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MONTGOMERY ROAD and other stories

Montgomery Road

I liked the way Montgomery felt in my mouth, like a sweet. Mont like a mountain, gom like a French eraser. I always loved that word, gomme. It was just right for its purpose. Unpretentious. And then the ery just rounded the thing off, like rolling an r. It was a good, solid word. I would call a cat Montgomery and he would not be called Monty. Ever.

I liked writing it, too. The tall t with its line across. Making it a cross, in fact. Reverential. A blessed road. Then the two tails, the g and the y, curling round confidently. I perfected the art of looping the g-tail elegantly round to the o. It could look almost Victorian, or like a flower.

M is a good starting letter. It’s the thirteenth one, which is unlucky. I hesitated over calling your sister Martha – but I had to, because it’s so solid and strong and old. I hope she wasn’t cursed. I don’t think she was. I looked forward to Mondays, was the only kid who did, because Monday started with M and felt safe and reassuring. And it wasn’t a double like those pesky Ss and Ts. Just Monday. A dark-bluey purple day that held no fear.

We could win Mars bars at school for good behaviour. They would never allow that now, of course. Health and safety and all that. They were good size ones, the sort you’d pay at least a pound for at the corner shop. I would have them to look forward to as I muddled through days starting with T. A t in the middle of something was holy and fine, T at the start was like a gallows. Which is ironic, if you think about it. You could get hanged on either.

Friday was red and sharp and scratchy. I would dab out big wavy ovals with my green and blue felt pens to cool down, like ripples or a cold front or a mountain on a map. I would use my eraser to blur them, making an inky mess and not caring. I would curl my gs and ys, cross my ts, start as many words as possible with M, writing about mice and muddles and Michigan and Milton Keynes. I would run home with a fistful of Mars bar, feeling vaguely triumphant as I sought the cool of our porch on Montgomery Road.

Something like soap

I can smell the grass through the window, across the terrace with the lilies. They were purple and coral and mauve and ours were only peach. I wanted cuttings, so much.

I can smell and taste butter, though whether it is in the same memory as the grass I don’t know. It may not be compatible. There may be one before and one after. Real butter, from Kerry, they said, though it was probably made in a plant in Dublin. It was too thick, too strong. It clogged my throat, my nose.

The lilies were with the grass and they were long ago. They stood on the terrace like beautiful sentries, like Japanese ladies lounging around their canes, oozing scent. Could they outdo the butter? Or would they work together, creating something like soap, something creamy and fragrant and sweet? Something that may actually have been made in a field of cowslips in Kerry?

No. They were different places and times. The grass and its lily loves were before. The butter and its tyranny were after.

What is now? The after of the after?

There’s no butter on the air. I think I smell jam. Raspberry, maybe. I liked raspberries as a kid; they were underrated and unloved next to strawberries. Not anymore. Forget purple lilies and yellow butter. The time of the raspberries is now, and they are pink like they should be. Not blue, like those daft Slush things so long ago.

I still want lily cuttings. I also want a Kerry calf. And a raspberry bush. I want to reunite all the timelines, the before and after and now and next.

But they’re fragments, scattered across the floor in a pool of incompatible colours, messing with my eyes.

And we know my nose was done for long ago.

Climbing the mountain

It’s Friday night. I leave France Saturday morning. I have to be out at half seven. I glance around at my apartment. Ready to go? Well, I only have most of my clothes to pack, all my books to cram into my trunk and a load of recycling to take down to the car park.

I shudder. It’s too much. I have the whole night ahead of my, anyway. I listen to some music to calm myself.

I finally accept, at around eleven, that I ought to deal with the rubbish. I shudder as I take the Walk of Death down the near-vertical, light-free stairs leading into the abyss of the car park. As always the huge, heavy door at the end bangs shut like a rock falling to earth and I jump out of my skin.

I sort all my recycling properly like a good citizen, despite the fact that others haven’t been so considerate and the bins are a mess of unsuitable items. I hear the famous door bang again and inwardly moan. What now?

A cleaner looms ahead. “What are you doing?” she asks, and I panic.

“Just sorting my rubbish.”

“Ah, that’s okay,” she says happily. What did she think I was doing, holding a satanic midnight car mass? I return upstairs to begin the second of many, many runs.

*         *         *

With my recycling dealt with I pack, and pack. And pack. One o’clock comes. Two. I have to be up at seven. Everything is a blur of exhaustion. Three. Both cases are stuffed. I begin on my rucksack. Four. I finally go to bed.

My alarm rings. I spring up, head spinning, grab everything and haul it out into the corridor. I’ve missed my desired bus. I’m depending on the last one that will get me to Perpignan Station in time. It stops up the hill from me. I grit my teeth. I will get there if it kills me. In hours I will be home and watching How I Met Your Mother while drinking Horlicks. The pain will be but a distant memory.

I get to the road, cross. I am now at the base of the mountain (aka mild hill) to the bus stop. The bus is there. My heart sinks. There’s no chance now. But he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Could he… be waiting for me? Surely not. French buses don’t wait. But this one is stationary. Time to climb a hill.

I grit my teeth and drag one bag, then another. The handles cut into me. Everything hurts. Home, I think. Horlicks. A couple of guys look at me with interest. Neither offers to help. I soldier on. I conquer the hill and start on the ten-metre trek to the bus. Still he waits. Either he is the nicest, kindest bus driver in France or he is ahead of schedule. Probably the latter.

Five metres. Three. Then I am on the step of the bus, panting, looking like an animal – but alive. I commence the quest to locate my pass. The driver shows no sign of going anywhere. Five minutes later another woman boards and then he pulls out. Looks like he wasn’t waiting for me. I am heartbroken. But I will find it in me to forgive him one day.

We arrive at the station with moments to spare. I stagger in, trailing my bags, a triumphant snail. I will do it, I think, failure is not an option. I clank down the steps into the tunnel. Through the tunnel. Up the steps. The train. The doors are shutting.

I stumble and nearly fall, nearly give up and accept it as my destiny to sit there sobbing eternally, a martyr of the steps. Then I hear a British accent and two expat-ish women grab one of my trunks. I hurry up behind with the other, filled with a new, raw hope. My heroes. I sob out my thanks as they throw me onto the train.

I sprawl in the space between compartments, squashed against some kind of machinery. I have a seat reservation but the thought of going searching for it is laughable. I just slouch, gasping, as we fly through the countryside. No cowboy who ever hijacked a train felt more gangsta than I do right now. I have a final bag-tidy, leaving a couple of battered old English books in the train in the hope some cultured person will pick them up and think, “Sacre bleu! A book in English! I’ll keep and read this!” (And hopefully not “What is this cluttering up the train, let us throw it out.”)

The train stops. I trawl the bags anew through Carcassonne Station. Feeling more in control than I have all day, I march out to find the airport shuttle bus. It isn’t there. I check the timetable. It left fifteen minutes ago. I throw my hands up in the air (metaphorically, of course; I’m not sufficiently French to really do it). That’s it. Fate does not want me to catch this flight.

I call my mother. She calls me a taxi. I arrive at the airport, check in, go through security, buy a bar of chocolate. Two come out of the machine. I take one and back away, scared. I don’t want to be a thief. I come back later to see if the other is still there. It’s not. The same guys are hanging around, smirking. What a wuss, they’re thinking. I tiptoe away and sit. That seems like the safest option.

The flight is delayed and delayed. Finally I board. I sit and close my eyes and think, let this be over.

*         *         *

Soon it is and I am home watching How I Met Your Mother, drinking Horlicks and thinking, bloody France. Of course, it doesn’t last long. It never does. Days later I am researching Antibes. Antibes is pretty…

 

*         *         *

Announced as a New North Poet at Northern Writers’ Awards 2017, Elizabeth Gibson tweets from @Grizonne

A LOVE OF ART

By Toby Roebuck

I could capture a glance, freeze a smile, find emotion in the stoniest of faces, but I could never paint two people next to each other. Cheeks drooped. Eyes lost their lustre. Mouths looked like misshapen fruit. One person, fine. Two, and it all fell to pieces.

For years I thought I was doomed, worthy only to paint leaders of industry and family ensembles. Then I met Joe and Amanda Swallow. They showed me a different type of ‘togetherness’. It was a valuable lesson, delivered with subtlety and intelligence.

*      *       *

They arrived in Newhampton to little fanfare, taking up an average semi-detached next to the Post Office. As I took my morning coffee at the café over the road, I saw their belongings being unloaded: a piano, a pineapple lamp, a tiny leather rhinoceros that presumably functioned as a footrest. Eccentric possessions for Newhampton, somewhat bohemian, artistic even. They’d piqued my interest.

About a week later I overheard my neighbour Mary talking to the church-warden. Amongst the bulletins of local gossip was a reference to the ‘nice looking young couple’ that had moved into the thatched cottage on the high street.

‘Any children?’ asked the warden.

‘Not as far as I know.’

‘Well that house would be rather small for kids, I reckon.’

This kind of practical consideration usually comforted Mary. But her reply sounded regretful. ‘Shame,’ she said. ‘Not to have kids. Considering they’re such nice looking people.’ It was an odd thing to say, intimate yet judgemental. ‘But they are young,’ she qualified, as if generously accepting their challenging ways into Newhampton. I wondered how these people could bring out the aesthete in Mary, a woman of strict routines and overbearing pragmatism.

Every day for two weeks, through each morning coffee, I stared at their house without so much as a glimpse of them. I assumed they were afternoon people. Not up before ten, lounging luxuriously through the day, too young and bohemian to notice the morning slip into afternoon. I imagined them getting up late, pulling on Japanese kimonos, throwing their feet up on the rhinoceros and tapping open some quails eggs for brunch.

At the end of two weeks I relented to curiosity and put one of my business cards through their letterbox.

The next morning Joe called. It was about eight-fifteen. I assumed this was a rare early start.

He sounded understated, almost apologetic. I was expecting a bellowing Oliver Reed-style raconteur, or the sublime hushed tones of a fragile poet. But instead I heard a quiet croak inviting me for an ‘initial consultation’. I was disappointed, but still intrigued enough to sketch a quick prediction of them.

*      *      *

Two days later I was knocking on their front door. They greeted me, side-by-side, sharing equal space in the doorway. Mary was right – they were certainly nice looking. All cheek bones and slender wrists, arched eyebrows and lithe limbs. A slender, dark and elegant couple. To my mind, they evoked images of Middle Eastern vice: furtive meetings in the corners of souks; the flash of burnished skin beneath a niqab; Arabian nights and harems.

By Newhampton standards, their house had an air of the illicit. The rhinoceros was pride of place, commanding the room from a central position. Dark leather sofas lined the two long walls. A television hid inside an oak cabinet, as if embarrassed to reveal its true function.

Amanda invited me to sit on one sofa and they took their places on the other. They seemed to predict each other’s movements, as if their progression around the room was a choreographed performance.

‘We liked your business card,’ said Amanda, her voice thin and toneless.

‘Yes, we loved it,’ Joe added. ‘Beautiful little embroidered bits at the end of the letters.’ Although chirpier somehow, Joe spoke with the same dying whisper as Amanda. Their intonation was identical. Yet there was the tiniest difference in their style of expression, as if you were hearing the same tune, played on the same piano, but in different keys.

The conversation passed in an airy exchange of whispers and solicitous smiles. Their company was narcotic. Everything slowed down, clouded over, as if shrouded in incense. I found myself staring at them, taking in little of what they said, focusing on their faces and the smooth lilt of their voices. Their strange unity fascinated me. There was no boundary between them, no tangible divide, no place where one started and the other stopped. At one point I realized they were picking at each other, tugging at miniscule arm hairs and fiddling with the skin of hands, unselfconsciously grooming like baboons.

I left mesmerized and a little confused. I’d been in their house for twenty minutes yet knew nothing meaningful about them.

But without remembering how, I had committed to draw their portrait. Business had been agreed. I was due to return in a week’s time for preliminary sketches and photos.

*      *      *

I felt it was a positive move, a good deed, a sign of Newhampton’s inclusivity and openness. But when I mentioned my new commission around town, I was greeted with a mixture of suspicion, concern and contempt. Sheila Jones, who ran the florist, said the Swallows were snobs and had no place here. David Jones, my erstwhile drinking partner and Sheila’s husband, said they had twice ignored invites to tennis club social events. David, ever the faithful husband, concurred with Sheila that there was ‘something spooky about them’.

Jeff from the grocery shop was horrified when they inquired about home deliveries. Once he had recovered from the shock, he told them he was nobody’s delivery boy and they should come into his shop like every other decent member of the community. To his mind, the Swallows were ‘work shy poshos’.

But the worst report came from Suzanne Cleary, the wife of a local entrepreneur. She had seen them walking around like they ‘had just bought Newhampton in a game of monopoly’. She said they were ‘snooty weirdos’. Upon closer analysis, I discovered that her view was based on their tendency to walk along pavements one behind the other and not smile when someone passed them.

*      *      *

‘So how did you meet?’

They grinned at each other. ‘In Brighton. We were eighteen,’ said Joe.

‘Well that’s pretty young,’ I remarked. ‘By modern standards.’

They laughed. ‘Perhaps we’re old fashioned,’ chuckled Amanda.

Their laughter was restrained, as if the joke might offend me. I felt excluded. ‘Childhood sweethearts then?’ I asked uneasily.

There was no reply, just muffled giggles. I re-positioned my camera and asked them to sit a little apart, as much to break up the jollity as to get another shot. I’d been making simple sketches and taking photos for about half an hour. It was a useful way of gathering compositional ideas for the final piece. They were willing subjects, happy to re-locate to different rooms, bring in a lamp, sit at new angles, anything I wanted. But there was a sense they did it in body not in mind, to keep me happy while they got on with the more important work of melting into each other’s company. Their world seemed impenetrable.

I studied them through the viewfinder. ‘So you basically grew up together?’

It was intended as harmless small talk. But they stiffened at the question, bodies tensing. Through the magnification of the camera lens, I saw Amanda twist minutely and recoil from me. ‘No,’ she answered, staccato quick.

‘No, that’s not how it was at all,’ Joe said, bristling. ‘I grew up in Canada, just outside Vancouver, middle of nowhere. I was a teenage exile, you know. Came over here when I was eighteen and met Amanda pretty much immediately and that was pretty much that.’ Once Joe had accepted me, he proved to be an expansive talker. He still spoke in hushed tones, but would unfurl soft meandering anecdotes, seemingly for his own purpose as much as mine.

I stood up and looked at them. Without the framing of the camera shot, I was aware of how small they were. Even though both very tall, they were slight and without much physical presence. They looked lost in the room.

‘So we didn’t grow up together, you see,’ Amanda clarified. ‘Continents apart, in fact.’ She had the same ethereal delivery as Joe, but without his tendency to elaborate. Her speech was pithy and quotable.

I sensed their unease, reproached myself then wondered why. As the only other person in the room, it was reasonable to think I was the cause of their discomfort. But I knew I had stayed within the realms of acceptable conversation. Surely any awkwardness emanated from them, not me. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ I explained. ‘I consider myself to have grown up with plenty of friends from my late teens and twenties. There’s still a lot of growing to be done, so in a sense you’re growing up together. That’s all I meant.’

This soothed them. They edged apart. ‘Well I guess we did then,’ agreed Amanda.

After this faltering start things got warmer. The gap between us closed and I stayed for another hour. They even confided in me and shared private jokes. When I had arrived, the door to their world had been locked and guarded, but over the course of that hour, even if only by the tiniest of cracks, I edged it open.

As we moved from room to room, trying out new compositions and arrangements, I saw photos of them dotted around the house: beaming into the camera after a beachfront dinner; arm-in-arm on a ferry with Manhattan looming in the far distance; outside a house in a nondescript suburban street. Each photo became an excuse to glean information. I learnt that they’d moved around the world, never living anywhere for more than a couple of years, mainly because Amanda’s job required them to, but partly because they felt the constant draw of the new. I didn’t pick up on Amanda’s job, but realised she didn’t work now. And Joe was self-employed, yet once again, his exact work eluded me. After a life of roaming, they saw Newhampton as the perfect place to settle.

I could see they had lived separate from the world, moving through it yet apart from it. They made no comment about the places they had lived, only how the two of them felt there. Madrid brought out the chef in each of them. Johannesburg made a nature-lover of Joe, but a shopaholic of Amanda. Tokyo, alas, nearly made alcoholics of them both.

The afternoon was a success. I came away with several ideas for the portrait and promised to produce a shortlist from which they could choose just one. But more importantly, I had won their trust. It was only when I referred to them as a ‘husband and wife team’ that the palpable unease returned.

‘Oh, we’re not married,’ chimed Amanda. It was an unremarkable comment, yet she cowered when it left her lips.

Joe jolted forward, almost blocking Amanda from my vision, as if he wanted to obliterate her from this exchange. His eyes brightened and his jaw flexed. ‘Darling, don’t be ridiculous,’ he said cagily. ‘How can you say we’re not married?’

‘Oh I didn’t…’

‘We’re not technically married. But, you know, de facto married.’ Joe’s gaze bore into me as though fixing the truth of this statement in my brain.

‘Like common law husband and wife,’ I said.

Joe leaned back, putting Amanda back in my vision. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Like that. You got it in one.’

‘We’re married,’ confirmed Amanda, finality in her voice.

Their coolness returned. I’d edged open the door to their world just an inch too far and they had kicked me back over the threshold.

I photographed them for another five minutes, just to finish in a civilized manner. They didn’t utter a word and stared vacantly over my head.

Thankfully, the spiky atmosphere dissipated before I left. As I stood in the hallway gathering my coat they imparted personal details without reservation. With no prompting, and barely in context, Joe told me about his teenage rock band. As I kissed Amanda goodbye, she said she loved my accent because it sounded like her first boyfriend.

*        *       *

My problem painting couples was long-standing. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I had never been able to do it.

It started with the positioning. I could never place them at a realistic distance from each other. It sounds easy. But the smallest error creates a stiffness that infects the entire picture. A beaming subject becomes a creep when the person next to them is sitting too far away, or too close, or in a position that defies the laws of perspective. And once you know the positioning is wrong, your hand turns to lead, the lines lose their fluency, and every feature, every scratch and shade, is a crime against the unsung art of two-person portraiture. Singles are easy. Ensembles too – people merge, shoulders overlap, and in many ways the group becomes one entity. But with two, they need to be distinct, yet together.

*         *         *

I soon realised that Joe and Amanda had taken up permanent residence in my head. They didn’t occupy my entire mind, but at any one time, to differing degrees, they were present in my thoughts. At more idle moments I would fall into self-absorbed ruminations on them. Even at my busiest moments – mixing paints, filing tax returns, sweet-talking clients – Amanda and Joe never left my mental landscape. They crept back into the peripheries, found a foothold, took up position and made sure I could never ignore them.

*         *         *

After a few days, still with no answers, I found myself having dinner with them. They wanted to see the shortlist of compositions I had selected for the portrait. As they said in their hand-written invitation, ‘it would be more convivial to make the choice over dinner’.

It was a delightful affair. I sat in the kitchen on a high stool while they cooked and chatted to me over their shoulders. They seemed to divide their time perfectly between the food and me. Perhaps I was a little drunk, but I thought they were trying to communicate a deep self-truth through the Van Morrison album playing in another room.

Over dinner we talked of travels, picking up the trail of each other’s stories, embellishing them with our own experiences. When I spoke of my trip to Kyoto, Amanda remembered the winter weekend she spent there searching for cherry blossom that didn’t exist. Joe talked of his childhood in Vancouver, which reminded me of a skiing injury picked up there five years ago. We all shared the pain of using the train network in America, a country that despises anyone without a car. I was struck, once again, by how little fondness they had for the places they had lived. They spoke as if every city had oppressed them.

In the smooth flow of the evening I was free of the previous days’ anxieties. By the end of the main course, as Amanda took away our plates, we were held in a state of calm.

Excusing myself for a toilet break, I took a wrong turn and found myself in their bedroom. It couldn’t have been more ordinary: heavily pillowed king-size bed; mirrored dressing table; clothes loosely tossed over a chair. The room was full of framed photos, standard statements of happy coupledom. But one stood out. It hung alone in a corner. It showed a boy of about six standing arm-in-arm with a girl of roughly the same age. They were in a garden, toys strewn behind them, late summer sun casting long shadows. Their postures were immediately familiar – bodies straight and leaning inwards, a barely perceptible space between the hips, tops of heads almost touching, faces held in identical grins, serene in each other’s company. Even through the puppy fat I could see the dark luminous skin and angular features of Joe and Amanda. I briefly thought it could be their children. But genetics is not that simple – parents don’t just replicate themselves. I was looking at my hosts together as children. So why did they tell me they met aged eighteen?

I returned to the dining table resolved to never talk about the history of their relationship. There was too much dissonance, too many conflicts and clashes. Every time I inquired, they either lied to me or made me feel guilty for asking. I was happy to respect their privacy and ignore what I’d seen.

But as I took my seat, I had the overwhelming sensation that I was being patronised. I looked from Amanda to Joe, then back again, and saw nothing but mockery. They greeted me with such glassy-eyed grins, such condescending geniality, that I declared to get to the bottom of it once and for all. It may have been their life, and they had every right to exclude me, but I wouldn’t be lied to.

I settled in my seat, dessert spoon clenched like a relay baton. ‘So you met when you were eighteen?’

‘Sure did,’ confirmed Joe, leaning over his lemon tart.

‘Interesting.’ I paused. ‘I saw the picture of you as children in the bedroom.’

Their faces sank and the air went cold. They flashed glances at each other, but said nothing. I assumed there would be a normal explanation and had expected them to casually justify the lie. But their stiffness, and their scared gazes, told me otherwise.

In a flash their furtiveness disappeared and their faces froze in defiance. I knew why. Having trespassed into their room, this was morally ambiguous territory. ‘It was a mistake, I got lost,’ I clarified, determined not to be knocked off path. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I was looking for the toilet.’

No response, just fierce glares.

Joe finally broke the impasse. ‘Yes, that’s right.’ His voice returned to the tentative murmur I heard when he first phoned me.

‘What’s right?’

‘We knew each other as children.’ It was incongruous, this fragile croak coming from an aggressive face.

‘So why tell me you met later?’ I heard a quivering belligerence in my voice. ‘Not that it’s any of my business. I’m just curious,’ I said, attempting to soften the tone. ‘But why did you lie to me?’

‘We didn’t lie.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘We did meet when we were eighteen.’

‘Right. But you also knew each other as children?’

Joe put his hand on Amanda’s arm. She looked at him, sunken-eyed, tired and resigned. Her lips mouthed something, but I couldn’t make out the exact words. Having gone over it many times since, it was either ‘I love you,’ ‘Go on’, or ‘Not now’.

‘Exactly. We grew up together.’ Joe squeezed Amanda’s arm and pulled her towards him, drawing her head into his chest. ‘And we met when we were eighteen.’

In that moment I saw the contradictory truth of their lives and knew, for them, nothing could be more normal. It was as if a dirty light had been cast on everything. As Amanda sank into Joe’s chest, and their breathing synchronized, I remembered the way they picked at each other’s arms, the eerie mirroring of each other’s movements, the points of facial commonality, the merging of two physical presences in the camera lens.

I gathered myself. ‘And what about Canada? I suppose you were never there.’

Joe released snorts of laughter. ‘That’s actually true. I moved there when I was five.’

‘He went there with dad,’ said Amanda, head still lodged in Joe’s body.

‘And she stayed with mum in Brighton.’

*       *       *

Two people can be hewn from the same rock, divided and split apart, yet materially the same. And once you know that, once you see a couple as just two identical people, it’s easy to draw them together. These days, as I look at two potential subjects, I just think of them as the same person, whole and yet distinct, seeking to converge. And the rest flows from there.

I thank the Swallows for that lesson every day of my working life.

*        *        *

I waited ten days before painting their portrait. It wasn’t that I needed time to accept. I just needed space to grow. My method of perceiving had been challenged and I needed to recalibrate my sight.

The sessions themselves were calm and purposeful. It took two days, which is quick by any standards. It was one of my best, and certainly my first successful couples portrait. The Swallows thought I had ‘captured something indescribable’. I knew what they meant, but they were wrong. It’s perfectly describable. It’s called ‘union’.

They were very physical during the sessions, frequently caressing and hugging. But it was neither a challenge nor a careless slip. It barely registered with me. In fact, if anything, I felt pride in being privy to a secret.

My relationship with them settled into one of quiet understanding. I was not at all shocked or repulsed. I was drawn to their outsider status, impressed by their isolated happiness. We never became close but regularly enjoyed each other’s company, discovering a shared love of food, walks and, of course, art. In their tastes – Miro, Goya, Valazquez – I sensed a tendency for the macabre, not to mention an obsession with all things Spanish, no doubt picked up in their brief stint in Madrid.

Their relationship was only discussed on one other occasion. It was towards the end of a drunken dinner and the conversation had turned to the joys of solitude. I was extolling the virtues of living alone when Joe, with no preamble, said, ‘That’s why we told you.’

Puzzled, I asked him what he meant.

‘That’s why we let you in, back when you painted us. We discussed it, you know, before you forced it out of us. Well, once Amanda had let the cat out of the bag we could see how freaked out you were and we thought about how best to – ’

‘So why me?’ I interrupted, desperate to see myself through another’s eyes.

‘You’re a loner. You don’t quite fit in here.’ Joe smirked, relishing the shock of this statement.

Amanda smiled indulgently. ‘Yes,’ she added. ‘You reminded us of ourselves when we were kids living apart.’ She thought about this. ‘Apart from everything.’

Joe looked amused. ‘But of course we had no idea if you’d be okay with it. You could have been a raging fascist for all we knew.’ He rolled his eyes mockingly at the prospect. ‘But there was something….’ He trailed off, not needing to say the rest.

They left after two years. It had been low-key. I was their only friend and beyond me they had few acquaintances. They wouldn’t tell me where they were going next. They never stayed anywhere too long and never maintained old contacts, they said, to keep their world fresh from the past.

They promised to write, but only did once. It was the first Christmas after they had gone. I received a simple card, a watercolour robin on a tree. Inside, the generic greeting read: ‘Thinking of you at this time of togetherness.’

*        *        *

Toby Roebuck is a documentary-maker from London who writes short stories in his ever decreasing spare time. He’s had stories shortlisted and longlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize. This is the first he’s had published in an online magazine. He tweets at @TobyRoebuck1

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Open Pen Summer Party poster

London’s Open Pen

The Open Pen Issue Nineteen is an austere brown. We’ve ditched the uncoated covers this time round for a satin laminate. It is an ode to the eighties. Cover author Rob True said it remind him of his runaround Vauxhall Viva from that decade. I too had a brown car in the eighties. Or at least my mum did. When I think of that Skoda I think of sitting in a queue of smog waiting for the Woolwich ferry, dad’s smoke plumes filtering back, our little bodies baking, improbable orange sponge but ursting out of torn black pleather seats like record breaking tumours. Shining Happy People compounding our misery. All day afternoons. Endless queues of cars.

It’s quite by chance that Issue Nineteen is so very eighties to look at. Yet there is something of retrospection in its fiction. Holly Watson’s ‘Coventry Conch’ blog is an ongoing gonzo memoir of childhood in the nineties. We’re chuffed to have taken the instalment ‘Aunty Mandy’, which sees little Holly at the centre of a real life adult break up.

Leo X. Robertson’s ‘The Other Half’ is a jarring account of a woman who wakes up to discover that her boyfriend now has half a face. There’s a sort of  The Thing-like quality to this yucky tale.

‘A Little Action’ by Craig Ledoux comes to us from New Hampshire, USA. Sexuality and death gets all mixed up in this brutalist short.

Siobhan Denton provides a flash recollecting an occurrence in youth in which “the rumour long outlived the reality.”

Susannah Heffernan’s speculatively fictional transcript ‘Computer Says’ imagines a world in which criminals are counselled by Intro-Neural Behaviour Therapy devices.

And it’s a flash fiction story that takes the cover spot too (for the first time since Issue Thirteen). A congratulations to Rob True. He’s our kind of writer: he has his own voice, and is writing from a place that we’re rarely afforded the opportunity to read. ‘Up the Silver Cord’ is a dank little thing, its protagonist in Theron a deranged abuser, haunted by a sneak of an extra terrestrial in a deck chair.

N Quentin Woolf is our regular contributor. It is, by now, we imagine, no shock that we’re really into Woolf’s writing. “Death Star” is brilliant. Abyss to bliss in under 1000 words. Brilliant. Read it and tell us otherwise. Double dare yas.

Should also thank our cover illustrator Josh Neal. There are few illustrators that get on with the job in hand as gleefully when the job in hand is to be bordered in poo brown.

Farhana Shaikh writes our guest editorial. Shaikh is the Penguin/Travelex Next Great Travel Writer of 2017. We hope her guest ed gets through to you. “Scare yourself,” she advises writers. She’s right.

Finally, bookshops do us and our writers a very un80s like favour: they stock Open Pen, a free short fiction magazine. If you can afford it, buy a book when you pick up a free copy of Open Pen. Keep us stocked. Keep giving us the opportunity to provide a platform for up-and-coming writers with something to say.

If you can’t get to one of our stockists, you can now subscribe to Open Pen (free, but cost of post and packaging).

It’s worth pointing out that Open Pen is not-for-profit. We do this out of our own pocket, by selling space to advertisers (like the awesome Mslexia), and selling copies of our book, The Open Pen Anthology. We are not backed by anyone other than ourselves. We are not funded by any arts council. Nor have we ever been. We have just about enough time to make this mag. We choose that over the time it takes filling out funding applications because we have to choose. Maybe one day we will be funded, but for now we’ll go about publishing short stories with bite from writers outside of the usual pool the way we always have down, with a determination to see these writers in bookshops. Help keep our mag free and affordable. Buy the book if you don’t have it, and shout far and wide about Open Pen. Read, write, SUBMIT.

Sean Preston.

Editor-and-a-bit of-a-chief

Beter than all that… Consider this: http://m.redcross.org.uk/en/Home/About-us/News/2017/June/London-Fire-Relief-Fund

ISSUE NINETEEN OUT SOON

And it’s brown. Yes, brown. Poo coloured.

But also chocolate.

In Issue Nineteen you’ll find cover author Rob True, Holly Watson, Craig Ledoux, Siobhan Denton, Susannah Heffernan, a guest editorial from Farhana Shaikh, and of course N Quentin Woolf is on duty too, ever the nightwatchman of Open Pen’s pages.

Congratulation to those writers, and thanks to everyone that submitted. The shortlist ain’t so short these days, it takes some really gut-churning calls to leave out so many interesting pieces every issue. Please do keep submitting. (Maybe we should do something worthwhile like double our page count for Issue Twenty.)

More soon on when to expect Open Pen Issue Nineteen to hit shops. Until then, Charlie Brown being sad.

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PODCAST: Pencast: Episode 1

pencast_ep1

“A BRANCH MADE OF AUDIO”

(listen here – Podbean)

(listen here – iTunes)

Fiction: ‘Gettier Problems’ by XANTHI BARKER
Fiction: ‘Haunted’ by ROB TRUE
Fiction: LIVE- ‘Coventry Conch’ by HOLLY WATSON
Poetry: ‘A New Noise’ by DANNY KENT
Poetry: LIVE – ‘Independence day’ by PIERS PEREIRA
Fiction: ‘Still Got It’ by ALLIE MOH
Fiction: EXCERPT – ‘Oh No! A Bank Robbery Fuck!’ by FOYE MCCARTHY
Poetry: Empty Words by MARCIN LISZKIEWICZ
Interview: SEAN PRESTON talks to THOM CUELL of DODO INK

Untitled

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.

REVIEW

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:

Signal FailureI 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.

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Buy Signal Failure

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY IS UP FOR “BEST REVIEWER’ IN THE SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017.

VOTE SCOTT HERE.

VOTE SCOTT

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’.

 

REVIEW

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.

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