorations, an old homeless man and a girl involved in a lover’s tiff with an awkward partner – all starting their days in the same space yet unaware of each other. The sights, sounds and smells of a new day dawning will be both the same and completely different according to who is experiencing it.

Midsummer

I am sitting on a hillside park bench. Midsummer. Dawn is near. When I look at the streetlights, if I stare at the glowing balls of energy and relax my vision, they diffuse into clusters of shimmering cobwebs, and include all the colours that you’ll never see. I shall wait a couple of hours and then be able to feel the first titillating rays of warmth from a new day. They will arrive, slowly, around my right ear, trickle out across the right side of my face, then increase pace, filling every pore in their path until I’m left, coated in warmth and basking in it’s purity.

I had to sit up to watch the sun rise. Couldn’t do it the disservice of lying down for it’s approach, as I did the stars. The stars could only be drunken in lying down. You can drink till you’re drunk and can take no more, but they constantly replenish themselves, more numerous than ever before. They smother you in their distant effervesence, like tiny spy holes from another radiant world on the other side.

Oh.

I think I’m coming down.

I’m sittin’ on this bastard-freezing park bench. Midsummer. An it’s nearly fackin’ daylight again. Still ain’t had no fackin’ kip. Them bastard kids was up here again last night. Little sods booted me right up the arse when I pretended I was asleep, then fackin’ scarpered wi’ me larst two cans o’ Special Brew. If I was their old man I’d give ’em a right good battering. Teach ’em right from wrong and send ’em to bed when they’re fackin’ told ter. ‘Stead of worryin’ an old man wi’ no pillow to rest his weary head on at night.

Sheet! ‘Nother soddin’ day. I’ll get up in a bit, go sit outside the Paki shop for a few. They should be open soon. Might even get to nick a pint out of Abdul’s crate before he unlocks the front door. Could do with a drink.

Oh, Christ, me fackin’ heartburn’s gonna gimme some shit today! Cahhm on, ya little bastard, at least fackin’ hold out on me until tonight, till I can find a bleedin’ mattress somewhere. Let me bow out wi’ a little grace.

Deep breaths, man. Deep breaths.

I am sitting on this damp park bench. Midsummer. It’s almost daylight. The dew’s soaked right though my skirt and I’ve got a wet arse now. And I AM NOT going to be the first to apologise. It’s always me.

Can’t believe it! It’s getting lighter now and I can see him. He’s still got his back to me – such a damn child. This is all so stupid. How did we let it get to this? Never understand why. We’re sitting here motionless, looking like some low-flying aircraft has deposited a couple of statues at opposite ends of the park.

It’s always just words. Just about words. I’ve said the wrong thing and offended him. I’ve mouthed off in front of his mates and embarrassed him. Whatever.

Really don’t understand men sometimes. They say they don’t understand women. Does that mean we have to try and understand them as well as ourselves.

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Filed under 1995, Fiction, Short Stories

SHORT STORIES // Waiting For The Light (1994)

When one starts writing fiction, one of the first hurdles can be either where to start or where to stop. The inspiration for a beginning can come quickly or it can take its time. Once you’re underway and have a little character development going, how do you end the story? The easiest way in a short story when you’re learning your craft is to kill off your character.

Around the time that this story was written, I’d been studying the literary works of the modernists such as Kafka, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, a collection of writers primarily writing in the earlier decades of the 20th Century. This literary movement was a change of direction from the Romanticists that had preceded them, and their work was characterised by the breakdowns of social norms and cultural sureties that fell in the wake of the peaking Western Industrial Revolutions and the move away from more ruralist lifestyles.

Perhaps subconsciously borrowing from Kafka’s Gregor Samsa (a man who awakes one morning in the story ‘Metamorphosis‘ to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect), my unnamed character in this story awakes in a completely white room with no idea of how he got there. He is then killed off by the end with no explanations given. So often in a narrative, we expect to be spoonfed the answers and background to a story. I was keen to explore in this one what happens when we have none of those.

I was told that the story compared somehow to Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness At Noon‘, although I have yet to read that tale. Whether ‘Waiting For The Light’ is a good yarn or not is perhaps not for me but the reader to decide, but I hope that it can capture some of the feelings of isolation and confusion that is still felt even in our post-industrial lives.


Waiting For The Light

I don’t like it here. It’s cold and all I can see are four huge walls that engulf me as waves would a small crab on the shoreline. My arms are sore and I haven’t been able to move them since I woke up. I think that that was about ten days ago. Not sleeping for ten days without being able to move your body and with no food or water….it certainly takes it’s toll on you. I think I’m dying. Maybe I’m already dead. Maybe this is hell? Was I that bad in my lifetime? I stole £50 from my brother once. That couldn’t possibly put me here? Anyway, I told him about it a year later when I could afford to repay him. He was very good about it. I cheated on my girlfriend twice. I was very drunk but that’s no excuse.

That wouldn’t land me in hell though. I must still be alive. There’s nothing else dead in here to watch decomposing before I do. Not even a cockroach. The floor is as white as the walls, just as bright. No windows. Nothing. Just white everywhere. Nothing but a bright white lightbulb which never seems to go out. Thank God. A lightbulb and me. And I’m all in white….sitting alone in my white corner.

The craziest thing is.….I’ve no idea how I got here. Maybe I’ve gone insane. I could be in a padded cell. That would explain the straitjacket. Have I gone insane and lost my memory? I have no idea how I got here so I could have lost my memory. But I can remember stealing from my brother and cheating on my girlfriend. And what I was doing before I woke up here.

I’d had such a tiring day at the bank. The manager had invited me out to dinner because his wife was away on business and he wanted some company for the evening. My girlfriend had gone back to her mother’s for the weekend and had left on the Thursday morning. As I had no company either and had been chasing a promotion, I jumped at the chance. We went to a little Italian restaurant, just down the road from the bank but still on the High Street. Conversation flowed more freely as the wine did. He even gave me one of those big Cuban cigars that he keeps in a draw under his desk. Hearing the waiters drumming their fingers on the tables, we realised that the restaurant had long since closed and we were starting to overstay our welcome. After settling the bill, we shook hands and went our separate ways. I walked home, jangling my keys in my pocket with my head buzzing slightly. Then I went to bed.

I woke up here. Ten days ago. Haven’t slept a wink since. Or moved my body. I can’t. I can only move my head. And there’s nothing to look at here.

I’m cold. And I’m hungry. And I’m very scared. I wish that I could get out of here.

There hasn’t been a sound since I’ve been here. No movement. No people. No cars. No birds. Nothing. I soon got bored of the sound of my own voice and ended up just letting my imagination run riot. I’ve had some parties in my head. They all end though.

I could be anywhere. No sounds to give the location away so that I could let my imagination picture the outside of this white tomb. If there indeed is an outside. I could be on the moon. I could be on the bottom of the ocean. I could be at the centre of the earth. Probably wouldn’t be so cold then. I could be in another dimension of time and space altogether. I could be….

…. Hey, I’m sure that the ceiling was further away the last time that I looked. It was. A lot further away. It can’t be moving towards me….

…. It’s not. By Christ, I’m moving towards the ceiling! The floor is rising. But I can’t hear the movement or cranking of machinery. This is moving fast. My death may have been imminent through starvation, but now I’m going to be crushed! Not even allowed the decency of falling asleep and dying in my dreams.

I’m glad that my watch is digital. If I had an analogue and could hear the seconds ticking away…. ooh, that’d drive me crazy. Feel like the seconds of my life were ticking away. Too much to handle.

Come to think of it, how cruel is that? The only one of my possessions I still have is my watch. I’ve been put here by someone or something, away from everything that is familiar to me and the one thing that I’m not allowed to escape from is time itself. What kind of an unfair trick is that to play on a man when he’s in an alien environment?

My nose is touching the ceiling now. THIS HURTS. I’M BEING CRUSHED ALIVE. OH, PLEASE STOP THIS THING, I PROMISE I’LL BE GOOD, FOREVER AND EVER, I’LL DEDICATE MY LIFE TO HELPING PEOPLE I’LL GIVE UP MY JOB AT THE BANK I’LLBELIEVEINYOUGOD IWILLIWILLIWILLIPROMISE ILLGOTOCHURCHEVERYSUNDAY EVERYDAYANYTHING .JUST.. .HELP. . .ME.. .PLEEEASE..

The only…sound..that I’ve heard in ten days.. with the….exception ..of…my… own.. voice……it’s….. the….. sound..of…..my…..spine……………. snapping…………………………….

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Filed under 1994, Fiction, Short Stories