Short Fiction - I Hear You Singing in the Wire

When it became clear that we could no longer survive under the same roof, I sought out and found a place of my own. It was down in the centre of the town and was located behind a pub and above the undertaker’s parlour. 

This may sound suitably off-beat and interesting but, in reality, it meant nothing more than my having to wear ear plugs every night and press my way through a queue of respect-payers once or twice a week to get to my door.

The flat was tiny, little more than a stairs and a kitchen with a single bedroom tucked away in the back. There was a flat roof outside of the bedroom window and I suppose, in theory, I could have climbed out there and reclined on it as if it were some sort of external amenity. Of course, that never happened. For a start, the weather was never quite co-operative enough and also the sight of my pale body above them might have proved too unsettling to the lined up mourners below.

The prospect of this return to rental mediocrity, after so many years of suburban family living, could well have become a very real problem for me however, by that time, I had descended into an ethereal world which consisted of little more than work, sleep, and computer time.

Computer time.

So long as I had computer time, I could weather any storm. My marriage had failed, I was removed from my children and from my home, I was reduced to living in a bedsit with water stains on the ceiling and the constant throb of passing trucks. But I had my laptop and it remained my constant window on the world. I could watch things, read things, and interact with a myriad of unseen friends who loved to see me coming but never cared if I didn’t. I could weather any storm so long as there was computer time and a connection.

A connection.

That was why the first three days were so bad. I know it sounds awful. It should have been the whole break-up/missing my guys heartache of the entire sordid affair that wrecked my head but I’m trying to be honest here. It wasn’t. It was the lack of a wifi connection that nearly killed me. If I could have got online, I would have been able to distract myself, dive down into the depths of the internet world and hide there. But there was something wrong with the router in the flat. It wouldn’t speak to my laptop. It wouldn’t even acknowledge its existence. That was hard. That was scary-hard to do. Eventually it came good. A man or a woman in a room somewhere flicked the right switch and my computer reached out and was able to touch the world again. 

After that, things got better. I brewed pots of coffee that I didn’t drink, just to hide the smell of the mould in the shower and I went to bed whenever I pleased, which was never. Through my LED screen, I travelled wherever I chose and I spoke to whoever I wanted and said whatever I wanted to say. All my friends were delighted to see me back online again, although they obviously never said it in so many words.

So that was my life. I worked, I slept, and I computed. There was nothing else in that time of my life. Nothing at all.

Except ‘Hello’. 

It started in those dark days before the wifi started to work. I suppose I should come clean and say that I wasn’t doing quite so well then. I kept thinking of my old home and how it must be without me. I kept thinking of the kids too and their wondering about why I was not there. Basically, I just kept thinking too much and the aged floral wall tiles and the slow draining sink of my new home were not enough to distract me. 

I set the computer to search for wifi networks, to see if there might be an unlocked one in the vicinity that I could piggyback onto, just until I got sorted out in my own right. There was lots of networks, we were in the centre of town after all, but they were all locked. That little padlock symbol was firmly closed with no trace of a key to be seen. 

All of the networks had workmanlike names which were usually made up of their service provider and a series of random numbers. Only one stood out. A solitary network, padlocked shut like the rest but with a name that stood out. 

It was simply called ‘Hello’.

I can tell you that I stared at that network name for a long time. In a place where there was nobody or nothing to touch me, that name seemed to smile and extend a shy hand and welcome me, without judgement, to my new reduced life.

“Hello,” I said back, to nobody at all, “Hello. 

For some unexplainable reason, that saw me through. That one word on the screen of an all-but-dead laptop saw me through. When I was finally set up and reconnected to the world, I couldn’t forget it and how important it had been. I adjusted my own network and gave it a name, to pay a amount small honour and respect to the unknown person who probably lived somewhere within one hundred yards of me and who had quite possibly saved my life.

I called my new network ‘Hello Back’. 

It was a few weeks into my stay above the undertakers, a rainy Wednesday evening, when I came home to find my network had disconnected. It was a momentary glitch which nonetheless brought out a cold sheen of sweat all down my spine. As I reconnected I saw the list of available networks for the first time in many days. The one individual network name had changed. It was now called, ‘Was That Meant for Me?’

I changed mine to ‘Yes It was’.

We started a conversation in that way. Changing our network names practically every day to engage in a tight little dialogue.

“Rainy.”

“Depressing.”

“Don’t.”

“Better Now.”

“Good.”

“Whatsfordinner.”

“Fishfingers.”

“Yuk.”

I had no idea who it was on the other end. Was it a man or was it a woman? All I could say for sure, by knowing the geographical limits of the network search facility, was that the person had to be close by. Possibly within touching distance.

I studied people in the street as they passed. Was that the person? Was it him? Was it her? I never thought it was a couple or a family. It was somebody alone, like me. Somebody close by.

An old building down the street was constantly trying to attract swifts to come and nest in the alcoves in its ancient stone walls. All night, it would broadcast a recording of birds calling out to their comrades. It was loud and shrill and it seemed oddly comforting until I found out it was not real. At that moment all of its comfort was forfeit. 

“Come in and stay here with us,” the recording seemed to say, “we may not be real but we are noisy and we are here for you all through the night.” 

The recorded birdsong kept me awake, not only on account of the raucous noise it made but also because of the tantalising analogy it almost presented for the failure of my life.

One day, the barman of the pub that made up the front part of the undertakers was standing outside. He had the demeanour of a man enjoying a non smoking smoke break. He told me once that he enjoyed everything about going outside for a smoke except the smoking part so that’s what he did. 

I asked him who he knew who lived in the area and fully expected him to say I was pretty much the only one. After all, it was the centre of town, it was ruled almost entirely by shops and offices, and it effectively closed down after dark. However he told me there were lots of people quietly tucked away in the upper floors above the shops and the offices. Many were by themselves and most kept it that way. He pointed across the street with his chin to a pair of net curtained windows above the other pub, the one that had almost burned down. 

“The girl who lives up there is nice,” he said.

He told me about a girl with dark hair and brown eyes who had refused to leave her flat on the morning the pub below went on fire. It turned out she had a secret cat in the bedroom, one she wasn’t supposed to have under the tenancy agreement, and she didn’t want to reveal it and wouldn’t leave without it. Eventually the firemen brought both of them out safely and the cat was still there to this day.

I wondered about the brown eyed girl with the cat. I looked out for her but didn’t see her. 

One day a letter was sticking out of her letterbox. It looked like it was either junk mail or else the most important letter ever, it’s often hard to tell. I took it and brought it home. It sat on my table and stared at me in much the same way that her cat might have, if I had stolen that. 

I went over at about seven in the evening and knocked at her door. I heard her come down the stairs. She opened the door fully and fast. I thought she might peer out first. 

“Yes?”

“I have a letter. I think it’s for you.”

“Really?”

She took the envelope and looked at the address. Her name was Nadia Something. She looked like she was from elsewhere. Dark fringe and olive skin, a trace of past acne across the cheeks. She looked like she worked out and needed to constantly fight to keep in shape. 

“Thank you. How did you get it?”

“It just… came to me,” I said, “I live over there.”

She looked at where I wasn’t pointing. She almost smiled.

I just wanted to ask her. Straight out. Was it you? Was it you who called to me through the ether? Was it you that I answered?

“Thank you,” she smiled at last, “I’m Nadia.”

“I know,” I said, nodding to the envelope.”

She was gone. Turned and gone. The door firmly closed. There was only me and my streaky reflection in the paint work.

I went back. My computer was on. I checked the network connections. The one I talked to had changed again. Now it just said one word, “Good.”

I thought of names to call my network. Something that would tell her I was here, that I was okay, that all I needed was a true connection. I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t know what I could say.

Then I noticed the other thing that had changed. It wasn’t only the network name that was different. There was now something else. The locked padlock, the symbol which was common to all the available connections, was now open on one network, the network called ‘Good’. 

I went to my own network. I opened it up. It was easy. I just clicked the symbol and the lock fell away, broken.

I hurried back to her connection. 

It was still open. 

Gratefully, I stepped inside. 

Find the Wild Thing

I’m sitting on a train heading for Dublin. It’s as good a time as any to write this week’s post, in long hand for a change. It feels nice to scribble. People around me are wondering what I’m doing and probably thinking ‘Damn but he writes funny.”

There’s a game I play sometimes on the train, when the pages of the book have become heavy and when the iPod is out of good ideas. I call it ‘Find the Wild Thing’. 

This Westport to Dublin train passes through some virgin territory and the wild things that live out their lives along the track don’t ever seem to be too disturbed by it. So I keep my eye out, to see what I might see. It’s not as if every field or scrap of frosted bog is teeming with untamed creatures. Far from it. It’s just, now and again, and with an almost-reliable regularity, there will be some wild thing to see. Some rabbits, perhaps, or a fox, or some unidentifiable bird of prey hovering over a copse of trees. 

It bemuses me sometimes how we tend to group the entire world of wild things into an entity. I suppose it’s sort of tidy. ‘Mother Nature’ is beautiful but harsh and cruel too. I’ve never really gotten that concept of ‘Mother Nature’. For me, every life is a thing in itself which will live out its own story. That story may be good or it may be bad. More often, it will be a cocktail of both. If the rabbit gets taloned by the hawk, it’s not the fault of anybody’s mother. It just is. 

‘Mother Nature’ is one thing but this is the first time I ever remember us doing it with a year. 

2016, the narrative suggests, has been an absolute monster in many respects. It has claimed our beloved heroes in apparent droves and elevated apparent fools to higher places. It has been a malevolent entity in our lives, smiting us and scarring us and, in a few short weeks time, it will be gone and good riddance. 

It’s just a way of expressing a feeling. I get it, I do. And I know that people, deep down, don’t really see 2016 as a hooded spectre. A ‘Thing’ like ‘The Angel of Death’ or, yes, ‘Mother Nature’. 

(A hare, just now. It turned and ran off.)

But this habit of even expressing the year as an entity, it can colour a view. The notion of 2016 as an evil that is about to pass may be a comfortable one but it can mislead you. The bad stuff won’t stop just because another page on the calendar turns. People will be no less likely to come to harm when that six becomes a seven. All the bad things in the world will be no less bad after Christmas fades. 

But, on the positive side, 2016 has not really been an angry beast wreaking considered havoc upon our lives. It has simply been another year. No more and no less. 

I think that many of us, myself included, are too plugged in to the world.

I said it here a few weeks ago. We must be alive to the horrors and we must do what we can to lend our hand toward making things better. But…

I remember an image that appeared in the Radio Times (of all places) about thirty years ago. It accompanied an article that posited on future technologies. The article predated the Internet and all such things. The image showed a ‘Thing’. Something that was perhaps once a man. It was naked and hairless, twisted and deformed, and it lay on a floor with a myriad of wires and cables connecting into it. This ‘Thing’ was receiving input from everywhere directly into its body and into its brain. Laid writhing on its gleaming floor, this ‘Thing’ had been made terrible to behold, solely as a result of its level of access to information. 

We are too plugged in to the world.

I fear that many of us may define our 2016 by the things that came down our wires and into us. When we think of the year, we will think only of the wonderful artist who, alas, left us, or the 'gaslighting' businessman who made us think, erroneously, that our world was finally over. 

The wires that now connect into us are not good conductors of positive energy. Some good comes through but it travels sluggishly and decays quickly. Negative energy seems to only gain power as it travels from one port to the next. 

To find much of the good in our lives, we have to look out the window and see the real world again. We have to see the wild things – the good things – that live out there, outside of the wires. 

When I remember 2016, I too will remember Bowie dying. I will remember Trump being vindicated in his horror-speak.

And I will remember Aleppo

But I will remember good things too. Great things. Wild things. 

Some of the things I will remember are too personal to relate here. But here are two memories I will carry from 2016 for myself. 

One evening in March, I stood in the theatre lobby. Through the closed doors in front of me, a full house buzzed and waited. Behind me, a full cast of teens itched to go on. As I stood, nervously taking it all in, the Director of The Linenhall, my friend Marie, came up to stand beside me, ready to go on and deliver her ‘pre-show’. In the theatre, the music changed to Aretha singing 'I say a little prayer for you' and, with everybody waiting to do their thing, Marie and I had a little boogie…

One evening in October, after a time of repeated disappointment and ache, the hand of one of the members of my son’s Favourite-Band-in-the-Entire-World extended from the gloom of their tour van and beckoned him to come inside…  

If I had one word of advice it might be, ‘Don’t blame the year’. As 2016 winds inexorably down, perhaps turn your mind, even briefly, to some of the good things that happened within it, regardless of how small they may seem. Put them in a place where they won’t get lost in all the static buzz of the wires. 

And keep them safe. 

Finding the Truth in the Bad News

If this blog ever had a subtitle I think it might be something like, “Writing Really Obvious Things in a Roundabout Sort of a Way”

That’s what I do here mostly: I write things that people rarely bother to disagree with, mostly because those things I write are so very bloody obvious.

I’ll be doing it again this week.

Writing really obvious things in a roundabout sort of a way.

So… fair warning. 

On Friday, a very good friend of mine announced on Social Media that he had been given only a couple of years to live. The reaction to this was predictable. ‘The Best’ is a mere handful of people and this guy is definitely one of ‘The Best’. I won’t write his name. Ninety per cent of the people who read this will know who I mean and, for the other ten percent, well…

I’m not here to break the bad news. 

I’m just here to say obvious things about it, in a roundabout sort of a way. 

In talking about this news, I’m going to persist in relating it to me rather than to anybody else. I think that’s best. But please keep in mind that I could just as easily be talking about you. I want this to be a subliminal paragraph. I want you to note it in the back of your mind but then immediately forget it. Snap. Done. 

When I heard the news (oh, boy) I reacted with much sadness and some disbelief. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t good and the person in question deserved so-much-better. 

Here’s the point though.

I subconsciously assigned myself a role in this story as ‘The Person who Stays Behind’. The person who has to live on for a long time without the comfort of knowing that my friend will be out there in the world. In my version of events, I would have to live out all my many years without my friend. I would miss him and I would be very sad to see him go. 

I was so taken up with my naturally-assumed role as Spectator in the story that I missed the truth of the matter almost entirely. It took me a little while to come to it. In writing about his illness as he so wonderfully did, my friend wasn’t just giving me his bad news,. He was giving me a little truth as well, if I only cared to see it. 

He has, all going well, a couple of years to live and I know for sure that he’s going to live it to the full. I know he is because that’s just how he rolls. And what did I think I was going to do? Watch and be sad?

Wake Up, Ken.

When I was very young, a nice man on our street brought his wife a cup of tea in bed one morning, just before he set out for work. The way I heard it, he left the cup on the bedside table, drew the curtains, and, looking out, gently affirmed to his wife what a lovely morning it was. Then he died. He dropped down right there and died. 

We all know a story like this. A person who just dies. No warning, no nothing.  That’s it. Gone.

I could very easily be that person.

Who am I to know for sure that I will be here to witness whatever happens to anyone in coming years? 

Who am I to know that?

I could go out the front door this morning and get hit by a bus. I could be attacked and murdered. Much more likely, I could draw the curtains, look out on the misty dawn, and fall down dead where I stand. It’s not even far-fetched. It could easily, easily happen. 

Whenever I picture death coming like that big bus, I tend to see it gliding past me and I get ready to feel sad for whatever person it pulls up for. 

That’s not right and it’s not true.

I need to start to learn the lesson in the bad news I’ve just received. That ‘obvious roundabout’ truth is that the next bus along could very well stop for me.

My friend is going to die but so am I. Nobody knows that I won’t die sooner than him. Nobody knows that. In my ‘Roundabout’ way, I have finally come to the most obvious of truths. The lesson for me that lies in this sad news.

My friend will face up to his future with fortitude, great good-humour and love. He will treasure each day, knowing that there are a finite number of days to come and that each one is a precious thing.

And I need to do the same.