Sunday, 25 October 2015


The high-street was dark and the snow bunched beside doorways and you could see the puffs of breath from the shoppers bustling home, but as I ordered my tall black and looked for a seat I felt none of the sadness that these conditions usually engender in me.

My surprise grew when I shrugged off my coat in front of the three remaining customers and the two baristas, and instead of anxiety at being seen I experienced a great welling of comfort melting the corners of the room and drawing our plucky group together. This was a sensation many years ago I would have associated exclusively with my first brandy of the night.

The boy brought over my coffee and I thanked him. He gathered up the gratitude and took it into himself, so it felt, and then he went back to leaning on the counter and watching the clock. I cannot normally abide this, clock-watching by employees in the service industry, betraying, as it does, the employees' contempt for their surroundings, of which (it doesn't take a genius to extrapolate) I as a customer am clearly a part. But here I felt no bile rising. To the contrary, looking at this boy, I was struck by the notion that my sense of well-being was in fact emanating from him; a notion that, once examined, I saw to be true.

I watched the boy. He had full lips, black hair, a complexion that would have been olive-skinned had the sun ever figured out how to reach this godforsaken city of ours. The boy's eyes were fierce and bright, his body lithe in angled insouciance. He made a joke to the girl wiping tables, his dark-haired and gently-muscled arms very much there in the space between boy and girl, and the girl laughed. The other patrons smiled. I smiled. We were all old friends. We all felt marvellous.

After a time the boy slouched off to bring in the outdoor furniture, and I figured it out. It was this slouch, its nonchalant air of cool and confident rebellion. A subtle rebellion -- no manager could have brought it up without sounding insane, for in all other regards the boy appeared sufficient -- but rebellion nonetheless, a way of giving everything officially asked of him while still holding something back. He gave his manners, his attention -- his time -- and what he held back may only have been tiny, but it was vital. His slouch belonged to him, they could not have it, and this mattered. And because it mattered the boy could remain, through banality and tedium, himself. And because he could remain himself, he could be happy.

Yes. This kid wouldn't complain if asked to bring in a beer garden in the rain. He would let co-workers take their breaks before him. He came to shifts on time, awake, alive.

He was back, now, clearing a customer's plate, calling the man dude without affectation (I have never got the hang of this word, its roundness sounding so vulgar and American in my mouth). He had the key to it all, this kid, to every stinking thing, and I loved him for it.

I would wait until he was behind the counter again and then hand him my empty mug. The nod he would give me, the small moment we would share: this would solve everything.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


Hello, jambalayas. Here's a little exercise from the online fiction-writing course I've been doing recently, just because I know I've not been giving this blog the attention it deserves. The exercise was about describing our ideal writing environment, and then an environment in which we'd find it difficult or bizarre to write. Second guy is a bit of a cheap Bukowski clone, but whatevs. 

Picture it: the quality of sunlight when you share the world with only insects, the nascent light filtering through the glass, the cottage still cold. Coffee sings on the stove. Karen is asleep upstairs, you can just bet doing that thing with her feet skewed out from the tangle of sheets, splayed like a spider. Let her lie. Down here the computer is on, but only so Stan Getz can play to the empty morning. You open your notebook and leaf through pages, breathing in the smell. The carpet is freshly hoovered, the floor clear. Open space in the middle, jumble around the edges: like your mind. The desk is wooden and ancient; it remembers. The chair is modern, though tempered by cushions Karen has knitted in Yorkshire wool. Post-it notes, colours sucked by time, plaster the walls. A newspaper-clipping photograph of a lonely Greek island. Smudged ash of incense on your arm. Soft pencils. Old mugs. The cat home from crepuscular wanderings, paws damp, eyes bright, mewling to be fed. Everything else in here is books.


Carl was three or five beers down and looking at an ice-cream cone upended and melting into the mud. Nothing sadder. The neon of the Screamer flashed in the distance as its left arm dropped. A maddened, robotic giant, beating the ground in forlorn death throes, Carl always thought. The smell of rancid burgers wafted.Yelps of kids, guffaws of teenagers scaring their dates. The grass was trodden away here behind the stall, and Carl's plastic chair was digging into the dirt. The magic of the carnival was gossamer-thin at best, but back here the veneer was non-existent. The utilitarian sadness of the insides of attractions, unfinished pine and leaking sand bags and old tins of paint. Carl slugged his beer, leaned back. The grease and astroturf and ticket stubs and scum of candy-floss were ugly, yes, but they were his ugliness, as intrinsic to him as the hair on his toes or the brush of acne along his brow. He needed it all, needed the dirt to write his dirty stories, so beloved of those small publishers in Europe. The glow from the burger van washed across the cheap notebook, and Carl bent to it. He'd be here all night.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Importance of Lower-Back Support

15:14. I lie in bed, my back pressed into pillows allergen-proofed yet providing inadequate support to my lumbar region, and I squint to focus through gummed eyes at my laptop's watery screen. I drink coffee and read. My hair needs a wash. My ankle is grazed where I have itched it with the toenail of the other foot. A Nescafe jar by the bed smells of stale spliff, ash. Disgorged cigarettes and Rizla packets torn into Escher shapes amass beside the lamp. Graphic novels and Don Delillo on the carpet. Hand-me-down curtains strangle out the weak October sun. The clock blinks. I lie back.

Later, I roam the flat with a carrier bag, snatching up the detritus of drug use, evidence of my apathy, trying to hide the truth from myself in cleanliness and time. So many steps back. Well maybe that's the direction the universe wants me to travel. Look at it this way.

I press a warmed wheat-bag to my inflamed eyes. I do the dishes. Outside, plants droop to the cracked concrete, a nodding row of phlox purple and dandelion yellow and dirty white, like team-shirted lads on a Saturday night bent to a curbward spew. Across the road, a crackle of barren branches claws at the murky sky.

I want so many things. To run faster than a meteor can strike. To feel willowy folds and believe in touch again. I want truth that will survive the searing journey to morning. No pithy apophthegm, no Zen-like satori, ever manages to stay true into that moment waking groggy to the insubstantial reality of myself. What beats that ever-drowning cloud of grey? That cold lake into which we all must submerge? Hope, Neil Gaiman says. Hope.

Remember that the OCD perfectionism, the ideal, is a construct, that all we have to truly live in is this reality, imperfect and crumbling and wondrous. We can only do our best. There's no win-state to steer towards; there's only now, ever and always, waiting patiently for us. The anxiety doesn't dissolve, but it does melt at the edges a little. We might not win, but we can sure lose with style.

I sit in my cheap desk-chair that has travelled with me since university a decade past, worn down and groaning (the chair), and I push my hips back. I place two cushions behind me so that the chair, imperfect and crumbling though it is, will provide imperfect yet adequate support to my lumbar region. I sit up straight and I type...