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In January of this year my short story ‘Post Youth’ was published by Thoughtful Dog. Some months later I was contacted by Dorothy Reno, a senior editor and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books (you can find out more about Dorothy’s work here) who also had a story published by Thoughtful Dog back in 2017, the powerful Hockey Stick Feminism. Dorothy enjoyed my story and asked if I would be willing to answer some questions about it. I was flattered and jumped at the opportunity to discuss the piece in more detail.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find a home for the interview, but I thought I would share the conversation here. I certainly enjoyed returning to this particular character and his troubled world, and I’d like to thank Dorothy for her time and her engaging, thought-provoking questions.

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Dorothy Reno: Your story opens with a powerful dream sequence. The protagonist, Bill, is a war veteran and small-town mailman who journeys back in his psyche every night to visit the farmhouse where he grew up.

You write, ‘Youth was a grand farmhouse on a hill, surrounded by fields of long grass and crops that spread in every direction for miles around…’.

For Bill, it seems that youth represents an endless supply of opportunity, like those crops spreading out across the land. He wants to go back to a time before he harvested his hope and youthful energy. Why is he having so much difficulty recognising the opportunities in his life at present?

Nicholas J. Parr: Bill isn’t happy with his life right now, probably hasn’t been for quite some time. He went to fight in a war and he survived, but the experience undoubtedly changed him. For whatever reason he couldn’t handle life in the city, so he moved to a smaller town. This is where we encounter Bill. He seems settled in this new community, he enjoys his job, he has a local bar with at least one friend in Tom. Yet Bill still isn’t happy.

Even if the dreams are a recent manifestation, these constant thoughts to his youth have surely been on Bill’s mind for a while. If Bill hasn’t been truly happy since his childhood – those simpler times he recalls at the farmhouse – it’s easy to see why these memories might dominate his present-day thoughts, actions, and now dreams. Bill is stuck in the past.

The present hosts an abundance of new challenges and difficulties for Bill, and it’s easier for him to go through the motions of his day-to-day life, almost on autopilot as he delivers the mail, not thinking about what happens next, instead continually looking backwards. That makes it incredibly difficult for him to move on and grasp these ‘opportunities’.

DR: The old farmhouse in Bill’s dream has the feel of being burglarized or left in a hurry by the occupants. You write that Bill is a ‘twilight wanderer shambling towards the house’. To me this conjured an image of Bill as a zombie and gave a sense of helplessness to his stumbling journey through the dream.

NJP: That’s a really interesting thought. The sense of helplessness in the dream, with your image of Bill as a zombie, mirrors Bill’s sense of helplessness in his life. I think Bill wants to see the farmhouse in his dream as the warm and welcoming home from his childhood, rather than the derelict and abandoned building he experiences. Even through the medium of his own dreams he is unable to change these details and is a passenger in his dreamworld. I see parallels with anxiety dreams, the kind of dreams where, as the dreamer, you find yourself in an uncomfortable or frightening situation where no matter what you try, you are unable to stop something from happening. For example, trying to get to a meeting that you are already late for, but in your path you find locked doors, dead-ended corridors, people giving you the wrong directions over and over again, that sort of thing. And like a shambling zombie that is mindless and unable to change its own fate, Bill shambles through his dream and his life with resigned acceptance.

DR: In the middle section of the story, Bill delivers mail to a home and finds the occupant in shock over his wife’s death. Bill assists the old man, but the next day the old man says he can’t bear to see him anymore. Bill is the (literal) messenger who gets ‘shot’, so to speak. Why do you suppose people reject their helpers?

NJP: I think there are a number of reasons. Some people can be proud, and would rather handle their problems alone, in their own time, in their own way. Others see accepting help as a sign of weakness. And rejecting help can also be a way of remaining in denial, because to accept such help would be an admission that something is wrong.

The latter could be the case here. We encounter the old man sat in the rain. He says his wife died yesterday yet he has done nothing as a reaction to this news – the dead woman is still sat in her chair. The old man is in shock, he doesn’t want to accept what has happened. So when Bill arrives and calls the ambulance, he is forced to face reality, that his wife is gone and he is alone now. Maybe he resents Bill for that.

Or it could simpler. The old man just doesn’t want to pay for the local paper anymore. Perhaps he never cared for it, only ordered it because his wife liked to do the crosswords. Either way, you do feel that Bill is hit hard by the old man’s request.

DR: It seems that Bill is looking for a connection that can’t be sustained. First, he wakes up from his dream right before the pivotal moment. Then, he’s turned away by the old man, followed by a passage where Bill realizes that he and his sister don’t share the same memories of childhood. In the final scene he wants to connect with his friend, Tom, but he can’t because he’s too drunk.

These broken connections feel like a dark commentary on adult life. But it’s not all bleak. You write, ‘There was still something beautiful to be gained in the isolation, something beautiful hidden in the desolate ruins’. Is it too late for Bill to find that beauty?

NJP: I don’t think it’s too late for Bill to find some kind of happiness, but all these disjointed and broken connections you point out don’t bode well for him. They only contribute further to his sense of isolation. At least towards the end of his drunken conversation at the bar with Tom, Bill seems to acknowledge that some action, some decision will be needed soon. And Bill actually appears to gain some clarity in that final scene. At the very least, he seems to weigh up his options and possible consequences: Revisiting his childhood home, tracking down lost and distant relatives, getting some form of closure there. Or, if not that, then speaking to someone about his troubled and fragmented memories, not in an inebriated state under bar lights but with his sister, or a counsellor or therapist?

It’s left ambiguous, but I wouldn’t be hopeful. Bill agrees to have one last drink with Tom. Both men admit that drinking is contributing to memory loss, and promises and resolutions conceived late at night after too much whisky don’t tend to come to fruition, if they are even remembered come the morning.

DR: Bill fears that ‘He is old, irrelevant and fading out of existence.’ Is this his greatest fear, or is it, in fact, his heart’s desire? There are so many instances where it feels like Bill is leaning towards obliteration.

NJP: That’s a great point. These visions and memories Bill has of his childhood, of his youth, are bittersweet. Because he does remember those days warmly, the feelings the farmhouse evokes, the sense of family, being together, being happy. But the memories are fading with age, distorting with time, resulting in the dreams that torment him every night. I think his biggest fear is of these memories continuing to distort until they become unrecognisable, or losing the memories entirely.

But heading towards obliteration, his eventual death? Bill is probably apathetic about that. He encountered death early during the war and has carried his mortality with him all his life. He will keep living until he dies, it’s as simple as that for Bill. He’s a fatalist, he doesn’t see one’s path through life as something that can be changed. But his memories – he values those over everything, even his life.

Bill considers the implications of a return to the farmhouse, and his possible death, at the bar (‘to spend the rest of eternity discussing the past with dead relatives’). That might sound like a vision of hell for most, but we know Bill has a desire to return to and explore the past. If this is Bill’s idea of what death might bring, maybe he is leaning towards it.

DR: Bill has trouble interpreting his dreams. It seems to me that he can’t interpret his life, either. Do you think that is his real problem? Not war trauma, but the inability to extract meaning from his life?

NJP: It’s difficult to know whether Bill’s emotional disconnect is something that has always been a problem, or something that was exacerbated after experiencing war. But you’re right in that he has little meaning in his life. The problem could lie in the fact that he has always followed orders. Throughout his life he’s been told what to do, during his childhood, his time spent in the army, now in this small town. ‘They asked him what he could do.… They gave him parcels and packages to deliver’. Bill’s profession is chosen for him. Now that he is living independently, he has more time for inner thought and self-reflection, and that’s going to be difficult for Bill to adjust to.

DR: Bill thinks about nothing, while his friend, Tom, has many ideas he would like to express. Neither man is happy. Does this come back to lack of connection?

NJP: These two men both have different outlooks and different experiences and different troubles, and yet they both find some kind of solace in each other. But I wonder if Tom genuinely sees Bill as a friend or merely a drinking partner; someone who just happens to be there more often than not. That’s a sad thought. Clearly, they’ve spent enough time with each other to know about certain aspects of the other’s life. From their fractured conversations we can see that these two might not entirely understand each other, but Bill probably sees his relationship with Tom as one of the strongest connections in his life. He’s far more honest with Tom than he is with his sister, and while that may have more to do with the amount of liquor consumed, I don’t think his sister knows the extent of Bill’s tortured existence.

DR: I have the feeling that Bill could be trapped in one of those Joy Williams death fugues. Like, if he really goes back to find the house of his youth, as Tom suggests, he’ll have to admit that he’s a ghost, and then move forward into the afterlife. But then I thought perhaps this is too literal an interpretation and it’s more that he’s emotionally numb (because of PTSD) and the ‘afterlife’ is simply the rest of his life – whatever he can manage to make of it.

NJP: I find dead narrators fascinating. Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a wonderful novel that takes place in a literal ghost town, and Roberto Bolaño’s short story ‘The Return’ also deals with a character waking up ‘on the other side’. But in this story, no, I don’t think Bill is dead, not yet. Although something in Bill might die if he does return to the farmhouse.

Bill doesn’t know if the farmhouse still exists. Maybe it’s been demolished. Or it sits there on the hilltop, abandoned and derelict, just like he sees in his dreams. That would hit Bill the hardest, because it confirms that all he has left of his youth are the tortured memories that he knows can’t last forever, and will die with him. But what if Bill returns, and the farmhouse has been given new life, occupied by a new family, lived in by a new generation? How might that make Bill feel? Might the dreams finally stop? If life has continued at the farmhouse, maybe life can continue for Bill too.

For what it’s worth, I think Bill should return to the farmhouse. Take some time off work, get on a plane. See if he can rope his sister or Tom along for a road trip.

Good news! My short story ‘Post Youth’ was selected to be part of Thoughtful Dog’s latest issue. You can read it HERE.

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‘Post Youth’ follows a man plagued by dreams of his youth as he struggles to move through difficult times in later life. It’s a story I wrote roughly two years ago and to be honest, I had nearly forgotten about it. It had been rejected a few times so I’m delighted to have the chance to share it.

An online magazine, Thoughtful Dog publishes literary fiction and non-fiction inspired by the world around us. The current issue also contains fiction from Lauren Villa, Paul J. Laverty, and an interview with Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books.

Please don’t hesitate to pass on any comments: I would love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.

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Photograph taken by Andy Schwetz. See more of Andy’s work on his website here.

The crowd grew restless. They had been waiting a long time for tonight’s performance. But the speaker was late. It was quarter past nine, with the speaker due to start at eight. It was a warm evening and in an attempt to keep the noises of the city out, all windows had been sealed, and the hall was already at full capacity, so the doors had been locked, and in these conditions the atmosphere was fevered and close and the audience began to foam at the mouth. Any spark threatened to ruin them all.

Half past nine: several people get to their feet, and are followed by the rest. They climb onto their chairs, they shout obscene chants. A member of the entourage emerged from behind the curtains. She reached for the microphone and began to apologise, but programmes and plastic cups and even chairs themselves were thrown onto the stage, and the entourage and venue staff soon retreated. In anger the audience swept into the aisles and stripped the wood panels from the floors, the padding from the seats, the paintings and the light fittings from walls. Like a rising tide they engulfed the stage and tore down the decorations and the displays. The curtains were set alight and burned down as ashes in a matter of minutes. Howls and roars erupted from the mouths of the protesters. A brick was hurled through a window. The doors were hacked open. In their frenzied hysteria they ran down the steps of the theatre into the streets, where onlookers stopped and watched in bemusement. Feeling somewhat sheepish the protesters fell silent. Their anger dissipated into the starless night sky and they walked away the streets. The damage was done and the accused speaker forgotten.

Several years later, the accused, a tall old man of lean build with dark glasses, tottered forward onto the stage, using a stick for guidance. Shattered glass cracked beneath his feet as he went. There was debris strewn over all. Animal droppings covered the aisles and splintered chairs. Graffiti decorated the walls and doors. He found a square tile of carpet and stopped, knowing he was stood in the centre of the stage, but as he reached out ahead of him, the microphone stand was not where he expected it to be. He got to his knees to feel for it, but all he could pick up was trash, and he dropped his stick to kneel on the ruined stage. The sound startled a bird in the mezzanine above, which cried and flew out one of the holes in the ceiling, and the old man looked up and smiled. He gave up looking for the microphone and sat himself down, cross-legged, on the tile of carpet, allowing his hands to rest gently on the glass shards and rotting flyers.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. I want to apologies for the circumstances surrounding this evening, most notably my lateness, but also the troubles we’ve had with seating arrangements. I trust you are all now seated comfortably. Now,” the speaker paused, tilting his head as if straining to interpret something inexplicable in the air. He thought he heard footsteps, but it could have been the echoes of his own words. Or perhaps the bird had returned.

“We can begin.”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

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Photograph by Marco Ferrarin, who captures a wonderful sense of space and being in his work. You can find more of Marco’s photography on his Flickr photostream here

He awakens – some realisation of consciousness, the beginnings of awareness of his surroundings and situation – at five thirty that morning, so says the clock on the wall. It’s exceptionally bright. A single, naked halogen bulb hangs from the ceiling and illuminates the white room, with white tiles and white walls and the small frame bed he climbs out of, withs its tangled sheets and covers, is white. Approaching the window and poking through the blinds, darkness still consumes the streets below. No moving vehicles, no street lamps, no slow rising sun, and only the white light of similar windows, bearing occupants rubbing weary eyes just like his, confirms he is still in the city and not banished in the night to a deserted, inhospitable moon.

The silence ebbs away in a series of subtle steps. First, the birds, singing. He hears them before he sees them. Not long after this the sky begins to turn a lighter shade of grey, with a dull orange glow to the east. This seems to signal activity within the building. Doors open and close, pipes and valves creak. He can hear running water in the room next to his. Voices and muffled laughter. The day appears to be picking up pace. He returns to the window and the streets are visible in the half-light of the morning. Far below large shapes drive through lanes and queue up on long pieces of concrete. Some begin to honk, a harsh, impatient tone, and the longer they wait the louder they honk. But they never go very far anyway.

He looks towards the clock. It is eight-thirty, which alarms him, without fully understanding why. He stands in front of a tall mirror. The hair on his head is tufted and needs washing, the hair on his face has grown and needs to be trimmed, he smells of sweat and he is still nude, so he walks into the bathroom and has a cold shower. The mirror now portrays him in a suit, hair slicked back, his face shaved and smooth. Before leaving he discovers a portable computer on his desk. A window informs him that he has received twenty seven emails overnight. He puts the computer into a case along with several other paper documents of varying importance, and walks out of his apartment.

The walk along the landing is a short one and he soon reaches the lobby of elevators, one of which will take him down to the ground floor. He is going to be late, he thinks, and is perspiring steadily, but is glad of a light breeze coming from above. Where did the morning go, he mutters to himself, as he punches the call button, and steps back to wait for the elevator’s ascension to his floor. But, that step back, that solitary step, rings out around the lobby, again and again, softly echoing away from him, further than he could have ever believed, as if he had dropped a stone down a well that had no bottom. What on earth, he wonders, and he looks upwards to what should be a low white ceiling.

Instead he discovers a void above him. A huge circular space with pulsating lights, flashing colours he has never seen before, leading ever upwards to a celestial platform. The incomprehensible scene defied all logic. Spatially it was impossible, and the colours and grandiose structure were at war with the white and traditional high-rise building he had thought he was standing in. The only concept of the void even remotely recognisable  was a staircase that wound up the inside of the chasm towards an unknown destination. Somewhere high above there was a churning, a low but powerful buzz that sounded like a generator, growled in trembling shudders that shook him to his core.

The elevator doors open with a chime. He looks around the lobby for anyone else who could bear witness to this, but he is alone. At eye level there was little perceptible different in the lobby, but he raised his eyes once more and the spiralling staircase lit up with foreign illuminations was still there. Gazing up in awe at the distant, surreal beauty of it, he stood for some time, several seconds or several hours, he couldn’t be sure. Something wanted him to ascend the staircase. The rhythmic pounding of the machinery above matched the beating of his own heart. He walked towards the beginning of a staircase, which fused perfectly to the tiles of the lobby. He grasped the banister – it was hot.

No, he said. I must get to work. He released the banister and the growling upstairs intensified. But he ignored it, walked back to the elevator, which had patiently waited for him. He was thinking how he could possibly explain this to the boss as he stepped through the doors, and by the time he realised there was no floor, and no elevator waiting for him, it was too late. The lift shaft was dark, and as he plummeted down the machine at the top of the staircase quietened to little more than a purr. From the top of the high-rise, an elevator began to descend to the ground floor. It was nine o’clock and there was work to do.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

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The crew are excited. She’s in the building, she’s on her way up now. She’s somehow famous, although I’m not familiar with her work. The presenters meet her first, show her around the studio, take her to the sofas. On her way past our eyes meet. What must she think of me?

We begin. Welcome, it’s a pleasure to have you. Oh please, the pleasure’s all mine. For those of us who don’t know who you are, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? Oh, she’s so humble. She talks with such grace. And look at them. Lapping it up. Am I the only one? The real world. Did I see her smoking outside earlier? No.

The questions are fluff, her answers trite. She shines under the studio lights and her smile is hungry and white.

We lose sound for a second. We’re out of sync. But the world kept spinning and now we’re trying to catch up. In my ear, the director screams. What the fuck happened? I fix it, I always do. But she knows. She’s smiling, and she flicks her hair, and that smile, the danger it holds, that hair, those eyes, that smile.

She looks for me. Blame the soundman. She doesn’t find me immediately but she knows she will, and she does. When our eyes meet again I shudder. She’s talking, she’s carrying on, but she’s staring at me.There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And one by one, heads turn, and now I’m stood in front of an audience, all eyes on me. But not the camera lens.

The questions are fluff, her answers trite. She shines under the studio lights and her smile is hungry and white.

Goodness, she’s perfect.

Last year Curtis Bausse hosted a writing competition, which I took part in. I did not win, but my short story was included in an anthology. My piece was called ‘Coffee, Whisky, Funeral‘, and it followed a man returning to his home town in order to bury his father.

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All submitted stories had to use the following quote (from Curtis’s novel One Green Bottle) as a prompt:

A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.

Curtis has been taking part in the A-Z challenge, in which he is attempting to blog every day throughout the month of April. Recently, he chose to focus on Coffee, Whisky, Funeral for one of his posts. You can visit the link on Curtis’s blog here.

The anthology is called Cat Tales and you can purchase it on Amazon here. The proceeds from Cat Tales go to two charities, Cats Protection and the Against Malaria foundation.

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Photograph by Lolo_. See more of his work on his Flickr Photostream.

When I was a kid I did not believe the sun could blind me so I used to stare at her for a few seconds at a time, perhaps I was aware of the risk but continued to do so regardless, acting out of juvenile defiance, a childish rebellion, I don’t remember it hurting too bad, just the intense fight against an impulse to shut my eyes, and it made my eyes sore but it also warmed them to such an extent that when I did shut my eyelids I felt that fantastic warmth for hours, and a blinding light continued on behind the screens of my eyelids, and when I could bear to open them again, the sky was dark, the sun was black, and all the buildings had turned white with blood coloured roofs and the streets were filled with cars and people stuttering in animated motion like lost footage found on an old videotape.

Last week I saw a blind man get on the bus. He dressed smartly and composed himself well but when he sat down in front of me I could see his eyes behind the thick glasses. They moved fast and frenzied and each time somebody walked past him I saw his pupils darting around the whites of his eyes, a panicked struggling for perception before they were swallowed whole and disappeared entirely and it made want to cry, what’s wrong with me, I thought to myself, but then he got off the bus, two stops before mine, and when he walked off I couldn’t see his eyes behind his glasses, and he suddenly looked very strong, very confident, and I forgot about him and started to roll a cigarette and smoked it after I got off the bus, but later I saw the pupil in that great white sea again, when I crossed the street outside the library, again when I met up with her later, again as I paid the bill, again in the taxi, again ascending the stairs to her apartment, again and again, deathly drunk, shouting at shadows.

Yesterday I found Davey at the bar again, it wasn’t long past midday, I told him I was worried for him, that drinking on a stool in the dark was not a healthy place to be, to which Davey said, You’re a liar if not a hypocrite, he told me, You have these ideas in your head about doing things a certain way and how one should live their life, like yours, to abide by a set of rules, but you don’t even know the rules yet, made up rules that change daily, not written down or even notionally figured out in your head, but you continue to live by them, and you quote memorised poetry and ancient texts, out of context, out of time, and this undefinable philosophy is a farce and a falsehood. You are, Davey said to me, more religious than you would like to think. Of course you would say that, I told him, You – a frustrated man of God – you know only the rules written by some unknown hand, so don’t speak of my rules, and don’t speak of my poetry, I told him, my poetry had more relevance than the verses you continually recite, and Davey said that it wasn’t about the verses, it had never been about the verses, and the fact I kept referring to the verses proved his point entirely. I can’t remember how that conversation ended, but we fought like that for a long time.

Yet here we are. Not friends, but not strangers, not tired of one another yet – but we are tired. David is slouched over the bar (he drinks a lot for a man of faith) and he begins to cry, and at the angle I was sitting I saw the whites of his eyes under the glimmer of tears, and I reach out to console him but I am further away than I had reckoned, and my hand feels detached and the room spins, all the while the waitress laughs at us and retreats into the kitchen to call us both a taxi home.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.