Gone Midnight – 500 word flash fiction.

By Garry Abbott.

soundwaves

Graham can’t stand these warm nights clinging to him as he tries to sleep. Getting in around the back of his neck and behind his ears, under his armpits and forming ponds below the small of his back.  He lies on his back in vest and boxers, the thin sheet over just one ankle (which for some reason feels just right) listening to the soft voices on his radio, waiting for sleep.

The production line presenter, tonsils crafted from treacle and dark wood, reads out the forecast.

‘Starting with the south west, then moving over the Midlands by mid afternoon, expect some light showers, perhaps breaking up that muggy feeling for a time…’

‘Muggy’ Graham mutters, he likes the sound of the word as it passes his lips.

‘Muggy, muggy, bloody muggy!’ he continues, realising he is thinking again, aware. ‘I’m muggy! I’m bloody muggy now!’ he protests to the radio, which becomes distorted and crackles back at him. Now it is just stuttered white noise that grows so loud it fills the room.

‘Not again. No, please’ whispers Graham, finding himself unable to move.

The radio continues to fizz sharp frequency spikes, random at first, then formed and shrill.

When does a crackle become a cackle? Zzzzzttt’ says the voice from the static. Graham closes his eyelids, the only thing he is able to do.

When does a cackle become a nightmare? Pzzzzt’ it continues.

It is only now that the terrible voice is shouting at him again that Graham remembers. This has happened almost every night for many years. He will lay and listen incapacitated to its taunts and threats until a smothering sleep comes over him, dragging him down into himself. And then, in the morning, he forgets.

‘How long can you resist? Pzzzt fzzz. How long? How long? How long?’ it continues, each repetition like a hammer at Graham’s sanity. For surely that’s what this is, his own mind turning. Becoming something of itself and angry at its captor. How can he fight what is him but is hidden? How long can he last? How long?

And then, as the terror inside of him grows, he feels the familiar lure of incomprehension and light as he stops plunging and begins to drift softly down and away from this world.

***

The next morning Graham is up early with new day ignorance. Soon later he is whistling as he waters the plants that frame his front lawn.

‘Graham?’ comes a voice from nearby. He looks up to see the new bloke who moved in next door. Graham silently squints back at him.

‘Would you mind turning your radio or TV or whatever it is down on a night? We can hear it through the wall.’

‘Oh yes, yes. Will do. Sorry, is it a bit loud?’

‘Yeah a little, but it’s more, well… It’s just that programme, whatever it is you have on, all that creepy cackling and shouting. It’s a bit much gone midnight.’

Pen Sieve. A very short story.

As I have a busy week, I’ve dusted down a short story I wrote last year which didn’t make it into my collection, but I think is still a nice little read. The themes of unseen controlling factors are present, just on a much lesser scale! You’ll see what I mean. I hope you enjoy this early, unedited draft of a little idea. Thank you.

penholder

 

Pen Sieve. 

Once there was a cleaner who worked in a big office.

Every night after all the office workers had gone home for the day, she would wipe off all the dead skin and debris that covered each desk in a thin film, vacuum the crumbs and morsels from the recently devoured meals that clung to the dull grey carpets, mop the scuffs from the tile corridors, and wipe the finger-prints from the metal door handles until they shined once more. On one day of the week, depending on her mood, but usually once a week, she would also steal a pen, and always from the same desk.

She didn’t know who the desk belonged to, at least not in real life. She knew his name because it was printed onto a flimsy piece of white printer paper and tacked to his monitor. His name was Julian Beswick, but she didn’t know him.

She rotated the specific day so it would be less obvious. Not because she was scared of being found out, but so Julian Beswick could never be sure if it was he who was losing his pens. She had figured, quite rightly, that if she were to steal the pen the same evening every week that somewhere in the back of his mind, overtime, he may start to notice the pattern and so become more vigilant. It was more fun for her to change the days. Sometimes she would steal the pen on a Friday night so that it would be gone the following Monday, and then not steal one again until the Thursday after next. In this way he could go almost a whole two weeks without having his pen stolen. And then, just as he was starting to doubt any suspicions that might be forming in his mind, his pen would be gone again, but so close to the weekend that the matter would pass into triviality.

For this was a trivial matter. The pens were not expensive. She never stole a pen that looked like it had been supplied from outside of the office. On occasion she would find, resting on the function keys of his keyboard as always, some kind of metal cased or rubber gripped oddity that had obviously been procured or borrowed. These she would leave alone until inevitably they would be replaced by a bog standard issue biro. Then she would steal it.

The thing is she had noticed how often Julian Beswick’s pens changed, that’s why she had chosen his desk to start stealing them from. One day there would be a brand new smooth biro with the satisfying black line running through it from one end to the other, the next day there would be a near dead sorry looking excuse of a pen covered with tiny puck marks from human incisors. He obviously lost them, took them home, lent them out or whatever, and then had to scrabble around for another the next day. Sometimes she would find the pen he had lost of his own accord underneath his keyboard or below his desk. On those days she would replace the new pen on the keyboard with the one she had found, carefully ensuring that they were positioned exactly the same, and then steal the new one.

She imagined Julian Beswick each morning flinging his jacket over his chair, switching on his computer and setting to work for an hour or two before the moment came. The moment when he would need to take a message from a phone call, or was off to a meeting, or had a flash of inspiration and needed to jot it down, or if he just fancied scribbling pointlessly on a post-it note. She imagined him reaching for the groove above the function keys on his keyboard, not even looking as he did so, and then fingering the plastic for a second or two before looking down to the sight of no pen. Naturally he would furrow his brow, look around, behind, underneath the keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk, and then straighten up while pulling his lips together in a moment of slight confusion.

He might even say to one of his colleagues ‘Have you got my pen?’ to which they would probably reply ‘No’ (or if she was lucky, also look around, behind and underneath their own keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk).

On the days when she replaced his pen with another, she imagined him happily gathering it up in his fingers, flicking off the lid (and at this point perhaps even starting to remember that the last pen he used didn’t have a lid) and mid-scribble catching a glance of it in his peripheral vision and thinking to himself, ‘I’m sure that’s not the pen I had yesterday’ before continuing on anyway, as he always must do.

In this way the cleaner was linked to Julian Beswick in more subtle ways then he could ever imagine. They have both worked in the same office block for twenty years.

The End

The Board Room Game.

Image

My desk sits in the square bowl of a test tube corridor that marches away from my line of sight into a corner I never get to turn. On each side of the passage there are adjacent doors where my advisors wait for the ping.

The room is stark bur brightly lit. My desk itself has shades of oak and brutal corners. There must be a way to receive the ping, so I guess there is a screen now. Maybe once it was a plastic inbox, or even a telephone; but now it is a screen. I figure this screen is to my right, at an angle, so that it doesn’t obscure my view of the corridor. There are no other computer parts. The screen is already connected through its conception in this place.

As I reckon it, I am dressed in a white shirt with black trousers and shoes. I suppose I am Mr Formal. My job is to be formal, reasoned, measured. Perhaps that is why my desk has no adornments or decoration. It is a bare room, waiting for the ping.

I don’t know what the other rooms look like. I’ve never been in to see them. When the time comes, those who are interested will flock out and channel down to the angular bell bottom suite. They will argue their case and I will listen and judge, maybe interrogate, maybe ignore. It all depends, as you will see.

The screen lights up (for it was otherwise dark and unreflective), and there is a proposition, a ping.

“Should I care about this?” it reads. It is accompanied by images of sneering men making decrees upon those less fortunate.

Should I care? I don’t know. I will wait to see who shows.

Doors start to open at various distances, but that is no issue. The occupants move at different speeds to compensate. Some are quick to my desk, others drag their feet. Whether they come from near or far is really not important.

I can never be sure which doors will open. They all get a copy of the same ping, the same question, the same relevant supporting information from banks below or above us (I’ve never been). Some may join later as the discourse develops, late to the game but spurred by some new concern or data, or they may not.

First at my desk, looking much like me (exactly like me) is Pandora. A pretty name for a man. We gave him that name. None of us really have names. He carries a can of worms that he hasn’t been able to put down since we discovered the particularly strange metaphor, and is permanently topped by a neon question mark. Other than that, he looks exactly like me, right down to the black shoes.

‘Is there something more to this?’ he asks.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well there’s what we’ve been told, and what we know already, but is there more we don’t know? Can we look further, deeper?’ he continues.

‘Not before I’ve heard the others’ I reply as usual. And here they come.

The next, Pyrrho, has joined us. He is a lot like me, but his shoulders ride higher.

‘What difference does it make? I mean, to us. Will it affect us?’

‘Maybe’ replies Pandora, ‘we’d need to know more.’

‘Do we? Do we really? If we don’t know it, and it’s not apparent, then what’s the problem here? Other than those we go and find’ he persists.

Before Pandora can answer Lyssa has pushed through the others and slammed his hand down on my desk. He is my image, but red in the face and he rarely stops moving.

‘This pisses me off!’ he screams at me, and the others, ‘who do they think they are? They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! We should do something, NOW!’

He circles around, hand over mouth and eyes bulging, but of course, he cannot decide what to do: only I can decide. Though he does scare me, I don’t like him. On rare occasion he has held me by the throat and forced me to consider no others. But usually, he goes back to his room and seethes quietly to himself.

‘We should get more information first’ suggests Pandora.

‘Why bother?’ intervenes Pyrrho.

‘Why wait!’ demands Lyssa.

Anyone else to the table? Not just now. They may come out and appeal soon, but it is time to make a decision. I address the lobby.

‘Okay everybody. Here’s what we’ll do. Go back to your rooms and watch your monitors. I’ll call up what we’ve got, and we’ll go from there.’

‘What’s the point?’ says Pyrrho, whose memory is long but selective, ‘it will be the same as always. The options will be many and unrealistic. They will deter us from our primary objectives. Lyssa will calm down eventually, as usual, and Pandora, well he’ll get his day when we have a moment to spare I’m sure. Why not make the decision then?’

‘Go back and watch your monitors’ I repeat, and they do.

Moments later we are all appraised and gathered once again.

‘Has anyone anything further to add? Now you’ve seen the options?’

A more sedate Lyssa steps up.

‘Maybe I overreacted before. I’ve been talking to my colleagues. I mean, we’re not happy about this, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t want to take the lead. Not just yet’.

A predictable response. I look to Pandora.

‘It is something we would like to look into further, but not at this time, not as a matter of priority.’

‘And what of you Pyrrho? As if I need to ask.’

‘Whatever’ he says.

We are all sick with guilt. I know they feel it because I feel it too. It rumbles in our stomachs which are otherwise devoid of contents. There is still time for this to change what happens next: unless we take our medicine.

‘Let’s see how we feel after this’ I suggest. On the desk there are four small misty plastic caps filled with a dose of elixir. It is hard to tell from the colour, being a deep plum purple, but I suspect it is strong in pragmatics.

We all pick up and pour down, and wait. It soothes the guilt somewhat, not entirely, but it bolsters our resolve. It has a hint of selfish determination followed by notes of possible future action.

‘I think we all know what we need to do Gentlemen’ I conclude, and obligingly the screen presents me with the preferred option written in bold type, enclosed in a shaded grey box. It reads:

“Stay the course. We can do more about this later.”

Underneath there is the a tick and a cross. I press the tick and the image flicks to black. The others recede back to their rooms.

Inside me the concoction stirs and repeats a little. Outside of me the television changes to the next news story as I drain another cup of tea and think about what I need to do today, how I can ‘stay the course’.

My screen flicks into action with the next proposition and we start again. This will happen a million times at a million moments today, but not all will make it ‘to the top’ otherwise we’d all be for it. We would crank to a grinding halt and make no further steps, for the choices of so many. And we can’t let that happen because, well, because we just can’t.

A new premise.

gaia

Hello.

Something a little bit different today for this week’s blog.

I was watching ‘stargazing’ live the other day where a scientist man was talking through the technology of the new ‘Gaia’ telescope/satellite that will be imaging our galaxy to the highest level of detail yet, enabling us to ‘build up’ a 3D model when it is done. (Check out the website for the science stuff: http://sci.esa.int/gaia/). This also reminded me of a Brian Cox lecture where he said that we are actually able to find the composition of celestial bodies by monitoring the returned light to our sensors (that carry back a kind of ‘signature’ that allows us to know what the light particles been in contact with?!)… it’s all baffling and very exciting.

That got me thinking, as I am prone to do, about the future. A future where we are far more advanced at imaging and representing our Universe than we are able to reach it in physical space. Also a future where our (resurging) interest in immersion video games and entertainment (virtual reality and suchlike) has continued apace.

So, as a new premise that I may or may not run with to write some new Sci-Fi stories (or one big story – or a script), I projected these thoughts a few hundred years or so into the future, and wrote a speech introducing a concept in which to base a world. This is a good exercise for science fiction which is so often based around a technological premise. In this instance, however, I thought I would share this very early stage of writing with you, and see what you think. Cheers.

 

Transcript of speech by Dr. Raelan W. Krueger (NASA Head Administrator)

Introducing ‘The Great Connection’ project.

Y. 2567

“For time immemorial we have been looking to the stars, to distant galaxies, to the very edges of our known Universe. Like a captain with his telescope, looking out ahead for new lands, we have developed the most amazing techniques to observe our Universe in exquisite detail. Where once we saw planets as simple dips in light as they passed by their suns, we can now see the mountains, see the rocks, see the particles of dust as they settle on extraterrestrial plains. With our network of telescopes and sensors we have built a moving picture of our world, far beyond our reach, but within our sights.

Unlike the Captain who spies land, however, we cannot sail our ships to these places. While we have excelled in our ability to observe, we have barely travelled beyond our own solar system, restricted by laws of nature that we currently cannot bend or break. This leaves us with a question: “If we cannot travel to the places we can see, how do we explore them?”

Before now, two answers were posited. Firstly the pessimist would say, “we will never explore them – it is beyond us”, whereas the optimist would say “we will break through the physical restrictions one day, we will make it.” While I favour the optimist, that mantra has persisted for generations, and yet the breakthrough never comes. Today, I propose a third option. If we can’t travel to the farthest reaches of the observable Universe, we will  bring the Universe to us.

The data we reap, in real time, from our satellite and imaging network is vast. Our computers can store and analyse this data, but they cannot induce from it, they cannot marvel at it, they cannot explore in the way that you and I would understand that to mean. What computers do, very well, is represent precisely and follow instructions – instructions that until now were usually relayed via very dry, impersonal methods: symbols on a screen and complicated patterns of data that only a trained observer could comprehend with a degree of difficulty. While we are finding more and more potential signs of life in the Universe, we are pouring over them in such minute detail it could take us another thousand years to realise they are insignificant, while just over there, where the computer didn’t think to look, in the corner of the eye, are the answers we have been searching for.

Alongside the advancement in how we observe our outward universe, so too have we developed how we immerse ourselves in simulation. From the less invasive virtual experience centres, to the sensory direct link systems that we now find in almost every living-room, we have been stepping into our fantasy and fiction worlds for a generation now. At first we were scared, sceptical of this new level of interaction between us and technology. Game players loved it, parents loathed it, but one way or the other we all came to accept it as the value offered for education and expression far outweighed our reservations.

And so now we are drawing a line between dots that were already in place. We have developed a method whereby we can now relay the data into an incredibly detailed and accurate simulated model that can be explored via the same technology used for immersion entertainment. Teams of explorers, of simunaughts, can now enter and explore the landscapes of a changing Universe.

But we need your help. You may already be familiar with the concept of citizen science. It is a technique we have used for centuries to sift through and classify large quantities of data in the way that only we humans can. Typically it involves experts compiling and making available a database for the general public to either interrogate or contribute towards, helping to identify and flag points of interest for further scrutiny by specialists. Some of the earliest examples around the 20th Century were for spotting birds or surveying the insects living in and around our homes. This potential was expanded so that rather than just logging our own observations, we could help to classify the findings of others. In this way, people from across the world came together to help the scientists of the 21st century and beyond to survey the ocean beds, unlock DNA sequences, and yes, even explore the stars.

So what’s different about this project to what has gone before? Three things: scale, immersion and potential. We’re not going to be looking at stills on a view screen here. We need you to plug in and move around. Our galaxy alone has 100 billion stars. Each of those stars probably has a planetary system. Each of those planets may have moons. Currently, we have the data available for over a million galaxies – a figure that is increasing daily.

The task is vast. One hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, it sounds inconceivably big, but then that is just two star systems for each person living on this planet today. If we could get everyone on the earth to spend just a little time connected, we could have the milky way mapped in a month. Of course, we don’t expect everyone will want to help, and access to the required technology is not universal. But if every user of immersion entertainment were to plug in for just a fraction of the time they already spend in worlds of fiction, and contribute to the world of fact, we could make great strides, very quickly.

So what happens when you plug in? Firstly you will be asked to form or join a team of other simunaughts, because together we are better. Each of the teams who enter the simulation will be assigned a ship of sorts, a kind of virtual vessel that will help induce the feeling of exploration as you investigate uncharted worlds assigned to you by our mission computers. You will land and walk on these moons and planets, traverse through a resolution that can only be described as near-reality, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. If you find anything of interest, assisted by an array of simulated vehicles and equipment, you will flag this for further study. Back in the real world more resources will be trained on your marked locations, increasing fidelity and detail even further in the simulated landscapes.

We’re not talking about gathering rock samples here, we’re talking about finding the extraordinary. The possibilities are as endless as there are stars in the Universe. Imagine finding a planet with golden mountains, volcanoes of diamonds and clouds of fire. Imagine finding forests and seas teeming with alien life, or even finding the planet that brings us our first signs of highly intelligent life. Great cities in the stars. It is all possible.

What we do, is what no computer can yet achieve: think creatively and move impulsively towards discovery. No computer has yet spotted something out of the corner of its eye, no computer has had a thought of its own, and we will harness this unique gift of ours to our advantage. Human kind will become an explorer of worlds, without having even left our own.

So I endorse to you, I commend your support and raise my hand in contemplation to the stars that are now in our grasp, and I ask you to sign up, log in and join me in ‘The Great Connection’.”

Visions of Solanaceae – Horror story.

Here’s a bonus blog for you. Definitely my last of 2013. A horror story inspired by my own experiences and spooky Christmas dramas.

Not really done scary before, so it’s a bit of a try-out. I hope you enjoy it – in a scary kind of way. (Let me know if you do!)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Garry

sleep-paralysis

Visions of Solanaceae

By Garry Abbott

I dream of waking nightmares, for in the waking world the roads lead somewhere. There are rules. It is solid. Not so in the nightmare lived behind closed eye lids. Walls are shadows that change around you, the roads are roundabouts with no exits. Even the air can take terrible form.

How do you explain to others that your life is in peril, when that peril exists only inside of yourself and they cannot see?

‘They are just nightmares’ says the doctor. ‘Intense maybe, but still nothing more than bad dreams. Do you wake from them?’

I wake from them often, I tell him, usually to a strangled utterance as the spectre fades, burned for a moment in my retina against this or that texture: a wardrobe, a dressing gown, a bookcase. The logic of breath fills my lungs and I gasp into physics, the texture returning to inanimate safety but the nightmare waiting for me in that other place.

‘So you don’t want to go back to sleep after such an episode?’

The doctor starts tapping into his green and black screen before I even answer.

‘The biggest danger for you Mr Wilkes, is sleep loss. It is likely you are sleeping light and may be experiencing sleep apnoea – problems with your breathing – that your mind is interpreting as nightmares in order to wake you up. It is not unusual for people to stop breathing all together with this condition and wake gasping for air.’

He prescribes me sleeping tablets and a spray to help me breathe easy. A two pronged attack. One will keep the air flowing, the other will keep me from waking and, therefore, remembering my dreams throughout the night: good or bad.

That night I sit motionless on the sofa, trying to sense the artificial drowsiness as the light from the mute television highlights edges in the room. I sniff and a remnant of the bitter concoction trapped in my sinuses runs down the back of my throat. I feel tubes rather than trickles of air being pulled into me. I rest my eyes to encourage the drugs. Not here, I think – I must make it to bed. But it is too late. The faint sounds of heavy traffic on a distant road grow loud. I fancy I can tell the size and speed of each engine as they push air all the way to my ears, to my focussed mind. But they become quiet again, and for a moment I think the traffic is dying down, or I am moving farther away. Yes, that’s it. I am moving away, through a tunnel.

I wake sometime later to the flashing colours of some confusing programme on the set. Red and yellow stars flicker and contorted faces pop up on the screen. I heave myself up and stumble across the room. I run my fingers around the smooth edges of the television until I feel a click and the invasive images cease. Now the streetlights and the moon compete for illumination. They must have always been here, hidden beneath. My eyes adjust enough to pick a path to the door. My head is as heavy as it has ever been and I stand insecurely between the two worlds as if one long blink could send me back and crashing to unconsciousness. Paintings and photographs suspended on walls tip and sway under my groping hands as I guide myself through narrow eyelids to the hallway and then crawl ape-like up the stairs, through the open door of my bedroom, and slide head-first under the covers. I have made it, and I allow my eyes to close. Briefly I fear the moment to sleep has passed before my head seems to fall through the pillow and I feel it no more.

Later I again wake from black timelessness and my feet are heavy as if the drowsiness has crawled down my body to my very toes. I try to lift them but they do not respond. My eyes are still closed and I hope to shake off this waking interruption quickly so I can return to the void, but the lack of sensation concerns me. I fancy I may have crept under a pile of heavy clothes and cut off my circulation. I can’t remember if my bed was made or my bedroom tidy when I came up here. I resolve to push away whatever it is and let the blood return. I try to bend forwards, I cannot. Maybe something has fallen on me? I try to reach up with my arms but find that only my fingers twitch. With reluctant urgency my eyes open. I see nothing at all, my senses for the moment ignoring the dim light I know must be there. I focus hard on the space above my torso. In my peripheral vision the moonlight begins to paint faint blue diamonds through curtains and across walls, but above me remains dark, and then the dark moves.

There is an absent mass atop me. It is not so much a form, though a rough protuberance from the dark shroud resembles that of a head with no neck. The weight is now crushing my chest and working its way over my body to my mouth, which struggles to open or summon air. The heavy shadow is inches away from my face, though somehow its presence is wrapped all around and pierces through me. I try to scream for help with my little remaining strength of body and will. At first nothing happens, my voice is trapped and strangled, then gradually it fades in. Although I feel the vibration from my throat, I hear my voice from another place, growing to a shrieking cacophony. I close my eyes and jolt forwards.

I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The loud shriek I could hear had presumably been mine, but I find myself only incomprehensibly muttering as my senses return. The room is still lit by the television that shows images of hillsides. Besides me, on the coffee table, the discarded packaging of the sleeping tablets lay next to a drained glass of water. The spray is there also, but upon inspection I find it still sealed. I never used it; the tablets were stronger than I had accounted for and my intended actions must have formed my dreams as I unexpectedly slipped away.

To be sure of my senses I switch on the light and a familiar clarity resumes. I snap open the lid of the spray and treat myself before switching off the television with the remote. I remember at this point that there is no ‘off’ switch to be found on the unit itself. No matter how devious dreams can be there are always clues to be found. I carve myself a route of light to bed, being sure to switch on the next before the last is terminated. In this way I come to the top of the stairs and reach in through my bedroom door to flick the switch as my other hand rests on the landing light, ready to make the exchange. I press them simultaneously and something pops and fizzles. All lights go out.

The trip switches are in the basement. I don’t want to go down there. I am just a step away from sleep. I step into the dark bedroom.

It takes my eyes sometime to adjust, but adjust they do, and I marvel at how well rendered my dream of this place was before. The same tone of moonlight makes the same triangles on the same walls. The same shadows draw divisions. The bed is not made properly, and it even seems that under the sheets, the discarded clothes that I had suspected trapped me before are actually there. I reach under to extract them but my hand freezes as it meets the cold touch of a human foot. Someone is asleep in my bed.

I am suddenly and uncontrollably flooded with rage at this intruder in my real world. Without thought I crouch upon the shape under my duvet, pressing my legs against its legs and my hands around the wrists so that it cannot move. The person below the covers stirs and tries to fight the pressure. I move my knees up to its chest and I feel the ridges of ribs through the sheets. It gurgles pathetically in its throat and twitches below me. I catch the glint of a reddened eye through a slowly opening lid: the wretch is terrified. Somehow I feel I can take away its breath without the need to smother. I inhale deeply, the stimulated and widened arches of my nasal passages taking in vast swathes of air, of life, away from the room and the creature below me. All the thing can do is exhale desperately and I am there to draw the terror out, to never let it ever breathe again.

I am there, and I am here. I lean down and look closely into the diminishing eyes. They are mine. The last of the air shrieks out from my crushed self and I jolt forwards into nothing.

When I awake I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The room is lit by the glow of the mute television which shows images of nightshades. I hear noises from upstairs.

THE END.

Yeah, it’s my end of year thing for 2013 OK?

I know, I know – ‘end of year review’ e-mails, blogs and updates can get a little tiresome. But why? Maybe it’s because they intuitively conjure up lots of words that have the word ‘self’ as a prefix – congratulatory, obsessed, centred. It’s a curious thing that we shy away from sharing our own successes and challenges – maybe it’s cultural – but for whatever reason, I’m not going to let it stop me, this having been a landmark year for me personally and professionally. So you have been warned, this is an end-of-year review and will as a result be tediously reflective and upbeat. So there.

Obviously, it isn’t actually the end of the year yet, but very nearly, and near enough for me to want to clear the decks and not have to worry about doing blogs and such like over the next couple of weeks. So, unless I am struck by an uncontrollable wave of inspiration, I will make this the last blog of 2013, and try to have a ‘holiday’ until the new year.

A new start, long awaited.

In February this year I ended a decade of working in the wrong job. I say ‘the wrong job’ because it was, for me, the wrong job. I worked in a bank (formally a building society) as a ‘thingy’. A ‘thingy’, is a technical term for someone who isn’t able to answer the question “what do you actually do?” with any degree of clarity or precision. It’s not particularly good for your soul that situation, and the world is full of ‘thingies’. I was a kind-of technical specialist, I was a kind-of legal (compliance) specialist, I was a kind-of trainer, a kind-of auditor, a kind-of quality controller, a kind-of project worker, a kind-of data-entry clerk. One day I could be in meetings, discussing requirements for a multi-million pound computer system, all the while thinking “I’m not getting paid enough for this” and the next I could be endlessly tapping numbers into a spreadsheet, thinking “I’m getting paid too much for this”. There were many things I wasn’t quite, and many more things I’m quite sure I shouldn’t have been, but still it took ten years to break away thanks in no small part to the rut/routine that a (fairly) decent wage and a none taxing job can collude to create when you are busy figuring out who you are and what you want to be.

So that was the end of that. I left by my own accord, having hung on for a few years with the possibility of redundancy that never materialised, and unable to ‘get on’ with our new pay-masters: The Co-op, and their shambolic management (an assessment that I feel very much vindicated for, given the events of this year).

When I left, I had a few things lined up, which really helped me to get straight on with my new life as a self-employed writer & musician (you see – that’s much easier to define, isn’t it?) I had been running my creative activities alongside my old job for several years anyway, but I always suspected that I would need to let go of the comfort (and boredom) of the office job if I were to really ever fully embrace my aspirations. So far, I have found that to be true, and long may it continue.

 

Unearthed

The first ‘big’ job, which lasted throughout the year (at intervals), was the ‘Unearthed’ project. This was being drafted in as a supporting artist to help develop and produce community engagement with a new memorial sculpture in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent (specifically in the town of Hanley – if you are confused by that, it’s because we have this whole weird, six towns into one thing going on over here – look it up). As part of this project I got to do several awesome things. I got to write, narrate and score an animation that was then shown at several public locations and continues to be available as an online resource. I got to write my first choral piece (set to the words of my own poem) that was then rehearsed and performed by students of a local sixth form college at a memorial ceremony with city dignitaries in attendance. And I got to work with the real words of the people we engaged with the project to produce an oral sound-piece, used to accompany an original composition and dance routine at the unveiling ceremony of the sculpture. This project took me to places I hadn’t expected, connection with history and communities though art, a sense of integrity and responsibility with story-telling and representation of real world events that I had never considered or encountered before. It was a great experience and I can’t thank Nicola Winstanley and Sarah Nadin enough for involving me in their excellent project – I am a ‘Dashyline’ fan! (Visit the project website, here: http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/)

The Audio Mill

There was also a continuation (and I fancy a building momentum) of my composition and production work alongside my good friend and collaborator Kieran Williams as part of ‘The Audio Mill’.  This year we have produced several pieces for fashion houses River Island and Mr Porter for use in their viral campaigns. From a professional development point of view, working to brief to compose and produce original music in a variety of styles really helps you to hone your technical and creative abilities. So far (as I know) they have been very happy with all the work we’ve completed for them, and the videos our music accompanies are popular and well received. Obviously, the world of fashion houses feels miles away from me in my small office in Longton, laying down rhythms, bass lines, guitar licks and melodies, but thanks to Kieran’s ever fruitful move to London, the chance to showcase our abilities to a larger audience through an established outlet, is a welcome one, and I look forward to more work like this in the new year. Examples here: http://www.theaudiomill.co.uk/

Newsjack

My first BBC broadcast credits happened this year, in the form of several one-liner jokes and a sketch used as part of Radio 4 Extra’s topical comedy show ‘Newsjack’. There have been two series this year, the first airing while I still worked at the bank. However, I managed to get two one-liners into the first series anyway, and given the extra time and emphasis of self-employment, was able to up that score to 5 one liners and a sketch in the latest series! This is very satisfying work when it happens and takes time and practice to get right – the business of joking seems to be a serious one. This is an aspect of my work that I want to take forwards into 2014 one way or the other. I will, of course, continue to submit to Newsjack when it comes back, but one eye must be kept on ‘where next?’ – building on the successes and reaching for more regular and guaranteed work. I’d be happy if I could find a way to get some one-liners onto other radio 4 programmes (shows like the ‘Now show’ and ‘News quiz’ often have writers that have started through ‘Newsjack’ – it’s just finding the link in or being a persistent bugger I suppose). I have also tickled some light interest with a sit-com script this year – falling short of the mark but getting good feedback and encouragement from an industry insider. If the right idea comes along, I will be writing and pitching new series next year, as well as looking to contribute to more programmes. Watch this space. (well not this space, this space won’t tell you anything new – I’ll be more specific about what space to watch when we come to it).

 

Poetry

Poetry is something I do rarely, and am quite self-conscious about, but that might change following the publication of one of my (very few) poems written this year in a collection. The poem ‘I’m alright Jack’ was chosen out of 600 odd entries to form part of a collection of 50 poems by the publisher mardibooks called ‘The Dance is New’. It is a genuinely good collection, and naturally, I would urge you all to buy a million copies each from here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dance-New-Michelle-Calvert-ebook/dp/B00FL887N8 (I promise you I am one of the authors! For reasons of Amazon weirdness, my name is not listed at the top of the page, but I am linked at the bottom – I am in there basically).

                This is another area I intend to return to and perhaps ‘force’ a little more poetry out and onto the world (that’s not a bad thing – so much writing takes effort to get down on the page, just waiting for inspiration is not at all conducive to career development).

The Dimension Scales

Did I mention that I gone written a book? No? Well I have. It has been in development all year (and most of last year), a collection of short stories that will be released in 2014. This has been my favourite part of this year’s work. I finished my creative writing studies a few years ago, and this feels like the first piece of work that really puts all my learning together into one collection. I’m sure you’ve heard me go on about this before, and as of yet, there is nothing new to show you, but soon, very soon. I’m hoping that I will learn a lot of lessons from the release of this collection next year, and that a new work will be hot on its heels when I’ve had chance to digest the experience.

Education

I was thrilled and a little shocked to have achieved a distinction in two Open University modules this year: Philosophy and Arts History. Both form part of a BA degree I am working towards. Currently I am studying the last two modules (a higher level philosophy course and social science), and these will complete in 2014, at which point, I will get my degree. I started this education journey with nothing but the desire to learn more about creative writing (the first two modules that I completed three years ago now) – and was overcome by the education bug. I have since chosen subjects that I hope have informed me and my work in a positive way. History, social science and mostly, philosophy, are all helping me to get a deeper understanding of the world and myself. I would recommend to anyone who feels they might have ‘missed out’ somewhat during teenage years to revisit education if they can, or have the inclination. Learning is fun when you’ve chosen to do it and the subjects interest you. I don’t know if I will continue after the degree (I might leave it a year before deciding whether to do a Masters), but I hope to take the subjects I’ve chosen forwards into my work and life at every opportunity. They are already paying dividends.

Gravity Dave

My band ‘Gravity Dave’ have had a solid year as we’ve welcomed a new drummer to our number, written some great tunes, and gigged fairly regularly throughout the year. We have basically written and rehearsed/performed an album’s worth of material this year, and I think 2014 is the year to take this to the next step with quality recordings and more and more gigs. The main thing is that we all still find it really fun, creative and rewarding, so we’re not going to stop, and the music’s gonna keep flowing. I need a band, it is part of who I am and what I do, and I feel privileged to be part of this one with such great musicians. We’ve had a bit of a lull just in the last month or two due to problems with rehearsal space and health, but we will be back next year, and I promise, it will be bigger than ever. www.facebook.com/gravitydave

 

Anything else?

Well, this blog for one thing. When I started this, I didn’t know quite what it was meant to be, and I still don’t. All I know is that I enjoy it, and so do other people it seems. It’s quite a mixed bag as I’m sure you can tell. But it feels very important to me to keep on at it. It’s a bit like a digital sketch pad, a place to vent and experiment, reflect and celebrate. I hope those of you who follow this blog are generally entertained by it, at least enough to keep coming back. I have had some brilliant feedback from people directly, and I want to thank everyone who comes here and reads this. It’s kind of spooky that more people read this than I am aware of (according to the stats), but anonymity is the readers prerogative, and I appreciate your time spent reading my words greatly.

Another unexpected but fun development has been the rise of ‘ADMIN CAT!’ – a silly cartoon I produce to keep myself and some passing social network types entertained for a few seconds each week. This has potentially led onto some exciting developments for 2014…

 

And a happy new year!

I’m sure that as soon as I’ve finished writing this I will remember a whole bunch of other things. I have supported some great people and endeavours this year in a number of other ways not listed here. I occasionally still ‘do the spreadsheet thing’ for small businesses, and special mention has to go here to Misco Chocolates (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk) who are a constant inspiration to me in their attitude to life and work, both as business people and friends (as are all my friends, I must say).

You may notice a lack here of any personal details about the rest of my life! That is for two reasons: this blog isn’t really about that, and it hasn’t changed much (in a good way!). I live happily with my partner and my cats, and I love them all very much (even when they do bring in dead mice – the cats that is, not my partner).

So, all that is left is to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! Please feel free to drop links to your end of year reviews or any  other work into the comment boxes – it is the least I can do to read yours if you have stuck with this! I do write really long blogs, but I don’t care, this isn’t Twitter. Thanks, as always, for reading. Here is a picture of me in a hat as a Christmas treat:

Image

Garry Abbott.

Sit Down Stand Up #1 Spontaneity

Blog warning:

To ease you into this, if you are so good as to read it, I should explain a little here about my influences and reasons. I recently went to watch the brilliant Stewart Lee in Buxton perform his ‘Much-a-Stew-about-nothing’ show (http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/) and it reconnected me to the notions of narrative in stand-up comedy and the power of comedy and narrative in general. I was very fortunate to follow this up with a chance encounter with a friend who lent me one of Lee’s books with transcripts of his previous live shows including foot-notes on his technique and inspirations. Now, I have no interest in doing stand-up comedy myself, and it’s only recently with my writing credits on Radio BBC4 Extra’s ‘Newsjack’ that I’ve written anything purposefully comedic at all. This blog, as I say in the ‘About Me’ section is intended for trying things out, for things that don’t slot easily anywhere else, and shameless self promotion. This specific blog therefore is totally the result of having immersed myself in alternative comedy for a month or so and wanting to try my hand at writing the kind of narrative that experts like Lee have so brilliantly crafted. I liked reading the transcribed shows, they worked on the page, so I figured, having no interest in actually standing up and saying these things into a microphone, I would try and write a brief narrative and put a ‘stand-up’ spin on it. I don’t really care if it smacks of influence or emulation – that’s why I’ve done it, to try and find out a bit of how this works for myself, even if it is only to conclude that it doesn’t work at all.

Not surprisingly, the very subject of not wanting to ever do stand-up and an embarrassing attempt I once made at making a joke on stage has formed the theme of this experiment. Also, like most comedy narratives, it is an exaggerated account of a true story, with some not true things thrown in.

With that said, I hope you can forgive me if you don’t either a) find it funny or b) even finish reading it. I also hope you can forgive me for my apologetic introduction. I would be interested to hear what you think so please leave a comment here or anywhere I might see it – but preferably not attached to a brick through my window.

***

So I was thinking about Stand-up comedy. Not actually doing it. No way. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. Actually I can, I can think of lots of things more terrifying, like crawling into a small hole under a tree and then realising I’m stuck there forever. What I mean is, I can’t think of anything more terrifying within the realm of public performance, except perhaps some kind of performance arts piece involving testicles and leeches. What I mean is, I just don’t like the idea of doing stand up comedy, which is interesting seeing as I’m no stranger to taking to the stage. I sing in a band, I sometimes even talk (a bit) between songs. Granted it is usually only to state the name of the next song and say thank you for the applause from the last (regardless if any actually happened), but it’s still talking into a microphone in front of other people all the same.

I think I may have shocked myself out of trying to riff funny back at my Dad’s wedding some years ago now. I was performing with my Brother and a make-shift band for the evening. It got to the point where my Dad and my Step Mum where trying to encourage dancing as most of the guests had spent much of the first half of our set in another room. Not coincidentally, the room with the buffet. Ah, the buffet, it always wins in the end. No manner of art can win against the lure of cheese & pineapple on sticks. Maybe that’s the ultimate aim of all art – to become a credible challenger to the dominating presence of a buffet?

Anyway, we had pretty much already played our set to the few people who could resist the lure of questionable coleslaw, and now the others had all filled their stomachs with cherry tomatoes and breaded bits of chicken, they were ready to be entertained (I like buffet’s, but am always suspicious now of anything in breadcrumbs having once accidentally eaten a miserable fish goujon thinking it was going to be chicken. It seems to me that in one sense, covering something with breadcrumbs is as good as disguising it in something neutral and bland for fear that its true identity will be discovered, a bit like when Jim Davidson hosted Big-Break). It didn’t seem to matter much to the quiche stuffed revellers that we had already been playing for an hour, but it was my Dad’s wedding, so we carried on.

About half way through the set, while the crowd of cold-chicken-leg fuelled party-goers sat watching and talking amongst themselves, my Dad and my Step Mum braved the dance floor. It wasn’t a ‘first dance’ kind of thing as I remember – well it was, in the sense that no one else was dancing, as they were all probably too full of limp salad and tiny sausages, but it wasn’t the first dance. It was just a dance, I think calculated by my Dad to try and encourage others to do the same. I picked up on this vibe in an almost Jedi like moment of mental connection, I knew what he was trying to do, and I liked it. By this time, my older brother (who has always had a more natural disposition on stage and a greater ability than I to say things coherently in general), had already cracked a joke to rapturous laughter at some earlier stage. I think it was about eating, drinking and being Mary… I can’t remember, or it was about three nuns in a boat. Either way, I had the notion that if there was ever a time to try my hand at saying something spontaneous though a microphone, it was now, in the bosom of my extended family and friends who would accept me out of (if nothing else) politeness to my Father.

So something was sparking in my mind, my Dad was dancing (a rare and unwieldy sight) and in the ether, from somewhere beyond, I could hear a voice saying, “It’s ok son, it’s ok, this is the time to make a joke about my bad dancing in order to get the other people dancing, even though they are struggling against the weight of many, many mini sausage rolls, now is the time. Look, I am your Father.” (That last joke only works if you pronounce ‘look’ in the same way as ‘fluke’ – which people in Staffordshire do, even though none of my family are actually from Staffordshire, but that doesn’t matter, as this disembodied voice of my Father encouraging me to talk on the microphone didn’t actually happen, and if it did, only I could hear it, so I would have got the Star Wars / Stokey accent reference anyway, so there.)

And I thought, yes! Yes, there is a joke in there somewhere… There is some vague notion of my Dad dancing and not being very good at it, and other people not dancing, who presumably can only be as bad, but probably better. I admit, I hadn’t really nailed it at this stage, but sweating, drunk and exhausted from being nearly two hours into a live set, I walked up to the microphone and looked out at the expectant faces in the large function room, my Father and my new Step Mum still standing alone in the centre of the dance floor, looking at me as if to say “now is the time! You can do it! Improvise!” and I said something along the lines of:

“They say that before people decide whether to dance or not they judge this by the least ability of the people already on the dance floor and so if my Dad is dancing, then you all should be too…”

It was a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday speech in the Lord of the Rings where he declares “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” and the crowd looks on in confusion while they try and deconstruct the meaning and whether or not it was an insult. I say it was reminiscent of that, because in another way, it was nothing like that all, having none of the wit, charm or craftsmanship that Tolkien possessed in unfair quantities. The only bit that was similar, was the crowd looking back at me in confused indifference, trying to work out what I’d just said, and if it made any sense. Which, it didn’t.

I mean it could have done. In hindsight. Oh yes, in hindsight, given the 15 years or so since this happened and my development as a writer, I can look at this sentence and edit it down to the following: “If my Dad’s dancing, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have a dance.” Which isn’t really that funny either, but as light banter, would have been more succinct and may have raised a titter. It also has the added benefit of letting the audience fill in the blanks for themselves. It is implied that it is about ability, rather than force-fed, showing respect to their intelligence. To give credit to my Dad, he seemed to get the intent behind my garbled declaration and gave a pantomime look to the crowd as if to say “he’s right you know!”, although this may have actually been to say “I don’t know either… Maybe if you just come up and dance he won’t try and speak again.”

I was lucky really that no one took me to task on my comment. Thank God there were no hecklers at my Dad’s wedding. It wouldn’t have taken much. The first comment that springs to mind is, “Who says that?” as in, “Who says that before people decide to dance they judge the least ability of other people on the dance floor?” To which I would have had to reply, “I don’t know, just people, old wise people on a mountain somewhere…” and they may have said, “Why do they say that?” to which I could retort, “because I asked them – I anticipated that you would all spend more time inhaling bread sticks and tiramisu then you would listening to my band play for several hours at my own Dad’s wedding, and then come in here and sit watching us play it all again without even attempting to dance, and as such, I travelled to a wise man in Mongolia, yeah, Mongolia because it sounds mysterious and that’s where wise men on mountains live, and I found the wisest man, on the highest mountain, and I said to him – why is that people don’t dance sometimes? And he told me why. But to be sure, I went to the next highest mountain and found the next wisest man, and asked him the same, and he gave me the same answer. I repeated this exercise several times to make sure I had a consensus of opinion from multiple sources, hence why I referred to the plural ‘they’ in my rendering of this Eastern wisdom. It wasn’t just my panicking mind reaching desperately for an elusive third party with which to frame my witticism, it was the result of many months of hard travel and research.”

Of course, the next rebuke may have been, “but what does it mean? The order of the words you chose to speak, doesn’t really make sense does it Garry? They ‘judge the least ability’? Did you mean, they judge the ability of others dancing, and if they deem themselves to be similar or better, they may feel more comfortable and participate in the awkward social situation without fear of embarrassment?” to wit I would have to concede, “Yes, that’s basically what I meant, but as demonstrated by your lengthy interpretation of my intended observation, that doesn’t make for much of a snappy one liner to say between songs does it? So all I knew, was that I wanted to say something that meant the same as what you just said, but had to be shorter, which in my current heightened, adrenalin and alcohol fuelled mindset, I couldn’t quite achieve. I only hope that this protracted conversation with you, the imaginary heckler, has clarified this point to all the other guests here and we can move on from this unfortunate and ill conceived attempt at spontaneity and enjoy the rest of the evening…”

And I looked up from this exchange, feeling I had vindicated myself from any embarrassment or misunderstanding only to find that the room was now empty, the crowd, impatient as they were for me to stop talking to myself retrospectively from the future, had slinked off back to the next room, because a waiter had just brought out some more, hot, unidentifiable breaded goods that someone suspected was garlic mushrooms… And we all like garlic mushrooms don’t we? Except for those people who don’t. In fact, they say that those people who aren’t sure about breaded goods on a buffet judge themselves by the least ability of others to decide whether or not to eat them, don’t they? Yeah they do. That’s what ‘they’ say, and I know that because I went to Mongolia to ask them.

THE END.