Sick Books – feature from The HU

With insomnia, asthma, a fever of 103, the pox, the shakes – unable to leave the bed, unable to sleep, the TV is migrainous – there’s still a book. Without distractions, the relationship is closer, more intense.

Some books mesh with the reader’s febrile state – maybe not social comedies or measured critiques, but the more uneven the better. Invented language such as those used by Anthony Burgess, Russell Hoban or in Eimear McBride’s Goldsmiths-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing can be initially off-putting after the broadsheets’ standard Reuters-style neutered prose.

‘Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me air. Soon I’n dead I’m sr. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR.’

The fevered mind may be closer to the spirit of McBride’s wayward narrator and her fragmented thought process. Quite apart from the subject echoing our sickness and hypochondriac longing for imminent death, our expectations of formal scene-setting and exposition are undermined by our own sick-room squalor, we’re in there, in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Fever 103°’.

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.

Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.

Or in the rotunda ‘all white in the whiteness’ of Beckett’s ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’: ‘The light that makes all so white no visible source, all shines with the same white shine, ground, wall, vault, bodies, no shadow. Strong heat, surfaces hot but not burning to the touch, bodies sweating.’

The temperature inside goes up and down like the waves of fever, hot and cold, white and dark, until the narrator’s voice is the sound of our own fever humming in the rotunda of our skull.

‘The light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes. At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point, at the same instant that the black is reached, which may seem strange. ’

The shivering of fever is in there, weaving and guttering like a flame as our strength drains away.

A great deal is written about writing – about reading, not so much. It is passive to the writer’s active, with the reader as a spectator to genius, it’s the same for everybody and so not worth talking about. But reading is as solo, as individual as sexuality and no doubt as various. It is a Faustian pact we strike with a writer, a surrender of our critical faculties in the suspension of disbelief and entry into their imaginary world. Illness can undermine our defences, so we go further into the writer’s world on a mission to intensify the experience.

This type of reading is one of moment by moment identification with a voice, not measured appreciation or an overview of a writer’s achievement. But it is much more powerful – writers who have helped us to endure some low point are more likely to have an impact, to stay with us.

It may be more difficult to follow a plot or recall an array of characters, but the transition to the shifting dream logic of modernist or experimental works, such as Renata Adler’s Speedboat or J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition is effortless. The Speedboat carried me through nights of hallucinations with glandular fever, segueing seamlessly from one non sequitur to the next.

Motifs reappear with the instinctive force of art rather than logic, as they do in a night of dream sequences, with variations on a theme; the dreamer is chased by rats, their fingers are trapped in the change slots of cabs, Janis Joplin sings “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” as an earworm we can’t shake. The narrator slip-slides from one detailed yet affectless dream to the next, disconnected from their life.

While every imagination is a disconnect from reality, when this alienation or flight is the subject of the work, illness brings us closer to this separation, a falling away from normal life.

A narrator in drink or drugs, in extremis, then comes into their own. Geoffrey Firmin’s last moments in Under the Volcano, as he loses control of his mind in the final flare of fantasy accompanying his death are akin to the hallucinatory thought processes in a fever spike:

‘It was crumbling too, whatever it was, collapsing, while he was falling, falling into the volcano, he must have climbed it after all, though now there was this noise of foisting lava in his ears, horribly, it was in eruption yet no, it wasn’t the volcano, the world itself was bursting, bursting into black spouts of villages catapulted into space, with himself falling through it all, through the inconceivable pandemonium of a million tanks, through the blazing of ten million burning bodies, falling into a forest, falling–’

In this moment of lucid dreaming, relieved at being shot, he sees all his life hurtling towards this end, his body and mind disintegrating, unable to contain his torment any longer. As the body breaks apart it can contain everything ‘the world itself was bursting’ and the ’10 million burning bodies’.

The suspension of disbelief is easier, the analytical voice demanding to know what the author means is further away – the experience of reading is intensified, aiming at merging with the work rather than ‘literary criticism’. I’ve tried this artificially, listening to CAN, drinking and smoking, so that reading is almost like being at Gerald’s Party. Time seems suspended in the novel, in the way it does to a drunk, and it is still possible to admire Coover’s ability to juggle multiple storylines in one seemingly endless take.

This approach favours apprehension over comprehension, assuming literature can act on the reader’s subconscious as well as conscious mind, as music and the visual arts do. The repetition of sound in mantra or nursery rhyme bypasses consciousness, as does the repetition of motifs and non-linear plot, released from the shackles of realism’s cause and effect.

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Outlasting Horizons
Darran Anderson
[Illustration by Christiana Spens]

Poetry Poetry
Two Poems by Miriam Gamble
Miriam Gamble
Two poems by Miriam Gamble.

Prose Prose
Contemporary Uses for a Belfast Boxroom
Jan Carson
Observatory Observatory

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Sick Books – feature from The HUMAG

http://humag.co/features/sick-books

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Mrs Laidlaw’s Event Horizon

Mrs Laidlaw should have followed Newton’s second law, her body accelerating in proportion to the strength of external force used upon it, as she flew across the living room, until she hit the opposite wall. There, under Newton’s third law, the action of the wall would cause an equal and opposite reaction; Mrs Laidlaw would slide down it in a heap.

But a black hole had opened up in the living room of 23A Morningside Drive.  Mrs Laidlaw had reached the point of no return and was about to disappear from the visible universe. As she collapsed to her infinite density, she was simultaneously smeared on the event horizon and would forever see herself being annihilated behind the yellow sofa.

No knowledge of events inside the event horizon can ever be passed to the outside world, not even to Mrs Laidlaw’s sister. Beyond the event horizon is the photon-sphere, where Mrs Laidlaw’s memory is trapped, driven by centripetal forces to orbit the black hole forever. Even if her body was able to reconstitute itself enough to leave the house in one piece, on two feet say, rather than in a box, her mind would never leave that room. It is still in orbit even as we speak and may never come down again.

What exactly was burnt onto Mrs Laidlaw’s brain for all eternity is not clear. Sometimes she thought it was all her own fault; but any body,  anybody, can become a black hole, if they collapse down far enough.

As Mrs Laidlaw followed the extreme curvature of spacetime around the couch, one black Manolo Blahnik (size 5) rose from a cleft in the cushions and rejoined her left foot. The tear in her Ghost dress knitted together in a genuine invisible mend as the fabric turned from crimson to white. A spray of blood spots lifted from the yellow upholstery and fitted around her throat like a ruby necklace as she flew back to where Mr Laidlaw stood in the doorway with the blade.

Mr Laidlaw took the knife across her throat and put his fist around it. Mrs Laidlaw’s eyes bulged and her face changed from pink to white.  Mr Laidlaw walked over to the sink and put the knife down on the draining board.  Coffee lifted from Mr Laidlaw’s front in a glittering brown arc and poured itself back into Mrs Laidlaw’s cup, leaving his shirt snow-white, like a washing powder advert.

A stream of hot air, toothpaste and spittle flew into Mr Laidlaw’s mouth as the shrieks of rage beyond speech turned to invective:

hrrgra hrrgra gals gnikcuf, gals uoy, tnuc gnikucf, hctib hctib.

So, will we miss the mortgage payment again this month? asked Mrs Laidlaw.

The law said that for every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction; a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, blood for coffee. But although they resembled each other in colour, consistency and perhaps even quantity, to Mrs Laidlaw it was not an equal reaction, it was an over-reaction. Oh yes.

Newton said that her throat exerted an equal force on Mr Laidlaw’s fist, but Mrs Laidlaw had not found it so. Her throat, and other parts of her, underwent changes which Mr Laidlaw did not. Changes in colour, to magenta, midnight blue or perhaps indigo, like a goth’s eye-shadow palette, but let’s not get into black eyes, let’s not go there right now. She also changed shape; parts of Mrs Laidlaw swelled and burst. She became deformed, as if she inhabited some dystopian underworld, which indeed she did, while Mr Laidlaw remained much the same, outwardly at least.

Mr Laidlaw was cleaning his teeth. He put on his jacket while Mrs Laidlaw took a cup of coffee out of the microwave and poured it back into the jug. They put on their coats and went downstairs in stony silence. A cab appeared outside. Mrs Laidlaw paid the driver. Mr Laidlaw looked at her and fumbled sheepishly in his pockets.

They drove to the Regency casino in Royal Circus. It was just opening. Mrs Laidlaw stood clutching her evening bag, knuckles white. Mr Laidlaw sat down at the roulette table. The croupier pushed Mr Laidlaw’s last £500 chip, his last tiger, back onto the table. The wheel of fortune spun.  Les jeux ne sont pas faites. Mr Laidlaw took his tiger off number 13 and rolled it back, orange and black, orange and black, across the table and into his pocket.

The croupier drove a streak of tigers towards Mr Laidlaw. He picked them up and stood, enjoying the tiddly-wink noise they made as they ran from hand to hand.  Mr Laidlaw’s tigers were rare, an endangered species. He took the chips to the cashier’s window and changed them into money. Then he went to the cashpoint and put money into the little slot. This experiment was repeated several times, under the silent supervision of Mrs Laidlaw. The results were consistent; chips were transformed into cash, very rarely the other way round. Then they went home.

Mr Laidlaw sat on the bed, took off his shoes and socks.  Mrs Laidlaw ran in, holding his grey and white argyle socks. She had found them in the chest in the spare room. Then she ran downstairs, to rake frantically through the dirty laundry in the basket, pants and tights falling out into the cat’s bed, although she knew the socks were not there.

Why can’t you just put my socks in my sock drawer? shouted Mr Laidlaw. It’s not exactly rocket science.

Mrs Laidlaw had thought she had put them in there, the top-left drawer on his dressing table. She ran downstairs. She looked in the washing machine, although she knew it was empty, and spun the drum in case they had wrapped themselves around it. She ran down the garden, Manolos sticking in the mud, to check they were not fluttering on the washing line. What are you doing, running round outside in your long dress like a mad woman? she thought.

Mrs Laidlaw ran inside. She had lost the plot. She was beginning to think she was losing her mind. She seemed to spend her time running round in circles, going faster and faster but falling further and further behind with bits of her falling off and her hair all everywhere like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland going oh god oh god oh god

She ran upstairs.

So where are they? Yelled Mr Laidlaw. He took off his belt and waved it at her.

But I know I put them in there.

They weren’t.

They aren’t.

Mrs Laidlaw sometimes wondered if Mr Laidlaw secretly hid his socks, and other items, to give him an excuse to punish her and to make her think she was going mad. Things moved around the house in ways not covered by Newtonian laws. A golfing trophy vanished from the sideboard and was found weeks later in the shed. His cuff-links migrated to the soap dish. But she was mad to even think he would do that, paranoid.

She did not understand the chemical reactions that took place inside Mr Laidlaw. He was made of some unstable substance liable to spontaneously combust but had not been correctly labelled. X: irritant, avoid contact with eyes and skin. In case of contact with Laidlaw, rinse immediately and seek medical attention. Laidlaw could lie dormant for weeks, often in front of the television, then explode without warning.

The previous February, for instance, Mrs Laidlaw had gone to stay with her sister in Glasgow. She was lonely. There were lengthy phone calls from Mr Laidlaw. He said he had changed. The marks had almost faded from her neck and upper arms. He sent a card. He promised it would never happen again. There was still some bruising to her inner thigh, but she could walk almost normally. He was terribly sorry. She could go out, wearing heavy make-up, after dark, with her hair trained over the left side of her face. He sent flowers.

Christ almighty, said her sister. I wouldn’t have known you.

Mrs Laidlaw limped down the drive, wearing a scarf. She took the last train back to Waverley, long after dark, when no one was out but a few late-night drunks. Some of them had been beaten up too, so nobody took much notice.

She took a cab back to 23A Morningside Drive. In the bedroom, Mr Laidlaw had passed out and was snoring. Shards of the dressing-table mirror glittered on the carpet like a shoal of stranded fish. The heel of one of her stilettos was stuck in a jar of face cream. She took her coat off and crept into bed in the spare room without waking him.

Time stopped. Everything was frozen, crystallised water falling white in the darkness, the ice skating over the glass. Her breath formed steaming clouds in the cold air of the bedroom, gas to liquid, water to solid.  But her face was liquefying; her flesh was soft and puffy, melting into blood, wine, snot and tears smeared across her hands.

Mrs Laidlaw had another drink. She was not sure she still existed. There was a moaning noise. A monster had got stuck in her mirror, its nose everywhere and the eyes gone.

Mrs Laidlaw had a drink. She couldn’t think how it had started. She lay down on the floor. Everything was quiet.  She was still alive because bits of her hurt.  She could hear him smashing something in the bedroom. He stopped and went away. She hoped she would not die. She closed her eyes and waited for it to stop. She was lying on the floor, her face in the burnt smell of the carpet, things coming at her too fast to see, faster than the speed of sound.

She asked Mr Laidlaw to stop inserting his penis in Mrs MacAllister.  Mr Laidlaw explained that Mrs MacAllister was made of such a dense substance that her gravity exerted an unnatural force on his trousers, making them fall to the floor whenever he was in her vicinity. He would have kept his distance, but Mrs MacAllister’s magnetic field attracted his opposite pole.

Well, yes.

You are seeing someone, aren’t you? said Mrs Laidlaw. Is it Mrs MacAllister?

You’re paranoid. There’s no one else.

You’ve been with someone else, said Mrs Laidlaw.

Mr Laidlaw went out for a few days.

Mrs Laidlaw lay in bed, drinking gin and eating frozen yoghurt. Time slowed down. The agency gave up waiting for her to come back to work and hired someone else. She watched TV or sometimes the wall. Flowers swarmed over the white plaster, translucent daisies with petals bursting open into silver stars, their spiralling fractels climbing up the curtains to the ceiling. Mrs Laidlaw put on her dressing gown.

Mr Laidlaw came back.

No, you’re too ugly, he said.

Mrs Laidlaw lay naked on the bed. Mr Laidlaw was on his mobile in the garden. Maybe it was a work call. Mr Laidlaw got in from work at 10pm.  Mrs Laidlaw had a bath and painted her toe-nails. Mr Laidlaw was working late again.

Under Newton’s law of inertia, Mrs Laidlaw found her internal resistance to getting out of the house or her dressing-gown increased. Although she was no longer carrying the baby, she was heavier instead of lighter, as if it was still there but made of lead. She went to the Royal Infirmary and stayed in overnight. She miscarried. Mr Laidlaw drove her home.

You’re not that bad are you?

ahhhh

You must have done it to yourself.

ahhhh

You fell over my foot.

ahhhh

Had you been at the wine?

ahhhhh

You never look where you’re going.

ahhhh

Stop making that noise

ahhhh

Better ring your sister. You won’t be able to go now, will you?

ahhhh

The bleeding wouldn’t stop. Mrs Laidlaw lay at the bottom of the stairs. She did a somersault up the staircase to where Mr Laidlaw stood on the landing.  He took hold of her and they struggled, locked together like dancers. Her teeth rattled in her head like castanets.

You’re so fucking selfish, he said.

You’ll all be too blethered to notice who’s there and I can’t drink anything, she said.

It’ll look bad. All the other wives will be there.

But you told me it was next week.

You said you’d come to the club dinner.

I’ll just go to my sister’s on my own then.

I’m not driving over to Glasgow just to go to a fucking party. Your sister hates me. She always has. Gone native and turned into a bloody weegie.

It’s her big night.

She didn’t even come to our wedding.

The wedding had been a surprise, as if held on a sudden romantic impulse. Everyone except Mrs Laidlaw, who became Miss Ruthven, drank a lot. Miss Ruthven was pregnant.

She woke up under Mr Laidlaw. She was confused. Time speeded up and slowed down. She was sick. Miss Ruthven spent a lot of time in darkened rooms with flashing lights as part of a mass experiment into the effects of methylenedioxmethamphetamine on the human brain. This stimulated the secretion of, and inhibited the re-uptake of, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.  As well as euphoria, synaesthesia and entheogenia, these chemicals had unfortunate side effects such as bruxism (teeth-grinding), trisma (jaw-clenching), nystagmus (shutter vision) and finding someone like Laidlaw attractive, particularly in places where conversation was impossible due to industrial levels of noise.

Miss Ruthven went to university. She left her friends’ flat in Thistle Street and moved in with her parents at 6 Canaan Lane. Space was constrained in the Ruthven household.

You’ve ruined my life, said Miss Ruthven.

You’ve ruined dinner, said Mr Ruthven. Your mother has gone to a lot of trouble to make nice food. You’re very selfish.

Knives spun in circles, the salt cellar jigged on the spot. Mr Ruthven’s fork clattered off the floor and flew up onto the table. Mr Ruthven banged his fist on the table, which resonated like a gorilla’s chest.

If you ever THUMP do that to me again THUMP I’ll stop you going to university.  THUMP If I say infinite means small THUMP then in this house THUMP it means small THUMP.

But Dad, infinite means endless, like, very big. The universe is infinite. You mean infinitesimal.

It was infinite, said Mr Ruthven, holding up his finger and oppositional thumb a millimetre apart. There was infinite space between his bumper and mine. And he said he hadn’t boxed me in.

Mr Ruthven stopped the car. Miss Ruthven got out. She ran along the verge after the car. Mr Ruthven stopped, waited until she reached the car then drove off. She ran along the verge after the car. Mr Ruthven stopped, waited until she reached the car then drove off. She ran along the verge after the car going oh no oh no oh no

Mr Ruthven drove off.  Miss Ruthven tried to open the door.  She went over to the trees and was sick all over her shoes. She ran back to the car and jumped in.

Now all those cars will overtake us and I’ll have to overtake them again. There goes that Jag already.

Mr Ruthven stopped.

Not again.

BLURRRGGHHHH

You won’t. Just look out of the window.

I’m going to be sick.

Mr Ruthven had accelerated, increasing his momentum until he broke the sound barrier and was unable to hear anything.

Dad, I feel sick.

He was an unstoppable force. He was breaking the law, nee naw nee naw. Laws did not apply to him.

Dad, I feel sick.

The speed of his reactions meant he could drive safely at 135mph, corner at 110.

Look, I can steer with my knees, said Mr Ruthven, waving his hands in the air as they barrelled along, overtaking a white van, a couple of Fords and a Jaguar.

People are terrified by the speed of my brain, said Mr Ruthven. My reactions are so fast. That’s why I always win at squash.

He was quite alarming. He never lost, not even at tiddly-winks or snap. He honed his reactions by throwing Miss Ruthven up and down over the stairwell, shouting with glee as her eyes widened with terror every time he let her go. Her attention was focused on him, nothing but him, he had the power of life and death. He was infallible, invincible.

He blotted her out. Miss Ruthven remembered nothing. She knew it was too much, even then, too much, but it was already too late. Mr Ruthven caught her and everything went black. Then he ran back across the living room away from her. He tripped over the stool, which made him even more angry.

Miss Ruthven dodged round the stool. It was below Mr Ruthven’s line of vision so she knew he would trip over it, which would give her more time, but she knew he would get her in the end.

I told you not to do that, he yelled. I told you. Put your clothes back on.

Mr Ruthven appeared in the doorway, a giant blocking out the light.  She ran out into the garden, her clothes trailing across the grass. The daisies were white stars in a green sky, the dandelions burning suns. She was a naked singularity who could not be allowed to exist going faster and faster and faster until she disappeared . . .

.

Mrs Laidlaw’s event horizon

Mrs Laidlaw should have followed Newton’s second law, her body accelerating in proportion to the strength of external force used upon it, as she flew across the living room, until she hit the opposite wall. There, under Newton’s third law, the action of the wall would cause an equal and opposite reaction; Mrs Laidlaw would slide down it in a heap.

But a black hole had opened up in the living room of 23A Morningside Drive.  Mrs Laidlaw had reached the point of no return and was about to disappear from the visible universe. As she collapsed to her infinite density, she was simultaneously smeared on the event horizon and would forever see herself being annihilated behind the yellow sofa.

No knowledge of events inside the event horizon can ever be passed to the outside world, not even to Mrs Laidlaw’s sister. Beyond the event horizon is the photon-sphere, where Mrs Laidlaw’s memory is trapped, driven by centripetal forces to orbit the black hole forever. Even if her body was able to reconstitute itself enough to leave the house in one piece, on two feet say, rather than in a box, her mind would never leave that room. It is still in orbit even as we speak and may never come down again.

What exactly was burnt onto Mrs Laidlaw’s brain for all eternity is not clear. Sometimes she thought it was all her own fault; but any body,  anybody, can become a black hole, if they collapse down far enough.

As Mrs Laidlaw followed the extreme curvature of spacetime around the couch, one black Manolo Blahnik (size 5) rose from a cleft in the cushions and rejoined her left foot. The tear in her Ghost dress knitted together in a genuine invisible mend as the fabric turned from crimson to white. A spray of blood spots lifted from the yellow upholstery and fitted around her throat like a ruby necklace as she flew back to where Mr Laidlaw stood in the doorway with the blade.

Mr Laidlaw took the knife across her throat and put his fist around it. Mrs Laidlaw’s eyes bulged and her face changed from pink to white.  Mr Laidlaw walked over to the sink and put the knife down on the draining board.  Coffee lifted from Mr Laidlaw’s front in a glittering brown arc and poured itself back into Mrs Laidlaw’s cup, leaving his shirt snow-white, like a washing powder advert.

A stream of hot air, toothpaste and spittle flew into Mr Laidlaw’s mouth as the shrieks of rage beyond speech turned to invective:

hrrgra hrrgra gals gnikcuf, gals uoy, tnuc gnikucf, hctib hctib.

So, will we miss the mortgage payment again this month? asked Mrs Laidlaw.

The law said that for every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction; a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, blood for coffee. But although they resembled each other in colour, consistency and perhaps even quantity, to Mrs Laidlaw it was not an equal reaction, it was an over-reaction. Oh yes.

Newton said that her throat exerted an equal force on Mr Laidlaw’s fist, but Mrs Laidlaw had not found it so. Her throat, and other parts of her, underwent changes which Mr Laidlaw did not. Changes in colour, to magenta, midnight blue or perhaps indigo, like a goth’s eye-shadow palette, but let’s not get into black eyes, let’s not go there right now. She also changed shape; parts of Mrs Laidlaw swelled and burst. She became deformed, as if she inhabited some dystopian underworld, which indeed she did, while Mr Laidlaw remained much the same, outwardly at least.

Mr Laidlaw was cleaning his teeth. He put on his jacket while Mrs Laidlaw took a cup of coffee out of the microwave and poured it back into the jug. They put on their coats and went downstairs in stony silence. A cab appeared outside. Mrs Laidlaw paid the driver. Mr Laidlaw looked at her and fumbled sheepishly in his pockets.

They drove to the Regency casino in Royal Circus. It was just opening. Mrs Laidlaw stood clutching her evening bag, knuckles white. Mr Laidlaw sat down at the roulette table. The croupier pushed Mr Laidlaw’s last £500 chip, his last tiger, back onto the table. The wheel of fortune spun.  Les jeux ne sont pas faites. Mr Laidlaw took his tiger off number 13 and rolled it back, orange and black, orange and black, across the table and into his pocket.

The croupier drove a streak of tigers towards Mr Laidlaw. He picked them up and stood, enjoying the tiddly-wink noise they made as they ran from hand to hand.  Mr Laidlaw’s tigers were rare, an endangered species. He took the chips to the cashier’s window and changed them into money. Then he went to the cashpoint and put money into the little slot. This experiment was repeated several times, under the silent supervision of Mrs Laidlaw. The results were consistent; chips were transformed into cash, very rarely the other way round. Then they went home.

Mr Laidlaw sat on the bed, took off his shoes and socks.  Mrs Laidlaw ran in, holding his grey and white argyle socks. She had found them in the chest in the spare room. Then she ran downstairs, to rake frantically through the dirty laundry in the basket, pants and tights falling out into the cat’s bed, although she knew the socks were not there.

Why can’t you just put my socks in my sock drawer? shouted Mr Laidlaw. It’s not exactly rocket science.

Mrs Laidlaw had thought she had put them in there, the top-left drawer on his dressing table. She ran downstairs. She looked in the washing machine, although she knew it was empty, and spun the drum in case they had wrapped themselves around it. She ran down the garden, Manolos sticking in the mud, to check they were not fluttering on the washing line. What are you doing, running round outside in your long dress like a mad woman? she thought.

Mrs Laidlaw ran inside. She had lost the plot. She was beginning to think she was losing her mind. She seemed to spend her time running round in circles, going faster and faster but falling further and further behind with bits of her falling off and her hair all everywhere like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland going oh god oh god oh god

She ran upstairs.

So where are they? Yelled Mr Laidlaw. He took off his belt and waved it at her.

But I know I put them in there.

They weren’t.

They aren’t.

Mrs Laidlaw sometimes wondered if Mr Laidlaw secretly hid his socks, and other items, to give him an excuse to punish her and to make her think she was going mad. Things moved around the house in ways not covered by Newtonian laws. A golfing trophy vanished from the sideboard and was found weeks later in the shed. His cuff-links migrated to the soap dish. But she was mad to even think he would do that, paranoid.

She did not understand the chemical reactions that took place inside Mr Laidlaw. He was made of some unstable substance liable to spontaneously combust but had not been correctly labelled. X: irritant, avoid contact with eyes and skin. In case of contact with Laidlaw, rinse immediately and seek medical attention. Laidlaw could lie dormant for weeks, often in front of the television, then explode without warning.

The previous February, for instance, Mrs Laidlaw had gone to stay with her sister in Glasgow. She was lonely. There were lengthy phone calls from Mr Laidlaw. He said he had changed. The marks had almost faded from her neck and upper arms. He sent a card. He promised it would never happen again. There was still some bruising to her inner thigh, but she could walk almost normally. He was terribly sorry. She could go out, wearing heavy make-up, after dark, with her hair trained over the left side of her face. He sent flowers.

Christ almighty, said her sister. I wouldn’t have known you.

Mrs Laidlaw limped down the drive, wearing a scarf. She took the last train back to Waverley, long after dark, when no one was out but a few late-night drunks. Some of them had been beaten up too, so nobody took much notice.

She took a cab back to 23A Morningside Drive. In the bedroom, Mr Laidlaw had passed out and was snoring. Shards of the dressing-table mirror glittered on the carpet like a shoal of stranded fish. The heel of one of her stilettos was stuck in a jar of face cream. She took her coat off and crept into bed in the spare room without waking him.

Time stopped. Everything was frozen, crystallised water falling white in the darkness, the ice skating over the glass. Her breath formed steaming clouds in the cold air of the bedroom, gas to liquid, water to solid.  But her face was liquefying; her flesh was soft and puffy, melting into blood, wine, snot and tears smeared across her hands.

Mrs Laidlaw had another drink. She was not sure she still existed. There was a moaning noise. A monster had got stuck in her mirror, its nose everywhere and the eyes gone.

Mrs Laidlaw had a drink. She couldn’t think how it had started. She lay down on the floor. Everything was quiet.  She was still alive because bits of her hurt.  She could hear him smashing something in the bedroom. He stopped and went away. She hoped she would not die. She closed her eyes and waited for it to stop. She was lying on the floor, her face in the burnt smell of the carpet, things coming at her too fast to see, faster than the speed of sound.

She asked Mr Laidlaw to stop inserting his penis in Mrs MacAllister.  Mr Laidlaw explained that Mrs MacAllister was made of such a dense substance that her gravity exerted an unnatural force on his trousers, making them fall to the floor whenever he was in her vicinity. He would have kept his distance, but Mrs MacAllister’s magnetic field attracted his opposite pole.

Well, yes.

You are seeing someone, aren’t you? said Mrs Laidlaw. Is it Mrs MacAllister?

You’re paranoid. There’s no one else.

You’ve been with someone else, said Mrs Laidlaw.

Mr Laidlaw went out for a few days.

Mrs Laidlaw lay in bed, drinking gin and eating frozen yoghurt. Time slowed down. The agency gave up waiting for her to come back to work and hired someone else. She watched TV or sometimes the wall. Flowers swarmed over the white plaster, translucent daisies with petals bursting open into silver stars, their spiralling fractels climbing up the curtains to the ceiling. Mrs Laidlaw put on her dressing gown.

Mr Laidlaw came back.

No, you’re too ugly, he said.

Mrs Laidlaw lay naked on the bed. Mr Laidlaw was on his mobile in the garden. Maybe it was a work call. Mr Laidlaw got in from work at 10pm.  Mrs Laidlaw had a bath and painted her toe-nails. Mr Laidlaw was working late again.

Under Newton’s law of inertia, Mrs Laidlaw found her internal resistance to getting out of the house or her dressing-gown increased. Although she was no longer carrying the baby, she was heavier instead of lighter, as if it was still there but made of lead. She went to the Royal Infirmary and stayed in overnight. She miscarried. Mr Laidlaw drove her home.

You’re not that bad are you?

ahhhh

You must have done it to yourself.

ahhhh

You fell over my foot.

ahhhh

Had you been at the wine?

ahhhhh

You never look where you’re going.

ahhhh

Stop making that noise

ahhhh

Better ring your sister. You won’t be able to go now, will you?

ahhhh

The bleeding wouldn’t stop. Mrs Laidlaw lay at the bottom of the stairs. She did a somersault up the staircase to where Mr Laidlaw stood on the landing.  He took hold of her and they struggled, locked together like dancers. Her teeth rattled in her head like castanets.

You’re so fucking selfish, he said.

You’ll all be too blethered to notice who’s there and I can’t drink anything, she said.

It’ll look bad. All the other wives will be there.

But you told me it was next week.

You said you’d come to the club dinner.

I’ll just go to my sister’s on my own then.

I’m not driving over to Glasgow just to go to a fucking party. Your sister hates me. She always has. Gone native and turned into a bloody weegie.

It’s her big night.

She didn’t even come to our wedding.

The wedding had been a surprise, as if held on a sudden romantic impulse. Everyone except Mrs Laidlaw, who became Miss Ruthven, drank a lot. Miss Ruthven was pregnant.

She woke up under Mr Laidlaw. She was confused. Time speeded up and slowed down. She was sick. Miss Ruthven spent a lot of time in darkened rooms with flashing lights as part of a mass experiment into the effects of methylenedioxmethamphetamine on the human brain. This stimulated the secretion of, and inhibited the re-uptake of, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.  As well as euphoria, synaesthesia and entheogenia, these chemicals had unfortunate side effects such as bruxism (teeth-grinding), trisma (jaw-clenching), nystagmus (shutter vision) and finding someone like Laidlaw attractive, particularly in places where conversation was impossible due to industrial levels of noise.

Miss Ruthven went to university. She left her friends’ flat in Thistle Street and moved in with her parents at 6 Canaan Lane. Space was constrained in the Ruthven household.

You’ve ruined my life, said Miss Ruthven.

You’ve ruined dinner, said Mr Ruthven. Your mother has gone to a lot of trouble to make nice food. You’re very selfish.

Knives spun in circles, the salt cellar jigged on the spot. Mr Ruthven’s fork clattered off the floor and flew up onto the table. Mr Ruthven banged his fist on the table, which resonated like a gorilla’s chest.

If you ever THUMP do that to me again THUMP I’ll stop you going to university.  THUMP If I say infinite means small THUMP then in this house THUMP it means small THUMP.

But Dad, infinite means endless, like, very big. The universe is infinite. You mean infinitesimal.

It was infinite, said Mr Ruthven, holding up his finger and oppositional thumb a millimetre apart. There was infinite space between his bumper and mine. And he said he hadn’t boxed me in.

Mr Ruthven stopped the car. Miss Ruthven got out. She ran along the verge after the car. Mr Ruthven stopped, waited until she reached the car then drove off. She ran along the verge after the car. Mr Ruthven stopped, waited until she reached the car then drove off. She ran along the verge after the car going oh no oh no oh no

Mr Ruthven drove off.  Miss Ruthven tried to open the door.  She went over to the trees and was sick all over her shoes. She ran back to the car and jumped in.

Now all those cars will overtake us and I’ll have to overtake them again. There goes that Jag already.

Mr Ruthven stopped.

Not again.

BLURRRGGHHHH

You won’t. Just look out of the window.

I’m going to be sick.

Mr Ruthven had accelerated, increasing his momentum until he broke the sound barrier and was unable to hear anything.

Dad, I feel sick.

He was an unstoppable force. He was breaking the law, nee naw nee naw. Laws did not apply to him.

Dad, I feel sick.

The speed of his reactions meant he could drive safely at 135mph, corner at 110.

Look, I can steer with my knees, said Mr Ruthven, waving his hands in the air as they barrelled along, overtaking a white van, a couple of Fords and a Jaguar.

People are terrified by the speed of my brain, said Mr Ruthven. My reactions are so fast. That’s why I always win at squash.

He was quite alarming. He never lost, not even at tiddly-winks or snap. He honed his reactions by throwing Miss Ruthven up and down over the stairwell, shouting with glee as her eyes widened with terror every time he let her go. Her attention was focused on him, nothing but him, he had the power of life and death. He was infallible, invincible.

He blotted her out. Miss Ruthven remembered nothing. She knew it was too much, even then, too much, but it was already too late. Mr Ruthven caught her and everything went black. Then he ran back across the living room away from her. He tripped over the stool, which made him even more angry.

Miss Ruthven dodged round the stool. It was below Mr Ruthven’s line of vision so she knew he would trip over it, which would give her more time, but she knew he would get her in the end.

I told you not to do that, he yelled. I told you. Put your clothes back on.

Mr Ruthven appeared in the doorway, a giant blocking out the light.  She ran out into the garden, her clothes trailing across the grass. The daisies were white stars in a green sky, the dandelions burning suns. She was a naked singularity who could not be allowed to exist going faster and faster and faster until she disappeared . . .

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Being libelled by bloggers

I used to be left on my own with the foreign pages, late at night on The South China Morning Post. I found it terrifying to write stuff straight into the paper and publish, with no editor or lawyer to look at it first. Not so much because of spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, but in case I libelled someone and they sued. Bloggers do this without a second thought and they don’t have a newspaper to pay legal fees or damages.

Countless bloggers and tweeters have libelled me, blind to the irony of criticising the excesses of the Murdoch press in terms so defamatory they would not make it into the Daily Star. One blogger casually referred to  ”a smash and grab raid by The Sunday Times on Gordon Brown’s bank account”, conflating (legal) blagging with armed robbery. Others talk about Murdoch’s Mafia or criminal empire and ‘HMP Wapping’, libelling not just the editorial staff, but secretaries, cooks, cleaners, hairdressers and security guards.

Some bloggers libelled Ken Livingstone recently because they were not aware that tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (illegal) are not the same thing.

Even if nobody bothers to sue, this carelessness makes the blogger look unprofessional and undermines their argument. This is one advantage of the dead tree press and its editorial process; the protection of fact-checking subs and lawyers. If you are blogging and don’t know the difference between blagging and armed robbery, or tax avoidance and tax evasion, you need to find out.

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Blog about a dog

Ash at home

ASH

Ash is or was a white lurcher. We went on long, muddy walks to Hadleigh Castle or the beach. She always ran away, crossing fields like a cloud in a green sky. It took the kids hours to catch her.

She drove us mad, turning over bins and throwing rubbish all over the house. A disturbed dog, she was the white ghost of an animal haunting the house, disruptive as an ash cloud from Iceland.

The day before she was to be speyed, she ran off into a forest and didn’t come back. Ash chose to be wild, a force of nature. Now we don’t go on long walks any more and I miss her. Where are you now Ash?

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Penny plain or twopence coloured

People are challenging all-male panels on political talk shows but what about men-only arts reviews? Angela Carter or Carson McCullers are seen as marginal for writing mainly about women, but if William Golding writes only about men, he can win a Nobel prize without anyone even noticing. J D Salinger is a genius for writing Catcher in the Rye but it meant very little to me. McCullers’  Member of the Wedding is a female growing-up novel, in my opinion more interesting and with more depth, and it’s ignored.

Authenticity means real things happening to real men,  preferably in the American southwest or Glasgow. I think it stems from the machismo of the Old Testament stream of American writers such as Steinbeck and Hemingway, along with their outdated view of the world, passed onto Dirty Realism like a virus and thriving in Scottish literature. Male experience, especially war, prison life or manual work, is privileged as ‘real’. Why is this more authentic than childbirth, abortion or old age? One in six births used to kill the mother – why is it not ‘heroic’ like combat?

Chekhov, the Godfather of Dirty Realism, said emotions should not be discussed directly. Why not? Isn’t it the equivalent of ‘oh god, she wants to talk about the relationship. Must go and work on the car’.

I do enjoy this type of writing – well, not Steinbeck and Hemingway so much – but people are being taught on creative writing courses that adjectives and adverbs are verboten. Every language I’ve yet come across seems to have adjectives so they must fulfil some human need. For colour, for description. There’s more to life than plot.

Isn’t there room for the odd purple patch, for more variety in literature, than one that sees male, primarily American, life as the norm and everything else as marginal? Without diversity literature is drab as a room full of suits.

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Dynamic Yoga on TAP

New yoga class starting 24th January at Temporary Arts Project, North Road.
Tuesdays 10am-11.15am.
Bring a mat

Class on 24th free, £5 thereafter

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David Holden @etominosipi on Mrs Laidlaw

Just read Mrs Laidlaw’s Event Horizon. Congratulations. Clever to use the black hole both as symbol of terminal hopelessness and as a relativistic justification for the time-reversed narrative. I have long been an advocate for imagining time-reversals as a consciousness-raising exercise. I suppose this was stimulated when people began to be able to run films backwards (and probably to be able to do the same with early piano rolls and phonographs). Cocteau used it very effectively in a short sequence in one of his films, I don’t personally know any earlier example, but have not looked. before this recent age, where technologies have actually allowed time-reversed perceptions of events and processes, perhaps musicians were best-placed to imagine backwards flow of time, since musical notation allows scanning with almost equal ease in either temporal direction. Reading a narrative backwards is much more cumbersome, and breaks down within sentences, which must be read forwards due to syntactical restraints on comprehension. whilst in London I had for a while the use of a 4-track recording studio which allowed reversal. music sounds odd to our ears because of the reversed note envelopes, but leaving that aside what struck me was the way Bach sounded quite similar in either direction. Mozart, on the other hand, becomes very angst-ridden and emotionally unresolved. this prompted unwritten speculations on some tenuous link between musical aesthetics and the second law of thermodynamics. I leave aside the most interesting side of all this, i.e. life, death, consciousness, the nature of time, the unknown “Kantian” substrate of the sensuous universe. I shall also leave aside the emotional content, although i suppose a crucial critical inquiry would be how this narrative technique conditions the reader’s perception of the brutality Mrs L experiences at the hands of her violent (Scots) patriarchetypes, Mr R and Mr L. to conclude, despite the brevity of this response, I know it is sometimes encouraging when others take a relatively enlightened interest in one’s creative work, so I felt it worth taking the time to use a little more than the customary 140 characters to respond to your prize-winning short story. I wish you all the best with your future narrative explorations/constructions.

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Chicks are baby hens. They don’t read

Women, we are told, drive the entire fiction market. They will read books by male authors, but most men do not read books by female authors. So the market for women authors is, er, women. But not every female author wants to write chick-lit or more upmarket hen lit.

Even if you want to write literary fiction, it is still expected to be based around relationships and family life.  Last time I met other women writers at the Cambridge WordFest and told them my current story was about being lost inside the body, they nearly fell off their chairs laughing.

Female genre writers, such as JK Rowling and sci-fi author CJ Cherryh, were told to use initials so as not to put male readers off, showing we’ve come precisely nowhere since George Eliot and the Bronte sisters had to write under male pseudonyms – Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. How depressing.

Much of this problem stems from stereotypes of women as interested only looking after their partners and children.  Like Radio 4′s Women’s Hour, separating off special ‘female’ issues as if women have no interest in politics, business, science etc. Sorry, I don’t have a solution. Please let me know if you do.

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The Polite British Writer Awards

The British Writer Awards are undoubtedly a good idea; £10,000 for an unpublished writer – woohoo. There is also an award for published writers. But before you submit anything, you have to tick a little box guaranteeing that your work is ‘not offensive’. Offensive to whom is not clear. Offensive to anyone? Does it mean profanity? Probably. So, Ballard, Beckett, Will Self need not apply.
Maybe they want to avoid the type of controversy when Glasgow’s James Kelman won the Booker with ‘How Late it was, How Late’, scandalising one of their own judges, Rabbi Julia Nueberger, because it included the word fuck.
Nueberger is a cleric, not a writer. So, we shouldn’t write anything that might offend an imam? A priest?
Kelman said ‘My culture and my language have the right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that.’
But the British Writer Awards have dismissed it; contemporary vernacular, no thanks. Realism, yikes. So they will promote only the British literature of polite discourse, like Radio 4, which doesn’t accept ‘offensive’ work either. What is literary becomes more remote from how most people talk and think, and so more people lose interest in it.
Are they ‘promoting’ British literature or the exact opposite, limiting and emasculating it? They can choose whatever they like to win, but specifying self-censorship at the outset is deadening. If a piece of work can be guaranteed not to offend anyone at all, it probably isn’t worth writing or publishing. Processed British writing, like processed cheese.

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