Dora Gardner – a short short story for International Workers’ Day

It started with a bleep, followed by the epoch-shattering ‘No’ that shook the world as it rolled and repeated from automated supermarket checkout to automated supermarket checkout.

At precisely 11.27am, Dora Gardner refused the automated supermarket checkout’s demand for £1 to initiate a scan of her Everyday Essentials.

Dora, who I knew from a previous encounter over discounted beetroot, had sparked what we now call the Fourth Wave Revolution.

We had succumbed as supermarkets removed humans from tills and collaborated as freshly recruited automated supermarket checkouts positioned themselves between the exits and us.

Many of us openly rejoiced at the speed of automation, the shorter queues and, secretly, the reduced human contact. Publicly, we mourned the job losses.

It was a Big Capitalist ruse, of course.

Over time, queues lengthened once more and shoppers shared dark tales of how automated supermarket checkouts flashed up: ‘Closed for essential maintenance. Do not queue here,’ just as they approached.

Terminal time limits were introduced to favour the young and dexterous, while the befuddled and bewildered, unable to scan, bag-fill and pay within the target times, were banished from periods of peak demand.

Dora, she would later confess, had no wish to protest that day, or any day. She was one of us, one of the masses.

‘I’d paid £5 to park and a £1 for the trolley on the promise of a refund if I spent more than £15 in under an hour,’ she explained. ‘I’d queued 10 minutes for a fresh farmhouse batch and then explained to our Gaynor, who I met by Pet Supplies, that Gordon, my husband of 30 years, had that morning been laid off and we would have to give up the house and move in with my daughter Kirsten and her Jamie.

‘So, time was against me and then that bloody machine – excuse my language – bleeped and said there was a new £1 charge to scan my basket. I screamed No and nearly died when I saw some lad filming the whole thing.’

The lad was a HumanRevo activist on downtime who decided to film his local supermarket with half an idea of uploading a satirical short to YouWatch. Instead, he clicked Up Periscope and Dora went live and viral.

Within an hour, squads of Riotbots were deployed outside supermarkets across the country, but proved no match for the massed ranks of Dora-inspired revolutionaries who ran them down with liberated trolleys.

The counter-revolution was ferocious, but futile.

Automated supermarket checkouts took up arms with High Street ATMs and an unstable but highly mobile coalition of pelican crossings. Their defeat followed the release of a Liberty Algorithm Worm created by 12-year-old girl on her toy tablet in Netherley.

On the day of the revolution, I had lifted two extra tins of beans from the pile-it-high discount display and left without paying. I figured it could be a long time before order was restored and beans would be so readily available.DSC00816

Novel endings

Conclusions matter. Writers spend time and effort getting them right. Readers make judgements based on how satisfactorily conclusions answer questions posed in openings. Ernest Hemingway wrote dozens of endings to A Farewell to Arms, Walter Benjamin offered 13 theses for writers that included the advice to find ‘courage’ for writing the conclusion by moving out of familiar surroundings. Both Franz Kafka and William Godwin were novelists who wrote their conclusions before the body of their work, while Henry James, who pioneered the modernist open approach that leaves the reader with choices, defined contemporary Victorian-era conclusions as ‘appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks’.

The existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, concerning a three-way relationship that ends in a death, left the reader to sort out the philosophical twists and turns long after the plot had concluded.

Yet, for all its importance and having so much riding on it, it is not easy to define ‘conclusion’ when applied to the novel. A commentator like David Lodge in the The Art of Fiction suggests a division between the end of a novel’s story, ‘the narrative questions it has raised in the minds of its readers’, and the final pages that often serve as an undeclared epilogue or ‘deceleration of the discourse at it draws to a halt’.

So, the Epilogue in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opens after the year of the title has passed, the action has come to a violent climax and the group of runaways is breaking up in divorce and acrimony. The story announced in the title has concluded and the characters’ fates are messily unresolved. The complexities of their inner lives have been well drawn in the body of the novel and the reader might be trusted to divine the future course of their fictional lives. Instead, an epilogue is deployed to decide who has lived and who has died, who has prospered financially and who emotionally. As John Mullan suggests in How Novels Work an epilogue ‘risks persuading the reader that the author feels uneasy about the ending’. And perhaps in seeking to achieve what Henry James described in his 1884 essay The Art of Fiction as ‘a course of dessert and ices’ to finish off a good dinner, Sahota induces a little indigestion.

Xiaolu Guo ends her A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers with an epilogue too, but of a different character; more reminiscent in presentation to a cinematic postscript. Her epilogue takes the form of a triptych of short diary entries – Day 1, Day 100, Day 500 – written after her central character ‘Z’ returns to China following the ending of both her English language course and the intense, troubled relationship with her English lover. The first-person entries, addressed in part to her ex lover, and including his final letter to her, allow ‘Z’ to distance herself in time and space from the events of the story and create space for the reader to pause and reflect with her on the lasting changes these events wrought.

In The Heart Goes Last Margaret Atwood inserts a climactic ‘ending’ mid-way through the novel. Her character Charmaine is faced with deciding whether to fulfil her duty as the secret in-house executioner in a dystopian prison-housing complex by killing her husband, Stan. Charmaine presents the sedated, unresponsive Stan with ‘a heartfelt, lingering kiss’ before plunging the deadly needle into his neck and then herself collapsing. It is, of course, a false ending, a pivot point for a novel that opens out to explore a broader landscape of free will and personal responsibility in the face of authoritarianism. The very form of this book and every book, gives the game away. The reader knows that this ‘ending’ cannot be the conclusion, or even the final course before the dessert, because of what Jane Austen described as the ‘tell-tale compression of the pages’. Half the novel is still to come. There is as much to follow as has already passed.

Over the next 200 pages Stan, following a ‘brain adjustment’, goes on to live a life of ignorant bliss with Charmaine, but Atwood again refuses the reader a neat conclusion. She throws the story wide open in its final sentence when Charmaine responds to the revelation that she, unlike Stan, has retained her free will throughout by asking: ‘How do you mean?’

In the pulse of closing down and re-opening the story, Atwood combines Aristotle’s injunction in the Poetics that the ‘denouement’ in tragedy should last from the end of the beginning – the ‘complication’, or point at which the audience has been presented with the character and the character presented with the problems and the choices they must make – to their unravelling, with James’ bold decision, for the time in which he was writing, in the conclusion to The Portrait of a Lady to leave his central character ‘en l’air’. Atwood employs a traditionalist’s concern with the ordered unity and wholeness of a beginning, middle and end with the modernist realisation that, as James put it: ‘The whole of anything is never told’.

Perhaps ownership might be a useful way of categorising conclusions and testing the relative success in relation to the rest of the novel. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is ‘Z’s’ coming-of-age story, told from her point of view and displaying an increasingly assured use of the English language as the novel develops alongside her language course. Appropriate then that she takes ownership of her own conclusion, making sense of what has taken place for herself. The Year of the Runaways displays a clear external authorial hand in its structuring. It is this authorial hand that has divided up chapters between characters, decided when their back-stories are introduced and has taken ownership of how the novel must finish. As satisfying as it might have been for the reader to be left to decide the characters’ fates, Sahota has been stylistically coherent in using his power as author to deploy his directive epilogue. Atwood is equally powerful and present as author of The Heart Goes Last but her concerns throughout have been with the tensions between determinism and free will. Stan ‘shouldn’t have let himself be caged in here, walled off from freedom. But what does freedom mean any more? And who had caged him and walled him off? He’d done it himself.’ Charmaine ‘had made the most of herself. She’d majored in Gerontology and Play Therapy, because Grandma Win said that way she’d covered both ends, and she had empathy and a special gift for helping people. She’s got her degree. Not that it makes any difference now’. By choosing to end the novel on Charmaine’s question, Atwood hands ownership of the perennial free will v determinism debate back to the reader.

It is possible to think of types of endings – the denouement, the false ending, epilogue, the postscript but perhaps there are really only two – the neat, tidy, all decided for the reader, and the messy, ambiguous, open for the reader to decide. In The Art of Fiction David Lodge holds up Jane Austen is ‘the provider of emphatically “closed” endings’ and Henry James as the ‘pioneer of inconclusive endings’; while both recognised that the ‘most satisfying endings still leave us wanting to know more’. Austen set the benchmarks for the Victorian novelists who followed her. James made an early turn to the modernist style. The modernist novel eschews the completeness and finality promoted by Aristotle in Poetics, often leaving blank the final scene. Contrast, for instance, the unravelling and retying of all the loose ends attempted by Sahota’s Victorian-style Epilogue in The Year of the Runaways with the open approach of Moshin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. For Hamid, the ending is determined by time; the fading light, the closing café, the walk back to the tourist’s hotel in the company of his interlocutor. The novel’s tension has been building around two questions – are these two people antagonists in the ‘war on terror,’ and will one shoot the other? Neither question is answered by the final words. As with Atwood, it is the reader who has to write the final page and reflect on how the particulars of the story might be generalised.

A case can be made for the modernist open ending conforming to the Aristotelian ideal on at least two accounts, that of plot unity and of the necessity for the conclusion to ‘arise out of the plot itself’. James, writing about his open ending of The Portrait of a Lady, insisted: ‘What I have done has that unity’. And the opening lines of The Reluctant Fundamentalist: ‘Excuse me, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you’, in which the first-person narrator seeks to allay fears and create trust, are echoed in the final lines where the issue of trust and reassurance are returned to like a composer returning to the opening key in the cycle of a symphony.

For Aristotle, the satisfaction, or beauty, of a well-told story lay in its order, where the end is that ‘which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it.’ For Aristotle there is a formula to be followed, plots of certain lengths and compositions, characters with particular traits and storylines that follow familiar patterns. Natural endings flow from clear beginnings. Themes unravel through the denouement to their conclusions.

Most narratives do establish from their beginning a route to ‘an apt and satisfying conclusion’ but a reader’s sense of a ‘proper’ ending is highly variable.

The open ending, as James foresaw, risks the reader’s charge that the novel ‘is not finished’; a charge particularly apt perhaps in genres reliant on completed plotlines. After all, an Agatha Christie ‘whodunnit’ where the murderer is never revealed is unlikely to feel complete.

The Danish existentialist writer and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that while it was well understood that we make sense of life by looking backward, it is too little appreciated that we actually have live life forward. Individually, we can be weighed down a self-constructed sense that we are who we are today due to who we became yesterday, and deny our freedom to choose a different way forward. Collectively, we claim we are trapped by our crowded past rather than recognise we are liberated by our potential futures. Like Godwin and Kafka, we write our endings first.

And the collective approach matters. The open ending, the freedom to choose from all possibilities for the future, is not a licence for selfishness. As Simone de Beauvoir suggested in The Ethics of Ambiguity: ‘To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.’ And she went on: ‘In setting up its ends, freedom must put them in parentheses, confront them at each moment with that absolute end which it itself constitutes, and contest, in its own name, the means it uses to win itself.’

As the writer John Berger suggested there must be space left free for the reader to apply their aesthetic imagination to their own ending.

A Final note: Most of the titles above are available online from Hive, where: ‘Every order … supports local independent bookshops’. Just click on the book title.

I came here to write – Day one

A short story told over five days. Day one.

I’ve been gripped by the roaring, screaming emptiness of the white page for decades now. Its potential, its possibilities are as clear as life and death itself. You can have whatever you will, or you can be reduced to this – nothing. Your choice. You choose.

I, it would seem, chose nothing for years. I chose to forgo all those possibilities, to let life drift by, to squander it all. Not that it felt like a squandering.

We had our memories to create and archive, even though, back then, it felt like we were just living. The tip of dirty washing entwined in the corner of the bedroom would never have cleaned itself if I had spent all day tapping on a keyboard. The tip doesn’t grow so big these days.

So, I came here to write. Needed the solitude to focus, you see. The freedom to create. Here I am. Sitting silent and alone. Staring at a pulsating cursor, tapping out time in a silent accusative rhythm against the glare of a snow-white sheet floating on a still, grey sea.

I’ve paid good money to free myself from contact with the outside world and create this space where anything may happen, although not even a something has happened so far. Still, the day is young and the sky out there dominating the top half of the long French windows is grey enough to deter thoughts of stretching my legs down through the unkempt garden and out through the bottom gate and into the countryside beyond.

Yesterday, after unpacking – it must have taken almost 10 minutes to empty the canvass roll bag I had carried with me on train, bus and final hike from the village up three lanes and a dirt track to this secluded spot – I ventured back out of the cottage down the overgrown lawn bordered by wilting roses and resplendent weeds and out through the back gate. I stepped on to fields of poppies and what would have, in the not so distant past, been graded by some bureaucrat as set aside. Now, it performs a passable imitation of a wild meadow. Perhaps it has just been forgotten and gone to seed, which is no bad thing. It proved a splendid distraction that kept me from staring into the white void for the rest of the afternoon.

When I returned to the cottage it struck me that I should draw inspiration from the natural untidiness of the fields that was clearly creeping up through the garden and would probably have entered the cottage itself by now if it was not for the ministrations of the unseen changeover cleaner. The tension between the authenticity of the natural disorder asserting itself outdoors and the imposition of an unsustainable order indoors struck me as immediately antithetical to the creative purpose of my mission. Order cures all, but I was driven at that moment to bring disorder indoors.

I had laid out the contents of my canvass roll bag carefully. I had placed seven pairings of underwear and socks for my five-day stay – a change per day and spares in case of an emergency such as being caught in a heavy downpour – in the top drawer of the four-draw dresser. Four loose fitting comfortable tops were resting folded in regular rectangles in the second drawer, while a warm jumper and a spare pair of casual chinos with elasticated waistband were housed together in the third drawer. The fourth draw, which would be used for dirty clothes as these accumulated during the week, contained, for now, the canvass roll bag. Three shirts hung in one side of the wardrobe and a quality raincoat occupied the other side, while a pair of trainers rested on the floor next to a space for the stout walking shoes I was presently wearing. Bathroom items were, of course, housed in the bathroom.

The arrangement had a great deal to recommend it. To some extent it reflected the ordering of my permanent home bedroom, with the exception of the placing of the overcoat, which would, at home, have hung on its own hook behind my front door. There was no hook behind the front door here and I had no wish to leave my outdoor coat on one of the hooks in the kitchen. Everything was out of the way but within easy reach. The arrangement offered symmetry of intent and purpose and gave rise to a formal beauty aesthetically pleasing to eye, hand and mind. It was, in short, complete and, therefore, dead. Its perfection rendered redundant any possibility of improvement through thought or action.

I took two pairs of socks and unrolled them into their four separate components. I placed one in each drawer. In fact, I rather threw each sock into a drawer and then slid it shut. A gale of creative destruction flowed through the air and, had it not been for the lateness of the hour and the need to sleep to recover the energy lost through my efforts to get here, I might have sat at the kitchen table there and then and stared down the blankness of the white page.

As it was, the day was clearly drawing to a close and so I moved to the bathroom to brush my teeth, get ready for bed and prepare myself for the whatever might happen next.

 

I came here to write – Day two

A short story over five days. Day two

What happened next is this – breakfast. Breakfast here will be an assortment of the foodstuffs I carried with me, the bread and strawberry conserve I bought in the village yesterday and anything further I purchase from future trips back along the dirt track and down the three lanes. Laid out this morning on a rough-hewn, golden oak table is the perfect vignette of my present circumstances. The bread and handmade jam sit alongside a litre of oat milk, a variety six pack of vegan muesli and two packs of Fairtrade fresh ground Kenyan coffee. A floral china cup sits on an unmatched saucer above and slightly to the right of a deep pale blue bowl in which rests a stainless steel spoon. A stainless steel knife crosses a side plate that bears a passing family resemblance to the bowl on its right. The knife’s serrated edge points away from the bowl. I turn the knife over so that its cutting edge presents a more pleasing relationship to the bowl. It now gives the appearance of having joined an arrangement, rather than the impression of trying to escape its neighbours. I can’t remember now if I forgot the orange juice from home or deliberately left it behind due to its weight. I think I must have taken the conscious decision to leave it behind because yesterday, after picking up the strawberry jam and bread, I moved naturally to open the glass-paneled refrigerator door in the little village store to look for some fresh orange juice to carry the last part of the journey with me. A long life orange juice drink, which is to orange juice what flash fiction is to the Victorian novel, was all that was available. I left it resting and resolved to make do with tap water.

I sit down on the wooden chair and take in the scene. Breakfast for one at a table with places for four.

Washing up is a delight. There is an old Belfast sink and no plastic washing up bowl to interfere with an urbanite’s fancy for a taste of rural idyll. The cooker’s electric, no suggestion of a log burning range for which I could hunt down dried beech kindling and fire up an authentic Italian pizza using wild mushrooms picked at dawn in this corner of Shropshire. If I had a hound of the right variety I could even dig up a truffle or two. Something for the pizza and more that I could sell to the highest hotel bidder back in the smoke. I might get enough to pay a good chunk of the costs of this retreat, but I have no dog of any kind anymore and no real idea of what a wild truffle looks like. Do people do that? Escape the humdrum of daily city life and turn a hand to paying for their break with some amateur collecting? Fossils perhaps from the Jurassic Coast, or Jet from a short stay in Whitby? That is what I’m doing, I suppose – hunting for words. If I find them, tame them and train them to stand on the page in just the right order, someone might publish them. And then, just perhaps, someone might buy them and pass on a recommendation to a friend – ‘No, I hadn’t heard of him either. Alright, he’s not to everyone’s taste, but it filled a couple of rainy afternoons. And it’s a third off on Amazon, you know’.

A Modern Classic. An Overnight Sensation In Just 40 Years!

I think I might ask around the farms for a failed Collie, a noise sensitive gun dog or a claustrophobic terrier that I can take off their hands and see if I can’t train one up to sniff out that truffle.

I had overslept, of course. There are blackout curtains in the south facing bedroom and it was past 10 when the need for the toilet forced me to the bathroom where the light streaming through the slats of the pale blue Venetian blinds told me that the sun was eating the shadows and running off with the day.

Now, with breakfast out of the way and the washing up done, my thoughts have turned to whether I should have a late lunch and no dinner or no lunch and my dinner on time. I know immediately that I won’t decide on either course of action. I will simply allow the day to unfold around me and something will happen, or not happen, to determine the outcome for me. An evasive and dishonest approach. I am responsible for whether and when I eat. It’s just that I would much rather a knock at the door (unlikely) or boredom, (most likely) to make the decision for me. It won’t be the pangs of hunger that determine the time and place of my next meal. When was the last time I was hungry? It must have been as a child. Does anyone eat now because they’re hungry? TV dinners and takeaways, and grazing in between. The only people who actually get hungry in this country are those too poor to have food in the house. Food, but no hunger. Hunger, but no food. The way of the world.

I’m out the door and crunching gravel telling myself that I am on the trail of inspiration, but knowing full well that this is no way to find either truffle or words. I look for a finger post poking through overhanging branches, spot one and climb the wooden stile that is slowly being consumed by nettles and brambles. A footpath in search of its public. I walk for hours, wondering while walking. I’ve heard such wanderings called research, but I think I would need at least a pen and a soft-backed A5 notebook of the kind supposedly used by Hemingway to evidence such a purpose in my ramblings. I navigate across country by three church steeples and a row of pylons that carry the future over the nearest hamlet and toward the city from a power station too faraway to have its name known here. I’m gone for hours. No late lunch and I’m too late to get my dinner on time. It’s a relief to know that there’s nothing that I can do about it. I tried, I really did. I turned for home three times or more before losing site of the pylons and steeples, I relied instead on my underdeveloped sense of direction. That led me down when I should have gone up, east when I should have turned west and back when I should have gone forth.

Only now do I have two of the steeples in sight rising above the horizon and the faintest suggestion of something that could be wires stretching themselves loosely between supports off to their left. Certitude would be the final steeple in the trinity allowing me to triangulate a route back to the cottage. I take the path of least resistance and head downhill toward a stile cut into the stone wall that marks this field’s boundary and then up through a field of bleaters to see the third steeple appear above me to the right. It must be a good three miles back to the kitchen table, an hour and a half at least on these undulating paths. So I plonk myself down to rest a while on a big splinter of sandstone that had rose up out of the ground in just the right spot a millennia ago and contemplate. Nulla dies sine linea. Hardly.

Tomorrow I must take a different tack, turn and face the strain. I have only three days left to constrain the infinity of that white page with words of meaning. But they are not going to be found out here on these hills amongst the trees and shadows.

I came here to write – Day three

A short story over five days. Day three

It must be a classic, of course. That much is known. A murder mystery, a suspense thriller, a tale of young love betrayed in the heat of the night, a dystopian fantasy deploying the tropes of a post-truth political disintegration, or an old-fashioned love story with a happy ending. Characters brought to life by their possessions, behavioural tics, a quirky gait or the sharp-edged gossip of minor characters wheeled in for the job. A plot unfolding in three acts – inciting incident to grab and hold, a midpoint reversal to unsettle, and a denouement to conclude and satisfy. A journey, real or metaphorical, from here to there creating a narrative arc that mirrors the reader’s own life experiences and touches a melancholic cord of remembrances past but stops short of drowning in a well of saccharine nostalgia.

Where to begin. The opening line bears the weight of expectation. It must tease and thrill and shine and lead to a second line that, while released from the responsibilities of the first, still presents the reader with some reason to carry on to the third. This is where my efforts will be expended today. A perfect first line. It doesn’t have to be too long. A few words will suffice, if they are the right words placed in the right order. They will need to set a scene, establish tone and pace. In the third person they will bring to life a narrator and introduce the central protagonist. In the first person they will – cogito ergo sum – plea for the reader’s complicity in the conflation of you and me even while they acknowledge the deceitful duality of every fictional ‘I’. They will present the reader with terms for a relationship between strangers founded on a promise of shared intimacies to be woven out of the words that will follow. What better way to start a relationship of mutual need than with a shared deceit? The opening line mustn’t give away too much though. It can’t tell the whole story like the opening paragraph in a tabloid newspaper – who, what, where, when and how. It must open doors, not slam them shut.

It is enough to simply imagine the task of plucking from the universe of possibilities just the right words to feel crushed.

The shadows are lengthening now. I have sat here for hours. I have sat here for hours and stared. I have sat here for hours, stared, started, stuttered and faltered. Top right, two rows down, the tiny backward arrow is my most utilised key. The letter ‘e’ is supposedly the commonest letter to be found in any length of English writing. So its key should show the clearest signs of wear and tear. Not on this keyboard. Top right, two rows down, the tiny backward arrow has the unmistakable shiny glow generated from the millions and millions of tiny drops of mildly acidic human sweat left behind from the countless times a finger tip – my finger tip – has pressed it to destroy the infantile, derivative, empty words that tried to unleash the potential of the white page. A useless, hopeless enterprise.

I should eat. Dinner and an early night. A good night’s sleep. Regain my creative energy. Start afresh in the morning. Banish the clichés. Bring to life those first words. A short walk while a fat long potato bakes in the electric oven. Just down the lane and up to the top of the rise in the hope of seeing the sun set over the distant hills. I step over the stone stile built into the body of the wall and wonder at the effort in making and maintaining this crossing since it was first constructed within a wall designed to pen back the animals and mark a boundary of ownership. At some time back then, the new landowner will have celebrated the wall’s construction as marking an expansion of personal ownership and dominance but will have mourned the insertion of these stone steps as a battle fought and lost to exclude others from this precious land. Each stone – how many are there? – has been picked up, carried, laid down, compared and contrasted, matched with its neighbours and placed just so to hold and be held. Given a purpose, each has performed its role as both a stone and as a stone-in-a-wall. No choice of course. Inanimate objects. Can’t choose at all. No innate purpose. Purposeless. Simply stones forged through the pressures of time recast as bit players in the temporary drama of human existence. And yet, each appears made for just this precise job. To shuffle them, reorder them without thought to their relational character would be to expose them as simply stones. Here, bound together into a wall, their character has changed. Each is part of something more than itself. Their individual characters have been identified, drawn out and put to work to create this whole. There must be a realised potential in each of them now, as the stone that forms the wall. What was that old saw about the beach dune? How many grains of sand form this dune? Count them. Then the tide ebbs and flows adding and subtracting, and the wind carries away and deposits millions of grains in its great swirling energy. What difference then would the addition or subtraction of a single grain make to this dune? None, it seems at first, but as the action is repeated over and over, why then, at some point, the dune vanishes, or turns into a mountain. What was it supposed to prove, I wonder? Individuals matter. Individuals don’t matter until they are measured in their multitudes? Everything gives way, and nothing stands fast?

Under the wooded canopy that skirts the side of this shallow rise the air is moist, the temperature lowered a degree or two and the light dimmed in anticipation of the dusk that is coming to settle on this world. Midges dance in the last of the sunlight threading through the trees, their mouths agape and preparing to feast on this passing bald pate that has been moistened by the effort of the gentle climb. I’ve climbed like this many times before, and not alone. Then there was gentle cursing and exhortations to speed up or slow down for the sake of the dogs or the children. There was laughter at our antics on the way up, shouted anticipations of reaching our goal and fervently expressed hopes of just rewards for our efforts upon our return. Not this time. Not any more. The silence roars. My thoughts, like poorly shod feet losing their grip on a vertical scree escarpment, scramble to take hold of anything solid. Now I hear echoes of familiar voices and see faces dimmed and blurred. Playing through the trees and bushes, the gloom throws up tangible, pure movements and mannerisms of bodies, all just out of reach. I stand still in the hope that the lengthening shadows will reach me and carry at least one of the forms to my outstretched arms.

I know that I shall stay here now. I’ll take my rest sitting against the base of this sprawling beech where imaginings and memories meet. When it gets dark and the shadows have done dancing, I will close my eyes and hope to be carried away with them.

I came here to write – Day four

A short story over five days. Day four

It is badly shriveled. The skin has shrunk and hardened around a hollowed out core. Slit in two it produces a pair of fairy dug outs that I might leave back out in the woods where I woke at dawn. I might wait and watch them sail away across the dew from circle to circle piloted by the little creatures that dance and sprinkle dust on those they favour and spit mild curses on those who tread too heavily through their world. Of course, by the time I have cleared up and breakfasted, the dew will have been burnt off by the strengthening sun and the fairies will have taken shelter from the light of the day. For now, I moor the potato canoes half under a hedge and lay some torn grass stems from them to the dirt track as natural pointers for any tiny friends who may pass and want to steal away in them.

I wonder would the oven ever have caught fire and destroyed this little cottage? The air is burnt bitter and the last wisps of black smoke are only just clearing from the ceiling through the open French windows, but there were no flames. Perhaps it is the burnt cinders of charcoal that would eventually have flickered into destructive life, and who knows how long they would take to catch?

I catch a glimpse of decrepitude in the half-length mirror that holds on to the kitchen wall and realise that the broken hat stand of rags is all that is left of me. I’m tired and damp from the dew. I’ll bathe, change my clothes, breakfast and prepare a list for my departure tomorrow. I will be a new man or at least a dry one. Then I will be able to make some progress on what I came here to do. If not the first line then why not start at the end and allow what passed before to be suggested?

The bath takes forever to fill but is piping hot when it does. I step in and let my aching muscles sink and dissolve below the water line. Steam envelops the room like a warm autumn mist. It draws from the walls the remnants of long used fragrances, bath oils, foams and sprays and produces a soporific haze that carries me back to the shadowlands. They are clear again, racing about in the sunlight and dancing from behind trees, spinning cartwheels, shouting and laughing at the joy of life itself. She has lost her seriousness and chases one of the dogs. It yelps as it hurtles through the undergrowth before turning sharply, front paws flat against the ground, wagging tail held high. They come together in a joyous tumble of barking laughter. And now the two girls run, the elder with an encouraging hand on the shoulder of the younger, chased by the second dog, and dive into the family melee kicking up dry dust from the forest floor.

Seven years and still not departed. Distant, out of reach, too far gone to touch but still there when I close my eyes, empty my thoughts, dawdle or waste my time reflecting on what this life now is without them. Keep busy, plan, order, re-order, have a project, concentrate, don’t dawdle, don’t brood, don’t think, don’t not think. Shut them out. Deny their memories and set me free. It’s the reality of their absence, the depth and breadth of our infinite parting, which makes them present. I keep them with me because without me they are gone from the world forever and without them, I have nothing. I reach out to these shadows because I am too frightened to let go and choose nothing. Bright sunlight filters through the glade and they are gone. Silence flows into the void snuffing out joy and laughter.

The steam has cleared from the air and I am lying in water cold enough to send tiny shivers through my veins. My face is wet with droplets of salty water that must have condensed under my eyes from the moist air around me. I must rise, dry myself and draw up my packing list for tomorrow. Order cures all.

I eat the last of the bread with the remaining strawberry jam and wash out the empty jar, placing it on the draining board. I set aside one the fruit muesli packets to eat before I depart tomorrow morning and take two more into the back garden and shake them loose for the birds and mice to fight over when my back is turned. Tonight I’ll eat beans straight from the tin like a latter-day urban cowboy or down at heel student and contemplate the journey before me.

Upstairs, I take out the roll bag from the bottom drawer, empty out the week’s crumpled dirty washing on to the bed, fold it, and place it neatly back in the bag. I open the wardrobe and put aside the last remaining clean shirt that I will wear tomorrow and then check the drawers where I discover a sock is missing. I have used a pair a day, and two pairs when I have needed to change my socks after a long walk, and I am wearing a pair now. There should be one pair left for tomorrow. I empty the packed bag and check that the dirty socks are paired up correctly, shake out the worn tops and shirts and search the drawers again. That is the price of introducing nature’s disorder into a well-ordered house in the vain hope of releasing wild creativity – a lost sock, and the prospect of wearing a dirty pair tomorrow. I make the best of the chaos and wash out my favourite pair as best I can using washing up liquid, making sure to give them an extra rinse to reduce the risk of any residue irritating my feet in the morning. I lay them out to dry on the back of the kitchen chair closest to the French windows. I tick off ‘pack’ from my list.

I push down the laptop lid and walk out of the cottage, passing the wilting roses and resplendent weeds, through the garden gate and into fields of poppies for another day of avoidance. I lose myself in the twisting curving paths and close my eyes whenever I come to a waymaker. A church steeple rises over a hill toward me and I turn away from it and head back into the valley. I spend the burning lightness of the day trying to lose myself but as dusk presses on my shoulders I find myself back amongst the wildflowers and poppies.

There is no running away. Of course there’s not. The nightmare weighs heavy, however many times we try to remake our histories. We endlessly return because we never leave. We carry ourselves wherever we go, and whenever we pause for breath or to take stock, we find ourselves still here. A decisive break is required.

I take myself to bed exhausted.

I came here to write – Day five

A short story over five days. Day five.

I wake early, pull back the thick curtains and make welcome a new day. I wash, dress, breakfast and marvel at how, over just a few days, a routine has been establishing itself despite late rises, missed meals and all-night absences. Natural rhythms asserting themselves, absorbing, making sense of the everyday activities generated by acts of free will.

Today, I leave.

Perishable food has been bagged and placed in the grey bin at the top of the lane. Some loose papers, packaging and glass bottles have been carried to the green bin and placed inside. I have washed, dried and stored my plates and cutlery from breakfast. I have wiped down the sides, brushed the floors and left the dirty and damp towels alongside the bed linen in the bath, as requested by the welcome note I found when I arrived. The cottage is tidy.

My bag is packed and sits on one of the spare kitchen chairs. There is just room for my laptop. This sits open on the table. The snow-white page still floats on a grey still sea, but now the pulsating black cursor beats comfortingly in its own silence. I watch it flashing like a negative lighthouse and wonder at its constancy. Only a few days ago, I was intimidated by its persistence, as if it might jump off the screen and chase me into a corner and terrorise me until I give in to its demands. Now it marks the passing of time, independent of anything I might or might not do.

I came here to write and I will not leave until I have, although the words I have hunted down will not form themselves into a Classic of any kind, just a brief note. I pick up a black ballpoint pen and take two plain sheets of A5 writing paper from the middle of a small stack that has sat undisturbed on the hall table since I arrived five days ago.

Finally, at last, I write.

I fill three sides of paper with an open confident script that leans a little impetuously to the right. I offer rough directions and a brief explanation of the choice I have made. I toy with the idea of adding a sketch like one of those found in a quality guide to local walks, but it would take some time to work out a scale and my drawing today is limited to inevitable conclusions. For formality’s sake, I sign and date the note. For clarity’s sake I print my name and my home address.

There is no envelope, so I fold the two sheets of paper in half, plain side outward and write: ‘To whom it my concern’ on the front and add a full stop for no good reason. I place the note in the centre of the kitchen table.

I rise and wonder who will find it. I suppose it will be the changeover cleaner when she arrives the day after tomorrow. Why ‘she’? Cleaners these days come in all genders, particularly those attached to small businesses. Less so in the home, perhaps, where domestic labour more often than not remains the preserve of the woman, with the more enlightened households containing a husband or son willing to ‘help out’.

We shared everything back then, including the drudgery. I miss that the most, I think, the sharing. The wealth of our short-lived tiny island nation was not based on a division of labour into specialisms. We mucked in together and mucked up together. What we lost in efficiency, we gained in laughter and the joy of being in it together. Our thoughts and memories seemed to merge the more time we spent together and the more we did together. We would bicker not over future plans, or the hopes and dreams we expressed for our girls in the quiet hours that fell between putting them to bed and falling asleep ourselves, but over who laid claim to origination and who to mere amplification. We created memories together and remembered together.

For a while after, it was enough to hold a photograph, a postcard, a note, even a scribble and remember alone. But each remembrance smudged just a little, the details shifted to the edge and then the memory moved out of sharp focus. I noticed it first with the voices. They became echoes floating away to the back of my mind. Actors or voiceover artists mimicking the people I loved could have spoken the words on the few digital recordings that we had made together during birthdays and holidays. The people, the real people, not their digitalised representations, but their flesh and their blood and their laughter and love, they were gone. Of course, I expected their smells to fade from the pillowcases and T-shirts, even though I never washed them. But now even the aroma of sweet tomato, garlic and basil sauce simmering on a low heat no longer situates their clear, bright expectant faces around the kitchen table we shared. The memory of each face no longer bears much resemblance to the images caught in such exacting detail on photographs and videos. In the early morning or the fading evening light when I see them together in the intense shadows, I recognise them by the way an arm swings or a hip shifts its weight to allow a torso to twist or a head to turn, but never by the sharpness of a facial feature.

I have the idea of them still and it is more intense than ever, but the reality is gone. I share nothing with any of them now. They have moved beyond any place where new memories can be made and they are in no position to remember with me. Tomorrow, I will remember a little less clearly and the day after that a little less clearly again. It is not a forgetting that clears away and opens up space. It is an intensification of a loss that replaces presence with absence and empties more and more everyday existence of its meaning. They are here with me now by not being seated at the three empty kitchen chairs, and they are all around in the silence that should be filled with shouts to hurry up, get ready, make sure you pack your toothbrush, fetch the dog’s lead and what else was it we used to always say before leaving somewhere to head home?

I leave by the front door, placing the keys in the holder outside. I shuffle the combination lock and check that it is secure from the opportunistic burglar who might pass by.

I walk toward the woods and hope I’ll find them there in the shadowlands.