rubbed out

IMG_0935If I had an old lamp, and I rubbed it, and a Genie rushed out (especially after all that shaking), and if, after a certain amount of impressive mid-air improvisation, it swept in close and offered me three wishes, the first one would be: Genie? I wish I had more friends.
G: More what now?
Me: More friends. I wish I had more friends!
G: Okay, wait, now. Jus’ a second. Y’see? First of all – let’s get one thing straight. It’s very important when doin’ this whole Three Wishes thing, you get the Ts and Cs absolutely watertight, y’know what I’m saying? You gotta concentrate. This shit’s important. You don’t want to end up saying something that through some legal bullshit smallprint kinda deal ends up giving you something truly awful.
Me: It’s what I want.
G: Okay then. So let’s just take a moment and knuckle down on the facts here. When you say more, do you really truly honest to God MEAN more? Or are we REALLY talking ‘any’? Because, my response to THAT would be: What – are you KIDDIN’ me?
Me: No! I do mean more. I think. I mean – I’ve got friends. Obviously I’ve got friends. C’mon! I’m not THAT bad! I can hold my end in a conversation.
G: Maybe that’s your problem right there, my friend. Holding your end in a conversation. That’s some weird vibey shit you’re giving them, right there.
Me: What I mean is, I can do the normal stuff. I don’t think I’m hard work.
G: Honey? We’re ALL hard work! It’s what makes us interesting.
Me: You, maybe.
G: The cute pants help.
Me: I don’t know. It’s just – sometimes I feel like I used to have friends, and I let ‘em go.
G: Shit happens, man. People move apart. You gotta make more of an EFFORT. You gotta join some CLUBS! Play some tennis or shit like that. Hit a few balls round the park, see where they land.
Me: It’s true. When I lived in London I used to play softball. I got to know a lot of people through that. And when I was at university I had friends. I even married one of them. That didn’t work out.
G: Sheesh! You’re the first person I ever offered three wishes to that had an instant nervous breakdown. I oughta open with a disclaimer.
Me: It brings it into focus, that’s the truth.
G: Okay. So – look. What you’re telling me is you need more friends?
Me: Wish Number One!
G: Great. Yeah – but – see? I’m not sure this is your actual wish territory. Sure I could do it! No problem! One snap of the fingers, there’d be thirty shiny happy people camped out on your lawn. You’d have to set up a ticket system, like at the deli.
Me: I wouldn’t mind.
G: But they wouldn’t be REAL friends. They’d LOOK like friends. They’d be CONVINCING. They’d sure as hell make a lot of friendly noises, make you tea, answer the phone at two a.m. But you’d soon get freaked out by all that uncanny valley shit. I’m good, but I’m not THAT good.
Me: So what do I do?
G: You gotta let go of the past. You gotta stop playing that broken record that keeps skipping back to the lines that hurt you, the throwaway comments like: ‘oh – he’s so alone’ or ‘a bit dry for some’ or ‘antisocial as ever, I see’ – the throwaway shit that’s particularly sticky for some reason. That lodges in the brain, and all you do is play it over to yourself over and over till you end up BELIEVIN’ it.
Me: How long were you IN that bottle?
G: It’s a lamp, num-nuts. And in answer to your question, long enough.
Me: Is this one of your special skills? Seeing into people’s souls?
G: Now – maybe this is why you don’t get the dinner invitations so much.
Me: So what do I do, then?
G: Number one? Relax. Things are almost always better than you think. Number two? Go through your address book and call someone up. Be like the tick on the shoe and JUS’ DO IT! Email at the very least. Ask if they wanna go out for a drink. Go see a show. Aladdin or something classy like that. Number Three? Join a club. I know, I know. It’s the kinda thing your momma woulda said, but y’know what? Your momma ain’t that bad. An’ you ain’t that bad, neither. IMHO.
Me: So you text in there?
G: Signal’s crap but I try to stay current.
Me: Thanks for the advice, Genie. I appreciate it.
G: No – thank YOU! I was getting a bit antsy stuck in that thing. There’s only so much you can do with a spout. So – what about them other wishes?
Me: I don’t know. Give them to someone else. I’ve always felt uneasy when people say they’re waiting to win the lottery. I can’t think of anything worse. It’s like admitting life’s so hopeless it’ll take divine intervention to save it.
G: (pause) No wonder you got no friends.


houseplant of darkness

I wasn’t being politically correct. I just didn’t feel comfortable calling it ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue’.

I mean, for one thing, I got on with my mother-in-law really well. She was kind, supportive, interesting, inspiring, good fun – in fact, as far from the caricature as it was possible to be. So calling the houseplant by that name felt like a betrayal. It’s something I’ve come across a few times in the past. Names for things that hang around too long, a fragment of grit in the soft parts of an oyster, accruing a showy veneer, a superficial value. I’d rather just spit the thing out and start again, with a new word.

Cathy, the shop assistant in the garden centre, was sweeping up. It was hot in the houseplant section, humid as a rainforest, bland music overhead instead of birds. Cathy was wearing a large button badge: Here to Help, but it should really have said Here to Sweat. She was sweating so much I wanted to sit her down and run off to find water, maybe a mountain stream in the patio furniture department or something. I could fill a coconut. There was a silvering sheen running right and left from under the collar of her forest green polo shirt, down over her sternum, plunging into the ravine of her décolletage. How she was going to get through the rest of the day without IV fluids I had no idea. Hopefully she was on a half-day.
‘Yes?’ she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand and then not so much leaning on her broom as propping her entire body up on it.
‘Have you got any Sansevieria?’IMG_0917
‘Some sansevi-what?’
‘Sansevieria. I think that’s what it’s called.’
She shook her head.
‘What’s it look like?’ she said.
‘I think it’s other name is Snake plant.’
‘Snake plant?’
‘I think so.’
‘Never heard of it. Show me a picture.’
‘It’s a really common houseplant,’ I said, pulling out my phone and going into Google history. ‘Tall and thin. Green, yellowy. You can’t kill it, apparently – which suits me. Low maintenance. There!’
I show her the picture.
‘So it’s Mother-in-Law’s Tongue you want?’
I hesitated.
‘Yep. That’s it,’ I said.
‘Follow me.’
She led me through a three-tiered jungle of Cheeseplants, Dragon Trees, Spider plants, Figs and cacti, to a shelf of Sansevieria of differing sizes.
‘There you go,’ she said. ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue.’
The one in the middle looked about the right size for the windowsill, so I took it down.
‘I’ll need some compost to go with it,’ I said. ‘What do you recommend?’
‘I’d recommend not re-potting. You can see – look – it’s got a fair bit of growing in there before it needs potting on.’
‘Yeah – but – I don’t like the pot.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Well it’s plastic. I’ve got one at home that’ll be really nice.’
Cathy shakes her head, and the drip of water that had been collecting at the end of her nose drops away. It’s like she’s watering the collection all by herself, just by wandering round.
‘Has it got a hole in it?’ she says.
‘Yes. It has.’
‘At the bottom?’
‘Well – yep. And I’ll put some shards of pot in the bottom to improve drainage, too.’
I thought that would impress her, but she gives a little shudder.
‘If you have to,’ she says. ‘Me? I would NOT repot it.’
‘I suppose I could just drop this pot into the nice pot.’
‘People do,’ she said.
‘It’s just – it wouldn’t look so great. This pot I’m thinking of – it’s only just a little bit bigger. I think it might be alright.’
‘Suit yourself,’ she said. ‘I can only advise.’
I felt awkward. It was easier adopting a dog from the RSPCA. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d insisted on a home visit, to see where I was going to put the plant. What plans I had for it when I was out.
She watched as I picked up the Sansevieria in one hand and a small pack of houseplant compost in the other and headed for the tills, warning shrieks all around me now – hers, or the capuchin monkeys in the canopy, it was impossible to tell.

* * *

In the car, I put the Sansevieria in the well of the passenger seat, using the compost bag to wedge it in place as best I could. It looked a bit shivery as I turned the engine over, so I tried to reassure it.
‘You’ll be fine in the new pot,’ I told it. ‘Don’t listen to her.’
But I could feel Cathy’s giant eyes superimposed on the sky above the glass canopy of the garden centre, following my car as I turned out of the car park: Cathy Kurtz, sweating, distractedly pulling off her wig, passing a hand backwards over her shining head: The horror! The horror!



enjoying the crab

Okay. So. I’m a futuristic marine, making my way with the rest of the corps through the undergrowth of some hostile alien territory, pointing laser rifles, making ridiculous hand gestures that are supposed to mean clicks or formation or something, who knows. Some of the other marines pass by in a troop carrier like a metal spider with fancy hydraulic legs. It’s impressive to look at but very unsteady. It’d be quicker and safer if they just got out and walked.

Suddenly I come up against a thick perspex screen with an alien behind it. Basically, the alien looks like a giant penis, with a tight fleshy head and a mouth full of crooked, spindly teeth. The alien stares at me for a while, then when it’s sure it has my complete attention, very slowly and deliberately puts a whole crab in its mouth. It crunches it up, maintaining eye contact, as if to say: You’re next. But I’m not convinced. I can see it’s not enjoying the crab.

The dream ends with us all playing football – marines, civilians, aliens – like we’re at a Cosplay convention and just decided to have a kick around in the car park. It’s a nice feeling, but I can’t help being a bit disappointed. Did I go to all that trouble and get dressed up for this?

* * *

There are lots of theories about why we dream. Some people think it’s just a kind of cerebral defrag, a way for the unplugged brain to process and store all the data flying around, and install important updates, so please – don’t wake up yet. The story element is entirely retrospective and incidental, that cute thing humans have been doing for thousands of years to try to make sense of the world. Dreams, lightning, religion – same thing. Others believe it’s your unconscious shooting a movie it hopes you’ll find personally enlightening, using whatever costumes and props it happens to have lying around. (And if you don’t – well, fine – it didn’t cost anything to make, being shot locally and entirely CGI). And then there are whole dictionaries and websites dedicated to listing the meanings behind all the thousands of common dream images (although I’m not sure that my understanding of crab is anything like yours – mine being ME as a ten year old in jelly sandals, turning over stones in a rock pool, and yours being YOU as the first mate of a trawler in the Bering Straits, hauling in a thousand dollars worth of Alaskan King Crab).

The only thing you can say for sure is that everyone dreams. Even the people who say they don’t, because if you watch them whilst they sleep (get them to sign something first) – well, excuse me, but they certainly wave their arms, jerk their legs, shout random things and spookily flick their eyes from side to side like the rest of us dreamers. So I’m guessing the difference is they can’t RECALL those dreams, or have decided it’s simply conversational death to even THINK about describing that dream they had when a bus made of cheese pulled over, the doors opened, and Maisie Williams was the driver, dressed as a cat.

So taking dreams to be your unconscious brain reaching up to your conscious brain, tapping it on the lobe and whispering: Hey! Look at this! THIS is what you REALLY feel about that thing you’ve been worrying about…, what the hell am I supposed to make of my alien dream?

A giant penis eating a crab?

Not enjoying it?



there’s something about rabbits

I meet Vicky over the woods. I hear her before I see her, singing along to a backing track.
‘I’m trying to get the words down,’ she says, tugging out the ear buds. ‘Concert’s next week.’
She pulls an eek face.
We fall in together, the dogs running on ahead.
Somehow, in the way these conversations go, we get to talking about rabbits.
‘Someone put a dead rabbit on the footbridge.’
‘Why would they do that?’
She shrugs.
‘I dunno. Some kinda cursey magic thing? Or a dog dropped it? Strange it was so carefully laid out on its side like that, though. I threw it in the bushes. At least it was some kind of burial.’
‘I was walking the Ridgeway this one time, and suddenly out of nowhere a big black rabbit leaped out of the bracken – stopped – looked at me – then leapt into the bracken the other side. It was so weird. It was just like it raised its eyebrows and pointed at me.’
‘A black rabbit?’
‘I know! Maybe it was an escaped pet. If it was, it’d come a long way. There weren’t any houses for miles. Anyway, a couple of seconds later a weasel leapt out of the bracken from the exact same spot – stopped – pulled the same what the hell are YOU doing here? expression – then carried on after the rabbit.’
‘If you’d stayed there longer you’d probably have seen a shit load of other animals. Goat. Tiger. Elephant…’
‘Maybe it was a genetic thing. Or maybe it was just filthy.’
We walk in silence for a bit, thinking about rabbits.
‘There’s a strange guy who lives near the pub,’ says Vicky after a while. ‘Half poacher, half crazy. We were sitting there having a drink. He comes wandering past with a big canvas bag on his shoulder, stops, puts the bag on the ground, dives in with both hands, pulls out a dead rabbit, and stands there looking at us. I didn’t know whether he wanted us to make an offer or clap. But then he moved his hands, and he was holding it in such a way that the head was in his right hand and the body in his left. Like some kind of fucked up magician. Then he put the two bits in the planter, picked up his bag again and carried on. The landlord didn’t seem that bothered, though. He came over with a carrier bag, used it as a glove to pick the rabbit up, tied it up, threw it in the bin. Like this was something that happened every week.’
‘There’s definitely something about rabbits…’
‘I went to this patient once. He had two long eared house rabbits. Lops I think they’re called. Anyway, he was sitting in his chair with a rabbit on each shoulder, watching Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s a favourite he said. But anything with swords or guns they’re pretty much okay with. He told me how well trained they were. Yeah. It’s perfect. Every night we watch a film together, share a pizza, then they climb down, take my socks off, and we all go to bed.
‘Ew!’ says Vicky. ‘I can’t unhear that.’

entropy & the second law of pizza

There were a hundred reasons not to go to the PigHog poetry slam last night, the biggest one being fear.

I’m not a natural performer. Just about every time I’ve ever waited to go on stage, in a play, or in a band, or a room full of people, I’ve always had the same overwhelming feeling of dread. Not just butterflies, but one giant, robotic butterfly, in mirror shades, who hypnotises me with its gaudy wings as it plunges its proboscis through my chest. Kinda.

I imagine I’d feel just as anxious if I was standing by an open door, back of a plane at 10,000 feet, brave thumbs up, dry smile, waiting for the green light. But in lieu of a generous gift voucher this Christmas (hint, hint) I might never know for sure.

The other reasons not to go were huddled together under that miserable, flapping canvas marked GENERAL MISGIVINGS, being apathy & laziness, fear of change, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of what other people think – basically fifteen types of fear, all with the same nose and unsettling laugh. The other reasons were harder to identify because they kept moving around and hiding under leaves &c.

All these feelings lumped together into one big feeling of resistance, so strong it felt like a natural principle rather than simply a desire to stay on the sofa and watch TV. So I thought I’d read up about entropy, to see if that might throw some (dark) light on the matter. Or some dark matter on the light.

I’d better come clean here. My understanding of entropy is as miserable as my understanding of physics generally, which is to say, from my point of view, everything pretty much happens by magic. If I make the day without choking, falling over or blinding myself by reaching up to touch the sun, well then, that’s a good day and I’m a fortunate man.

The First Law of Thermodynamics seems to say (and I’m paraphrasing): Energy cannot be created or destroyed but is interchangeable. Which is fine, but it immediately makes me wonder where the original energy came from. The Big Bang I suppose. The kind of scientific idea that would look good in crayon on sugar paper. But the Big Bang couldn’t have come out of nowhere, because – well – see the beginning of this paragraph. So…erm….

Moving on.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics seems to be – BASICALLY – the mechanism by which the universe knows where it’s going (spoiler alert: DOWN). Disorder is the natural state of things, so any ordering that goes on needs energy to initiate and maintain it. Therefore the direction of travel is from disorder to order, and this is Time’s Arrow, which is a nice thing for a universe to have, given the restrictions. But then – wouldn’t it be a bent arrow? Travelling from disorder, to order, back to disorder again?

None of this is easy. In my case it’s just a blatant attempt to draw attention – using inappropriate and ill-considered scientific references – to the effort it took me to go from a disordered sofa state to an orderly appearance at the Pig Hog poetry slam.

Once I forced myself to go, I really enjoyed it. The universe may well be tending towards chaos (it feels like that most days reading the paper), but last night was brilliant. I met some lovely people and heard some great poetry. I’ll certainly be going again – and to other slams – to work on improving my writing and my stage technique.

So up yours, entropy. I’m hanging on to Time’s Arrow by my fingertips and loving it. And I’m absolutely fired up to write a poem about black holes – once I’ve made some pizza and seen if there are any new films on Netflix.

PigHog on Facebook
Thanks to Farnam Street blog for trying to educate me about entropy. (Great blog, btw).


a game of interviews

Interviews are stressful, artificial, weird. They’re such an inhibited dance around the facts of the case, a performance whose apparent score is the Job Description and the CV, but whose harmonies come from all the things you should and shouldn’t say. All of which is supposed to lead to the big finish: Do they like you or not? Do they think you’ll fit in, last the course, do the job?

Or maybe not a musical performance so much as a nail-biting circus routine, the blindfold knife-throwing act. I wouldn’t mind that so much. You’d be shown into the interview ring, into the spotlight. Applause, perky comments, nervous laughter, a certain amount of brave waving to the audience whilst the clowns ramp-up the tension hilariously by running round in a comedy panic throwing the confetti they’ve made from your CV out of glittery buckets. Meanwhile you’d be strapped spreadeagled to a giant revolving target. Set at a slow spin as the drums roll and the clowns can’t look and the blindfolded interviewers take it in turns to stand up from their desk and throw knives, each one making a horrifying whumping noise as they hit the board around your outstretched arms and legs, into cards that carry keywords, buzzwords, box ticks. And then a bigger, even more shocking whump when they catch you straight in the sternum with a question about where you see yourself in ten years time.

So – yes, I had an interview the other day and yes, it was pretty stressful.

I was applying for a job as a counsellor, with specialist training in CBT. It’s a popular post, having a year’s post-grad training attached, something that would cost you a small fortune to do independently. On paper (and in my head) I was a good match. I have an interest in people (which sounds creepy put like that; what I mean is, I like hearing their stories, how they got where they are, how they live, how they get by), and I have fourteen years experience working in primary healthcare, firstly as an EMT in the ambulance service, lately as an Assistant Practitioner with a hospital avoidance team. Mental health issues of one kind or another have been a significant part of my day-to-day experience, so it’s not simply a theoretical thing for me. I know how these things present in the community, how they play out.

I knew the follow-up questions would be harder to answer though. For example – why, in my ten years on the ambulance, did I not train-up to be a paramedic?

The truth? When I went through the selection procedure, I fluffed one of the answers in the CPR section, got rejected, applied again, got halfway through, and then ducked-out. The whole selection procedure was maddeningly slow, tortuous in a vaguely political way that was starting to make me feel like I was caught in a story by Kafka or Dan Brown at least – the whole scratchy feel of it exacerbated by working nights. I started to have serious doubts about my future in the ambulance service. Retraining as a paramedic would give me extra skills, it was true, but the job would essentially be the same, with the same gruelling working patterns, the same long handovers at the hospital. From the beginning of my service I’d been writing an ambulance blog. Suddenly I was picking up readers. I’d written a book based on the blog and it was selling well on Amazon. I thought: If I died tomorrow, what would I most regret? Not being a paramedic? Or not being a writer? So I decided to treat work simply as a means of supporting the writing. A few years later I thought I’d take a lateral step into a community health role, because the hours were better.

None of this is easy to talk about in an interview, though. There’s no room to say that the chances of me making any money at all from writing are so small, I will probably always need to have a day job. That being the case, I’d rather have a day job that was interesting and socially useful, rather than one that doesn’t mean anything, and saps my spirit, because of course there’s nothing worse than simply turning up to work solely for the cheque.

So I emphasised the physical toll of night work, skated over my failure to retrain as a paramedic, and diplomatically massaged the facts of my experience to make them look as much of a shoe-in for the job as possible.

All things considered, I think I’d rather be strapped to a target.




ghost film walkthrough

Seriously. Why do I watch films like The Innkeepers?

Maybe it’s the same principle as eating a hot chilli. You can’t exactly say you’re enjoying it halfway through. And you sweat a lot. But there’s a sense of achievement when the plate’s clean.

The thing is, I’m an easy target when it comes to ghost stories. I’m the markiest of all marks – the realist / atheist / humanist who blanches to the root when they see the shadow of a dressing gown back of the door.

I’m not saying The Innkeepers was the best spooky film I’ve seen (I’m making a distinction between horror and ghost films, although actually they’re on a sliding-violin scale of shiverity). I thought The Babadook was scarier, probably because there was a feeling the whole thing could have been a psychotic episode. Under the Shadow for the same reason (those two films being good companion pieces – or bad companion pieces, depending if you like the genre or not). TI was more like a mash-up of Clerks and The Conjuring. But this is just bravado of course. I was horrified most of the way through, and when it finished I thought that’s it, I’m not watching another ghost story. Until the next one.

So as a way of marking the event, I thought I’d run through a few points that occurred to me about The Innkeepers, and all the other films like it – more for me than anyone else, to get it clear in my head. Because if I ever found myself in a similar situation, or maybe a hyper-real dream where this sort of thing was going on, I’d instinctively know what to do and when to run (short answer: It’s never too soon to start running.)

  1. Don’t go down the basement.
  2. If ever you’re standing outside an old hotel that’s full of character and charming period detail, and you hear a chuntering soundtrack ease in, and then glissando violins – that’s probably a sign to go AirBnB.
  3. Working night shifts is bad for your mental health. Don’t be persuaded that it’ll give you plenty of time to work on ‘projects’ – especially if that project has anything to do with contacting the dead.
  4. If a retired actress checks in to your hotel, and twenty minutes later gets out a crystal pendulum and says she’s given up acting and moved into spiritualism, thank her politely for all those movies you liked her in and then GO BACK TO THE FRONT DESK.
  5. I’m serious about the basement.
  6. If an old man of few words appears at the front desk and asks to be put in room 323, even though you politely explain that the hotel is in the process of shutting down, that this is its last weekend of trading, and so all the rooms on the third floor are now closed, and the old man insists – really, be very firm on the matter. Say it’s a health & safety issue (which, BTW, it turns out it totally is), offer him a very nice room on the second, and if he still insists, give him the number of a motel on the edge of town run by the Bates family. He’ll fit right in there.
  7. If there’s a camera pointed at a rocking chair, and the lighting is moody, grainy, indigo &c, and the camera slowly moves in… that’s probably a good time to close your eyes and hum High on a hill there’s a lonely goatherd or something.
  8. Side note to point 8. Squinting doesn’t make it any less horrible. You have to shut your eyes the whole way. And sing louder.
  9. Okay. Let’s talk about the basement.
    Basements are and always will be places of terror. It’s just the way it is. Conservatories are hot. Kitchens are busy. Bedrooms are more or less soporific. But basements are reserved for scenes of relentless domestic horror (the fact that some become ‘man caves’ only proves the point). You could design a basement to flood with light the moment you open the door. A disco ball and music start up. You could have a rule no-one is allowed down the basement in parties smaller than twenty, each party to be accompanied by a priest with a semi-automatic crucifix (and not just any priest – it has to be a priest with real-world experience of these things, someone who’s also a fully qualified counsellor, a black belt in Aikido, with a gnarly sense of humour, and crucially, a priest prepared to sacrifice themselves so you can make it back up the goddamn stairs). You could have all that and it’d STILL be the worst room in the house. Especially if there’s a boiler and lots of old junk. (BTW – never keep old junk in the basement. Just burn it or give it away. I mean seriously. It spooks the place up).
    But if there is a basement, and you feel obliged to go down into it, THREE TIMES (even though a spiritualist with a crystal has SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU NOT TO), don’t be surprised the lights don’t work, and the door slams behind you, and the old guy’s there, and you fall down the stairs, and end up running and stumbling through loads of old basement junk (see what I mean about the junk?), and so on – well, what can I say?
  10. The takeaway from all this: DO NOT GO DOWN THE BASEMENT.