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station eleven

My reading list of the previous eighteen months has consisted largely of classics. The books by renowned authors, the entries that feature in every to-read-before-you-die list, and as such I’ve managed to avoid picking up too many duds. But this has lead to me falling behind on what is good now. Books that took 2015 by storm, The Martian, A Brief History of Seven Killings and Go Set A Watchmen, to name a few, which all remain on the list. But one book that piqued my interest, and was subsequently fast tracked, was a book written in 2014; Station Eleven, by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel.

Station Eleven describes an apocalypse where a strain of flu (from Georgia of all places) wipes out the majority of mankind and cripples civilisation. Yet I’d struggle to define its genre as science-fiction, or post-apocalyptic – these both fall short. It’s a tale of human survival on a deeply personal scale, focussing on a core group of characters that are loosely linked with narratives before and after the epidemic. All written elegantly by Mandel in her understated way.

station eleven3

When Arthur Leander, famous actor and at 51 playing the role of a lifetime as the titular King Lear, dies on stage along with his lifelong faults and regrets, his death is overshadowed by a flu epidemic, a modern plague that plunges civilisation into darkness, hunger and fear. Leander’s death is witnessed by those in the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, and a young girl on stage, aged eight, who watches the paramedics struggle in vain to save him. Unknown, humanity stands on the brink.

No more countries, all borders unmanned.
No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

Twenty years later, that young girl on stage in Toronto is now 28; her name is Kirsten Raymonde and even in this shattered world she continues to perform, is a member of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians that are devoted to traversing through settlements performing Shakespearean plays and live music with tattered and scavenged instruments. The world is as you might expect; without electricity, humanity scattered and dirty, adapting and surviving, all progress halted when the focus turns to staying alive.

All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.

The book has a very human feel to it, a tenderness that runs to its very core. Its, and the Travelling Symphony’s, devotion to the arts in the apocalypse of all places is a refreshing aspect and the Symphony’s mantra, Survival is Insufficient, is relevant and understandable. And while this world does not seem as dangerous and bleak as other post-apocalyptic tales (The Road, I’m looking at you) I like to think it’s the hope and good that most of these survivors need to possess, and their determination to not only survive, but bring the elegance and the arts, so difficult (impossible) to maintain in the early years but that the Symphony strive for, live for. But it also results in the threat of the (somewhat generic) religious prophet as the ‘bad guy’ never seeming that strong or dangerous. Whats more the origins of the prophet felt a little forced and all rather convenient.

“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance”.

Where Station Eleven shines brightest, for me, are the alternating periods of time, before and after the outbreak of flu that stopped civilisation in its tracks. In particular, Leander’s ex-wife Miranda and her self-illustrated and eventually self-published graphic novel, the titular Station Eleven. I’ve spoken about my fascination with the premise of a book-within-a-book before when I posted my thoughts of The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and there are parallels with the post-Georgia flu world and Miranda’s Station Eleven comic book which propelled (but never quite satisfied) my interest.

Despite Arthur Leander’s death at the very beginning of the novel, he shares the protagonist mantel with Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor in King Lear on stage when Arthur dies. And there are several connections between the central characters. Jeevan Chaudhary, a former papparazzo (who lurks outside Leander’s house) turned entertainment journalist (whom Leander takes a shine to during a one-to-one interview) turned trainee paramedic (who is the first on stage to assist Leander when he dies of a heart attack on stage in Toronto). Miranda Caroll, Arthur’s first wife who is obsessed with creating Station Eleven, with Doctor Eleven and his dog Luli on a planet shaped space station, refugees from their home on Earth, and in which Miranda draws several inspirations from her real life troubles with Arthur and his celebrity lifestyle, which are indirectly relayed to Arthur himself years later when Miranda finally finishes the project in the months leading up to the plague. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who advises and consults professionals while sleep-walking through life, and sees the development of Arthur’s son Tyler (from his second wife Elizabeth) from troubled boy into deranged religious prophet.

Perspectives shifting back and forth in a story is by no means new, and at first I wasn’t sure on Mandel’s reasoning for it, on her choice to tell the story in such a way. But the book grew on me, and while it has its slower moments (a section towards the end of the novel detailing Clark’s experiences in Severn Airport while the outbreak spread was…tedious, especially after the book had begun to gain momentum), it has far more touching moments, beautiful moments, moments that come out of left field and make a page far more memorable than you might have expected; and to finish, one such example, on how to sleepwalk through your life.

Okay, say you go into the break room, and a couple people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word. You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Fahrenheit 451 presents us with a disturbing dystopian future, much like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. In author Ray Bradbury’s universe, books are burnt. Fireman do not put out fires, they start them. Guy Montag is a fireman. He enjoys his job of tracking down all traces of books and burning them along with the houses they are found in. That is until he meets a strange girl on his walk home one night. Clarrisse McCrellan is 17, and unlike anyone Montag has ever met. The way she talks, the way she thinks; she makes Montag incredibly uncomfortable and he is not sure why. And he encounters her, every day for the next few days, always adding comments that further confuse, annoy, anger Montag; yet he is fascinated and interested. Clarrisse is eccentric and inquisitive and very forward. She asks a lot of questions, and slowly Montag starts to do the same.

What follows is an awakening of the protagonist. It dawns on him that nobody actually talks; there are no conversations, but meaningless statements spoken toward one another. Everyone is distracted by mass media and loud noises. Montag’s wife, Mildred lives her life through the three television screens in their living room. Any conversation are just idle observations, no real talking takes place. She can’t even recall where they met. Yet she is made to think she is happy. Mass media is forcibly piped into homes of the population with constantly changing imagery to distract and satisfy, without really meaning anything. All the while, the drones and planes fly overheard foreshadowing war against unknown continents.

His fellow firemen, like Montag, follow their orders without question or thought. They represent Montag before his ‘awakening’, and they even share a similar appearance with him.

The captain of Montag’s fire department is Beatty. Captain Beatty is a well read man who has come to despise books and become part of the force which is eradicating them from society. His well-read nature has made him extremely cunning and perceptive, and we realise that he is toying with his colleague when Montag begins his spiral of doubt.

And within the walls of the fire department sleeps the Mechanical Hound.

“The mechanical hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse.”

The use of the word ‘hound’ belies its true form; it is not a natural or organic creature but a purely technical and metallic machine. It has been programmed to track down and dispose of any who continue to read books. Literature is now so illegal that there is the risk of death for those who rebel. Montag has several close encounters throughout the novel with the Hound. Man’s best friend has been hideously mechanised into a automated tool for killing which the government has programmed to track down and punish citizens who break the new rules of society. It is a huge contrast to those great St. Bernarnds, who sniff out avalanches survivors and bring with them small barrels of brandy tied to their necks.

Beatty says of the beast “It doesn’t think anything we don’t want it to think.” and Montag responds,
“That’s sad…because all we put into it is hunting and finding and killing. What a shame if that’s all it can ever know.”

Ray Bradbury has spoken of the inspiration for the book. It was at a time when book burnings were not exactly common but happening across the US. At this point Bradbury understandably had concerns. He is quoted as describing himself as “a preventor of futures, not a prediction of them.” However in Fahrenheit 451 he was remarkably accurate in a lot of aspects of 21 century life. The flatscreens that citizens obsess over. These are now in the homes of millions. The in-ear speakers. Piping music or meaningless words into their head. Keeping people from listening to what is around them and actually conversing with each other. Preventing them for thinking. Ironically the book itself has been banned and been involved in several controversies since its release.

Burn after reading: Incredible cover design by eliperez.com / via Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/450289662718715171/

Burn after reading: Incredible cover design by eliperez.com / via Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/450289662718715171/

“They want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won’t tell them what. I’ve got them running. And sometimes, I tell them, I like to put my head back, like this, and let the rain fall into my mouth. It tastes just like wine. Have you ever tried it?”

So why is Clarisse so special? What is it that is so different and extraordinary that causes Montag to snap out of the stranglehold this society has upon him and everyone else? Clarisse comes from a free thinking family, one that seemingly has managed to be aware of and avoid the cloud of ignorance (is ignorance bliss?) that blights this current society. Before we know it, Clarisse disappears, allegedly killed in a car accident, and this has a profound effect on Montag. I thought she was due to play a much larger part in the story, but while she is never seen again, she is an itch within Montag’s brain that he cannot scratch. In truth, she couldn’t play a much larger part in the book. Bradbury provides her as the inquisitive youthful spark, a match that strikes against Montag’s dormant freewill.

Mildred is Montag’s estranged wife and a character Bradbury uses to emphasise the current status quo in the majority of citizens within this society. Montag is breaking out of this stupor, Clarisse is living fantastically and Faber is aware and afraid of the suppression, we need to understand how the others live, how they react and feel and interact. Mildred is well and truly ‘wired in’. She is obsessed with the screens in the parlour, referring to the people talking on them as friends and family. Montag frustratedly berates Mildred about her relationship with the people in the screens.

“That’s all very well…but what are they mad about? Who are these people? Who’s that man and who’s that woman? Are they husband or wife, are they divorced, engaged, what? Good god, nothing’s connected up.”

I found the interactions between Montag and Mildred some of the most uncomfortable scenes. Two people as close as husband and wife, married for ten years, are so distant and are (were in Guy’s case) so painfully unaware of this. Although unaware may not be the correct word to use. Mildred says she forgets when she has taken her slipping pills, perhaps trying to throw Guy off the idea that it was a suicide attempt. Maybe she did truly did forget. But with Montag’s conversation with the men who operated the ‘electronic eyed snake’ that serves as a body pump to replace Mildred’s overdosed, poisoned blood (“Hell…we get these cases nine or ten a night”) it seems there is an awareness of the endless, lifeless loop they are all in. It seems this is a more accurate reason for all the attempted suicides.

There is a lot of unhappiness in Fahrenheit 451 bubbling under the surface. Nobody will admit it but instead watch TV all day, they talk about nothing in particular, which in turns they do not have to face anything unpleasant, and therefore are not bothered. It must be like feeling a perpetual state of ‘meh’. The insistence to feel happy and the mindless occupation of their minds by repetitive noises and activities masks dissatisfaction amongst the population. A society with a taste for mindless violence as an outlet, with youths constantly fighting on the streets and joy riders striking down pedestrians.

Montag “Right now I’ve got an awful feeling I want to smash things and kill things.”
Mildred “Go take the beetle.”
Montag “No thanks.”

The ending? Bittersweet. Montag’s escape. A nuclear annihilation. But hope for the future.

Fahrenheit 451 won’t take up much of your time. At only a couple of hundred pages, it can easily be read in a week. If it grips you as much as it gripped me, you’ll be finished within days. Bradbury takes a madness that he was witnessing at the time and uses it to propel us into a future where book burning is commonplace and accepted, and is deeply unsettling in its plausibility.

the boy

He had heard some people refer to it as the nether zone, others named it the grey belt. Some simply called it the wasteland. There was so much space in the nether zone, but so few to occupy it. The boy didn’t mind this. Surrounding him were landscapes that stretched as far as the eye could see, with no human interaction for days. But there were some people out here.

As the boy would keep clear of any large communities and the motorways that linked them, his interactions came with stragglers that were in a similar predicament to him, albeit usually much older. They might range from sole vagabonds, with nothing but the clothes on their back and their small collection of belongings within their rucksacks, to scavengers groups, travelling in packs of two to twenty. Some would be friendly, others would taunt him or attempt to chase him. Most people didn’t even notice him and often were completely unaware of his presence. He had become adept at keeping himself out of sight, moving quickly but quietly. He had learned to become a ghost. A pale white ghoul silently traversing a graveyard of ruined and abandoned architecture.

The boy thought back to when he was in the city and found it strange (but was also immensely grateful) that so many people chose to live in that crowded hell. He had been right to move out. It was still dangerous out here, but for a child on his own, everywhere had its dangers and it was safer here than within the city. He would not have survived for long in the city. It still attracted those from near and far, despite the failed attempt of growth. Expansion had been rapid and quick, the boom in the economy meant there was plenty of work. People starting new ventures, creating new housing, factories. Nothing was finished but the sprawl continued. London began to take over the south of England and when the city got to the coasts, it looked back and saw a half finished desert of buildings and cranes. So the people fled back to the centre and left a ring of rural urbanity. The countryside had been decimated but it had not been killed and slowly it started to grow back, over stacks of raw materials and articulated trucks and steel columns that housed unfinished dreams.

Building sites that had stopped construction midflow. Cement mixers filled with powdery mortar and portacabins containing scattered polysterine cups and calendars detailing worker shifts. Doors had been left open, flapping in the wind. Factories with high ceilings and stretching walls, vacant rooms which were never occupied. Large industrial machinery still in unopened packaging sat unused and forgotten. Housing blocks with floor slabs but no walls. No enclosed, habitable rooms but a staircase and empty lift shafts that rose to the top. Cranes stood erect beside them, holding swaying pallets of concrete swinging gently in the breeze.

There was plenty of shelter. Some areas had clumped together to create small communities in the unfinished shells, and while some continued to construct, many left it as it was. There were strong thoughts from most out here that these dwellings would be temporary. The city would become too top heavy, too dense and reach the ceiling of the sky above London, and be forced to continue the outward spread again. When that happened, everything would be demolished and land would be fought over. It seemed inevitable.

One morning he awoke in a small upstairs room of a semi detached house he had barricaded himself within the night prior. As he took down the sheets of corrugated iron from the windows he stood there and saw a warehouse surrounded by a vast carpark, and behind stood the bright lights and impossible heights of the city. It was several miles away but he was drawn to it. It was a grand building, unlike any of the new creations that had been built in the last twenty years. It had been here before the grey belt had begun to take over the south. He started towards it, and it was dark by the time he reached the fence. Once inside the boy was disappointed. It was the same as anywhere else in the grey belt; empty, dark, quiet. Except for two vehicles right at the back. They were clean, relatively new, and had not been in this place for long. It was around this time that he was filled with an unexplainable nauseating fear, that only increased as he heard the low hum of a car approaching, soon followed by another. Fighting the urge to run, he crept towards a set of broken windows and looked out to witness a confrontation.

From the shadows of the warehouse, the young boy with dirt on his face and rags on his bony shoulders watches, bright eyes transfixed on the violence.

the boy

He never stayed in one area for too long. If too many people saw his face, he was worried police or care workers would be called, and he’d be taken into a home or locked away. He didn’t know what would happen to him as he’d never been caught. But from what he had experienced of people, he thought he was better off on his own. He could look after himself as he had done throughout his short life. He was only a boy, unsure of his own age but he had survived this long. He didn’t want to be forced into contact with people, not after what he had seen. For every person who had showed him kindness, ten more had been cruel or violent. He ran and hid at the sight or sound of humans, as a deer bolts from a snapping twig.

Sometimes he would get lucky and find abandoned flats or detached houses that had some items of worth hidden within. Most of them had been raided long ago, with cupboards open and newspapers strewn across the floor. If there was nothing of value to take, he would stay there for a few hours to stare at the pictures in the old newspapers. Or he might go into one of the bedrooms upstairs with its dusty toys and faded wallpaper, and shut himself inside for an hour and pretend this was home. If he couldn’t physically take something useful, he would try to visualise what it might have been to live in a house when it was home to others. That way it felt like he had learnt or experienced something in each place he went to and the visit would not have been a waste.

He didn’t like breaking into people’s houses – there was the risk of being caught or worse. But when times were desperate and he had not eaten for days it was a necessary risk. The feeling of dread as he approached when attempting to enter a house was one he tried to avoid, never sure if he would come into contact with people within. He once came across a row of terraced houses, and all but one was uninhabitable; one house he entered was flanked on either side by charred ruins. He had to climb through a roof window as the ground floor doors and windows were heavily barred, and slowly made his way down to the ground floor to find the kitchen. He filled his pack with various tins and cans, and as he passed through the living room he noticed an elderly woman, sunk so low into her chair that her head was level with the arm rests. She was skeletal and grey and so scared that she trembled and could say nothing. Her eyes were wide and frightfully fixed on the boy, they shone in a horrible fear that couldn’t help but reduce the boy to tears, and he slowly approached and put the bag with all the woman’s food in down at her feet. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t want to hurt her, that he was sorry for disturbing her and it would all be okay. He stood there, staying with her in silence until it began to get dark outside, at which point he backed away up the stairs, climbed out the window and left.

There was a constant internal conflict within him, raging silently. He feared everything but he longed for something. He had watched a group of children in a field late one afternoon throwing stones at a collapsed farmhouse. The front of the house still stood proudly into the air, its porch and front windows pointing out across the dead soil and ruined sheds, but behind it the two floors of furniture and memories had long given up the fight. The chaos of rubble behind the house front kept the façade standing. With it were several glass windows that had defied time and weather and were still intact. The children were shouting and screaming and laughing gleefully as each pebble they launched caused shattering glass to echo across a landscape forgotten. The boy watched with a fierce intensity, wanting to run away as fast as he could but at the same time desperate to take a stone himself and smash glass and laugh with them.

the boy abandoned

TEN YEARS AGO THE BOY had been born to a drug addicted mother, the father unknown. They would have lived together on one of the lower levels of the old ruined brick housing estates that still haunt the west side, but the mother discarded the boy after four days in a bid to escape the crying and the burden of responsibility which she could not bare. She died not long after, presumably from an overdose – it is unknown whether this was intentional or happened by chance. The boy was found clinging to life after over two days on the cold wet streets by a tramp, who took him to the local hospital with a knife to the child’s throat demanding cash in return for this innocent life. Police were called eventually and nurses and bystanders alike looked on indifferently. The vagrant could barely stand, yet was rather impressively managing to drink a foul smelling spirit out a dirty bottle whilst clutching the baby and a pocketknife against his soft fleshy skin. The juggling act lasted no longer than thirty minutes and he was shot dead on the hospital steps by police, who had grown impatient and tiresome in the cold. The knife had caught the boy’s windpipe and was bleeding profusely, and so he spent the next twelve months in an incubator within the very hospital he had been brought to.

He eventually recovered, but due to his grave injuries there had been little hope for survival and thus the nurses had not given him a name. There was serious damage done to his neck and vocal chords, and despite numerous attempts it was damaged beyond repair. Along with some scarring that ran across his chin and lower neck, he would never be able to speak.

Nor could he cry like a normal baby would cry, or make any noises that were vaguely human. Instead, when upset he would let out a high pitched screech. It was piercing and unnatural and the nurses despised it. Otherwise he was silent. Child therapists who interacted with him were unsure of his mental state; as he developed to one and two years old they could see intelligence with no sign of disability but the boy remained distant from anybody. A social disorder, or perhaps a latent memory of his early attack caused him to keep himself isolated and hidden. Even if he had the full use of his vocal chords there was some doubt whether they would have been used much at all.

SOME TIME PRIOR to turning the three, the boy was given to a children’s care home. Little is know of the conditions he faced at the orphanage but he spent several years there until he was adopted at the age of seven. A wealthy, middle aged couple with marital troubles who could not conceive naturally. The woman was captivated by the boy’s deep blue eyes and the fact he couldn’t talk made him a strange prize. They lived in a minimal high rise flat in the centre of the city, with sparse furniture and drab colours. A box consisting of three white walls and a panoramic window, spreading from the floor to the ceiling and overlooking the city.Here the boy lacked nothing but love and attention. A foreign nanny spent more time with him than his foster parents, and their idea of education was her harsh thick accent and daytime television. But the boy did not watch. There were always people on the screen, and he preferred to be alone. He took to spending day after day at the window.

Out of that vast glass barrier, that spanned wall to wall and from his feet to far above his small head, the programme was the same yet it never got boring. He saw thousands of lights flick on and off in adjacent towers, birds gliding freely upon waves of wind and the clouds form and precipitate onto the city below. The people were as small as ants, and ants didn’t scare the boy. Sometimes they couldn’t be seen at all. When the smog was bad enough, he couldn’t even see the city streets under that protective grey blanket. This was peace, he liked this. He liked to pretend he was in a bubble, high above everyone else where nobody could see or hear him. And even when the smog did dissolve away and the streets and those ants reappeared, he was too far away for anybody to notice him and he could just smile and continue watching them for hours.

This was his first memory.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

This is a short extract following on from a post I made a few weeks ago called The Shark. The homeless boy I am writing about here was the same boy who witnessed the violence documented in that short story, and I felt like a larger tale could be told involving these two characters.

Or A Confrontation At The Empty Warehouse On The Edge Of Town

the sharkSWEAT CLUNG TO HIM and made the steering wheel slip from his grasp as he wrestled the sedan into the car park. His heart began to thump wildly in his chest as the remoteness of this desolate landscape dawned on him. An abandoned warehouse loomed, and behind stood watching high rise flats that reached to the grey canopy of cloud above. Garth wondered if the others had met their fate in this same place. Light rain specked the windscreen as he brought the car around slowly to a standstill. He left the engine on and the headlights cast out weakly as the dusk began to crawl towards him.

It was a short wait that allowed Garth to question the very reason he was here. He had made a bad decision of course, as he was prone to doing; Garth was a cunning, deceitful and resourceful but ultimately weak-minded man. His interests tended to evolve into addictions, vices that dictated his life rather than distracted him, and his existence was composed of a endless cycle of reckless decisions and vindictive actions. No, Garth did not live a clean or honest life, but he could claim that he had never killed a man and that was the truth.

His heart sank as another vehicle pulled into the car park, the headlights raking across the lot searching menacingly for him. When they did find him the car, a blood red coupe, aligned itself with his own and gently stopped about twenty feet away. They faced each other, two mechanical stags preparing to rut. The car opposite became quiet and dark, and Garth fumbled for his own key in the ignition to bring silence and gloom upon them both.

The Shark stepped out, sparked a cigarette and walked around to lean on the bonnet of his car. Echoes rang out as the car door slammed shut. There he sat, patiently waiting for Garth to move. Thoughts raced through his mind but disappeared too quickly to comprehend. He took a deep breath, heaved up the leather duffel bag from the passenger’s seat and left the safety of the car.

The sounds of the city surrounding these two men fell upon deaf ears; an impenetrable dome in which they were contained and could not leave until their differences ceased to exist. Garth walked confidently towards the Shark, but it was a façade. The bag felt heavy in his hand. He thought it strange that a bag containing only stuffed toilet paper and a silenced pistol could have such dead weight. Around him there was no interference except the deafening silence and the crunch of the asphalt beneath his feet.

He stopped a safe distance in front of the Shark, who was still leaned back and arms folded on his car as if this were a show choreographed for his own amusement. His calmness gave Garth chills. The way he had handled himself during the robbery – the man must be some kind of professional. Or freak. The Shark was hired to get them in and out quietly, no noise, no fuss and as Garth had explicitly stated, no casualties. It had been a perfect score until the news reported that the heist had resulted in the violent deaths of three security workers. A crime that had shook the city, the heat was on Garth’s team and the police were searching the city rabidly.

Stood in front of the Shark now he saw little imposing about his form and appearance. Over six feet tall yes, but he was a lank slender creature with not a hair on his head, and from behind a pair of thick rimmed glasses two black eyes stared out blankly. But there was a disconcerting aura surrounding this man. With a reputation akin to urban legend throughout the city’s underworld, for the right price ‘the Shark’ could do just about anything.

“My money”, he grinned with childish glee.
“No”, Garth set the bag down onto the floor. “I aint here to pay you shit.” He dropped the bag to the floor, unzipped it and from within his hand grasped the cold carbon steel of the silenced pistol. His anxieties subsided in an instance and he withdrew the gun and aimed at the man in front of him. The Shark remained still, unthreatened.
“That won’t help you Gareth.” He was still calm but no longer grinning.
“This aint revenge for whatever you’ve done to my guys, or you killed three men and got half the city looking for me.”
“That was necessary.”
“Whatever. This is because I dont like you, youre a fucking psychopath.”
“You can have another week to get the money, Gareth. You don’t need to…”
“This aint about money! It’s about you.”
“Gareth”, he paused. “I require payment for my services. It is a simple concept. People bargain with each other, transactions are carried out. This is how the world works. I cannot leave you alone until I am paid.”
“You weird fuck.” Garth laughed manically. “They are all dead arent they? My team?!”
The Shark took a long time to answer. Then simply stated “Yes. All dead.”  Incensed at the nonchalance of the man Garth fired. Three shots thumped into the chest of the Shark and he sank, reduced to a crumpled heap at Garth’s feet. Exhaling deeply with one hand on his knee and the other still grasping the pistol tightly he fought back the urge to vomit.

As he walked over to the lifeless corpse the lights on the coupe sprung to life and dazzled him. He shielded his eyes but within a second they were off and he was in darkness once more. Garth looked back to the ground as his eyes sought the Shark, but he had risen and was not to be seen. Unimaginable terror came over him as he turned to locate the fiend, but he was too late. The Shark was behind him and stabbed into his ribs and again at his neck. He fell to his knees and looked up as the night took over and the rain began to pour. Garth was surprised at how little pain he was in; he was shivering but his blood was warm as it spilled onto the cold concrete, and the last thing he saw when he rested his head was the Shark walking away uninjured as the scene faded to black and darkness swallowed him and eventually Garth too.

FROM THE SHADOWS of the warehouse a young boy with dirt on his face and rags on his bony shoulders watches, bright eyes transfixed on the violence.

Nearly three weeks since my last post, and I promise it’s not (totally) because of the new Xbox. I was sent to the UK for work again, but it’s these cold dark nights that are really sapping my creative energies.

I mentioned a few posts back that I had signed up for a creative writing course, specifically ‘Start Writing Fiction’ by the Open University. From a previous post…

“It’s only eight weeks, all can be done online and in comparison to an academic qualification is pretty worthless in the grand scheme of things. But it is something I’ve always wanted to do…The aim is to take it seriously, and use it to hone my literary skills as well as receiving feedback and critiquing work from other aspiring writers.”

The Future Learn site is very clean, and makes it easy to show your current progress.

The Future Learn site is very clean, and makes it easy to show your current progress.

A link to the site (see above) for those interested, with details of the course

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/start-writing-fiction-2/details

So I’ve decided to document some of the writing and discussions I take part in on the Future Learn site here on the blog. There is also an added benefit in this, as the Future Learn site only allows us to write comments consisting of 1200 characters – only 200-300 words. It could be that for longer exercises I link my blog to the site.

Week 1

Fact And Fiction: Writing a short paragraph containing three facts, and one element of fiction. I was at work during this task, and used my surroundings and the mood in the office as my facts – it was getting darker, and the mood in the office seemed dull and moody. The fiction I decided to include was a feeling of danger; some incident occurring outside the office which had the workers inside isolated and worried.

The sun had begun to set, casting creeping shadows across the floor and up the walls, and as the office grew darker so did the mood amongst those trapped inside. The doors were still locked, the power was still on; for now at least. But it would not last, and as the workers sat in silence they knew they would soon have to make a choice. To stay and wait or to leave and run – there would be no right answer.

Imagining Writing Spaces: Here we were tasked with describing venues which were either ideal or ill-suited for writing. I took one of my recent experiences as inspiration, having been sent to the UK with work the previous week. I had actually planned to write some blog posts while over there, but it wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be.

A trip to the mainland was not what he needed this week, but he tried to look at the positives. While he’d be kept busy during the day with the company, he could retire to his hotel room in the evenings and catch up with some writing.

The first sign that this plan was doomed from the start was the lack of wi-fi in his room. The second was that the best alternative was a pub across the street. He took his laptop across with him, ordered some food and a pint, and sat down at a small table in a dimly lit corner. The atmosphere was busy but the level of noise was acceptable.

After a mediocre meal, and another pint, he began to think about writing. He looked around. A fat man was sat by the quiz machine, becoming more irate with every question answered incorrectly. A group of young girls were cackling and screaming at every lewd joke or crude reference. Groans and cheers were audible by a cluster of football fans across the bar.

Two hours, two pints and several cigarette breaks later, he was no closer to doing anything productive. In a slightly drunken stupor the thought of writing didn’t interest him, and after a burning nightcap he stumbled back to his room to a dreamless sleep.

Developing A Character: Having been encouraged to keep a notebook or journal and observe the world around us (people and potential characters in particular), we were tasked with developing a character we had taken note of.

The door opened to reveal the silhouette of a man, his tall frame casting a shadow against the dazzling afternoon as he walked in. He paused as the door shut behind him, seemed to take a deep breath, and surveyed his surroundings. He squinted slightly, his vision no doubt adjusting from the blinding sunlight outside to the cool, dimly lit store. He was young – mid twenties at a guess, and a good looking bloke by anyone’s standard. He wore a suit which didn’t quite fit, and I guessed it had been bought without any advice or guidance. His gaze caught mine and, as if remembering what he had come in for, immediately began walking towards the counter.

I looked down at my phone, not wanting to watch him as he approached. I looked up briefly, to see he was looking side to side at the various products on the aisles as he walked lazily towards the counter. Just as I turned my head away, I noticed his left foot dragged, as if he was trying to disguise a limp.

He finally reached the counter, and I turned to face him. “Hey. Can I help?”

He was looking straight through me as he spoke. “I have an appointment with your manager later this evening.” He spoke quietly, and his gaze twitched to the door behind my shoulder. “I will not be able to make it, and I was hoping he was in now so I could explain in person.” His voice was hesitant and cracked at one point. I realised he was nervous. His youthful expression and weak smile were betrayed by his darting, sunken eyes that wanted to be as far away from this place as possible.

Using a notebook to observe, speculate and generate ideas that occur to me

Using a notebook to observe, speculate and generate ideas that occur to me

Week 2

Familiar Words In Unfamiliar Places: A quick exercise to describe something relatively mundane with unusual terms and phrases. Another one I thought of while at work, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out.

The computer gave a series of muffled whirs and clicks eerily similar to choked tears; a last cry that expressed the acceptance of age and time. Its monitor faded to black, and beneath the desk the grey tower stood defeated, a husk of lost data and memories.

The Blank Page: My views on researching, and motivation to write.

I don’t know if I love researching, or if I’m addicted to procrastination. One research topic will inevitably end up moving on to something completely unrelated, and before I know it I’m watching cat videos on YouTube again.

Starting Ploys: Methods were given to encourage us to start writing, and to not worry to much on that very first line. With prompts like ‘Emma said that’ and ‘I remember when’, a story can be coaxed out of your confused, tired mind.

(Emma said that) she no longer wanted to see me at the bar. No more dropping by, no more drinks on the house, no more staying until kick out and offering to help clean up. I understood her stance, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept it.

(I remember when) the rain cascaded down in thick sheets. The dull rumble of distant thunder and an occasional bolt of light that revealed an impossible horizon of black cloud. We moved everything we could carry upstairs, and sat huddled in the centre of the landing surrounded by our belongings. Any attempts to talk, to comfort each other, were drowned out by the screaming winds and restless debris – so we remained completely still in silence and stayed there until morning.

Heightening your observations: An attempt to add more details to the character description from week 1. In order to keep it short, I cut the conversation from the end to allow myself to focus more on the observer’s first impressions of the man entering the store.

The door opened to reveal the silhouette of a man, his tall frame casting a shadow against the dazzling afternoon as he walked in. He paused as the door shut behind him, seemed to take a deep breath, and surveyed his surroundings. He squinted slightly, his vision no doubt adjusting from the blinding sunlight outside to the cool, dimly lit store. He was young; mid twenties at a guess, with a strong jaw but gentle features. A short yet messy head of hair gave him a more youthful appearance. It was the way the man dressed which caused me to take notice. He wore a suit which didn’t quite fit, and I guessed it had been bought without any advice or guidance. The tight fitting jacket was a shade lighter than the trousers, which were inches too long and hid the best part of the man’s scuffed black boots. In a place like this, he stood out. His gaze caught mine and, as if remembering what he had come in for, immediately began walking towards the counter.

As he approached he seemed to feign interest in various products on each aisle as he walked lazily past. Everything was given the same glassy stare. As I turned away I noticed his left foot dragged, as if he was trying to disguise a limp.

Ideas For A Story: We were asked to write a story, or the beginnings of a story, based on the first thing heard when turning on the radio. I tuned in to hear a news report of flooding. I found this difficult, as I wasn’t sure to create a story which could later involve flooding, or a short passage that involved flooding. I decided to introduce a character whose family lived on flood plains, and thus were always at the risk of floods.

I.
The first raindrop fell on a Tuesday morning, around half past eight, and it hit Dale Mackenzie right between the eyes. He had sensed it, and there was an almost poetic beauty when he had lifted his head up to the skies in anticipation to greet that first drop. Living on a farm and spending most of his waking hours outdoors for the best part of forty years had given Dale an understanding of the weather that few meteorologists could rival. He smiled, and goosebumps began to erupt on his exposed forearms. The summer was dying but it was still warm, and the rain was cool on his skin.

He began to quicken the pace back to the farmhouse, as the rain became heavier and the denim shirt he was wearing grew darker and more saturated. His worn, faded Stetson provided shelter for his face and created a stream that ran down his back. He removed the hat and let his long hair loose. As it became wetter he slicked it back to keep it from sticking to his forehead and out of his eyes. He looked around at the land that surrounded him. Fields that grew maize and were home to cattle and sheep that went on for miles and miles and ended somewhere over the horizon.

II.
The farm and lands were bought by his grandfather half a century ago, they had been passed down to his father, and now they had been passed on to him. While on his deathbed his father, hands shaking and tears streaming down his weathered face, had made him promise to never sell the farm, and this had upset Dale. He loved the farm as much as his father, and his father knew. His wife had told him that the desperate plea was due to the state of his fathers decaying mind, a shadow of the man he had been reduced to towards the end. Dale saw that clearly now. He had always known, he thought, but there was a tremendous strain on him during his fathers last weeks, and he had left the room in tears after making his promise.

III.
He saw the house, and as he got closer he could make out the figures of his wife and children stood on the porch. He was about half a mile away now, and now approaching with great bounding strides. Not that he was eager to get out of the rain – they hadn’t seen rain for over two weeks, and Dale was thoroughly enjoying this shower. Having predicted the rain when he retired to bed the evening prior, he had left the house earlier than usual this morning to finish his morning rounds in good time. This meant that he had not spoken to his family this morning, something he hated doing. He loved his family, as many men do, but Dale’s love for his family fuelled his existence. The way his son rubbed his eyes and yawned as he entered the parlour each morning, or his wife tickled the back of his neck and kissed the top of his head as she brought him his breakfast. His life was not exciting, but he did not live for excitement. He had been young once. Now he lived for love, and was wholly committed to his wife and their children. He was utterly content.

So the first two weeks have been interesting. I’ve been impressed by the quality of my fellow writers, and the tasks have certainly given me some ideas and inspiration to write more. I think as the weeks go by I’ll see a marked improvement in my writing ability, but it’s still early on. The main benefit is that I’ve enjoyed the majority of the tasks, and already have some ideas for short stories that I can’t wait to dive into.