Cal in Love

CalInLove

(Rogério Silva [CC / Flickr])

Julia wanted to know why my brother wouldn’t be coming to our wedding.

“Because he won’t leave the Institute of Immersion”, I said.

“Not for one day?”

She didn’t get it. I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t get it either.

“You could at least ask him,” she said.

“I did. Believe me, I did.”

“And?”

So I told her. I’d met Cal in one of the Institute’s concession cafes, where we got coffee in carboard cups with a loyalty card. He was thinner than when I’d last seen him and when we found a table, he sat on the edge of his chair as if he didn’t plan to use it for long. There was a nervous energy in him, as though he was living on coffee, but he didn’t touch the one I’d put in front of him.

“Can’t make it, Ed,” he said. “I’m in love.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Who’s the poor girl?”

“I call her Angela. She’s here.”

I looked around the café, thinking if that was his cue to introduce her. It would explain why he was so on edge.

“No, not here.” He wasn’t looking me in the eye. “She’s, I mean…”

He inclined his head toward the stairs leading to the Institute chambers.

It took me a moment.

“You mean you’re in love in immersion?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought the immersion experience was supposed to be tailored for you. The ultimate in…” I bit off the word ‘solipsism’. “I mean there’s only one client per immersion.”

“That’s right.”

He didn’t say anything while I caught up. Just looked into his coffee. “So who are you in love with? A subroutine?”

His head jerked up. “Don’t call her that. Her name’s Angela.”

I didn’t get it.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

In our family, we communicate with each other. It’s what we communicate that is usually the problem.

“I’m in love with her.”

“It’s only for a day.” It was easier to focus on my wedding than on having a line of code for a sister-in-law.

“But I’ll feel so…empty,” he said. “I’ll spend the whole time thinking about her. Missing her.”

“Cal, look at me.”

He was facing his coffee again, but he raised his eyes to mine if not his head.

“She’s not real, Cal.”

“I know that. You think I don’t know that? She’s here for me. That’s what matters. She’ll do anything I want. She doesn’t have to be real to anyone else.”

I nearly asked what he meant by anything he wanted before deciding I’d rather not know.

“She’s not real,” I said again. “I’m real. Julia’s real. We’re family. Family is real.”

Cal tapped his heart with his fist. “What I feel here is real. That’s what matters. It’s the same as what you feel for Julia. It doesn’t matter whether she’s real or not.”

When I finished telling Julia about our conversation, she frowned for some time.

“I think,” she said, “it might be better if Cal doesn’t come to the wedding.”

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Last Refuge

LastRefuge

(Jan Bommes [CC / Flickr])

This place is mine.

From the motes of dust dancing in the light of the cracked windows to the doors hanging from their hinges to the yellowing tiles that once surrounded the x-ray machine, it’s all mine. It’s been mine since the day they wheeled the last patient out and I moved in.

You only found the loose board that let you in a few moments ago.

This whole wing was a gift to me. A gift from Margaret Thatcher herself. She may not have known she was my benefactor, but not a day passes when I don’t give thanks for her hospital closures. You don’t even remember who she was.

You call yourself an urban explorer. You snap yourself standing in front of the mould I’ve watched spreading for the last three decades, and all you’re thinking about is whether your oh-so-trendy beard is properly trimmed. Not a thought that this place might be more than a backdrop for you to pose against.

Not a thought for who might have got here first. For who might have watched the porters carry off the equipment. For who might have been in these shadows since the workmen nailed the boards over the windows.

If you stopped to think about where you are, you’d understand that the muddy bootprints you leave are desecrating the last refuge of so many people. You’d know that people like me have seen the walls and ceiling that you see, knowing it’s the last sight we’ll ever set eyes on.

For you, it’s just another snap of yourself.

You will respect my refuge.

Whether you wish to or not.

You look around at the sound of a door closing. You shrug, laughing aloud at the instinct you should be heeding instead of giving all your attention to the device in your hand.

You snap another picture, capturing more of my place to share with the people you think would miss you.

You’re in my refuge, my friend. Do you like it? I hope so.

Because, starting a few moments from now, it will be your last refuge too.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Jack Liberty’s Son is in the Heinous Concoction

HeinousConcoctionsCoverIt started in front of the Old Bailey. I stood on the flagstone pavement, surrounded by lawyers grabbing coffee from the street cafes. I imagined what I’d have been looking at if I’d stood there two hundred years earlier, when the notorious Newgate Prison stood where Lady Justice now stands atop the Central Criminal Court. The street on which, every Monday, the ‘new drop’ gallows was hauled to edify crowds that sometimes numbered over ten thousand with the spectacle of twenty miscreants being hanged at once. At a time when petty theft was a capital offence, there was never any shortage of miscreants to instruct the masses.

That was the view I gave Jack Liberty at the beginning of Jack Liberty’s Son, which was first published in Space and Time a couple of years ago. Now Jack has a new home in the Heinous Concoction anthology published by Digital Fiction.

I’ve placed a preview and author’s notes to Jack Liberty’s Son on this site, and Heinous Concoctions has its own Goodreads page.

Many thanks to Michael Wills for putting it all together. Heinous Concoctions is currently available on Kindle for a mere 99c (or local equivalent), and is filled with stories by authors who I’m honoured to be published with:

Adramelech by Sean Patrick Hazlett

Murder of Crows by Thomas Kleaton

Angelic by Jay Caselberg

Into Shadow by Stephen Antczak

A Clown of Thorns by Ken MacGregor

Best Friends by Tina Rath

Homeless Zombies by Vincent L. Scarsella

Dreams of Love and Darkness by Gerri Leen

Twitcher by David Tallerman

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Posted in Publishing news

Ross’s Office Party

RosssOfficeParty

(Martin Terber [CC / Flickr])

Philip knew it was going to be a bad evening when Cally handed him a gold-trimmed paper crown with the company name printed on it. He studied her face but saw nothing behind her dazzling smile. No recognition that having the company name printed on a paper crown was anything but a sign of a benevolent manager planning a glorious evening for his entire staff.

It wasn’t the first time Philip had wondered if Ross had replaced the real Cally with a robot secretary who looked like her.

And here was Ross himself, wearing a grin that spoke of an impending management directive about compulsory fun. Philip slid the hat over his head just in time to receive Ross’s hand to his shoulder, smashing through the invisible wall between the manager and the managed so they were two good blokes together.

“Cheer up Phil, mate, it’s a party.”

If the paper hat had been a bad sign, Ross’s attempt to force his BBC newsreader accent into mockney was a worse one.

Philip tried to lift the corners of his mouth. A look of irritation that flashed across Ross’s face, warning Philip his mouth wasn’t co-operating.

Ross liked direct instructions to be followed immediately and enthusiastically. “Get yourself a drink, Phil. We’re not on the clock now.”

“All right. I will.”

“You might sound happy about it, mate. It’s free booze. What’s not to like?”

“I know,” said Philip. “Thank you.”

“You can use my name, you know.” When Ross wanted enthusiasm, he didn’t let go until he’d crushed, ripped and shaken it out of you.

“Thank you, Ross.” Philip tried. He really tried. “It’s very thoughtful of you.”

“You sound like a turkey at Christmas, not a bloke at a party. Let your hair down, Phil. Drop your trousers over the photocopier. Get off with Cally in the stationery cupboard. This is an excuse for an evening away from the wife. You really want to be stuck at home with her? Be honest with me, Phil. We’re mates, aren’t we?”

Philip thought about that. “Yes, actually. I would.”

Ross’s face darkened. “Get a drink. Now. I’ll ask you again when you’ve got it down you.”

“All right,” said Philip. “I mean, yes, Ross. Thank you very much.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

A Man Called Clarence

AManCalledClarence

(Peter Van den Bossche [CC / Flickr])

The Home was where Clarence got his name. That would have been reason enough to go back by itself, even if there hadn’t been so many others.

He stood on the broken tarmac that had once been a driveway, looking at the building that loomed out of his memories and into today.

He passed his hand over his eyes and looked again. He must not permit it to loom as it had over the eleven-year-old he’d once been, seeing it for the first time. He was twice as tall now; a man with a place in the world instead of a boy nobody wanted.

He glared it into what it was instead of what he remembered. A boarded up derelict in a field over-run with brambles.

“I’ve aged better than you, mate,” he told it.

He didn’t need the crowbar he’d brought. The door was hanging off its hinges. The smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke told him the local teenagers had got there before him, and no one had cared enough to nail it closed again.

He remembered the words that had greeted him on the many times he’d stepped into the front room before.

Where have you been, Clarence, and who gave you permission to go there?

What have you done to your shirt, Clarence, you get a smack for that.

Clarence looked at the staircase, reaching upward from a sea of cans and butts.

“Clarence is a stupid bloody name,” he told it.

He smiled to see there wasn’t a single room on the ground floor that wasn’t covered in muddy footprints. What would those voices have had to say about used condoms on the floors he’d mopped and polished so many times?

If you can’t see your revolting face in it, Clarence, you’ll mop it again.

“It’s a stupid bloody name.”

The teenagers hadn’t bothered going upstairs. There was nothing but dust on the upper floor. Piles and piles of it.

Clarence looked at the dust for a long time.

Dust burned.

He’d bought a can of lighter fuel and a box of matches this morning. It was only now that he admitted why he’d done it to himself.

It took him a couple of hours. The brambles scratched him as he gathered up old branches from outside, and his shoulders ached from the effort of tearing up roofbeams with the crowbar.

It was the most pleasurable work he’d ever done.

Clarence waited until he was sure the fire had taken hold properly before he bolted through the door. He stood on the broken driveway and watched. The building didn’t loom with smoke pouring past the boards on the windows. It didn’t loom with the roof falling in to let the flames reach out.

He watched it until there was nothing but a smouldering ruin.

“My name is Clive,” he told it.

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Non-fiction Review: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

IContainMultitudesWhen a first chapter persuades me I’m wrong about something, I know reading the book was a good decision. In the case of I Contain Multitudes, that first chapter debunked a ‘fact’ I’ve used in lectures: that the human body contains ten times as many microbial cells as human cells. Apparently not. Most of us have fairly similar numbers of bacterial and human cells although, as the team from the Weizmann Institute of Science reported in the dry terminology of academic writing, ‘We note that the uncertainty…might be too optimistically low, as they…may underestimate systematic errors, omissions of some cell types, and similar factors that are hard to quantify’.

In plain English, we know so little about the vastly complex ecosystem that is each and every one of us that we don’t even know how vast and complex it is. One study identified close to 10 million genes from human gut bacteria, which is around 500 times as many genes as we carry around in our human cells. While we don’t carry all of those bacteria around with us at once, the gut is only one place where our bacteria live and we carry different bacteria species in different places. We don’t actually know how many bacterial genes each one of us is carrying around, but it’s safe to say that only a very small percentage of our own genetic diversity is human.

Ed Yong took me on a journey through current research on the microbes that live in and on not only humans but also many other species – or perhaps it would be more correct to talk about the microbes that form an essential part of every animal on earth. None of us would last very long if we were only human. A particular favourite of mine included the tales of the many ways in which the Wolbachia bacteria mess with various insects, from enabling female wasps to reproduce asexually to speed its transition to new hosts to keeping bed bugs alive by supplying them with vitamins they can’t synthesise for themselves.

Another favourite was the story of Margaret McFall-Ngai’s decades of work on the Hawaiian bobtail squid and its partnership with the bacteria that make it luminescent. I first ran across McFall-Ngai’s work around 20 years ago, when I was first learning about animal-microbe symbioses, so being taken on a tour of her research facility struck a certain resonance with me.

There were some notable omissions, including McFall-Ngai’s signature discovery of quorum sensing: the process by which bacteria change their behaviour if enough of them get together. The bobtail squid’s bacteria don’t burn energy making themselves glow unless there are enough of them to produce enough light to matter. Since McFall-Ngai spurred microbiologists to look for it, quorum sensing has been recognised as the key to a lot of microbial behaviour, including the formation of the slimy biofilms that cover stones in streams and the switch that some bacteria make from being benign passengers in our bodies to making us ill.

I also felt that the sections covering viruses were rather scant, but these are minor quibbles. Yong was taking on a large field, and he’s taken on a book that’s both accessible to the non-specialist and likely to provide insights new to a specialist. It’s well worth a read for anyone with an interest in the little critters that make us what we are.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

A Bouquet of Socks

ABouquetOfSocks

(DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

Laura didn’t look up from her screen until she heard the words, ‘delivery for Laura Smith’.

Closing Facebook was a reflex she’d honed so well that Shari had shared her office for two years without ever knowing how much time Laura spent on it. She looked up to see a man wearing a shirt with a logo she didn’t recognise, holding something that didn’t make sense.

“For me?” asked Laura.

“If you’re Laura Smith, yeah,” said the delivery man.

Laura focused on what he was holding. A cluster of what looked like red, white and blue knitted tubes was poking out of a paper cone. Laura couldn’t work out what it was supposed to be.

“Is that a bouquet of socks?” asked Shari.

Sharing an office with someone who was always quicker off the mark could be irritating, but sometimes it came in handy.

“Looks like it.” The delivery man shrugged. “Don’t ask me. They say deliver, I deliver. Need you to sign for it.”

Laura took the bouquet and signed, aware of the questions simmering behind Shari’s expression.

As soon as the delivery man left, Shari was at Laura’s side. This was why Laura was so good at closing Facebook.

“You’re a dark horse, Laura Smith,” said Shari. “Who’s sending you bouquets? Have you got a new boyfriend you haven’t told me about?”

“No.” Laura turned the bouquet over. “And I’ve never dated anyone who would send a bouquet of socks. There’s no card or anything. Who could it have come from?”

“You’ve got a secret admirer.” Shari was actually wringing her hands in delight.

“What sort of secret admirer sends bouquets of socks?”

“I know who it is!”

“You do?”

“It must be Duncan. You know, the payroll manager. I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”

“He does? I mean… who’s Duncan?”

Of course Laura knew who Duncan was. Every woman in the company with a pulse knew who Duncan was. But if she admitted knowing who he was to Shari, she’s never hear the end of it.

Shari nudged her. “Lucky girl, I envy you.”

Laura felt her face warming. “I Guess socks are more original than flowers. He must be an interesting guy…”

“No, it can’t be him,” said Shari. “He’s seeing Mhairi in accounts, so he wouldn’t be playing this sort of game at work.”

“Oh.” Laura wished she didn’t feel quite so deflated.

“What about Slayer from IT support? He’s always looking for an excuse to fiddle with your computer.”

“Oh god, that creep.” Laura shuddered. It was true, Slayer was always hanging around. “And the sort of loser who calls himself Slayer would think it’s cute to send socks instead of flowers.”

“Yeah, he’s a muppet,” said Shari. “Wonder what he’s going to do next. This looks like stage one of a plan with a stage two.”

“Oh no. Don’t you leave this office. He’ll be up here in a minute, probably thinking I’ll drop my knickers on the spot.”

Knuckles rapped on the door.

Laura cringed. “You get it. Stay between me and him.”

Shari opened the door, but it wasn’t Slayer.

It was the delivery man. “Sorry about this. That package was for a Laura Smith two floors up. Someone sent me to the wrong office.”

Laura breathed a sigh of relief. Not Slayer then. Relief was replaced by disappointment as the delivery man carried the bouquet out of the door. No one had ever done anything as interesting and mysterious as sending her a bouquet of socks.

Shari looked as if she was ready to burst with excitement. “So who’s sending Laura a bouquet of socks?”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Exorcising Honesty

ExorcisingHonesty

(Hernán Piñera [CC / Flickr])

Here’s what’s been holding you all back: that demon called honesty. You spent your whole life being told it’s a virtue, so now it’s time to face the truth.

We’re gonna put truth in this chair, right here on this stage. You can’t see him because that’s the nature of demons: they hide. They don’t let us see them while they’re whispering in our ears. But trust me, he’s right here and now is our chance to whisper something to him.

Did I say whisper? Hell, I mean we’re gonna shout. Shout it loud so he hears what we gotta say.

And what are we gonna say to him?

We’re gonna say you been holding me back my whole life, Mr Honesty!

We’re gonna say I coulda had whatever I wanted, but you’re always there telling me not to take it.

We’re gonna say you been beating down my self-esteem since the day I was born, but today’s the day that ends.

Today’s the day my self-esteem is gonna rise up and swallow you whole.

We’re gonna say, the hell with you, Mr Honesty.

Go on, shout it loud!

The hell with you, Mr Honesty!

The hell with you, Mr Honesty!

That’s right folks, feel your self-esteem swelling every time you say it.

The hell with you, Mr Honesty!

That’s how we’re gonna get what we want in this world. It’s how we’re gonna get it, every day from today.

It’s how we’re gonna get rich because Mr Honesty’s for sheep and when I look at you, I see a pack of wolves.

The hell with you, Mr Honesty!

That’s right, folks.

And don’t forget, there’s a discount on next week’s session for every one of you folks who is here today.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Happy New Year

HappyNewYear

(DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

And with that, the Eclectics is taking a seasonal break. Here’s wishing you as happy a holiday as Jacob, however you choose to celebrate it, and see you in January.

Posted in Notification

Angels over Jacob

Angels over Jacob

(DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

Jacob loved the night before Christmas. It called him to Regent Street every year with a promise it never failed to deliver on.

He started his evening with a double cream macchiato in Starbucks. He found a table to himself where he could savour the rich sweetness and revel at the seasonal misery in the faces around him. Everyone in here had a story written into their body. Two tables away, a woman was eking out her mint tea because when she finished it, she’d have to return to the bosom of the family she couldn’t escape until Boxing Day. Across the room, a couple bickered over slices of cheesecake about whose fault it was that neither had used Amazon to avoid the hell of last minute present shopping.

Perhaps it was the blend of caffeine and sugar, but Jacob could have sworn the bustling outside the window was getting more frenetic as he watched. His excitement grew with every defeated expression in the Starbucks, with every polite word the woman next to him was saying into her phone in a tone so strained that she obviously wanted to bellow obscenities.

Jacob made his macchiato last for a full hour, building his excitement. He felt the shoppers calling to him to walk among them and when he’d downed the last of the macchiato, it was time to heed that call. To stroll slowly down Regent Street, making himself yet another obstruction between people bent under the weight of their shopping and the consummation of their quest.

He walked from one end of the street to the other, carefully picking the narrowest points to stop and contemplate the glittering angels that a thoughtful city had suspended to bless the haemorrhage of money.

Hamleys was the best. It called to him with such a siren song that he had to cross the street to pass it on the other side in case it drew him in before he was ready. The pleasures of Jacob’s night were not to be ended prematurely.

Jacob could only resist the allure of the world’s biggest toy shop for so long. Nothing could compare with standing in the centre of taut-faced parents pumping millions of pounds into numbered bank accounts in Panama and the British Virgin Islands, all for the sake of a sentence that would start, ‘but I really wanted…’

Shoulders pushed him out of the way of some clattering squawking gadget that would be broken by March. Arms reached across him to fuel the credit card bills that would lead to so many tears in January.

Jacob couldn’t stand it any longer.

He slid into the thickest crowd he could see, surrounding himself with people, each of whom was desperately trying to pretend they were the only one there. None would remember any of the other faces and more importantly, there were enough of them that none of the store cameras would see the knife Jacob pulled from his pocket. He didn’t need to see a face. Only the sag in shoulders weighed down as much by the seasonal obligation pushing them down as by the basket full of primary-coloured boxes.

A thin coat was no impediment. The blade was between just the right pair of ribs within a second. Jacob had melted to the back of the crowd before anyone had noticed the body on the floor.

Jacob was out of the door before he heard the first shouts protesting that the shop was being closed while presents remained unbought.

He crossed to the pavement running down the middle of Regent Street. He was quivering with delight. His legs wouldn’t support him. He sank to his knees beneath an enormous angel blowing a trumpet.

Jacob loved the night before Christmas.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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