Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Time Traveller

Another one from the 'archives', also from the same 2007 notebook as the two previous stories and, like Underground Tigers, this was written on my commute.

The Time Traveller

He wished his train was a time machine and that he'd end up just over a month ago, but he would remember what he knows now.  He hopes that when he reaches his destination it is that place that he used to stay at, that small village he had begun to resent.
    How could a place blind him so much?  Was it selfishness on his part, the need to 'make something' of his life, to prove his parents wrong?  Why had he run so far?
    Now all he could do was listen to his life fall apart over the telephone.
    But in the underground there is no signal, it's almost like the conversations never happened, it's almost like nothing exists.
    He wills the train to go faster until that low hum and clatter of transportation rises into a high squealing pitch that only dogs can hear.  He hopes that the next stop will plunge him into daylight, that outside those windows he will see the familiar fields and trees of the countryside and not the old stale tiles of the Piccadilly line.
    Everyday he is reminded of everything he has lost and he is forced to trace the journey back, in his mind, toward the first domino that toppled.  He remembers how they met, it was hard not to in that town, but it stills feel miraculous, fateful.
    Where did this fog come from that clouded all of this from his mind for so long?  It's as if his past is flashing before his eyes, he sees each silly moment of the relationship pass by like billboards.  He sees haircuts, burnt suits, scrambled eggs, picnics in front rooms, beach bonfires, but he also sees how distant he was, how hurtful he had been and now he can hate himself for he sees that was not how he felt.  Well, that is not how he feels.
    He had pushed her away before and that time around his time machine had worked, it had been a coach then, perhaps that was it, he needed a smaller vessel?
    No, there is something tragically permanent about this time, something sickeningly inevitable.  It no longer feels like an emotion but a tumour, and for all the guilt it may incur he pities himself that he may curl up into a tiny ball and wither.
    Soon she will be far away and happy, her eyes will be opened to the optimism of a world without him, he thinks she knows it exists already and is eager to see what else it has to offer her.  This is why he needs a time machine.
    He has failed at this attempt of life, he has lost and the damage feels irreparable.  If the machine doesn't work then he will battle wearily on, but shall most probably be forced to watch from the sidelines, as if imprisoned in an invisible cage, as someone else lives the life he can now only dream of.
    He can envisage their first flat together, her and this better man, he can picture their furniture and dining set, their books and records, the view out of the window, he can smell his cooking and feel the way he kisses her cheek in the morning, he can sense the tender grip of his fingers curling round hers as they watch television, and he can hear her laugh at his bad jokes and silly voices, or when he does a puppet show with the teddy bears.
    Now he sees further into the future, as if floating over everything, detached from his body.
    He can see them making love, how warm their bodies are, how he holds her and she feels safe and special, touching her hands to his chest and being comforted by the distant drum of his heartbeat.  He can see the conception of their first child, it's a girl and they name it Freya like she always wanted.  They start looking for a house as the pregnancy begins to show, they're engaged now and soon after the child is born they'll be getting married.  The wedding will be held outside, it's a beautiful day, and her father and mother will love this man, they'll be as proud of him as if he were their own son.  Not long after there is a brother for Freya on the way, and the time-traveller watching overhead can hear her thoughts and, for the first time in years, she thinks of him.  The child is a boy and she remember what he would have called his son, but she dismisses this notion as quickly as it arrives and that is the last time she ever thinks of him.
    So that is all the time traveller sees before he is stirred by the unsteady rocking of the tube train, there is no lullaby and goodnight being whispered softly in his ears, yet he longs to bawl and cry like a baby.
    Has he just had a nightmare?  He hopes so.  He hopes he will soon realise that the past two months were all a bad dream and he's on his way to London Victoria, he has to catch a connecting train, he's been for a job interview.  Or perhaps he didn't move so far away, and after work he's on his way over for dinner and to watch a film.
    The truth climbs over his back, crashing down upon him with the unnegotiable force of a wave.  He is reminded of drowning, of feeling trapped in the ocean, being held in its unchanging grip, stuck between the safety of the shore and the deep, murderous depths.  That is where he is now, between life and death.
    He begins to suspect that this underground train is transporting the recently deceased from the waking to the after life.
    He closes his eyes, they're wet with tears, and he longs the sound of the pre-recorded announcments to silence and for the sensation of movement to cease and the smell in his nostrils to expand, like cinemascope, and be the distinctive aroma of a hospital room, and, even though he cannot move, he will be elated to realise that he is in a coma.  Yes, if he had slipped underwater all those months ago and had not died, but been pulled to shore where his condition had stabilised, and, though people would be sad, it may have just saved his life.
    How funny, he thinks, that drowning might have saved him, that if his life had taken that turn then he might not be dead now.  For the one and only time he will find comfort in the idea of a cold, sterile hospital room.
    But it's hot, like a warm, clammy bath and he's brought back to this train, this journey that lasts forever and, most cruelly of all, takes him closer and closer to her.  Maybe he should continue, forget his job, just arrive at her door, fall to his knees and beg her to turn back the clock, wipe the slate clean and let him wrap his arms around her and weep.
    Tears will fall from his eyes, tracing the shape of his face and dribble into his mouth, perhaps they will fill his lungs and he will drown.  His mind is alive with possibilities, he suspects he's been looking in the wrong place, that the time machine is not a vehicle or a transport outside of himself, but it is himself.  He is both the time traveller and the time machine and he is fuelled by sorrow and despair.
    He lets himself cry, he drinks his tears, but he struggles to force them into his lungs, and they unhappily fall into the safety of his gullet.
    He considers filling a sink, but knows he could not cry enough and the cruel heat of this early summer would evaporate any he tried to collect over time.
    Perhaps a full bath laced with tears will do just as well?  He feels a great surge of hope as he stands undressed, watching the water level rise, and he is pleased by the temperature as he climbs in.  Neither too hot or cold, like in the fairytale, it is just right.
    He finds it surprisingly easy to sink underwater, opening his eyes wide and seeing the ceiling with an odd sense of clarity.  He did need a transport after all, but smiles because he never would've guessed it would be a bath tub.
    Now he finds it easy to relax and open his mouth, the water doesn't scare him as it pushes impatiently down his throat, and it feels like the soft and romantic massage of a lover as it fills his lungs.
    He closes his eyes.
    He must be travelling, he can feel himself being buffeted as if he's still on the train.  He can also feel himself flying, as if he has departed from his body once more.
    Yes, he thinks, he is travelling through time.
    He can see again, he can see her and she takes his hand, applying a small amount of pressure, enough so that he knows she will never let go and she leans close to him, he's lying down, his eyes are shut but underneath his eyelids he is staring ahead and now he can feel her breath upon his ear, and her free hand strokes his hair, pushing it away from his eyes, her voice, though it is cracked and fragile, she sounds like she has been crying and has almost exhausted every syllable she could ever utter, but she has saved enough breath for one last sentence, and his skin grows cold as she speaks to him for the final time.
    She is with him now and he is happy, perhaps he has not failed after all, because before everything goes dark and silent he can hear her say 'I love you.'

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

(I Used To Be) Somebody

I love the energy of a crowd, you can't help but feel like a million bucks, with people screaming your name, camera flashes dazzling you, but you seem to float over it, you stay cool and calm, you turn your head, you angle your body, you make the shot. Sometimes you want to get closer, interact with your fans, they'll reach out just to let their fingertips brush your skin, tussle your hair, thrusting autograph books and photos into your hands for you to sign, like a forest made of arms, like a creature out of Lovecraft trying to embrace you.

My friend from back home finds it all so funny, he doesn't understand what they could hope to gain from just touching me, what possible connection could there be between me, the celebrity, and them, the fan, that would transpire at that point as those anonymous digits lightly nudge my cheek or clap my shoulder, what transference could occur? Do they hope that my fame, my success, might pass on to them?

It's my 42nd birthday. I'm sat in the dressing room, there are flowers and cards around the mirror in which I am reflected. I'm wearing a glittery silk shirt open to just below my chest, a large jewel-encrusted belt, tight black trousers and ice skates. I'm not going through to the next round, it doesn't effect my pay, but neither does it improve things for me, I'll be forgotten again in a week or two, especially over here, they treat me like a novelty, they dwell on my past.

My wife is on the phone, she wants to know, now that I'm off the show, when I'll be flying home. I tell her I'm not sure, I have to do some interviews, try and keep up some momentum from this. Later I speak to my agent, try to see if there are any British directors who might want to work with me that I could speak to. Then I call my wife back, ask if my daughter is in, she tells me she's asleep.

People come up to me in the street and still quote lines from my films, they tell me how much they loved them when they were growing up, they can't believe I'm forty two, they say I look so much younger. They usually say; "Don't look now!" or "Where do you kick a skeleton?" Some people ask me what I'm up to these days, and nod when I let them know I'm still working, still acting, I had five films out last year. Since doing the ice-skating show people have started to recognise me more. I guess I'm in the cultural ether again, so people are more inclined to notice me.

My daughter's birthday is the day after mine, I remember being in the hospital with my wife on the night of my 36th birthday, she was in and out of labour all through the night and into the morning, and my daugter was born as the sun was rising outside.

I want to make my daughter proud of me, have some sort of legacy that I can leave her, nobody wants a washed up old man. She was like a pill, filled me with energy when she was born, I spent some time out, just helping, looking after her, before going back to work. When I did I had a renewed vigour, a spring in my step, I think you can see it on screen. I did some of my best work in the years just after she was born. Shame a lot of it sank without a trace, bad marketing.

They showed a clip from 'Freak Street' on the talk show that evening, obviously the one where I shout "Where do you kick a skeleton?" They always either show that one, or the clip from 'Changing Tracks' where I hold the dead lamb and cry. The host of the show was very talkative, I didn't really say that much, just kind of reacted to the things he put in front of me, it was kind of a light entertainment show, nothing too in depth. When he asked me what I was doing next I suddenly realised I don't have any work lined up, fortunately I didn't blank for long, and just told him I was heading home to spend some time with my family. Which is good, it makes me sound down-to-earth.

Fame is a disease, you don't ask for it, really, you just want to work, do the thing you love, fame can sometimes be the price you pay, and it is a price. People treat you as if it's your own fault that you're famous, that you hounded it down, that you have given up on your rights to a private life, but it is the public that feeds the fire, creates the monster, and though, arrogantly, we, the famous, lap it up, there should be a switch to turn it off and on again. I became famous without realising, acting as a child, my father had heard about a casting session for an orange juice commercial in the building he was working at, took me along, I got the part and an agent hired me the day of the shoot. I did some more commercials, a couple of bit parts in sitcoms, a recurring role in a soap for a while, all before I even hit double digits.

Before I was twelve I'd landed my first film role, a supporting part, goofy younger brother, but the role was a hit, they made a sequel and I got equal billing with the lead. Then came Freak Street, that one's really endured, people love it, there's a sold out midnight screening of that film somewhere in the world practically every other week, and I get asked to all of them. The money's not great, but it's nice to meet the fans, hear how much that film meant to them. It's the positive side of everything that's happened to me.

My wife calls, my daughter's caught measles, on her birthday no less, they've had to cancel the party, but she's upbeat, my daughter that is. I sing Happy Birthday to her down the phone, she asks me when I'll be home, I say a couple of days, but if things go well here it might be longer.

You stand waiting in the wings, breathing deeply, psyching yourself up, holding the hand of your partner, a professional ice skater, you've been training intensely, every day, for this. You try to filter out the sound, it's overwhelming in a way, the boom of the audience. You listen only to the presenters, you wait only for your name, for the music, for the curtains to part, the lights to shine, they're blinding, and you step forwards out onto the ice, ready to dance, feeding off of the applause, the cheers, the gasps, the laughter, and then they judge you, one by one, and then they phone in to keep you or let you go, and you smile, you cry, you holler and scream, you wrap arms around one another either in joy or sadness, and then you trot backstage, to the green room, you sit and wait, they interview you, and it's over, you take off the blades, the glittery suit, wipe make-up away and ruffle the hair, heading for the car to drive you back to the hotel.

I haven't slept in my own bed all year, but I can remember what it feels like. I'll lie in the hotel room, in the large king-size, stretching my hand out and tracing the outline of where my wife would lay, the sheets are so starched and hard, emphasizing the absence. I can't sleep, so I pace the room, make myself a drink, idly flick through television channels, wondering if any of my old films are showing.

I fell asleep around 4am, glass was half full, but now it's empty on the floor by a small puddle, the thrum of my mobile is rattling the bedside table, it's eight in the morning.

My bags are loaded into the back of the waiting taxi, my flight leaves in three hours, I'm chewing the inside of my mouth nervously. It was hard talking to my wife on the phone, her sister was there, though she was upset too I got most of the information from her. My daughter has suffered from complications brought on by the measles, a chronic encephalitis, I keep Googling it and reading the wiki page, but I don't really understand what it's telling me, I don't understand what my wife or her sister are telling me, it says it can be fatal, but it's rare, like 1 in 100,000.

In the airport my agent calls, I tell him about my daughter, he offers his sympathy, tells me to take all the time I need, I thank him, he mentions a feature being shot in a few months, somewhere in Scotland, a horror, but they're interested in me for the lead, I'd need to audition, I shrug it off, I can't do it, he says I could video an audition tape and send it over, I tell him I'll think about it and hang up, my flight is boarding.

Over the ocean words sink in, the doctors told my wife that there's no cure for the disease, SSPE he said, it's always fatal, she may have a year or two, perhaps longer, it's so rare, we forgot to get her immunized, I don't want my wife to blame us, I don't know if she's even thinking about that, why would she think about that? We'll make the time we have special, I'll be there for what little time we've got. It's funny, on flights to and from home before the plane would judder and shake with turbulence and I'd think to myself; 'What if this is it?' I'd make little vows to spend more time with them both, my wife and my daughter, but now I know I never really kept those promises, they are things I felt that I would always have time for, like time is infinite, stretching out forever, that things will always last.

Nothing lasts, by next week or so the photos of me in the weekly magazines will have vanished from the pages, the offers will quieten down again, I should make that audition tape, I mean, the thought does enter my mind that this story, for all its sadness, could be good for me, we could get some perks out of it, like a trip to a theme park or something, she'd like that.

I realise I'm crying, I wipe my eyes, push the balls of my palms against my temple, shake my head. I used to tell people, when I was in my mid-twenties, that I was too selfish to settle down, have kids, I guess I was right. But she doesn't deserve this. What can I do to make things ok? I've been trying, I just want what's best.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Spoken Word

And no emails would send, no texts would deliver, no phones would ring, no pens would write, no letters would post, no morse code, no telegrams, no walkie talkies. Nothing could get through, apart from standing near someone and saying the words out loud.

There was panic, but its extent was unknown to those experiencing it. Fortunately, people asked one another; "Is your phone working? No, mine neither." The sentence passed like a parcel in a party game from one person to the next, until it started to be understood that nothing was working.

A couple had arranged to meet for dinner, but she was held up at work, she tried to send him a message, she tried to phone the restaurant, but she could not reach anybody, and finally she had to tell her boss that she could not stay late that evening as she had to meet her husband for dinner, and she was allowed to leave, and she hurried through the streets, finally explaining the situation to her husband and they had a marvellous dinner.

A pizza shop stood in silence wondering why, on a Friday night, the phone was not ringing with orders, as it often tended to do at this hour, and what they would do if no pizzas had to be cooked, until, a short time had passed, and people began walking into the shop and making their requests, promising to come back in a minute to pick up the piping hot pizza and carry it home.

Clicking incessantly on the computer's icon the teenager could not understand why his laptop would not connect to the internet, so the following day he went to the shop and bought the new record he was looking forward to from a person behind a counter who smiled and they talked about their respective problems with technology and then they spoke about their shared interest in that band, how the new single was a bit disappointing but they still had optimism for the full album.

Other shoppers weren't so fortunate, as their credit cards could not connect wirelessly with their banks, so their purchases would not go through. Outside the banks the queues snaked around the street, people tirelessly arguing with the tellers, ultimately staggering cautiously outside with their life savings stuffed into holdalls.

On a residential street a fire burned, the family stood outside, but were soon taken into a neighbour's for cups of tea, and a man jumped in his car and drove to the fire station to get help, whilst other neighbours brought out fire extinguishers from their garages and kitchens doing their best to tackle the blaze.

Shop keepers stood defiantly against opportunistic thieves who had felt the lack of telephones would make the high street an easy target, but policemen walked the beat with senses heightened, trying to compensate for their lack of radios, and unable to rally their friends, the thieves soon retreated.

Commuters on trains and buses unable to busy themselves with their social media feeds found themselves looking around for gossip, they found conversation in the company of strangers, whilst others brought books from neglected shelves and found themselves laughing or crying on a journey that had become so routine and familiar.

A young man, fed up with his job, tried to phone in sick, but could not get through, nor could he email, and he hoped that during the night the building that been destroyed in some sort of catastrophe and he would never have to go back there again. But, with very little alternative, he got dressed, made for the door and began his commute into work.

Traders in stock markets stood with their mouths agape and watched blank boards wondering where the strings of numbers and letters that governed their days had disappeared to. Some laughed and clapped one another on the back at the ludicrous situation, whilst others wrenched clods of hair from their own heads in unwitting mania.

There were no love letters and no suicide notes, no final notices or payment's due, no get well soons or happy birthdays, not unless you told them so yourself.

At first people found the words in frustrated fits and starts, awkwardly interacting with one another, devoid of a means to direct their passive aggression into snide texts, tweets and emails, people found their inner monologues trickling out as mutterings, asides and rolled eyes. But, soon, people found the means to be civil, after one too many scuffles, slanging matches, circular arguments over nothing, they realised that polite words had both a calming and immediate effect.

Besides, people's ears weren't plugged by songs, shows, news, stories.

It meant that couples sat at home, staring at a blank box, thumbing through blank books, spinning empty records and wondering what to do. Then she would pick up her guitar, and he would sit at the piano, it would be uncomfortable at first, those awkward notes and chords, they didn't gel, but they stumbled their way along, nervous titters relaxing into easy giggles.

Parents found their minds challenged by the demands of their children, tucked awkwardly and impatiently between sheets, asking for a bedtime story. At first the words tripped and fell, but soon they found their legs, running, sprinting and then taking flight. Mother and father surprised by the worlds inside of them, and reinvigorated by the looks of wonder and smiles on their children's faces.

Without radios, cds and mp3s people stopped to listen to the busker, they went to their local bar for a gig, and they told them, the performers, how they enjoyed the music and asked when they would be playing next.

And people told tales and jokes, they broke bad news and cried in one another's arms, they complimented and criticised, they wooed and they booed, thoughts flowed freely, and whilst we could not all agree, we tried our best to articulate things, with passion, with intelligence, we wanted to debate, to reason, to understand.

Until the following day, when a text message, long since delayed, finally made its way to someone's mobile phone, and the world was rebooted and connected again, and the man sent a text back to his girlfriend saying; 'Sorry babez, fink we shld end it X'.