A title comes first.  Duke, Baron, Knight.  Sir Edgar as it was, named after a character in a play who pleaded honesty but screamed naivety.  The man in question had never read the play or seen it on stage or seen a trite governmentally programmed version or even a crass American reimagining.  This choice of ignorance and blame had haunted him from afar, through the spaces that bridged spaces, corridors, roads, empty carpets, trainlines, and turbulence.  When chronicling a person like this, one must wonder if they are worth the effort, if their existence grants the words.  For Edgar and his sideways face – his eyes, nose, and mouth always running away from something else, the words come from a warning for what never to be. 

This man, the dignified named, walked along the curvature of the road under drooping trees of late summer shadows, stepping over a short metal fence onto a church courtyard, touching the dry grass with an ankle crack.  Leaning against the names of dead friends a couple was continuously throwing a tennis ball for an undersized dog, which made Edgar exhale in coincidence, that quick noise where you breathe in and out at the same time.  In the shade a girl was reading a pocket atlas, no larger than her hands, laid on her front, and beyond her two gangly teenage boys were booting a football around to disrupt the peace.  Edgar passed this scene without observation, then as he was about to step over the fence to return to the road, the whisper of an old man told him to turn around.  He looked over his left shoulder to see a dozen beasts traversing the foreground of the eglise, meaning church, meaning animals with thick coats and wide soles and stunted horns. 

Muddy yellow fur collected into thick strings hung on their bellies, and their faces, low over the eyes. They moved in sultry tandem, in no hurry, or with any serious relevance to the world around them, the dog didn’t bark, the girl didn’t look up from the maps, the teenagers didn’t stop kicking.  It was only Edgar that saw and only Edgar that knew.  The beasts were the anomaly, the sign that the fragments and materials that surrounded him were the extracts of a long-deceased consciousness.  He could almost see the outline of the church projection, and the translated words that hovered above, the symbols that held the false reality together.  Edgar tried to remember when it began, but his mind was blank, as though trying to find the starting place for a dream.  Everything else that was important – his body, his mind, and his sentience were all intact.  The same could not be said for those relaxing in the park, or the running dog, it would take only a hand through their binary shadowed existence to discover that.  They were members of the loose memories of Roland Jameson, Edgar’s old tennis coach, probably still alive somewhere, maybe in the same computer drawn village, but hardly solid beings within the resurrected mind of man that had died three years ago. 

That voice Edgar heard was Roland’s lingering force on the environment, and Edgar had to remind himself that this wasn’t his world, nor his reality.  He had paid close attention to the curator’s instructions before the exercise began – don’t trust what your eyes see, don’t expect to feel the gravity beneath your feet, and don’t, under any circumstance, tell the subject that they are dead.  The last instruction was relayed several times and in the sincerest of tones.  Edgar had heard stories about people who had been lost in a dead consciousness for years, when the subject realised they were already perished, and had taken control of their own mind, or allowed it to crumble.  The lack of gravity came when the church courtyard was behind him, the path ahead seemingly wobbling beneath Edgar’s feet.  His peripheral vision lacked precision and the world around him was muddled and out of focus, but wasn’t it always, young man.  Old man nowadays, overweight and worn out, with still so many unanswered questions and short-lived promises, with an inability to really remember anything with confidence.  Edgar supposed that the whole courtyard scene was a taster of what was to come.  He had been settled into this peculiar new reality and now he was ready to surge towards his end goal.  The price he paid meant he was on the clock, Edgar wasn’t the type of man to be able to afford an extended period with a lost loved one, as those with a fatter chequebook chose to do.

This surge was a form of transportation – an aggressive dragging through the torn pieces of Roland’s memories of the place he had lived his entire life, to the front door of the house he had died in.  The former fuzzy lines were replaced by much clearer ink, and it was now impossible to see the falseness of this reality.  Roland’s extracted mind was at its most cohesive at his home.  There was clarity and truth to what Edgar was seeing and experiencing, the wind riding upwards through a green plant covering the bottom of the front room window.   Edgar peered through, wondering whether he could see Roland inside, whether he was already there when the simulation began, or whether he was only around when he was.  The curator wasn’t entirely clear on Roland’s place in this façade, but Edgar suspected that Roland’s fractioned existence within his glued together former life was eternal.  He would be forever waiting for Edgar to knock on the door.

It had been a delayed visit, some twenty years or so since the Great Storming Off the Court Serving Session in the Rain and the Mud of the Last Summer before the Decision.  Edgar’s over-expensive analyst described it as the ‘inciting incident’, the moment that scrunched him up into a paper ball and thrown him into an office bin.  He never picked up a tennis racket again and could never work out why he ever did.  There was never a reason to contact his old tennis coach from then on, could Roland solve his workplace boredom, soothe his cursed marriage?  Certainly not, and so through the clouds and the mist of years passing, Edgar forgot about his days playing tennis as a child, about being a possible tour player, about escaping the grim reality of his tormented upbringing.  Roland never forgot, that’s what his children told Edgar at the wake, that he never forgot anyone he coached, good or bad.  The funeral was public and held at what remained of the village social club and tennis courts, much of it had been glossed over by orange bricked new builds, peaking over in mortgage highs as Roland’s eldest cried through his speech.  Edgar attended because he was around, sanctioned back to England thanks to foreign visas total cancellation following the border closings.  He had spent much of his adulthood veering further away from his hometown, until slowly drawing back in, expanding and contracting as the universe does. 

Edgar gazed at the pretend sky trying to spot the curator’s long lens before knocking on the door, his knuckles aching as he did so.  A sweep of cold air brushed past him as he waited, and waited, until he remembered that he was told not to expect an answer, and to just walk in.  Edgar opened the door to a small kitchen and half-heartedly announced himself, inspecting the immaculate sides and sink, the archaic stove and oven.  He had only ever been in this house a handful of times, but it remained exactly how he remembered it, which made him question which version of Roland was he about to meet.  Surely not the one he had last seen in person twenty years ago.  The curator said he would be an amalgamation of the many found resources of Roland’s mind: his memories, his personality, his belongings, photographs, testament from those closest to him, his DNA.  Apparently, his lack of social media presence made it more difficult to build a complete form, but Edgar didn’t require much from the program.  An inspiration, Edgar wanted, a something of a something. 

The sound of enunciated commentary came through to the kitchen and Edgar walked towards it.  Roland was sat facing the television in the next room.  “Are you still watching it?” Edgar asked, scared he might receive no reply.
“You’re early,” Roland said, still facing the television.
“Only by a few minutes.”
“Yes, I still watch it.  The game is still the game.  Sit down then, and I’ll put the kettle on.”  Roland rose from his seat and stood taller than Edgar, even with an arched back.  Grey hair was combed over his head, glasses with soft edges on the end of his long nose.  This was a visualisation of Roland that could have been close to when he had died.  He smiled at Edgar and patted him on the arm, repeating that he should sit down.  It took a couple of short strides for Roland’s legs to start working, but after that, he moved as spryly as a much younger man, or a much more alive man.  On the television was the US Open, which dated the simulation – a nice trick from the creators to envision reality.  Edgar didn’t keep up to date with the tournaments and the players anymore, but from the colouring of the picture he surmised it was from the last ten years.  He sat on the end of the long sofa and gazed up at the framed photographs covering the walls around an electrical fireplace.  Grown children and their spouses, grown grandchildren and their spouses.  Roland’s late wife in her wedding dress who he had now joined in death. 

Uncanny, Edgar thought, but no, to Roland this is all real.  The mantlepiece he had built himself, the paintings on the wall by his uncle, to the dead Roland this was concrete truth.  Whatever unease Edgar felt that was conjured by the cloudiness of the outside was replaced by simple nerves, the act of seeing someone you barely knew.  Something moved in the corner of Edgar’s eye, and at first, he thought it was Roland returning, but it was a cat, leaping onto the armchair.  It looked identical to the cat Roland owned twenty years ago, dark fur with orange speckles, a washed-out patch of hair over the left eye.  “How are you still alive?” Edgar said out loud, as though some intern hadn’t written the animal in green code.
“Different cat,” Roland said, holding a pot of tea.  “Once you get to know him, he isn’t that alike Ancient Ivan.  Could you imagine him jumping that high?”
“I don’t think I knew Ancient Ivan that well.”
“Really?  I have this memory of you playing with him right there.”
“Probably one of your kids.”
“What do make of this new cat?”
“He’s not bad.” 

Roland placed the pot of tea on the coffee table, then hurried back into the kitchen for two mugs, then hurried back and poured.  The cat had elongated its body across the armchair to sleep.  Edgar reflected on what the curator had trained him on to get the best out of the simulation: to bring the subject to life.  The revived consciousness was only half-awake, it needed a shake of remembrance to come fully alive, but to Edgar’s eyes and nose and ears the man sat across from him was very alive indeed.  He repeated in his head: don’t trust what your eyes see, don’t expect to feel the gravity beneath your feet, and don’t, under any circumstance, tell the subject that they are dead.   “You have gotten old,” Roland said unexpectedly, sitting back down in the chair, and muting the television. 
“So have you,” Edgar said. 
“I was old when we met.  You were a child.”
“I wasn’t a child when I last saw you.”
“True.  You did shoot up fast, and now you have filled out.  And your hair too.”
“Nearly all gone.  I really should shave it and let it go.”
“Do you still play?”
“Not since I left you on the court.  Do you still coach?”
“Here and there.  Remember Jessica?  She got on the tour, played against some of the best.  I think now she’s a coach at some fancy Canadian university.  The old courts aren’t there anymore, but my grandson plays, one of my youngest’s boys.  It’s taken a long series of ancestry to finally get one that plays the game.  Sometimes I watch his sessions whenever I’m down visiting.”
“Is he any good?”
“He could do with a better coach.”

Roland’s five children were always distant from Edgar, curious of him and the relationship with their father.  They were not unloved children but they never saw the excited smile he gave to his players when he saw something special in them.  “I was sorry to hear about Zelda,” Edgar said, in between a sip of tea.  This was a planned line of attack, Edgar thought what better way to waken Roland’s dead mind than bringing up his wife who expired years before he did.
“Who told you?” Roland asked, eyes narrow.
“My sister.  She still lives in the village.”
“Well, she’s gone.  There isn’t much more to say on that.  Zelda always said that one day you would come back, but I think she meant on the court for another lesson a few weeks later, not after twenty years in our front room after she was dead.”
“I’m sorry, has it been that long?”
“Yes, I remember because the commentators are making a big palaver about that player on screen right now being thirty-seven and still playing on the tour.  You beat him in your age group once.”

For a moment, Edgar tackled with the sense of that statement then chose to ignore it.  “I shouldn’t have left you on the court in that way in the Rain and the Mud.”
“It was the best decision for you to leave when you did.  I could have never told you that the tour wasn’t right for you.”
“I think I knew I wasn’t good enough.”
“You were good enough, at a time.  I’d say when you were fourteen or fifteen you had the promise to compete in grand slams.  Then you got big very quickly.  Over a single winter.  At first, I thought it would work to your advantage, stronger serves, stronger returns, but it made you uncoordinated, awkward.  It turned out your best strength was your speed across the court, and that was all gone.”
“You never told me this.”
“I didn’t have the heart to.  Surely you noticed.  I couldn’t tell you because of where you came from and what the sessions meant to you.”

Edgar’s sessions were heavily discounted because of a governmental scheme where ‘at-risk’ children were given opportunities in sport so that they didn’t become drug addicts like their parents.  Over the years, Edgar has grown to find humour in this.  Tennis pacified his chances of turning into his father, a man most known for eating a pigeon for a bus fare, or his mother, a woman who was vacant behind the eyes because of an addiction to pain medication.  And what did this pacification give Edgar? A path to either professional tennis or an office desk at a computer firm.  He had stepped out of the furnace and into a sea of expectation and normality.  Edgar was jealous of the chance to prove his childhood wrong, robbed of any agency, and that’s why he walked away from tennis, that’s why he stomped away in the Rain and the Mud.  “I don’t regret giving up the game,” Edgar said.
“You shouldn’t,” Roland said.  “You’ve done well for yourself.  So, I hear.  I don’t know much about computers, but I know there’s money in it.”
“There was.  I couldn’t quite ride the wave.  I worked my way to a position with a handful of programmers below me, then couldn’t work out what to do next.  With tennis, there was always another game to prepare for, something to work on.  If you’re not creating, what is there to look forward to? I got married and felt the same way.”
“Most people tend to have kids at that point.  We did and it turned out perfect.”
“She left before we could make that mistake.  That’s one of the few lucky things to happen to me, the foresight not to damage things further in my marriage with children.”
“Luck? Being born in a warzone and finding an onion amongst the rubble is luck.  Or getting a good bounce or a good call from the umpire.  Your wife leaving is on you, Edgar.”
“I was only speaking, not meaning.”

The shell of a human presented for Edgar was shattering with each passing word.  Roland could not have been this out of touch in reality.  He could have not transformed from kindly mentor to cruel grey voter, become another product of the anti-strapped in, of the kin of separation from technology.  The curator had imagined something that Edgar could not comprehend, a consciousness of separation that Edgar should have expected, but he couldn’t think straight in this room of ones and zeros.  Edgar had never been described as a good person, he was a person, never doing anything particularly ‘good.’  He figured the grand projection all around him and the animated corpse reflected his own mind, and perhaps that was his ego talking, but what of the colliding of his memories of Roland and the ones utilised to create the resurrected embodiment of discipline.  That was the continual problem, anxieties and doubts in the way of building a soul that could be good, that did have the time to look past itself, to live in each moment without fear of the next.  And, as always, during this inclusive rhetorical deliberation, Edgar was interrupted by a noise.  

“Was it the weather that pushed you over the edge in the end?” Roland asked.
“I don’t know,” Edgar said, truthfully.  “Maybe I saw a reflection of my father in a puddle.”
“That’s a bad joke.”
“It is.  I did always have fantasies of him walking onto the court one day during a session.  And I would have dreams of him flying across the sky during a match.”
“You should have never taken that story to heart.”
“What story?”
“The pigeon.”
“I’ve come to terms with it not being totally true.  I even tried to find him years back using the Pigeon name as a lead.  Got nowhere.”
“Did you ever try with his real name?”
“No, because I didn’t want to find him.  It was an act of catharsis.”
“I don’t know what that word means.  What I do know is that any time looking for that man is wasted.  He ruined you without you ever meeting him.”
“They called me pigeon boy at school.”
“I know.  The other coaches at the matches called you it too.  It was satisfying when you beat their bred to be elite boys.”
“I didn’t always beat them.”
“Everyone loses.  Even Ancient Ivan lost.  Answer me this, how many times have you lost something off the courts?  More than on the courts for sure.”
“I remember you doing this when I was a kid, making everything into a philosophical argument.  It was more than green balls and fresh grass to you.”
“It’s still only green balls and fresh grass.  I’m talking about life.”

Edgar fidgeted on the sofa, feeling bile form in his lower stomach.  “I don’t think you’re totally qualified to discuss life anymore,” he said.
“Don’t be daft,” Roland retorted, shaking his head.  “I have coaching qualifications.  My badges are around here somewhere.  Zelda always said I should keep them in case I took up lessons full time again. And life? They don’t give out badges for that son.”
“They do.  Driving licences and passports and insurance numbers and bank accounts.  You try living without those.”
“That’s not life.”
“What is then?  Passing that ball back and forth until one of you misses it?  Collecting these badges and tokens until a personality is created? I don’t think I’ve obtained enough symbols of a nature, yet.  I wonder what they would use to habituate my ghost.”
“I’m lost.  It was Zelda who would always go on about the badges.  They don’t mean anything to me.  Any young player or any coach with any sense would be able to tell I knew my tennis from the moment I walked onto the court.”
“You’ve gotten old.  You’ve surpassed the level of wise and into the level of senile.”
“I am content with my mental state, are you?”

Considering that Roland’s physical form was nothing but ashes above the pencilled sky, his mental state was much to be debated.  Edgar was starting to enjoy the exercise of playing with this ragdoll.  He sat up from the sofa and advanced across to the opposite end of the house to a glass door, not saying a word.  “What are you doing?” Roland questioned. 
“My parents,” Edgar said, turning around.  “They named me after a character in a Shakespeare play.”
“I don’t know much about Shakespeare.”
“Are you saying that because you don’t know much about Shakespeare or because you are programmed to say that when they don’t have enough information on whether you knew much about Shakespeare or didn’t?”
“See.  You are crazy.”
“It doesn’t matter.  The text doesn’t matter, nor the character, but why would my parents, two people who left school at fifteen to pursue a career in desolation name me after a literary figure?”
“Who told you they did?”
“My mother did.”
“I always liked your mother, and you were too harsh on her, but you can hardly take her word as law.” 

Edgar’s mother had died not long after he left the village for a tech university half a country away. He had heard that Roland had paid a visit to the hospital where she was admitted after she sunk an entire translucent bottle of white pills.  For the longest time Edgar had loved Roland for this, experienced earnest compassion for another human, but this was outweighed by shame, by the embarrassment of never visiting the hospital himself.  Edgar was informed that his mother was cremated promptly after her death via an e-mail that he deleted as promptly as her burning.  The cipher sat across from him was another etching of resentment.  Edgar thought of the hanging yellow fur.  “I saw animals that no-one else could see in the churchyard today,” he said.  “On the way here.”
“See.  You are crazy,” Roland said.
“That’s a repetition.  You already said that.”
“I’m old and my memory isn’t what it used to be.”

Edgar turned back away from the armchair that Roland was leaning over to speak to him to the glass door and looked out at the garden.  It was kept pristine by this consciousness, the grass cut to the hedge row in a parallel oblong, leaving a square space at the end for a shed.  Above the hedges it was murkier.  Edgar was too caught up in the peculiarity of the situation and had to remind himself of why he had paid so much to be there.  The money was a thought however, and stretching Roland’s mind could be a good test of whether the program was fairly priced.  He received a voucher for the program from his ex-wife, some kind of sick joke, that discounted the price to under nose-bleed level, continuing the cycle of discounts, half-measures, B grades, and adequacy.  Edgar guessed she wanted him to use the program to conjure up his mother, and due to mostly spite he chose someone his ex-wife had never met.  He chose someone who was a positive entity in his life, a bad memory, but an objectively positive momentum.  Selfishly, Edgar was stood in the dead consciousness of Roland Jameson because of his incessant need for kicks up the backside to ever get anything done. 

He tried something out.  Extending his left leg back towards the sofa he tested if he could teleport there in a single stride.  He couldn’t, and so walked there instead, sat back down, and grabbed Roland by the hand.  “If I asked you to do something, would you do it?” Edgar asked.  “If I commanded you to do something, would you be forced to do it?”
“I’m the coach here,” Roland said.  “You should be listening to my instructions.”
“There have to be rules here.  Ways of manipulating the program.”  Edgar looked up to the ceiling, and shouted, “ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?  ARE YOU WATCHING?”
“You’ve gone mad,” Roland said, releasing his hand from Edgar. 
“Poke yourself in the eye right now.”
“Do it.  Poke yourself in your left eye with your right index finger.” Roland’s eyes widened but he didn’t flinch.  He looked scared, and frail, like an old man given a fright, like an old man disappearing into himself as his memory fades.  Edgar couldn’t measure his cruelty because this man was already dead.  “What about a tennis lesson?” He asked. 
“Great idea,” Roland said, rising suddenly.  “We can have one in the back garden.”
“This game is pure manipulation.  Lead the way.” 

Almost coyly, with a glint in the eye, Roland stood and went to the glass door at the back of the room, and Edgar followed.  His curiosity had got the better of him and he knew he was running out of time.  The curator had told him that when the time was coming close, he would hear a ticking clock, and Edgar made a joke about how that should happen when you are about to die.  Tick, tick, tick.  What would Edgar do when he heard the ticking?  Probably crawl up into a ball and cry, or masturbate, or both.  His narcissism would call out to a god that he didn’t believe in, scream out that he would be more useful in the afterlife than on mortal ground.  I was once a decent tennis player; I could provide entertainment in the paradise gardens.  The simulation was like a test run for death in a way, experiencing what modern technology had made from immortality.  Billionaires infused with the quest to live forever designed these programs to remain a burden once the planet was finally rid of them.  As far as Edgar was concerned these resurrections were copies of a dead mind, not the preservation of the original, and so, what desire was there for this farce?  I mean, cash, of course, but Edgar wasn’t about to sign away his headspace anytime soon.  He couldn’t think of anyone that would choose his consciousness to speak to again anyway, couldn’t think of anyone’s life he had impacted for the better. 

Outside in the garden, the edges of the reality could be seen clearly, the lazy ends of the painting.  This was a calculated situation, however, the ready rackets and bucket of balls by the fence gave away that, and Roland’s robotic movements to pick them up.  “Choose your weapon,” Roland said, picking up his own.  Edgar grabbed the only other remaining racket, not much of a choice, and they positioned themselves opposite each other as though they were on a court about a third of a size of an actual one.  “Where had we left off last time?” Roland asked.
“Serving,” Edgar replied.
“Ah, yes.  You’re right.  Well, I suppose you better fire one at me then.”

Roland tossed a ball across the garden, and Edgar caught it, feeling the weight in his hands.  He brought the ball to his nose to smell it and was engaged with regularity – the pungent factory scent of a freshy, signifying that plastic industrialisation and the perpetuation of productivity seeped into this realm too.  Roland stood bobbing from left to right, regaining that abstract physicality of a younger man.  Edgar laughed out loud, then got into position, saying across the shaded hues of the pretend, ‘You are a dead person, you died three years ago,” before serving the ball.  Shards of glass twinkled around Roland, and lights came crashing behind him.  The old man shrieked in pain as though emitting a second death rattle, but there was no sound, only silence.  Edgar could feel the ground beneath him subsiding, the Mud squelching wet with abandoned reality.  The two of them slipped together, down to an in-between land of complete darkness, like they had broken through the map in an old video game.  Roland was wandering and muttering beyond Edgar, who was frozen in an all-encompassing fear.  “Get me out, get me out,” he called into the ether. 

He wasn’t begging to that god, but the string-puller with his sweaty fingers on the keyboard.  Edgar, falling further into nothingness, felt dampness on his balding crown as Rain toppled through the simulation.  He squinted to find Roland, knowing that perhaps he was the one with the control.  The old man was a speck on the horizon when the bookend crashed into Edgar’s face, when the pause button was pressed firmly.  Around his feet the water was climbing and waving, getting closer to his knees, flooding the now flat environment.  The silence was replaced by a groaning, and Edgar, now unable to inhibit a physical form, saw Roland hobbling around reaching his arms out as though he was a blind man.  He was, through the muffled sound of manufactured ear drums, crying out for his Zelda, and the only emotion that struck poor Edgar was envy. 

Chasing Satellites

Orbital floating deejay Jet Jetson is reading out stories that he’s caught from the empty space ether into his microphone at the back end of the studio on Haven 2.  It’s around 4 am simulated Earth time and the only fools listening are all-night studiers, drunks, and insomniacs.  Early rising workers on this station don’t have a penny enough to listen to this broadcast.  Jet isn’t sure how he feels about his audience, but he carries on reading the stories anyway.  This one has been transcribed from genuine tree bark paper by an ancient computer and fired into Jet’s soundwave lap via an anachronistic message bomb.  It is signed ‘H. Pritchard.’

The satellites began to fall three years ago, and for three years I have been chasing them.  Now they come at least once a month, sometimes twice, sometimes three times, but there is never less than one.  They glide across the wasteland horizon for miles in a downward trajectory before falling into a heap of broken metal resting in a shallow crater.  Some have travelled great distances to our patch of Earth out here, with the modern chaos of our skies interrupting their systems and crashing whatever flight plan they were on.  There’s more now because of the bad weather, that’s what the bulletin tells us, that the lightning strikes above the clouds are disrupting the satellite’s ability to stay floating.  Ell reassures me about the lightning, reminding me that it happened before the collapse too.  It’s hard not to worry when you see the silver strike in the sky.  Over the last three years I have tracked, hunted, and collected 37 satellites.  Most have been sold to the scrap wanderers and the others lay amongst me in this outhouse that my grandfather built nearly a century ago.  Writing this, I am entangled with steel, foil, and black plastic wires, that could collide with an over-exuberant flourish from my pen.  It’s not a good space to think, but it’s the space I have chosen to detail the events that caused us to leave home in a steadfast manner. 

In the early days the satellites were remnants of tv and radio stations, chunks of metal that were lit only by the sun’s reflection.  These out-of-fashion noise and visual aids were dull on the workbench but did provide trade for supplies.  Then came the personal satellites, remember that craze?  People sending anything and everything into the atmosphere, the ashes of a dead family member or pet, national flags in protest, or simply lights so that their name would show on the scanners.  Ell always says that this helped to cause the collapse.  About two years ago, when the chasing was starting to pick up, I captured a satellite with a faded small monitor that showed a beating monochrome love heart.  There would have been a soppy message played alongside the image at some point before it broke through clouds.   I gave it to Ell on her birthday, and she called it stupid but stopped me when I tried to throw it away.  After the personal satellites dried up, along came the advertisements, and the corporation data collectors, those probes that beamed prices on the horizon and possessed information on our every action.  This is where I place my blame for the collapse, and they are worthless now.   All that data becomes useless when the entire system is down. 

Now the satellites that fall are governmental or militarised.  The ones they fired into space out of panic to try and reverse the environmental collapse.  Thousands of devices that monitored and tempered storms and heatwaves hung above the atmosphere to achieve precisely nothing, or so we thought, or so it seemed.  Jessop says that we get so many in our dust fields and our mountainsides because the rotation of the earth deems it that way.  He will pretend to know the science until his last breath.  I’ve never acquired a complete governmental satellite, only pieces, and I’m yet to connect two of them together.  They come in an array of shapes and sizes, sometimes tubes, and wires, sometimes boxes attached to other boxes.  Fragile containers that break apart with a firm kick, a mess of electricals will spill out and spark on the workbench, much to the frustration of Ell, who likes to poke her head around the outhouse door to check that I haven’t blown myself up.

I was onto a live one last night, a falling light still whistling and shaking as it plummeted into the dust. Peering through binoculars catches of light illuminated the satellite tumble between the mountain ridges that protect the desert and the valley.  I caught sight of 37 on the edge of my radar a week before, and I was relieved because it was coming to the end of the month.  They take some time from their malfunction to reach the desert, and their direction deviates greatly as they fall, meaning the radar isn’t much use once the satellite is beneath the clouds.  It is my eyes that scan the sky and predict its landing point, and my bike that takes me around the desert, often in frantic motion.  I was following the smoke trail for several hours, eating the afternoon away, until I saw the crash site in a shallow sub-valley below me.  The sun had come down over my shoulders, painting my forward vision orange.  Hearing a familiar truck engine in the distance, I hurried to the crash site of displaced rock, dirt, and sand.  To my surprise, and instantaneous nausea, the satellite was still making noise on the turf, a buzzing that has yet to stop, even now that it sits on my workbench.  Usually, the satellite casing is ice cold to touch, and so stupidly, I placed my hand on the outer layer of 37, and the heat scolded my palm.  Checking my flanks with a pair of binoculars, I threw a fire blanket over 37, then hauled it on the end of my bike, and rode home as fast as possible. 

37 is the first satellite that is still making noise two days after I found it, a quiet buzz that can only be heard when you’re in the same room with it.  It is a peculiar object; unlike any satellite I have seen before.  It is the size of a microwave, with a rectangular grey casing that is greatly rusted, and attached on its sides are two squares with holes through them, like it is wearing a pair of earrings.  There is no head or tail, which explains its chaotic movement as it fell, and it has an open socket on one of the sides.  I think this means it must have a sibling satellite.  Earlier I opened the casing for the first time, dismissing the irrational fear that it may explode on the workbench when the intrigue of the buzzing became too great.  Twisting away the ancient screws I expected the buzz to come to a sudden halt, but when it did not, I rushed to pull away the rest of the casing, seeing a familiar party of wires, and an unfamiliar black box, which had a soundwave reading dancing across the screen in green lines.  The lines of the soundwaves were following the beat and sound oscillations of the buzzing.  My first guess was a radio, but the old radio satellites that fell years ago were vehicles of the message, used to push the sound further, not create it.  I sat back in my grandfather’s squeaking chair and gazed at the clutter around me.  The mess was my reward for the chasing, and I can never stay in the outhouse for long.  Writing this account in small portions is the only way to get it done, and I am thankful for Ell’s interruptions. 

There is a possibility to take 37 into town and see if the bulletin guys will get a message to someone, somewhere who might have an idea what the satellite is, or what it’s trying to accomplish.   I’ve found that it’s best to keep something like this a secret, from wanderers, from opportunists, and from other chasers.  Jessop mostly, who picked up 37 on his radar too, a day after it appeared on mine.  He’s beaten me to a dozen crash sites, and I’ve done the same to him much less so.  I would still consider Jessop a friend, but I do not trust him, especially not with a satellite that is talking.  He lives alone on the other side of the mountain, and for all I know deals strictly in his metallic findings, selling on his captures entirely.  We were closer before the collapse, he was a teacher if I remember rightly, history maybe, or was it Geography?  Ell will remember.  She has a good ability to stay in the past when existence was easier and less fair.  Jessop and I knew each other from hunting in the north of the state where the trees were, when those activities were recreational.  I suppose the game won’t be there anymore.  He was unmarried and only ever socialised at those hunting meets, and so not much changed for him when the collapse happened.  Jessop had a habit of saying that too, nothing has really changed, much to the amusement of Ell. 

Taking 37 into town would draw the eyes of a community much controlled by blind faith, also.  I fear their prying eyes as much as the selfish grab of Jessop.  They are led by the church pastor, Gill, a man who has no right to be in his position, a position designed by himself.  You see, after the collapse, those who could build and fix were a commodity, and Gill restored an old protestant church into a place of worship for the grass and crops, developing a kind of Christianity that situated its belief in keeping your kin well fed.  He couldn’t have been older than eighteen when the dust settled and survivors appeared from the cracks, and now he stands tall as the town’s eyes, ears, and string-puller.  Gill is not a dangerous man alone, and in conversation he is tolerable, but the town’s morale is in balance when he is around.  The fear is based on changing that.  His church sits at the end of the street, atop a foothill from the central fountain, the flock coming from the rebuilt surrounding suburbia and the town centre establishments of a bank, a general store, a hospital, an inn of sorts, and the bulletin office.  Behind the church is the softball field where the town’s team, managed by Gill, plays against the three other settlements nearby in rotation throughout a spring season.  It is a good distraction from the ever-morphing weather above, and another method of Gill’s influence in town.  Everyone lives close together, and run insulated jobs, never venturing out nor expanding their business.  It’s a mutually assured capacity of mind and given everything these people have been through, it’s understandable that their only reach for something greater is through Gill.  The bulletin office is our only source of information outside of town, corresponding with the settlements nearby and providing short news pamphlets to reassure everyone that the ground isn’t going to cave in.  They have been shrouded in mystery ever since their introduction into town, and Jessop says most of what they say is horse shit.  Ell says they are a necessity.

We are thankful to live away from this, a mile out of town on a farm that has been in my family for two hundred years.  Starting modestly as a pigpen, as my grandfather liked to say, it became an endless sea of yellow fields and factorised buildings by the time the weather began to falter.  It was quite the producer and got to be owned by a mass food line business that took my father’s output and transported it to grocery stores and fast-food restaurants in the nearby city.  This was fruitful for my parents, but I think the lack of autonomy killed my father in the end, when he spent his last days sitting around waiting for the cheques to arrive.  My mother died soon after, Ell says because of old age, I say because she missed my father.  I’m glad they both left before the collapse.  It was never my intention to inherit the farm, I was the youngest son and only returned home to go on hunting trips with old friends, or for birthdays or Christmas.  And I suppose I haven’t really inherited the farm, there are certainly no deeds or contracts, but I came here when I was the only survivor in the family.  Now the farm grows what it can, which is a single field of wheat, and a patch of vegetables.  This feeds us and gives the required bread to town.  It is the satellite trade that keeps us warm at night, and Ell’s work in the hospital that keeps us in favour in town, which is the only way we’re allowed to be isolated out here.  Tonight, Ell came into the outhouse to tell me that Gill has come to visit.

He was in the house waiting for me, in his self-attired pastor outfit, which consists of a white shirt with three buttons down, beige trousers, and sandals.  I had about ten years on Gill, but the responsibility had shaved the youth from his face.  He spoke in measured, soft tones that were disingenuous to anyone who wasn’t deaf, meaning he was well listened to in a town of hand over ears.  I had a run-in with Gill a few years ago when a child aged six died in town.  He organised this zealous ceremony at his church, which included wrapping the child’s body in dead leaves and placing it into the ground as a seed to attempt to grow a tree, and I tried to stop him.  The parents were distraught and could have done without demonstration, but the majority took Gill’s side.  I was embarrassed and ashamed.  They celebrated the child’s death when a sapling showed signs of growing, then cursed the parents when it rotted away, leaving Gill to calm them, and instil his place as the town messiah.  His pretention on this visit was to ask whether I could play in the softball team that weekend because two were out due to sickness.  Ell had already told me that there was a bug going around town and that I shouldn’t worry, it was just a circling cold.  I told Gill the same thing I always told him, no I don’t want to play in the softball team, now tell me what you really want.  He didn’t budge on that regard, professing that his enquiry was his only intention.  Ell said to me later that I should go easier on him.  Before Gill left, he drank tea in our kitchen and asked if I had found any more satellites recently.  I told him I had but didn’t mention the buzzing.  He left a bulletin on the table as he walked out.  It wasn’t all that exciting, other than noting that a band of wanderers would be passing through town next week. 

Gill has a habit of showing up suspiciously, and it makes me wonder if he is touched by some divine presence.  He knows something about 37, but how?  Jessop won’t have told him because he distrusts Gill more than I do, and rarely makes it across to the town.  I am beginning to think that I have something in the outhouse that is valuable, which makes the incoming wanderers’ visit disturbing.  The travelling salesman and showmen come through town every few months, with more of an aim to sell than to buy, and to con and deceive.  I only dealt in satellite pieces with them, and only to ones I had dealt with before.  Each of them carries firepower and sometimes has paid protection from the bigger settlements to the east and they have no time for simple dwellers and their honest economy.  I have no real evidence that 37 was known to the wanderers or Gill, but there is an unease emerging in my stomach.  Ell, who repeatedly had the answers, said something about melodrama and my determination to see the worst in people.  After all, I know nothing about 37 yet.  I decided to wrap it back in the blanket, and leave it alone, to see if the buzzing would last. 

Ell makes dinner three nights a week, and myself the other four when she comes in late from the hospital.  She was halfway through her medical schooling when the first collapse happened, and so spends much of her free time vigorously studying what she missed.  I admire her for that, and already she has said that the books have saved at least one life in the infirmary.  Children are what she is investigating now, and she has been trying to contact the larger settlement in the east about a study on the depleting birth rate.  I try and tell her that the world is not meant for children anymore, and she tells me that is all the world is meant for.  We lost a baby before the satellites started to fall when it was hardly a growth inside her stomach and haven’t tried again since.  I believe that time has passed us now.  Ell was an only child, and her loneliness strikes without warning.  I come through the back door and call her name but get no response, then inspect the corners of her house to find her sat dissociated from the world.  She hasn’t had an easy ride, and I think that is why she is so wise.  When she was eleven her father died, and a month before leaving home for college her mother perished too, and so with no other family to speak of she left for school on her own, and got through her education alone, working a thousand jobs to make ends meet.  I often theorised that this is why she came through the collapse, why she managed to drag us through, but then I remember the fools in town that also made it.  Almost everyone that survived was under the age of forty, and the oldest resident in town can’t be a shade into their sixties, which I guess means that physical robustness matters more than emotional grit.  Ell has both enough for the two of us. 

We kept busy in the week before the wanderers’ arrival.  Ell continued her study and her work at the hospital, and I manned the farm, and the scanners, not worrying about 37.  I have been attending to this writing in the mornings, when the atmosphere is less dense, and when the hue of blocked sunlight at least gives some natural light.  In the evenings I sit on the porch under the warm storm clouds and listen to an old baseball game that the bulletin office was transmitting from the east.  They have repeats from classic games every night.  Occasionally I remember the result and feel extremely melancholic.  It wasn’t as though I cared who won or lost back then, or that I longed for life before the collapse, it was that the games and the commentators and the crowd noise were a mist of death.  This is an irremovable weight in the centre of the body, the mist of death that hangs beyond us.  I worked in non-fiction publishing as a sub-editor, meaning I spent all day reading manuscripts on lifestyle subjects such as fitness, cooking, and mental well-being that would never get published.  There was never any time to write or to read anything else, and now with all the time in the world, I am putting pen to paper.  I was proofreading my first contracted work when Ell told me we were packing and moving to the farm.  She knew something was wrong before most others, and I suppose I knew my family had already gone. 

When we made it out here to the farm twelve years ago the fields were ablaze, and the factories had been destroyed by the tornados with hardly a trace that they were once there.  My eldest brother who was running the land was killed during one of the early storms, leaving a compound of workers debating whether to flee or repair the farm.  Those that remained were doing what they could to restrict the fires, but when the rains came, they headed west, leaving Ell and me with thousands of acres of nothing.  For two years we hunkered down like everyone else, in the house and outhouse that hadn’t been destroyed, living off scraps, waiting on the clouds to clear.  Of course, we are still waiting on that, but the heavy storms did stop, and the summer heat became manageable.  We came out of hiding to find a farm mostly cleared of debris and a town already functioning.  I stared up at the sky much more back then, anticipating those small gaps through the clouds at the sun, but these days I like to keep my eyes on the road.

Today is a Tuesday and will be my last day on the farm.  The wanderers arrived this morning to much fanfare in town.  Almost everyone had a kiosk set up outside their home, wonky tables covered in books, ornaments, clothes, and other junk.  The wanderers would trade for one of their items if they were lucky, and trick residents into acquiring useless items that they thought might be valuable in the future.  Shiny objects, I would call them, polished coins that promised brighter days.  Ell was already at work in the hospital when I came into town in the afternoon.  I visited her first and kissed her on the cheek after she warned me that there were new faces amongst the wanderers.  On the main street, I spotted Jessop hauling a trailer of metal by hand.  I walked over to give him a hand.  “Nice chase,” he said.  “Anything good?”
“Nothing special,” I said. 
“Oh yeah?  I thought there might have been something about it, with the whistling and the shaking and all.  I’ve never seen one like that.”
“It was like all the others when it hit the ground.”  We pulled the trailer down to the fountain and watched the herd of wanderers approach.  They were an enigmatic bunch, dressed in a combination of colourful outfits all in one, always with bits and pieces attached to their body, and always with a sidearm on their hip.  The richer had pack mules and bodyguards ambling alongside them.  Jessop made good business, and a couple of enquiries came my way about what I had to offer, or what I was looking for.  I told them the same thing I always did; I only dealt with people I had dealt with before.  There were no wanderers I trusted in town earlier today. 

Gill was fluttering around in excitement up and around the church.  He was relishing being the host to a wanderer who had three healthy pack mules with him, as well as a female bodyguard the size of two men.  After the rest of the wanderers had done with Jessop, the three-mule wanderer came down the hill towards us.  He was a short man with a bald head and was wearing a pair of black goggles.  His bodyguard towered over him, blonde and muscular, with a rifle hung off her shoulder.  The wanderer introduced himself as Hoyt, exposing his protruding belly as he got closer.  “I am in the market for something particular,” Hoyt said.  “My friend in the church tells me you two are the best satellite chasers for a hundred miles.”
“I’ve sold most of my gear already,” Jessop said, plainly. 
“I’m not looking for scrap metal.  I am looking for a functioning piece of equipment that has travelled a long way.”
“Everything that falls is dead by the time we catch it,” I said.
“That’s right,” Jessop said. 
The bodyguard twitched.  “I am offering a price so high it will make your nose bleed,” Hoyt said.  “A kind of blank cheque.  I take the satellite and you have access to choose from my entire collection.  You can even have her if you want.”
“It doesn’t matter what you’re offering if we don’t have what you want,” I said. 
“Now, wait a minute,” Jessop said.  “What is it about this satellite that makes it so valuable?  And how can you be so sure it’s landed out here?  You heard right that we’re the best chasers for a hundred miles, if you tell us more about this thing you can be sure we can track it down.”
“It’s so valuable because my client in the east demands to have it,” Hoyt said.  “That’s all you need to know.  We have scanners that can surpass your monitors tenfold, and we have been following the light for some time, and we know it has already landed.”
“Why haven’t you tracked it yourself then?” I asked. 
“Like I said.  We know it has already landed.”  The wanderers had returned to the fountain to watch the scene, as had the townspeople.  I held strong, trying to find Ell’s face at the back of the crowd, but she wasn’t there.  It would only take a second for that brute of a bodyguard to yank her rifle around and shoot me and Jessop right where we stood.  I watched as Jessop continued to plead for more information from the ugly wanderer, and I watched as he hovered his hand over the gun tucked in his waist.  For the first time, I was glad to see Gill coming towards me.  He came jogging down the hill to defuse the situation. 

Gill stood between us and reassured Hoyt that if such satellite were to be found he’d be the first to know, but it would have to be a fair trade, and not a bloodbath.  God is watching, he said.  Hoyt held for a second then said he would be in the area until the end of the week, and I told him not to hold his breath.  The wanderers and the townspeople dispersed, leaving Gill, Jessop and I stood next to the fountain.   “You better give that man what he wants,” Gill said, pointing.  “The last thing we need is a swarm of city folk from the east coming into town.” 
“We can’t give him what we don’t have,” Jessop said, and Gill retreated to his church.  Several of the town residents followed behind him, giving us a cautionary look.  I was about to go and find Ell, when Jessop took hold of my arm and invited himself round for dinner, saying he needed to speak to me about something. 

Even though it was my turn to cook dinner that night, Ell took over, because she knew I was too preoccupied with 37 and Jessop’s visit.  She made a soup from leftover vegetables and took a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven.  I was tinkering over some technological papers when Jessop arrived.  We ate before we discussed anything over the cramped kitchen table that sits below an oval window.  Behind us is an open-plan living area that is walled with wood and stone.  I think now of the few memories left behind there, saved photographs, a baseball mitt, and a record player that Ell would curate the selection from.  The eagerness on Jessop’s face as we ate was palpable.  I told him he could speak in front of Ell, and so he did.  “I’ve been tuning in to the radio waves coming from the east,” Jessop began.  “Not the baseball relays from the bulletin office, I mean from the east, east.  That big settlement they have over there.  You see fragments of their signal just gets caught amongst the old towers and into my radar net.  Few tweaks here and there and suddenly my little dots turn into sound.”
“That’s how you’re beating me to all the crash sites,” I said. 
“Not all of them.  I’ve got have a wider range than you, but it comes with all this white noise, and it’s distracting.  I know that satellite is still alive, friend, because I can hear it on my scanner, and you can be sure that wanderer and whoever sent him knows it too.”
“Does it have an exact location?”
“No.  I think you’d already be dead if it did.  The only reason I know you have it in that shack back there is because I saw you on the chase.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Money.  You heard what that guy said, a blank cheque, the kind of trade that could get you out of this dustbowl and somewhere safe when the next rain comes.  Look at the sky, it’s only a matter of time.  Together we can get the best deal for this thing.  That guy Hoyt might not be the highest bidder.” 
“We don’t even know what the satellite is.”
“I have an idea.  He said it had come a long way, right?  I’ve been hearing through the white noise parts of a transmission about missile messengers from space.  Coded messages delivered via satellite tubes from somewhere off earth.”
“I don’t understand.  Off earth?”
“This is where it gets interesting.  Remember those plans to evacuate people to space stations when they knew the collapse was coming?”
“Yes, but they never finished them in time.”
“I’m thinking that they did.  You hear through the wanderers and on the sound waves that there are colonies up there, shielded by the clouds and the sun, that house those that could afford to get off earth when the time came.  The satellite you collected isn’t a satellite at all, it’s a message of some kind from them, and whoever wants it thinks it will secure a passage into space.”
“This is conspiracy theory lunacy, Jessop.  You don’t seriously believe there are whole colonies of humans in space?”
“I can prove it.”

Jessop went outside to his truck, whilst I sat in stunned silence.  Ell watched on from the counter, smiling, with a cup of tea in her hand as though a load of cosmic shattering information hadn’t just been spewed onto the dinner table.  In those minutes waiting for Jessop, I didn’t believe him for a second on the colonies, but I did believe that Hoyt and his employer wanted 37, and it would only be a matter of time before they found it.  I wanted to get rid of it, to keep the farm, and to keep Ell safe.  The dreams of having a better life or a normal life were long gone.  My dreams were full of Ell and the fields, and the books I read, and the words on this page.  I see only the present.  Jessop returned with two cardboard boxes that had dangling wires hanging from them.  I took him to the outhouse.  Inside we manoeuvred past the clutter to the workbench, and I pulled away the blanket to show 37.  Jessop admired the satellite for a second, then began assembling all his radio equipment. He had two large dishes opposed from one another, with a console at the centre, and he ran a wire from this to 37, tying the wires together.  Then he sat down on the workbench whilst I stood.  The buzz blasted out of the dishes, and I had to hold my hands over my ears it was so loud, if Hoyt didn’t know where the satellite was, he did now.  Jessop awkwardly twisted a dial around, and the buzz slowly transformed into words.  They were inaudible at first, so Jessop moved his hand to another dial, and the words grew clearer. 

This is what the message said:  This is Haven Four relaying through H1.  Messaging receiver on Earth at East Home.  Accept message and second missile will be fired.
I could feel Jessop’s eyes on the side of my face.  “See,” he said.  “Haven must be the name they give the stations.  East Home must be what they call their connection down here.”
“I don’t see anything yet,” I said.  “First of all, how did it end up in the middle of the desert if they were aiming for the settlement in the East?  If they have the technology to build colonies in space, surely, they can hit a target with a missile.”
“Come on, it’s the weather.  Same reason why we get so many actual satellites falling out here.”
“The gravity, or whatever you say.”
“Exactly.  Think about much we don’t know, how much we still don’t know about the collapse.  We get drip-fed little bits of information from the bulletins, apparently from this mysterious settlement in the east.  But how much do we know about this place?  It could just be an empty building that the colonies pump information through to keep us in the dark.”
“Hoyt was working for someone.”
“Yeah, probably someone like me who’s caught wind of what the message might contain.  All we have to do now is figure out how to accept the message.”
“I think we already did.”  I pointed my finger at a tiny green dot on my radar. 
“How long until that thing hits the ground?” Jessop asked. 
“Four hours, maybe five,” I said. 

Questions and doubts flooded my brain.  Space colonies for the rich would have made sense before the collapse, but now we are so far removed from that time that it doesn’t feel real.  That was a bad dream, and this is the reality we have woken up in.  Had our vision grown too narrow?  Could I not see beyond my lost family and friends, and former life, and Ell?  She is patiently waiting back in the house.  Jessop had gone again, promising he would be back soon with his satellite hunting gear.  The mist of death is approaching once again, in a much heavier form.  I am writing this in the outhouse stuck in position and wondering whether they are humans above my head living in harmony.  I feel no envy.  The grief for those lost in the collapse has slipped away, and I am indeed blind to anything but Ell and the life we have built out here.  Twelve years ago, I saw people fall in the streets and bodies lie in the corridors of my apartment building.  My friends became ghosts, the writers I admired vanished, the baseball players I mythologised turned into memories overnight, and now I sit unable to move because they may have escaped when they had the chance.  We never got the call-up.  The one percent of the one percent abandoned the fallen portion, and perhaps rightfully so, how hypocritical of me it would be to say I wouldn’t put my needs, or Ell’s needs first.  The desperate liberalism I may have bled for in my younger days drifted into irrelevancy when we were begging over inches of water, and meditating, I see no use in anger, only a feeling of a reach that cannot grasp out at discernment.  I need to get out of this chair and move around and use my legs to rid of the indigestion in my soul.  The rest of my notes will have to be completed later. 

Ell had fallen asleep whilst we were playing in the outhouse, with a book on infant vaccination resting on her chest.  I stood in the doorway and her eyes opened.  In a single breath I explained the message, the colonies, the incoming satellite, and that the wanderers were onto us.  “We don’t have much time then,” Ell said.  “Is there anything you would like to say to the house or the fields?”
“I’m going to give them 37,” I said.  “And Jessop can find that other satellite on his own.  We don’t have to say goodbye to our home.  I still don’t believe that the colonies exist.”
“Why not?”
“We would have heard about them.  We would have seen something.  I don’t remember being so blind twelve years ago when the clouds were not full.”
“We’re hearing about them now.”
“You believe Jessop then.”
“I do.  But it doesn’t change anything.  This is my world and my life.  I have my work and my practice here.”
“The weather, Ell.  It’s coming again, and who knows if we can make it out this time?”
“You didn’t believe a moment ago, and now you are trying to buy a ticket.”
“I don’t know what I’m saying or what I believe.  I’m scared of what is about to happen.  You know better than I do that whatever we have here is temporary.  We saw that with our child, and the town, Ell.  They are one disaster away from sacrificing one another in the church garden.”
“We’ve always had each other.  I wish you would stop worrying so much.  This is all a simple problem to solve.  I don’t think we can negotiate with the wanderers without the second satellite, so we chase it with Jessop, like you have with all the others, and maybe we can travel to the sky in a literal or figurative mystical boat.  Or maybe it’s a bunch of nonsense, and we pack our things, and we drive west and further west until we find a new home.  I take my books and we start again, and when the weather comes, it comes.  There is no umbrella big enough to shield us, and no hole deep enough to protect us.  But we’ll have each other.”
“You’re right, as always.”

As always, as always, as always.  I lean on Ell’s shoulders, and it was settled, I was to hunt down the satellite with Jessop.  Hoyt and his bodyguard could arrive at any time, but Ell took her time gathering provisions for a possible fast escape, creating a survival kit, and storing it by the back door.  I ran to the outhouse to prepare for the chase.  This involved using the radar, where the green dot had shifted greatly and then predicting where the satellite would fall in the desert.  I marked on a map a wide circle of where it could land, not far from the farm in a similar area to where 37 crashed.  Then I packed the fire blanket, a pair of night vision binoculars, a crowbar, a shortwave radio, and a large duffel back onto the back of my bike.  I took my rifle off the wall and searched in the workbench drawers for a box of ammo.  Once I had loaded a clip into the gun, I moved the gear and 37 to the main house.

The sound of Jessop’s truck engine shook the blood in my veins when it pulled up outside an hour later.  In the back was the equipment he had set up in the outhouse earlier.  He came out of the truck dressed like he was going to war, with an automatic rifle across his shoulder, and two sidearms on either hip.  Seeing his arsenal, I thought for a second that I had made a fatal error trusting him, but he was all smiles coming towards me.  I commented on his excessive weaponry, and he said it was better to be prepared, then told me to lift my bike into the back of the truck, because we might need it.  It was a two-man job and we struggled to haul it next to the two dishes, whilst Ell giggled behind us.  She was walking over to help when I heard the sound of more engines coming over the hill.  I dropped the bike against the truck, and looked down the road, seeing lights peaking over.  “Get back in the house,” I said.  The bike fell onto the ground with Jessop letting go to release his rifle from his shoulder.  I ran to Ell, and she pulled me inside the house.  Jessop stood guard on the porch.  The minimal light through the clouds had faded, and beyond our short vision it was almost pitch black, the main source of light the candles scattered around the bottom floor of the house.

From the dining room window, I could see the guests bustling down the road in three cars. In the lead were Gill, Hoyt, and the female bodyguard.  What deal had that selfish preacher made?  What God did he pray to?  In the other vehicles were more wanderers, menacing, all with weapons, piling out onto the farm in unison.  They formed a sort of battle line across from Jessop, his truck adjacent to us by the window.  Of course, it was Gill to speak first.  “We are here for the satellite Jessop,” he said.  “Nothing else.”
“Is it true?” Jessop asked.
“The satellite is a message from a space colony.”
“It’s true.”  This is when I grabbed my rifle.  “We have been chosen.”  I rushed outside gun in hand.
“Who has been chosen?” I asked.  “You and your gang of wanderers.  Whoever sent these guys from the east?”
“No, the entire flock can ascend.  The message will promise us so.”
“How are we supposed to ascend?”
“A ship will come for us.  I have seen it in my dreams.”
“You can’t lie your way through this one, look around you.  Look what you have brought to my home.  Can’t you see they are using you, just like you have been using the people in town?  You of all people should see deceit when it arrives.” 
“Even Jesus had enforcers amongst his disciples.”
“Have you ever heard the message Gill?” Jessop asked.
“I know what the message will be,” Gill said.  “I know it in my heart.” 

Hoyt stepped forward, with a big great revolver in his palm.  “Have you heard the message?” he asked. 
“We have,” Jessop said, and with that Hoyt blew the side of Gill’s face off.  I looked away, and Jessop pointed his rifle formally at the crowd in front of him. 
“Easy,” Hoyt said, some of Gill’s brain on his cheek, all of Gill’s body by his feet.  “That is the only death necessary tonight.  Give us the satellite now.”  I hesitated for a second then placed my hand on the barrel of Jessop’s gun, and he lowered it.  Ell had the bag with 37 inside ready behind me.  I took it from her and threw it across to Hoyt’s gang, the bag thudding with a metallic clang.  Hoyt took the satellite from his bag and passed it to one of the wanderers, then exclaimed, “And the second half of the message?” 
“That’s when the bargaining comes in,” I said.  “You won’t be able to find the satellite in the desert without us.  When we find it out there, you can have it, as long as you leave town after and never come back.”
“Seems fair,” Hoyt said.
“No, that’s not the deal,” Jessop said, gripping tight to his gun once again.  “The message came to us, and so we are Haven’s contact.  We have the right to go off-world too.”
“Jessop, stop,” I said.  “We don’t even know if that’s what the message is offering.”
“Listen to your friend,” Hoyt said. 
“We won’t know what it’s offering until we find it,” Jessop said.  “We can get to it twice as fast as these guys.  You blew Gill away because he hasn’t heard the message and we have.  You need us.”
“You won’t leave the farm alive,” Hoyt said.  “The message is for my employer and no-one else.  This isn’t a question of leaving this cursed planet, it’s a question of ownership.  Your preacher lies on the ground because he was in the way.”
“I don’t buy that your employer is anything more than a ghost to scare regular folk.  I reckon you bunch of freaks are as opportunistic as they come.  Got on the trail from the soundwaves, just as I did.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.  The freaks outnumber the regular folk as far as I can count.”
Jessop turned to me.  “Ready?” he asked. 
“Don’t try it,” I said, but it was too late.  It was the blonde bodyguard who shot first, shattering the glass to the side of my head.  Jessop didn’t panic, holding his rifle up to his eyes he began pumping rounds into the wanderers, his fire rate startling them.  I felt a tug on my waist and fell backward into the house on top of Ell.  “We have to get to the truck,” she said.  “Jessop’s decision is made.” 

From there, who knows who was still standing outside.  Jessop had got a couple of them, emptying a full magazine of bullets in a spread across the vehicles.  I caught sight of him getting hit in the chest and arm as we moved to the back door.  He must have switched to his pistols because the sound of his gunfire changed, and he continued to spray as he was bleeding out.  Ell took the lead out the back door and round to the truck, keeping close to the wall, whilst I pointed the rifle behind her.  She had Jessop’s keys and jumped in the driving seat.  I took a last look through the gun’s sights before getting in the passenger side, seeing the bullets slowly sputter away at the car paint.  It wasn’t until Ell started the truck that the gunfire stopped.

I directed Ell as she drove away from the farm, saying that we only had a few minutes until the wanderers got their cars going, if there were any of them left.  We drove along the wide road for a mile, then down the valley sides on the dirt going another two miles towards the circle on my map.  The crash site wasn’t like any that I had seen before, mainly because it was encircled by a fragmented ring of fire.  Black smoke was filling the air above and covering any light emitting from the flames.  Ell parked the truck, keeping the headlights on, and I exited the vehicle with my rifle still in hand.  I couldn’t hear any engines behind us, and besides from the crackling of flames, it was silent.  This satellite, number 38, was not making noise as 37 did.  Ell followed behind as I found a gap in the fire to jump through, seeing the broken mess in the centre of a shallow crater.  It was certainly the other half to 37, a child could fix that jigsaw, but it looked destroyed.  The heat around us was growing so we began searching around for something salvageable.  It was hopeless.  The fire had burnt up the edges of any tangible parts, and we’d have to wait for the mess to cool before we could get close.  Ell said we should go back to the truck and start driving west. 

Out of the ring of fire, Hoyt and his bodyguard were waiting.  The giant bodyguard had shrunk in pain and was keeled over the passenger door with blood falling in gushes from her belly and neck.  She died slowly in front of us.  Hoyt had been winged on the side of his head but otherwise was standing quite well, with enough energy to point that great revolver at us.  It was dark and we were looking at each other in shadows.  Hoyt came around the car whilst his bodyguard withered to the ground.  “Where’s the satellite?” he called across the sand. 
“It’s destroyed,” I said. 
“That’s impossible.  Get out of the way.” 
Hoyt pushed through us into the flames.  Let’s go, Ell said, holding onto my hand.  Determination struck, momentarily, and I lost her sweaty grip and re-entered the fire.  “Hoyt,” I shouted, and he turned, already kicking around bits of metal.  “Why did you shoot Gill back there?”

“The same reason I was planning on killing you,” Hoyt said.  “There are only so many spots in paradise.  The preacher would have clawed at my heels to get onto the colonies.  It was better to rid of him quickly once he had served his purpose.”
“How do you know all of this is true?”

“This is not new knowledge, you are just new to the story.  We that travel the wastelands have known about the colonies for a decade, but this is the first message.  We must be the first to respond.  Help me with this rubble and I can promise you a passage.”
“Everything is melting, and you’ll burn in here, and your face.”  Hoyt turned back away and continued his booting of the debris.  I returned to Ell. 

She said, I hope he finds what he’s looking for, destroyed or not. 

Right now, we’re on the side of the road taking a bathroom break about fifty miles further west.  We haven’t seen a single soul or any sign of a settlement.  The pack of food and gear that Ell grabbed on our rush out of the house will keep us going for a week or so.  I reckon we’ll bump into something by the end of tomorrow.  There is a part of me that wants to turn around and see if the fire has burnt out and the satellite has cooled off.  Ell calls me silly.  The sun rose behind the clouds this morning as it has done for the last twelve years, and I gazed up to try and spot space stations in the cracks of light.  All I saw was a brightness that gave me sore eyes. 

‘Well, there you go folks.  Another story from the long uninhabited Earth, which means it’s time for an oldie.  Here’s ‘Dreaming of Another World’ by the ‘Mystery Jets.’

Take a Walk Down from Reality and into The Realm of Dreams

The title is what he said to me as the starting pistol crashed over our first journey.  Luchino.  The Lucid Dream Guide.  Bald in the centre of his head but holding fierce along the side, his wide jowls are strung together by a bushy moustache.  He likes to move his glasses from his face to his lap when he speaks.  Endlessly pondering in his deep voice, the words from Luchino are an ongoing lecture, as though he invents new dialects as the words come out of his mouth.  I saw him first under dark lighting, in lime chiaroscuro.  My life had become a series of titles and lists.  There was no reachable future in sight, or a past that could be counted on.  Two years had disappeared into dust and I had lost my ability to put myself into any of the places I had been.  The feeling of memory had gone.  And yet I continued to dream of distant relatives, of impossible romances, of fighting wars, and the pressure of waves drowning my feet.

Luchino’s number was given to me by a friend of a friend.  Well, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, I don’t have friends per se.  Not at his moment in time.  Luchino’s main practice is psychiatry, he couldn’t possibly afford to live in this city on the drabs of a lost art form.  The number given to me was his secret line, that he would only answer between 00.00 and 00.05. 

He answers: Do you have any stake in being awake?
I reply: Is this Luchino’s office?
He answers: Seventy-nine ninety-nine per hour, that will be fine.
I reply: Should I be rhyming too?

The beep of rejection echoed in my ears, and my existence continued.  I’m a photographer, or at least I pretend to be, the more photographs I take the more I see them as designed images, created to mess with me.  The click of the camera births a reality that I am separate from.  It is quite unsettling, but for now, people still buy my work in this town.  The ability to pay my rent means that I am still alive.  I think and so I am.  I pay taxes and so the sun keeps rising.  The great problem with my work is that I cannot have living beings present in my photographs, no human, animal, or insect.  Okay, I am exaggerating slightly with the insect part, I am sure there are millions of tiny breathing bacteria in every photo that I’ve taken, but I try my best to remove them.  Shooting inanimate objects and buildings doesn’t sound so insane does it?  Yet it has been a great impediment to my success, because the photograph is ruined whenever sentience gets close, and often I have discarded photographs if know there’s a person just outside the frame, or if a bird flew over my head moments before I pulled the trigger.  Anyway, it was an afternoon when the wheels started to turn.  I’m not sure on the exact time and place because each day interloped into the next, moving like clouds across the sun.  I remember being warm, and I remember I had my camera fixed on a washing line strung between two buildings, trying to get a shot of the breeze interrupting the clothes.  The reflections from the windows of the apartments were irritating me, and I had been stood straining my neck for some time.  Then I heard a noise.  It was a kind of jovial tune, slightly obnoxious, and repetitive.  Then the side of my thigh started to shake.  I grabbed my trouser pocket worried that my leg was going to fall off its hinges and felt the buzzing phone.  Ah, how could I forget?  I’d had that thing for years, I think.  The camera dropped to my chest from its straps as I held the phone to my ear.


The rejection beep was more abrupt this time.  I looked at the phone, and a message appeared.


My keen investigative skills led me to deduce quickly that this was Luchino.  I wasn’t a fan of the mystery, and making Tuesday was the first obstacle, for the simple reason that I had no idea what day it was.  I walked around in search of a newspaper stand, unable to look at the date on my phone because of its inherent lying.  The space between screens and my eyes had been fibbing for a while, and that ethereal distance was haunting.  I found a news stand and saw several papers laid over each other all indicating that it was Monday, meaning 00:10 on Tuesday was hours away, I knew that at least.  And where is Lourousesse’s Deli?  I asked the news guy: Where is Larousesse’s Deli? And the news guy said: Larousesse Street.  It’s the place with the dictionary theme.  They have dictionaries stacked everywhere and words glued to the windows.  I asked the news guy: Where is Larousesse Street? And the news guy said: Next to Fuck Off There’s a Queue and You’ve Been in this Town Long Enough to Know Where that Fucking Deli is Avenue.  I was familiar with that street, so all I had to do was go to Fuck Off There’s a Queue and You’ve Been in this Town Long Enough to Know Where that Fucking Deli is Avenue and Larousse should be around the corner.  

Midnight approached.  I wandered the paths and alleys of this cold town, my shoulders beamed by kitchen lights and heated ovens.  How do the normal people live?  I suspect they do not dream as I do.  They are not followed by the spirits of the unseen, the effable, the creepy crawlies that whip themselves down sound waves and eat dinner in the gaps between my fingers.  I’m a hypocrite, it didn’t use to be like this, I used to be able to touch things.  I was tarnished, a member of the regret club, and my dreams were the only thing that got me out of bed.  I needed Luchino.  The time for the meeting came.  I had been waiting on Larousse Street, doing a stakeout of the deli.  The place was shut but the lights were still on, and the dictionary theme amused me.  Written across the window, in watered on fabric, were the words: Transcendental, Paradigm, and Insurmountable.  I learned later that they change the words once a week.  The door next to the deli opened with a push, and I was invited by a straight stairway as I entered.  I followed the stairs around to the second floor, seeing apartment number 2 immediately.  The door creaked open as my hand floated towards it to knock.  Luchino was smiling.  “Come in,” he said.  I stepped across the threshold onto a fluffy orange carpet, darkened by presumably centuries of wear and tear.  All of the light bulbs glowed green, and perched upon every available space was a house plant – on the kitchen counter, on the mantlepiece, on the dining room table, on the little gap at the edge of the TV stand, on the floor.  I wouldn’t be able to take photosynthesis in there, I mean photographs, because plant breathing counts too. 

Luchino glided to a red armchair in the corner of the open living room and collapsed into it.  “Where should I sit?” I asked.
“Let’s deal with the matter of payment first,” Luchino said. 
“Yes, the seventy-nine, ninety-nine.  I was hoping you could run me a tab.”
“That’s fine.”
“I don’t have the seventy-nine, ninety-nine.”
“That’s fine.”
“No, I mean.  On the phone you said seventy-nine ninety-nine per hour, that will be fine.  I don’t have seventy-nine, ninety-nine.”
“Yes and I mean don’t worry about it for now.”
“Oh, thank you, where should I sit again?”
“Most people ask why I hung up when they first called, then texted them a week later.”
“That was my second question.  Actually, I was going to ask how you got my number.” (I’m still stood up)
“You rang me with it, remember?”
“Yes, well, I don’t remember, but I guess I do now.”
“Great.  If you’re not going to accost me for my peculiar modes of communication then please sit down on that sofa right there, by the one with the spikey petals.”
“Thank you.” (I sit down)
“Are you not going to ask me why I hung up when you first called, then texted you a week later?”
“I presume it was because you wanted to assess me.  No doubt you sieved through my online records before deeming I was worthy of treatment.”
“You presumed correct.  Well done.”
“I am curious by all the mystery.  Am I breaking a law by being here?”
“No, you are not.  The mystery is for my own mental safety.  Digging around in dreams can be very dangerous for the guide.  I cannot open myself up for any old deranged lunatic to come in here and mucky my psyche. And my practice is frowned upon by the medical community.  I choose to keep this side of my work private, as to not jeopardise my reputation in the mainstream fields.”
“Okay, is it going to hurt?”
“It depends on what you define pain as.  First, you must tell me why you are here.”
I took a breath.  “I have become numb to the world and other people.  I can no longer recall memories.  It is not Alzheimer’s because the memories are there, but they don’t feel real.  And I’m dreaming, and it’s the only thing that I’m certain that I’m doing.  They are beginning to blend with my daily life, and I cannot separate them from reality.”
“I see.  This is a classic case.  I will give you two philosophical thoughts to meditate over before we continue: number one, memories seeming unreal is a common feeling amongst almost the entirety of humanity, because the past itself does not really exist, once it has happened.  Number two, our consciousness could be some kind of dream, our waking life and sleeping life are under the same umbrella of our mind.”
“Is it raining?”
“Please, in silence.  You have ten minutes.”

I sat staring at the surrounding plants.  Was I supposed to close my eyes?  Luchino wasn’t, his glare was fixated over my left shoulder.  I am convinced that Luchino can see the space in between, he can communicate with the distance.  During the ten minutes my mind drifted away from the proposed topics.  I thought of a woman I once slept with and the two freckles on her neck, I thought of when I lost a year’s worth of photos in a hard-drive meltdown incident, I thought of when my childhood cat went under my bed for a quiet place to die.  Luchino snapped his fingers.  “Do not say anything,” he said.  “The meditation is for you, as is the next stage.  You will spend the next week cataloguing your dreams.  I want you to stop working, stop leaving the house, stop watching TV, stop going on your phone, stop doing anything.  You are only to sit, and sleep, and dream, then we will know if you require treatment.”
“I can’t do anything?” I asked.

“Exercise is permitted.  If you have any wall decorations, taking them down will help.  You can leave now.”
“Wait.  I’m having trouble keeping track of the days, could you give me something now to tide me over until next week?  Otherwise, I might miss the appointment.”  Luchino reached into the inside pocket of his corduroy sports jacket and handed me over a digital watch.  I left with it on my wrist. 

Luchino’s task was easy.  It was how I was living already.  I had even taken down my wall decorations a few months earlier because I wasn’t happy with the way they were looking at me.  A Japanese painting of a serene waterfall can be extremely judgemental.  It was the watch that frightened me, how did I know that I could trust it?  I drank and ate what remained in my apartment, a combination of expired orange juice and Basmati rice with boiled frozen peas.  Luchino didn’t say anything about keeping to a basic diet, but I thought it might help the process to completely strip away all the enjoyment from my life.  I sat for hours every day staring at the walls, the kitchen installations, the blank television, sometimes the ceiling for a treat.  And I slept and slept and slept, in a combination of small bursts and longer deeper slumbers.  Even when I couldn’t sleep, I laid with my eyes closed until I reached the absent state of consciousness that you fall in and out of before and after sleeping.  A state Luchino likes to call the Lost Base.  My mind ticked over, of course, with regrets and sexual urges and worries, but they never dug their feet in too deep.  And so, I dreamt.  This is the catalogue I showed Luchino at our second appointment:

Tuesday night: Green lights and hallways.

Wednesday night: I rented a house with a loved one, and we had scary neighbours.  If we left the heating on the neighbours would come and attack us.  There were protests outside. 

Thursday afternoon: I made an online video by accident.  Everyone I know loves it.

Friday night: I am back in school, and in a relationship with a famous actress.  She keeps saying mean things to me whenever I see her. 

Sunday night: I come up with an incredible song and perform it at a festival in front of thousands of people.  When I wake up, I realise the song already exists. 

Monday afternoon: Two opposing groups of men are fighting outside a Polish train station.  I try to get out of the way, but I get trapped in an underground shopping centre. 

The watch eventually came round to TUE on the minuscule screen.  I had no choice but to trust it.  When I arrived at Larousesse’s Deli the words in the window had been changed to: theatricalising, paroxysm, and imperturbable.  I was relieved to see the watch hadn’t let me down when Luchino opened the door to his apartment again. We sat in the same places as the week before.  Luchino looked up from my catalogue, and asked, “What about Saturday night?”
“No dreams,” I said. 
“Interesting, and would you call any of these nightmares?”
“Dreams and nightmares are the same to me.  Neither one scares or excites me more than the other.”
“That’s good.”
“So, what do they mean?”
“Nothing.  Dreams don’t mean anything.  They are simply projections of our lived reality.  Sure, they may indicate stress or a sexual longing, but anything else is guesswork.”
“What? So why am I here?”
Luchino grinned.  “To be in charge of your dreams, to live inside them.  That way you will better understand your own reality.  I needed to see whether you could conjure dreams without distraction, and you can, well done.  You have passed.”
“What now?”
“Follow me.”  Luchino sat up and wobbled his small frame towards a door at the other end of the room.  He went into his pockets for a set of keys as I hovered behind him.  Through the door was a room with a single white light in the centre, showing a beach lounge chair (the kind with no back support), that sat on a patch of artificial grass.  There was a great deal of space around the chair, but it was too dark to see what lingered in the blackness.  Luchino instructed me to lay down on the chair, and it took me a couple of wriggles to get to a position where I would be able to get up again.  In the darkness, I heard Luchino mixing together liquid, hearing the trickles, then he emerged and placed a wet towel over my forehead.  “It will take a while for the medicine to seep through,” Luchino said.  “I suggest that you get comfortable.”

I was there before I knew it.  An emptiness, but with a foundation.  My feet were touching something.  “Can you see me?” Luchino asked.
“No,” I said, not sure if I had actually said anything.  Then he appeared, not in my eyeline, but somewhere else.  “Wait, I can see you.  Or I can feel that I can see you.” Luchino’s face suddenly engulfed my entire imagination, and his voice echoed across my body: Take a walk down from reality and into the realm of dreams.  I fell downwards through viscous lava.  It temporarily burned my skin.  I fell further, this time through stacks of papers, and they crumpled into balls and down my throat, thousands of them forcing themselves into my intestines.  I couldn’t breathe.  Then I landed with an empty stomach onto a hard surface.  “What’s happening?” I asked, again unable to hear myself. 
“You have reached the Lost Base.  The in between of awake and asleep.”
“The medicine.  It will give you an illusionary control over your dreams, but we must wait for them to arrive.”  Meditative silence in the Lost Base is a comfortable sensation.  In truth, I had no idea where I was, whether I was still in the lounge chair, or if Luchino was rifling through my pockets looking for something to steal, or he had killed me, and this was the afterlife.  But I was comfortable.  The infrastructures of my dreams began to appear on the horizon, sprouting like tentacles of black smoke.  Luchino’s face was neither above nor below them, it was situated like a photograph overlayed onto another, transparent and constantly present, as was his voice, which replaced my own inner monologue.  I was a vessel.  Luchino spoke, or thought, these words: You have to learn to fight me away.  Imagine you are in a nightmare and you are trying to wake up, trying to call out for your mother for it to stop.  Confront me and take control. 

And so, I did.  I pushed back and wrestled with Luchino’s dominance over my mind.  At first, I couldn’t move, but as I centred my emotion on Luchino’s floating spectre, the figures of the dream took shape.  They were abstract, faceless people and tall buildings emitting gas, an ocean of water flowing through them with boats riding the tides.  I walked through them, and I was euphoric.  I could feel my left leg going with me, then my right, then I could hear my own voice inside my head.  What did I want to see?  Swimming through the flooding waters I emerged to a room of people clapping, and I turned around to see a photograph that I had taken long ago.  It was a self-portrait, the camera rested on my stomach pointed towards a mirror in a clothing store.  The background was blurred, and I rubbed the photographs with my hands trying to focus the image with my mind, but my hand began to wipe the dream away.  Like steam on a mirror evaporating, the emptiness took the tangible’s place, and gradually I woke up, back to Luchino.  I rolled over to my side on the lounge chair, away from Luchino, blinded by the light.  “That’s it,” he said.  “Take your time.  You got a long way for your first journey.”  I writhed around in the chair, stretching my muscles, trying to feel more awake and alive. 
“The photograph,” I said, still facing away from Luchino.  “Could you see it?”
“I could see everything.”
“I’m not sure whether I’ve already taken that photograph, or if I’m going to take it.”
“The dreamworld is not prophetic.  Your ego is the driving force of your mental burdens.  Tell me, why can’t you take photos of other people?”
“They repulse me.  Something alive in my work is an unpicked scab, a blemish.”
“And do your palms ever itch?”
I sat up and looked at Luchino.  He was sweating.  “I have to go back to wherever I just was,” I said.
“In time,” Luchino said.  “In time.”

The following week I returned to Luchino’s apartment with a set of goals, all of which I never achieved.  Our session was a step back.  From the Lost Base I could only see the dream figures in the distance before waking up.  The week after that was the same.  Then I began to move laterally, to the alleyways of the figures, and I spoke to old friends and my parents, and teachers, and ex-girlfriends.  It was useless, all I wanted was the photograph.  After each session Luchino would preach his philosophical arguments to me, that my ego was the obstacle, that I needed to connect truly to another human being, that the past was irrelevant.  He was, and still is, naïve and wrong.  The quest for artistic perfection extends far greater than those menial plunders, and so our battles got bloodier in the Lost Base, both of us entrenched in our ideologies.  This went on for months, or was it years?  It could feel like days passing in the realm of dreams.  I would wake up in my apartment thinking I was awake, but really, I was in the lounge chair at Luchino’s navigating across coastlines of the asleep.  To aid my mission, I drew outlines, a blueprint of what the photograph could be, and showed them to Luchino.  He inspected them with a sense of intrigue, seeing me as a psychiatric case that one day he could write about.  I got there first, Luchino.  My memories refused to return, and the distance between all matter expanded away from my fingertips.

Luchino’s arrest happened whilst the towel was on my forehead.  I was making a breakthrough, managing to seat myself in the auditorium that was clapping my work, somewhere in the back squeezed between two rolling film cameras.  Then I heard shouting, and I awoke in a hospital.  I called out Luchino’s name to see if he was in my mind, and I was asleep, but there was no response.  The police interrogated me as I hung from an IV drip.  I told them the complete truth, and they said I was not liable for charges under clause 17 of the Dangerous Experiment Act of 1998, which reads: The person under the Dangerous Experiment is not liable for charges, as long as they were not profiting financially from the Dangerous Experiment.  The fact that I had never even paid Luchino for the sessions gave the two police officers a hearty laugh.  I even chuckled myself.  Luchino was sentenced to two lifetimes of imprisonment (they quadrupled his sentence because he was buying his house plants on the black market from terrorists) and I haven’t seen him since.  The only connection that remains between us is this watch on my wrist.  I trust it now, and its grip is getting tighter, strangling the blood from my hand, enflaming my ageing palms.  And so here I am, basically homeless, but not really, typing into a computer trying to feel something.  I have been strolling down the roads of this town, tracing the steps of where the dreams with Luchino took me as I proceed from pavement to pavement.  With extreme vigour, I have researched whatever concoction Luchino put into that towel that sent me to the Lost Base and discovered nothing.  The police wouldn’t tell me a thing, and I assume they think I’m utterly insane.  I have stopped dreaming too.  My sleep is completely blank.  It’s like I have tasted all the good food in the world, exhausted every drop of emotion, danced to every great song.  This does not mean that the pursuit is over.  I have several plans that will allow me to see the photograph again.  I must scan the events of my life until I find the moment that I took the shot, I must dream again, I must dream of the future, and I must reach out to another practitioner of Luchino’s methods. Who gave me his number again?  If only I could remember. 

From the House of Thorn

Found in the clerical office in the Meeting Place

We grow our food here. Potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, and beans. They grow in the greenhouse by the water fountain, and in the garden at the end of the green path. I live on the other side. We grow more vegetables than those listed, and further details can be found in Catalogue B in the bottom filing cabinet. I was told to be selective. Eating meat is an option if you can wrangle it through the gates, but most of the residents are vegetarian, some vegan. We keep chickens for eggs, and they die of old age. I say we because Thorn is to be shared. Food is given to those who want it, and there are never shortages, thanks to a lack of wanting and the mathematical precision of the bookkeeping. Our days are quiet and uneventful, that’s why disruptions are so alarming. Eric appeared in the greenhouse glass in Winter, a year after Alice left the community. His figure was nothing more than a grey silhouette, the first time, nothing more than a floating entity fogging the glass. I saw him briefly, as I took a short cut through the greenhouse carrying Brussel Sprouts and a leather-bound book. It was a novel, called A Thousand-Year-Old Vampire. I have come back to the greenhouse to see Eric again.

Yesterday marked two years since I achieved residency, two years since Alice and I walked through the gates together. I’ve been dreaming about her, and they are not polite dreams. They are tormented nights of constructed arguments and pleas for forgiveness. I wake up sweating. We came to Thorn on a promise – the promise of tranquillity, and abandonment from the outside world. An autonomous, socialist structure, without an economy, elections, or levels of achievement. Everyone in Thorn is grateful for good deeds, but no rewards or plaudits will come.  This does not remove the ego, rather, it leaves the ego without a home. I’m afraid I am being reductive, surely you have heard of our paradise here? We are on the coast, the sea breeze welcome in the Summer and biting in the Winter. It is the perfect amount of cold, often a knitted jumper and a shirt jacket are enough, often the sun is shining but you can still feel a chill, often you can see mist when you breathe, often a mug of coffee warms your hands, often the sky is strikingly blue. Summer, well, summer is hard to imagine right now. The town is a collection of wooden lodges that sporadically circle the meeting place – a stone building with frontal pillars and a triangle roof.  Between the lodges are tall trees and coloured paths that intertwine gently to a final point deeper into the woodland to the House of Thorn, our holy site.  

On arrival, you are given a duty to be carried out in your own time. The design of Thorn is for meditation, not busywork, for reading and sitting, for painting and silence, for walking and talking. Those who complete their jobs quickly are known as Bees, and those who complete them slowly are known as Cats. I was a member of the Bee category for a long time, whilst Alice was still here. They gave me Letter duty, which entailed keeping records on all the residents, logging basic needs requirements (food and drink, etc), and ensuring light contact between Thorn and the official government. When I was seen to have Bee-like qualities, I was given the extra duty to chronicle Thorn with rudimentary descriptions of events, crop growths, and obituaries, but I have neglected this practice for some time. Alice was tasked to the garden, and almost every evening I would walk from the clerical office in the Meeting Place, down the green path to walk home with her. I remember the smell of soil and her red cheeks as she closed the greenhouse door behind her. A smile or frown depended on the day, depended on the health of the plants, whether Alice had thought of her mother and her past life, whether she had forgotten the mistakes I had made. We wrote our application together. Alice was always better at those sorts of things, she knew how to express herself, she knew what her best qualities were. I’m still not sure that I have any. The application to achieve residency at Thorn is supposed to be an extension of your breath, you must write your major life events as though you’ve just dropped them all over the floor. Alice was good at understanding where I came from. It was my idea to leave common society for Thorn, but it was Alice that got us there.  

The dream of Eric came after his first appearance in the glass. I was on a busy street in a hot country, barging past mounds of people late for an appointment or a class. There was a police incident in the road, holding back the waves of the crowd, and I pushed through determined to be on time. I came to an elongated building, that once inside, stretched forwards into a black abyss, narrowing and broken up by a series of checkpoints. Each point had an electric gate, and a guard with the face of Eric, who said nothing. I passed through each checkpoint after Eric gave me a full assessment with his eyes, until finally coming to an open space, a skateboard appeared under my feet, and I rolled further into the abyss as floodlights lit above my head. Eric’s films were a massive part of my identity before Thorn. His stories of love, religion, and betrayal were key to my understanding of the artistic transcending around us, that are existences have no stakes beyond heartbreak, loneliness, and sexual desire. There are no film screenings in Thorn. Eric’s arrival cast a long mysterious shadow over my wellbeing.  

Alice was a Cat, not lazy, but leisurely. She could endure silence, sitting on the sandy bank beside the marram grass facing the sea, the wind brushing against her. I couldn’t reach her when she was in this state, she was somewhere else, and my worry that she would stumble over the cliff edge would be lost in the weather. On most days Alice would be in the garden, or greenhouse, reading books on plants, animals, ancient history or art, tending to the crops when the inspiration came to her.  She received a package from the outside once, a novel. It was A Thousand-Year-Old Vampire, and quickly it was gifted to me, Alice had no interest in fiction, she couldn’t see the point in it. I still don’t know who gave her that book. The novel charts the life of Jean, a peasant in Northern France in the 12th century who is transformed into a vampire by a jealous teacher, then out of sexual rage turns his lover into a vampire too. They become mortal enemies, as Jean travels through centuries and cities, becoming a slave for witches, murdering innocents, falling in love again, and again, fighting in wars. I haven’t gotten to the end yet.  

Alice was gone on a Sunday morning, my hand feeling the cold of her place in the bed. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night thinking she is in the room with me, but my hands feel nothing but air. I was advised by the other residents of Thorn to make only a single enquiry into her whereabouts, in the form of an outward phone call to her parents. They did not answer. It was to leave the community behind and look for her, or scan the bottom of the cliffs, or try to ascend in the House of Thorn. I took to my duty, and took to my writing, degrading slowly into a Cat, washing my memory away. Then Eric arrived in the glass, and I dreamt. I could feel his presence on me, his haunting, the ghost on my back. He appeared in the corner of my eye when I entered a room, flickering across my retina, pushing anxiety into my stomach, then he would appear on the horizon out over the ocean wandering amongst the clouds. This continued for some time. I wrote him a letter in agony, it read: Eric, the new film is mesmerising. The colouring of the scenes is quite astounding, almost shocking. It’s a nice surprise. Don’t get me wrong your interiors have looked stunning in the past, but with the new film, it’s like a fresh style is falling out of your gut. 

Has romance really treated you that badly? I can’t say that I’ve had similar experiences, no, not at all, it would be difficult for me to expose myself like that. The parameters of my love can be wrapped tightly with a ribbon. Your characters are so daring, and well, they are attractive, how can one so ugly expect the same kind of treatment. I think you would be described as ugly, now that you are old, now that your thinness is seen as frailty and not beauty.  But you have your new film, you have a scene of white sailboats gliding over blue water, of elegantly painted doors, of invented couples walking through parks. This twilight creative expression is something to take with you into the afterlife, if you believe in that, or if you believe that art will be remembered, you have that too. I’m not entirely sure that 35mm print will survive a supernova. Anyway, I’m losing a minute of sleep each night, and by the time I’m your age I will not get any sleep at all, unless the worst is reversed.  Is it raining where you are? It never seems to rain in your films.  

I received no reply, and I have waited long enough. Today, I came back to the greenhouse and sat as Alice sat. Somewhere between asleep and awake, Eric’s face appeared in the glass. His face is tired, and droopy, like the face of a preacher who has lost his faith, like the face of a mother disliked by her children. I’m not sure when he died physically, sometime in the early 2000s, maybe, now he sits with me along curtain rings of the future, hanging over the sunlight.  This appearance is a response to a letter that needed a reply before the calamity of the haunting, before I was watched over. Looming around Eric’s face is a mist, blending white with the greys on his head, floating towards me and wetting my hands with condensation. We’re surrounded by green plants with oval leaves that are growing close to my forearms, tickling. Eric speaks: It will be a tear the size of an extinct star, washing and engulfing over us, as though the earth was a ball plunging into a river.  Physics cannot save you. The ball will drown.  

Eric’s voice is trapped inside me. It hurt when Alice left but the pain is not strong enough to force me away, to send me back to the chaos of the regular world. Thorn was a service to her, the greenhouse and garden locked her in, the water lapping onto the shore was enough medicine to heal her mind. I have a lifetime left to give. This is a long time to be spent in partnership with Eric, and tomorrow I will visit the House of Thorn to rid myself of this parasite. I will write about my visit tomorrow evening. 

An interview with a survivor of Thorn 

We were young and naïve. Not so young that we had not lived, no, we had been educated and we had regrets. I know that I hated most of the choices I had made. We were not like the usual residents of Thorn; I think that’s why we were so well-liked. Iskra was, anyway. She was wonderful with her hands, which meant that she could make things and cook and be of service to the community. That was not the goal of Thorn, but there was an understanding amongst the residents about who was useful and who wasn’t. Most of us didn’t even worship at the House. Iskra did. I think she was praying for a child, which of course was not allowed, but we always dreamed of having a daughter.  In the next life, or in ascendance.  I tried to ascend once; it was laughable. I hadn’t been to the temple since I arrived, and one day I thought I’d give it a go.  It was silly. I wandered around that ghoulish building lighting the fires, then sat cross-legged on the grave of our so-called almighty one and felt nothing.  I sat there until my legs ached.  Nothing. Iskra could have ascended, maybe she did. Before she died, she told me she wanted to stay with me. That made me cry, and it made my choice for me. It’s coming for me any day now. Do I think that fragile girl ascended? Who knows, the journey would have broken her bones anyway. That boy ruined it all in the end, he couldn’t handle her betrayal, or he couldn’t forgive his own betrayal. It doesn’t matter. He pretended to be at peace, pushed the sadness right down to his feet, ready to trip himself up one day. And he did. 

I was a true believer of our community. The religion, I can take it or leave it. My wife is dead, I am childless, what do I care of what awaits me? I have lived long enough, and I lived within the correct proportions of my station. That’s the key. You can be a dreamer, and I was, but you must know the limitations of your life. That’s what Thorn was, an acceptance of what contentment really entails. Try listing them, wealth, power, belongings, sexual gratification, awards. Do any of them beat a blanket? I remember Iskra knitted a blanket for the two of us, it was a remarkable thing. It stretched across the both of us, covered our whole bodies, and we’d wrap it around ourselves in the Winter, sitting on our front porch, watching the walkers go by.  They were always walking, that boy included when she left him. I can’t walk for long these days, but I try and make it to the sea at least once a week.  Perhaps I want to collapse out there.  (He laughs). I would take that ending.  

The decision made by my friends was short-sighted. I see their faces at night, the ones that burned especially. What choice did they have? That ignorant boy, always going on about films. His downfall was not reading the scripture, as us oldies did. One line cost the whole community: At the sight of blood, run into the blossom to seal the wound. I’m glad not everyone took Thorn too seriously, and I’m glad that my wife was already gone. We had our fill, and we escaped the wretchedness of this thing around that us you call society. I was not blind, but I was a servant to Thorn, I cannot deny that. I would choose servitude to the cause over your lies and pretences every time, to the acquirement of a daily routine of removing stress and completing tasks. (He has a severe coughing fit.) One of your other guys asked me if I was happy to be finally free, if there was any relief felt at what the boy did, and I laughed in his face. It was only in Thorn when I was free.  

Extracts from the Independent Thorn Incident Report

The cause of death for 50% of the residents that perished was the burning of their flesh, including the arsonist. The other 50% was drowning. Those that survived have been systematically interviewed, transcripts of the conversations can be found in Appendix 2.

The House of Thorn was set ablaze on March 19th at 12:05am. The fire spread to the entirety of the west side of town, an orange monster in perfect view from the east side. Those away from the flames ran to the sea and leaped off the cliff edge to their death.  Their bodies collected on the beach in a manner that can only be described as a collection of plastic on a never-ending Pacific shore. 

Walking in Nice

Without a doubt, a proverb, an utterly pathetic excuse for a starting place, a desperate beginning to trample over that flashing black line that is glaring back at me.  I’m hesitant to call them conversations or encounters or details in a life that has been suitably boring since birth, and I’m hesitant to boast them as worthy.  The hope is to be reasonable in the offer, to be kind to the reader, and open to the writer.  What is there to be afraid of?  The emerging mould beneath the left side of my bed?  The inability to pay my rent?  The virus?  The compulsive tendencies of the everyday?  In Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai there is a passage where the protagonist catholic priest bounds his wrists down before he sleeps, and another where a land baron gazes over his fields with a complete feeling of emptiness.  I don’t think the two are connected, but I do take both passages to heart.  And recently I have been trying to recall what I have read, what I have seen, who I have spoken to, what I have experienced, to take stock of the statistics of an existence that is constantly blurred by mental time travelling, and inadequacy.  These rough lines are interrupted by brief moments of levity, pretention, and a hypocrisy that I’m attempting to stray away from, the sense that enjoying something is bad or embarrassing, or expressing emotion is weak, or repulsive.  And it is all internal.  Above my head is a measly chandelier carrying three hanging lights from a tall white ceiling.  Behind my head is a window that is fronted by a decaying green plant, and a loose string to pull down the blinds, which have an annoying gap just where the sun rises every day.  Outside is a rectangular yard with low perimeter walls, that is gated by a garage door that cannot be locked, shadowed by a group of trainers hung over telephone wires gently wobbling in the wind.  Even higher than the laces are trees, trimmed back and drooping over the cemetery wall from their roots, their veiny undergrowth undoubtedly weaving around and bumping into rotting corpses, or more likely fragments of bones.  This view is a new one.  It comes after an extended period of being at the family home, after a melodramatic exit from the South of France where the interiors were darker and gloomy, but the exteriors much brighter and thrilling.  The memory of living in a different country is like a dream, or the kind of nightmare that feels terrifying, but in reality, the situation is not plausible.  I’m on the other side this time, where the houses blend from favela brown to old structures guarded by paths and gardens and degrees and professionalism.  Those that wander the area are tall boys with floppy hair and a passive look in their eyes, side by side with pretty girls with blonde hair and thin waists.  To be the eagle eye of social status, and metro stations, I think of an American class system of a credit score that fluctuates when Christmas passes, and you lose three points because you have not paid back your student loan yet.

Recollecting, in France, I am wearing black sports shorts with a champion logo that sit well above my knees, matching the colour of the hairs on my legs.  Then it is ankle socks and dirty white trainers, and I suppose a t-shirt and an incredibly cheap digital watch.  There are probably sunglasses too, and occasionally earphones to block out the shame of a fumbled French conversation, but often I like to hear the sea.  The song is No Cure by Zoe’s Shanghai or Le Metro et le Bus by Lewis OfMan, I’m not sure, it depends on the season and the mood, two variables that come hand in hand.  I’m reading Franny and Zooey by Salinger and it’s sad.  Here, it’s grey joggers with the same trainers, and currently a knitted jumper and a green cap, glasses for vision too.  The song is Dry the Rain by the Beta Band, and the book is a collection of Alice Munro stories about middle-aged women despising their gluttonous husbands and their sudden wide hips.  It’s hard to relate to but there is some delight found in the prose.  The sun can shine in both places and in both places my mind ticks over without breaks from the moment I check the weather app in the morning.  Cloudy, trousers.  Raining, waterproof.   The decisions in a late Riviera summer are much simpler.  I arrived in Nice in September of last year brutally unprepared and brutally naïve.  The apartment I lived in had an extortionate rent and was owned by a French woman in her sixties, married to an American man a little older than her, who did most of the talking, though in all honesty his accent was tougher to understand than hers.  It’s a studio on Boulevard Victor Hugo, three streets away from the promenade and that idiosyncratic pebbly beach, sandwiched between a bourgeois restaurant and the Portuguese embassy.  The building reaches to about eight floors, and the apartment was on the second, one turn around a set of concrete stairs.  It essentially has three tiny rooms, where the only door other than the front one is to the bathroom attached to the kitchen, which features an oven, a stove, a fridge, and a beautiful coffee maker.  The kitchen leads into a living space with a sofa bed, a box tv, and a dining table that can be pulled out to seat four.  Above the living room is a mezzanine level reached to via a creaky ladder that somehow houses a double bed, a chest of drawers, and a desk in a space about the size of a car boot.  I spent a lot of time in this apartment, and I was never uncomfortable in its claustrophobic size.  Two tall windows in the kitchen and living room looked out onto a private garden, and a large tree that was constantly cluttered with hundreds of singing birds.  This was an annoying sound on a couple of occasions.  Once the landlords had given me the keys, they introduced me to their other tenant upstairs, who I didn’t see again for the rest of the year. 

I’m not sure I can compare that apartment to my current living arrangements.  I loved that place, I loved the coffee maker, the short walk to the beach, the privacy, but the loneliness and dankness was remarkable.  It got extremely cold in there, thanks to the sun facing the other way, and it was easy to get trapped inside, warped in a twisted agoraphobic depression.  Here, I have flatmates.  And here, I can buy bread without worrying about saying all the words wrong.  What to include?  I could talk about my weekly laundrette trips, on Fridays, when I knew a machine would be available because it was the day the homeless guys washed their sleeping bags.  They kept to themselves and hardly ever said anything to me, and at the start of the year when I had money, I gave them the odd fiver.  This was not sustainable, especially after doing my laundry became a luxury expense for me too.  What not to include?  A world-shattering break-up, perhaps, or a pestering Canadian neighbour, or the stories of a misogynistic Algerian classmate?  This seems relevant to my wellbeing but not to my writing.  I’m always fascinated by the lack of personal information in travel accounts, and it’s hard to separate a precise located experience from being gloomy about my ex-girlfriend the whole time.  Yes mate, this pizza is great, yes, this jazz band is fun, yes, I do fancy you, yes its 29 degrees in March, yes, I’m actually speaking French to a French person and they understand, but do you think she misses me at all?

Some notes on the surrounding areas of Nice.  Firstly, Menton, the last town of France before Italy, a sort of town of two sides: one being a crummy tourist spot that has a central high street that looks like it could be in Leeds, and the other side a medieval beauty of pastel coloured houses, and an elongated sandy beach with shallow waters under a mountainside that rounds in two moulds, intersected by the coastal railway.  Secondly, Antibes, pronounced ‘ON-TEEB’, a small town a couple of train stops west of Nice, that is desolate and dirty in the winter, but has an English language bookshop.  Thirdly, Cannes, further on from Antibes, and of course the home to the exclusive film festival, and a row of boutique stores that could sell one item a week and stay in business.  The best way to discover the charm of Cannes, is to go right from the train station to the old town, where you can walk up a hill road past cute restaurants that have pictures of Brad Pitt in the window BECAUSE HE ATE THERE ONCE, YOU KNOW.  Finally, Monaco, a city-state guarded by skyscrapers that have the appearance from a distance of growing like plants from the foundation to the peaks of the mountains that enclave the town.  It’s a miserable place out of season, the impressive buildings going grey without sunlight, and everywhere is closed except during specific lunch hours. 

Nice is the relatively big city in the middle of these coastal settlements, separated into rough outlined districts that are blended through an abstract T shape of the main shopping street bisecting the beach road.  Elevating into a hillside from the ocean, the streets and buildings rise up into green humps, in a sort of messy Hollywood hills way.  It’s not nearly as glamorous as that, especially when you cascade down into the higher density areas, away from the villas into the apartment buildings of even heights, creating a peculiar skyline of flatness.  This living style is one of the great ideals of Mediterranean culture – apartments with balcony’s leaning over narrow streets glaring pink from a seemingly everlasting sunlight, casting shadows over parked cars, which in summer are on top of one another, blocking green lights and pedestrians.  For the majority of the time I was in Nice, it was Autumn, meaning intense and sometimes terrifying rainfall, and then it was the Winter, meaning deceivingly cold days and unneeded French scarves.  I found it funny, the parkas and the woolly hats when the weather could be described as moderate, but when it is seldom cold, when are you really going to start dressing? It is perhaps a gross misconception that the French are fashionable, they are certainly about a decade behind most trends in the south and prefer the outlandish rather than the sublime.  Who am I kidding?  The nature of Nice, and France, the people, the attitudes is misrepresented in my mind, thanks to dreading the thought of going to that awful university on the side of a mountain, and this nagging pressure that I was wasting my time there.  I’m trying to remember what enchanted me about the place.  The university was not all bad.  I took classes alongside French students who were specialising in English studies, such as British history, and American popular culture.  My other classes included an array of translation courses, usually taken with other students from abroad, who I had an inferiority complex with because they spoke French and I didn’t.  They probably thought about me a lot less than I thought about them.  I wrote essays on Edgar Allan Poe, John Milton translations, and Shakespeare, in a crash course of English literature, having an unfair advantage because I was born in the god forsaken land.  And I took exams on 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the civil rights movement, which was all stimulating enough.  The problem with the university was that it needed a makeover, having the appearance of a high school in Thatcher’s Britain, and logistically it was a shambles.  Nevertheless, I was in three days a week, and often took liberties with my attendance to give myself time for more misery, more reading and more writing.  Mostly misery. 

In periods of extreme isolation, I would walk.  I trekked to the university, not far, but a right turn away from everything sweet in Nice into inner city surroundings, the destination a sweaty summit after a brutal incline.  I walked to the beach, very close, and rented a bike to ride all the way down the promenade and back.  It’s a concrete slab heavily populated with dog walkers, skateboarders, and runners with their shirts off, fronted by the pebble beach covered in the Nicois sunbathing on the uncomfortable ground.  The beach is much less grotesque than it comes across, the stones are fine to rest on, and the sea is lovely.  There is a surprising step into the water from the rocks, but the turquoise colour of the water is a soothing touch to corrupted thoughts, and at night, the waves lap in black and white over an endless chill.  It’s something.  One evening, a friend and I bought the highest percentage beer from an off-licence, it was rotten, and drank it on the beach, watching the puddles of froth appear like cigarette smoke in a noir movie.  The images are a memory.  I walked to the Old Town daily, Nice’s crowning statement of tourism, narrow streets tightly cornered by decaying buildings, squeezing alleyways like a cat strangling a bird.  There are people everywhere, wandering around with their heads and phone cameras up, cackling in American accents about THE MAGIC OF THE PLACE.  The magic of repetitive restaurants and tacky gift stores, all in the guise of authenticity to woo the visitor.  Wait until the season is over, and the streets are empty after 7pm, then the old town shines.  Temporary art stores emerge, as do the vendors that survive the lack of tourism, and the cute bars owned by optimistic young men, and finally you can see what all the fuss is about.  You can see the pretty architecture the chubby hands were snapping at, and you can enjoy Nice’s own distinct nightlife.  Three bars captured our attention the most.  First, a jazz bar, in the centre of Vieux Nice, that had a rolling cycle of bands that played between hip-hop and soul, and they were good.  The drinks were expensive, and the toilets were haunting, but the music was good.  Second, a French pub in English style, with cheaper drinks, and a karaoke night, and a vibe of IT’S ALRIGHT, IT MIGHT NEVER HAPPEN.  Third, was a two-floor bar that required a knock to get in.  Once you were approved by the forever smiling owner, you entered to see a dingy upstairs bar with little prospect, but if you followed the stairs down, you would find a narrow basement bar filled with people genuinely dancing.  On offer would be the same songs every night and a shot that burnt your insides.  Despite the occasionally sweeping dream of joy in the company I was with, I hated it in there.  The best walk was the hike from the edge of Nice to the neighbouring small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, that took you across the coastline.  It hugged the cliff-side, starting on a rock face that protruded out onto the ocean, housing fisherman, and locals looking for a secluded place away from the tourists.  Then the path weaved around the coast, through bushes that face the wetness of the shore, over jags in the earth and former gun battlements.  Out of Nice, halfway through the walk, leisure yachts drift past you on the water, the captains giving a peculiar nod as they float by.  I completed the hike several times, not for Villefranche-sur-Mer, it’s a nothing place, but for the view at the end of the path.   Perched on a collection of yellow boulders, with water running between the gaps below, I scanned the scene of a sea inlet gated by mountains and luxury villas, dotted with boats in the marina, silent and unmoved.  I liked it there. 

What else do I remember?  There was an attempted mugging, that failed, because they jumped me on a busy street and got shy, realising the amount of witnesses.  There was the food, notably the pizzas, either a perfect Neapolitan from a place in the old town called Acqua e Farina, or a takeaway slice that could be eaten on the steps of the cathedral, drawing in the odd homeless man for a chat.  And the croissants, exquisite yet cliched, from a bakery with a pink sign two streets down from the apartment.  Then there were the two pilgrimages to the Henri Matisse museum north of town, past the homes with backdoor swimming pools, and beside a hotel that looks like The Overlook, the museum the main attraction of a culture centre that consists of a park, a café, and a site of Roman ruins.  It’s free for students, and worth the aching legs, Matisse’s work lovingly exhibited on white corridors and several levels.  THE CINEMAS.  There was one across the street from the apartment, theatre style, with red cushioned seats and curtains over the screens.  Each ticket was bought with courage in language ability, and each film an insight into title changes and translation.  A Hidden Life was Une Vie Cachee, and Little Women was Les Filles du Docteur March.  The summer was the end goal, the yearning and the dreariness of a retirement town purged by American agitators was an obstacle to overcome, but there would be no reward.  It has taken a while to come to terms with peaking around the door at living in that place, seeing the planes glide over the ocean, hearing the cannon shot at twelve every day, tackling the annoyances of French grocery stores.  And simmering over lost conversations with honest people, cursing my inability to grasp onto something whilst it’s happening. 

That was somewhere else, without a pandemic and without any direction.  Here, restrictions increase sentimental order, chaos found outside of the bubble.  The photographs of Nice above my desk are from a week spent there in the July before I moved into the apartment.  One of them is a shot of the main square, checkerboard flooring, lamppost sculptures and a fountain, shaded in stark contrasts of blue and pink.  This area divides the old town from the new, the bookstore and the clothing retail, the clay and the steel, the single and the relationship.  I see the shreds of an unreal scenario before me and publish this statement into a resolute heap of a wasted morning. 

Franz and Loura

I wish that I was Franz.  He is tall and has an angular face and a lean body and a haircut that is synchronised with the shape of his head.  His arms reflect those of a working man, broad and capable.  He spends time with his grandmother and has friends who respect him, and a wife who loves him.  Loura.  I wish that I was married to Loura.  She has a beautiful face that is plain.  She wears the same clothes every day and you cannot tell from her voice where she is from.  When she kisses Franz, it is always a surprise.  It is like an explosion across a river where the vibrations are felt seconds later.  Franz and Loura turn heads.  They are adored by the elder statesmen of their family and placed upon a pedestal by their niece and nephews.  At Christmas, during annoying parlour games, Franz and Loura are an unbeatable couple.  People are not jealous of them.  Their home is in the hills and they live off the land, sowing fields and collecting chicken eggs.  When Loura’s sister was sick, Franz invited her to live with them until she got better.  They are planning to have children soon.  Loura’s pregnancy will be a graceful one, and their children will not scream in public.

Franz is the kind of man who hugs a friend when their father dies.  He gives good advice and lets other people get on with their business.  In the morning he stretches, then makes a coffee for his wife.  He does not drink coffee.  His one anxiety is a fox coming to kill his chickens in the night.  He does not meditate but is happy to sit doing nothing.  Sometimes he loses track of time, and Loura has to remind him of an appointment he has made.  Since meeting Loura, Franz has not been late for anything.  They met in a beer garden.  It was a warm spring day when Franz accidentally poured his beer over Loura.  She took the glass from him and finished the drink.  They share an ability to never be drunk.  Loura will never be bored of him, but she can see that his skin is beginning to itch, and so her encouragement is becoming persistent.  You need to make the home proper, by abandoning it, she says in a language that only the two of them understand.

It is winter and I am watching them, and my feet are cold.  I am not sure they know of my existence, nor their existence.  Franz and Loura live amongst the clouds, up and away from the village in a wooden house that hangs off the edge of a severe incline.  A path leads you there.  They take every precaution to make sure their home never burns down, and Loura keeps the path from getting too overgrown with weeds.  Franz tells her to let the weeds grow.  He is going away soon.  I cannot remember the name of their closest neighbour, but he is a friend to them.  He gives them flour from his flourmill.  It is operated by a water mill, that is attached to open funnels that trickle along the weedy path.  They have no worries that soiled water will contaminate the flour.  I am worried for them.  The parasites are so small, and the grains so big.  Loura’s sister has died and she is grieving quietly.  Franz read a poem at the funeral service that was well-received by all.  The church pastor tells them they are welcome into his castle anytime for an unloading of secrets.  Franz is grateful.

The mourning of Loura’s sister has extended on longer than expected.  She was not the favourite sister.  People in the village must be upset because of Loura’s sadness.  She is not talking as much as usual and has stopped visiting the flourmill.  Franz delays his exit, and Loura falls pregnant.  The child is born at home, and the grief within the walls fades away.  I have little interest in their children.  They have their second and third almost immediately after.  Franz comes to me with a broken watch, and I cannot fix it.  His trip is scheduled soon, and it is set in stone.  Before leaving he visits the church pastor.  He goes in the night without saying goodbye.

This is my chance.  I have kept my eye on this marriage for a long time.  The problem I am having has something to do with my own sentience.  If I can just achieve a state of mind where I am aware of the breath leaving my mouth, I can reach the heights of Franz and Loura.  The man of the house will return with a treasure to place on the mantlepiece of a burned down home.  It will make him stronger.  In his absence, Loura has taken to tending to the farm alone.  The children have grown so much and are able to help her.  She rarely thinks of her sister.  Her mind is occupied with Franz’s deep-sea adventures on the other side of the world.  His wetsuit is as tight as her apron, in the realm of dreams.  I want to see him dive eternally, an endless mirror falling into the abyss.  The town misses him too.  He is the glue that brings his friends together, and their conversation now moves slowly in the biergarten.  The pastor has taken to drinking with them, even passing on the wine.

Be honest, the watch will not fix itself.  One hand, then the other.  With concentration, perhaps I can make the clock turn backwards.  Loura has received a letter from a tropic address, signed by Franz.  She is not convinced it is from him, there are inconsistencies in his prose.  The camera keeps cutting away from the main themes.  His handwriting looks under duress, like bullets are whizzing past the fat that rests between his index finger and his thumb, grazing whips of a red along his now tanned skin.  Loura reminds herself of the blue sky, and I remind myself of the truth.  Loura is not her name, but simply the one I gave her.  She is an actor, a poser, an evaporating oil in a scorching hot pan.  Franz does not know.  I should be the one to tell him.  The train station would be a tremendous ambush location.  Or a leap from the trees as he races down the dirt road on his bike.

I am edging closer.  Franz is searching deep under the sea for something.  To complete a contract, to capture a lost piece of history.  I wish I had the bravery for that.  My cowardice has no boundaries.  Loura receives a visit from the pastor, and she hates the way that his nose moves when he talks.  It crinkles from side to side, like puppet strings yanking at the corners of his mouth.  He is dripping saliva onto their lovely wooden kitchen floor.  Loura is polite and offers the pastor more tea.  He refuses but asks if he may use the bathroom.  More fluid on the bathroom floor then.  Loura and I share a thought together, unbeknownst to the two of us, a thought of the pastor slowly decaying from an illness caused by an empty church.  Franz is the only true believer.  I cannot commit myself to a belief right now.  The pastor leaves a trail of slime behind him as he goes.

Communication had a simple life in those months.  The days hardly passed one another, without bookends every twenty-four hours.  I retreated.  Franz’s bike assaulted the dust on the road when he returned.  He appears at the end of the path, and Loura hears his feet on the ground.  She leaped on him when he got to the house, knocking them both to the grassy hill, with an all-time surprise embrace.  They elongated their kiss, until Franz, out of breath and flushed, asked Loura where the kids were.  Inside, she said.  One of the three children was not present in the dining room, but that didn’t seem to bother them.  Franz showed them the treasure.  An invaluable golden bear was in his hands, then an invaluable golden bear was on the table.  It is ugly and gold.  I hope it is not flammable.  Loura cannot let go of Franz.  She is putting her arms into any gap that she can find.

The fictional Loura continues to disguise herself well.  Franz still thinks that she is real.  He goes back to work on the farm, and he sees his friends and the pastor.  There is no change inside him.  Both Franz and Loura have not realised that one of their children is missing.  They are preoccupied with the position of the golden bear in the house.  It is moved to above the fireplace.  It is moved to the foot of their bed.  It is moved to the window above the sink.  The pastor requests that the golden bear be donated to the church, and Loura denies that request before Franz can agree to it.  It is quite an embarrassing few minutes.  There is some tension when Franz comes back to me to collect his watch.  I have forgotten all about it.  It is made even stranger by the fact that he cannot see me and that I am not there.  He is standing in the shop mumbling to himself, shaking the watch in his hand.  This is the first time I have seen him weak, but I cannot see him either.  I am worried about my ability to save him from the great pretender that is his wife.  The conflict is dwindling because she is a mighty fine actor.  Five stars across the board in that department.  There must be a way to buy petrol without blood in my veins.

In the village a summer festival is ongoing.  Franz and Loura are not in attendance, instead they are trying to catch raindrops from the clouds as they stand on their roof.  The festival has joy and justice for anyone who brought an overcooked cake.  Loura’s pastries are always baked to perfection, she could have at least rolled one down the path to the buffet table.  For the first time in a while, I remembered that I cannot taste food.  I am mentally pouring salt down my throat.  Nothing.  The festival lasts for nine days and Franz and Loura are on their roof for the entirety of the nine days.  They have collected enough water to boil a rain soup.  During their hand waving to the god’s escapades, another one of their children has wandered off, presumably to join their sibling in a world with fewer insecurities.  The man from the flourmill is coming down the path.  He is knocking on the door.  He is welcomed inside but is dismissed quickly when Franz mistakes him for a charity worker.

Months that morph into years pass with only one child left in the house.  The golden bear has been moved around again, and can often be found in the large front pocket of Loura’s apron.  Franz cannot lift anything up anymore.  He has completely lost the skill of picking up.  His arms tense up and he drops whatever item he was trying to carry.  There are shards of material on the floor of the house.  I have given up watch fixing, and my aspiration to have a beating heart.  All I need now is fuel, oxygen, and heat.  Surely science works for the non-conscious as well.  The final child is leaving, except this one says goodbye.  They even have a farewell party.

The argument has been presented, now for poetry.  Franz and Loura have not seen a single soul for an eternity.  They are wrapped in tin foil on their wooden kitchen floor, with the golden bear looking over them.  Franz has cuts on his cheekbones, and Loura has lost half of her bodyweight.  The pastor was the last person to speak to them.  He told Loura of Franz’ confession, the lurid confess of all-knowing.  Franz knows that Loura’s face is plastic, that she sits across from him shaking because she was put there by a painter, or a film director, or a writer.  He has always known.  Loura’s satisfaction with her station is gratifying to him.  She kisses him on the cheek, and he was ready, and he flinched.  Franz reaches for the box of matches.  My banging on the window is futile.  You cannot hear when there is no sound.  Loura looks away from Franz towards the mantlepiece and sees the dripping yellow of the melting golden bear.


Florence in January

‘No one cares if you like the place, or hate it, or why.  You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species, which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree.’ – Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937)

The people are still here.  Of-course they are.  Even the wet and cold cannot keep the people away.  Are there more Americans than Italians here?  Or are they just louder?  I am surprised to see a subcategory of the American tourist, one different from the bootcut jeans, blonde, slightly overweight group of young women finding their true selves in Europe.  This subcategory falls somewhere between bro, jock and prep school, and they not all strictly male, though mostly.  They are dressed shockingly well and appear to be in town for the beer rather than the culture, which in an American is very odd to see.  I am a hypocrite.  The bells are ringing at 18:40 for some reason, and I am on my second glass of wine.  On the way to the apartment from the train station, I passed through the square where the great black and white cathedral complex sits.  It is a three-dimensional chessboard, and a daunting monolith both night and day.  Whilst straining my neck gazing up at the chunks of dome and rot on white, I contemplated when climate change would take it.  It was a blessing to get this out of the way whilst in motion, rushing past remarkable human achievement to make the check-in time.  The greyness of the sky made the bell tower incredibly ominous in its peering over the amateur photographers beneath it, sickened by the queue waiting to get inside its stomach.  I imagine whatever is inside is worth queuing hours for, but there was no chance I was doing that.  The wine is not great, and I picked it up from tiny supermarket on one of the narrow streets that sits below Piazza del Duomo, and making my way to the apartment I scouted for somewhere to get a pizza later on.  I am in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

The apartment is pleasant enough in its design, with white walls and oak furniture.  It is in the shape of a fork – the left prong a narrow hallway to a square kitchen, the middle prong a small bathroom, and the right prong a spacey bedroom.  The window in the kitchen is at an angle whereby the inside of the apartments across the way are fully visible, which is unsettling rather than alluring.  It is clearly a place for a couple and not a single man.  The wine really is not great, I think I may abandon it, close my laptop, and go for dinner.

I walked to one of the restaurants I noted as a possibility earlier.  It was a cramped place that had no speciality, but it was quiet, affordable and had a welcoming décor.  In my hand I carried The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, which is the ultimate cliché given what I’m writing, but my ego is not too large to not know that very few people deeply inspect the title of the book that you are reading, nor am I under any pretentions that the general reader is aware of the Everest of travel fiction.  The most striking thing about the book is the description Byron puts into everything he sees, with such detail and poetry, however he is documenting the middle east in the 1930s, not a honeypot in the twenty-first century where Assassins Creed and Instagram exists.  There is a sadness to a world uncovered, touched all over, and violated, but it may allow for new avenues of description, such as selfie stick sellers or families wearing surgical masks because of the Coronavirus.  I cannot believe Microsoft Word is not spellchecking that.  It was not only Eastern Asian’s paranoid about air pollution, but whole groups of Europeans, and North Americans looking like they were heading into a seven-hour triple bypass.  When walking past them, fear of not having my own mask would arise for a fleeting moment, then I’d go back to stressing about my usual problems.  It became more concerning when I saw a sales assistant in the Gucci store wearing a branded mask.  Those stores are horrifying enough already.

In the restaurant I was surrounded by some interesting diners.  Ahead of me by the window was a group of four – two slobby bald men with two attractive blonde women ten years younger than them, eastern European, who gave me a few ‘pathetic young man on his own’ looks.  To the left of me was an American couple, the guy keeping his baseball cap on, asking odd questions like: ‘What’s in the Ravioli?’  I wished Tony Soprano was in the restaurant too.  When eating alone, you can drift away into other people’s conversations without them knowing, and usually you are irritated by what you hear.  Though even the thought of hearing back my own conversations makes me want to die.  The pizza was fine, got better as it got cooler, and its best quality was that it cut well under the knife into neat slices.  I made the common mistake, albeit a happy one, of choosing somewhere in an unfamiliar city that looked accommodating and was, more importantly, cheap.  Florence is certainly a town with somewhere to walk after dinner, and I walked a little drunk through a couple of the main centrepieces.  At night these grand attractions are surrounded by far fewer people, and still visible thanks to floodlights attached to the buildings opposite them.  An attractive couple was stood in front of the old chapel of Il Duomo in perfect composition, and I tried to take a photo of them, then they moved, and I awkwardly acted like I was taking a photo of something else.

Travelling alone is a peculiar experience.  I did not feel lonely, but I did crave the ability to share what I was doing with someone.  Having your own routine and schedule is relieving, and there is zero pressure of being bored or going somewhere disappointing.  With no-one to talk to, however, you find yourself thinking a lot, and I probably wrote this thing a thousand times over in my head, and probably massaged a few Wagyu cows of doubt to greater levels of muscle density too.  The Friday night after dinner walk was better than the Saturday night one, because I was more optimistic, there were fewer people and there were a couple of buskers that I spectated that were not terrible.  Food digested, I felt like sleeping.  A couple of doors down from the apartment is a night club, and at four am when it closed, I was woken up by the leaving customers.  In a daze I thought it was the morning and got up.  My watch told me it was four and for a moment I was genuinely lost somewhere.  I went back to sleep.

The beginning of a tour outside the window was my alarm clock around mid-morning.  People interrupting my peace again.  I had decided I would explore the town via bookstores, which in Florence creates a lovely circular route that touches the corners of the city centre.  Some of these bookstores were glorified stationary stores, and one of them was essentially an elderly guy’s office where it was possible that I had walked into an estate agent’s by mistake.  Nestled on an alleyway is a bookstore that has a large collection of English language books, and I picked up a book of Virginia Woolf essays and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  I was satisfied and ended my bookstore route.  The truth is I struggle to get excited about historic landmarks, or museums, and they are always a bit disappointing.  This led to a rather aimless session of wandering.

I have been thinking about why I decided to take this trip.  There does not need to be a reason, but I want one.  Perhaps it is because of the solo trip Greta Gerwig takes to Paris in Frances Ha.  It turns out to be a bit of a depressing catastrophe in the film, and my trip would probably end in the same fashion, at least emotionally, and what will I have learned?  The discovery of a new place is arbitrary if you take nothing away from it, whether that’s good food, an original photo, or whatever.  As of right now, it has solidified a few things in my mind, rather than create new ones.  It is like a twisted form of confirmation bias: yes, I am sad, yes, I am worried, yes, I think sightseeing is basically meaningless, yes, tourists are annoying, yes, pizza.  It could be because I wanted to write something like this, though really the inspiration only came when I got to Florence.  Keeping in constant transit to take your mind off things is a flawed hypothesis and it takes constant activity instead.  Walking around a town alone does not provide this, and on the second day I slipped into a deep melancholy.  Only the destinations of grandeur could save me, which meant going to Piazza Della Signoria, somewhere I frequented as it was a couple of roads down from the apartment.  The Palazzo Vecchio’s clean brownness is less disconcerting than the Duomo.  Its clock, an angel at the top of the tree, shows the wrong time.  At its foundations are a collection of sculptures, men and women alike locked together, statue of David-esque, and a freebie view at some of the heritage of the town.  To truly respect the artistry, I ate a sandwich sat below one, dodging photographers, and shifting my eyes from the square to the palace.  The focaccia and speck did not match with the soft cheese, but I have had lunch in worse places.

Geographical locations rarely let me down and the river in Florence is about the only thing I saw and thought: wow I am glad that I am looking at this.  Naturally, the infamous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is littered with people, but still remains pretty.  The river water is green, and the flow appears artificial, like they are pumping a limited supply of water in from the grassy banks.  It expands through many bridges and does manage to weed out some of the crowds, as the other side of the bridge has to be where the people in the know go, surely.  That’s the thing about Florence, there is no separation, no districts or areas that divide class or age and it is all close in together, which makes it difficult to find the best spots on first arrival.   Resisting the urge to throw myself off one of the bridges, I returned back to the apartment where I wrote most of this, hence the confusing tenses.  Fuck it.  Did David Foster Wallace care?  I mean he hung himself, but in his writing, what rules did he play by?  None of it matters.  There is this Vaccines song called No Hope on their second album Come of Age, and it’s a great tune about being in your early twenties, anxious about where your life is and where it’s going.  I like the song because it has the line ‘I find my life ever so moving,’ indicating a self-awareness of the self-pitying, I’m special my experience means something, that I think about and write about constantly.  It is this built-in romanticism of a chosen one mentality where the whole world is on your shoulders, when really it is not that deep.   I headed back out in the evening because I was thinking too much.  I had done some research on where to get the best pizza and settled on a place not far from the apartment.  It was a buzzier vibe than the restaurant the night before, and a much better pizza.  Eating it, I actually felt like I was enjoying something.

I had a second glass of beer because of my change in mood, and a queue began to form at the door to the restaurant.  A good sign, and a good time to leave, so I finished my drink with a couple of big gulps to free up a table.  It was raining somewhat heavily outside, and there was a deep puddle in the crevice between the path and the road.  My shoes were already filthy.  There is some cover where the market resides in the daytime, and at night it’s illuminated by the fluorescent sign of an H & M, a shop that gives me PTSD.  A presumably homeless painter was sat on a stool in front, taking shelter from the rain, leaning his canvas on a limestone pillar.  I watched him work for a while, then ventured back out into the rain.  These towns full of people continue to puzzle me.  I often wonder if normal people with normal jobs live in these towns.  There must be some – there are universities and offices.  I feel bad for those people.  The florid ideal of living in Florence would soon be crushed by the daunting realisation that the endless stream of tour guides never ends, and only increases year by year.  Florence is effectively a massive outdoor museum.  I did not get a feeling of real life in the town until my six am walk to the train station to leave back to France.  This is where I saw regular dog walkers, and people still faded from the night before.  Until then, it had been an insight into the world of taking a photo of your husband in front of old shit, and I had seen enough of it.  Take me away.

I have an answer as to why I took the trip: It was an exercise of progressing time, progressing moods.  Running scared rather than escaping.  I do not want the power to go back in time and change things, I want the power to go forward in time, to a point of non-dwelling.  What I have to remind myself is to make the time useful.

















1917 – Film Review

Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.   It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen.  The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.

It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer.  That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening.  Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth.  The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of.  And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land.  This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them.  Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.

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The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film.  It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting.  Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water.  It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches.  Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line.  Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie.  This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film.  In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious.  Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act.  Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.

Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers.  This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime.  Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring.  The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it.  George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor.  It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.

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The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness.  It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it.  The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger.  The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not.  Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.

Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.





The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too).