The post is written in response to a prompt from Genre Scribes: Friday Fiction Writing Challenge #34 — Celebration.
The radio breaks their early morning silence as they drive.
“Next up, Kool & The Gang wi…” the announcer is cutoff as the ignition is killed.
They step out of the car and pause to savour the coolness of the dawn air before they head inside. Stop and smell the roses, is what they might say if they were prone to speak.
Past banners and balloons in the corridor they enter the main room. Above their heads the ceiling fan spins, the curls of party popped paper caught there trails spirals in the sky, cutting through fake smoke and still flashing lights. Tables are strewn with half-empty glasses, champagne corks, congealing finger food, bedecked with streamers. The walls are festooned with multi-coloured balloons and banners, chairs still hold jackets, and the edges of the dance floor glow LED bright. It’s warm and the aromas of spilled wine and vodka bear a stale metallic edge.
Close your eyes and picture it, the scene played out a thousand times before in this very room. Cram it full, turn the volume up, lower the bar prices, sit back and wait. Glasses will tumble from hands, chairs will rock over, and dancing will win out in the end. Conversations will be shouted back and forth, verbal tennis punctuated with screams and laughter.
Except now there is only silence.
The partners slowly turn their gaze from the room, to each other, and then back to the room to face the bodies lying there, lying everywhere.
It had been a celebration.
At the start of the year I set out some aims for myself and, in the spirit of accountability, here’s how I’m doing with each.
Writing – Write in my journal every day
- Progress – I have written in my journal everyday for the past 45 days!
- What’s next? – Get back into writing short fiction pieces.
Meditating – Meditate for 10 mins every day
- Progress – Managing 10 mins a day, mostly during my lunch time, almost every day.
- What’s next? – Keep it going!
Exercising – Stretch every day
- Progress – OK. I’ve not managed to nail the morning routine and I know it helps my mobility.
- What’s next? – Try and build that stretching routine.
Note: I’ve also been seeing a Physio which has gone VERY well and I’ve just (last night) completed the first session of Couch to 5K so I’m giving myself a break on this one. But it’s probably more important moving forward to get this one sorted.
The real reason to have these aims was to give my brain a focus away from social media. On that front it’s been pretty successful and the best metric is probably the seven books I’ve already read this year.
I’ll write more about all of this throughout the year, largely to keep myself accountable, and I’m already feeling the difference to my mental health from not being on social media so much. I can dip in and out without getting sucked in (and down) into all the noise.
And, most important of all, the balance of all of this feels right.
The full moon glowed, peeking out from behind the racing clouds. Glimpsed through the dark winter branches the surface, in all its mysterious pockmarked glory, seemed visceral, a small step away, a gentle leap into the night sky. As the clouds parted, glittering stars appeared, transporting me to places at the edge of imagination, beyond my reach as I stood rooted on earth with the wind ruffling my coat. I gazed at the heavens and dreamed of looking beyond…
My parents front room went through many iterations, but my most prominent memories were of two tall bookshelves that lined the sides of the bay window. Those shelves held all manner of things; the bottom sections were dedicated to LPs, the next shelves up were devoted to the ornate, and the rest of the shelves that stretched up far beyond my height were given to the many books of differing size and colour that are writ large in my childhood memories; I can recall the maroon, leather bound Readers Digest compendiums, a cook book or two, a copy of War & Peace and next to it a book that was signed by a certain Neil Armstrong, you remember him, right, he’s the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” guy.
Oddly I don’t credit that book with my fascination with space as I don’t think I ever read it. Instead we turn to a different book from the same bookshelf, one without a dust cover, a dark red tome that was heavy in the hand, it’s thousands of pages wafer thin, scattered with tiny words and sentences. Picked out in gold lettering on the spine were the words Selected Works by Arthur C. Clarke and it included The City And The Stars, The Deep Range, A Fall Of Moondust, and Rendevous With Rama. It also held, as it’s opening story, the first science fiction novel I ever read; 2001/A Space Odyssey.
The origin story was written before the moon landings had happened and led to the classic film of the same name, which Kubrick and Clarke wrote together. The novel is an expansion of that story; a sprawling languid story that begins tepidly enough but soon leaps out from the black monolith and into an entirely other world. I reckon I read it some time in the mid to late 80s, just as my early teenage world was expanding to include high school, a time during which I frequently took solace and refuge in the pages of a book. And so it was that I found myself following the journey of Dr. Heywood Floyd as he travelled from Earth to a perfectly imagined moon-base, my attention rapt and imaginative synapses firing like crazy.
I can remember losing myself in that story, consumed by the battle between HAL and Bowman, and whilst later books managed to similarly consume my attention, this was the memorable first. I guess it was partly because I was reading a ‘grown up’ book, one which dealt in both fact and fiction and also managed to tackle various themes along the way; other than the stories we’d been made to study at school, it was the first time I can recall wanting to learn more about something because of a novel.
Equally the subject matter tapped into the sense of wonder that begun when my Dad first pointed out Orions belt, standing there staring into the night sky, picking out stars as they twinkled above us. 2001 added to that fascination, as did the immediately fantastic worlds of Star Wars (not Star Trek*) which I guess is probably a common occurence for those of my generation, the children of the children of the space race.
After reading 2001, and because I was a bookish geek even back then with a cherished set of encyclopaedias given to me by my Grandfather, I started reading about the Apollo missions, tracing back to the first attempts to reach Space (technically achieved by a V-2 rocket by Nazi Germany), on through the Russian successes of Sputnik and Laika and Luna 1, before the USA entered the fray with Explorer 6 and the helter-skelter rush through the early 60s of Ham, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shephard, Valentina Tereshkova, and back round to Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong.
Yet with history only offering a distant impressions, it was the movies that exploded us all into space off the back of the phenomenal success of Star Wars and latterly, as the films started to dwindle, along came the Space Shuttle and once again we turned our gaze to the skies, our hearts and dreams open again to exploring the dark corners of the universe. My gaze has been drawn there ever since.
A few years ago I attend a talk by Commander Chris Hadfield, best known as the astronaut who recorded himself playing Space Oddity during his time on the International Space Station. He is an engaging speaker, intelligent but not boastful, and he retains the sense of wonder of his own achievements that is at once humbling and totally engaging. He spoke of watching the moon landing on TV and how it inspired him, he gave advice to the children in the audience, to aim high and work hard and they too might end up in space. He was ‘just a kid from a farm in Ontario’ but he ended up spending time in zero gravity in command of a space station.
I can remember leaving that talk invigorated to do more with my own life, I know I won’t make it to space, but that wasn’t his point. Very few people become astronauts, but that’s only half of the journey, the rest of it is exploration. Exploration of places and of your own abilities and aptitudes, all of which are a good thing to test and push forward. I can also remember leaving that talk and imagining what it must’ve been like for a child to hear those words, and how I hoped it sparked something in them to be better, to aim higher, in the simple hope that no matter where it takes them, they’d be happier in this world.
I’ve written here, many many times, about my own journey and my own challenges and changes. Some of them have been successful, some not, but that has never really been the point. Rather the point is that I keep trying.
Someone once said to me, why not just accept who you are? And it’s true that I have largely accepted many things about myself. I am bald, my beard is full of grey hairs as is, increasingly, my chest. I will never be slim, I will always cry at movies. I accept these as truths but I don’t accept that they are all of me. There is still more to learn, still more understand, still more to explore.
Looking up at the moon that night, I reflected on where my life is now. I was out with one of our dogs and as he roamed around I stood there, eyes drawn up to the nearest celestial body as it glowed there in the sky. It was a crisp clear night, the craters and valleys were visible to the naked eye, somewhere a landing module remains, the imprint of boots, an unfluttering flag. I wondered what it must have been like to stand up there, just as I wondered what it must’ve been like in those early, terrifying, days of space exploration, when the only thing you could do was keep going, from problem to problem, until the solution presented itself.
Earlier that day, three astronauts had returned to earth from the International Space Station. The usual photos were shown, all happy faces, the shaking of hands, and congratulations all round. But two of the images that stuck in my mind weren’t of the three people safely returned to earth, but of the charred, battered capsule in which they had returned. Why would you put yourself through that?
But then, why don’t I just settle for who I am today. I have a good life, a happy life, I’m very much in love, we have an exciting future ahead of us, and everything else is, as some would say, gravy. Why explore when everything around me, and within me, is good?
Well, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, delivered by Sam Seaborn (aka Rob Lowe):
“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave and we looked over the hill and we saw fire and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the West and we took to the sky. The history of man is a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.”***
Just as mankind continues to explore, both this earth and our surrounding universe, so I find myself pushed to continue to explore my own mind, to challenge my own beliefs, and examine how I live, my interactions with the world around me. Because that’s what we should do given the luxury we have around us.
And that’s how things change, how societies evolve, how movements swell and grow, and hopefully how life improves for all. It all starts from exploring my own mind simply because I have the capacity do so.
* For my 21st birthday my parents got me, amongst other things, a small holographic print** of a certain space ship that most certainly was NOT in Star Wars.
** These were a thing for a while, it was a simpler time.
*** Whilst this post was not inspired by it, I did happen to watch an episode of The West Wing and this quote leapt out at me.
January is too long, this we already know. You only have to look to social media in the latter days to find post after post bemoaning the length of the month after Christmas, the month after the one we frittered our monies away on ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ and overconsumption. It’s Day 71 of January, etc etc.
I’ve never really had a problem with January, fiscal issues aside, as it’s at least the start of something and while there are many that gleefully roll out the same curmudgeonly views – yes it is just another month – the promise of the year that stretches before us has always, no matter how I try and rationalise it away, brought me a sense of hope and excitement. I may not resolve to this or that (or maybe I do and just call them something different) but I like the blank canvas the new year affords, and with it that first month of exciting new beginnings. Where shall my life go now?
Winter, alas, is not my favourite season. For that please turn to Spring, or Autumn, depending on my whim. Summer is fine, I enjoy the sunshine and long languid evenings, but the seasons of change retain an element of comfort for me, tied as they are to natural growth cycles, blossoms bloom and leaves turn, as they always have. I have always revelled in change and find myself drawn to the seasons and months that offer this in abundance.
Such preferences are built through a lifetime and reflect my age as much as my sentiment, with memories of seasons past starting to blur in the face of the change to the seasonal months as we know them brought about by climate change; December retains more of an autumn warmth, and it’s January and February which we look to for winter as they plunge us below zero. The calendar itself is a man-made construct, yet these changes, writ by man, are no less of a concern.
Looking across a calendar, I look to March as the start of Spring and, putting aside the Summer months, it is November with its retained air of Autumn, that allows me the briefest of Winters; December is heady with the end of the year and the usual festivities, and January holds the promise of new, so that brings me to February.
I am not a fan.
Despite its brevity it remains the one month of the year that feels stuck, a month that has no purpose other than to mark time. I could be persuaded to lay the same claim on October but as it includes my day of birth, and its own thoughts of renewal and growth and change, it remains unsullied (in my view if not yours).
Other than the increasing ridiculousness that is Valentine’s Day, February holds no allure and so my mood dips to match it. A month to persevere through, a month that is only there to allow the continuance from January should you still strive for it, a month that is so unsure of itself that it can’t even decide how many days it has.
I feel sorry for February, once the rose tinged madness of the 14th is past, what then? Aside from being a curio derived from astronomical measurements, it has little to no appeal. There are the flickerings of new growth which point towards the coming months – hello snowdrops – but what else?
Perhaps it is just me and my desire to fast forward through this month that is borne from an unusually successful January in the hope that I can retain those achievements and more. Perhaps this is the downside of my hyper-aware, quantified self that is all too eager to see the final rendering of the stat-driven picture that is developing, all the sooner to enjoy its triumphs. Or perhaps it is simply an unintended by-product of the very thing I was striving for all along, arriving quicker than I had imagined, leaving me casting around, what’s next?
I’ve spent a lot of January slowing down, successfully disengaging from social media, and maybe this is where February has its place and earns its keep. The name February is derived from a Latin term that means purification. Is this deliberate nothing of a month exactly that to give time to pause and cleanse yourself before the rest of the year that lies ahead? If you hew to the resolutions made as the year turned, perhaps this is even more pertinent, a time to purify your resolve to better prepare it for the challenges yet to be encountered.
Or maybe it isn’t that complicated, maybe the slow lengthening of the daylight hours is allowing me to look ahead fondly to warmer, lighter days.
Maybe it’s just down to the weather.
All of this I ponder as I walk home. It is a typical February day; mostly grey and overcast with a chill carried on the breeze that wriggles uninvited on to skin. I turn up my collar and with hands thrust in pockets, I march onwards, eyes fixed on the horizon with a burbling excitement of whatever lies beyond.
I hope soon to see Spring.
January is over; I’ve been getting physio on my knee (it’s improving, at last!), we celebrated Lucy being four years old, and my Uncle getting married. Our wee dog Sasha had a knee operation and is recovering well. I’m still a vegetarian and feeling good within myself for it. Ohh and we met up with friends over a wonderful meal at Five March.
And, so far, I’ve been managing to stick to my resolutions (more on that soon).
- The Expanse (Season 4) – still a fun watch, I think the condensing effect of TV makes the storyline work better than the overly complex and somewhat over whelming novel.
- The Mandalorian* – If you are even a little bit of a geek for Star Wars you will LOVE this. It’s wry, funny, and perfectly pitched, with enough action to be fun, and enough character development to pull you in. I’ll say no more, just watch it!
- Watchmen – A slow burn that is worth the wait. Genuinely weird at times (as it should be) and a wonderful sense of foreboding throughout. Clever setting and smart continuation from the movie of the same name (with nods to the original comic) has allowed them to extend this universe without feeling disconnected from it.
- The West Wing – my favourite TV show and I tend to start rewatching it at this time of year for some reason. Something to do with the long dark nights?
*Link caveat: I watched The Mandalorian via ‘another source’ so YMMV!
- Cibola Burn by James A.Corey – AKA Book 4 of The Expanse series which I’d started last year and finished just ahead of the TV show. Not sure I’ll read book 5, starting to feel a bit too convoluted and ‘samey’.
- The Rumour by Lesley Kara – Quite enjoyed this, the story of the impact a rumour can have in a small town, featured some nice twists and turns once it really gets going. Leave time for the last few chapters as you won’t want to stop reading!
- The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock by Jane Riley – what a lovely and wonderfully observed book. A simple enough premise, with some glorious characters that leap from the page. You’ll laugh and cry.
- The Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe – Wow. What starts out as an easy read soon turns into a brutal examination of life during and after a tragic event. A couple of chapters of this moved me to tears. Be in a good place when you read it.
- My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – As an older sibling this made me question a lot of my protective thoughts I have for my younger sister. Crisply written, wonderfully observed, the kind of book that keeps you awake until past midnight just so you can finish it.
FYI – Did you know if you are an Amazon Prime users with a Kindle, you can get two novels a month FREE? From a selected list, you can see your choices as part of Amazon First Reads. Caveat: The links to the books above are via my Amazon affiliate link (which earns me almost pennies every year).
- Adam Buxton Podcast – various episodes from last year as I was catching up – needless to say Derren Brown and Billy Connolly were well worth it. Just a lovely series of chats with a jolly, silly, friendly man.
- Marigold by Pinegrove – a more country influenced album than previous efforts, but nice to have them back.
- Hotspot by Pet Shop Boys – sneaking in under the wire, one listen through so far and it’s the usual catchy fare.
My Favourite post
No contest this month, as ever, writing a birthday letter to my niece is a tradition I’m glad I’ve started.
My Favourite Photo
My first visit was to northern France on a posh camping trip with my parents. We drove down, got the ferry across (to St.Malo I think), and then head to southern Brittany to a pre-erected tent with beds, a fridge, cooking equipment, table and chairs. It was warm, but a different kind of heat than I’d ever experienced a dry, crisp heat, different from the muggy humid heat of a Scottish summer. I was 15.
The next year we did the same, visiting different camp sites (but always with everything ready and waiting for us when we got there), and I also went to Ibiza for a fortnight. What a summer that was, five weeks of holidays!
Then it was southern Spain for many years, with my in-laws owning property in Nerja, and latterly Torrox. Cheap flights and accommodation, guaranteed sunshine, we took as much benefit of those times as we could.
After that my next country was Hungary, a visit to Budapest with friends, then Denmark and Copenhagen for a work conference, and more recently I took myself to Germany to visit Berlin and last year we headed to Sweden for a wonderful long weekend in Gothenburg.
It’s been a few days since the UK officially left the European Union. Brexit was voted for by the majority (a few years ago), and we have a political party who drove it home knowing it would allow them to retain power for a few more years at least.
Europe still exists, of course, but it’s different now. Well, not now, the trade agreements, the laws, the ratification and debate will take some time to come to decisions on some things so for a while nothing will change. Until slowly, the change begins.
I don’t know what those changes will be, it seems likely that we will end up paying more for things than we have in the past. It may mean it becomes cheaper to visit non-European countries, or prices travel out of the reach for many people. It may mean some of the things we have grown used to having are no longer available to us, be they products, services, or just cultural experiences.
I did not vote for Brexit.
I do not know what the future will hold, maybe it will all be fine.
But my real fear isn’t in the cost to me (although that fear is real and valid) but that this is one more step towards a more nationalistic view, the return to the sovereign state, the continued focused on southern England as the ‘UK’, and the slow eradication of all the wonderful regional differences that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland currently enjoy.
Brexit might be the best thing that has ever happened to the UK, for all citizens of the UK. I doubt it but I’m trying to remain open-minded. However it’s very very hard to do so when we are now governed by a group of people who I do not trust, and have no faith in to act in anything other than their own best interests. They are more interested in being IN power and retaining that power, than any of the responsibilities that come with that.
As Douglas Adams wrote:
The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.
And here I falter. I am scared for the future. My future, your future; regardless of where you come from, where you now live, what you work as, what colour your skin is, what religion you follow, what people you are attracted to, what your disability is, how much money you earn.
And again I falter to find the words, and so I turn to others.
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. —Abraham Lincoln
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. —Alice Walker
We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. —George Orwell
In Scotland, of course, there is a different discussion, one driven by the hope for Independence, one revived by the outcome of Brexit, one which calls for a step away from the increasingly blusterous and dismissive noise of Westminster. I’m not sure what the future holds there either.
I’m not sure 2020 is going to provide many answers and this has been my issue all along, it started with the first Scottish Independence Referendum and burbled along with no small measure of bamboozled amazement in the run up to the Brexit vote and beyond.
I woke in a field in Glastonbury to the Brexit news. It sent a shock-wave through the festival that day, dominating the conversation with random strangers bumped into in bars, at stages, whilst eating food. What on earth happened and, more pertinently, what happens next?
And there it is, the question no-one could answer back then, and the one that no-one can answer today; What’s Next? How will things sit by the end of 2020? By the end of 2021? By the year 2030??
It all feels so reactionary, so short-sighted and blinkered and badly considered. No-one on either side can do little more than provide a brief commentary of guesses and blundering nonsense, sound-bites to placate the masses.
Perhaps my real fear is the growing realisation that, despite having million dollar budgets, thousands of workers, and surely no shortage of intelligence (somewhere), the people running the country have little to no idea how any of this will pan out. The growing realisation that all my adult life I’ve presumed that that was their job, to look at the bigger picture, look beyond today and tomorrow, and that they might act with a sense to the greater good, seems to proving false.
I can’t remember exactly when but I can remember exactly where; my Uncles house in Dundee with my cousin Stuart. I can’t recall how it came about, but I’m guessing it was around about the time I was playing basketball for the school house team, and as my cousin also played it’s possible we’d been talking about that. I had started to realise that I wasn’t too bad at basketball, helped by a growth spurt no doubt, and it was fast becoming my favoured sport to play given my basic footballing skills.
My cousin had a VHS tape of an NBA game, and he put it on so we could watch it. Looking back I’m guessing it was an older recording yet there I sat, utterly transfixed as the amazing athletes played the game that I knew yet which they made appear so much more dynamic and exciting. A man called Magic bamboozled the opponents and passed to a man called Kareem who turned sideways and, leaping away from the basketball, sort of rolled the ball up and out and over his defender, a looping shot that was his trademark. I didn’t realise it just then but I’d just seen a classic move from two of the all-time great players; Magic Johnson with a no-look pass to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with an unstoppable skyhook.
I too was hooked. The showtime Lakers were my first NBA team and have remained that way – despite a brief flirtation with the Chicago Bulls when a certain Michael Jordan came along – through thick and thin.
Suffice to say that the news that broke late last night was a shock.
As part of the next generation of dominant Lakers teams, alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant was one of those players that everyone loved, even if they loved to hate him. He had a skill-set that meant whilst he never dominated entire games, he was still able to control them and make plays that beggared belief. He was fierce, opinionated, and very driven.
He was the type of player that made most things look mundane, and the hard things look easy, and his passion kept him a level above many other players. He truly was one of the greatest to ever play the game.
I followed Kobe on Twitter and Instagram for a long time, and as he retired he started to explore other passions with the same fervour. He was also a proud father, and the news saddens even further hearing that his daughter Gina died with him.
What a tragedy for that family. What a loss to endure.
RIP Kobe Bryant.
Addendum 28/01/20: I did myself, and others, a disservice by not speaking to the darker side of Kobe, the side which was accused of raping a young woman. From other interviews since that happened, particularly after he retired, it certainly seemed like he was learning to be a better man and was aware of his faults. Does that excuse what he allegedly did, absolutely not. I don’t know what happens if you turn back time, but some would say it would lead to justice and in my heart I’d have to agree.
The post is written in response to a prompt from Genre Scribes: Friday Fiction Writing Challenge #29 — Tennis.
I think the part I loved the most was when I was first released.
That whooooosh, the rush of fresh air as the can was popped open, the golden light that greeted me as I tumbled out onto the luscious green grass. I know I was only there for a moment but it’s still such a vivid memory.
I briefly chatted to some of my co-workers while we waited, I think a couple of them were a little scared, which is weird, because it’s literally what we were made for, but I guess it makes sense. Not everyone wants to be thrown up in the air to be hit by a racquet.
After that, of course, it was down to business, we all have a job to do, right?
I didn’t have to wait long before I’m rolled fast, picked up, thrown and bounced. Then I’m in a pocket, then I’m up in the air, then BOOOOM I’m flying back and forth so fast, the grass, the net, the people are all a blur of colour and noise.
It’s wonderful. I felt so alive!
But then, just like that, you hear the words and it’s all over. Game, set, and match.
It only really struck me when I was dropped back into the cannister, back into the darkness.
I’ve heard that sometimes us older tennis balls see the light again but, well, for me at least, I’ve seen nothing yet.
Don’t get me wrong I know I’ll never be new again, but, ya know, I’d at least like to be used.
The post is written in response to a prompt from Genre Scribes: Friday Fiction Writing Challenge #29 — Interview.
Of course I was nervous, who wouldn’t be. The weeks of waiting now boiled down to the next couple of hours.
I closed my eyes, focused my breathing, and thought of the conversations I’d had to prepare for today. Most people had said the same things; ‘I was the right man for the job, no way they could trip me up, no questions I couldn’t answer. Be confident.’
I was ready. Just as I had been. I was the right man for the job, I was confident of that, and the questions they would ask would confirm it. I could feel my pulse slow, my mind calming. ‘You are ready’ said the voice in my head, ‘be confident’. It almost sounded convincing.
Just then the door creaked open, and a voice said “General Tibbets, they’re ready for you Sir”.
As I followed the Private, I saw he was more nervous than I was, his clenched fists visibly shaking. A child to have lived through such events.
The interview went as expected. I answered their questions; Yes, I captained the flight of Enola Gay on the 6th August 1945. Yes, I gave the command to drop the bomb. Yes, I felt remorse but I was following orders.
I remained calm, stoic, and resolute. Even when someone suggested it was all, ultimately, my fault I remained confident.
And then, just like that, it was over,
The same quivering private accompanied me back to my cell.
The door clanged behind me, and I finally broke down. Sobbing long and hard over the death and chaos I had unleashed on the world.