Wise Men Say…

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My childhood was dominated by memories of The King. Elvis Presley, Aaron to be more precise. My mother was in love. She was smitten with this hip-shaking, breath-taking, king of Rock and Roll. We were the family from The Commitments who could not conceive that there was anything better than the lip-curling kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, the voice of a generation before us and one that could not be beaten. Our commitment to The King was complete and it was cemented with our mother’s undying love.

At that point, we never realised that she had another love, one that could never be requited; Rock Hudson. 

I had a particularly bad singing voice. People would stop me in the street just to complain to me about it. You see I loved singing, but singing didn’t love me. Unless I did Elvis Presley songs. Elvis and I, I like to think, were joined at the spiritual hip. We were both working class lads whose middle name began with A (mine was for Andrew not Aaron). For some reason, and this may have been only me who heard this, we both sounded like each other. I would practice at night upon going to bed. It would start with something rocky like King Creole and then move into a couple of love songs, Love me Tender and Only Fools Rush In. that helped to set the scene. With each hip-rolling lyric I was being transformed into The King. I even learned to roll my lip the way he did.

In the sixties, Elvis started to become a little uncool. He started making excrutiatinlgy unbearable films (movies to my American cousins) such as Kissin’ Cousins and Clambake. Regardless of being an Elvis Presley devotee, I kept it quiet if I ever watched these on Saturday afternoons. I did like Flaming Star, a decent western in which he showed a little acting ability and obviously Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and…the list is not endless. Still, I believed that I was becoming Elvis.

My mother loved Elvis whilst my father mocked him a little. Dad was a Frank Sinatra fan and, possibly like me, saw much of himself in his idol. He would never admit that he followed Frank, it was not manly and was certainly not the done thing in working-class West Yorkshire. I tried to keep my Elvis to myself. My mother swooned when one of his songs would be aired on the radio. She positively melted when he was on TV.

“He can only sing certain songs,” my dad would goad.

“Shut up, you. you’re only jealous!” She would snap back.

On those bitterly cold winters nights, I would retreat to the relative comfort of my bedroom, pull an extra coat on the bed, leave my socks on, roll my head to accompany the rock that was to come, and then sing my heart out.

“Shut up!” The chorus would come, “Shut up and go to sleep before your father gets back from the club.”

My singing would then take a downturn into the hardly-audible. I was praying the words, offering up myself to a greater power, the living god of Rock n Roll.

Getting older meant that certain songs could not be sung. The seventies brought Glam Rock, Prog Rock and then Punk Rock. The King must have seen it coming and decided to make himself less and less visible. Ironically, during this time, he was becoming more and more visible through his love of all food bad. His weight shot up as his fame dropped   down. I still managed a neat impersonation of him singing, In The Ghetto. That was a rather socially aware number that I believed was socially acceptable, As The Snow Flies. I have never seen snow flies, but I think that they must be rather hardy little pests.

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On August 16, 1977, The King died.

I was in bed, drifting off to sleep. Too old to sing his songs without my parents considering the option of sectioning me in our local lunatic asylum. I could hear the TV from downstairs. Mum was watching it whilst my dad shared a few pints with his mates at the club.

I heard a long drawn-out, “Oh, no.” Quickly followed by, “No. Please, no.”

I knew he was dead. I went downstairs and found my mum in tears.

“He’s dead, Mike. Elvis is dead. It’s not fair.”

My sisters were both downstairs at this point and they joined he in the ritual shedding of tears. Even my father was sad when he returned. The King was dead.

That night, I tried to summon up his spirit and channel it within me. I could think of no better use for my defunct voice box than to become the conduit for King Creole’s magnificence. It didn’t happen.

My mum got over her infatuation and moved on. She was never the same with her affections and never openly declared her love for icons until later when her somewhat secret love was no secret any more. Rock Hudson, dashingly handsome and quirkily funny in his outings in Pillow Talk with Doris Day, died on October 2nd 1985. He died of Aids related illnesses after hiding his sexuality for al of his movie-star career. My mother sobbed. My father shrugged his shoulders.

“If only he had met me. I could have cured him,” she declared.

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In those days, they had no cure for homosexuality.

Nor for unrequited love. 

 

 

 

For Dark Winter Nights 3

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It was the freezing air that tried to enter. 

For a moment he stood, transfixed by what had taken place. The world had changed and it was waiting for him.

One small step and he was through the door. He wore only flimsy slippers, worn away to the bone. He wanted to turn back. He didn’t.

Under the slight shelter of his porch, he paused momentarily and surveyed the blank covering. It was simpler with snow. It was also easier to pick out tracks that could have been responsible for all of this nonsense.

In his eventual urgency, he had forgotten to take a torch, but a full moon rode the night sky and leant illumination. Snow covered contours, levelled slopes and shadow-covered hazards. It also betrayed tracks, or footsteps, of those that had been there. Yet, although he tried, he could not discern anything of importance.

He had always prided himself on his ability to track and to hunt. Little escaped him when he set himself to the task of proving his worth. In the old days, he had hunted the upper slopes and even the peaks. Both he and his brother ventured far into the higher reaches in order to win the respect of their father. They were as tight a team as any other on the mountains. No, they were tighter. But this didn’t stop their battle.

A year separated them, making him the second in line. Everything would go to the eldest. He had never considered this when they were younger boys, journeying into the winter lands and calling each other’s dare. Their challenges were frequent and forever evolving in difficulty. They liked to push themselves and each other to see what was possible. They had no mother to worry for them and their father expressed little concern. The boys could be gone for a number of days at a time, but there would be nothing of concern coming from the old man; nothing to suggest that he considered that there was any real danger. After all, hadn’t the last of the wolves been killed in his father’s time?

“Stop thinking about it!”

He had spoken these words out loud. He now spoke much of his words out loud. There was nobody to hear him, nobody to suggest that he was a crank. He could do as he liked.

“Hellooo,” he hollered into the vast emptiness and waited for his words to bounce back.

The exertion of the utterance had an unwanted effect. He was sharply aware that he needed to piss again. The house was behind him, further away than he had imagined. He didn’t realise that he had travelled so far away from it. Half a mile, he surmised.  Half a mile? However did that happen?

He had choices: he could turn back to the farmhouse now or he could just relieve himself out here. He could stain the brilliant white with his yellow issue. The idea appealed to him. He liked the freedom of pissing out of doors. He liked the potential offence that it could cause others. He enjoyed spoiling the perfection of it all. Just as long as it didn’t freeze his cock off.

He laughed to himself and started to extract his tool.

The piss was greater than ever. It flowed in an impressively torrential jet of liquid and steam. When it hit the snow, it cut through it like the proverbial hot knife; or, hot piss through snow. They had had pissing contests.

His brother prided himself on the unusual length of his member. But beyond showing it off at any chosen point in time, there was little else his extra inches were good for.  It was his, the younger brother’s item that could shoot faster and further, much to the annoyance of the eldest sibling. These days, his power was less, much less. The years meant that he needed to visit more, but those visits were very far from torrential; drips were all that occurred, drips and a bad aim.

“Tonight, I piss for the gods!”

And he did. He pissed so long and hard that the covering of already hardening snow completely relented and gave up its sovereignty. He watched it with wonder.

“Praise be,” he announced as his waters continued to part the ground. “God is great!”

He decided to leave his own name for everyone to see. Not until he had finished did he realise that he had spelt out, G O D . He laughed at his mistake. He felt that he could laugh until he died and that felt good, very good indeed.

It was the first howl that stopped him in his tracks.

He hastily replaced himself and searched the scene for the source. Some way off a stealthy shadow watched him, but did not move. It was the man’s turn to move. He was too old to play such stupid games and so, he set himself for the journey back to the house.

He had travelled only a few steps when his feet were lost from under him. He fell helplessly and face-first into the snow. He was dazed. He reached around himself to get support and something touched his outstretched hand. It was there in the snow all along and he had walked past it. But now as he pulled the thing towards him, he recognised a hand, a very old hand.

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This time, the solitary howl was joined by several more.

For Dark Winter Nights 2

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Beyond his window was winter. It had finally arrived.

A long-awaited smile cracked beneath the surface of his leathered skin. He inhaled the cold air that had perpetrated beyond the pane of glass…at Last. 

“So, you have returned to me.”

The empty world gave no response. 

He watched the frozen landscape, and the moon, impaled on the highest peak. This was how it was meant to be.

Finally.

Then, the noise.

He knew that he couldn’t be dreaming because he never dreamt. He was pleased that he did not wander in the nocturnal world of flotsam. He had never read a newspaper nor had he read a book. If he ever allowed the truth to be told, he would have admitted to not being able to read. It was a skill that was beyond him and one that he really didn’t need. A book was paper and it could be burnt, but wood was better.

The noise was from outside. The one that woke him seemed to be distant, but the one that he now heard was much closer. It was close to the house.

A long time ago, in his father’s life, there had been wolves that roamed these mountains. They would pick off lambs in spring; move in groups to worry herdsmen with their charges. And every now and again, at certain junctures of brashness and bravery, they would even attack dairy cows. He had grown up fearing these creatures whilst wishing that he could be given the good fortune to encounter one, face to face, in the open, an even contest of skill and nerve.

There was scratching at the door.

In the room above the cellar’s stairs was his gun.

It had not been used since the dog. Tonight he reached for it, took a box of cartridges, loaded, then made his way to the door. Whatever had been making the noise stopped so suddenly that he heard te echo of the space into which it had gone. He stood for a long while before leaving the night ot itself. He told himself that it was probably a stray mutt from the village below or a tourist dog that had decided to stay on for the winter. None of them went hungry when the tourists were around , but as soon as the season was over they were like vagabonds and scavengers, raiding refuse and even sneaking into homes to steal what they could. Whatever pedigree they were, to him they were vermin. His hand caressed the gun and his finger stroked the trigger.

Alive, he thought, at last.

 

The scratching was getting louder and more frantic.

Whatever was out there wanted to come in. Perhaps the sudden snap in the temperature had caused the creature to search for shelter. Perhaps it could be running from some other; prey and predator. Either way, it would get a shock. The gun was still firmly in his hands, cradled, one might say. He placed his hand on the key and turned it slowly. In response, the scratching increased. The door was now being pushed with a force that he had not reckoned on and he almost stopped, a shudder of apprehension warning him of the unknown. He had climbed the high mountains, survived the worst of the storms when others had not, and had outlived all of those who thought they were his betters. As the frantic activity continued to escalate, he opened the door.

Something pushed hard from without. It was but a momentary force, but he felt it.

“I have a gun,” he warned, regardless of the sense in it. Then he pushed it shut again and turned the key. His old heart beat a manic rhythm and he felt something that he had not encountered for many, many years; fear. He waited and panted away the panic.

Minutes moved as he leant his shoulder against the wooden divide. The beating of his heart was joined by a throbbing pulse in his temples. An urge to shout, to scream defiance, to offload his firearm into the timber, all demanded action. but he resisted.

Time passed and his heart slowed. The throb in his temples was now only a dull reminder of what had gone and the pressure he was exerting on the door eased. There was no scratching, no sound above a vague wind falling down from the peaks.

“Nothing, you stupid old fool. Nothing,” he reassured himself. “It was only the wind that pushed the door. That and your own imagination.”

Yet, he had no imagination.

What he could do, what he should do, was to open the door once again and shoot whatever had caused him to be so afraid. He remembered someone, some time long ago, saying that there was ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.  That was a good thing to say and that was something that he had remembered down the decades. Now the line came back to him and forced him to act.

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His hand reached out for the key once again. He forced it to be steady. He inhaled deeply and began to turn… 

 

For Dark Winter Nights

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If anyone had told him about climate change in the past, he would have scoffed. ‘Tree-huggers,’ he would have muttered. These days, that was different.

He was awake again. A full bladder told him that he not only had to visit the lavatory, but that he was getting older. This happened to men past a certain age. Things wore out. Things didn’t work. Others became obsolete. If anybody had dared to suggest that this would be him in decades to come, he would have laughed right into their faces.

The house was still. He had never married, never felt the need to have another share his bed. People who did that were weak. He had never been weak. He could look after himself. He always had. Now, at two o’clock in the middle of an unseasonably warm autumn night, he was taking care of himself.

He pissed long and hard into the toilet. These days, his aim was less sure of itself. No matter how well he targeted the big white mouth, there was always an offshoot. That was another thing that he did not expect in his advancing years. Piss pools on the floor. He would clean it in the morning.

Another year without snow. He remembered when it would start to fall as shaken by the hand of a clock. By November there would already be a thick covering on the peaks and ice would beset the higher roads that wound around them. By December, the higher passes would no longer be safe. By January, nothing moved above the summer’s highest pastures. Tonight was mild. Last night was mild. It seemed that the whole of last year was mild, but tonight he shivered a little on his way back to the warmth beneath his covers.

Something had moved. He was awake again, shot out of the oblivion of sleep.

He never dreamt. Some sound had occurred, something from further up the slopes. If his dog had not died, he would have looked for confirmation from its superior senses. The dog had been with him longer than anyone or anything else. In the days when it was alive, it would sleep at the foot of the bed and wake him with its soft mutterings.

Some people loved their dogs and treated them as if they were children. A dog is a dog, he thought. It is loyal and that is its value. To pretend that a dog is anything more is the type of modern madness that the people of the towns and cities indulge in. When he discovered that the back legs were becoming a problem for the creature, when it could not rise from sleep and showed signs of infirmity, he shot it.

Its body, he left in one of the high pastures for carrion.

He listened to the silence of the night and scoured its nuances to discover what had woken him. The night was blank. The rain had stopped falling. He could hear the stream flowing some way off. The waters would be cold, the offshoot of the glaciers that still managed to survive in the face of a warmer world.

He thought of the mountains and tried not to. He had not been up there since the time…

There it was again. The noise.

He had fallen into the first drifts of sleep when it woke him. His eyes opened and he sprung up. He had heard a noise, he was convinced. He wasn’t taken to imagination, never had been. This time, he would investigate. The bedside clock pointed out that it was three in the morning. It had only been an hour since his trip to the lavatory, but the temperature had fallen; dropped dramatically. His breath formed clouds in the cold air. His feet were bitten by the night’s new turn.

At last, he thought.

His slippers were deep beneath his bed and he had to bend to find them. His knees cracked and his spine rung out in alarm. The winter had finally arrived. Finally his exploring hands found what he wanted and pulled them towards him. He had to sit on the mattress and recover before attempting to slide his strangely blue looking feet into the relative warmth of his footwear. And then the noise came again. This time, he was sure of it.

He made his way to the widow and looked out.

The scene had changed.

 

To be continued…

 

 

Stephen King On Writing

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If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

When I was in the eighth grade, I happened upon a paperback novel by Murray Leinster, a science fiction pulp writer who did most of his work during the forties and fifties, when magazines like Amazing Stories paid a penny a word. I had read other books by Mr. Leinster, enough to know that the quality of his writing was uneven. This particular tale, which was about mining in the asteroid belt, was one of his less successful efforts. Only that’s too kind. It was terrible, actually, a story populated by paper-thin characters and driven by outlandish plot developments. Worst of all (or so it seemed to me at the time), Leinster had fallen in love with the word zestful.

Characters watched the approach of ore-bearing asteroids with zestful smiles.Characters sat down to supper aboard their mining ship with zestful anticipation.Near the end of the book, the hero swept the large-breasted, blonde heroine into a zestful embrace. For me, it was the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!

What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose — one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

My Wife, The Piper, Liam Flowers and The End of The World…

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We had a conversation this morning. It was one of those not quite awake conversations that happens on Saturday morning when there is no work to put a stop to them. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. I knew that there was some honesty coming. “I like your blog, but it’s not going to support us. It’s not that tunnel that you are looking for.”

In the last twenty months or so, the writing has been coming thick and fast. It’s as if all my old injuries and wounds have set about healing themselves, all at once. It’s a Doctor Who thing; complete regeneration and a new-build exterior. I have been careful not to become all nice and good about the world, as a born-againer would likely be. The world still exists in its pre-breakdown mode, shit and getting shittier, so no amount of glossy- over by an inner ‘positive-mindset-self’ is likely to change it. But what I am doing is expurgating myself of the false beliefs about my life and its values.

“I wish you would rewrite The Piper. I loved that book. It is as real to me as yesterday.”

The Piper was my first novel, an imperfect issue that came kicking into life just less than a decade ago; on the eve of my father’s death. The book was my way of showing that I wasn’t a dreamer, that I had real talent. So, I chose a book about the coming apocalypse, set in a school, led by an imaginary Piper who was based on Pan, an Anti-Christ type boy, an animated corpse that had turned to leather and the holy trinity in the form of three brothers. What type of dreamer would dream that up? Anyway, my father escaped having to read it as a result of him dying. And I escaped any redemption.

“I want to rewrite it. It’s just finding the time.” But I knew that I was lying.

I have a friend who didn’t want to upset me when he told me that he thought my writing now was much better than the writing of The Piper. That was my baby he was talking about. It may not have been perfect, but it was mine. It’s a thing that is rarely done, offer an honest critique about the appearance of another person’s baby.

“Your kid is as ugly as a mule’s arse! If you don’t mind me saying.”

That’s why I have kept it in darkness. My ugly mule-arse baby sits on my bookshelf, lonely and wanting to be loved.

“I love it,” my wife said. “I love it.”

Now I am being asked to become Victor Frankenstein. My little imperfect issue needs a face-lift. It needs rewriting for a modern world. It needs to be accepted.

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Liam Flowers, come forth.

 

 

 

 

Epilogue 1

In her dreams, Elizabeth was on the ward that had consumed her life.

It had not burnt to the ground as she knew it had many years ago, but was intact and filled with the confused slumber of its patients. The book she had been reading was open at the page where she had fallen asleep. She had done her rounds, had tucked in the sleepers, had recreated the stories she had for them.

The book had taken up three full nights. At its heart was a dark secret of which none of its characters dared to speak. At its core was a girl who had been locked away in the attic of her home for years. She had grown in darkness as a way of keeping her pure. This was her mother’s God.

He was not mercy. He was not forgiveness. God was pain and damnation.

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My Stories

Elizabeth had read the book carefully taking each word at a time and not skimming. She was drawn to the story in the same self-destructive manner that addicts return to the drugs that kill them. The more she read, the deeper she was mired in its lines. On the third night she slept.

In her dream, she woke with the sounds of the sleepers seeping into every crevice of the ward. Waking more, her eyesight adjusting to the night, she raised herself from her chair and felt an energy that had not been there for many years. She looked at her hands and was amazed at how different they were. She turned them over in front of her gaze and saw the backs were now not the veined maps onto which an almost translucent covering of skin was projected. These things she held before her belonged to a younger woman.

She was dreaming and she knew it. She had often woken within a dream and, even knowing that it belonged to the wanderings of sleep, had allowed its tidal ebbs and flows to take her where they would. For the most part, she would forget these nocturnal drifts only for some consciously chanced upon detail to sweep her back. At that, she would stop in her tracks and feel the chill of something reaching out from darkness. These episodes of déjà vu were now starting to fall upon her like leaves in autumn.

It could just be the onset of old age; altzeimers spiked amongst her deepest fears.

In this dream, she moved through the ward, listening to the familiar sound of the invisible ones. She was able to see each bed inhabited by their sleeping occupants and the regular rise and fall of their breathing. All the beds were occupied and it seemed that the ward was not confined by the hospital’s walls. She could see into the shifting darkness and thought she saw beds stretching out for mile upon mile towards some barely glimpsed horizon.

Then there came the sound.

At first it was a low indistinguishable sound that could have been the merest hush of a nervous breeze, but the sound began to grow and swirl around the beds. Blankets began to flutter as if brushed by a passing hand. Elizabeth was frightened.

Every instinct screamed, ‘run’.

She listened knowing that if she heard its true notes, she would be lost. This was the time to swim upwards from this sleep. She pushed upward from the floor, but nothing happened. Movement and sound converged. She was aware of sheets being filled with the forms of sleeplessness. In the far distance was a darkened cloud invading the sky. The stillness that arrived before a storm settle around her.

She would pull herself toward waking. She would tell herself that this was not real, that it was only a dream; a nightmare. Her heart raced and pounded in her chest and pulsed into her temples. Her skin rippled with an ancient angst like a memory locked into despair.

Now, there was fresh movement in  the ward. The sigh of bedsheets, the pat of bare feet on the cold floor. But closer still, there was a hand climbing from beneath the starched linen. The hand that was revealing itself from beneath the veil of dread was that of the Piper and the bodies that were rising from their white cotton shrouds were those of her parents, her brother and the neighbours lost so long ago on that summer night.

She would wake now.

That was how it would happen. She would wake and she might even scream. Hairs would stand rigid on her spine. She would be hyperventilating. For a brief moment, there would be a memory of what she had been through. For a moment, she would remember the touch of the Piper’s clammy hand. For one long eternity, there would remain the memory of a world that was not supposed to have been. For an everlasting instant, she would remember awaiting the grasp of the Piper as he claimed her for his own.

But then she would wake.

That was when he had touched her. The hand was warm and she knew it belonged to the  boy called Nicholas. She turned torwards where she thought he would be and saw the face of the boy grown old. He had grown and now beckoned her to follow.

She was now old and frail and her bones only left the nursing home for short periods in its gardens. She had lived a long life, perhaps longer than God had intended, but she had always been haunted by those children on the ward. Now she had dreamt of Nicholas, the one who had escaped. The boy who was now a man. She also understood that God had not forgotten her and the debt she owed him.

Although her bones ached with years of rheumatism, she pulled them from her bed. She was upright surveying how the moon had thrown its light through the window. It was a cold night and the one that she had been waiting for. With no regard for the torturous strain brought on by movement, she washed and dressed in silence. She would leave this place of the dying and find her way back to where much of it had started: Fairfields House.

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Once she thought that she had cheated God, but she hadn’t.

He had forgiven her and she owed Him.