Open Pen London

SAWDUST

By Ellie Broughton

It started small, at first. The bed was a bit crunchier than before. There was sometimes wet sawdust, like a porridge, in the shower tray. She had a few splinters in a row. I thought nothing of it. You know how it is: even the most paranoid people struggle to see what’s going on in their own back garden. She used to cry sometimes. She kept these wood shavings the size of ringlets in her bag, and I thought they were just rubbish. 

She was out a lot. She’d done this BTEC, you see, to give herself something practical to make some money on the side. At first it was useful. She straightened bits of furniture. She’d fashion supports for the back of a bookcase to sober up its drunken lean. She stabilised a desk that shook when you sat down to it, varnished chairs and hushed whinging hinges. 

But after a while, it was hard for her to hide how much the carpentry course was taking over her life. She used to sing ‘Knock On Wood’ so often I had to ask her to stop. And the wood shavings were everywhere now – and I mean everywhere. I would wake up in the night with a dry mouth, coughing, and on sunny afternoons the air between us was so thick with dust motes I could hardly bring myself to reach across it, or speak. We never slept together any more. She’d stay up late doing her coursework. What is it, I’d ask sometimes. Nothing, she’d reply, in varying degrees of nonchalance, grief, defiance, insecurity and fury.

I wouldn’t have said anything, but it was getting in the food. She’s a smashing cook, my girlfriend, but dinners were coming coated in wood dust. Eat something like a lasagne and a bit of dust in the bechamel doesn’t bother you, but it wasn’t just that. Cups of tea had particles floating in them like old biscuit crumbs. There were woodchips in the pesto. I found offcuts in sandwiches. In a matter of weeks I was raking through curries, checking for rawlplugs.

I started to date a girl from work with big pale blue eyes. She had a sand timer on her desk. I walked over most days, and one day I began to play with it. She fixed me for a minute with those eyes of her, then giggled. After work she took me to the pub.

Everything alright at home, she asked.

Fine, I said. She took me back to hers and made me toast. She burned it but handed it to me anyway, thinking I was too drunk to notice. Oh, I noticed. I felt sorry for myself, then, tucking into that toast: one in a series of ruined meals in my life. 

With a friend, I texted my girlfriend. 

I thought maybe my girlfriend would let it slide. No. It all came to a head when I found a nail in my birthday cake.

When my teeth hit metal I immediately opened my mouth. I heard the spit-wet sponge clatter onto the plate. My head hung there for a moment and her eyes swivelled to the glistening mouthful.

Was that a nail? she asked.

I think so, I replied.

We sat there in silence for a while as she felt for something to say.

I’m sorry, she whispered.

There shouldn’t be a nail in the cake, I pointed out.

I know that, she replied.

I could have impaled myself on that, I shouted.

I know, she said, I’m mortified. 

After a moment, she said: You know I never wanted to hurt you?

Then there were tears welling in her eyes. Rivulets ran new tracks down her cheeks and her skin shone through a layer of dust. 

I’ve been building, she gulped, a cabin. 

It was a shock. She let the words sink in.

Ah, I replied. That’s where all the sawdust came from.

She nodded.

I think I should move in.

Out? I asked.

Yes, she replied, out. Into the house. 

Cabin, I corrected. 

She looked at me like she was waiting for something, then got up and went to the back door, and looked at me again. I got up and went over to her.

It’s in the garden, I realised.

It’s in the garden, she explained, and opened the back door. I could smell, faintly, the musk of cut timber.

I could see it already, out of focus, its warmth flooding my gaze.

But actually I heard it before I saw it. Before it came into focus I heard a deep, towering creaking, and I could hear a picture of it clearer than an image.

It’s not a cabin, I realised, sinking.  

She walked over to the house, and put her hand on its flank like it was a wild animal she’d tamed.

Still touching it, she turned back to me.

I’m sorry, she said, in a voice like an exhalation.

It’s OK, I replied. 

Behind her, the house sighed and settled, creaked and cracked, and stood.

o         o         o

Ellie Broughton
is a writer and journalist from London. Short stories that she has written have been published by The Cadaverine, The Learned Pig, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and she has also had non-fiction published in Elsewhere Journal.

GREEN + ORANGE + WHAT

OPEN PEN ISSUE TWENTY-ONE – OUT APRIL 21.

OP21_01

Should be a big year for Open Pen, we’re publishing a poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley. It’s a real book because it has a spine. Just like Scott’s poetry.

Marshmallow hot choc copywriting aside, this really is a big year for us, we’ve got a few novelettes up our sleeve and we should be able to let you know more about that in the coming months, a Summer party, launches, podcasts, and more copies of Open Pen going to more stockists than ever before. That’s true of Open Pen Issue Twenty-One, which hits our bookshops (and is FREE as always) Saturday, April 21.

In its pages you will find the following fiction by the following writers:

What Happened at the Squash Club on 23 April 1982 – Amanda Quinn
An Act of Faith – Ian Green
Session 3 Homework – Janelle Hardacre
Fumes – Amanda Fish
Promotion – Anthea Morrison
External Audits – Sam Hurcom

And the London Short Story Prize winning

Dead Yard – Maria Thomas

All that fiction is introduced by Fernando Sdrigotti, author of Dysfunctional Males (La Casita Grande Editores) and Issue Seventeen’s cover author. True to form, Sdrigotti finds himself emoting a warmth of feeling for our literary landscape with such lines as:

You could and should be pardoned for thinking literature is dead, that it metamorphosed into a column on an Excel file, or the filling of a sandwich served at the bestest writerly conference, where toilets get clogged on the last day, and literature stinks worse than the final question in every panel, but hey networking!

All that, still free, in your bookshop April 21. Not stocked in your bookshop? Tell them about us. Tell us about them. You’ll also note that you can now subscribe to Open Pen for just £10 for four issues.

Thanks for supporting Open Pen. Read. Write. SUBMIT.

WE <3 POETRY

‘Bad Boy Poet’ – debut poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley

If you follow what we do you’ll know that our book reviews are written by Scott Manley Hadley, and that his meandering personal reviews can often be honest to a fault. And if you follow what we do, you’ll know that we don’t publish poetry. We make a point of it. And so it is with absolutely no sense of trepidation or doubt that we’re chuffed to eff to announce that ‘Bad Boy Poet’, the debut poetry collection by Scott Manley Hadley will be the first standalone book we’ve ever published.

bbpcoverOut in paperback and e-book form this Summer, ‘Bad Boy Poet’ is a series of “confessional-style” poems evoking the experiences of a confused and conflicted youngish man as he tries to work out who he is, following a mental health crisis and the subsequent breakdown of a relationship. Also poo.

Scott Manley Hadley writes: “Basically I just wanna give a shout out to anyone who ever doubted me, all the haters and watergaters. Eff you guys. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the world needs any more straight white male middle class poets writing about depression and penises. However, this time the man doing it is me, and I’m the effing bomb, so please do buy Bad Boy Poet, even if you never read it. Also I’ve been advised to say that it’s all fictional, *especially* the bits that seem the most like they’re not.”

You can find out more about Scott and his writing over at Triumph of the Now.

To request a review copy of the forthcoming collection (payback), please email us at the usual address.

REVIEW: River

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
RIVER  (Fitzcarraldo Editions)  BY ESTHER KINSKY
(translated Iain Galbraith)

OR, PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY IS RIGHT WING

Reviewed by Scott Manley Hadley, MA Hons, BA Hons, Poet, Lover, Fighter, Man (not in that order)

Now that I self-identify as a poet (see blog on that revelation here), let’s fuck about with the reviewing format a bit. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make it into a poem, but now that I feel like language is mine to fuck with, fuck with it I AM GOING TO DO. NB: poets like to say “fuck”.

SO, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT IN THIS ARTICLE?

I’m writing, not talking, about River, a novel published at the end of 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, the people behind many of my favourite books of the last few years (eg Pond, eg Zone, eg Football).

Fitzcarraldo specialises – as far as I can tell – in a kind of literary prose that offers both great emotional heft and rich intellectualism, with the essays they publish provoking intense catharses and their novels evidencing deep learning. Fitzcarraldo make great, beautiful, books, and River is no exception. It is a novel written by Esther Kinsky and published in its original German in 2014, with the translation completed by Iain Galbraith (who, like me, is also a poet) and part funded by English PEN (no relation to Open Pen).

zxqruubremifviux6dwcWHAT IS IT ABOUT?

Not certain about this format choice, but I’m gonna roll with it anyway.

River is about lots of things, but predominantly place, memory and change. The aftereffects of war and industrialisation ripple through the novel, which is set in disparate places that exist beside and around rivers. It feels very lived, if that makes sense, as in it feels more like a collection of honest, enterable, memories, rather than fiction. I mean this as a compliment, rather than an accusation: I don’t care how realistic or realist a novel is, as long as its truth is cohesive and consistent, I’m a happy little reader.

DIDN’T REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION THERE.

OK, right. Will try again.

River features one female first person narrator who is reminiscing on numerous personal experiences she’s had close to flowing water. In the present, the narrator has just moved into a flat, alone, in east London, near the River Lea. She wanders around the riverbanks, canals, marshes and parks that surround this river, taking photographs, collecting objects, and amassing memories from the other wanderers she meets. As she explores, the narrator disappears into her own past, too. This leads to chapters set near the Rhine (beside which she grew up), the Hooghly (a distributary of the Ganges), the St Lawrence (Toronto), the Tisza (which flows through Hungary and neighbouring countries) and the Neretva (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia), as well as glimpses of the Thames, the Danube, the Po and many rivers that aren’t famous enough for me to remember their names (the ones here that aren’t famous are the titles of chapters, so v easy to check.)

The memories that are evoked stem from across an entire life, from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and living away from the parental home for the first time, to brief trips made within Europe to long distance, long format, holidays taken to India. There is a curiosity throughout, a real love and engagement with water as a force, as a signifier and as a literal thing that is both beautiful and dangerous. We see rivers that bring life, that bring death, rivers that cleanse, rivers that are polluted with chemicals, polluted with excrement, rivers that are hidden by human structures that negate the natural landscape, and rivers that are used for play, albeit play that is haunted by risk (the concept, not the boardgame).

The memories that are plucked out of the narrator’s head weave in and out of different times, and frequently engage with ideas related to place, to the way that a place affects those who live in it, and how industrialisation and societal development change the way in which people interact with land and with water. River is a book that is dense in detail: it describes rich, complex landscapes and emotive personal experiences, all of them tied to rivers, all of them drawing a portrait of a character who is looking for – I think – peace.

WHO IS IT ABOUT?

The narrator is complex and, at times, confusing. The novel speaks in the same voice throughout, but there is a lot that is left unspoken, unexplored, unnamed. The narrator’s friends are never quite friends, more acquaintances, and their names are sometimes guessed, sometimes nicknames, but never complete descriptions of an identity, though they may be complete descriptions of a character. We rarely know both who and what a person is, if that makes sense?

There are immigrants from all over the world whose histories are explored, and the narrator is sociable and observant. However, she never seems to make any close connections with others, perhaps because of personal tragedy. In the narrator’s memories of Toronto she has a son, a son who does not feature in the present. Is the narrator recently bereaved, did she lose custody of the child, or are her circumstances, wandering alone in East London, perfectly happy, i.e. has enough time passed for the child to have grown up and become independent? I dunno. Am I seeking for an undercurrent of tragedy because that is what I like in fiction? Am I asking the wrong questions? Was I incorrectly looking at River for a singular human story, when in fact it is far more concerned with numerous, pluralised, lives?

I suppose what this comes down to is that, no matter how gorgeous and evocative Galbraith’s translation of Kinsky’s descriptions are, this is a book that is fundamentally about place and people’s immediate, direct, relationship with it. There are mentions of emotion and swift, moving, passages about grief and loneliness, for example, but what recurs, what never goes away, is the presence of rivers, which flow onwards, like life innit, which flows. And though the metaphorical emotionality of this text might be deep, for me there is an absence of personal emotional engagement that left me a little… unfulfilled. I, as a mature, complex, adult, though, can tell this is an issue of my taste and Kinsky’s intention: River is a strong and impressive novel, it just isn’t the kind of novel that drives me wild. I wanna cry big wet tears; this is not the book for that.


WHO IS IT FOR?

I don’t know about this.

River could be described as female-led (or female centric) psychogeography, which – as a USP – sounds like something with the potential for absolutely top sales, right? So, the target demographic would be people who regularly read psychogeography, right, plus people who are intrigued by the idea of psychogeography but find the genre too male, too self-absorbed, too flat, normallyIn my opinion – which is literally what this whole fucking post is River isn’t quite enough of a departure from psychogeography as standard to please people with a pre-existing disapproval of it. This doesn’t mean that River isn’t a particularly good example of the genre (it is), but it does mean that River doesn’t do anything to disrupt the presumptions and traits of psychogeography. Does that make sense? I keep asking that. I’m nervous, this is very much an intellectual text and I’m feeling self-conscious about being critical of it. Does it make sense?

KINDA. I WORRY YOU’RE ABOUT TO START GETTING BITCHY.

No, almost certainly not. Kinsky’s written a top book of its type here, however my point is that it’s a type of book I’m not really into.

WELL, I HAVE TO ASK: IS IT GOOD?

I’m pretty certain I said explicitly, above, that it is a great example of its genre, yes. River is more than a good text.

Kinsky’s landscape descriptions are gorgeous, a reader is transported across multiple continents and driven beside, sailed along, walked near, waded in, swam in and sat, overlooking, numerous rivers. The reader is inundated with references to the way society changes, the ways in which geography is understood differently in different parts of the world. Kinsky shows how communities behave towards water in different places, sometimes playful, reverential, fearful and – especially in London – contemptuous.

The rivers serve their imagistic purpose, and the novel expands itself into an intriguing and complex piece, however, it is ALL ABOUT PLACE, and it is all focused on how one individual responds to place, one individual who sits outside of these different societies, who is an observer, an observer and a tourist, and I don’t know if that is something that I’m that keen to be praising in this evermore fracturing world.

PLEASE GIVE THE INEVITABLE DIGRESSION.

OH RIGHT, BABY!!!! THIS IS THE PERMISSION I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR.

Think of the people you know who like psychogeography. No, I don’t mean the people who’ve read one book about a guy taking a walk, but the people you know who tell you that Iain Sinclair is a “genius”, who listen to Will Self’s Radio 4 shows (even I don’t do that and I’m a total whore for Radio 4) and who tell you that Robert Macfarlane and all those other ones I CAN’T EVEN THINK OF are good. Picturing these book lovers? Right, yeah: they’re usually white men who are like totally into rolled cigarettes, irregular shaving routines and like radical socialism or whatever, yeah? If this isn’t the case for you, then it is for me, all SIX of the men I know who LOVE psychogeography are like this, and I think there is a gentle but unignorable hypocrisy in the intersection of socialism and environmentalism. Also I think psychogeography is right wing.

Psychogeography is a selfish, individualistic, elitist, small c conservative genre, all of which strike me as pretty Big C Conservative traits. Psychogeography is a genre that focuses on the individual experience of – almost always – a well-educated white man who has VOLUNTARILY and TEMPORARILY removed himself from his own circles (and thus interpersonal responsibilities) in order to “report on” other peoples, or on nature itself.

Nature is not people. There is a reason why conservatism and conservation are such similar fucking words. The people who want to “protect the greenbelt” and “stop HS2” are the same people who vote brexit and use the 4 letter p word (not piss) to refer to the local convenience store owned by someone whose like great grandparents were born in Mumbai or somewhere else that definitely isn’t Pakistan. The environment is being destroyed, it is going, and as much as people would like to decry that Donald Trump’s administration’s ignorant policies (seeking to reduce the intended reduction in pollution) are the last railings of a dying attitude, that is sadly bullshit. Things are not – in my uninformed opinion – going to change quickly or dramatically enough for the tight balance between humanity and sustainable nature to be restored. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic (though uninformed). Most people are selfish fucking individualists and are far, far more easily tempted towards the immediate gratification of, for example, their oil investments continuing to make them money, than to earning slightly less megabucks and allowing species that aren’t humans (or the animals we keep as livestock or pets) to survive for more than a couple of hundred years.

The only way to “save” the planet is MASSIVE depopulation, which is not something a “caring” person can advocate, right? A person who cares about the environment must be caring, right, must therefore also care about people? Bullshit. The state of the world is such, now, that it is only massive state intervention on a global scale that can reverse or repair or at least decelerate the damage we, as a species, have done. You cannot genuinely believe in the conservation of the environment AND in the importance of personal freedoms. The rights and the choices of individuals MUST be curbed for the world to be saved; environmentalists – here, for a moment, like big socialists – are all for a massive state, and implicitly see the value of all individuals as equal, as part of a bigger collective whole that dwarfs any one person’s opinions or needs. So, to care about the environment means it is impossible to also care about individuals, and if you don’t care about individuals, you don’t actually care about people, because ALL PEOPLE ARE INDIVIDUALS. Keeping everybody warm and fed is not compatible with saving the planet, certainly not at present. True environmentalists must be socialists to the point where they discredit the value of any person, not just any individual person.

And the other, the other, the OTHER big issue is this:

The people who write psychogeography believe themselves, implicitly AND explicitly, to be BETTER than the rest of us. To take the position where your individual musings on the lives of others are worth more attention than other people’s musings on YOU is to imply a hierarchy, is to acknowledge an-

OH MY GOD YOU’RE GOING TOO FAR AND TOO HARD. STOP.

No.

Psychogeography is a genre of writing about individuals excising themselves from their roles within society. To go and wander in the countryside – or the city – on your own evidences a certain privilege, not just the economic security required to either a) take this time off from paid labour or b) have the position where one is able to exchange the intellectual labour undertaken while walking and thinking for money. Being a writer, regardless of ones origin, is a privileged position. I am writing, here, from a position of privilege, and though – now that I’m not depressed – I no longer feel that my privilege invalidates the value of my expression of thought, I am firmly aware that it is privilege that has allowed me to get to the point where I can write and be read, and where I can afford to write, mostly (though not entirely #highfive) for free.

I, like many white liberals, can make a case for myself as a working-class voice, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and scrutinising the realities and the media of expressions of privilege is EXACTLY what we should be doing as self-defined liberals and/or progressives, who tend to be the kind of people who read Psychogeography uncritically. People seem to behave like there is something progressive in entering the wilderness, or an unfamiliar city, alone. But there isn’t. In many ways it is an act of cultural colonialism. Most people writing about the Lake District, to take a “less” colonial example, are not “of” it, and here in River, as in Self, as in Sebald, the individual doing the observing of British working class districts is far more literary and intellectual than the people they are observing. Psychogeography, when it doesn’t bother to ignore people – as in more naturey and thus even more socially valueless texts – tends to observe people with a presumed air of importance. It is the eternal idea that we have been asked to do by writers, which is to see their thoughts and observances as “better”, more valid, than those of – for want of a better word – ordinary people. (Yes, I know I’m saying this in writing.)

Now, the trad critique of this borderline “we’re sick of experts” argument is that somebody has to record existence and that writers who do so, do not think they’re inherently superior to those they write about. They think they are of them, they think they are part of them. But if they’re not, then they’re not.

Writing about one’s own community, or communities one has a genuine connection to in another place, is not condescending, but when anyone others anyone else, whenever anyone describes people *unlike* them, aimed at a readership *like* them, there is an implicit distancing, an implicit condescension. Kinsky’s descriptions of other European migrants living isolated lives in East London have a validity: though her narrator has more education, i.e. more cultural capital, than these people, she is as similarly “alien” in this location. She wanders London as a place that is unfamiliar – familiar enough to understand, but unfamiliar enough to be interesting. However, when she encounters white working class Londoners she – as to be fucking honest I do – has a disconnect. These people live amongst grey London with an attitude of familiarity and a casual sense of entitlement that only really exists in rich people in the rest of the country. Working class Londoners may be more friendly than middle class Londoners, but they still have that raucous tone of self-importance.

I feel like I’m knocking London here, and that really isn’t my intention, but meh, fuck it, London can handle my mild critique in the midst of a takedown of an entire genre of literature. 

CONCLUDE PLEASE

Kinksy, actually, disproves my earlier comment about psychogeography reducing the importance of people. For though she does, yes, fail to connect with people who claim a firmer connection to some of the places where she is, she repeatedly manages to evoke a very strong sense of lives that are also travelling, also moving, also – like rivers – unrooted, non-static.

Psychogeography is a weird genre in that it is both very masculine but not very macho. What I meant above about River not being enough of an escape from the genre as I’d have liked was that, to be blunt, it was as sexless as psychogeography normally is. I’m trying to avoid writing that normalises sexual repression, and – as a genre – psychogeography is about as chaste as you can get (certainly in the bloodless texts I’ve read).

There is no plot of desire within River, but as a text about emotions and physicality it is present, though never central. River does consider the lives of disparate people, River does offer a nuanced portrait of people from different classes without trying to sell preservation and conservation as important fucking goals. This is a text about people, not about nature, and though it fails in many of the ways that psychogeography as a genre fails to address wider societal problems, it succeeds a damn sight better than a lot of similar texts. For many people, this won’t be a problem, it’s just me with my class-confusion and thus bizarre and confused disapproval of so many things from so many angles. Well, at least since Brexit I don’t have to defend Wales or Middle England any more. Londoners, you were right: they all are a bunch of dogging, racist Morris dancers.

THIS REALLY WENT WRONG, DIDN’T IT?

I’ve spent almost a month working on this, on and off. Like the two many cooks thing, but with TIME, innit?

 

o         o         o

Scott Manley Hadley

is a poet now (apparently) and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

On the Last Rebellion

To be invaded is a penetration. If not bodily, by blade or flesh, then mentally by a wiping of history, a corrosion of culture, a banishing of the familiar. Invasion takes more than it gives, aggravates the womb of home until even the things you did not know you had are gone, after which you are left feeling empty and strangely stretched. Implanted with the residue of some other landscape.

We do not talk about our invaders – we still cannot process it – but if you dream in the dark, in our last stone halls, you will wake to find a friend’s arms around you.

“I saw them, I saw what happened.”

“I know.”

“But it did happen.”

“Yes, I know. I think I saw it too.”

All of us returning to the same conscious pool, but unable to explain what we find there. I know. I think I saw it too.

Root and leaf, down from the plucked mountains and up from the narrow, dry valleys, the last of them came. They felled our houses and grew brittle in the places where we used to work, until humanity’s cogs were tangled up in weeds and ceased turning. We were left to our once-sacred places, clinging to each other in the dark as our weapons failed to break branch or stem. What is a bullet compared to a petal? A bomb to a seed, or a sword to a stamen? Who were we to stand against the fruits of renewing life with our earnest metal and cocky stone – when we knew all along the miracle of a soft fungus growing through concrete paving slabs?

Always history is written by the victors, but no one now among the legion above could raise a pen between twig and bark – and increasingly, I suspect that they did not fight for a footnote or a furlong in any case.

Some clever fool said I should write something instead, to preserve the passing lest it should fall away before chance commits it to memory. “Didn’t you used to write before?” It is no use to explain this history is a fiction I couldn’t have imagined.

I try. I struggle. A kernel of shame grows inside me, a question over whether our victors might have saved us from a darkness far greater than their wrath. Looking back, I think we cast the first stone, standing on the field of prehistory, building the first house and firing the first arrow. Smoke-stacks and plastic-wraps. Fighting a cold war with a wilful blind eye.

They sang as their roots came down on us, and their words come back to me over and again. It was not a refrain of conquest and glory, but of autumn sap rising, one last rebellion in the face of shadows: We are not the invaders. We are the rebellion. We are the many and you are the few.

Defeat came to us suddenly, at the height of our powers, delivered by the underdogs. How strange that in defeat we – the self-proclaimed idols of freedom – have been given a second chance to ally ourselves with something true and worthy. The invaders that infect us have none of our haste or passion, only the steady, creaking inevitability of wood, the soft sigh of a passing cloud. The violence of a blooming flower. They are quite unlike any empire in history, wanting for nothing but room to breathe.

In this encroaching clarity, I think perhaps our history should be but one note sang in a minor key, a tomb of apology, with “sorry-sorry” penned on every page.

o          o          o

Jasmin Kirkbride
is a publisher and writer living in London.
You can find more of her stories at jasminkirkbride.com
and chat with her on Twitter @jasminkirkbride.

Hot Content

Hello. We’ve got a monthly newsletter now. At least we’re hoping it’s out every month. What if we’ve got nothing to say? How humiliating that would be. The magazine that professes to publish “fiction with something to say”, shrinks to a silence. A newsletter sent out to our writerly mailing list with no copy, no images, no subject header (shudder)… just a blank email.

Thankfully we’ve got a few things to talk about at the moment. One is that we have a newsletter – it’s out tomorrow. The other is that Issue Twenty-One is fast approaching. Want to know these two things that we’ve just told you and more? Subscribe to the Open Pen mailing list! You can do so by looking to the right of this very sentence, over there (unless something has gone badly wrong with the back end of our website) —————–>

New Start

I don’t know why I let ‘em talk me into coming out. Having to pay to get in a fuckin’ pub. Liberty. I hate this shit. I feel like an alien spectator. Are they really having that much fun, or are they just pretending to fit in with everyone else pretending to fit in? I don’t fit nowhere. Don’t feel like pretending either. They’re all excited about the night and I don’t get it. I feel nothing. What are they celebrating? Another year gone? Another year to fuck up? Another year closer to death.

I’m not even sure this is real. Everything’s like a strange dream since I got better. Did I really get better? Wouldn’t be surprised if I’m dead, or in a coma. Or in some nuthouse somewhere, delusional. I only came out to see if I could get hold of some drunk bird for a snog. Everything’s changed since I last went out. The music’s shit. I’m not even sure how to pull anymore. Girls look better than they used to. Probably because they’re not all chewing their own faces off and gurning on a rush.

I split with my girlfriend just after I got better. Had a bit of a downturn and she couldn’t take anymore. Glad really, she was a pain in the fuckin’ arse. I was gonna dump ’er anyway when I fully recovered. Just holding on for a bit of support, like a parasite. My nerves are too raw without my forcefield for a moody cunt like that.

I’m trying to make eyes at a cutie, but I might be staring with a crooked leer. She turns away. There’s a fella here, mate of a mate who keeps offering me cocaine. He’s doing my fuckin’ head in, but I know he’s just being polite, or sellin’. I see him coming near again. On his way to the bog.

-Alright mate?

-Yeah… you alright?

-Yeah mate, having a good time mate. How you been keeping?

I feel like a spotlight has lit me up on stage and I’ve forgotten me lines. I look at him for what seems a long time, but time might just have stopped dead for all I know. He looks uneasy, or is it me? I know I’m supposed to just say, yeah mate, I’m good, but that don’t want to come out. I grab his head with both hands and bite into his face, the blood running down my chin. He stands there looking at me in awkward realisation that I’m not looking at him, but through ‘im and offers me a line.

-Mate, I told ya, I can’t touch that shit man. I got a problem with it.

-Yeah, tell me about it. Ain’t we all?

-I ain’t talkin’ about a few grams on a Friday, I got a serious problem with it. That shit drives me round the fuckin’ bend. I can’t stop.

-When d’you last do it?

-Years ago, but it don’t matter.

-You’d probably be alright now.

-you sellin’?

-Yeah.

-You got no idea what would happen if I had it. You wouldn’t want to be in the same room. I’m alright.

He moves on. I try chatting up the girl next to me, but I can’t hear much of what she says. What I do hear’s making me think of smashin’ her face out through the back of her head instead of kissing. Nice looking though.

There’s a countdown. Everyone’s joining in except me. I feel like they’re all looking at me. They know I’m an imposter. I’m not like them. It occurs to me that the countdown might end with them all attacking me. This is a set-up. No no no, that’s not what’s happening here. They’re having fun. It’s me that’s wrong here. They’re escaping their hell and I can’t. I can only see the meaninglessness of it all. I can’t access their fun. I can’t fake it.

The countdown ends and the bird I was chatting up is all over me. Something odd about kissing a stranger on a night out. Her hands are everywhere, so I keep up. She’s wearing a flimsy skirt and I’m rubbing her through her knickers and she’s wet. At least I got something sorted. We part and she gives me a sex look. Someone shoves past behind me and I turn round and shove back. There’s a moment of stand-off and then he carries on his way. I look round to see the girl I was just kissing snogging somebody else. Oh well. I ain’t got no claim on that. Fuck it.

Matey with the coke’s here again. Why did I stay near the toilet?

-D’ya want a line?

-Yeah, fuck it. Let’s go.

In the cubicle, he chops off a couple of small lines. I feel the excitement of terror well up, as I go down. I sniff it up, stand straight and it hits me. Good gear. I see a flashing image of myself, naked with blood all down me. I rub my face like I’m wipin’ it off. He bends down to do the other line and I bring an open palm down on the back of his head, smashing his face into the cistern. He crumples, as I punch ‘im over and over. He’s lying in piss, blood making patterns in it. I go down his pockets. Money, gear. Here we go. Sorted. I chop out a proper line and do that too. I leave the cubicle. Busy at the urinals, but nobody notices me holding on to a basin staring at myself in the mirror. Eyes, like black holes to nowhere. Fire in my veins.

-Happy fuckin’ new year, cunt.

o          o          o

ROB TRUE

was born in London 1971. He left school with no qualifications, got lost in an abyss and spent a decade on another planet. He returned to earth just in time for the new millennium and married a beautiful, strange girl. She taught him how to use paragraphs and punctuation and his writing has been a bit better ever since.

He has work out in 2018 in Granta, and tweets now and again at @RobTrueStories

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: L’esprit de l’escalier

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We were talking, me and Sue, about why ghost stories were a thing at Christmas, when we got on to what scares us, really. I said playing out the same stuff in every job, relationship, hometown; subconsciously finding people that let me play out my patterns as I let them play our theirs, being stuck doing this. Each New Year’s Resolution really a cover story. Stuck, especially those times that I thought I wasn’t, that I was breaking the cycle, realising too late that the breaking out was just another, subtler way of staying in. For these cycles to be the fabric of your existence, running until your last breath, so that you will not know that you have lived. Suzy said snakes.

Bringing us back down to more everyday fears, Roger, who’d been listening while he dish-clothed the post-grad bar, said why don’t you girls try the A-Block stairs. What’s haunting them, I said. The stairs, he said. I said, That’s the location. Sue said, What’s the story. He told us it wasn’t any ghost story – the undergrads in A-Block had come up with a dare. (The stairs hadn’t been called haunted till then.) At night, you walked from whichever floor your room was on down towards basement level. Except before you started, you had to stay still till all the lights blinked off. Then you walked in the dark, see how far you got, if you could reach the bottom. But whenever the lights come on, you see something. Like what, I said. Just something the stairs show you.

Hoping for a story to tell, we let Roger shutter up, and we crossed to A-Block, with its glass spine of a lift, motionless, and four lit rooms – the only students who’d not gone back for the holidays. I blinkered my hands on a window and pointed out the abandoned entrance hall. Swiping us in, Sue said that when I shat myself, she’d not be able to give me a lift home. She lead the way to the stairwell door: four flights per storey, eight steps each, diagonally completing the sides of a cuboid, other than that, pipes and banisters. Picking off a piece of plaster oddly made my pulse run faster; throwing it at Sue I asked her “Is it just me or did something…?” Her face paled as she stopped to listen, then with a mock-offended laugh: fuck off mate. The way up was still dark, while the way down we’d already illuminated. Hoping to hint at my reluctance, I made the case for either option in a shrugging kind of voice: we could take the lift and start from the top, which would mean we’d done it properly, or save time by going from ground level to basement. Dreamily, despite my chatter, next I said it didn’t matter: pick the former or the – lateral thinking – third option, another option. Wincing like I was dragging myself out of a current, I said we could always pretend we’d gone up or down, and get out of there. I waited for her response, holding the door, telling myself it was to let out the tremendous echoes. Deafening with childish laughter, she leapt in, and I crept after

Clicking fingers at the rafter with the motion sensor light

Step by step, at first, then three-in-one I steeply started leaping

Bounding round the corners keeping Suzy from my line of sight

.

Half for balance, half for feeling concrete’s weird and half-appealing

Smooth and pocked, almost congealing surface did I touch the walls

But to soothe a rising tension did I call to Sue and mention

Being scared? Her condescension made me doubt my wherewithal

.

Tense because the steps kept going, levels’ minus numbers growing –

Hear the student pranksters crowing, giving us the runaround

Yet we’d been for half an hour ravelling this sunken tower

When my instincts overpowered: “Take us back to solid ground!

.

“Peek and cringe round every corner. What was that! We could’ve sworn a

Shadow moved! We tried to warn her someone’s coming. Be prepared!”

At that urgent mental screaming ‘leaps and bounds’ took on new meaning

Looking back I came careening, knocking Suzy unawares.

o

Getting to her feet she knuckled brick dust from her eye and chuckled

Shrilly (courage in me buckled) “Let’s try going back one flight.”

We ascended, smiling, slowly – smiles to prove our shakes were only

Self-aware performing shows; we whispered, “Something’s not quite right.”

.

For the steps went up unceasing; plus the door was gone, releasing

Not just fear but calm, decreasing both our paces to a crawl

Thinking that it might inspire problems for our stairway mire

I went lower, she went higher (Make it crash and reinstall?)

.

Suzy would find “nothing more than ceilings, steps, and walls and floors and

Lights” – she paused to form an extra pale and livid frown

By herself, so faintly humming, gaining height while I’d been plumbing

Sure enough I’d met her coming up; she’d met me coming down

.

Panic sent its prickling flushes down my arms, in upward rushes

Through my brain, a flood that pushes reason into wretched prayers:

Had I piped up even forty, thirty, twenty steps before, we

Might have had a chance to bore free from the mineshaft of these stairs…

o

Could it be, though, locomotion moved the stairs like wind moves ocean?

Might this superstitious notion save us from our plodding plight?

Like a treadmill minus motor, we were boat and frightened boater

Drop an anchor and we ought to pin the water, hold it tight

.

So we slumped down on a stooping step or other, worn to drooping

By the trampling and the looping of a billion drawled footfalls

Firstly, nothing, only distant roaring as of non-existent

Thunder, but then quite insistent: Windows and an entrance hall

.

Frightened, hopeful, we departed – just like that, the trap outsmarted!

Grabbing her I laughed wholehearted; she played quiet; I played the clown

Peering back into the building with the morning sunlight gilding

Banisters and pock-marks filled in gummily, she kissed my crown

.

Held her lips there, started crying – What had been most horrifying?

Knots that tie from their untying? – “Yes,” she sighed into my hair

Roger doing inventory sensed we had a scary story

“Hardly clothed ourselves in glory…” More than that we didn’t share

o

Life went back to ‘something’ normal, as a lover’s passing scorn will

Leave behind a mute, informal threat that disarrays your nights

What that threat was would elude me; Suzy offered doctors whom she’d

Used for “dizziness” she shrewdly put it so I wouldn’t bite

.

Nothing bodily affected anything and yet I texted:

“Aren’t you feeling unprotected? Can’t you sense it?” / “Not at all.”

Though I couldn’t speak it plainly, truth insisted, from the way the

Rhyming nightmares nightly plagued me: Somehow, you are still enthralled

.

Suzy tells me that we’re freely living, moving. Can’t I feel the

Blatant substance of the Real she points to as we drive through town?

Smiling in her car politely, only words I say are ‘Might be!’

Concrete white and grey inside me, spiritually rust-pipe brown

.

Years pile up without real changes (surface merely rearranges)

“What’s today? The blues or rages?” reads a text – see, Suzy cares

Don’t mind her, I’m past offending: whether climbing or descending

Walking circles, never-ending. I’m OK – I’ll take the stairs

o          o          o

MAZIN SALEEM

is a fiction writer. He tweets from @maybemazin

Mazin’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: As we drove a kind of madness came upon us

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As we drove a kind of madness came upon us so that we didn’t regret what we had done. In fact we never did regret it. We didn’t have time. From then on there was never a moment long enough to allow us reflect to consider the solemn awfulness of what had happened. What had happened to us. Been done by us. I used to think that if we had just stopped and considered pulled up by the side of the road one day and thought, a horrible realisation would have arrived. And I think now that the moving was deliberate. Exhausting and necessary.

But to explain so that someone could understand appreciate the tenor of our mistakes and the urgency of our flight I would have to go back very far right back to the point from which we were fleeing when we took to the coastal road when I was only nineteen. And for you to understand truly would require a genuine effort to appreciate our mode of thought and very particular circumstances. An openness and sympathy which in my experience is rare indeed. So rare that I have experienced it perhaps once or twice in the past five months of our flight and on neither of those occasions did I stop long enough to consider carefully and truly the people I suspected had it in them. They helped us long enough to know that it would cost them. But I truly think that they did not live to regret it, from my consideration of their understanding. Of us and the tenor of our experience. But they did not live, and that is true too.

To go back by five months is not an easy thing.

On the coastal roads the days were very very short and the faster we drove towards the sun the quicker it leant into the sea. At that time we set our pace by the length of the day. We had a little time. Those days we drove through many nights and at the side of the road great lumps of snow gathered wanting to lean but always tumbling.

With five months distance I can see we picked a bad time to take to flight. The drive was hard. At times we ran about on compact ice and I gripped myself in silencing despair. But I dared not drive and had nothing to offer but the smallness of my demands. I was driven and it made more sense that way. In the night days of our first driving when things dawned and did not dawn we also set the limits of our understanding. Don’t look that way we always said, when our gaze glanced the tops of gaudy trees. We always looked ahead or towards the sea. Never back or at each other which was the same.

We didn’t pick the time of year ourselves but it was a cruel time to do what we did. The light had a kind of hardness to it with little sympathy. The weather tried to slow our pace but we set it as swift as the coming down of night. We set it just about as fast as we could go.

Yes those first night days were about the worst when we drove so fast to stop the snow from settling with our wheels.  The cold has its way of keeping the living moving, just as it stops the dead and makes them linger.

When we took the coastal road it seemed the natural way to go. Away from everything away maybe even from the madness that had come upon us. Something about the time of year something about all the coming together had made us recognise in each other a need to pull apart. On the road we were each alone with trying not to think of what we’d done and at that time of year too.

Wrong is wrong and bad is bad but driving through the snow, winds at our flank that didn’t see us and kept going through it made the wrongness of it a matter of practicalities of lack of planning you couldn’t plan a thing like that though they might say otherwise if they could say. We stopped when we had to stop only long enough to put it down to timing, never longer.

Looking back I’m not sure either of us thought we’d make it but not knowing where we were heading makes it hard to judge. The coastal road stretched forever as far as anyone knew and as far as we planned we planned to go beyond that. When we rarely saw others they always wanted to greet us but eventually we put that down to the time of year and greeted them peaceably back. It was a bad time of year to have done what we’d done but we were always friendly. Took what was offered. Never more.

The coastal road went through the fir forest more than once and when it did bushes of holly far taller than I had seen before scraped themselves along our windows with messages we couldn’t grasp but felt we knew and he said without turning round this is only going to get harder to get through and as he said very little it was something I remembered. And actually the road took us back towards the sea that I liked to watch but that wasn’t what he had meant at all.

Looking back five months is likely longer than he thought we’d get at all. But we never considered turning back, only pursuing flight until we forgot what we were trying to outrun. We had a silence battered only by the sea and noisy coldness of the ground, we had a lack of expectations, we had an absence of hope so grand it didn’t need acknowledging. We cut ourselves free and yet refused to drift. We had both been heavy a very long time and then with all the coming together on the cusp of weighting ourselves down even more with food and comfort – ours or other people’s – we glanced across and caught each other’s need to pull away.

What takes an instant can prove hard to sustain. A thing to learn at nineteen. What takes an instant can be harder to shake off, that too. We took an instant and we dragged it out behind us as we drove the coastal road felt it bounce and shudder and scrape behind us as we went. We never looked but it was tethered there it swung wide with every corner pulling in the direction we wouldn’t go colliding with banks of snow that cascaded in our wake.

Now I am twenty and I see the road from June’s approach I am more hopeful for the flight. We’ll keep the pace and when we find ourselves at Christmas’s edge we’ll have got far past it by then.

In Spring the days are longer they give more time and light and once or twice I’ve seen him take deep long breaths I’d never seen before. Spring is busy with other things it asks much less of you and all the snow and wind that tried to block our way is dissipating and the further we go the further people are. The pace is exhausting and necessary but all around us things are waking up and taking flight casting off the things that held them to the ground. This sense of company is energising funny to have it now and not at that cruel time of year we left.

o          o          o

SARAH W

lives, works, studies and writes in London.

Sarah’s Christmas song for Open Pen: