Painting Pictures

I’ve got a new story to share, although the circumstances behind this one are a little different. Since finishing the rewrite of my third novel Gaslight I’ve not done anything in the way of new writing at all. Which was fine to start with, as I needed a break, but the desire to write is always there and sooner or later it becomes a necessity.

But I couldn’t get the spark, so fell back on an exercise of sorts. A lot of my writing ideas have been inspired by music, so I turned to a few old favourites on Spotify and came across an old romantic ballad from the early 90s which I’ve always kind of liked and a friend of mine is mad about. So I thought I’d basically write the story of that song. It didn’t take too much – a few listens and then I wrote it across two or three evenings. The story fulfilled its main purpose, which was to get the creative blood pumping again, and I thought I’d offer it here. It’s very short, not even 2000 words, and I’ve done next to no editing. I want the story to seem fresh, to come off the page as quickly as it went down.

For that reason it’s a little more rough around the edges and as such I won’t be publicising it too much. One for the diehards, as it were. It’s called ‘Painting Pictures’.

PAINTING PICTURES

For once, I was out like a light. The beer and marijuana had done their job. There were no dreams, just an inviting emptiness to wade into. Then a buzzing sound starting way back in the subconscious, growing louder with every heartbeat…

I snapped an eye open. A phone was ringing. I raised onto an elbow, the taste of weed on my tongue. Coming up for 6am. I could make out Elmore sitting on my computer chair, surveying the vast expanse of desert that lay beyond the window. The first flickers of sunlight threw pink tendrils across the horizon. Elmore was stock still, the only movement a faint flicker of his tail against the leather of the seat. Well, it was a great view.

It wasn’t my cell. Either of them. Coverage was spotty out here, and it was too early for work calls. Hardly anyone had my personal number. Those that did would be asleep. Now I was fully awake, I knew it was the phone in the kitchen. I ssat up and swung my legs out of bed. Looked down at my feet. Felt the mild stirrings of an alcohol-induced headache. The phone continued to ring. It wasn’t an emergency. I knew who was calling. The time of night, trying to make a statement, that it was really important. Unlikely. We’d been down this path before. I thought about letting it ring out, get back into bed and doze until the alarm went off. It was tempting, but there was no point. The ploy had worked. I pulled on a T- shirt and headed for the kitchen.

The phone was across from the breakfast nook, next to the fridge. I pulled the phone from its cradle and slid down into the vacant space beside the fridge, facing the screen door. One of its hinges was loose, and it rattled when there was a gust of wind. I stared out at the scrub, the barren patches of dirt beginning to lighten. The whiteness of Clyde’s fence starting to penetrate the darkness. Elmore leapt up onto the counter, narrowly missing the empty beer cans littering its surface. He miaowed softly, then fell silent. As if anticipating something. I knew how he felt. I placed the phone to my ear and waited, twisting the coils of the line around a finger. I could hear traffic. Then a slamming sound. The traffic quitened. Probably in a pay phone. I continued to wait. I could hear her breathing, but remained mute. It had to come from her. If we were going to start this again, it had to come from her.

‘Scottie,’ she said, and a tremor ran up my spine. Took me straight back to the first time she called me that, with my arm across her shoulder, parked up in a secluded spot under a sky full of stars. I closed my eyes and got lost in the memory. She giggled and said my name again. It was a high-pitched giggle, and right away I knew she was in one of her manic periods, riding the wave before the inevitable crash and burn.

‘Ali,’ I said. ‘It’s 6 in the morning.’

‘Well, duh. You know me, Scottie. Early to bed, early to rise.’ That screeching laugh once more. She sounded burnt out, or close to being so. There was another bang at her end. ‘Just a sec,’ she shouted, and her voice went away. The traffic sounds swarmed in, there was some more raised voices, then she came back on the line. ‘Won’t take no for an answer,’ she said. ‘Had to give the guy two bucks. Can find another payphone, am I right?’

I rested my head against the cool fridge. ‘Ali, where are you?’

I heard the striking of a match, then a sharp inhale. Smoking again. That was never a good sign. ‘Where do you think? Sin City, of course. The perfect place for a girl like me, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Vegas? You’re in Las Vegas?’

‘Err, yeah. This place is CRAZY, I’ll tell you that. Yesterday, I saw a man in a cowboy hat ride a horse down the Strip. He was drinking a beer, too. The man that is, not the horse. Haha. That was a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Yow!’

Las Vegas. I thought back to when she left, a scrawled note saying she needed some space, she was letting me down and had to get her head straight. Her closet empty, the vague trace of her perfume lingering. All her meds gone from the bathroom cabinet. No idea where she had gone, not knowing if it was for real this time, or just another stunt to leave me frantic with worry and sick with love, until she came down and came home, and I would always take her back. Knowing I was the only one who could keep her safe and happy. Until it all got too much again.

But I would never have expected her to turn up in Vegas. Can make a mess of the most sensible individual, and Ali was not one of those. The temptations, the drinking, the drugs, the gambling. Add a girl in the throes of an episode and it was a potent brew.

‘You never called,’ I said.

‘I’ve been busy,’ she insisted. ‘You know this city never sleeps.’

‘I was worried. I spoke to your Mom, she said…’

‘Don’t tell me. “’That’s Alison for ya! Always with her head in the clouds, that girl. If her father was here, he’d give her a good clip round the ear!”’

That was actually pretty accurate. Ali can be sharp as glass. ‘She wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone.’

‘Probably cos she doesn’t know. When I disappear, I do it properly.’

She wasn’t thinking how much her words hurt, the lack of empathy for anyone, including herself. This was worn ground, but I knew one thing. She needed to come home.

‘You know better than anyone,’ she was saying. ‘How I get. The damage I cause. I can’t be around you when I get like that. It’s not fair.’ Her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I’m tired, Scottie. I’m coming to the end of the road. You understand that, don’t you?’

I swallowed hard. ‘You know I do, Ali. But I can’t keep chasing after you, baby. I love you so much, but I – ‘ Fuck. The tears were pricking my eyelids, as predictable as night following day. ‘Please. Get on a plane and come home.’

She laughed. The quiet moment had passed. ‘You know, I’ve got a better idea. I’ve been thinking about Mexico.’

‘What about it?’

‘Silly. About a trailer right by the sea. Crystal blue waters to wake up to every morning. Doesn’t that sound swell?’

My bottom lip was trembling. ‘Ali, not this again.’

‘You always say that! What’s the point in having dreams if we’re not gonna fulfil them? I’d be happier there. More secure. We can drink tequila and look for seashells on the beach.’

‘But it’s impossible – ‘

‘They have gardens in Mexico, don’t they? Plenty of rich gangsters needin’ some landscaping. And I’ve been waitressing, getting loaded up with tips. Some of the old fuckers here think a few dollars and I’ll be dropping my drawers for them. Haha, bunch of fools. We’d have the money. Come on, Scottie. Get in the truck and come save me.’

‘You make it sound so simple.’

‘Cos it is, you numbskull. How’s Elmore?’

He must have heard his name. His ears pricked up and he jumped off the counter, had a big stretch, and shambled to the screen door. Once set, he miaowed loudly and proceeded to wash his front paws.

‘I can hear him,’ Ali said, and her voice cracked. ‘My baby.’

‘Thought I was your baby?’ I replied, and she laughed. I was falling under her spell. This Mexico thing was a silly pipe dream we used to talk about when stoned. Walking away from society and setting up on our own. I imagined laying beside her in the warm white sand, Elmore chasing back the waves and running for cover when the water got too close. I looked around at this place, her pictures off the wall and in the drawer, physical traces gone but her spirit and soul everywhere. Maybe it would be something. A fresh start and all that. That was her power. She could sell me any dream.

I looked over at Elmore. He had finished grooming himself and was staring intently out into the yard. Every night he would sit there at dusk, waiting for her car to pull up in the driveway. That squeal of excitement when she realised he was on guard duty. Opening the screen door and standing with arms open wide as Elmore jumped into them. Smiling at me over the top of his head.

Until she left. And he wouldn’t abandon his post. Sitting there every night until I had to pick him up and carry him away. I had the scratches to prove it. And just like me, as soon as he begun to realise that she wasn’t coming back, the car would backfire coming down the street and his ears would prick up and he knew she was going to weave her spell over him once more. She was good at that. Just as we were starting to get back on our feet.

‘So he’s doin’ good?’ she whispered.

I swallowed. I needed an aspirin. ‘Doing fine. He misses you.’

‘Bring him with you,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Use that mangy old cage in the garage. Fill up the car. Get some gas and get on your way. Drive like you’ve never driven before. Come on, Scottie. Please. I’m begging you.’

‘Hey sister!’ someone shouted in the background. ‘You gonna be in there all mornin’, or what? I got errands to run!’

‘The natives are getting restless,’ she said. ‘You have to come. You must. Think of Mexico, Scottie. Of Mexico, and me. I have to go.’

‘But I don’t even know how to get in touch with you,’ I shouted.

‘I’ll be here. Waiting. It’s now or never, Scottie.’

‘Ali, wait – ‘ But there was a click and she was gone. I slammed the phone back into the cradle. She always did this. That fucking trailer by the sea. I’d heard it countless times before, but yet. Something in her voice. Something with more longing. Knowing that it was her only hope, that if I didn’t go it would be the end. One way or another.

Elmore turned his head and looked at me. I knew it was stupid. But I couldn’t help but see it, the three of us together, as it should be. That beautiful water. I leaned back against the fridge and closed my eyes, thinking that maybe this time it could work, maybe this time it would turn out just the way she planned.

Gaslight

One of the advantages of being sober so far in 2019 as it has given me more free time to focus on my writing and no excuses to slack off because I’m hungover. The mammoth edit of my novel was taking forever to complete, but after a couple of long evenings of re-writing, it’s finally done.

It’s come in at a shade over 200,000 words, which is about what I expected. My rough rule of thumb is that the first re-write should collapse the story by 10%, and I’m in the ballpark. Once the final draft is done I would expect it to run just under the 200K mark, but for now I’m in a position where I can start to force the manuscript on anyone who wants to read it (and maybe some of those who don’t!)

This is usually an exciting time and as the days pass I’m sure I’ll get more enthused about it, but right now I’m quite drained and tired. I started this journey in November 2016, so this has been the longest gestation period for a novel I’ve experienced, and it’s taken a fair bit out of me. I do still feel a sense of wonder that I sat down and started writing what I thought would be no more than a novella and ended up with this behemoth, but that’s part of what makes it a thrill. I never know where it’s going to end up, or if it’s going to go anywhere at all.

So over the next few weeks I’ll approach a few people and see if they want to read it, then once it’s out in the world, it’s no longer mine. Which is always a daunting prospect after being a part of it for so long.

And finally I have a title for the novel, which also forms the title of this post. Any regular readers will know I’ve been struggling with this for months, so it’s good to be able to put a face to a name so to speak. Hints at some of the themes of the book whilst also creating a sense of mystery.  It’s growing on me.  Hopefully the novel will have a similar effect on its first readers.

Dark Days and Drinking

In the writing game, the propensity for substance abuse appears to be higher than in other parts of society, particularly alcohol. A number of my favourite writers all had problems with the bottle – Stephen King, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler to name but three. As King brilliantly articulates in On Writing, the idea that creative endeavour and booze or drugs are somehow connected and necessary in a world of emotional isolation and despair is a myth. Alcoholics drink because they are addicts, anything else is just another excuse.

Which brings me to my own battles with the booze. I’m obviously far from the standard of the legends I’ve mentioned, but I’ve used that excuse for my own excesses on occasion. And in the last few months the excesses are starting to get out of control. I drank heavily over the Christmas period, culminating in an ill-advised solo drinking session on New Years Eve which resulted in a substantial blackout period and one of the most savage hangovers I’ve ever experienced. I spent the first day of the year sleeping and puking and swallowed in a sea of self-loathing and guilt. Twenty six days later, I sit here and write, and I’m still sober.

I’ve been drinking for all the wrong reasons for a long time. It’s my fall back pastime when my mental health takes a tumble, which is the worst possible solution for that problem. When I’m bored, I drink. When I’m lonely, I drink. When I’m sad, I drink. When I can’t get the words down right, I drink. And on and on and on.  That my life is so much harder than anybody elses and I deserve to drink as some kind of a reward. It’s pathetic, really. I have friends with serious family stuff going on, life and death situations, and I get drunk because I feel I’m worthless as a writer or because I’m lonely. What a self-indulgent load of nonsense that is. Like I’m inviting the despair on to give me an excuse.

That’s not to say my mental health problems shouldn’t be acknowledged, far from it. But alcohol is not the way to do it. Once the fog cleared I made some enquiries and will hopefully be going back into therapy soon. I spent the best part of three years seeing somebody a decade ago and it really helped. More fool me for thinking I can do it on my own. And I’m sure that if I can keep my drinking under control my creative output should remain constant, and everything else will improve both physically and mentally.  I’m already sleeping better. My skin feels clearer. And its lovely to wake up in the morning without having to wonder how I got home. Simple pleasures.

It would be nice to get to the stage where I can enjoy a beer again, make it an occasional pleasure rather than a habit. If I can’t handle that, then it probably is time to give up for good. But I know now that I can’t go on as I have been, and that’s revelation enough.  I can not drink and be cleaner and happier, and still be able to write and live.

 

Stages

OK, so the first read-through and initial editing of the novel is complete. It’s difficult to try to formulate an opinion on it when there is still so much to do, but I haven’t had to shake my head in exasperation too many times. So I guess that’s a reasonable sign.

I like to do the very first edits on paper, as I tend to get a better feel for it that way. And there is great satisfaction to be had from putting a red line through a dreadful sentence before anybody else can read it. Saving my credibility one pen-stroke at a time. Now the task is to translate that work to the electronic manuscript. This stage I enjoy less, as it’s almost performing the same task twice. I’ll tidy up any extra continuity errors that may have slipped through the net, and get rid of a few more adverbs.

These are the manageable tasks. The main challenge will be to address any glaring plot holes. Why is a character walking when they have a car, that sort of thing. Developments in plot that hinge around a character’s actions that are a little too convenient. Sometimes this will mean a fair amount of juggling, as one action sets off another, and lo and behold a whole chain of events needs tweaking. These have only been starred in the manuscript, with a note that further editing is required. In the electronic edit, I will have to tidy these up. Thankfully the ones I remember should be reasonably straightforward to address.

I’m looking to get this stage complete in the next few weeks, certainly by Christmas. And then once that is done, I’m at the frightening stage – ready to give it up for people to read. This is the exciting but daunting part. At the moment I’m in control. No-one has read a word except me, and it can stay that way if I want it to. But as soon as the manuscript is in another person’s hands, it’s gone. Having the novel in the public domain is great, but then all the worry of criticism comes in. An inevitable part of the writer’s life.

With this one, there are two things that I want to gauge from the first few people I can corral into reading the novel. First, and this is one I have gone on about a lot, is length. I suspect I will have taken 5-10,000 words off the first draft after the re-write is complete. So we are going to be at 200,000+ words. So am I not being ruthless enough with the draft? Does the novel sag in places? In short language – is it boring? And if it is too long, can further reductions keep the manuscript a coherent whole but improve the structure? Big questions, but one’s that only a reader can really answer.

Second, are there themes that stand out? And are they ones that are interesting enough to keep a reader engaged for the entire novel? I will hopefully have bought the themes more to the forefront by the time the draft is complete, but will the reader get a sense of them? And be captivated by them? This is the important one, really. If they can’t get what it’s all about, or even worse don’t care, then I’ve failed. I’m concerned that the storyline is a well-worn trope, which could be enough for readers to give up on it.

All this is quite a lot to ask of the poor reader, particularly as they are most likely to be someone who knows me, so will have existing prejudices that may affect their ability to be impartial. Perhaps I’ll hawk the manuscript on social media and beg complete strangers to read it. Either way, the time to let the novel into the public eye is not too far away.

A Lack Of

Over the twenty or so years I’ve been writing fiction I’ve built up a fairly solid body of work, word count wise. 3 novels which must add up to 400,000 words or so, a novella of 30,000, and various short stories here and there. Call it half a million all in. Which, seen as a whole, is quite a number. You would think from such an expanse that I would have introduced a vast array of different characters, each with their own unique backgrounds, hopes and desires. Set against a plausible backdrop, steeped in a concrete sense of place, with character history and back story and development.

As I say, you’d like to think so. But through this novel rewrite I’m starting to get the impression that all these words are just repeating the same things over and over again, only with different faces and the same paper-thin depth of character. I get that every writer has their themes that thread through their work. Judging by what I write about mine would be substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, depression, and suicide. Cheery stuff. And somehow I keep returning to these themes every time I sit up and write. Not necessarily a bad thing, you might think. But I fear it’s more to do with my ignorance than any great overwhelming desire to write on these subjects.

Off the top of my head, some topics I know nothing about: finance, banking, mortgages, construction, architecture, housing, computing, technology, feminism, sociology, physics, science in general, archaeology, astronomy, economics, furniture, design, cars, fashion, marriage, children, the list is endless. And I would consider myself reasonably intelligent and more well-read than most. So with this shameful lack of knowledge on virtually everything, it’s no wonder my fiction is limited to the same tired topics, and my characters all start to merge into one another. I couldn’t even have a character with a complicated job, that would be enough to finish me.

Case in point – I have had a short story idea whirring away in my mind for a while now. But I anticipate it being set across the entire lifetime of a character (something I’ve never done before, believe it or not). Which would mean writing about the 1950s all the way up to the present day. Getting the details right. How people spoke, what they ate, read, drove, what jobs they would have for a lifetime, and so on. Details that have to be right or everything falls apart. Not part of the emotional story, but the nuts and bolts that bring it to life. The bits I’m bound to fuck up, basically.

That’s what research is for, I hear you cry. Yes, of course. I always feel I’ll be winging it, though. Worried about being tripped up by having someone watching TV in 1935 or being unable to properly describe what wainscoting is. And letting that anxiety feed through and affect what I really want to say.  I know it’s a stupid barrier I’m putting up, that to attempt to broaden my horizons will make me a better writer, but man it seems so daunting. Getting the words down is hard enough; expressing what’s in your heart even tougher. Not being able to describe a room because I don’t know what a chaise longue is just seems embarrassing.

Just Cutting

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I think the time I feel closest to being a writer is seeing sheafs of paper scattered about the floor with various scrawled red lines on them. Because that means that A) I’ve got something of substance to edit, and B) I’m actually having the responsibility of omitting sentences of my work for the greater good, for the overall story rather than the great one liner.

The pic above is a pretty accurate example of where I’m at (and no spoilers, it’s the first page!). Tons of alterations. A lot of this is losing the extraneous material. Anything that’s too much like exposition, well that’s gone straightaway. Of course as many adverbs as I can do without. Spelling mistakes. Tweaking clunky dialogue. Most of this is actually quite fun, especially as parts of the story I’ve forgotten, so reading them through again is a surprise, almost a delight. The joy of re-reading a paragraph that sounds far better than I could have imagined is one of the greatest pleasures I have with this whole writing gig. It really does feel like magic that has come from somewhere else.

But, of course, a big problem will become apparent. This mostly comes in the form of structural problems with the story. A character might do something explicable, where I shake my head and say ‘where the hell did that come from?’. Often these faux-pas can just be deleted, but if they are connected up with developments further down the line,  you have a problem. On a first re-write I tend to star them and scribble a brief note in the margin, reminding myself that this bit needs an overhaul. Part of this is kicking the can down the road, I freely admit. But untangling the knots requires time and energy, and on the first read through, I mainly want to get a feel for the piece. The overarching story and themes (the what’s it all about? question, in essence) can be fleshed out and strengthened in future drafts.

So far I’ve been lucky, touch wood. I haven’t experienced any major deficiencies as yet. I know the novel is far too long, but I’ve found the cutting back a lot easier than I remember for my novel Playing with Fire. I think I’ve learnt that dialogue and the actions of the characters can show narrative without reams of further explanation. The reader can work it out for themselves – I might need to give them a nudge every now and then, but they don’t need everything spoonfed to them. I’ve also noticed how often I use certain words. Every writer must have them.  Mine? I use ‘just’ as an adverb a ridiculous amount, which is an awful habit I’ve picked up from God knows where. I even start sentences with it. Ugh. ‘Still’, is another I overuse as a shorter version of the horrible ‘nevertheless.’ So I’ve tried to kill as many of those little festerers as I can.

All in all it’s slow progress, a few pages a night at most, and there are 298 in total, so I’ll be here for a while yet. I’m not writing anything else at the moment so my full creative focus is on this, and it’s nice having that direction. If all goes well I might have another stab at getting the final manuscript published, but that’s getting way ahead of myself. Best to not get too greedy and try and make this the best novel that it can be.

Oh, and I STILL haven’t got a title!

 

 

Sitting on the Edge

So it’s been over a month since I finally finished the first draft of my still untitled third novel.  I’ve found having an extended break before the re-write is essential, not only to recharge the batteries but to allow the story to become unfamiliar, almost as if it was written by somebody else. This allows me to approach the manuscript with a critical eye and be ruthless in my cutting, paring back scenes and chopping all that boring exposition that I’m sure litters the pages. I’m at that point now, having let the novel stew for long enough, written something else in the interim, and had a few weeks of writing nothing at all.

But there is a reluctance to go back to it. Why? Partly because it’s going to be a herculean task. Editing 220,000 words is more than laborious, it’s never-ending. And there’s always the ever-present fear that it will read terribly, and it will be a year and a half’s work for not much result. Same old, same old.  But it’s silly.  In contrast to these fears lies the much greater one that inflicts us all to varying degrees. That I’m running out of time. I’m 40 years old in 18 months. Plenty of writers had had a 20 year career by that stage. I’m still wading around in the shallow end. I’ve spent too many years worrying that I’m not good enough rather than getting down to knocking the words out. Time isn’t going to wait for me, like it won’t for anyone else. Sure, I have a hectic full-time job which leaves my writing window to a couple of hours a night. But only the very good have the luxury of a full-time writing career. The rest of us are down in the saltmines getting by.

I’m content when working on something, too. In this period of not working my sleep has suffered.  I’m restless in thought and deed. Writing helps keep me calm, more focused.  I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time so I wouldn’t go as far as to say writing makes me happy, but I feel closer to the person I truly am in those moments when it all feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside. From my core being, if you will. And that is what really matters. I will probably not make a living from this. I won’t see my books on the shelves. I should be satisfied with what I have. And I am, mostly. I guess that tiny kernel of me that craves recognition tends to shout the loudest, that’s all. But it will pass, this contradiction of inertia. When the increasing fear of time slipping away draws me back in.

One Night Rebellion

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with America.  I find some of its politics frightening and bordering on the absurd, but as a cultural influence, its had an enormous impact. Most of my favourite movies are American.  Bands, too. And when it comes to writers, I’d say the vast majority of those I can’t live without are from the States.

It was probably crime fiction that got me into the American writers. Starting with Chandler (technically a Brit but who’s counting), Hammett, James M. Cain, through to Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, James Crumley, and up to the present day greats like Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s difficult to band this disparate group together, but I’d say they write with a dark, existential hardness that is unique to the American psyche. I’ve thought a lot about how to define this, and I think it partly comes from the vastness of the landscape and the themes of alienation, loneliness and desperation that can come from living an isolated life in the often forgotten heart of the American continent.

The images of the American interior, tumbleweed and hot desert air, run-down shacks and ramshackle bars, and the people who live in these places, hard-working but falling through the cracks, holding on to the remnants of the frontier spirit. This is what fascinates me.  I’ve read it in countless books set in opposite ends of the country, from Don Carpenter to the brilliant books of the underclass by Willy Vlautin. And it’s tradition is firmly set in American history, going back to Huckleberry Finn, the whole western genre, Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry, the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg and reaching a nadir in the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S.Thompson. I’ve been enthralled and intimidated by these authors, and have always wanted to try and make an attempt to offer a take on the downside of the American dream.  The short story that follows is that effort.

The final push I needed to write this piece came from reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant The Executioner’s Song, one of my books of 2017. The book is based on the gruesome life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore, but at its heart it is an exploration of a man unable to live outside of prison, a highly disturbed, forgotten individual in a Utah town who turns to murder almost out of boredom. The backdrop of small-town America is brilliantly sketched by Mailer and the book discusses through the life of Gilmore some of the themes I’ve tried to sketch out above. The isolating, unstable figure of Gilmore seemed to encapsulate the negatives of rural American towns and set off a ton of thoughts in my head, trying to figure out how I could say something about this subject, one that I had wanted to for a long time.

As tends to happen with me, a couple of songs helped to crystallise these thoughts into something more tangible. I am a sucker for more modern country music, the Americana stuff of the Southern and Midwestern states, and loneliness, grief and pain are pretty much the default themes.  All of which helped me to find the tone and atmosphere I was searching for. I allowed the story to bubble and boil up in my imagination whilst working on my latest novel, and once that behemoth of a first draft was complete, this story came rushing out and was completed in less than a week.

So, here it is. It’s called ‘One Night Rebellion.’ Hope you enjoy it, and as always, any comments are most welcome. As an aside, I have entered this story in Booksie’s online short story competition for 2017/18. One of the finalists is chosen partly based on the number of reads their story chalks up, so if you fancy reading it on Booksie and helping my cause, I’d be grateful. Thanks. Otherwise, read on…

 

ONE NIGHT REBELLION

I clocked off and stepped into the entrails of the evening, following a steady trail of my co-workers as they streamed out to their cars. There were few conversations. Everyone had a purpose, places to be.

As cars started to pile out of the lot, I took a slow step forward and meandered towards my truck. There weren’t many cars left now. Beyond the lot, the red and green glare of the adjacent service station shone like a Christmas tree. The sky was a beautiful salmon pink colour, one of those long sunsets that made you feel small and ineffectual. Although the lot was virtually deserted, less than a mile away traffic sped up and down the interstate, a constant rush, day in, day out. Everyone was in an awful hurry.

I patted my shirt pocket for my cigarettes, then remembered I had chain smoked the last two at break. I was getting into the habit of doing that. Cursing, I vowed to pick some up on the drive home. Maybe get a six-pack, too. A cold beer to finish up the day. That sounded good.

The vehicle next to mine was also a pick-up. It was in a much worse state. I could see rust flaking off the undercarriage. There were dents all over the bodywork and the tyres didn’t look in great shape. A man was leaning against the truck smoking a cigarette. As I got closer he came up off the car and spoke to me.

‘You’re Gus, right?’ he said. He blew out a long stream of smoke. He had a large gap in his face where his middle teeth should have been. The teeth that remained were yellow, turning to brown in patches.

I shrugged. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’

The man nodded, then shook out a cigarette and offered it to me. I took it and bent forward to accept his light. There was a powerful odour coming off him, more than the sweat of a hard day’s graft. It made me want to throw up.

‘Heard a lot about you.’

I couldn’t think what. I didn’t even know where he’d seen me before. Must have been a new employee. The turnover was huge at that place. But I wasn’t a high flyer. There was no reason he should have picked me out. I forced a smile. ‘That’s nice.’

He returned the favour, showing more of those horrible teeth. ‘Hey listen, you want to grab a beer?’ He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We can go in my car, if you want. She’s not much but she knows how to run.’

I didn’t think about it much. ‘OK, sure.’

He flicked the cigarette butt to the floor and ground it under his foot. ‘Gotta make a quick stop at mine first. You cool with that?’

‘Sure.’

He walked to the other side of the truck. I looked over my shoulder at my car. Fuck it. Would still be there in the morning. And sure as night followed day, I would be there too.

‘Good man,’ he was saying. He smiled over the top of the truck at me. ‘My name’s Corey,’ by the way. Pleasure.’

‘Likewise,’ I said, and got into the truck.

‘So, how long have you been working at that place?’ Corey asked. He lit another cigarette. I wasn’t offered one this time.

I shrugged. ‘Long enough.’ Truth of it, I was struggling to remember. I had only planned on it being a short-term thing, whilst I looked for something better. The days had kind of melted into one from then on. It was years, I knew that much. And since Charlene had given up work, there wasn’t any chance of a way out.

Charlene. ‘Hey, I’ve got to make a phone call, OK?’

Corey nodded. He cracked the window and a hot blast of air buffeted my face. We were heading away from the interstate, into the desert. towards the foothills. I flipped open my cell and stared at the screen. Battery running low. I scrolled to Charlene’s name. My fingers hovered over the call button. I stared at the mountains hovering in the distance. Then made the call.

It rang for an age. As I was about to hang up, she answered. ‘Hello?’ As if she didn’t know who it was.

‘Hi. It’s me.’

She didn’t respond. I just listened to her breathing, slow and ragged. She’d probably fallen asleep in front of the TV again, plate of cookies resting on her belly.

‘I’m going to be late,’ I said. ‘A couple of the night shift failed to show, so they asked if I’d stay on. I’ll be home soon, I’m sure.’

‘Fine,’ she replied. I started to respond, but she was already gone. Corey was staring at me as I placed the cell back in my pocket.

‘Nicely done,’ he said, and grinned. Like we were kindred spirits. I wanted to wring his scrawny little neck. Instead he leaned forward and switched on the radio. An old, miserable country song was playing. But at least I didn’t have to talk. I turned to the window and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, the road turning from tarmac to dirt track, wondering where the hell we were fucking going.

After ten minutes of driving we came upon a small adobe building set back from the road. There was no driveway to speak of, just a more worn patch of dirt that we pulled into. A child’s tricycle lay overturned in front of the porch, its red wheels spinning in the wind. I got out and wished I had a cap with me. The heat was dry and stifling, even at dusk. Corey walked to the porch, opened the screen door and went inside without inviting me in. He disappeared into the back of the house as I stepped through into a long corridor, rooms branching off left and right. I could hear voices in the nearest room to the left, so went in there.

It was only the TV, turned up far too loud. A woman lay on the couch, taking turns flipping through a magazine and looking up at the screen. An ashtray by her elbow was full of roach butts, and she had one on the go. The room reeked of marijuana smoke. I coughed politely.

‘Hi,’ I said.

She raised a hand, then went back to her magazine, blinking with bloodshot eyes as she turned the pages. Jeopardy was on TV, but she wasn’t paying any attention to the questions. I had a feeling she might struggle to find the answers. I heard a yell and looked beyond the room to see two small boys in the back yard. One of them had a model aeroplane and was running around the tiny garden with it. His brother was jumping for the plane, trying to get his turn, and failing. He yelled, loud enough to be heard through the glass of the back door. The boy with the plane laughed and pushed him away. He sat down on the grass and began to cry. I turned my attention back to his mother. She was oblivious.

Corey came back in. He’d changed into a fresh shirt but hadn’t managed to rid himself of that stink. He carried a six-pack of Schlitz under one arm. ‘Shall we?’ he said, and we left the room and headed back to the truck.

We drove away, Corey spinning the tyres, shrouding the house in a cloud of dust. He laughed and popped the tab on a beer, taking two long swallows, then threw me the six pack. I took a can and did the same, feeling the cold beer hit my throat. I already felt settled, relaxed. Corey was drinking like a fish, the first can already gone and out the window of the truck. I drained mine shortly after. He handed me another and I opened it and placed the can between my legs. I hadn’t done that for years. I had a flash of a memory, Charlene and I headed to the drive-thru when we first started dating. Planning to watch a movie but getting too distracted by each other. Getting a buzz on from slow beers, when we had the invincibility of youth and whole world stretched out ahead of us like a delicious promise. It made me crestfallen, to think of it. And how different it was now. How much I dreaded going home. I took a long drink, trying to drown the memories in booze. Dusk had fallen and the lights of the truck bobbed and weaved as we headed back to the highway.

‘Hey,’ Corey said. He lit a cigarette. Without asking, I took one when he replaced the pack on the dashboard. He frowned at me. ‘Gus. You have anything against tits?’

‘Excuse me?’

He grinned. ‘You know, tits.’ He took both hands of the wheel and made that awful grabbing gesture. ‘You into ’em or what?’

I looked at him, face in shadow in the gathering dark. ‘Sure,’ I said. As far as I could remember. ‘Who isn’t?’

Corey smiled, the cigarette glowing red as he inhaled. ‘Exactly, my man.’ We went past a sign for the interstate, one mile away. ‘That’s what I figured.’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Why do you think?’ He shook his head as we approached the turn-off. ‘What else is there to do in this town?’

I didn’t have an answer to that.

We took the first exit off the interstate. Corey took a few turns as we headed deeper into the rougher end of town. I just had time to finish my beer before we pulled into the sparsely lit car park of the Chameleon Club. From somewhere near the entrance I heard the sound of breaking glass, and beyond that, the low thumping bass of music. An empty takeway carton blew in front of me as we got out of the car and headed for the club. The neon chameleon sign had the reptile outlined in garish green, with its flicking tongue blood red. A big guy in an ill-fitting suit and white shirt stepped out to greet us.

‘Corey,’ the doorman said. ‘Must be Friday, seeing as you’re here.’ His massive frame dwarfed Corey, who was grinning up at him.

‘I like to be regular,’ Corey replied.

‘Brought a friend along,’ the bouncer said, holding the door open for us. The noise level went up a notch. That’s new.’

‘Gotta keep you guys in business somehow.’

The doorman looked me up and down. ‘Well, you know the drill. Keep your hands to yourself, don’t have too much to drink, and we’ll get along fine. You got that?’

I nodded. ‘Yessir.’

‘You know me,’ Corey said, laughing nervously. ‘Always on my best behaviour.’

‘OK,’ the doorman said, turning away. ‘Enjoy your evening.’

We made our way inside. The noise was deafening. Corey went directly to the bar, which ran in a C shape to the right of the club. In back, under a blue glitterball, a girl went through the motions of dancing, clutching the pole and throwing her head back as men grouped around tables looked on with gaping eyes. To the left of the stage was a velvet red curtain which presumably led to the private area. As I took stock the curtains parted and a woman wearing not very much escorted a man back to the bar. Up close I could see she was barely out of her teens. She whispered something to a barman and a glass of clear liquid appeared in front of her. She drank it in one swallow and before she had time to turn round a man had settled in beside her. After a few seconds of conversation they disappeared behind the curtain. On stage, the girl had finished her performance and there was cursory applause as she exited the stage. The glitterball continued to spin forlornly. I felt a twist in my gut and closed my eyes. I opened them to find Corey gesturing at me from the bar.

‘This place is great, isn’t it?’ he said, sliding a bottle of Bud down the bar to me. I took a sip. There was an accompanying shot of whisky with fingerprints on the glass. Corey held his up in a toast and we drank. I shuddered getting it down. The knot in my stomach ratcheted tighter.

‘And the women!’ Corey said, ogling a blonde as she worked a table close by. ‘More tail than you could shake a stick at.’ He showed me the hole in his face again. ‘So, you wanna get a little private action?’

I was about to shake my head when the blonde poked her face in. She was wearing enormous heels and a short dress that left nothing to the imagination. She was even younger. The thought of her dancing for a leering idiot like Corey sent bile to my throat.

‘Either of you fine young men interested in a little dance?’ she drawled. Her accent was fake and embarrassing.

‘I could be tempted, sugar lips,’ Corey said. ‘You gonna make it worth my while?’

She did an exaggarated twirl. Her dress was so short I noticed a vaccination scar on her inner thigh. Corey was eyeing her small breasts. ‘You like what you see?’ she said.

Corey reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of notes. ‘You betcha, darling. How about it?’

She smiled and took his hand. ‘You’re my type of guy,’ she said, and led him away. He grinned as he brushed past me. I turned back to the bar and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disgust and self-loathing to subside. When it didn’t, I picked up my Bud and drained it in one. Corey had left his drinks behind, so I had them too. Then I turned and walked out.

The alcohol had gone straight to my head. But I needed more. Enough to forget. There was a liquor store on the next corner, where I bought a fifth of Four Roses. Outside, I unscrewed the cap and drank until I started to cough. I stumbled crossing the street, but kept going, and kept drinking. The bottle was half empty went I careered into a shop doorway and stood, trying to catch my breath. I took out my phone and stared at the lit up screen. Battery at 12%. Still enough life to call Charlene. But I knew I couldn’t.

I managed to walk another block before it all hit me at once and I slumped down in an alleyway next to the bank. The world was starting to spin, big time. Perhaps lying flat would make it stop. I did and it had no effect. I looked up at the stars, willing it to go away, thinking that there had to be more than this, that this couldn’t be all that life had to offer. I imagined Charlene asleep, a wide space in the bed where I was supposed to be. A woman whose bed I shared but whose life I no longer did.

I shuffled onto my side and vomited, a steady stream that was all liquid and singed my throat. I watched it trickle into a storm drain. Then I passed out.

I woke up with an axe splitting my forehead. The sunlight hurt my eyes as I checked my watch and groaned. Only an hour until the next shift started. I inspected myself and found that miraculously I hadn’t benn sick on my clothes. Standing up took guts. It took everything I had. I wished for a pair of sunglasses to shield my eyes from the penetrating sun. My mouth was dry, my body crying out to be rehydrated. Sharp pain hit my kidneys with every breath. Putting one foot in front of the other was difficult, but I made it to the mouth of the alleyway. Somehow, I was only a ten minute walk from work. Wherever I went I felt its pull, a job that meant nothing yet took forty hours a week from my life. Nuts for Donuts was en-route. I had time. I stepped into the day and got out of there.

‘Jesus, Gus,’ Brenda said when I reached the counter. ‘Rough night?’

I just nodded. I didn’t feel up to conversation.

‘What can I get you? You could do with an aspirin, if you ask me.’ She tittered and tapped her pencil on the pad in front of her.

‘Coffee. Black. That’s all. I’m going to use the bathroom, OK?’

Brenda frowned. ‘Sure, Gus. I’ll bring it to your usual booth.’

In the bathroom I took a leak, then drank long and hard from the cold tap. I splashed my face and inspected it in the mirror above the sink. Dark lines around my eyes. Little scratches on my forehead from sleeping on the rough ground. Angry purple veins prominent across the bridge of my nose. A middle aged man, drunk in a cheap bathroom. For an act of rebellion, it didn’t seem like much. Felt like a drag, to be truthful. A weight around my neck that wasn’t heavy enough to pull me down, but was always present. And had been for a long time.

Brenda shoved the coffee in front of me as I sat down. ‘Sure I can’t get you anything else?’

I nodded. I was incapable of food at this juncture.

‘All right, then.’ She hovered by the table. ‘Charlene was in here yesterday morning. How’s she doin’?

‘She’s fine,’ I said. I could tell Brenda was keen to say something more, but a sharp glare put paid to that. She forced a smile and left me to it. The coffee was hot and strong, burning my insides as I drank it down. I finished the cup and left a couple of bills under the saucer. I didn’t leave a tip. It was even hotter outside. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. I staggered the last few blocks to work and punched in two minutes before my shift was due to start. Almost like clockwork.

The truck was where I’d left it when I clocked off. As it should be. The shift had passed without incident. I got some strange looks and was avoided by just about everyone. Which made it a normal day. I didn’t see Corey. He’d probably called in sick. Whatever. I didn’t want to be around him, anyway. I got in the truck and crawled home as slow as I could, the hangover fully kicked in now, and it was punishing. Sweat poured down my forehead as I finally pulled in at home and parked up. I sat in the truck and smoked a cigarette. There wouldn’t be any row. That would mean she cared. More likely silence, or worse still, pretending it had never happened. I smoked the butt all the way down to the nub, then went inside.

She wasn’t in the lounge or kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink. I found a beer in the fridge and twisted off the cap. Took a swallow and grimaced. Then slowly climbed the stairs.

Charlene was in bed, facing away from me as I sat down and placed a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn around or do anything. I whispered her name. Still nothing. I looked over and saw that her eyes were closed. I didn’t think she was asleep. I said her name louder, and again there was no reaction. So I gave up. As I stood up a tear escaped from beneath her eyelids. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. I killed the lights and went back downstairs.

I took the beer out to the porch. The view was spectacular of the desert plain and the grand swirl of the mountains. We had fallen in love with it on our first viewing of the house, just after we were married. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d enjoyed it together.

I thought back over the night’s events, thinking of that girl bathed in blue, dancing with the world’s weight on her young shoulders, already wondering where it had all gone wrong, how her life had been snatched away before it had even started. And it brought back another memory, one I’d long forgotten. Charlene and I, in the early months as a married couple, in the honeymoon period. Driving back from a weekend in Austin. Somewhere just before the Texas border, she spotted a bar doing karaoke. She urged me to pull over.

‘Sounds like fun, huh?’ she said. Late afternoon sun flashed through her sunglasses, her teeth bright white as she smiled. ‘Whaddya think?’

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘If you want to.’ I never said no to her, back then. It was a time when I would have done anything.

She clapped her palms together, then leant across and kissed me. ‘Let’s do it, then.’

The air-conditioning in the bar was a godsend. We ordered beers as Charlene flipped through the songbook. ‘Here’s a good one,’ she said.

‘I don’t think you’ll have much time to wait,’ I said. It was still early, and the bar was deserted.

‘Well, wish me luck.’

‘Knock em’ dead,’ I said, and moved to a nearby table, clambering onto a stool. For an empty bar, the stage was big and imposing. Charlene grabbed a microphone, and as the lyrics began to scroll across the screen, started to sing.

It doesn’t matter what the song was. It’s a personal thing I’d like to keep to myself. But she was amazing. For its duration I stared at her, transfixed. She kept her eyes on me too, smiling, making me feel like the luckiest man this side of the Gulf of Mexico. How she revelled in the spotlight. When the song ended, rapturous applause broke out. I turned and saw to my astonishment that the bar had filled up whilst she sang, and they were on their feet. I put my fingers to my mouth and whistled. Charlene did a theatrical curtsey and laughed, and all eyes were on her as she jumped off the stage and strode to my side. I put an arm around her and she kissed me, her eyes shining bright. She pulled back and held her hands either side of my face.

‘You and me,’ she said. ‘Always you and me.’

And we smiled and laughed and held each other tight as the applause thundered in our ears.

 

Untitled: The Finish

Finally, finally.  It’s over.  The first draft of my third novel is finally complete.  Given how long it’s taken to get here, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would never happen.  462 days.  Enough time to sail around the world and go back the other way to make sure you didn’t miss anything.  And somehow, 220,000 words have come of it.  Readers will know that I’ve been obsessing over the length of this novel for months, and I can believe the final word count less now than ever.   I don’t know where it has come from.  I’m surprised that I have that much inside I want to express.  I’m amazed the characters had so much they wanted to say.  I’m less surprised at my capacity for talking bullshit.  Somehow it’s all added up to the shambolic mess that makes up my still untitled, third novel.

It’s not even as if I had much to go on. I sat down that cold November afternoon with a vague idea tugging at the back of my mind. It had come from a song lyric.  Not one I’m going to reveal, for that would be a plot spoiler, but it planted the smallest of seeds. I did as I always do, started writing with no fully-formed characters, no idea of plot, only the very loosest ideas about what the story was going to be about, and went from there.  Writing in what some might call a reckless manner means you run the risk of flailing badly, especially at the beginning.  Down little back alleys that lead to nowhere, overwriting, emphasising aspects of character that turn out to be unimportant once the protagonists start to emerge from the shadows, and all that.  Only this time these problems seemed to rear their ugly heads throughout.  On a virtual daily basis, as it happens.  My great fear is that the re-write will bring all these flaws sharply into perspective, and the whole thing might be irretrievable.  So in a sense it’s over, but the real work is only just beginning.

It’s safe to say my emotions on having it finished are mixed.  I ploughed through the conclusion yesterday, smashing out 4,500 words over the course of an afternoon, but I never felt exhilarated by it.  It  is as the whole manuscript has been – a battle.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to devote hours of my life to it anymore (not for a while anyway) as quite frankly, it has consumed me whole for far too long. I got caught in the snake’s belly, that’s for sure.  There’s a certain amount of pride, and a sense of amazement that I have managed to sustain, for good or bad, an output that would run to about 800 pages in paperback.  I’ve read many a book of that length and often pondered how the author did it.  Well, now I know.

And yes, I do feel a bit sad that I won’t get to write about the characters every day anymore.  It’s always a privilege when they let me into their lives (this is genuinely the way I feel it works, no matter how stupid it sounds) and I just try to run and keep up.  They surprised me along the way, angered me, and made me laugh.  Yeah, it feels bereft without them.  Already they are starting to retreat into the distance, but I’ve just got to let them go.  They’ve got lives to lead, and so have I. I wish they’d bothered to help me with a title, though.  Would have saved me a few nights laying in bed thinking about it.

But the show must go on, as they say.  Besides, there are always more tales, right?

Achilles and the Tortoise

That title is, or course, based on the paradox of Achilles never being able to catch up with the pondering tortoise.   Which is a pretty apt metaphor for the never-ending state of my still untitled, third novel.

As you will know from the plethora of posts I have made on this subject, this novel has turned into something of a behemoth.  Deadlines have been trampled on, any attempt to reign in the characters a bit has been firmly resisted, and the whole thing has turned into what might be called with some understatement, a bit of a mess.

For the trouble is, when I feel I’m about to hit the last yards and ready myself to breach the tape, something happens and the line moves a little further off.  I don’t want this to happen.  The over 200,000 words already written are unwieldy enough as it is.  I worry constantly about keeping all the strands coherent and realistic.  I’m certain there’s continuity errors piling up by the hundreds.  And behind it all, a great fear that the whole project will turn out to be a waste of time.

How so, you might say.  It’s a big achievement, writing that much.  I guess it is.  But what will come of it? A difficult re-write which will show up all the deficiencies, then probably a couple of rounds of rejections, than thrown in the online dustbin never to be seen again. And I’ve garnered less enjoyment of it than my previous novel.  I remember smashing out the last 5,000 words of that in a single afternoon, and that was the closest I’ve ever felt to the sheer magic of it, when there really is a muse fluttering on your shoulder and whispering sweet nothings in your ear. That feeling has been sadly extinct this time around. And my output has never got anywhere near those dizzy heights. Hence the interminable slog, and the finish line always out of reach.

I realise this all sounds horribly whiny and self-indulgent, and I can only hold my hands up. It does.  I wish I felt more positive about the whole thing, rather than allow myself to become frustrated.  Writing is like any other job, and most days in any career can be pretty ordinary.  You have to show up and get your head down, regardless of how you feel.  The work may be tentative and flat, but at least it’s there. It would be nice to be swept away by it every once in a while, though. Because if that did happen more often, I might be able to smash the paradox and leave the tortoise trailing in my wake.