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Fiction

I have recently started to have a go at writing fiction. I'll be placing some of the work here in due course. I'll probably put a couple of short stories up, as well as some samples from longer works that I am making.

Here is a link to a novel, called A Perfection.

I'll be placing parts of another novel, called Where We're From, under the novel in progress tab soon.

 

And here is a short story called 'Ash Wednesday':

Ash Wednesday

When I approached the street that she lived in, I wanted to stop and turn back. Going on seemed to be folly. There was no point in the end. She would not be there any more. I closed my jacket against the unseasonal snow that was falling heavily, generally, and threatening to embrace me totally, shrouding me in white. The street was near silent, the way that it goes when the snow cushions all sound, so that the silence seems itself to echo, bouncing against itself so that it becomes the deep quiet, the even, soft and smooth whiteness of Malevich. White on white.

She would be waiting for me, she said, though something in the way she said it made me think that she meant that she’d be waiting for me somewhere else. I looked up at the yellow-tinged sky. The evening darkness was permeated now by street lighting that cast its taint upwards. Polluted. The yellow was like the jaundiced flesh of a tramp, and yet its effect was oddly ennobling too. The scene was turned into a kind of chiaroscuro medieval cathedral, for the light drew my eyes upwards into a blackness that was visible and profound, and at the same time I was able to see, clearly, the massive stones of the buildings that lined the street. It felt as if I was in a building whose roof was broken, whose walls were secure; a building that channelled everything upwards. The snow fell onto my face, freckling it in white. Why would she have wanted me to come? After all, it was only what?, three months?, since we had had our last private reunion, the reaffirmation of our secret testament to each other. Just after Christmas, it had been, just before her move back north. I could think of no reasons why she might have chosen me this evening, but she had, and so I had to go, had to be here and to persevere, had to go on, even though I wanted to turn back.

A car passed me, driving slowly and unheard over the layered snow. I was wondering where it was going when the driver slowed and stopped completely. He waited for me to catch up, then wound down the passenger window.

- Excuse me? I’m lost. Do you know the way to Parsons’ Street, by any chance?

- Parsons’ Street? Yes, sure. You need to go straight along this road, then take the left at the end. Parsons’ Street is the fourth on your right after that. OK?

- Thanks. Are you going that way yourself? I’ll give you a lift. It’s a filthy night to be out.

The driver leaned across and opened the door. I stamped my feet on the ground, then banged my heels against the bottom of my legs before I climbed in, to shake off the snow. As I pulled the seat belt on, the driver pressed the button that closed the passenger window again. Almost at once, I became aware of the smell inside the car. It was like incense, joss sticks. I looked around to see what was making the smell, but couldn’t see anything burning.

- I know. It’s the air freshener. It’s one of those things that you buy thinking it’s a good idea, then it stinks your car out.

- No. It’s nice.

As he was telling me how he came to have an eastern air freshener in his car, driving along in nothing higher than second gear, occasionally correcting the steering against a slip, I noticed the black mark on his forehead. Ashes. He had got his ashes today. It must have been twenty years since I had done the same. I remembered times as a boy being mocked on my way home from school, having to pass by the Protestant school just as it was coming out. The children used to mock us Catholics. ‘Away and get washed,’ they’d shout. ‘Your heid’s filthy!’

Here he was, entirely unembarrassed by the big stain on his forehead. Mark of Cain. A reminder that we are ash or dust and that unto dust we shall return. A memento mori of sorts, stamped on your forehead every year from the age of about five. This man wore it as a badge. How could you do that? You can’t wear it with pride, for that’s a sin; but you can’t wear it with shame either, for that defeats the purpose rather. It was a mark of a public affliction, like the passive acceptance of a punishment. The scarlet letter. You’d get used to it.

We said next to nothing, only passing the time with comments about the weather. Snow, he said, in April. Aye, I said. It’s not just stupid; it’s cruel. That’s Scotland for you, he said. He told me he was entirely unfamiliar with this part of town.

- Can I not give you a lift right to where you’re going?

- No. Don’t worry. You turn off here. That’s Parsons’ Street along there. I’ve not got far to go anyway from here. It’s a one-way system, and I wouldn’t be able to direct you back to here again. Once you’re on this road there’s no way out. You’ll be here for a while; give you a chance to get to know the roads! Thanks a lot for the lift here, but.

He laughed as I got out. The car pulled away gently from the kerb again and I watched it as he turned it slowly to the right, looking now for the numbers of the houses on the street. I turned my collar back up again and walked on.

She was a Catholic too, I remembered now. Would she have got her own ashes today? Or would she have had more important things on her mind? But what’s more important if you’re a Catholic than this? She was a tissue of contradictions. That irritated me sometimes. She loved me she loved me not.

When I was a boy, and still a Catholic, the commitments were total, unadorned and unquestioned too. There was a seamless continuity between the faith and how you were supposed to live your life. I remembered the missionary who had visited our school once. He wore dark glasses though it was winter and sat at the front of the class, smoking a piece of chalk. He’d put it to his lips, draw a deep breath, and blow the invisible smoke out. He did this a few times, nodding to himself appreciatively and as if entranced, staring at the chalk; and then he moved so that his face was about a foot away from the face of Beni Lapin, focused totally on this odd and unpredictable lad who was always placed right under the teacher’s nose. He blew the smoke into Beni’s face; and Beni reacted as if there really was smoke there, coughing and spluttering, holding his head back and away, looking as if he had been infected by the imaginary yellow fug.

‘You’ll do,’ said the missionary to Beni. ‘You’ll make a good missionary priest for us. Come and follow me to work with the poor. Every missionary needs to be a little bit crazy, like me, like you; and every missionary needs to be able to see and feel things that aren’t there, like the smoke from this chalk. Like God.’

We all held our breath. This was crazy talk right enough. Things that aren’t there, like God. Wasn’t God there, then? Is that what the missionary priest was saying? ‘You look shocked,’ he said. ‘Are you shocked?’ There was silence and a small nodding of heads here and there. ‘But I thought that you were the top class in the school. Intelligent boys. Thinkers. Why are you shocked at this? You know as well as I do that it’s all a big con, don’t you? In your heart of hearts, I mean. Nobody knows that better than a priest, of course. But it’s us, it’s the missionaries, who are in the front line of it all. For we’re the ones who are trying to convert the heathens, the pagans, the people who know the truth, the folk who know that in the end it’s just us, just human beings. We’re the ones who have to persuade them to follow us, to join the church; and all the while we know that they’re right, that in the end, it’s just us. Alone. We’re alone. Human beings with nothing above them to guide them. And nothing below them either. So you need to be a bit crazy. Think two contradictory things at once. This is a piece of chalk; this is a cigarette. Jesus is God; Jesus is man. Jesus died; no he didn’t.’

We were stunned by this talk. But he hadn’t finished yet. He reached into the box of chalks on the teacher’s desk and took a few out. ‘Who wants a smoke?’ he asked. A couple of amused, childish hands went up. He broke the chalks in half and passed them around. ‘Any of you got a light?’ He looked at Beni. Beni actually did smoke, of course; and he reached into his pocket to take out the box of matches that he usually tried to hide. The priest took the matches and struck one, holding it against the chalk in his mouth; then he passed the matches around, getting the half dozen or so boys who had pieces of chalk in their mouths to do the same. ‘Good ju-ju,’ he said to Beni. ‘Fire makes happy. But too much fire makes sad. Some fire, we get life; too much fire, we get death.’ We were puzzled again. ‘Look, clever fellows that you are. There’s no need to pretend with me. I know what’s what. Believe me. I’m only saying what most of you have already started thinking, yes? That it’s all a load of crap. Let’s face it: who believes all this stuff today? Any of you? I’ll bet none of you really believe it.’

I did, still, at that time. And I said so, feeling emboldened by the obvious silliness of the situation. I had, of course, fallen into the trap: this was me being an apprentice missionary, proving the existence of God and proving that Christ was God to a mad unbeliever, a witch doctor who smoked a bit of chalk. When I had finished, the priest told me I was, like Beni, also crazy enough to be a missionary. Then came his little pièce de résistance. All the while that he had been smoking his chalk, he had been doing a routine about searching for an ashtray, and then had repeatedly tipped the imagined ash from his cigarette into the palm of his hand. As he rose to his feet, having nearly finished with us, he held out his hand, which was now full of ashes.

The class started to laugh at his magic trick; but he turned on us suddenly. ‘You,’ he said, pointing to Beni, ‘and you,’ to me: ‘come here.’ We stepped to the front of the class obediently. He took the ashes and dabbed them on our foreheads. ‘Remember this,’ he said. ‘Like me, you’re both just a heap of dust. You’re of the earth. Human comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth. You’ll be trampled on; and you should be trampled on, because you’re worthless. Like me. Like the rest of the people in this room. What gives you worth is only imagination; and the highest form of imagination is faith. See what you can do if you believe? The rest of this class think that this was just a little magic trick; but you and I know it wasn’t. You and I know that your faith made these ashes. Your faith created these ashes, gave them life and being; but they’re just ashes, so what you have given life to is death. You make death real, so that we can all feel it, smell it. That’s your job as a missionary; that was Jesus’s job – to make you sense the raw stink of death, and to flee it by clinging to it, by making it real. Remember this. Especially at times of death; not just your own dying, but any death. Now, go back to your places. One day, it won’t be soon I know, but one day, you’ll both follow me. You’re now training to be missionaries.’ With that, he kissed both of us on the forehead, where he had placed the ash marks; and when he moved away, there was no trace of the ash left.

The effect of the visit on the class was startling. We all knew, of course, that the trick with the ashes was just that, a trick. Smoke and mirrors. He had said that tricks were just the working of the imagination, that magic was just a way of thinking. And that faith was just a special type of imagination. He had taken a risk with us, had damned most of us out of sight; but he had chosen two and told us to follow. It would have been nice, affecting, to be able to say that at least one of us did; but, in the end, of course, we didn’t. I guess that Beni probably lost his faith, just as I had done. It’s called growing up, seeing through the smoke, reversing the image in the mirrors.

I was close to the corner of her road. Nothing had come along this road since the snow had started, and so the road itself was pure and smooth. No tyre marks, no footprints troubled the surface. I wanted to stop, to preserve that clarity. It made sense to me to turn back again, not to follow her or respond to her call this time. To walk on was to leave my traces, to disturb the universe. I stopped momentarily at the turn of the road before deciding to go ahead. Don’t worry about the time you arrive, she had said; just as long as it’s after seven o’clock. I was in no rush, though it was now nearly nine. I had to lift my feet as I walked, stepping around gingerly like a dancer. The bottoms of my trouser legs were soaked, and I could feel my feet starting to chill as the wet snow froze against my socks.

When I got to her close, I could see that there was a light on in her flat. It illuminated the frosted glass of the bathroom window. I hoped she wasn’t in the bath. Like that first time, the time that had brought us together in this peculiar ritual that we both knew no one else would understand. It was almost a necessary thing for us, a profane ceremony that nonetheless had the value of the sacred. I knew I would go through with it, of course, would repeat our tryst if that was what she wanted; but at the moment, I still felt like turning back.

That first time: was it as much as ten years ago? We were youngsters, really. She had been lonely and depressed, and had phoned me up to ask if I’d go over and spend the evening with her. She wasn’t in her own flat at the time, didn’t even have her own flat, but was house-sitting for one of the lecturers in the department. John Forsythe had a massive book collection at home, from which he used to lend freely to his students. Most times, he knew, he wouldn’t get the books back; but Margaret was different, for she always not only returned the book that she had borrowed, but usually sat with John talking about it for hours when she gave it back. John had always appreciated that; and when he was going away for a fortnight with his young family on holiday, he asked Margaret if she would house-sit for him. It then became a regular arrangement. So when she phoned me, it was to John’s flat that I’d be going. Though I was troubled by Margaret’s state of mind, her obvious misery, I secretly relished the chance to visit her in John’s place, for nothing gave me more pleasure at that time than browsing along bookshelves, discovering things that I had never heard of and imagining what it would be like to know so much, to have read so much.

‘I really need somebody to talk to this evening,’ she had said. Then, as if realising that I was about to say ‘but you’re talking to me, now’, she added ‘face-to-face’. So I went over. When I knocked on the door, Margaret answered it, dressed in a slightly too large dressing-gown that obviously belonged to Mrs Forsythe. I was surprised, for it was early yet. ‘I was just about to take a bath,’ she said. ‘Come on in and get yourself some coffee. I won’t be long.’ So I went in and made two coffees while she went into the bath. I heard the water being topped up in the bath, surging through the pipes, as I boiled the kettle. Then, when I had made the two cups of coffee, it dawned on me that I couldn’t give Margaret hers unless I went into the bathroom, where she was obviously still steeping herself in the water. She had left the door slightly ajar. For a minute, I was embarrassed, and didn’t quite know what to do. I walked along the hallway and knocked on the door, saying ‘Coffee’s ready, Margaret; I’ll just leave it for you by the door here, OK?’ I feared that she would have told me to come right on in with the coffee; and that was why I didn’t just ask her where I should leave it, just in case she invited me in.

The evening had become changed by this imitation of an easy intimacy with each other, she in the bath with the door ajar, me brewing her some coffee. Margaret had let it be known for ages that she was interested in me, that she ‘fancied’ me, in the childish language we used those days. Crazy word, I used to think; then I found out that it was close to what some poets called imagination; and with that, the term became dignified, even if I could never bring myself to say that I would fancy anybody. Imagine being with them, yes; fancy them, though?

Yet Margaret also knew I was already with somebody else, and that nothing would happen between her and me while I was with Annie. Thinking we were very grown up about all this, we remained good friends. We often consoled each other and supported each other through hard times. But what made that evening slightly erotically charged was the fact that Margaret had recently been comforting me about the end of my own affair. Annie had recently broken off our relationship, and I had been devastated by it, not having foreseen it. That was a few months ago, and I was now single. Alone. When Margaret answered the door in Mrs Forsythe’s dressing-gown, it occurred to me, briefly but with an acute sense of foreboding, that she might be about to make a play for me. I didn’t think I was ready.

The evening was awkward. Margaret came back out of the bath, dressed again in her gown, and we spent the evening listening to Mozart. I had wanted to hear the Beatles, Let it Be; but Margaret insisted on Mozart’s Symphony no. 40. To me, the music sounded desperate, the very call for help that I myself had made when Annie left me, the call that Margaret was making to me that evening. John’s record collection was almost as massive as his books; and Margaret was using it to give herself a classical education in music too. As we listened, we also talked about what was on Margaret’s mind, what she had phoned me about. Like everybody, she was lonely; but unlike everybody, she felt that loneliness with a sensibility that was as responsive as a carnation to light. She turned herself entirely towards her loneliness and was encompassed by it, so that it was her solitude that actually gave her her very life itself. Just talking with her like this made it bearable, gave her a shadow on which to concentrate her mind for a bit in the darkness of a friend who crossed the light in front of her.

We talked and talked, drinking endless coffee, until it was time for bed. She told me I could stay the night, adding that as she slept in John’s big double bed, it left the singles that were usually used by the children free. I’d have a choice because the linen on both was clean. When I looked unsure, she told me that John had said she could have guests anytime.

I decided to stay; but now it was my turn for the bath. I couldn’t sleep in the sheets belonging to my teacher unless I was clean, I felt. We had been smoking, and I sensed the lingering savour of tobacco in my hair still. Margaret went to her bed; and I took a quick bath and then slipped into the bed in the single room down the hallway. After all the coffee, I was a little restless; and I could see also through my half-open door that Margaret’s light was still on. I’ll never know why, but I found the night-time silence stirring; and I found that I was feeling myself to be aroused, I mean sexually. I tried closing my eyes and thinking of anything else, anything other than sex. It wasn’t much good.

I got up out of bed and walked quietly down the hall. Are you all right? I asked Margaret, standing outside her door. It’s just that I see you’ve still got your light on. Are you sure you’re OK? I’m fine, she called out, I’m fine. I should have gone back to my bed, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked into her room. She was sitting up in the bed, staring straight ahead at the door, at me coming in. She had taken off the dressing gown and was naked. She smiled at me, as if she had just been waiting for me; and I walked across to the bed and, lying on the outside of the covers beside her, kissed her. She held the covers back for me and I slid in beside her.

Was it out of pity for each other that we made love that night? Was it out of a sense of the inevitable? I’ll never know. Yet the release was completely overpowering. We didn’t just make love; it became a night of shameless debauchery almost, as we tried everything we could think of, every position except the most obvious, every variation of intercourse we could conceive. I won’t go into the details here; but it was as if we wanted to experiment in every sexual way, as if we could exhaust our sexual imaginations all on one night.

Yet, the following morning, it was as if it had not happened. We went back to being friends. We had remained friends ever since. Something had been cemented in place that night, though. Many of the things we tried were firsts for both of us; and so we became a kind of point of reference for everything afterwards. Every intimacy with anyone else after that night got its sense by being compared with the first time, the time that Margaret and I had laid our own foundations. It was as if we were more than married: anything that made sense to either of us after that night made sense only in relation to what our bodies had revealed to us during our frenzy, our fancy if I can call it that. And only we knew that. It was our secret. Afterwards, I felt that the evening had been an evening of total folly; and yet it gave me a kind of sanity, a clearness in my own head. More or less once every year after, we somehow found time and a place to repeat the event, so that it became like an anniversary that punctuated our otherwise totally separate lives. I even once went to a business meeting in Budapest because Margaret was speaking at a conference there and it looked as if that would be our only hope of meeting apart from everyone else we knew that year.

Now, some ten years later, we were back in the same city together and Margaret had phoned me again to tell me she was waiting for me. I had left my marks on the pavement as I entered her close, black holes in the snow, mute. As I walked upstairs to her apartment, I could hear the dull drone of televisions in the other houses, with their sudden explosions of canned laughter, sometimes echoed by the live voice of the people watching. Margaret lived on the top floor. When I got there, the door was closed but not locked. I knocked, but when there was no reply, I knocked again and walked in. The house was totally silent, and all in darkness except for the light that I could see peeping through the bottom of the door of the bathroom.

I could see that Margaret was planning to make this evening one of our anniversaries, even though it was less than the usual year or so between our celebrations. I smiled to myself. I was a bit taken aback, for I hadn’t been expecting it at all. In fact, it was only about three months since our last meeting, in her London office; but the bathroom was a clear sign, I felt.

So I locked the door of the house and went into the bedroom. Margaret’s clothes were strewn across the floor, and her dressing gown was hanging on the hook over the back of the door. I crept over to the window and drew the curtains, then I undressed. I was already aroused and, when I caught a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror on the front of her wardrobe, I thought how ridiculous I looked. I waited for a minute until the excitement calmed, and then walked down the hallway to the bathroom.

Here I am, I said, and pushed the door open. Margaret lay in the bath, eyes open, naked, covered only in the dark purple of the blood that stained the water. I felt for a pulse at her temple. Her face was chalk-white, pure as the snow, unmarked except for the dark stain of the ashes that she had received that day.