A wild slim alien


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As rare as hen’s teeth

letterpresscover

Tim Hopkins of The Half Pint Press has been kind enough to print up and publish ‘Letterpress [n]’, one of my Missing letters stories. Having faced down the many challenges involved in realising his boxed version of The book of disquiet, typically Tim gave himself a fresh conundrum to solve, one requiring some serious letterpress jiggery-pokery in order to achieve the finished result:

You can find further details and photos here. If you’re interested in getting hold of a copy, let me know via the First contact page, and I’ll pass on the relevant information just as soon as I have it from Tim.

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To celebrate its appearance in print, and also The Half Pint Press publication of Peter Miller’s short story ‘Dusty Springfield’, a launch party is being held at the bookartbookshop on Thursday 12th October 2017. Do come along if you’re in London, as it will be a chance – rare as hen’s teeth – to hear me read…

By the way, you can also find me on Twitter here: @awildslimalien

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The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master: on writing lipograms (an afterword to Missing letters)

The comical hotch-potch

I’ve just completed a series of stories called Missing letters. Together they make up an alphabet of lipograms, a lipogram being a piece of writing composed entirely without a particular letter (or group of letters). I’m relieved to have finished, and now that I have, I thought it might be interesting to write about the experience of writing lipograms.

While I was working on the first letter in the series, I came across an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he contended the following:

‘My work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.’

Obviously there are some items in that list which most if not all of us would sign up to, but others – well, ouch. I can’t help feeling Franzen is being more than a touch prescriptive about his approach to writing.  He himself is guilty of at least a couple of the items with that very statement, let alone the essay as a whole. I loved The corrections, but ‘negative’ is the word here. We all come to writing from different places with differing intentions and motives. It’s not hard to imagine that Franzen has no truck with or time for the Oulipians. That’s authors like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, who provided themselves with constraints which inspired the works they then went on to create. Perec it was who wrote La Disparition entirely without the letter ‘e’; not the first lipogrammatic novel, but probably the most famous, along with Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby. Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, written with a full complement of letters, has a complex set of structural constraints based on a chess knight’s tour around a 10 x 10 grid, the squares of which represent rooms in flats in a Parisian apartment block. What the constraint serves to render is a beautiful book full of very human stories, some simple and sorrowful, others humorously fantastical or extreme. Life A User’s Manual or Calvino’s Invisible cities are just two answers to Franzen’s reductive critique.

Perec thrived on the challenges he set himself. You can impose rules on yourself and deliver something which you might not have achieved in any other way. When Franzen dies and is honoured with a sinecure in literary heaven, perhaps he’ll seek out Perec to debate the issue. And Perec might well wave a Gauloises in his face and say that it’s not a trick for trick’s sake. Likewise, though my stories might have been written another way with a different set of rules or a complete set of twenty-six letters, the resulting fiction still has depth of meaning. Playing a game doesn’t necessarily make the way the work unfolds any less emotionally true.

Would my stories have been better for being written unencumbered? The point is that they might not exist but for the constraint. From the choice of title onwards, the constraint shaped the stories and the stories fought the constraint. There are scores of different ways of saying roughly the same thing, and each of them has its own nuances. You choose the nuance which most closely resembles the truth of the fiction you have in your head. The constraint has also served to make me think that much harder about how to avoid the ease and restraint of clichés.

While Perec was the background inspiration for these 27 pieces of mine (I wrote a second story for U, suggested to do so by how the first unfolded), the immediate inspiration came from being reminded of and reading a more recent novel, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea.  Forbiddingly subtitled ‘a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable’, in fact it is as whimsical as it is clever in following the troubles of islanders who successively lose the use of letters of the alphabet, as a result of the irrational authoritarianism of the island’s elders.  The islanders themselves battle back as flexibly as Dunn negotiates the ever-increasing constraint, and in so doing reinvents the English language:

‘Such a beguiling sight – your long auburn tresses falling as cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the table top, gathering in swirl upon your note paper – obscuring? framing? your toil.’

I can’t make such claims for myself, of course, but the commoner the letter, the more I found I had to bend the language, and come up with alternative ways of saying what I wanted to say, which often turned out to be better than the sentence I might otherwise have written. Each letter presented a different challenge. For some, conjunctions and definite articles were out; for others, participles and past tenses.  Every grammatical construct was at one point or another unavailable to me. But language, like water, can find a way around each obstacle it faces. And there is definitely a creative tension between the story-telling and the being one fork short of a full picnic set.

How Perec managed in the age before computers and word processors, I will never know. When I finished drafting a story, I habitually ran a ‘Find’ search on the letter which was supposed to be missing, only to discover there were often several and sometimes even tens of the little blighters highlighted in fluorescent yellow. S was the only story where none of the letter in question got through the net of my finished draft.  I guess it tends to stand out in a sentence.

Along the way, I had a wonderful comment from Lunar Camel Co., which got to the heart of what I was trying to do, and how I viewed the challenge:

‘I’m always interested to see, reading these, whether I’m aware of the missing letter — whether I’m noticing the writerly things you’re doing (not unlike tumbling) or whether I’m too caught up in the narrative to be conscious on that level. Often it’s a mixture of both, but I got too caught up in this one to think for a moment about who, what, wildcats, etc.’

The set of 27 is far from perfect. I only slowly realised that the lipograms were becoming predominantly fictional, and so a few are riddles or non-fiction, and maybe one of these days I’ll have another pass at those letters. Probably some of the narratives need a little more room to breathe, and perhaps if they were appearing in book form rather than here, they would get that.

To which letter would I direct you, if you wanted to sample one in particular? That’s hard. Ironically the last letter of the alphabet is possibly the best story, about a woman leaving a relationship as a result of an ant invasion – but that too would not have come into being but for the suggestion of the missing letter.  Combining Perec and Calvino in a two-headed Hydra for U – imagining first an alien poaching and eating her eggs in The reader [u] and then a talking horse in The horseshoe [u] – gave me most satisfaction and fun. On one occasion a single lipogram wasn’t enough to contain a character’s story so she returned in another – I [b]’s anthropologist is a lone survivor on another planet, until she meets her end in We [r]. Another memorialised a pub in my home town – The Cupola House [q] – which sadly burnt down last year. There was a lot of life, death and meaning in these stories.

But if you forced me to settle on just one, perhaps I would suggest the playful love story that is CK & U [F].  That’s what it all probably comes down to. That I am playing with letters, with words, for the sheer joy of it.  Perhaps it’s what I like to do most of all.  Jonathan Franzen too, I suspect.

And now? I’m not sure what the writing future holds in store. But I am certainly looking forward to being able to use the alphabet’s full range, without constantly double-checking myself for a letter which ought to be missing.

Image of Carington Bowles’ The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master, 1782 via Granger Art on Demand.


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Letterpress [n]

Let’s hear the tale of how Josiah Wade’s hopes were dashed, before later they rose from the ashes; before his star climbed so high that he became the rich, well-respected mayor of Halifax.

He had a poor outlook, Josiah – his father dead before the age of five. Two years later, while still at school, he was obliged to start work. A clever boy, he acquired a berth with a watch-maker, there to make a metier of jewels, wheels, regulators. Parts which sprocketed or cogged together.

Aged thirty, already made good, aboard a boat to the States, he met the deviser of a letterpress. The Arab, it was called. Immediately captivated, he bought the rights to it.  At home he modified, tweaked, cajoled the device to perform better. As he did so, he fell for the press of letters. How crisp they looked; each bite of colour the paper took. He would like to be reduced to the size of a crumb, so that he might walk the fibres of the paper, see the absorbed colour close up. Traverse the crossbars, perambulate the black uprights of his letters like they were the streets of a grimy city, be required to climb across the spaces which separated the words as if they were brick walls. How they smelt too – chemicals mixed with premium grade paper – was a pleasure. The same burst of pure joy came to him with the type set, the galley packed with words, brim-full with ideas, with – well, whatever it might be – fact or tale, frost or flame. Every pressed page required physical effort, with the heavy, spoked flywheel powered by a treadle. Vast swathes of time disappeared as he lifted or lowered the press, as he stacked what would become the pages of a book or the weekly Courier.

At the same time as he fell for letterpress, he also fell for a girl. People may have thought that he had perfected the Arab to make his pot of gold, but veiled from them was Josiah’s true motive. It was love which drove him. Elizabeth lived the other side of Huddersfield with her family. She was all he had ever dreamed of, vivacious, amiable, as tack-sharp as he himself; more so, he would admit – she had a way with words which touched or tickled him. But her father required her services still. She was the sole daughter. Josiah’s suit was rebuffed. He was crushed.

As he grieved, Josiah set stories, tales he had himself composed by oil lamp, bordered with flowers he etched, to give to the love of his life, the love who thus far had resisted his overtures despite what her heart bade her do. After several attempts to move her father, this seemed the last throw of the dice. A beautiful storybook, tailored to her tastes. But it differed from all previous books, of that he was sure. For from every story he had dropped each successive letter of the alphabet to produce a series of what the old-world Greeks called lipograms.

This was what lay at the roots of his efforts to perfect the Arab. Stories he hoped sweet Eliza would press to her heart. As she gazed at the majuscule letters of the book’s title, as she read its pages, she was deeply touched, but while she dared dream, as life stood, she feared she would have to reject his suit; his stories too. She must care for her father. Duty stood foursquare before her. With as much grace as he could muster, Josiah acquiesced, twice-crushed.

Yet as all passes, she reflected, so would her father. At which time she would be free to make her vows, if Josiah’s heart was still wholly hers. This is what she hoped, what she prayed might come to be, bowed over her bed before a sleep shot through with softly seductive dreams of the future.

It was refusal which drove Josiah to overcome all the other obstacles he faced. Without her, his life seemed empty, but he strove to fill it, to make good his promise to himself, to her, that the day would come, the day which saw them prosperously married.

He had become a master compositor. The letterpress flourished. Josiah had all that a heart might desire, save what it most cherished – Eliza. To occupy himself, he decided to give back some of what he had accumulated. Elected to serve his ward, he swiftly rose to be a committee chair. As well as wisdom, he brought fresh water to the populace. Josiah stood for – was the very model of – progress.

All the while, words still flew twixt the two would-be lovers. By post, they poured out their souls to each other. Years passed. Ultimately Josiah’s stoic wait was rewarded with the bittersweet arrival of a black-edged letter. From the midst of death, love could at last flourish. With what pleasure did Josiah see cards decorated with the marriage particulars roll off the letterpress? How happy was he as Eliza repeated the words he had wished to hear above all others? There is surely little cause to trouble readers of this tale with replies to either of those two queries.


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Wings [v]

Already, aged nine, she was the kind of girl to seize a chance when it came her way.

You couldn’t miss her.  Her face was framed by a mass of red curls; her skin, a pale contrast to her hair.  She had often wished she didn’t stand out so, but now she was beginning to warm to the notion that it just might be a blessing rather than a curse to be so marked, so noticeable.  She didn’t want to slip through life without a trace of her being left behind.  Already she wanted to touch the world and it to touch her.

The chance came in the form of heron’s legs, not quite fully retracted to their usual trailing position.  Or perhaps deliberately not returned; held out, for a daring girl such as herself to catch.

She was standing at the centre of the bridge in the middle of town, watching the current eddy round its piers; an endless fascination.  Because she was so rapt, the bird had escaped her attention, standing motionless on the edge of the bank not far from her, watching beadily for fish beneath the rippling surface of the stream.  Spooked by a motion close to, it opened its great wingspan and breasted the water.

What happened next happened by instinct – that of the bird coinciding with that of the girl.  Looking up from the eddies, she saw the bird looming.  The heron flew low, and dipped its legs to her at precisely the moment that she stretched her arms upwards.  She was small for her age and the bird was large for his type.  The bird’s legs hit her palms square and she closed her hands about their strong stems and was whisked into the air, just clearing the balustrade on the far side of the bridge.  Folk drinking in the sun on either side of it gasped as they saw her rise – all excepting an amateur ornithologist among them, who was more excited on spotting that the heron was an unlikely Great Blue than he was about it taking a small girl into the sky.

The heron’s wingspan was broad and sweeping and despite the weight of the girl he was able to keep rising.  She held on tight.  She had strong arms from her habit of monkeying around in any climbable tree she passed; but after a while she found she could relax, and felt supported without trying too hard maintain her grasp of the heron’s legs.  Whether that was magic on the part of the bird, the wonder of thermals, or some quality that unwittingly she herself possessed, she wasn’t sure.

Those folk who saw her disappear into the sky that day often wonder what became of her.  Perhaps after a long time circling the globe, she lost the will to hold on and slipped from the heron’s legs into the deepest, bluest depths of the Pacific Ocean.  Maybe she held on till the Americas, and was put down by the heron in Guatemala, where she remains to this day, the flash of her red hair impossible to ignore.  Or perhaps she came gently back down to earth not much further from home than she left it.  The watchers who saw her go would always wonder.

Originally published as The heron maiden.


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Plural [s]

Child-free and open at an age where any other couple might be beginning to think of rambling or crown green bowling, Yvonne and Xander had an entirely different notion of how they might play out the time left to them. Pipe and mule people they were not.

Initially they had no conception of how pre-geriatric polyamory would work for them in practice. But they were two of a kind and determined to give it a try, come what may. Each knew that they would have to contend not only with the lottery of erectile malfunction or penduluming mood but additionally with a certain green feeling, particularly when they watched rather than participated, or knew that in a different place entirely, another woman or man would at that very moment be unbuttoning or unzipping that which monogamy would have apportioned to them alone.

But they built their experiment upon the rock of long knowledge of each other. They took their time, the initial foray being a gentle doubling with a more experienced couple. A moment of nervy terror came and went and the both of them free-fell into the air of an erotic dream come to life. And when they left the hotel room, they clung to each other in their euphoria – they had actually done it! – and in their relief that through the act of erotic adventuring they had not unhooked their coupling; rather they had tightened the bond between them.

A connection forged deep in the mind like the one between Xander and Yvonne could never be lightly overturned. The danger would be were they to meet a character who had the power to reduce one or other of them to a plaything, who had the ability to manipulate, to divide, or more nobly to elicit a longing and a love beyond that which the two of them felt for each other. But though they were both quick to want, Yvonne had initially been halting in her affection for Xander, who therefore believed that Yvonne would not likely fall hard for anyone – while in turn Yvonne could not imagine Xander ever needing to look beyond what he had with her. Excepting the multiplicity that a greedy imagination conjured.

Well, they had it. They had it all for real, and indeed, many a time it gave them joy in the moment and in recollection. Each made a friend or two whom they could count upon beyond the excitation of the bedroom. But ultimately the poly love-making could not compete with wild imagination, with the unrivalled potential of the mind to bring into being what in real life would hardly be reproducible. And had you enquired, one or the other might have added that plurality brought with it a forfeiture of the control each prized in relation to the other. One focal point of emotional and erotic engagement had about it enough complexity to keep them active and humming for the remainder of life.

After a year of exploration, they decided to retract the horn each had, and employ it only upon each other in infinite variation. Now and again they harked back, but fundamentally they were happy with the plurality each had within them, and they never again looked beyond what an XX and a XY could together concoct.


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A season in [L]

A secretary, Dee kept a man’s paperwork and secrets, and she kept her own. When her mother started disintegrating, he gave her time off – whatever she needed, he said, with an insouciant wave of a hand more used to meeting the cheeks of her bottom than thin air.

Watching the woman who had brought her into being fading at an unhurried pace to nothing cracked Dee in two. She hated it, seeing that spirit drain away, and wished her mother was dying rather than hanging on. There was no-one other than Dee to fireman her where and when she needed to go; and if they weren’t quick enough, there was no-one other than Dee to mop up the mess. She sat with her mother night and day, thrown more and more upon the company of her thoughts. Dee saw that for the duration she too was reduced from what she had been before. She was carer now, rather than woman, and those many other human things she was, those many other human things she did, they had shrunk to seeming nothing. Nothing but now-and-again daydreams, imagining the hands and fingers of the man whose secrets and archives she kept, and the words he might speak in her ear as she bent over his mahogany desk with her skirt above her waist and her knickers around her thighs. – Her mother stirred, and Dee shook the ache and the sting away. She tried to think of what she was, without reference to another. With the hours by the bedside stretching, she began to write poems in her head, compact ones that she memorised at first, then set down in a notebook when they seemed done.

She was going through a season much as Rimbaud had. Some days she thought that she too had sat beauty on her knee, and found it bitter, just as the poète maudit had. But she was wiser than that urchin, her teeth had extended further than his ever did, and she knew that beauty was something to retain a grip on when it was offered to you. Much of the time she missed him, that secretive, insouciant boss of hers. She missed the freedoms he took with her. She rode it out, wrote it out too. The situation was one to test the fortitude of the strongest mind, which by her own admission, hers was not. Stubborn, yes, but strong, no.

Dee had never meant to become the person she was. Within a wide spectrum of society, of humanity, it is rare that a woman or a man does what are perceived as strange or bad things just because they can; or so she thought. She did not consider that she was a strange or bad person. Everything had an emotion behind it, and reasons which stretched way back into the past, determining the path of the future. She had had her boys so young, out of sync with her peers. She’d done too much – or not enough – much too young, and it was that contrast which shaped the subsequent twenty years. And now in turn that score of years was destined to shape the next.

As with most things needing Dee’s attention, she put her back into caring. But when there was time to gather her thoughts again without them being set against the creeping inertia of exhaustion, she found that there was no-one to care for her. Her sons were of course caught up in the dramas of their youth. There was a void where desire ought to be. She yearned to return to work; she knew that there she’d find her needs taken care of. But caring and working did not go hand in hand.

So she kept on keeping on. Words gave her a reason to; poems were concentrated drops of emotion, and in the mirror in the bathroom as she waited on her mother, she watched them pick paths from the ducts of her eyes down her cheeks.


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[M]issing letter

Usually to be found at the heart of the alphabet, the letter which absconded didn’t know what to do with itself.

It had had enough. It needed a rest, as all letters do now and again. It went on a Greek island holiday with cardinals 1, 4, and 9, had sex with two of the three and – over the sex it had had with the others – a falling out with the third. It was flailing about, you could tell, drinking to excess, unsure of what the future held. It was unhappy with the role assigned it in life and wanted out. But it just didn’t know what to do with itself, if not to give itself to the ongoing work of the alphabet and thus both the unlikely and the predictable predilections of users of language both good and bad. Untold verbiage would be lost if it never returned. The opposite of go, the definition of bliss. A theory of cash; all theories of cash, in fact. Slaves and servants would go unpunished for the errors of their ways. Counties would have to be retitled. Hapshire, Iddlesex, Cubria. Countries too. Oldavia, Zabia, Denark. Ozabique would stretch coprehension. Coprehension would be stretched all round. That noise we produce signifying that we like a thing, signified by four of the letter in question? No longer possible. Xxxx, ice crea; I screa, you screa, we all screa for ice crea.

On its return, the letter went to see the Council of Three to explain its unauthorised absence and its associated loss of drive. Q, the Elder, swivelled a beady eye and regarded the renegade letter like the ‘U’s which it kept under specially close scrutiny, while the Chief Vowel (E) and Consonant (D) chorused, you think you’ve got it tough? Try being us, as indispensable as we are. We never get to take a break, and we don’t see why you should. Get a grip. Pull yourself together. Don’t be so selfish. Get back to work. Q nodded assent. The Three had spoken.

That decided the letter. It was high tie it went, never to coe back. The Latin alphabet and language of all tongues would have to ake do without it. The letter was deterined it would lead a silent, onastic (and likely onanastic) existence far fro the yriad towers of Babel which had shot up all over the earth. Languages now would have to interbreed and borrow fro each other plus que was already the case. For a tie, things would stop aking sense, until they started aking it all over again. Opportunist Esperanto seized the day, reinventing itself without the issing letter.

Near-tragically, what the letter didn’t know, which ight have kept it on the straight and narrow, was that it was loved by another, a letter touched by it at a distance. X rarely if ever got to nestle in the sae word, let alone next to its beloved, but how it adired the ountainous letter’s peaks and valley, its ellifluous, elliferous sound. X wanted to centre itself on it. Ake sweet usic with it, full of elody and harony. So X too ran away, unnoticed at first, till creatures were wanted for tethering to a plough, and people shifting house had to ake do with boes. Not to ention the kisses required for signing off letters; k or t or o would have to stand in.

X caped outside the herit letter’s cave, till gradually a new language coprised only of notes of appreciation and kisses was born, and X was finally invited to enter the cave, there to reain always. Centred at last.


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Potassium [K]

They were doing 1984 in 1983.

Red megaphones and scuffed Penguin spines appeared all over the room as Mr Young shuffled in and the class pulled out its copies of the novel. Alex had read it in a day or two at the start of term, and was bored of the terminally slow chapter-by-chapter progress they had made since, grubbing aridly through the entrails of the novel.

Sharing his table was Tamás, whose laugh was a cartoon guffaw. Alex loved to hear it, except when it was turned on him – this seemed to happen particularly during chemistry lessons, when Tamás would deliberately try to contaminate their joint experiments, while Alex was striving to achieve grade A in one of his favourite subjects. Tamás didn’t much care either for novels or science; his passion was extracurricular – the movies.

Alex glanced around from his position on the extreme right of the front row of the class. He scanned his classmates, none of whom were mates, exactly, Tamás aside. He avoided eye contact with Stephen, his most consistent oppressor, his persecutor-in-chief. Red-faced and blonde-haired, Stephen initially appeared soft and docile but it had not been long before he revealed himself to be mentally as cutting as a saw, and physically as strong as the steel of which that saw was made. One day in the lunch queue, Stephen had commanded Alex to pass him a glass; absent-mindedly Alex had handed him a spoon, and ever since, Stephen had called him ‘Spoonhead’, losing no opportunity to cuff him with one.

Alex assiduously avoided eye-contact with the girls, too. Melanie Abbot, cruelly sat next to Stephen, had just had her long brown hair cut short for the first time. It curled around the perfect curving symmetry of her face, and he was no less drawn to it today than he was yesterday. Of course he had barely ever uttered a word to her. A couple of tables along and one row behind him sat Roberta Brown, whose hair was red, and colouring pale. Alex wasn’t entirely sure why he was attracted to her, but she could be both serious and funny and she never singled anyone out for ridicule. He wished there was a way he could become friends with her, but though he was much less in awe of her than Melanie, he still hadn’t the wherewithal; his wits froze before her, and he never gave himself the chance to say what he thought of the band over which she was enthusing, even though he might love them just as much.

Mr Young coughed discreetly. It was hard to imagine he ever had been young. He rode a scooter which wasn’t a Vespa or Lambretta and dressed in tweeds with greying curls dropping over his forehead. On the way into and out of school he topped this unfashionable garb with a yellow crash helmet. His soft voice, hardly combatant enough for the classroom, only escaped sounding as compressed as a sponge when he was caught up in a novel he loved. From his battered brown briefcase he produced a sheaf of yellow Photostats, and told the class to put 1984 away; as it was the last lesson before half-term, they were going to do something different today – a personality questionnaire. After answering it, the plan was to go through the questions together – ‘but remember, there are no right answers’. Alex groaned inwardly as the rest of the class voiced its excitement and happily returned the novel to their bags. ‘I filled one of these in when I joined Dateline,’ quipped Stephen, as if he were already a veteran of the dating scene.

Alex wasn’t sure what his personality was, and felt none the wiser having answered the questions; he had no sense of any overriding force pressing him to answer one way or another. Meanwhile Tamás was answering each question with apparent ease and confidence, soon laying down his pen and peering across to see how Alex was answering, further inhibiting the Boy with No Personality. Alex’s head was a battleground between art and science. Words and music ranged freely in between the two sides, which ought to have given him a clue as to where his loyalties might lie in future. Yet chemistry still attracted him. He had a facility for understanding molecules and compounds and valency and atomic mass; but what he really loved, just as everyone else did, was to see sodium or potassium dropped into water and burn with an orange or lilac flame till it exploded with a pop. That was what had really sold him on chemistry.

But chemistry could tell him nothing about the main preoccupation of his mind, which was love. 1984 could. He remembered Winston’s surprise on reading Julia’s ‘I love you’ note, and – a sort of chemical reaction in itself – his mind leapt between it and the sight of potassium meeting water. Was that what love was, the lilac flash of a moment alone? But the flash of his infatuation never seemed to die down. Perhaps then it resembled air and water and how they met once the element was burnt; how those substances which remained necessarily expanded to fill the spaces allotted to them. How water was dependent on air, and air was nothing without the rain which fell from it and the sea it pressed this way and that; the sea from which it drew its moisture content.

Orwell stamped his narrative boot into the faces of Winston and Julia and their impossible love. As did Whit – the one Oxbridge certainty in the classroom – his critical Doc Martens. In an earlier lesson, he had scorned Julia’s note as utterly improbable; she had hardly set eyes on Winston. Alex wasn’t sure enough of his ground to brave contradicting him, but felt the urge to suggest that maybe Whit was so tied up in facts and the wonder of his own intellect that he was blind to the possibility of love at first sight. That’s all Alex had needed where Melanie was concerned; a single sighting.

Surely the important thing was that despite its necessarily rushed beginning, Julia and Winston had loved; had against all the odds escaped the constraints of society for time together. Society personified by O’Brien had then crushed them, but surely whatever became of Winston and Julia, it would never stop love flaring anew, over and over. He would never have dared voice this in class, but Alex believed that love remained in the world of 1984, and that love of the right to love would one day coalesce and be strong enough to overthrow Big Brother, or any powerful tyrant, real or imaginary.

With an effort he returned the focus of his daydreaming mind to the questionnaire, and came to the last but one question. ‘Do you consider it more important (a) to be individual, no matter what the cost, or (b) to be able to compromise as life demands?’ As he read the question a second time, the arguments which had raged between his mother and his father rose in his mind. Their inability to compromise had left his mother deeply unhappy; and in turn, Alex and his siblings too. Surely it had to be better to compromise than to pursue your own path so blind to the feelings of others? And yet he hesitated, uncertain as to whether this would be the majority answer or not, and as he did so, his grasp of what the concepts of individuality and compromise meant seemed to desert him. It was an agony, submitting to such questions about yourself. And the greater agony of going through the answers together was to come. In the end he did not answer truthfully, or otherwise; he answered only as he could respond to a question whose answer seemed to lie outside the realms of whatever his own personality was.

As soon as Mr Young allowed, Whit criticised the test for its limited options and vague wording, while Stephen lost no chance to ridicule Melanie’s answers as betraying an absence of self-awareness. Their teacher struggled to control the rising hilarity; an overlong monologue on the pros and cons of what he told them were called psychometric tests was required to restore order.

As they came to the penultimate question, Alex sensed a rustle of anticipation. Mr Young grinned as he requested a show of hands. ‘Who believes it’s more important to be individual?’ Everyone’s hand shot up. Everyone’s except Alex’s. Glancing round, he slowly extended his arm, but too late. Laughter exploded about him, potassium meeting water, and there was no way of controlling the fiery way his face burnt as derisive comments and pointing fingers were turned on him. He stared doggedly to the front, ashamed and yet in that moment truly aware for the first time of what it was to be an individual, and what it was to conform. Too late a riposte came to him, that he was simply proving he was the only individual in the room. As he finally turned to face his tormentors, he caught sight of Melanie laughing too, and it was a dagger to his heart. At least Tamás was not laughing. Tamás, and (he fervently hoped) Roberta. The class began to file out, but never one to hurry, Tamás remained seated, and Alex was forced to endure more taunting. ‘Spoonhead!’ said Stephen, inevitably, as he passed.

Finally, with a sigh, Tamás got up. ‘See you on the bus, Al.’

Alone in the classroom, Alex drew out 1984 from his bag. Opening it randomly, he began to read; began once again to lose himself in another world and another sort of oppression, not yet fully understanding that this was the day everything changed.

‘There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad,’ he read.


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Wore [h]

On a long undeviating road between two burgeoning villages stood a small mansion; a contradiction in terms. It contained a dozen ladies of ill repute but no apparent nearby source of patronage. Yet connections forged by its madam ensured a steady stream of gentlemen to its door, come from nearby towns and well beyond, seeking apparently welcoming bosoms in a place discreetly far from prying eyes.

Despite being some way from first bloom, Evangeline was Abbess Cora’s prize girl. Pale porcelain skin, full red lips, tresses of curling flame licking breasts of plump grandeur and an artful dress sense; every visiting gentleman would gasp as Evangeline entered le salon, trademark green gown rustling parquet floor. A dozen possibilities, but none except Cora’s designated successor possessed allure to infinite degree.

In reality Evangeline was Lottie. ‘Evangeline’ was merely a projection, a room even, and in order to enter it, gentlemen paid liberal amounts. No ordinary man could venture to guess correctly about Lottie’s interior. If you imagined Lottie despised someone, you would likely be wrong; similarly, if you surmised money and influence impressed a caged bird, you would also be in error. Lottie’s mind outstripped most mere lust-laden men’s; few if any could ever knock down a congenital pride in self-determination unfettered by Edwardian mores.

Given licence to explore Lottie, men seldom understood boundaries. Reeking of cigar smoke, eructing all manner of unpleasant odours as a result of fatty food and dental disregard, few got to kiss Lottie; use of flannel, soap and warm water was routinely required before Evangeline would take a gobful of arbor vitae.

Yet it would be easy to indulge in a see-saw cynicism, and see all men alike, all a-growling and a-longing; eagerly pawing away at Lottie in casting about for entrance to a tunnel of love, a fall into wet oblivion. Lack was every man’s common ground. Some craved confirmation, some a manifestation of wild imaginings. Some Lottie fixed tenderly, adding to a space left empty by unfulfilled lives and starved senses. Lottie licked scars and mended broken wings, was all ears, all myocardium. And at daybreak, sun-dazzled, a man left and Lottie knew a tall story was leaving too. Client became conqueror, a king, puffed up into an affirmation of life, plumped anew.

Kept in a turreted room, on demure display in its roundel windows, notions came to Lottie of being an inverse princess, trapped and looking down on stony ground from far above, awaiting rescue, for someone sufficiently noble to save a fallen woman raised up and exalted on scented pillows to be future queen of a queer domain.

And one day one man made Lottie feel like one woman; allowed Evangeline and Lottie to merge.

***

An unmarried writer of great erudition but modest means, Orlando was visiting a considerably more famous colleague – indeed, a great man of letters – now residing in Surrey for sweet air blown by sou’westerlies up over downs. ‘Stay as long as you like,’ said Conan Doyle, magnanimously. So Orlando stayed, and read, wrote and walked, little suspecting life was about to be turned upside down. But not long after arrival it was, and now – now leaving was difficult to contemplate. Commitments would eventually force Orlando’s return to town; far from a religious man, O prayed for CD’s good opinion, and open invitations to stay again.

Cause of Orlando’s prayers was a woman. Not just any woman, but one pursuing a profession as old as memory itself. At dinner one evening, a second guest of Conan Doyle’s tipped Orlando a wink, and after port and cigars, ensured transport was laid on. Arriving at Cora’s bordello, a twenty-nine year old virgin (yet an onanist of longstanding), Orlando in spite of nerves could not see past Evangeline.

***

Lottie gave all to Orlando. A man as gently timid and yet as voracious for love was not uncommon. But Orlando was exceptionally intense of eye, and full of nervous poetry. Looking into Orlando’s brown eyes, Lottie’s insides turned over. No-one else ever laid as bare a woman considered leprous by people of propriety. Orlando immediately saw all of Lottie, and L concealed only amazement at a turn of events so unexpected. Conversation between writer and slut flowed like Abbess Cora’s claret. Orlando’s inbred sense of being erudite dropped away as Lottie put womanly intelligence in service of a pleasure far beyond O’s experience. As well as servant, Lottie was master; Orlando willing pupil. Paired at last, Lottie felt vindicated for waiting, for letting scores and scores of men take possession of a body engineered for love-making.

***

‘Do you remember our first time?’ said Orlando one spring evening, O’s last before departure from Conan Doyle’s. Between pairs of gazing eyes resting on a single scented pillow, it played out again in loving minds. First of every way conceivable, a kama sutra from A to Z and back again. Stroked skin recalled first contact. Lottie’s present grasp of Orlando’s need summoned again frissons of novitiate excitement as experienced prostitute wrapped nervous client’s cock in pale pink drawers and expertly milked it. Evangeline’s fearless gaze met intense surprise. Orlando swooned to feel silk so soft and cool around a rigidity belonging now in every particular to Evangeline. Evangeline became Lottie and let Orlando kiss lips unused to kisses, unused to O’s soft sentience. Evangeline-Lottie wore Orlando like a glove, rising to ride loins unused to craving complete envelopment. For Orlando alone, Lottie-Evangeline was paradoxically cloven and joined.

In post-coital reverie Orlando twirled Lottie’s ringlets about a finger and dreamt of a future time. A time enabling a writer to record sexual experience, needing not to censor any detail. Orlando doubted it would ever come to pass. But Lottie said, ‘Yes, it will.’

After making love again – for already it was so – Lottie and Orlando smoked and smiled and told life stories, beginning at beginnings. ‘I want you to know my real name. It’s Lottie. Because if you want me, I want you to know and to possess a real woman, not a fantasy.’

One afternoon, Orlando studied Lottie dressing upwards from blowsy nakedness to an immaculate conception of male fantasy. Stockings (L wore flimsy gossamer like a second skin), drawers, button boots, corset, petticoat, bustle, underskirt. Subject to Orlando’s gaze Lottie’s garments became living items; O’s eyes enflamed material and so L’s desire. Lottie donned an elegant bottle green taffeta crinoline gown, cream-trimmed. Invited to do so, Orlando slowly laced Lottie’s fitted bodice. Fully garmented, Orlando wanted Lottie to undress again, just as slowly. Wanted Lottie over and over; could not bear any notion of losing L. To see no more of Lottie would be too painful.

‘Come to London; we must never be parted now.’

‘You know I cannot leave. I am indebted to Cora, and must first pay back all I owe. I can’t be yours until it is all paid. It will be years yet. No, don’t offer to pay it yourself; I know you do not possess sufficient funds.’

‘I will come back for you. I will make you mine. I will rescue you. Society be damned, you will be my wife.’

Orlando wasn’t first so to declaim for Evangeline. But Lottie felt longevity in Orlando’s declaration, and made an admission never previously gifted to any man.

‘One day, yes, I will be your wife, or you will be my abbot.’


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The horseshoe [u]

In a remote hamlet many moons ago there lived a farrier whose air of charm had allowed him to make a marriage above his station to a similarly charming woman, the stripe of whose character he had not bothered to ascertain before the banns.  He liked the way she felt in his arms, against his chest, and at that time of his life, little else mattered to him.

His new wife placed great store on the lore and traditions of their part of the world.  One of these was to hang a horseshoe above the door of the dwelling place, in order to catch all goodness and keep evil at bay.  The farrier however scorned the old ways, and to assert his word over both his wife and the whole of his domain, he nailed their horseshoe to hang from its loop rather than its arms.  When she saw what he had done, his wife told him that any milk and honey with which their coming together had been blessed was now as good as spilled.  The farrier scowled, and said as if to himself, ‘Next she’ll be telling me that horses talk!’  In the coldest tones of their marriage so far, his wife replied, ‘Mark my words, we will pay a price for this.’  The very next day the farrier was kicked into the following week by an irritable stallion whose hooves he had been overlong in shoeing.  He had only a dim notion of how close he had come to being kicked into the afterlife.

On his first day back in the smithy, he hammered the index finger of his left hand broken.  The following week having been called to a job, he stepped inside for a drop of the local elixir, and emerged to find that his tools had been stolen.  He began to get a name for mishaps befalling him.  Many who had once come to him with their beasts looked elsewhere, fearing that he was more bother than he was worth.  Some work however still came his way, and soon he began tentatively to remark that the ill-winds which had been blowing his way now seemed to be howling over someone else.  ‘Told ye so’ passed his lips all too often.  His wife bit back her chidings.  Had he considered why, he might have realised that her silence meant something; sense, let alone wisdom, had not yet been knocked into the farrier’s head.

What the silence meant was soon revealed.  Walking one afternoon into the stables of the richest man in the district – the man who provided him with the majority of his work – he froze to see his wife bent over a bale of hay while his lord and master made close inspection of parts of her anatomy that till then he had fancied marriage had rendered to him alone.

The shine the lord of the manor had taken to the farrier’s wife went beyond worrying what serfs and vassals made of him, let alone God, and soon after being discovered in flagrante delicto, he arranged for an accident to befall the farrier while on his way to a distant farmstead.  Left for dead in a ditch, the farrier crawled his way to the road’s edge, where a passing tinker added him to his collection of scraps, trinkets and ironmongery, and took him on his way.  In a town a great distance from the only place he had ever called home, he slowly began to recover his wits and his senses, cared for by the tinker’s wife.

The tinker liked to shoe his own horses, and had the wherewithal to allow the farrier once he was better to renew his trade in the town to which horse and cart had carried him barely alive.  Soon he was able to afford his own premises, above the door of which he nailed a horseshoe with its arms pointing to the sky.  He did not really believe that fate had anything to do with the chapter of accidents which had befallen him; however, he wasn’t going to take any chances.  His heart was clear.  He bore his wife no ill will yet neither was he of a mind to take or win her back from the lord of the manor.

One morning he was close to finishing trimming a fine sorrel mare which belonged to a rich landowner whose patronage he had gained.  As well as the elegance of her coat, the mare was notable for the two silver bangles which circled one of her forelegs.  When he had asked the owner what was their significance, he had been peremptorily told to remember his place.  Now amid the blows of his hammer, he was staggered to hear the horse speak.  ‘No hands have ever handled my hooves as gently as this farrier’s have.’  So great was his shock that he only narrowly averted another broken finger.  The voice was half-neigh, half-maiden, and came to his ears as it might in a dream.  ‘I am going mad with overwork.  Did this mare really speak to me?’  A silence followed his words; then once again he heard the same strong yet honeyed voice.  ‘Yes, it was I who spoke.  I believe I have finally met with the man for whom I have long been looking, the one I will make mine if he makes me his, for I can hear in his words and his mind that he has taken blows at the hands of fate as have I.’

Speechless, the farrier stood before the mare and waited for more.  ‘Ride me to the head of the great river, and once I have taken a drink there, kiss my nose and rotate the bangles on my foreleg three times each.’  ‘And then?’  ‘And then see once more how life can change from bottom to top in the space of moments.’  Amazed at what the mare was saying more than at the fact that he was talking to a horse, the farrier said, ‘If I steal a horse, I can never come back to this town.’  ‘It is not stealing to ride a horse if the horse herself was stolen in the first place and she asks a good man to free her.’

He was being asked to leave behind his restored good name and a life renewed on the say-so of a talking horse.  The farrier realised he was at the mercy of another twist of fate; it was clear to him that he had to follow the path laid down for him.  ‘I have remade my life from scratch once before; I can do so again if need be.’  He sent word to the tinker and his wife that he had been obliged to leave immediately, thanking them for all they had done.  Then he bestrode the mare, settling into a leather saddle of a fineness beyond his own means.  Letting the reins fall, he allowed the mare to carry him across the borders of many wapentakes, following the river back to the spring from which it began.  Few words passed between man and beast, yet with each mile he felt the connection growing between them.

When they reached the head of the river, the farrier let the mare wander into the water to drink.  As soon as she had finished, he kissed her nose and rotated the bangles three times each.  So swiftly that he was never clear how it came to be, the horse transformed into a maiden-spirit asleep on the wet meadow grass by the water, naked save for the two silver bangles on her right arm, and so lovely that the like of it can only be told in tales, and yet is neither to be imagined nor divined.  He planted another kiss on her lips, and freed at last from enchantment, she awoke into his arms.  At no great distance from the head of the river, the farrier and the horse-maiden began their life together.  Children who had the power to transform at will into foals and back into children followed.  And the teller of the tale let them all live happily ever after.

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