Book review: Cane, by Sam Bully-Thomas

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘Cane’, by Sam Bully-Thomas, published by Wundor Editions.

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The first thing that struck me about this slim but attractive volume from Wundor (see this interview with their founder to hear how they are making unique and interesting in-roads into the publishing sector) is that it has word poetry front and centre on the cover. As if the publisher wanted to avoid anyone picking it up and complaining that they never expected poetry.

Sam Bully-Thomas (http://issamthomas.com/) grew up all around the world and the poems in this collection are similarly globe spanning – we go to Iran, Cuba, Mexico and Alaska among others. She mixes themes from what I imagine are her own experiences with the historical experiences of the poor and enslaved, usually connected by the sugar trade. Havana 1857 is written from the point of view of a kidnapped Chinese forced labourer, while ‘Husbandman’ describes Cimarron fighters (escaped slaves) planning the ambush of a plantation owner. Set between the poems are quotes from a Hindu veda, a history of sugar (written by a Mr Mintz), a biography of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the author’s own brief explanatory notes.

The collection shares its title with a Modernist, Harlem Renaissance novel by Jean Toomer. The poet favours blank verse and sentences that run over many short lines. Sadly, few lines or poems are truly memorable – the overall effect, like the volume itself, is slight. Generally, the historical poems are stronger than the contemporary ones. Havana 1857 is the best poem in it, an evocative and tragic account of people trafficking from China to work in the sugar plantations as the luckless captive remembers the night he was kidnapped. This is one that stays with you:

‘Your sores from beatings never healed./And I was traded many times over, my brother,/in the ten years between us.’

Overall, Sam Bully-Thomas shows a knack for evoking far flung places and times. She is clearly a writer comfortable in several mediums, also writing screen plays and micro fiction. Hopefully future works will offer more substantial rewards.

To purchase a copy of ‘Cane’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/cane-by-sam-bully-thomas

About the reviewer

tandrewsTom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

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Book Review: ‘Scratch’ by Steve Himmer

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A forest can be a spooky place. It may seem lush and inviting to an urban dweller, but it’s not as welcoming as it seems. It’s easy to imagine that there might be things in the thickest part of the forest that are quite beyond our knowledge, watching and waiting.

This novella begins uncannily enough, with the narrator urging the reader to join him in the shape of a coyote. Afterwards the reader is present in the narrative as you press your coyote nose against the windows of the human characters.

The lead character is a big city property developer building a housing estate in rural New England. Martin dreams of building the suburban home that he never had during his rootless childhood, living in a trailer on site and planning to settle in one of the houses he builds. One morning, our hero wonders into the new England forest on a whim, straight into a revenant style bear attack. After staggering back to civilisation relatively unscathed, he hears the local legend of Scratch. Scratch is a local bogeyman and shapeshifter that the locals blame for various small misfortunes. A series of strange events occur around the town and it seems Scratch may be more than a myth.

Himmer’s writing is conversational and effortless, picking out the rhythms of small town life, Martin’s yearnings and the timeless patterns of the forest with equal ease.

It’s literary fiction with a supernatural edge. It starts slowly, but it comes to life gradually and by the end I was reading hungrily up until the chilling final sequence. The narrator’s strange presence in the story creates a feeling of being watched and of inevitable disaster. It become clear from the way they address the reader knowingly that they aren’t quite human.

This attractive volume from Wundor editions is Steve Himmer’s third book, all of which have links to nature and the outdoors. This is an intriguing and unsettling little novel, worth reading.

To purchase a copy of ‘Scratch’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/scratch-by-steve-himmer

About the reviewer

tandrewsTom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

The Dancer

Dancer letter

I saw Jane Hariott for the first time since our schooldays over the body of a dead Canadian. Normandy, June 1944.  I was fresh from England, still blinking away the things I’d seen on the voyage across the channel and on the drive down from the coast. As a nurse I was used to death, but within the confines of wards and funerals. Now, it was everywhere: the remains of an old woman strewn across the pavement, bombed out of her London flat, blood and brains staining her tea-dress. Or the corpse of an American tank commander, draped over the shell of his Sherman like dirty laundry.

The field hospital was between Bayeux and Caen, in what had once been an orchard but was now a swampy crater. Tiny, sour apples clung to the remaining trees – once, on the verge of passing out from hunger, I grabbed one and took a bite, only to spit it out again immediately. Tents crouched low in the space that was left, footprints and the wheels of heavy vehicles turning once solid ground to mud, the air full of the sound of the dying and the smell of the dead. In the time I was there, I don’t remember once hearing birdsong.

I climbed out of the jeep and presented myself to the nearest official – a young woman in full battledress, injecting a sweating man with morphine. She smiled at me. “Reinforcements,” she said, and I saw she had a homely gap in her teeth. Immediately, I liked her. Her name was Betty – the medical officer was on duty in the theatre tent. “You might have to wait a while, though,” she said, unscrewing her syringe as the man’s breathing steadied. “He’s in surgery.”

I hovered outside the tent. I still had my pack slung over my shoulder and I was conscious of the fact I hadn’t washed in several days. But looking too clean would make me conspicuous. The nurses here wore the gore smeared on their battledress with as much pride as the pips on their shoulders – the epaulettes signifying rank, expertise, experience. I had the pips but not the gore, just a damp sand-stain from where I’d fallen over on the rubble-strewn beach.

I pulled back the tent flap. Inside: a man stretched out on the operating table. His innards were shared between the people standing around him – each was covered in blood, engaged in stitching, pulling, prodding. They spoke to each other clearly, but in an undertone, as if worried about disturbing the patient. I inched closer and was stunned – surely, the man was beyond help? Still in uniform, the insignia of his Canadian regiment hung ragged from his shoulders but looked like the most substantial part of him. I hadn’t yet witnessed the medical miracles that would make these tents sacred. I glanced up at the nurse on duty, hoping to confirm my suspicions with a shared glance, and saw that the nurse was Jane Hariott.

We left boarding school together, five years previously. We hadn’t been friends but still I expected some indication of pleasure when she recognised me. Instead, her eyes widened above her mask and she looked away, horror-struck. She was so determined to avoid my eyes that she didn’t realise that the man had died on the table and continued to sterilise the equipment, arranging the scalpels on the surgeon’s tray. It took a nudge on the arm from the orderly for her to see that the scalpels were unnecessary. I wanted to smile at her, say something to dispel the unease that was now suddenly between us, but it seemed inappropriate to do so over a corpse.

“You were supposed to arrive with the gas.” It took a second for me to realise that the surgeon was talking to me. He turned, mask down. “Where’s the gas?”

I travelled to France on the HMS Lancaster. The gas and oxygen cylinders, the trunk containing my dress uniform and the crates of theatre instruments came on the sister ship. I watched from the deck of the Lancaster as the sister ship erupted into a ball of fire, burning for an impossibly long time on the dark waves, before sinking beneath the surface of the sea. A mine. It could have been us but, that time, it was them.

“I thought you knew,” I said. “They split us between two ships.” The surgeon stared at me. I knew I had to say it. If I didn’t say it, he’d hate me even more. “The other one went down. It’s just me.” We lost two medical officers on the ship, along with the gas and equipment. The body on the table stopped me from mentioning this.

The surgeon held me still with his stare and I flinched as he turned away, ripping his bloodstained apron from the front of his uniform. “My name is Lt Col Marks,” he said. “You need to report to the matron. And by the way,” he added, just as I was turning to leave. “You should have saluted.”

*

I fell into my duties quickly. I was desperate to speak to Jane, to reestablish our relationship, iron out any misunderstanding, but I didn’t get to speak to her for some time. We were busy, still dealing with the dregs of the Normandy survivors. We also began to take fresh wounded, those felled in more recent skirmishes, on the winding, hedge-lined lanes of the bocage. There were no shifts, not in those early days. If you could move your hands, you could heal.

The first break I had was with Betty, who offered me a cigarette and passed me a cup of Compo tea, premixed with milk and sugar. It was disgusting but I drank it anyway – I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“You’ll fit in right enough,” Betty said. “Once you get the hang of things.” It was early, the sun just breaking in a bloody mess across the sky. This was usually the time when the countryside began to stir, when hedgerows began to rustle and birds began to sing. But there were only human sounds – the murmur of different accents, someone laughing, the distant sound of shells.

“I actually know Jane,” I said. “We were at school together.”

Betty’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re a ballet dancer too?” she asked.

I frowned. “No,” I said. “Why would I be?”

Betty smiled. “Jane went to ballet school,” she said. “I’m sure that’s what she said.”

Back then I was quick to laugh. “I’m definitely not a dancer,” I snorted. “Maybe ballet came afterwards? We lost touch.”

“Yes,” Betty said. “That must be it.” She seemed the sort of person to cringe away from conflict. She wanted everyone to be friends, for everything to be the truth. She took a drag on her cigarette and exhaled upwards, squinting into the sky. “Looks like a scorcher,” she said.

*

 I remember being shocked at the number of Germans we treated. A lot of them were snipers, lone wolves, cut off from the rest of the pack. Like Betty said, after a while it stopped bothering you – you fell into rhythm, found the veins in their pale, delicate forearms and diluted their Aryan blood with morphine. It was hard to get worked up over a forearm.

I was just treating a German boy – too young to grow a moustache – when I heard Jane behind me. She had a high, nasal voice and she was talking about her brother, John. She was leaning low over an American paratrooper; the camp beds were shoved together under the sloping canvas roof and sometimes you had to get uncomfortably close to your patients to hear what they were saying. But Jane’s voice carried. “My brother John’s a wonderful horseman,” she was saying to the American. “I bet he could show you a thing or two.”

I had been there three days and I still had not managed to speak to her. If we ever shared a break, it was shared with others too. We passed each other, going in and out of the sleeping tents or emerging from the latrine pits, but she never slowed for a second. I caught her with the occasional ‘hello’ or ‘night’ but it seemed as though she was deliberately avoiding me. I didn’t have time to be offended: too much to do, to feel. I didn’t have a second to spare to worry about Jane. Not until I heard her mention her brother, John.

Like I say, I was never friends with Jane at school and that was partly because of her brother. She began to tell us about him in our first year, about his feats in the army, how clever he was, how handsome. He had always just been posted somewhere exotic, was always fighting in a far-off desert or swatting away insects in a rainforest. You couldn’t open an Atlas near Jane without her ramming her finger between the pages, pointing to a wonder of the world and saying, ‘my brother’s been there’.

“I didn’t know there was a war going on in Antarctica,” I remember saying, as she prodded the white sliver at the bottom of the page.

“He’s not there fighting,” Jane told me, witheringly. “He’s there on reconnaissance.” She was clever with her choice of words. This new word – reconnaissance – had exactly the effect she desired. I did not like to read aloud in class, could stumble through only a few lines of Bleak House before the teacher called the torture to a halt. “You’re supposed to breathe when there’s a comma, Atkins,” the teacher told me, in front of the whole class. “Not suffer a mild aneurism.” I cringed away from the unknown word like a wounded animal.

John marched triumphant over everybody’s anecdotes. Whatever we did over the holidays, John had achieved more. He had affairs with heiresses, duels with their jealous lovers. He could fence and was a fabulous marksman. By the time we were in fifth year, at the end of our school careers, John was also universally loathed throughout the school.

The worst part was, by the end, none of us even believed he existed. Every year, someone would ask (with a sly glance sideways at her friends) if John would be coming to the annual school play and, every year, Jane would have an excuse as to why he couldn’t.

“John’s contracted malaria, unfortunately,” I remember her saying in our fifth year. “He said he’d love to come but he doesn’t want to infect me. Can’t be putting the lives of schoolgirls at risk.”

By this time, she sensed that her stories were failing. She produced letters, crumped and mud-splattered, signed by John himself. Except the handwriting was very like her own, only with the ys, js and gs looped back over themselves. I used to sit next to her in class and I once saw her slip up by looping a y, betraying herself, allowing John to spill out onto the page. I told my friend Rachel, who told her friend Louise and so on. I’m not proud of my sixteen-year-old self but, when the material was so rich and beckoned so seductively, it was hard to resist. It was the thought of her writing them to herself, deciding how to word every line and then stamping on them with muddy shoes to make them look well-travelled. I did impressions of her in our dormitory, stamping up and down in my stockings on the rough wooden floorboards while the other girls roared, rolling around on the beds, beside themselves. Like I say, I’m not proud.

So when I heard her mention him to the American, I stood up abruptly, startling the German boy. I had no school-friends with which to exchange eye-rolls, only Betty, who was further down the row of beds and who had no reason to believe that John wasn’t a real person. A real, excellent horseman.

Jane was still with the American. Her cheeks bore acne pockmarks. I remembered someone trying to give her skin tonic and her fleeing to the bathroom, eyes brimming with tears. I saw the tonic in the dormitory bin and her skin never improved.

John was a fiction, of that I had no doubt, and I found it shocking that she still maintained the fantasy as a grown woman. But I was a grown woman too and it was nothing to do with me. On those wards, you saw people getting through however they could. Rosary beads, secret amulets sewn into seams, wedding rings tied on string around necks – you did what you had to in order to survive and that, I decided, was fine by me. But then Betty’s fiancé died and that changed things.

I still didn’t know Betty very well and so, when I found her sobbing in our sleeping tent, I felt I was intruding. It was Col Marks that told me during a break from surgery. He lit a second cigarette from his own and passed it to me, his bloodstained fingers leaving a smudge of red on the paper.

“Taken out by a sniper,” he said, exhaling smoke. “His name was Albert.”

I wondered if Betty would change around our young German, if someone should watch her, but the pale, drawn face she presented to him was the same one she now showed everyone. And life went on, wherever it could. I reduced my fluid intake, so I wouldn’t have to be escorted to the lavatory pits quite so frequently. We were supposed to be escorted now, because of snipers, which made the whole enterprise even more painful. Drinking was complicated because all water had to be boiled and the Compo Tea was vile, so I could go almost a whole day without a trip. However, between the dehydration and the humiliation of using public toilets (essentially a series of holes over a plank of wood in an open tent) we all had a near-constant ache in our guts, a heaviness that crept from our stomachs up into our chests, making it difficult to breathe. You noticed it when you stopped, when it was your turn to rest and you curled up in bed with your helmet on (new rules, again, on account of the snipers) only to spend the whole time tossing and turning, trying to negotiate the lump of cement inside you. But life went on, until a few days later, when I found Jane sobbing in the sleeping tent.

I stayed in the entrance for a second, watching her shoulders shake. I knew exactly what I should do but was unable to act, as if my quota of dutiful behavior had been used up for that day. And then Betty came in after me. She sank down onto the camp bed next to Jane and, rubbing her back, asked her what was wrong.

“It’s John,” Jane sobbed, her chest heaving. “My brother. He’s missing in action.”

*

I did well – I stayed silent while she told the story. John’s whole squad were missing, suspected dead. He was so brave, he had probably put himself in danger trying to save a friend. That would be so like him.

I moved over to my own bunk and began to tidy my things. I noticed as I unbuckled my pack that my hands were shaking. Earlier that day, I had been unable to remove shrapnel embedded in the face of a British squaddie called Len, blinded in a shell explosion. In a way, it was a relief to discover I had a reserve of emotion left.

But I managed not to say anything, anything at all, until she mentioned John’s unit. She said he was in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and my head snapped up, even under the weight of my helmet. That was when I knew – that particular lie was for me.

Jane hadn’t been the only impersonation in my repertoire during my school days. In the summer between my third and fourth years, my mother’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse and, when I came home for the holidays, I found that our ‘home’ had moved to a small flat in the East End. We didn’t see much of our new neighbors, only heard their shouts and groans through the thin plaster walls, but one resident was impossible to avoid. His name was Carsall and he lived on the ground floor. The door leading to his chambers was right next to the central stairway and, as soon as you placed your foot on the bottom step, bourbon fumes would catch in your throat, halting your progress, and he would appear like a ghoul, swaying slightly in the gloomy hallway. If you were lucky, he’d let you go after half an hour, his diatribe – ‘I was the best of them, that’s why they couldn’t stand me,’ – still ringing in your ears. He’d served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the late twenties until some kind of scandalous incident had resulted in his swift ejection from the army. Carsall always skimmed over this part, murmuring something about a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a senior officer’s inability to appreciate ‘a soldier’s right to a good time’ and I never managed to get to the bottom of the story.

That didn’t stop me from exploiting it. I swayed around the dormitory, slopping the contents of my imaginary tankard over my friends as they howled with laughter. “King’s Own Yorkshires,” I slurred. “That’s me.” I turned the shameful – my mother’s gradual descent into financial ruin – into something funny. Now, Jane was using it, once again.

“The what?” I snapped at her. Her face, tear-streaked and blotchy, showed no hint of shame, or recognition. Was it conscious? Was she goading me deliberately, or had the name just stuck in her memory?

“The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry,” she said again, her bottom lip trembling. “John’s battalion.”

“Except it isn’t his battalion, is it?” I said. I was tired, so tired. It was almost too much to keep my head up, the heavy helmet weighing it down. And then I said it. “Because John isn’t real.”

The pair of them stared at me, eyes wide, which made me even angrier.

“You didn’t go to ballet school,” I said. I was standing up now – I didn’t know how that had happened. “It’s pathetic.” The only thing left for me to do was storm out but my feet throbbed in my army-issue boots. After a moment of indecision, I stayed where I was, my arms crossed over my chest, shifting my weight from one foot to the other so I could deal with the pain in shifts.

Betty opened her mouth and then closed it again. Jane, tears still streaming, looked as though she was burning from the inside out. She was actually vibrating with anger.

“I have a letter,” she said, her teeth gritted, mouth twisted. Tears rolled down her nose, over her lips.

I started to laugh. “Well we’ve been here before,” I said. “Where is it?” My hands were still folded over my chest.

Jane jerked her head over to her jacket, slung across the bed. Still burning, she made no move to get it. Betty only stared at me, dumbstruck, so I squeezed between them and the next bed, aware as I did so of how close we were, how vulnerable I would be if she chose to hit me, or dig her fingernails into my face. At that moment, it did not seem unlikely. As soon as I reached the jacket and found the slip of paper in one of the pockets, I darted back to my side of the tent, safely out of range.

To my horror, it looked legitimate. I had never seen one before so had nothing to compare it with but the words seemed official: typewritten and sterile. We regret to inform you that Sergeant John Harriot of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry has been reported missing in action, presumed dead. I folded the paper back over, unwilling to look at it a moment longer and turned to Betty.

“Her brother doesn’t exist,” I told her. “At school, we all used to laugh at her because she made up these ridiculous-”

“You humiliated me because I was ugly.” Jane was on her feet too now.

“That’s not-”

“You made my life hell,” she spat. Betty was standing now as well, with an arm around Jane’s shoulder. “And now, after this happens, you torment me further.” Jane snatched the letter back and stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

Betty was frowning, an expression I had never seen before on her mild features. “She’s competitive,” I said to her, trying to assume a teacherly air of reason. “When you lost Albert-”

“Don’t you dare bring Albert into this.” Betty’s voice was quiet and dangerous. I was used to hearing her bark loudly with laughter, or shout instructions at me from one end of the busy tent to the other. This new, quiet Betty had shadows under her eyes and a scratchy voice, like she’d always just been crying.

“I don’t know how she’s got that letter,” I said. “But it’s not true. You should have known her before. We always used to say-”

“I think you’ve said quite enough, Mary,” Betty said. Jane was crying again, her head in her hands. It was only then that I realised what I’d done, how far I’d gone. There was no going back now. The die was cast.

“Fine,” I said. My own eyes were beginning to burn and I wanted to get out of there before they saw. “Fine.”

I left the two mourners in the tent and stepped out into the night feeling, for the first time in that crowded hospital, completely alone. Now looking back, I see my mistake. I showed my hand, I blinked first. I should have stared straight back.

*

Never before had I been written off as a villain and I felt miscast. I was used to the role of the clown – not pretty enough to be threatening but generally good fun to be around. I was always invited to things and expected to entertain. My mother was an actress and her troupe often rehearsed in our flat. I watched the actors playing the star-crossed lovers and imagined my mother and father in their place. It was widely known that my father was an eminent politician and I was the result of his extramarital affair with a young, penniless actress. I had never met him and wasn’t interested in forging a relationship. He had enough of an impact on my life as it was, with some girls warned off being my friend by virtuous parents and my mother and I enduring the humiliation of being shunned in certain shops and restaurants. At least one of the lovers always seemed to end up suffering, so I was never interested in the part. I was content with the clown. Appear in Act One, make everyone laugh, and then spend the rest of the play backstage, eating sugar mice and giggling with your friends. Fewer lines. It was a shock to find myself as the antagonist. Iago: motiveless and cruel.

Jane and Betty didn’t speak to me anymore. The rift went unnoticed by the higher-ups, as we were too busy wading through wounded for them to pay any attention to our social lives. I found a friend elsewhere – the orderly that had been on theatre duty when I’d first arrived at the camp. Had that really only been a week ago? With days flowing into nights and then days again without any rest, time was elusive; it whipped right past you when you were looking the other way, tightening a tourniquet.

His name was Brian. He had buck teeth and a West Country accent. I kept hoping he’d mention a wife or sweetheart soon, so that I could write off any possibility of him being attracted to me, but none was forthcoming. We cracked on, making each other laugh when we could, sharing tin mugs of Compo Tea, and then we heard about the move.

*

The camp was splitting up. Betty and Lt Col Marks were heading South West, towards Saint-Lô and Caen. Brian, Jane and I were to go North West, to Isigny-sur-Mer, to follow the Americans advancing towards the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was amazing how quickly the patients were moved, sent along the lines to other hospitals, how soon it was before we were standing in nothing more than a sad-looking orchard, dirty canvas lying in muddy pools at our feet.

We left early in the morning, the trucks crawling along the bumpy road. We were driving for an hour. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but the landscape was littered with debris. Moving troops blocked the roads and we were waved through only to be stopped abruptly by a tank or a truck backing into the road. I tried not to see the gravediggers, black clouds of flies churning above their heads as they dealt with the bodies. Fires burned, brazen and unconstrained, wherever there was oxygen and provocation. Occasionally, I saw what looked like a French family shivering by the roadside in their rags but it hurt to look at them so I tried not to see them either.

I was sitting at the back of the truck, near the tailgate, so had a good view of what we were leaving behind. Jane was at the other end of the truck, wedged behind the driver. I replayed the argument over and over in my head, thinking of all the things I should have said. But it was over. I was pleased Betty wasn’t coming with us. It would be a fresh slate, with a new group of people. As long as Jane and I stayed out of each other’s way, all would be well.

*

Over half of Isigny had been destroyed in two major bombardments on the 8th June, a few days after D-Day. We were in tents again, as there was barely a building left standing. We drove into Isigny on June 19th and, as the Americans grappled with the Germans troops in the winding lanes, between the dense green hedgerows, the sky turned black with storm.

Quickly, we fell into routines. Beds were crammed into tents. We kneeled in the mud between them if there was space and straddled the beds if there wasn’t. Over those few days, with the heavens opening up around us, I spoke more to patients than I did to either Brian or Jane.

I can’t tell you any more about Jane Hariott without telling you about Donald Rhodes. Don was an American paratrooper, a medic. The first time I saw him, he was screaming and it took me a moment too long to realise he was screaming at me. His voice was tinged with a twanging accent. By that time, I’d met enough Americans to create a kind of mental patchwork map of the US from their voices. I still had areas missing, but I knew enough to place him from the South, where they dragged out their ‘r’s and called you ‘ma’am’. In that moment, Don was not calling me ma’am. He was yelling at me to ‘get some goddamned morphine or the guy’s gonna die – what are you, nuts?’

I was in surgery that day, had already spent six hours passing the surgeon – forties, tall, skinny, slightly lecherous – his equipment, swallowing my distaste whenever I had to sponge the sweat from his forehead. We stopped for ten minutes and, while I was standing in the entrance to the tent, watching the rain pour down from the canvas, inches from my face, an ambulance tore into the street. A figure threw open the back doors of the truck from the inside while it was still moving and leapt out. A whistle blew and I began to run towards him, the rain deafening as it thundered on my helmet.

You had to drop everything. It didn’t matter if you’d been on duty ten minutes or ten hours, no one wanted to know. The man was already shouting by the time I got there, pulling a soldier out the back of the ambulance.

“Grab his legs!” he yelled, over the rain.

Together, we transported the wounded man into the theatre tent. Others descended on us, removing the man’s uniform as he coughed black blood onto the groundsheet.

The man that had leapt down from the truck was wearing a medic’s armband. He was bent low over his patient and had stopped shouting; he was now murmuring softly to him, stroking his face. I realised they knew each other, they were friends.

The wounded man was called Bill Moyer and, by some miracle, he survived. We got him stabilized that evening and then the next morning had him transported to the coastline, where he was shipped back to a hospital in England. Shot in the chest, just a bit too far off centre to hit anything vital. Few were so lucky.

The medic was Don. Together, we carried Bill from the surgery tent to the wards and settled him into a cot. It was hard to do so gracefully; if you bent low over a bed, you were always shoving your arse into the face of the person next door. We stood in the awning of the tent, listening to the rain. I didn’t know that Jane was behind us until later and, even then, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to cheapen the moment.

When he wasn’t giving orders, Don was usually quietly-spoken but, that evening, he had to shout over the sound of the storm. “Somebody told me France was mighty fine this time of year,” he said.

“Somebody lied,” I said.

*

In those days, people could throw a party in any kind of structure, if it stayed intact long enough. We held dances in operating theatre tents, with the tables and equipment pushed to the sides of the room. Bombed-out churches with only a few shards of stained glass left in the windows made for eerie dance halls, the strains of Glen Miller bouncing off the gargoyles and buttresses.

Cherbourg was captured by the Allies on 25th June but we only heard about it twenty-four hours later, when the new influx of patients arrived on stretchers. We knew something good had happened when, despite their wounds, some of them were smiling.

Word spread through the camp about a party at the US base – all medical personnel welcome. The MO allowed those that would be off-duty anyway to go. I was one of the lucky few. So, unfortunately, was Jane.

Over the last few days, I had become aware of her tracing my steps, following me, I assumed in order to intimidate me. I remembered from school that she breathed heavily in her sleep and when we’d shared a tent at the first field hospital, I’d spent many nights trying to drown out the sound of her snores. Now, it was the silence keeping me awake. If she wasn’t snoring, she wasn’t sleeping. What was she doing? Planning? Staring at me as I lay in my sleeping bag, trying to kill me with the power of her stare? I was absurdly grateful for the new rules, demanding we wear our helmets to bed.

I smiled at her as I climbed into the back of the jeep, knowing that this would annoy her more than a shove to the chest, or an elbow to the ribs. Childish, I know, but I was wearing lipstick and my spirits were high. I was not in the mood for diplomacy. I wanted to drink champagne and dance.

The party was at the American Mess, ten minutes down the dark, twisting roads. We sang in the back of the truck, passing around a bottle of whisky and, by the time the truck stopped, we were all drunk already.

I had met Americans before, but always on their own when they were on the back foot, when they needed patching up. En mass, they were quite something. The songs were tasteless, but they were loud and drowned out insecurity. After years of blackout warnings, it was a joy to dance in a hall that was light and warm with bodies. I drank too much and danced until my feet throbbed. I saw Jane out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. She was sitting with a group of soldiers and, when she caught my eye, laughed theatrically at something one of them had said. I remembered this tactic from school and smiled to myself. With all her dance training, I wondered why she wasn’t here on the floor, showing the Americans a thing or two.

I sat down at a table and, within minutes, was joined by ten or twelve GIs. That was the problem – we were outnumbered to such a degree that it was exhausting. Looking back, however, I can’t pretend that it was always a burden. One of the GIs was a Bostonian of Irish descent. His name was Mickey and he was a fellow impressionist. He made me laugh until I thought I was going to be sick, doing an impersonating his platoon’s medic who had tied a cow to a tree in order to milk it.

“So we’re all there shitting ourselves,” Mickey said. “And then this guy lassos this fucking Friesian – pardon my language, ma’am – and starts milking it into his helmet. I mean, of all the crazy shit I’ve seen out here…” He wiped his eyes, laughing too hard to make it to the end of the sentence. “A real country boy, that guy. Hey, there he is! Rhodie! Hey Rhodie!”

Don Rhodes was making his way to our table, looking mortified.

“I was just telling… what was your name?”

“Mary.”

“I was just telling Mary about you lassoing that Friesian-“

“It was a Normande,” Don said.

“What?”

“The cow was a Normande, because we’re in Normandy. Friesians are Dutch.”

“Right whatever. Lassoing that cow. Man, that made my goddamned life.”

*

It took an embarrassingly short time for me to fall in love with Don Rhodes. I didn’t have much experience of love; I was too quick to make fun of myself, too gawky, too robust to be convincing as someone’s sweetheart. But Don didn’t seem to know what he was doing either. He preferred cows to people. I was glad he was slight – statistically, the smaller ones were the ones that had a better chance of making it through unscathed. His family owned a ranch in Texas and the only aspiration he had was to end up back there. Perhaps he could turn his medical training to use as a vet? He didn’t know. He was trying not to think too far ahead.

Word got back to camp that I was seeing someone. Brian was awkward around me, confirming my suspicions, but it was Jane that troubled me most. It’s a strange feeling, sleeping near someone that hates you so much. Sharing meals with them. I heard her talking to an Irish tank commander once; he was talking about how it was impossible to hate a German once they showed you a picture of their wife and kids. He said the first thing they did when they were captured was to reach into their jackets and bring out the photograph, holding in front of them like a shield shouting ‘Meine Frau, meine Kinder!’

“Oh I don’t know,” I heard Jane say as I walked past. “There’s definitely one person I’d see dead.”

It was moments like this that I felt aware of the equipment around us, the syringes, the scalpels. The instruments we had that could save life would be just as effective at ending it.

But the thing about love is, you feel like you’ve got a guardian angel watching you all the time, someone on your side. Nothing seems truly dangerous if you know that you can turn it into an anecdote, if you can make it malleable by language and intonation. Don was sometimes at the hospital; after dropping off a patient he would try to find me and kiss me roughly before disappearing again. When he could be spared for more than an hour we would walk together. It was strange, but not unpleasant.

“Sounds like one crazy lady,” he said, when I told him about Jane, but he was laughing when he said it and I felt slightly annoyed that he didn’t think she was a serious threat. But then, I supposed, to someone that spends most of their time under fire from machine-guns, she wasn’t. I tried to laugh too.

*

I came back one day from a walk with Don to find her sitting alone in the sleeping tent. When I couldn’t bear the silence any longer, I said, “Any news about John?” Honestly, I did not intend to goad her – it had been my way of trying to forge some sort of truce – but she just glared at me and, when she spoke, she was full of fury.

“What do you think will happen,” she asked. “When he finds out you’re a bastard, that your mother was a whore?”

I couldn’t speak for a second, the breath knocked out of me. “I’m sorry?” I said.

“These Americans are pious folk, you know,” Jane said. I wanted to slap the smug smile from her face. “Do you think he’ll be pleased, when he finds out what you come from?”

I breathed deeply, to get my heartbeat to return to normal. “I’m not ashamed of who I am,” I said, slowly. “I don’t have to lie to live with myself.” And this time, I had the sense to leave the tent, despite the throbbing in my feet, my head, my heart.

*

Don never did find out about my family. I knew as soon as I saw Mickey, standing in the entrance to the tent, wringing his hands, that Don was dead. A machine gun, not even a precise bullet, intended especially for him. He was killed in a spray.

Everything was dangerous again, everything was cruel. The soldiers I healed were no longer funny or loveable, but more opportunities to get hurt. I thought of Betty, crying over her letter. I even thought of Jane, how I’d kill someone that told me my pain wasn’t real. And then I shut it all down. Do your job. It’s all you have left.

But then we had a Texan on the wards. I found it difficult to listen to his voice and I was glad when Jane became his primary. I walked stiffly past his bed, as if he were somehow infected with something. One day, I was walking by and Jane was next to him, changing the bag on his IV. Her head turned slightly to the side and I knew she’d sensed I was there.

“I knew a Texan,” she said loudly, in her nasal voice. “We were going to be married.”

Sometimes, I can still hear the sound of the slap I gave her. When I lie in bed at night, I can feel it still trembling in my hands as they lie on the sheets in the dark. I can hear the slap and the chill silence as, head snapped to the side, she turned to face me, smiling.

*

They couldn’t keep us together after that. It was shocking, the MO said. Never before had he seen such behaviour from a member of his staff. I was lucky to not be losing my job, but they were so understaffed that they needed every pair of hands they could get. I was sent away to Caen. The less they heard from me the better.

I couldn’t bring myself to care. I’d been in France three months and, in that time, seemed to have sampled the entire range of emotion war had to offer. I was ready to go home and yet it went on and on.

I went to Caen, Brussels and Louvain. I was driven through destroyed cities, populated only by mangy dogs and rats, only to suddenly pull into a town that was untouched. One day I would have to eat whatever was left of the hospital’s K-rations, normally ground into a powder at the bottom of the packets, and then the next there could be freshly-baked croissants, wine from the vineyard of the local chateau. There was sometimes cheese too, but everyone steered clear of the camembert; now I knew it smelled not dissimilar to rotting flesh.

I joined a convoy of British medical officers and, when we stopped in Poix on the way to Belgium, we stayed in an abandoned SS barracks. There were indoor lavatories and tinned food left in the larder. German uniforms were slung over the backs of chairs and hung up on pegs behind doors. There were also German magazines, full of naked women positioned into convoluted shapes. We were still laughing as I opened a drawer in a chest. Inside was a collection of maps. They showed the south of England and, though many of the place names were misspelled, were eerily accurate. Hand-drawn arrows showed exactly how the invasion would take place. I quickly handed the maps to the MO. I felt uneasy about sleeping in the room with them there, in the drawer. The German’s handwriting bothered me, the way the ys looped back over themselves.

In Belgium, we set up our hospital in a beautiful medieval convent. The nuns were still resident and eager to help, but often their efforts made life more complicated as they couldn’t speak English and my French hadn’t progressed much past my schooldays. They cheered us up though – they were plump and rosy-cheeked, scurrying around their wards in their habits, happy to be doing God’s work. I didn’t believe in Heaven any more, only Hell, but it was nice to think that there were those that still thought good could triumph over evil.

It was while I was in Louvain, trying to prevent Sister Sophia-Marie from giving a patient an overdose, that I met John Hariott.

The POW camp had been liberated and he was being treated for malnutrition. On the whole, he hadn’t done too badly and, when he was discharged, I bought him dinner. It seemed like the right thing to do.

John Hariott slurped his soup, wiped his nose on his sleeve of his uniform as he buttered his bread with his other hand.

“Janey never mentioned anyone called Mary,” he said with his mouth full of food. “She said she had a bunch of schoolfriends but I thought she made them all up. She was always such a brat.”

I had lost my appetite and now my soup was cold. When it was brought over to the table it had smelled delicious and I was sad to see it go to waste.

“What was she like at school?” John asked, mopping up the rest of his soup with a hunk of bread.

I thought for a second. “Lonely,” I said.

He snorted. “Yeah that sounds right. She was obsessed with this play thing you did every year. She said she was always picked to do the solo dance.”

“Did you ever write to her?” I asked.

John looked at me over his beer glass as he took a swig. “No,” he said. He had a moustache of froth along his top lip. “We never got on. I was already posted abroad when she was young. What? Why?”

I thought about telling him he needed to wipe his top lip. “Right,” I said. It was late and there were only two other tables occupied by diners. I wondered how long it would be before I could leave without seeming rude.

“Are you going to eat that?” John was pointing at the bowl of cold soup in front of me. I shook my head and pushed it towards him.

He insisted on walking me back to the convent. It was obvious from the way he hovered near the gates that he’d expected something more from the evening but I was clear – painfully so – and, as he walked away, he kicked a stone up the road. I watched him go, walking through this ancient, medieval city as though it had been saved especially for him, so he could kick this stone down this street, and I realised that in a way I had been right. Jane’s John did not exist. This man was his shadow.

*

Victory in Europe Day. I was in Brussels, having dinner with a friend. Nancy was a nurse I’d met in Louvain and, by then, we knew not to talk about what we’d seen. Now, there was a future to toast and we wasted no time on the past, uncorking a bottle of champagne with our appetizer.

Later we went dancing. The city was a mess, but it was joy that was creating the mayhem, spilling out over the edges. The parties flowed into the streets and Nancy and I danced with each other, with strangers and, when no one else could keep up, on our own. Just before midnight, I glanced across the cobbled street and saw a young woman, dancing with a GI. In the lamplight, her acne scars were pitted, pronounced, but she was no longer hunched over. Her posture was upright, elevated, and her legs moved quickly, skirting the ground, whipping around the soldier’s legs.

“Do you know her?” Nancy asked me.

“We went to school together,” I said. “Her name’s Jane. She’s a dancer.”

About the author

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

Eat My Debt

Cash receipts and till slips

Receipts are very obviously very wrong. Anyone – man or woman – after a day’s Christmas shopping can see this. The hardware shop you go into to buy your dad that new pair of gardening gloves has a stupid bit of token paper about one inch square, whereas when you go to the stereo shop to get the electrical wire for your nephew’s speakers they give you two sheets of A4. Supermarkets tend to give you an acceptably-sized ticket, though that’s only because all you’ve bought is two bottles of Cava and a box of Matchstick chocolates, and then going into the clothes shop to get your sister that jumper, and they give you another bloody receipt of another bloody size. And do not get me started on Apple now doing “electronic receipts” by email oh dear gods they need to burn, burn, burn.

A man’s wallet is the same size – whomever the man, whatever his wallet. It’s battered, and contains his cards, his work ID, a couple of pictures of his kids, a used train ticket and a fiver. It’s 7 inches long by 3 1/2 high (yes yes – calm down), and can a twenty, a ten and a fiver (a £50 note is actually slightly too big for it – the Royal Mint know this, and that’s why they’re that size – to repress the peasants and make sure that should we ever get hold of one we ruin it’s loveliness immediately if we try to store it away, thus perpetuating the mental subjugation of the working classes).

So the solution is this: make all receipts the same size. 2½ inches wide by as many as necessary long. This will offer enough room for a company logo, time and date, transactions, and a corporate pleasantry at the bottom. They will then be big enough to be stored together in an easily filed, accessible manner; smaller than the notes but big enough to read, and will have the added advantage that also women’s handbags and purses can then be adapted to have a dedicated receipt section (and every handbag is only ever on the brink of being replaced for a newer, nicer one, as eny fule no), thus boosting the economy.

It’s an obvious problem, and this is the obvious solution.

About the author of this post

goatmanThe Goatman – due to the usual experiments going wrong etc etc, The Goatman is  an internationally-available gentleman of letters, raconteur and wit. His amorous conquests are myriad, his taste in whisky of renown, and his ability to look comfortable in extreme situations is of significant scientific study. He has been known to conspire with Vagabond Images.

The Making of Manifest, the Warwick MA Anthology

Warwick University’s Writing Programme (WWP) has been consistently ranked as the best creative writing course in the UK for the past five years. In this article, Ellen Lavelle, one of the 2018 cohort of WWP’s MA students, takes us through the trials and tribulations of publishing a unique anthology of student writing. 

I am not a team player. This is probably because a) I am an only child and b) I took AS Theatre studies at school, when I learned that all group projects are doomed to failure, you can’t trust anyone to do anything and that betrayal is an inherent part of human nature. I can trace the solidification of these beliefs to the moment when I discovered that, five minutes before we were supposed to go onstage to give our final performance of A Street of Crocodiles, a cast member had eaten a crucial prop. Apparently, a boy in my class does a good impression of me in this moment, blinking and murmuring ‘you’ve eaten it – you’ve actually EATEN it,’ repeatedly in a dark corner of the rehearsal room.

And so, I never expected the MA in Writing Anthology to work very well. My distrust in people is probably one of the reasons I like writing so much. Everything within the universe of your story, poem, memoir, essay, etc. is down to you. You control every element, at least until you have to get it published. I think it’s a fair assessment to say that most writers exhibit control-freaky behaviour, tend to be perfectionists and can generally be unwilling to compromise. Rounding up twenty-two of us and telling us to create an anthology of our writing as a team, from generating the content to designing the cover and getting it printed, was a pretty ballsy move by the Warwick Writing Programme.

“Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book”

But, in this changing landscape for literature, these kinds of skills are becoming increasingly important to writers. Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book; it also involves participating in a wider literary culture, editing and reviewing the work of other writers, knowing how to speak to people at events and having an answer ready when Norma from Grimsby sticks up her hand and asks if you think e-books are the work of the devil and are going to destroy reading for everyone, everywhere. Creating the anthology was a great idea; but it was going to be tough. It would involve talking to people that didn’t agree with me and trying not to sound like a power-crazed lunatic. However, I do have the ability to be diplomatic, buried somewhere deep within me, so I reckoned I’d get by okay. As long as I didn’t have to do anything with money.

During the first meeting, back in October, a representative from the previous years’ cohort, Steve, turned up with a big bag of money. Steve is in his fifties and is a responsible human – he has a career and grown-up children, is able to wash his clothes without making everything pink or several sizes too small. I’m twenty-two and recently had to google how much rice is too much rice. But Steve was giving that bag of cash to someone and, because I was the slowest person to avert my eyes and sit on my hands, that person ended up being me.

‘You get a little card-reader,’ Steve said, handing me a folder of paperwork and the bag of cash. ‘To confirm your identity when logging in.’

I went home and tried to log in. Access denied. I realised that the person that had created the account didn’t know how to spell the word they’d set as a password. I logged in.

We had money left to us but we needed to raise more. This was where the creative energy came in. Also useful was the expertise of Annie, who owns her own communications company and has thirty years’ experience in the business world, making connections and money; getting shit done.

Annie enrolled on the MA course in order to give herself time to write the novel she’s been waiting years to complete – an account of the life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV, Richard III and matriarch of the fifteenth-century House of York. Annie could give Cecily a run for her money. Half a meeting in, we were discussing agreements with Costa Coffee, fundraising events, and a ’Friends’ initiative – where people could sign up formally to be supporters.

Katie, another of our  MA cohort, had also left a career to return to studying and is an expert at event organisation, having put together several LGBTQ literary festivals and worked on publicity teams for charities. It was her initiative to start up an Eventbrite page, an Anthology Mailchimp account and a profile on the university crowdfunding platform, so that people could donate easily online.

“Within a few months, we had our first fundraiser. Our tutors read, drank wine and Warwick professor, David Vann, conquered the raffle. Meanwhile, I learned that you need more than one Tupperware box to effectively run a drinks stall, a food stall and a tombola.”

We went on to have three fundraisers and I learned a lot more. I learned that you need to stop people distracting you while you set up a float, otherwise you’ll forget how much you put in. I learned to never invite untested comedians to perform on open-mic nights because they’ll do long, drawn-out jokes about blind people bumping into things while your blind friend sits next to you, her guide dog panting in the central aisle.

But I also learned that expert bar staff lurk in all kinds of places. Ed, who finished his undergrad at Warwick last year and writes tense, emotional dramas, is also the President of Warwick’s Real Ale society. My lack of Tupperware didn’t stop him making a mint on the drinks stall, bantering with guests, pouring cheap wine into plastic cups like it was rare, exalted champagne. I learned that some people will travel a long way, in crammed cars, stuffy trains, to support their friends or family. They will pay five pounds for a paper plate of Costco buffet food and sit on uncomfortable chairs in windowless rooms, listening to nervous people read out loud from something they’ve worked really hard on. I learned that windowless rooms can be exciting places.

Costanza is Italian, did ballet for sixteen years, and is now writing a novel about Clytemnestra, the queen who, according to Greek myth, killed her husband, Agamemnon. She wears amazing earrings and has friends that are artists.

‘What do you think of this?’ she asked us, holding up her phone. It was an illustration by her friend Gaia, of a collection of abstract, cartoony faces. And then we had our cover.

A few quick-fire observations:

Names are hard. Whatever you do, don’t ask me to name anything. In the end, we went for ‘Manifest’, which is vague enough to encompass all twenty-two featured pieces of writing, but hopefully interesting enough to encourage people to pick up the book. It wasn’t an easy decision. Feathers were ruffled. We voted and when there were signs of dissention, had another vote. There were still murmurings, but you can’t argue with democracy. Even when you want to.

Deadlines: lie to people. Tell them the deadline is at least a week before it really is. Have no shame. You’ll thank me, when people decide to change what they’re submitting, or don’t give feedback in time or give feedback too enthusiastically and brutally, prompting the author of the story to have an existential crisis and consider giving up writing forever.

Sign off from harsh emails that enforce deadlines or chastise bad behavior as ‘the committee’, not as yourself. ‘The Committee’ is a usefully vague entity. Sometimes, they made tough decisions, but they got the job done. And it was important that those tough decisions couldn’t be traced back to a single person. It wasn’t me or Katie, Annie or Vanwy, who sees the good in absolutely everyone, even when the rest of us find it impossible. It wasn’t Costanza or Luke, whose facial expressions never reflect what’s going on around him but what’s going on inside his head, as he breaks away from discussions to jot down lines for his stories in a little green notebook. You couldn’t blame Anna or Miloni, who worked so hard buying food, booking rooms but bore it all smiling. It wasn’t any of us. It was the committee.

People moan and want to have someone to blame, but they’d probably moan no matter what. You have to do the thing. Who made the decision? The Committee. Who’s to blame? The Committee. Who got the book published? The Committee.

But of course, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Our book launch is on 13th June, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London. It will be amazing to hold the book in my hands, to meet agents and publishers that could help me get the career I want in writing. It will also be amazing to watch my colleagues, now friends, read the writing I’ve seen them working on. We had our last meeting in the pub and, when it was over and I was walking away, I turned back towards the table. Sometimes, people don’t eat the props. Sometimes, they create props that are better than anything you could do on your own.

A note to any prospective employer: I am in fact a great team player. My only flaws are my extreme modesty and my tendency to underestimate my own abilities. And, just for the record, 75g of rice is the right amount of rice.

About the author of this article

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

Coming back for seconds

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What happens when you realise you may have written the “wrong” first draft of your novel? 

Here’s the thing about writing a novel: once you’ve done it, you think you can do it again. It won’t be easy, of course, but it will be easier. You now understand the skeleton of a novel. You have already answered ‘but good god, how does it all come together?’ in your moments of bright panic. You’ve done it. You’re out – on the other side.

So when I sat down to write my second novel, I was clear that I would be experimental. I understood how the novel worked, and now wanted to push boundaries with language and style. I spent two years working on the first draft. I did my research, including visiting the personal library of the Maharana of Udaipur and reading some incredible books, developed a complex plot and wove synaesthesia into the voice.

“A well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess”

davskel

“My novel’s skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck”

And when I was done, I found I had done everything I set out to do: good language and great research. Except, you know, my skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck, bony toes wriggling in the air. It was a well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess.

They talk a lot about first drafts in creative writing classes. Or blogs. Or Twitter. With good reason, I suppose. Getting your first draft out is difficult and the fear of not being perfect paralyses most writers. A first draft is hope. It tells you: this idea has a life beyond your mind or that this idea can find a home in language. It says: you can do it.

And it’s not lying. But very few people talk about the wrong first draft. The draft that is born but is dead. The draft that has the idea you think is the centre of your novel, but is nothing but a decoy. No one tells you about the novel that should be perfect, cherub cheeks and curly brown hair, but who is laughing at you from behind a tree – mischievous and mocking – because you’ve got it wrong, very wrong, and you can’t see it.

Emergency surgery

Because no one told me about the wrong first draft (or maybe because I was too attached to see it), I decided that what my perfect mess needed was a surgeon. Leg rising out of the neck? No problem – give it some surgery. Knee on skull? No problem – just remove it and put in the right place. An arm out of a ribcage can actually be quite useful, a bit like an elephant’s trunk but lower… It’s fine. It’s all there. Of course it’s all there. It’s the first draft, isn’t it? Rewriting is hard work, but it is re-writing; you work with what’s there. So that’s what I did. I sat down and performed surgery.

Except the more I cut and arranged, the more everything fell apart. Sections didn’t want to be moved up. Characters weren’t happy with debuting later in the story. Perfectly good conflict scenes crumbled on themselves when removed from what came before and after – in protest, I am convinced. The harder I tried, the more it became apparent that I wasn’t operating on a skeletal structure at all. The bones turned to mush when removed from their original positions and then into dust. My mess didn’t want to be perfected; it could only exist as the mess.

On the 52nd attempt to write the novel’s first paragraph, I gave up.

“Like being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook” 

I wish I could I could tell you this was a peaceful letting go – like releasing your pet sparrow into the wild or some similar poetic image that comes to mind. It wasn’t. It was falling down a cliff face because you’ve lost your grip. Being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook, blood gathering in your mouth and the world turning black. Curling up on your bed in a foetal position because you don’t want to uncurl anymore – because you’re not sure you even could.

And it was there – falling, blacked-out on the mat, in that foetal position – that I had to accept I knew nothing at all. I had learnt a whole collection of lessons from the first book and none of them were applicable for this one. I had learnt a collection of lessons in writing this first draft – and none of them were applicable for fixing it. I was lost and I didn’t know how to find my way. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go.

The rescue

I was rescued on a flight back from Delhi. It was on Diwali, so the plane was near empty, which is the closest I have come to experiencing a private jet. I drank rum, played sad Andrea Bocelli songs and accepted that this couldn’t go on; I couldn’t come close to tears every time someone asked so, how’s the writing going? I had to tell my publisher the book was unfeasible.

And, like a moody lover who has realised their playing-hard-to-get may lead to them being abandoned, the writing came. Whole paragraphs wrote themselves in my mind, then whole pages, then the story. It wasn’t the novel, of course; writing is still a moody lover, even when it is giving. But it was a new work and it was alive. I didn’t care about skeletons anymore. I didn’t think, where does this leg go or is this arm functioning? I went straight to creating the heart.

I want to be clear: writing is incredibly hard work. Even with moments like these, there is still structuring, planning, moments of heart-breaking doubt and pruning the whole. But this time it was different. I wasn’t writing for the novel’s structure, I wasn’t looking at how plot unfolded, I wasn’t thinking about story. I kept my eyes on the landscape of feeling beneath the book, the nebulous thing that quivers under the surface of the words, and I listened. I looked at the text, actually looked, and went where it wanted to go. I let it become, even if it wanted to become a mess.

Two months later and the draft is done. It’s a first draft like they always talk about – it’s all there, but will need more work. But it lives.

Hope

And somewhere in those two months, this second novel I’ve been talking about, this second draft that broke me, arrived as well. I woke up to find the first paragraph in my mind, along with the story’s shape and heart. A character was sitting on the edge of my bed and staring at me admonishingly. She was a side character – but, apparently, she wasn’t. She was the book.

So, technically – and I’m aware I contradicting myself but writing is a hard business, okay? – it was all there in the first draft. It was just the wrong story. The real story was sitting behind my choice of voice, perspective and plot, waiting for me to pay attention. I should say that I don’t actually begin this rewrite for a couple of months. So I may be wrong and this book may slip through my fingers again. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

But in those ‘maybes’, there is hope.

About the author

dRcLjbx7Tashan Mehta is a novelist based in Mumbai. Above all, her interest lies in form: the shape of a letter, the construction of a sentence, the meeting and parting of two plot threads, or the novel as a whole as it tries to capture and tack onto the mindscape. Or how it fails.

Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, has been published by Juggernaut Books in 2017. She is currently working on the second. She was part of the 2015 Sangam House Writers’ Residency and studied at the universities of Warwick and Cambridge, an education that allowed her to prise open and play with language. It also gave her an abiding love for tea.

If language is a drug, Sci-Fi is crack-cocaine

 

8th emotion

Peacock IV (2016), by Victoria Stothard – cover designer of new speculative fiction project, ‘The 8th Emotion’ 

“Science-fiction [is] the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.”

            — Arthur C. Clarke, “Of Sand and Stars”, 1983

First off, apologies for the title. It’s a shameless piece of provocation. Obviously, crack destroys lives, and I wouldn’t want to equate it – in all seriousness – with an addiction to spaceships, lasers, and aliens. Nonetheless, the title sounded good, and it does get at what I want to discuss.

Sci-fi is not as narrow a set of parameters as perhaps many believe. It is not really just “lasers, spaceships, and aliens”, although I imagine this is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the term.

Culture shock

Sci-fi, if anything, is about culture shock. It’s a form that implicitly dictates that something new be brought to the table, whether it’s a new world, a new species, a new technology, a new psychology… you get my drift. Some sort of breach with our everyday reality, our everyday culture, is required. Therefore, it is a form which, at its core, is built on the notion of a culture shock.

At this point, I’d like to make a distinction between the Arthur C. Clarke quote with which I began this article, and my own belief (although his wording is probably just a by-product of his time). I believe ‘speculative fiction’, though a tad clunky to say, is a better term to use when considering the most potent type of mind-altering fiction, encompassing as it does science-fiction, fantasy, and everything in-between. ‘Science-fiction’ – to me at least – has a degree of prescriptiveness: it’s exotic worlds, final frontiers, and advanced technology. ‘Speculative fiction’, as long as it’s a break from our current world, can be anything. It has a less restricted sense of what a story can be. And as the most drug-like, visionary fiction can come in a variety of guises, that seems like the safest term to use here.

So, to my original point, now amended – speculative fiction relies on culture shock. It can incorporate any genre within it (see the beautiful romantic plot thread in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise) but it must always, even in a very watered-down form, contain this key ingredient.

blade-runner-2049

Speculative fiction can incorporate any genre within it – including the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise. 

However, this isn’t quite the culture shock we get when we go on holiday and think, “oh, so here the steering wheel’s on the other side”, profound though that is. Culture shocks in the real world occur in a state of flux: we’re being bombarded with from all sides by ever-changing, multi-sensory stimuli; incessant distractions that diminish each other and compete for our attention. Prose is very different: it’s a very controlled reality, experienced moment by moment, word by word. With a painting, you can look around the canvas, your eye roving across the detail in whatever order it pleases; an order that is unlikely to be the same from one person to the next. Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality I can think of. As a writer, it lets you specify the exact stimulus for a brain at any given moment (through a word-form), and precisely how that flow of impressions should be arranged. It’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.

“Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality […] it’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.”

On a broader level, purely verbal communication is as close to telepathy as we’ve got. It’s mind communing with mind, the whole material world stripped away, leaving just information: the best rendering of our thoughts that we have. And in my opinion, the better the thoughts, the better their drug-like effect when expressed. Trite thoughts, captured in words, dull the mind. Numb your senses. High-grade thoughts can excite and elevate you, sharpen your mind, make you see the world in a whole different light. This is euphoria. And, at an extreme end, they can even produce physiological side-effects – but I’ll come to that in a second.

Really, it’s the thought, conveyed from one person to another, that is the drug. The language is just the necessary packaging; the means of transmission.

The power of language

There are two stand-out instances in my life that drove home how powerful language can be. The first was the most physiologically striking: it was after I’d been to see a live performance of Alan Moore’s spoken-word piece Unearthing, which was accompanied by music and a photographic slideshow. All these components worked in synchronicity, informing each other, vying for pole-position in your awareness, impossible to follow in their totality. I had to leave the event two-thirds of the way through, rushing to get my coach home. I remember sitting on it, staring at the passing traffic lights: they were glowing slightly but distinctively brighter than usual, like psychedelic blurs of luminosity. I felt stoned. And exactly like someone in that condition, I barely blinked for the first forty minutes of that trip.

(Later, when Unearthing was available to download, I listened to it again, this time the entire way through. Again, I felt stoned, unblinking, although here the effect lasted for more like three minutes. I imagine familiarity wore away some of its impact, as did the lack of a multi-sensory presentation.)

This is probably the peak version of language-as-drug: when it works in tandem with other art forms (like henchmen backing up a criminal mastermind) to overload your senses and mind.

The other stand-out instance utilised words alone. I was in a café, above a bookshop, in a busy central area of London. A long-term friend and I had been talking, for a couple of hours or so, about concepts like time and the quantum world. Then, in the space of a few seconds, reality got strange. I felt light-headed, trippy, as if I could happily stare at any part of the world; as if it was all full of fascinating detail. It also felt like I could sense the atoms that made up the table we were sat at, their energy; and consequently, I had the bizarre impression – while knowing it was false – that I should be able to pass my hand, ghost-like, through that solid block of wood. Between its atoms.

Like I say, this only took a moment to kick in. I asked my friend if he felt it, without specifying what ‘it’ was. He said he did. Switching back and forth, without – as far as I can recall – any leading comments, we described what we were feeling. It seemed to be identical; more than that, it had been induced synchronistically during our conversation.

Obviously, this may all sound crazy. And although, certainly on that latter occasion, it felt like I was in a heightened state, I’m not saying there was any objective validity in my sensations. But you can’t deny that’s pretty trippy.

(And no, smart-arse, I hadn’t taken any drugs that day, or even that week, and at neither event was I sat in a fug of second-hand marijuana smoke. Otherwise, these anecdotes would be rubbish).

As I mentioned, similar effects have happened to me at other times after some sort of intense interaction with language; but these are the two most pronounced cases. And what’s great when this state hits is, unlike with conventional drugs, you retain full cognitive and motor facilities. It feels like you can put the energy you have to much better use.

So if language operates exactly like, or at least has the capacity to be a drug, as these experiences have pretty firmly led me to believe, then there’s an immediate implication for prose. Seen as a psychedelic chemical compound, with words forming the atoms of the overall substance (work with me here) then the less extraneous words there are to dilute the compound, the purer and more intoxicating the final result will be. Think of it as an alcohol with a higher proof. This would fit in with the Hemingway school of writing, where you pare away every unnecessary word until the minimalism almost drives you mad (there is a daily holocaust of adverbs in his name).

Where this perspective cleaves away from that orthodoxy is in the potential of chemicals, mixed correctly, to trigger fizzing and spectacular reactions in each other. So while the spare approach of Hemingway may state that sentences should be short and sharp like a gun report, with all floridity excised, this drug metaphor would argue – and I’d agree – that words can have some of their most exciting effects when the unfamiliar collide. Three adjectives where one would do? Yes, cut that down. But three adjectives that you’ve never seen together before, which spark off one another in interesting ways, like James Joyce’s description of a woman’s body in his short story The Dead as “musical and strange and perfumed”? Keep it. That’s up there with the best of literature.

What this means is that the dictums ascribed to Hemingway and Orwell aren’t the be-all and end-all of prose style. There’s a wider palette of possibilities on offer.

However, what I’ve just said applies to all writing. And I know what you’re thinking: I began this essay in good faith expecting to learn about sci-fi and where I can get a fix of crack cocaine before midnight. Cut to the chase already!

Okay. Geez. I was just about to get there.

The other key thing that the conversation in the café above the bookshop implies is that, for language to get you into a trippy, altered mind-state, this comes easiest when you’re discussing big ideas. Ideas that feel bigger than your brain; like it can’t contain their magnitude. The concepts of time and the quantum world were the examples in that instance, but there are plenty of alternatives: space; the ancestral path and all the DNA matches that, after millennia, led to the creation of you; parallel universes; how different the universe would be if light only travelled at 30 mph; what the psychology of a deity would be; what the ramifications would have been, big and small, if that pivotal historical event had never happened/gone the other way.

All of these notions involve a large sense of scale regarding either time or space, so maybe that’s the key to spinning out your own mind with concepts alone. What they also have in common is that, though such ideas could appear in any genre, they are very much the province of speculative fiction, with them and their ilk having formed the basis for countless stories in that ideas-obsessed narrative field.

A genuine, mind-altering drug on the page

Speculative fiction is where such concepts are literalised, are given concrete form so that the reader can have – on an imaginary level – a visceral engagement with them. It is where such abstract, mind-altering notions are brought to life.

Although most speculative fiction may not reach the giddy, psyche-warping heights I’ve expounded upon here (perhaps a lack of finesse in the prose; perhaps a failure of sustained intensity of imagination) I believe this area of literature, more than any other, has the potential to do so. And the evidence is plentiful and wonderful.

There is the cosmic, puzzle-like world building of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, whose grandeur and intricacy dawns on you like a creeping madness; the fecund neologisms and innovative typography of China Miéville’s Embassytown; the screaming, horror-drenched, pioneering and unmistakable purple prose of Lovecraft; the magisterial and idiosyncratic visions of William Blake. And hopefully, in a hundred years, these authors will be seen as the mere vanguard of what was to come.

Speculative fiction is where you can unite the experimentalism of the modernists (form, language, story content, narratorial and character voices, imagery, setting, etc.) but justify it for narrative reasons, and tie it into a ripping yarn. It can be a genuine, mind-altering drug on the page.

It is, I believe, where the next level of literature lies.

About the author of this post

FullSizeRenderAttempting to practice what he preaches, Josh Spiller has written his own speculative fiction novel, entitled ‘The 8th Emotion’. He is currently trying to fund it through Kickstarter, and you can check it out – as well as get your own signed first edition – here.

 

 

 

 

 

“My Box of Tricks”, Dougie Dodds


 

 

 

 

About the artist

Dougie DoddsDougie Dodds can be seen as the embodiment of indecisiveness, but currently considers himself to be an illustrator and writer, with a keen interest in medieval and viking sagas. He has a BA in English Literature from UEA, and is currently working towards an MA in Authorial Practice: Illustration at Falmouth University. He is a self taught publisher, being the founder and currently soul employee of DoubleDeckerBooks, who have successfully published two poetry compilations and two children’s books. He also dabbles in journalism, having previously co-run the SPA winning student publication VENUE, and really hates beetroot.

NITRB launches monthly web comic from illustrator Dougie Dodds

Nothing in the Rulebook launches a new web comic series from illustrator Dougie Dodds as he embarks on the choppy seas of a postgraduate education into the arts. Come see the artist as a young man do battle with his old foes; fusty student accommodation, impending deadlines and that old hair-puller, writer’s block. Here, Dodds introduces his NITRB column and why anyone in their right mind would commit to such a thing – Billy the Echidna 

For the last few days I have been engaged in what seems like futile attempts to not only tidy my room, but maintain some form of order within it.

It impresses me that, despite numerous attempts to put things away in their rightful places, (a concept still fluid it seems) there remains countless items that do not seem to belong anywhere. This mess is predominantly down to me finishing my degree in English Literature at UEA, and the unavoidable move back to the family home, where me, my degree, and the surprising amount of stuff I have accumulated over the past three years now reside.

The mixing of ‘pre-degree’ clutter and ‘degree-clutter’ has been made worse by the steady increase of the new, ‘post-degree’ clutter.

This new clutter comprises of a large amount of pencils, an even larger amount of pens, a cutting mat, watercolours, very strong glue, and a dauntingly large amount of empty sketchbooks.

 

To those of you wondering what this all has to do with the study of books I very happily reply: not much. I, much like the items scattered around my room, did not belong in the academic world of literature, and after three years of examining the written word to an inch of it’s life (and mine on a few occasions) I’ve finally made the apparently inevitable leap from books to art.

Come the end of September I’ll be travelling down to Cornwall to study the impressively titled Authorial Practice: Illustration course at Falmouth University.

Illustration seemed like the logical option, bridging the gap between literature and art. My time at UEA has not being without artistic opportunities, as in my last year I co-ran the university’s culture magazine, where I would lend myself to the occasional illustration, more often than not in the last few hours of publication.

A few of my modules as well actually gave me the opportunity to write a story and illustrate it myself. It was repeatably drilled into me that ‘you shouldn’t spend too much time on the illustrations, as they will not be marked,’ being solely reliant on the quality of creative writing as well as a critical commentary that went along side it. I however, with slight consequences to my final mark, blissfully ignored their warnings, and devoted, almost obsessively, myself to drawing.

The project that started me on this dangerous spiral was my retelling of the medieval Arthurian tale of Sir Launfal, which I translated from Middle English into modern prose, specifically aimed at younger readers. This project showed me that my interest in medieval literature and illustration do not necessarily have to be two worlds apart, and it was possible to combine them.

This is something I plan to do a lot with my work, to bring these dangerously close to being forgotten, medieval and viking sagas into the modern day. Consequently, my dissertation contained various illustrations where I had translated Shakespeare’s The 

Tempest into a wordless graphic novel, something that broke the monotony of writing and actually made the 9,000 word piece enjoyable. I also ended up illustrating my girlfriend’s creative writing dissertation, something I nagged her to let me do ever since she started writing it.

Despite the waffling nature of this article, this is not a biography into the life of Dougie Dodds, a fascinating read I’m sure, but rather an introduction into the type of content I will be bringing you.

Once a month there will be a comic strip giving you snippets of the life of an illustration student in Falmouth. A hopefully humorous account of experiences I have had, and one that plays around with the idea of a student moving from one discipline to another. I hope to bring the two worlds together as best I can, making sure the three years of literature were not wasted, and I will take you along with me.  

Read Dougie’s first web comic here

About the author of this post

Dougie DoddsDougie Dodds can be seen as the embodiment of indecisiveness, but currently considers himself to be an illustrator and writer, with a keen interest in medieval and viking sagas. He has a BA in English Literature from UEA, and is currently working towards an MA in Authorial Practice: Illustration at Falmouth University. He is a self taught publisher, being the founder and currently soul employee of DoubleDeckerBooks, who have successfully published two poetry compilations and two children’s books. He also dabbles in journalism, having previously co-run the SPA winning student publication VENUE, and really hates beetroot.

Faking Lit: A serious podcast about books

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Faking Lit is a new podcast in which five rising comedians (Chin Tee, Daniel Offen, Haran X, Alice Burden and Josh Bellman) get together to discuss the finest works of classic literature, the twist being that none of them have actually read the book.

The podcast has been started primarily as an excuse to eat various pies, which are lovingly produced each week by Alice. Ideas about growing the profiles of five talented young comedians are very much secondary to this objective.

“In essence, we’re five comedians who met at the Edinburgh festival (where most of us took successful shows) and we’re incapable of hanging out without the excuse of some sort of content to produce. We hope that Faking Lit will become a roaring success, not only for the good of our careers, but also our social lives,” Offen explains.

The opening episode features Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist”. Talk of the book somehow leads to discussion of which is the best House Robot on “Robot Wars”, the underlying racial themes in the movie “Predator” and that this book isn’t all that forthcoming on how to actually turn base metals into gold. Also, somehow along with all of this, the episode features a fair amount of discussion of classical literature and is occasionally insightful as well as nonsensical.

You can listen to the podcast here below:

The podcast will be released weekly, from now until the end of time.