There was barking. A whole lot of barking. And I’d had a glass or two with lunch and I was laid back on my bed. My wife started screaming. My son called my name. There was a fox in the garden. I didn’t put my shoes on, the grass was dry. There was the dog, with the fox cornered. All I could see was the nose and the mouth and those fucking long teeth. The fox with its teeth opened wide like some weird fish, the fox sheltered under some planks of wood where it was now cornered, not really moving, snapping its funny little mouth. The dog wouldn’t come to me, it wouldn’t budge. Was going crazy. And the fox was no wolf. Funny how a terrier comes to life, it just had the fox cornered, and darted in and out keeping it right where it was like a boxer with an opponent on the ropes. A real pro. This had been going on for 40,000 years. The dog wanted me to make the kill, she had the beast right where we needed it, all I needed to do was get a stump of wood and brain the little fucker. I got the stump of wood, and pulled the planks back, making a big show of it so that the beast had a chance to make a get away. I wasn’t down for a killing. Chaos. The fox ran, the terrier chased it, I chased the terrier, the terrier bit the fox’s legs as it squeezed through the fence – that fox was a miserable looking beast; it was old, and missing clumps of fur, its tail thin and matted – stubbornly it shook its body, and kicked, and freed itself from the terrier and dragged itself though the fence into the long wild grass of the garden next door where it disappeared. And even though it was old, battered, and worn, it had remained sleek, determined, and hungry for life. And bold enough to save itself. The dog ran up and down the fence growling, and snarling, and tearing at the earth. A usually sedate terrier, given to parking its bones on the sofa, and chewing Pal, and sleeping all day long. And she calmed down, and then looked at me, the bitch’s eyes were angry, as if she was asking: Why didn’t you kill that goddam fucking fox? That dog had a foul mouth when she was angry you could see it in the eyes. And all I could think was: Didn’t that bitch realise it was the twenty-first century? That cornering and clubbing shit was over.
You couldn’t tame a fox, not in 40,000 years. It was either too stubborn or too smart. And a dog was a dog.
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Tadhg Muller was the cover author for Open Pen Issue Six, and an Open Pen Anthology author.
He is London-based Tasmanian, on his way to France. You can find more from Tadhg Muller online.
SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS (Scott is up for an award – vote for him here)
SIGNAL FAILURE (INFLUX PRESS) BY TOM JEFFREYS
Tom Jeffreys is a journalist/writer/curator with a strong interest in the contemporary Arts scene. Signal Failure (Influx Press, April 2017) is his first book, and as explained by its subtitle: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, it is a full-length piece of psychogeography about a walk from Euston Station in London up to Curzon Street in Birmingham, the proposed site of the as-yet-unbuilt terminus of a truly exciting national infrastructure project.
The book is great and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Signal Failure is well written and researched, it is informed and informative, and showcases a real and deeply intellectual interest in the many subjects it covers. This is a book about writing, about nature, about history and about regional identity. Jeffreys walks and talks and sleeps and reads, and Signal Failure is evidence of a great amount of effort and thought and it is thus a commendable and timely piece. To reiterate: I enjoyed reading it, and it’s important I make this clear, because the more I write about Signal Failure the harder I’m finding it to ignore the very angry way its politics made me feel over and over and over again.
I’m going to give a little sidenote on my personal opinions, and then come back to politics later, because if I don’t make a concerted effort to separate discussion of the book’s ideas from my discussion of the book as a book, ideology is going to get in the way. And Signal Failure is an impressive read and I don’t want to put anyone off it. I just happen to disagree fundamentally with what it’s saying, regardless of how much I like the way it says it.
Here we go:
I am 100% pro-HS2 and – I’m sorry Mr Jeffreys – Signal Failure did nothing to change my mind. I grew up in the West Midlands and have lived for most of a decade in navel-gazing London (with a spell in South Wales inbetween) and there is nothing that repulses me more here in real-life Kings’ Landing than the capital’s broad, constant, sneering belief that the rest of the UK doesn’t matter. The rest of the country does matter (unless London stops letting them vote), and what the Midlands and the North desperately need is the kind of infrastructure investment that London receives with regularity. HS1, Crossrail, Thameslink, Heathrow expansion, the extension of the Bakerloo Line, Crossrail 2 etc… HS2 would give Birmingham (and then Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow) massive piles of cash, huge amounts of jobs and enviable long term international connectivity. It is quicker to travel by train from central London to central Amsterdam (crossing THREE international borders, one of which is a SEA) than central Edinburgh: this could – and should – be fixed, especially if the UK doesn’t want itself to fracture along brexit-voting lines.
Right, while I can still stop myself from getting excited, let’s talk about Signal Failure in two separate and distinct phases.
SIGNAL FAILURE AS A BOOK, I.E. HOW IT SAYS WHAT IT SAYS BUT IGNORING WHAT IT ACTUALLY SAYS BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE WHAT IT SAYS AND I DO LIKE THE BOOK
Jeffreys sets off from the Euston Road on a crisp (love that adjective) November morning, and walks, close by the West Coast Main Line, out to the ‘burbs. He passes many different types of architecture and is direct witness to London’s long-standing historicity. Jeffreys strolls by churches and housing estates, old stations and new, and reflects on the city’s changing landscape and the way a very specific type of change occurs in parts of cities close to travel hubs. Combining impressive knowledge of both architectural and social history, Jeffreys talks us through the areas of London that will be demolished to make way for the HS2 tracks, setting the didactic, disapproving, tone.
The reader learns about the construction of the large, prefabricated housing estate that sits between the train tracks north of Euston and Regents’ Park, and the way it has changed over time. As well as detail of design, construction and demographic make up, Jeffreys offers poignant and personalised anecdotes about individual residents. He strolls on, and describes the change in architecture and personal interaction that happens as he gets towards greener spaces – people are unconfrontational by the time he reaches the suburbs, and people are even friendly, accommodating and interested in him once he’s out of Greater London. He follows the course of the Metropolitan Line and gives a lot of detail about the societal changes wrought by this metropolitan incursion into the Buckinghamshire countryside, repeatedly discussing John Betjeman’s 1973 documentary, Metro-Land.
The whole of Signal Failure is like this, really, looking at (often obscure) films and books and essays and artworks that tie themselves to the locations Jeffreys is beside and the ideas he is considering. These textual touchstones vary from the most famous works by household names (in a certain type of household) to limited edition poetry pamphlets published by independent presses. There is no smugness to Jeffreys’ discussion of niche texts, in fact he is quite egalitarian, imbuing no more significance to the work of John Betjeman than the work of, for example, Alan Corkish. Thanks to Jeffreys’ wide reading, he is able to write on a variety of topics with an impressive tone of authority, which is backed up by quotation and bibliographic referencing.
A recurring topic is an exploratory discussion of nature writing and its history, particularly that of its recent rebirth. By considering texts written by its foremost exponents as well as criticics, Jeffreys offers an investigation into the societal need for this kind of writing. He also discusses why it is so frequently a lone man, alone but not lonely, who voices these pieces. Other significant themes in Signal Failure include the creation of the motorway network, the redevelopment of Birmingham following the Blitz (with many references to the excellent Midland by Honor Gavin), the Beeching Report (anyone else remember this?), as well as poetry and prose inspired by travel and transport (not just nature).
Jeffreys tries wild sleeping, but is spooked by a horse on the first night (his intense fear of horses is a frequent source of comedy) and then tries to avoid the wilderness as much as possible. He sleeps the second night at his parents’ house in Amersham (his father a vociferous campaigner against HS2, even going so far as to regularly wear a sweatshirt bearing the slogan “STOP HS2”, which I kept imagining in the same style as “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX”, as they’re both phrases encouraging denial of something that other people would really, really, get to enjoy), and walks on. His musings – which are articulate and investigative – are enjoyable, and as a result of his textual analyses I ordered several of the niche publications mentioned. Jeffreys quotes from poetry and essay, from scientific studies and from fiction. He is a well read and intelligent individual, and his insights into the development of suburbia, the changing demographics and industries of the country as a whole and the contemporary art scene are all well-formed. I enjoyed travelling across the countryside with this witty and thoughtful man, his conversation a mixture of fact and opinion, journalistic knowledge gained from both personal interaction with strangers as well as desk-based research.
He describes landscapes and buildings well, and despite regularly chastising himself for his ignorance of the flora and fauna of the British countryside, seems to know a lot about the birds and mammals of his part of the world. This lack of confidence in his knowledge – as well an eight-month pause in the middle of the walk – successfully humanise Jeffreys, and characterise him as a fallible and engaging narrator. It is only when his thoughts and his writings veer too close to the unignorable pole of firm political opinion that he starts to lose me. Because all of the people who are anti-HS2 are – excuse my language – exactly the kind of privileged white southern dickheads you’d fucking expect, all of them about as interested in the long term good of the nation as Donald Trump is interested in the long term good of his.
AND HERE WE GO:
SIGNAL FAILURE AS BULLSHIT SOUTHERNCENTRIC PROPAGANDA, OR: THE POLITICS BIT
What makes a text didactic beyond forgiveness? What is it within a film or a speech or a book – one that is conspicuously trying to persuade an audience towards a specific opinion – that makes it dismissable as a cultural product? Or is there not one? Is it possible to praise the graphic design of wartime propaganda despite underlying nationalist (and often racist) rhetoric? Can one attend Futurist exhibitions without compromising membership of a left wing political party? Can a hateful poem be beautiful? Is it possible to enjoy Neapolitan pizza – a respected and praised national symbol of Italy – and be a UKIP-supporter? Can anyone who believes in representative democracy and the smoothness of capitalism comfortably sit in a room with the globalised face of Che Guevara pouting off a coffee mug? Can we watch Casablanca despite not believing in the holy purity of war? Can we be interested in accurate reproductions of the past and still enjoy Inglorious Basterds? Is it possible to believe that World War One was necessary and still like the poetry of Wilfred Owen? Can songs of religious devotion be moving to non-believers?
The answer to all of these questions is YES.
Everything and everyone has an agenda – to deny this is naïve at best, ignorant at worst. Every book you read, every film you watch, every breath you take: all are products of someone’s mind and thus someone’s ideology (especially ‘Every Breath You Take’). Most works of art are imbued with an ideology that most of its audience would describe as apolitical, but that’s because most works of art pander to an ideology that’s so tucked inside the status quo that – to an audience from that society – the ways in which it normalises and standardises the lived experience of that culture isn’t noticed.
Some works of art are a response against accepted culture, are a deliberate and provocative attack against normalised power structures in the real world. Texts like this are not considered propaganda, they are considered protest and are rarely maligned for their politics. Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot rests here – at least within its own ideology – as a book sticking it to “the man”, as a piece deeply emotionally invested in an opinion and relentlessly pressing that through every page. And its politics are deliberately and proudly unprogressive: Signal Failure advocates “radical conservatism”, it praises maintaining the status quo, stopping Westminster from ruining the retirements of “decent, ordinary people” (Farage’s phrase, not Jeffreys’).
We are asked to see HS2 as a bad thing because it will disrupt many people’s lives for many years. And many of those lives are the lives of successful, affluent, people who’ve moved to the Chilterns specifically for a peaceful life. It isn’t fair on them. But HS2 isn’t for these people, HS2 isn’t being built to improve the lives of retired people who already live within commutable distance of central London, it’s being built as an investment in the long term success of the country, specifically the parts of the country that have suffered from years of London and South East-centric policies.
By positioning itself, self-consciously, as protest, Signal Failure betrays a deep southerncentricism, grossly confusing the government’s decision to offend the retirees of Buckinghamshire with being Londoncentric. HS2 is for the North, HS2 is for the Midlands – it will temporarily disrupt the peace of the Chilterns during its construction and then they’ll forget it was ever a nuisance. With the success of HS2 the UK will be filled with skilled workers able to implement large scale infrastructure projects like this one, who will then go on to complete HS3, which won’t even be anywhere near London, a sign of solidarity and respect given from the country as a whole to the North.
The people Jeffreys meets who hate HS2 are all affluent, Southern, successful: they are not going to benefit from the trainline and they only want to stop it so as to help themselves in the short term. They are retired lawyers, doctors, scientists, etc: they are all elites. Their opposition is inherently selfish and should be condemned, not pandered to. I felt scorn when encouraged to feel pity for a person who felt suicidal because the value of their property might be reduced – so fucking what? If your self-worth is rooted in the price of your house, you should be seeking psychological assistance long before that number starts getting lower.
The construction of HS2 will prioritise the long-term future of the British economy and help it stop being so reliant on bankers in fucking smog-ridden London. Opening the UK up with high speed trains will make it possible to reduce aeroplane usage (why fly from Manchester to Paris when it’s quicker by train?), and will show that we’re a forward-looking, future-focused nation that wants to prosper in the real, modern, world, rather than a bunch of backwards-looking isolationists who want to sit in pub gardens drinking pints of bitter with spouses who are also their cousins.
Constructing HS2 will be a sign that Westminster cares about parts of the country other than the Home Counties and self-important London. Opposing HS2 because it might mess up some property values and a few fucking lakes is wilfully southerncentric.
For a bit of context, UKIP and the Green Party are both anti-HS2. If that doesn’t emphasise that being against this project is either irrational or atavistic I don’t know what does. “Stop HS2” banners, blotting the front lawns of racist bank managers and pothead geography teachers everywhere in the Chilterns. And the Chilterns, let’s be honest, isn’t even a particularly beautiful area of natural beauty, it certainly isn’t “outstanding” when compared to the Lake District, the Highlands, the Pennines, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and most parts of the coastline.
HS2 is an important and necessary statement of interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole, and I think it is telling that a book written in protest against it is a book about a man walking in familiar places, meeting familiar kinds of people and going out of his way to engage with people who share his opinions, but not those who disagree.
To dismiss Signal Failure as propaganda, even in my best (long repressed) Brummie accent, would be churlish, because Jeffreys’ book is deeply engaging, and even when I disagreed with it, I felt something very strongly. I was exasperated by the characters who spoke out against the planned railway and irritated by the swift writing away from any conversations with opposing viewpoints.
BUT – and this is important – it doesn’t matter that me and Jeffreys (no, I don’t mean “Jeffreys and I”) disagree on HS2, because I have a huge amount of respect for his production of this informative, witty and engaging book. Signal Failure was a great read for me, so I imagine it will be book of the year for anyone who – like Tom Jeffreys – actively hopes the entire country north of Oxford will become cholera-filled slums filled with little toad men by the year 2050.
Truly, a great book. But one filled with despicable, southern-centric, politics.
* * *
SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY IS UP FOR “BEST REVIEWER’ IN THE SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017.
The following is a word from our resident bush-pissing reviewer Scott Manley Hadley
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PLEASE VOTE FOR SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY AS BEST REVIEWER AT SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017
Scott Manley Hadley is Open Pen’s resident indie books reviewer and he’s been shortlisted in the Best Reviewer category at this year’s Saboteur Awards. To win this prestigious award, however, he needs YOUR HELP, as he’s up against people who write and review for like TV and radio and stuff! That’s right, this is your opportunity to stick it to “the man” by helping a [comparatively] unsuccessful middle class white person beat some [comparatively] successful middle class white people to an award! #breakthewheel
But why should you vote for Scott Manley Hadley? “Who is he and what has he done for me?” you ask. Why does he deserve to win? Let me tell you:
Scott Manley Hadley is a “literary lifestyle blogger” who has been publishing book reviews on his personal blog, Triumph of the Now, since 2013 and for Open Pen since Summer 2016. He believes that biographical criticism is not just valid but essential – if he was being pretentious (which he’s trying hard not to be), he’d describe himself as a “post-Barthesian critic”. He believes that the experience of reading literature is deeply rooted in the mood and circumstances of the writer (obviously) but also the reader: a bad book is cut a lot of slack if you read it on a beach, while a great work of literature crumbles to nothing if you try to read it while commuting, going through a messy divorce or when too wasted to concentrate.
As well as his prose reviews, Scott Manley Hadley has recently begun producing a lo-fi literary magazine web series, Triumph of the Now TV, with guests including Ros Barber (academic and writer of The Marlowe Papers), Hermione Eyre (journalist and author of Viper Wine), Faruk Sehic (Bosnian poet & novelist, winner of the EU Prize for Literature), Eley Williams (author of Attrib. and Other Stories) and Open Pen editor (and former [semi-]professional wrestler) Sean Preston. Winning this award will help him to secure even more exciting guests for his web series and get even fresher, newer, hotter takes on the great fiction that is currently pouring out of indie presses in the UK.
Why will it be good for Open Pen if Scott Manley Hadley wins this award? Because (other than winning awards itself) nothing makes a publication look better than its regular contributors winning awards. This is win-win-win-win, so please, please, please vote for him.
Once you’re ready to get down to doing it, click here. If you’re uncertain what to vote for in other categories, we heartily recommend Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams in ‘Best Short Story Collection’ and An Unreliable Guide to London in ‘Best Anthology’.
SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
HAPPY ENDING NOT GUARANTEED (ARACHNE PRESS) BY LIAM HOGAN
Liam Hogan’s Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is a collection of short stories fresh and new from Arachne Press. With only 156 pages and 27 stories contained within, these are short stories that are actually short stories, not collated novellas masquerading as such. Which – for me – is a blessed relief. Short story collections are almost always hit and miss, but when the average story is only six pages long, that doesn’t matter. In a short story collection where the stories are actually short, there’s no space to get bored, tired, frustrated or disappointed. When a short story collection doesn’t include ANY stories longer than 13 pages, we’re onto a winner. And when every story is a high concept, playful idea riffing on classical mythology, contemporary sci-fi and historic fantasy, there’s no shortage of new ideas and new images to keep a reader entertained.
Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is good fun, it contains stories about witches, demons, banshees, kings, swords, genies, telepathically-connected twins, sinister scarecrows and all manner of other villains and heroes plucked and dragged out of fantastical tales from throughout time. We read about the secret extra emergency service that sorts out problems deemed as ‘Miscellaneous, Spooky, Weird’ in a story that includes spells cast from smartphones; we read about cruel medieval kings who set elaborate punishments for their enemies and destructive tests for their potential wives; we read about the blacksmiths who make magical swords and how their work is made harder by the highly gifted magical baby growing in the womb of the younger blacksmith’s wife; we read about an ex-soldier unable to help a farmer repel a gypsy’s curse; we read about the parts of the world that remain after the apocalypse, and how tiresome – and incestuous – eternity gets…
There are scary stories and exciting stories, poignant stories and happy stories. Some are funny, some are tense, some are silly, some are very original (though usually within the confines of pre-existing genre framework) and others are riffs on well-known characters (i.e. Snow White retold from the perspective of the dwarves, Ebenezer Scrooge a few years after his night with the ghosts, the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland explaining his tardiness, etc). Some of the stories – especially the one about the torture of telepathic twins – are genuinely unnerving, and all of them retain a key central element of play. This is fiction that’s made to amuse and entertain, and that is both its real strength and its ultimate weakness. Hogan’s stories here are great fun to read, and they’re conspicuously uncomplicated, which means that to review them with much more vigour than I’m currently doing would be somewhat unfair. This is fun writing, made for entertainment, and it would be wrong to judge Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed harshly because of that.
The “NOT” of the title kinda gives the whole thing away, really – this is fiction that could be lapped up more than happily by a young adult readership as well as a “grown-up” one. And I don’t mean that as an insult, the last two films I’ve seen in the cinema were The LEGO Batman Movie and Logan (which is definitely for children, despite the violence and swearing). In this socially charged era, regression is the new normal: why, in a world with President Donald Trump, Brexit, the far right rising, etc, would we want to engage on an intellectual level with anything? People watch trash television and films aimed at those decades younger than themselves (#guilty) and don’t feel ashamed, so why shouldn’t we also take pleasure from reading playful tales about wandering mercenaries in a fantastical medieval world? Why shouldn’t we read about witches and demons and immortals using internet-dating sites and the devil’s guitar and executioners and mild horror? Why shouldn’t I or anyone else take a simple pleasure as and when it’s offered? There’s nothing to stop us, but shouldn’t we – as a culture, specifically the part of the culture that still fucking reads real fucking books – shouldn’t we be aiming to expand ourselves, develop our understanding and our knowledge beyond what it already is? All the bollocks like Brexit, Donald Trump, ISIS and like Marine Le Pen have happened because people like us fail to connect with reality, fail to grow up, fail to take responsibility for ourselves and the culture we’re a part of.
Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed offers fairy tales that are non-allegorical and fantasy shorts that scare you but do nothing else. I shouldn’t have spent my reading time over two days reading this, I should’ve been ploughing through academic essays about the current political climate, I should’ve been engaging with problems that exist in my life and the wider world and working out what I can – and if I can – do to fix them. I’m not saying it was pointless for Liam Hogan to write this and for Arachne Press to publish it, because the writing in here offers a solid few hours of distracting entertainment, and that’s an acceptable thing to be, to do, of course it is. But are we not slipping into a culture where we choose to engage with cultural objects that make us question nothing, that pose no difficult questions? Intellectual engagement isn’t the purpose of Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed, I get it. But is there any purpose in anything that doesn’t aim to make the world a better place, or at least help us stop it from becoming worse?
Distraction, OK, fine, it has its place. All work and no play makes whatever happens in The Shining happen (murders, right?). And without rest the body shuts down. Maybe we do need to let our intellectual minds rest, relax, fall apart in our backyards, because if you act like that bee acts, nuh uh, you’re working too hard. If you jog all the time you fuck your knees; if you do too much shagging it hurts to piss; if you do not sleep you start hallucinating (#hottip). We must rest, our minds as much as our bodies. So, in that respect maybe the distractions of fantasy and silliness are appropriate, are apt, are right. Maybe, in fact, Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is EXACTLY what we need right now, a book that asks no more from the mind than it brings emotion. Come and be scared, be amused, be excited – but without needing to think. Maybe, in fact, it is important that books are able to be both informative as well as relaxing. Maybe if more of the world’s dullards realised that books could be fun they might be more inclined to read some that’ll actually improve them. That’s optimistic, I know. But I liked this book and don’t want to seem like I’m attacking it directly. What I’m objecting to isn’t this book, but society itself.
I enjoyed Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed, I did. It is fun and funny, scary and exciting. It contains 27 consistently engaging pieces of entertaining fiction (at least, I presume they’re fiction, but you never know, do you?), and I’d happily recommend it to anyone looking for silliness, fantasy, horror and fun; in fact, I already have. However, I also think that before anyone wastes time having fun, we should look at halting what feels like an inevitable and international societal collapse. But maybe we should have breaks. Who knows?
I haven’t had a drink for five weeks. I am drowning in the horror I’m seeing through my unclouded eyes. Someone pass me a bottle. SMH out.
By Adam Kelly Morton
Producer Gaston Chevrey called me at a time when I was dead poor. Nearly all of my three-hundred or so dollars a week I was making as a waiter were being swallowed up by rent, credit card interest, and Milwaukee’s Best. In fairness, most of it was the booze. When I wasn’t waiting on tables, I was either boozing, or writing while boozing. The call came just after 11am on a blustery winter morning in 2006. I was in my cold, cat-smelling apartment, in my bathrobe, when Gaston told me that his film company, Shooting Étoile, was interested in optioning my play about school life called Hallowed Halls, to support their French language feature, Institution—and that he especially loved the scene I had written about a boy and his acne (one of the weakest scenes in the play, I thought). “How would twelve-hundred-and-fifty dollars suit you for that, eh?” Gaston said.
My first thought was that twelve-hundred-and-fifty dollars would buy me a lot of booze. “Lemme talk to my agent,” I said. I didn’t have an agent—apart from my mother.
“Whoa, whoa, agent?” Chevrey said. “Who is your agent?”
“Lemme talk to them,” I said, and hung up.
Getting a literary agent in Montreal is practically impossible. They aren’t into you unless you have done a lot of work—but you can’t get the work until you have an agent. I had already made countless calls, queries, and submissions only to get either a standardized rejection, or no response whatsoever.
In my new, leveraged position, I began searching the internet for the best French agent in town. While I was doing that, I cracked open a beer and called my mother to celebrate.
“You know what you should do,” she said, “you should find the agent of that guy who wrote Meatballs: The Musical.”
“I hate musicals,” I said, typing ‘Montreal, Agent, Film, Meatballs’ into the search engine.
“You are such a Philistine,” she said.
“Thanks Mom. Love you.”
“Love you too. Are you drinking?”
I hung up. I had located four agents in Montreal who dealt in French, including Émilie Bonenfant—the agent of Gru Garsupio, author of Meatballs. I saved her for last.
The first agent I called had a secretary who dismissed me the moment I said, “Hi, my name is Alan Norton and I’m a writer seeking representation. May I speak with—”
“I’m sorry. We are not seeking any new clients at this time.” She hung up.
It was the same at the next two agencies. I left messages with them, but needed a new approach. With the last agent on my list, the secretary answered, “Agence Émilie Bonenfant, est-ce que je peux vous aider?”
“Oui, hello,” I said. “May I speak to Emily please?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
I tried to sound like a big shot: “My name is Alan Norton. She doesn’t know me. I’m a screenwriter.”
“I’m sorry. Émilie is not currently seeking any new—”
“Yeah, yeah. Just tell her that the Shooting Étoile production company wants to option my script for their upcoming feature, Institution.”
“Give me one moment, please,” the secretary said.
Another pause. Muzak by George Thorogood. I sang to the tune. Lord she was lovey-dovey.
“Hello Alan?” a voice said. “This is Émilie how ARE you?”
She was so nice. Over the course of our lovey-dovey conversation, I put her on hold twice; both times, it was one of the other agents in town trying to get a hold of me. Word was getting around.
“People are after you,” she said.
“They sure are,” I said. I liked having people after me.
Of all the Montreal agencies, Émilie’s had the smallest roster, the biggest names, and charged the most: 11.5% commission instead of the usual 10%.
Mom was right.
Immediately I gave Émilie all the particulars of the script, and of my preliminary discussion with Monsieur Chevrey.
“I think I understand,” she said. “Let me talk to Gaston.”
Good, she had dealt with him before. “Yeah,” I said. “You do that, Emily.” I took a good pull of my beer and lit a cigarette.
“I’ll call you back,” she said.
For the next hour or so, I waited and drank more beer. When the phone finally rang, it was my mother.
“I hope she’ll make you famous like Gru Garsupio,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
Call waiting beeped. “That’ll be her, Mom. Gotta go.”
“Good luck, my only son. I love you!”
“Hello Alan? This is Emily how ARE you?”
She laid out the deal for me: instead of getting paid twelve-hundred-and-fifty for Shooting Étoile to option my script for Institution, I was going to receive ten-grand as a consultant, and my script was not to be touched in any way whatsoever.
“Are you satisfied with that?” Émilie asked.
I told her that I was, and busted open my last beer.
My first meeting at Shooting Étoile, HQ’d in a stylish penthouse office near the Cathedral, was with the Executive Producer, Martin (Marty) Lemieux, and lead actress Imogène Pétace. She, predictably, was tiny, bubbly, and beautiful. Gaston was there too, as was Imogène’s plump personal assistant, Véro(nique). The four of them—seated in huge, red leather swivel chairs around a massive ebony table—seemed genuinely delighted to have me in the room. Notepads and copies of my script sat before them, each with under-lined passages, hi-lites, notes, and side-notes. If there was anything I wanted—a cigarette, an espresso, a croissant, a scotch, anything at all—I had only to say so. I asked for an allongé, and Véro bounced up to oblige me.
Marty offered me a Davidov cigarette, which I took, and he took one for himself.
“Alan,” he said, “let me start by saying that I love your script. We all do.”
I smiled. Marty smiled. Everybody smiled.
“Here’s what we want from you,” Marty continued, “we want you to use your expertise to make Institution the best film it could be. We currently have investments of five-million from the Canadian government. We really want this film to do well, and we hope you can help us.”
I was thrilled to help them, and felt confident that we would win an Oscar, at the very least.
They had sent me an early draft of Institution; I had read it thoroughly, and made notes before the meeting. I told them that Institution was a good script, but that it was missing an important question; that rather than being just a sequence of events, our film should ask something of the viewer—to which they agreed wholeheartedly. I gave them several more things to think about, and to research. Whenever I spoke, they scribbled furiously in their notepads.
Afterward, they treated me to a smashing luncheon in a rooftop garden bistro in the Old Port. Beautiful, well-dressed people lounged everywhere, sipping fine beverages amidst potted cedar bushes. We drank several bottles of Margaux, and complimented each other on various things. I felt like five-million dollars.
Over the next few months, they would relay the results of our bi-weekly meetings to the director—an up-and-comer named Henri Gilles—and to his associate writer, Michel Courtemanche. I said to Marty, “Why not all meet together to save time?”
He agreed, and finally, we were all brought together into the big office: Marty, Gaston, Pétace, Véro, Henri, Courtemanche, and a few of Marty’s secretaries. Everyone was standing, coffees in hand, chatting away like Thanksgiving. Courtemanche’s wife Joanne was there too, and when introduced, she scowled at me. With the exception of her, and the always-introspective Henri, everyone was regaling madly.
Nothing much was accomplished at the meeting, but for a bottle of champagne after the coffees. It was agreed that I would accompany Marty, Pétace and Véro on a fun writing retreat in order to hash out new ideas, while Henri and Courtemanche would continue to work independently. On my way out of the office, I turned back to see Joanne, flute of champagne in hand, glaring at me some more.
The writing retreat took place on one of Marty’s estates in the Laurentians. It was a lovely late-spring day, and there were plenty of canapés and Montrachets. We discussed a great number of exciting inevitabilities for Institution, and Pétace and Véro wrote a scene themselves—involving two female characters having a laugh at (something to do with) panty hose.
It was all very la di da, until it was revealed that an English version of the screenplay was being prepared for me to work on. I asked Marty if that meant I was going to be actually writing, instead of just consulting.
“Yes,” Marty said, patting me on the shoulder. “A treatment. We’ll leave you to get started.” He then rushed off to play golf with Imogène.
As soon as I got back to Montreal, I called Émilie. I told her specifically what was happening, and she said she’d call me back.
Meanwhile, I called my mother. She was delighted. “I wonder how much they’ll pay you now,” she said.
“Me too,” I said, while pouring a Stella Artois into a pint glass.
“I guess that’s why that Courtemanche and his wife don’t like you.”
I stopped pouring. Mom was right again.
Another call. “Love you, Mom.” Click.
It was Émilie. She had spoken to with Gaston, and now, I was going to get five-grand for the treatment, five-grand on the first day of shooting, and another ten-grand once the film opened.
Debts gone. Perpetual Margaux.
They sent me a translated version of the script (having hired a translator just so that I could work in my langue maternelle) and I read through it. I thought for a long time about cutting out all the cheesy shit, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness, and the spoon-fed character motivations.
So, I cut all the cheesy shit, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness and the spoon-fed character motivations; then I added some characters who I thought were important to Institution; then I attempted to ask the question I felt needed asking; finally, I sent in my draft—minus the scene with the panty hose.
A few days later, Marty called a meeting that all would attend, including Henri, Courtemanche, and even his wife.
My script had not been well received; Marty wanted more action scenes where SWAT teams with battering rams smashed holes into the school; Gaston didn’t like how minimalist it was, and referred to the scene he loved in my original script—about the boy and his acne—as something to think about for inspiration; Pétace and Véro liked all the cheesy shit that was in the script, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness, and the spoon-fed character motivations, and wondered why I had cut them— they were especially distressed that the panty hose had gone missing; Courtemanche said something about my treatment being, perhaps, a bit untimely, and thought more time was needed for my treatment to evolve, considering everything it was implying, over time, and that, all things considered, that we probably didn’t have that kind of time—at which time, his wife smiled and nodded in agreement.
Finally, all turned to get Henri’s input. He was the director, after all. The final decision should remain with him. He had been staring in silence at my draft all the while.
“I think,” he said, looking up at the circle of compelled viewers, “there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. It’s true that we don’t have a lot of time, but I want to use Alan’s treatment as the basis for how the film is made.”
Nobody said anything. Outside, the Cathedral bell tolled noon.
I smiled meekly. Joanne was about to flip the ebony table. Little did I know, it was to be my last official meeting with Shooting Étoile.
Thanksgiving was over.
Months later, the new draft was sent to me by Véro. They had ignored virtually all the work I had done. Months after that, shooting on Institution began. I did not receive my next instalment of money, so I called Émilie. She said she would speak to Gaston, then call me back. I waited. Beers flew by. The phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, Alan? This is Émilie how ARE you?”
“Good… So, I spoke with Gaston Chevrey, and he said that Shooting Étoile don’t want to pay you the remaining money they owe.”
I took a sip of Stella Artois. “Why not?”
“Because he said the work was not good.”
“Yes. That’s what he said. I’m going to wait until next week then talk to him again. As far as I can tell, they are entitled to not accept the treatment you did. But for the five-thousand on the first day of shooting, they’ll have to pay you that, it’s in your contract.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to pay that either?” I said, watching one of my cats take a piss beside the litter box.
“Well,” Émilie said, “they have a grant from the Canada Council. And the policy of that grant is that if any kind of non-payment scandal happens, then the Council can withdraw their support. I’ll just tell Gaston that he has to choose between five-thousand and five-million.”
And that’s what she did.
I got my money, and spent it.
When Institution came out, it received brilliant reviews in the francophone press; the anglophone paper was less enthusiastic: their critic gave it one star, and wrote, ‘Institution should ask an important question, and it doesn’t.’
The night of the premiere at the Regal, I happened to be walking by on my way home from a lunch shift at the restaurant—where I had stayed for Happy Hour.
There were crowds outside the theatre, with red-carpets under the marquee, and the entranceway all lit up with big, rotating lights. I approached and looked through the window. Surrounded by cameras, more lights, and scores of people, there they all were: Marty, Pétace, Véro, Henri, Courtemanche, Joanne—even Émilie Bonenfant. All stood gaily in their tailored regalia, sipping Moët poured from magnums. Gaston Chevrey was there too. He saw me and held my gaze for a moment, then returned to the festivities and raised his glass.
I turned and started walking across town towards my apartment. The cats needed to be fed. All my tip money was gone, but I knew that the dépanneur across the street from my place had tins of cat food, and accepted credit.
Plus, they had twelve-packs of Milwaukee’s Best for only ten bucks.
* * *
He is the editor of The Bloody Key Society Periodical.
Find out more at www.adamkellymorton.com
By Alice Wooledge Salmon
Footnotes to l’Amour
1 — When ‘I’ll be there!’ (most promising words in the English language) has mutated to betrayal, the imposter’s birthday text, his 3-month, 6-month messages are best ignored. The certainty/uncertainty of silence fulfils the imperative.
2 — Garage forecourt flowers, pulled from plastic. Never more than the single, skimpy, even-numbered bunch, putting me in mind of a very old she-says – he-says: ‘The food here is terrible!’ — ‘Yeah, and such small portions.’ Should have alerted me.
3 — As did the descent from fascination: ‘You never release me from my tenterhooks, but sometimes you alter the position’ to chasms of mindful avoidance: ‘I can’t make a date in advance, it spoils the now’.
4 — Gratifying that his succession of how-could-anyone? presents should fetch so little at the car boot sale. Where my other discards did tolerably well.
5 — Approaching midnight, I turn off lights in favour of the lamp at the foot of my bed, and the plumped white duvet springs into view. Firm mattress, ample size, warmed by gradations of heat, embrace confined to the sumptuous, luxuriant, never-long-enough arms of Morpheus.
* * *
Trains that clatter east and west — Clapham Junction for Waterloo-Victoria, back and then beyond — flash along rooftops
______ layering the valley
____________ where brick terraces scoop descent
________________________________ from Lavender Hill
to the railway embankment across Battersea’s flood plain.
Stock chimney and party parapet, pitched slate and red ridge construct an architectural rug through whose sunlit fringe — chimneypots, aerials, bare upstanding branches — glide (or so it seems) the multi-coloured carriages of Southern and South West Trains.
Regiments of Gothic Victorian, corner turrets, low gables estate-badged with a fussy stucco meringue, and besides the solo cyclist, G1 bus and a pinned-up notice for ‘found cat’, desertion to comfort the apprehensive driver of a motoring-school Vauxhall.
Why no scent of coffee wreathing Nero Roasting’s warehouse peaks dropped between embankment and a further succession of tracks? Ages-faded, the stink and tang of street sweat and horse dung, outside lav and burning coal.
And so dispersed, every plume of smoke from locomotive and urban grain, the better to distinguish, from eastbound bus along Lavender Hill, Brighton trains as they green-skim the housetops and red-carriage streamers that exaggerate to Surbiton, clock a blue-livery fleet as it skates the way to Windsor: ‘Blue as in “blood”, in honour’, assures Gary at the Junction, ‘of Her Majesty the Queen’.
* * *
Alice Wooledge Salmon, an American writer adopted by London and Paris, produces essays and short stories for such as PN Review, The Guardian, Tears in the Fence, Stand, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher, and elsewhere. Her occasional subject is wine.
By Santino Prinzi
* * *
He’s Become Addicted to Green Tea
Not only has my boyfriend become addicted to green tea, but he’s addicted to telling everyone how addicted he is to green tea. He insists on telling everyone how he used to drink fizzy drinks all the time, but since drinking green tea I just can’t get enough of the stuff. It’s not as simple as that, either. No. Apparently, green tea has transformed him. And did you know there are several different brands of green tea, all of whom make their own quirky flavours. He won’t shut up about those too. His tastes started off pedestrian: Mint, Lemon. Then he spotted the Mango and Lychee, then the Salted Caramel. Before I knew it, the space beside the kettle had become overwhelmed by Strawberry Cupcake, Cinnamon and Apple Crumble, and Gingerbread; flavoured tea bags in boxes drowned the mug tree, so much so I started retrieving mugs from the cupboard instead of navigating around the stacks of green tea. Then, as if the physical realm wasn’t enough, my boyfriend started invading the digital world, sharing his #greenteaaddiction on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook; wherever anybody would listen.
But that wasn’t the moment I snapped. We were about to watch a film when he’d poured himself a fresh mug of Cherry Bakewell flavoured green tea (which I admit, after he wafted it under my nose, did smell fantastic). He sat down, took a sip, ahhhhhed, and said:
“Boy, you know, I used to eat cherry bakewells all of the time, and now, I’d much rather drink this than eat the cake.”
I muted the T.V.
“What did you just say?”
I’m sure the Cherry Bakewell green tea tasted as good as it smelled, but there was no way he could’ve meant what he’d said, that he’d rather drink the green tea than eat the cake.
He smiled and took the remote control, unmuted the T.V., and we watched the film without saying a word.
On his Instagram, my ex-boyfriend still posts pictures about his green tea addiction, though he doesn’t call it an addiction, obviously. He captions his images with #motivationmonday and tells the world he’s a different man, and I scroll past and think yes, yes you are.
* * *
The Copper-haired Girl
The copper-haired girl, noticing the first rusty leaf amongst the green foliage of the trees while sitting in the back of the car, tells her parents it’s the same colour as her hair, and she is shushed by their arguing, and they will never know how similar the two colours really were; the spider with seven legs that insists still on crawling across the laminated-wood flooring, determined to scare the copper-haired girl, and she is alone, holding the slipper, trying to face her fears because her parents are upstairs and she’s been told not to move; the copper-haired girl running down the stairs Christmas morning to find nothing but her mother sitting in an armchair smoking a cigarette, her eyes swollen – she thought she’d been a good girl this year, but promised Santa she’d try harder for next year, and her mother, voice croaky, promises to try harder too; the new house and the new start for the copper-haired girl and her family, where all the walls are magnolia and everything smells too clean – all this for the new baby boy who the copper-haired girl thinks smells like crayons but knows that isn’t it; the copper-haired girl lying awake in her room, listening to the screaming and the crying from downstairs, the frantic movements, and then the silence, and eventually she falls asleep, forgotten about, but safe; the copper-haired girl in the little black dress, not completely understanding everything that is going on, but knows she’ll never see her little brother again; the copper-haired girl without a single toy invited by her teacher to “show and tell”, even though the teacher knows she has nothing to share with the other children, so, behind her tears, the copper-haired girl shows her teacher something and tells her something else, mimicking what her mother did and yelled at her father the night he left, and the copper-haired girl’s mother gets a call home from the principal; the copper-haired girl thinking she is dying, and her mother isn’t home, so she phones the woman who lives in the flat down the hallway, who tells her everything her mother hadn’t; the blonde-haired boy who promises the copper-haired girl that he’ll take her away from all of this, and she yields, and in the morning she awakes to find herself alone; the copper-haired girl carrying two black plastic sacks filled with clothes, walking to her only friend’s house to see if she can stay for a while because her mother, though drunk, has kicked her out and she doesn’t know why or how this could happen; the copper-haired girl crying into her friend’s shoulders when the police inform her about her mother; the copper-haired woman – twenty-seven – without her womb, without her breasts, but still grasping her life as tightly as she can, sitting on the bus, hoping her job interview today went well, holding on to the dream she’s been chasing for as long as she can remember: tomorrow will be better.
* * *
The Perfectionist’s Secret
Everyone called Cassandra a perfectionist. Everyone called Cassandra a perfectionist because everything in her life was meticulous; nothing was out of place, and she was never out of touch with the world around her. She always had a plan, and a back-up plan, and a back-up-back-up plan, but something she hadn’t planned for was the bus hitting her as she crossed the road one morning.
“Smells like the sewers have vomited up in here, Doctor.”
“Isn’t someone sorting it, Moira?”
“I’ll check again, but the last cleaner said they couldn’t find anything that would be the cause of the smell.”
Cassandra could hear the voices, but she couldn’t see who they belonged to. She tried opening her eyes. Bright lights. Her whole body ached, and she shifted slightly where she lay. More sounds trickled through her ears; beeps, more voices, movements, but it was the conversation about smell that gripped her attention, and the word ‘doctor’. She must be in the hospital, though she had no idea why.
“Miss Valentina?” the voice that had belonged to the doctor swam through the fuzzy objects that were slowly beginning to take form in Cassandra’s vision. “Please, try not to move too much. Miss Valentina, can you hear me? Cassandra?”
The woman in the white coat moved from the end of Cassandra’s bed to her side. Cassandra could smell her hair: peaches, tinged with hairspray. But she could also smell something else, something rotting, decaying, and familiar to her.
“Where’s my bag?” she asked.
“Your bag?” the doctor looked over the rim of her glasses. “Miss Valentina, you were hit by an oncoming bus; you’re lucky to be alive.”
Cassandra tried sitting up. It hurt, and she managed, but she was filled with panic. She couldn’t fathom the idea of people finding out about her, about the real her. She’d become fond of her reputation as a perfectionist, and as much as she knew getting hit by a bus may tarnish that reputation, if anyone discovered her secret, she’d be ruined. She’d just be Cassandra, not Cassandra the perfectionist.
“I know, I know,” she winced, determined to speak through the pain. “I just need my bag, please.”
“I don’t know where that is, I’m afraid; it may have been left or taken at the scene of the accident. I’m sorry,” the doctor said as a woman in blue scrubs walked towards the hospital bed. Cassandra assumed this was Moira.
“They can’t send someone for a while, but they promise they’ll sort it out.” Moira then noticed that Cassandra had awoken. “How are you feeling? In pain, I imagine.”
There was a harsh bleep, the doctor scrambled at her waist, and unclipped her pager. “Let me know if her condition changes,” she said, and ran off.
Cassandra and Moira stared at one another, neither saying a word. She smirked, then drew the curtain around them both. “I know your secret,” she whispered.
Beneath the bedding, Cassandra felt her skin prickle and grow hot, felt as if someone was sitting on her chest. “Pardon?”
Moira nodded. From her scrub pocket, she pulled out a small vial of perfume.
“I mean, this isn’t yours, but I knew the moment they pulled you in here that you were the cause of the smell. I bet you have bottles of perfume everywhere, and your home filled with scented candles, no?”
Cassandra looked away, her eyes stinging. Moira came closer and spritzed Cassandra’s neck. The sour, decomposing smell dissolved, and Cassandra felt less self-conscious for a moment.
“Moroccan Rose, one of my favourites,” Moira grabbed Cassandra’s hand and they looked into each other’s eyes. “I used to have what you have,” Moira smiled, “and I and the doctors here know how we can fix you.”
It took everything Cassandra had not to cry; soon, she could be a real perfectionist.
* * *
Author Bio: Santino Prinzi is the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine, and helps bring National Flash Fiction Day in the UK to life. His debut fiction collection, Dots, and other flashes of perception, will be published by The Nottingham Review Press in September 2016. To find out more, follow him on Twitter (@tinoprinzi), or visit his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com
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