Hiatus

November 1, 2009

Things are going to slow down for a little bit on the 52nd floor. Not stop exactly, but definitely slow down. The reason being that I started writing something recently that’s grown a little bigger than I intended. Quite a bit bigger, actually. I’m not entirely sure where its going or what it will turn into, but at the moment it’s too good a rabbit hole not to have a look down. And its proving impossible to keep both projects running at the same time.

I’ll keep posting stories here intermittently. In the meantime, there’s a backlog of 28 stories here, and surely you haven’t read all of them…

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28F – Inspiration

July 25, 2009

He cowers in the front row. To his left and right there are noises, hooting, people on their feet. On stage, a lone figure stands amidst a thin dusting of dry-ice smoke. Tall. Upright. A saint with a microphone. A guru. A teacher. A bringer of words of wisdom.

“I want you to stand up!”

The voice booms from speaker cones, radiates outwards. He feels it flow through his body and, for an instant, desperately wants to obey. But just as he begins to separate from the seat cushion, another sensation kicks in. Something is wrong. This isn’t right, not for him. He can’t do this.

He sighs, and his shoulders sag forwards. He is beaten already. Others here may benefit from surges of positivity, from confronting their true selves, but this stuff is not for him. He is a waste of time and money.

A spotlight peers down into his row, settling on his chair, his shrinking head. He raises a feeble hand to ward off the light, the attention.

“Sir, I want you to come up here!”

He looks up. Gordon is talking to him. Directly. And every eye in the room turns to him, to his seat. He can feel them scrutinise his mismatched jacket; knows they are looking at the coffee stain on his trouser leg.
He doesn’t move. An uncomfortable rumble rolls out through the audience. What’s he doing? Isn’t he going to go up there? What’s wrong with him?

He sinks further into his chair. The voice seems displeased.

“Sir, I want you to come up here!”

There are aides next to him now. A gentle tug on his elbow, and he slinks upright. He walks awkwardly towards the stairs. His hand reaches for his hair and finds a disorderly tuft protruding upwards. He tries to pat it down, but it springs back, resilient.

He approaches the stairs, stumbles, trips. Another murmur from the audience – a touch of shock, a fragment of pity but mostly laughter. His jacket now has a fine coating of stage floor dust from elbow to wrist. Slowly, he picks himself up, adjusts his thin cotton pants, revealing a worn pair of mismatched socks.
Gordon doesn’t mind. Gordon deals with this sort of thing every day. Gordon is beaming. Gordon has never seen anybody so in need of his help.

“Come over here. What’s your name?”

The amplified voice is gentler now, full of warmth and understanding. The microphone leans in expectantly. When he finally speaks his name comes out thin, thin and airless.

“Walter”

“Walter. Everyone – say we believe in you Walter!”

A roar from the crowd. They back him now, they have hope in the disheveled little figure up on stage. Because if Gordon can turn someone like this around, imagine what he could do for them.

Walter doesn’t know what to say. He just stands there, blinks rapidly. His hand reaches absent-mindedly for a tissue in his pocket.

“Walter, I can see that you’re not a confident person. That you let too many things in life pass you by.”

Walter withdraws the tissue. Loose change clatters out across the stage. He lunges to rescue a coin, and the sudden movement tears a seam in his trousers. The coin keeps rolling slowly, outpacing its owner until it finds the tiny gap at the edge of the stage, and drops neatly inside.

The crowd is losing it, laughing and hooting. Gordon is unimpressed.

“Enough!”

The crowd stops. Their instant obedience gives Gordon a little tingling sensation at the base of his spine.

“Do you know why they laugh, Walter? Its because they can remember a time when they’ve been in your position, and they’re thinking, well, I’m glad that’s not me!”

Something else can be felt in the auditorium now, something like a sense of shame. Gordon feels something else, too. It’s like a warm treacle that spreads through his chest.

“What they don’t realise, is that right now, you are stronger than them. Because here you are – coping, dealing with something that they themselves are desperate to avoid!”

Walter looks up at him. His vacant look is mistaken for an expression of grim determination.

“Now, what I want to know is – Walter. You’ve shown us you have strength. I believe you have strength. But what I want to know is…”

The audience takes a collective breath, and bodies strain forwards in anticipation. This is what they’re here for. What they paid their $179.95 for. This is The Moment.

“… are you ready to transform your life?”

Gordon offers him a hand. The crowd roars in approval. The crowd seems to like Walter again.

“Walter?”

Gordon’s hand is outstretched. Walter looks at it like it’s an unfamiliar lever on an incomprehensible machine. Then he shakes it.

Their hands touch. Gordon can no longer hear the crowd – the cheers have become muffled, distant. He even forgets for a moment that Walter is there. All his senses can tell him is that he’s touching a moist, fleshy hand. An oily, sweaty film slides between the two palms. Feeling the slightest squirm of revulsion, Gordon jerks his hand away.

“I’m sorry” says Walter.

Gordon looks up, wonders if anyone has noticed. He wipes his hand unconsciously on his trouser leg. The crowd lets out a tiny, almost inaudible gasp. He looks up – notices for the first time just how many faces there are in the auditorium. How many puzzled looks. How many patrons murmuring to each other behind their breath.

His mind races. I do this every week. It’s just a minor hiccup. Just need to keep talking. He raises the microphone. The words come out strained and stilted.

“You see, uh… Look …”

“Walter”

“Yes of course, Walter… the thing you have to do is…”

How many of them are wondering why they paid to see him? How many of them will be at the ticket booth in the interval, demanding a refund?

Gordon’s mouth drops open a fraction, but he can say nothing. Everywhere he looks, people are staring at him, mocking him.

He drops to his knees, shaking.

Inside his head his speaking schedule, his book deal, daytime tv appearences all implode, sucked into a yawning emptiness in the centre of his chest. Tears sting at his eyes.

An angry buzz starts to roll through the auditorium. A few patrons make for the exit.

Walter takes a half-hearted step towards him. He repeats himself under his breath.

“I’m sorry”

Then he walks softly back down the steps, and returns to his seat.

27F – Copies

July 16, 2009

The doors slide open for me.

It’s always bright when I step inside, like a second daylight. My feet skid on the floor, making satisfying squeaks as I work my way past the endless rows of binders, stationery, discounts, all shiny, hard plastic. And waiting just round the corner are the machines, humming, quiet and patient.

Which of the regulars will be in today? The artist with the painted fingernails, who spends her time copying exposed breasts and detached limbs?  Or how about the university student, the one who duplicates entire textbooks, saving a few bucks while breaking just about every copyright law under the sun? Or the old guy who talks under his breath, and asks the attendant the same question every week – but how do I make it come out longways?

I make my way to the far corner where the machines are waiting. No regulars. No art projects, no textbooks. Just a lone figure standing there, watching a neat and orderly stack of papers suck slowly into the machine, sheet by sheet. Words. Words, and words, and more words. An author?

I watch the green light wash across his face and retreat. He doesn’t blink. Doesn’t move. Like a…

Like a sentinel. His eyes alert, ever watchful, quietly observing the emerald dawn.

You see, I have words of my own. I sit down to my machine and carefully take my papers out. My manuscript. My words. While others may come here to duplicate forms, or textbooks, or their nether regions, I have a higher purpose.

I pick up the manuscript, and feel the collective weight of four hundred and eighty seven sheets, and something else too – the heft of the thing itself, the life of it. Six painstaking years are captured here, caught forever between fibre and verb. I roll my wrist gently and the pages fan out, inhaling, exhaling. Each word, every comma beaten into submission until the whole thing has surrendered. And now, at last – it’s done. Undeniable. Complete.

I take my words, my pages and gently lay them to rest in the feed tray on top of the copier. A long, slow breath slides gently into my lungs. Committed now, I hit copy, and the machine winds up. Where will these copies go? To publishers, agents, interested parties. Overseas? Perhaps. My story will duplicate, like a cell dividing. First these few, seemingly insignificant in number, but each with the hope of propagating itself, spreading out into hundreds, thousands, touching every corner of the globe.

My fellow author at the corner machine stands, stretches. He lopes over to the coffee machine. His copier powers on diligently.

A pang of curiosity tugs at me. What manner of writer could he be? I find myself moving closer to his machine. Page after page slides out, and in between the sliding sheets I can pick out slivers of sentences.

She turned to him and…

It dawned on her that…

The blackened tower…

Strange. A blackened tower sounds faintly familiar to begin with, but what coincidence! That two manuscripts in the same shop would…

She stopped. Paused and breathed

Paused and breathed?

Somewhere downstairs the phone gave out a brash, mechanical shudder.

Wait. That’s my line. My exact line. My heart boils, trembles in my chest. I look up. He’s still busy with his coffee. His spoon scrapes against the Styrofoam wall of a coffee cup, and I hear it like a tear in weathered fabric.

I snatch a sheet of his story.

He’s stolen it. Word for word. Comma for comma. Its all here – the girl turning away slowly, the hand dropping the letter, the silence that feels like a – yes! – like a vast, unending emptiness. Word for word.

“Hey!”

He’s watching me now. Do I see guilt flicker across his face? I raise my hand and I point at the plagiarist, the despicable character. Shouted words tumble from my mouth.

“Thief! Thief thief thief thief!”

He screams at me to put it down, his face red, glowing with madness. And he’s running for me. The offending sheet is snatched away from my hands, and he does his best to bury the evidence back into the sheaf of papers. But I’ve seen it now. I know. He has my story.

He pushes me roughly away.

“Get back to your own machine!”

I look over at my copier. My manuscript is still passing through, sheet after sheet. The green light snakes back and forth. I look at the output tray. Every second a new sheet emerges from the machine. Fresh, and warm. And blank.

I run to the controls, hit stop. The machine complies, shudders, slides out a final, almost-pristine sheet. I take my manuscript gingerly from the copier. It feels lighter.

I skim through the pages. Blank. Blank. All of them are blank.

I look up at him, and a sound comes from somewhere deep inside of me. Not my own voice, but rage itself, rattling forth from my very insides.

I leap blindly for my stolen words.

The security guard is behind me. He tears me away from the pages, and I’m howling, wailing. The plagiarist recedes, indignantly brushing at his sleeves, tidying the pages of his story. My story. My feet squeak and slide at the heel as I’m dragged past those same endless rows of binders and stationery.

The doors open again, only too willing to eject me into the wintry air.  Icy fingers are already clawing at my shirt, looking for a weakness, a way in.

At the counter a disheveled sales girl looks up, pouts, gives me a disgusted glance.

“Shit, him again?”

The guard shrugs, throws me out into the night. The air is cold. Cold like a…

And suddenly I can’t think of anything.

26F – Gelato

March 18, 2009

I peer through the frosted glass, unconvinced.

“Happiness?”

It sounds like a tall order, but there it is. A bright, lemon yellow mass, softening and melting around the edges.

“Happiness.”

He says it like he’d say Chocolate. Or Rum and Raisin. Or Banana. He reaches all the way into the freezer with huge, hairy arms, sleeves rolled around the elbows, the shirt stained behind a spotless apron. In goes the spoon, and he gives it a twist, like he has a sale.

“One scoop?”

“What flavour is it?”

A curled lip. He makes a play of reading the label, leaning all the way over the glass counter, those arms draped across it.

“Let me see… Yes, it does appear to be…  Haaappeeeeness”.

I look across the other tubs. A sea of bad names. Vanilla has to be “Joy”. Banana becomes “Bliss”. Jesus. What’s wrong with Lemon Sorbet?

Why do they have to make everything so goddam complicated?

“No, I’m asking what’s the actual flavour? What’s it taste like?”

He looks up at me, shakes his bald head. He snatches up a little tasting spoon, a clear, plastic, disposable thing, and digs it into the Happiness.

“Flavour, flavour, its all the same. Is happiness! Here, try some!”

He thrusts the taster forward, but not to me. To my right, to a woman, sixty-odd, shrunken. She’s wearing sandals and socks, thin brown socks that collect in lumps around her ankles. I take a half step away from her without quite knowing why.

“Oooo,” she says.

He waves he taster with a little flourish, hands it to her.

“Happiness”, he says.

“Oooo,” she says again.

She snatches the spoon, holds it for a moment in front of her face. In an instant the little yellow mound is gone. In its place is this huge idiot grin, a mouth of uneven teeth.

And she’s giggling. Really giggling. There’s something disturbing about the sound, like it doesn’t quite belong to her.  She’s got a hand over her mouth now, and those little stolen schoolgirl giggles keep coming.
And she’s beaming.
“Happiness”, he says, a touch unnecessarily.
She orders, hands over a shaky twenty. He scoops out the Happiness into a little foam icecream bucket. Eventually the giggling stops, and settles into this wistful look, a half smile that tries to resurrect itself but looks worn, tired. She grabs her bucket, what’s left of her change. The stuff’s not cheap. Not that she’s worried – it’s obviously a setup. What a scam.  She’s been hired for a gold coin donation to pop into the shop, sample the merchandise and melt in rapt satisfaction. A bit over the top, really.
Meanwhile, I’m not falling for anything that might be there to be fallen for. I slide down to the end of the counter, pretend I don’t see her walk out. I ignore the tiny little sigh she makes as she steps out onto the sidewalk and into the night. I start to study the other flavours intensely.

Happiness. Joy. Revenge. Revenge? Surely that’s a little dark for gelato. Lust, now that makes sense, a deep chocolate drizzled with some decadent looking sauce, but Revenge?

Revenge is followed by Rage. Depression. Disappointment.

Loss is an icy blue concoction with blueberries on the side. Entanglement is a swirl; some kind of pink berry mix.  Trauma has a wafer spiked into it.

I give the server my considered opinion of the house naming scheme.

“Now this, this… is fucked up.”

His hands go slowly to the sides of his apron, which he tugs gently, deliberately. He walks slowly down the counter, shoes clicking softly against the tiles.

“I mean, who wants to eat Depression? Or Rage?”

He draws level with me. Doesn’t say anything.

“I mean… well, do you actually… sell any of this stuff?”

He looks down at the tubs. There’s one in the far corner. It looks almost black, glistening and icy. It has no adornments; no blueberries, no wafer.

He looks up at me.

“This one is our most popular.”

Oh look. He’s pointing to the Abject Misery. What else would they call their most popular flavour? And suddenly I get it. This is some sort of post-modern faux intellectual product naming concept, something to suck in the uni students, the professionally ironic. Dispense with preconceptions created by labels. Don’t let the flavour be contaminated by your expectations of what lemon sorbet “should” taste like.

Or something.

“One scoop?”

It sounds more like a dare than an offer.  A challenge.

I’m left standing with one small scoop of Abject Misery, served on a tiny plate that makes my hands look huge. I dig my spoon into the black stuff.

All I really wanted was lemon sorbet.

I realise he’s watching me, waiting for a reaction. I suck in a mouthful. It’s not bad, actually. Sweet without being sickly. Nicely balanced flavours.

And then I feel the slightest twinge. My toes curl.

“Oh,” I say.

And suddenly all the blood is draining from my arms, my head, my chest, sucking down into the base of my gut.

I double over.

My face feels wet, and everything is lost. My chest stretches, like my ribcage wants to swing open, let all its useless contents tumble down on to the floor. I drop to my knees. My head rolls backwards, and this sound comes out.

I think I’m wailing.

I’m on my knees, grabbing at my ribs, desperately trying to hold them together, rocking back and forth, choking on something that’s rising up out of my chest, suffocating.

And then, it’s gone. The last of the flavour dissolves, and I’m back to normal.
Except normal isn’t normal. Normal explodes in my fingertips and rushes back up my spine. Normal makes my arms glow, my thighs tingle. Normal is a stomach that no longer twists round in attempts to devour itself.

I start to laugh uncontrollably. Normal feels ridiculously good.

I’m touching my chest, feeling my hands. I’m here. I’m fine. I start to calm down. I’m normal, everything’s normal. Even feeling normal is back to normal. Not rushing, not glowing, just…

He’s still watching me. He doesn’t ask me anything, just raises one eyebrow slightly.

I snatch up the spoon and swallow another mouthful.

25F – Train

January 10, 2009

He was wedged in the corner of the carriage, arms folded, head rolling, dipping in and out of a half-imagined sleep. He’d drifted off, mouth open a touch, when the sway of the train nudged his elbow against the carriage wall, the surface tacky with some unknown filth. He jumped. Alert for a moment, he looked down and nudged his backpack with his foot. No, the bag was definitely still there, still holding his books, his paycheck, his self-authorised “bonus”.

He looked down the rows of blue seats, tagged and cut sporadically, some draped in unwanted papers that shuffled slightly with the heavy rhythm of the train. To his left, someone had scratched “deadshit” into the glass.

He was too tired to argue.

He returned to his corner, tried to settle back in, shut his eyes. The train rattled, and an empty can rolled out from under a seat, beating staccato against the floor. Overhead, the yellowed neon striplights flickered.

And then went out.

His eyes snapped open. The carriage was all darkened shapes now, lit only by the windows, and suddenly he could see the outside world. Endless rows of houses, fences, railings, all coloured black, all moving with the train.

The lights stuttered back on, bright and welcoming.

He exhaled a long, slow breath, forcing the air out over his bottom lip. He turned, and his reflection looked back from the window – tired, he couldn’t remember ever looking so tired, the wrinkled shirt, the dark under his eyes that blended into the world behind the glass. He stared, absorbed, looking at himself, past himself.

There was a sustained electrical buzz, followed by a loud crack, and the lights were gone again.

He glanced up at the window.

For a moment, he thought it was his own reflection, only paler, somehow older. But as he stepped backwards the face in the glass didn’t follow the movements of his body. It just stayed where it was, dull, punctured eyes trailing after him as he tumbled and ran down the length of the carriage.

The thing stood somehow, raised itself up, whitened fingers hard against the glass. And then it began to follow, jumping from window to window, slowly at first but then more deliberately, drawing level with him as he reached the stairs.

He cleared the stairs in a single leap.

He turned in the stairwell and it was standing there, trapped in the glass of the doors, mouth wide and black, an open palm beating against the pane. He fell backwards and it seemed to grow larger, the hands crowding the glass.

There was a flash, and he blinked madly, groping until his eyes readjusted. The lights were back on again.

He looked up. It was gone.

He shook as the adrenaline began to wash out of him and tried to stop gulping air, stop the drumming in his chest. There were doors here, doors that led to the next carriage, that would let him move, escape. He slapped the door release and watched them slide open, and stumbled through, and for a moment he was between the two carriages, the sounds of the track louder, more hollow. He stepped into the next carriage and the soft rubber door seals squished shut behind him.

The train pushed onwards. Outside, huge stone walls had crept up on either side of the track, that grew closer, tighter, until they were in a tunnel. The windows darkened, became solid black.

And then the lights were gone again.

He was running before he saw it. It was back inside the window, watching him from the doorway. He ran to the next carriage, and recoiled from the door, half expecting to see it staring at him from the doorway. But it was gone, nowhere, and then he was through the next door, already running.

He was halfway down the carriage when he noticed it was built differently. No back doors. He was in the last carriage. He turned and the thing was in the window, gaping, beating against the glass. Something cold and black turned over in his stomach. He ran.

He came to a small seat at the end of the carriage and threw himself under it. Overhead he could hear scratching noises, scraping at the glass. He pulled himself in further, braced, his hands tight around metal.

The sound stopped. Everything was perfectly still.

Then something exploded.

There was a metallic roar and the whole world shook violently, tearing itself apart. Glass shattered above him. Wheels squealed against the tracks, unbearably loud, and the whole thing leaned, stretched, wanting desperately to roll. It held there for a moment, uncertain. Then it thumped back on the tracks, and with a final tooth-jarring shake, it was still.

He stood up, pushed slowly past the glass shards scattered across the floor, and stumbled to the doorway. He hit the emergency release and felt the night air suck into the carriage, smoky and acrid. Somehow he was on the ground, following the line of the train, staggering alongside the tracks. His head was light. He could hear something. Voices? Excited yells trailing off in the night. In the distance he could see where the two trains had collided, where the mangled forms twisted into one another. He walked past the distorted carriages, bent columns of metal. Through one shattered window he could make out a small flap of shredded fabric, impaled in the glass.

It took him a while to recognise it as his backpack.

24F – Manhunt

December 9, 2008

They keep asking me questions. They ask me questions because they’re looking for my dad. That’s why they’ve brought me here. They’re worried about him.

They took me out of school. There was a panic, and lots of angry faces. And I got asked to come along and help them out. I didn’t want to go, but they really, really wanted me to go with them, my teacher, and the principal, and the detective.

Nobody was angry with me, they kept saying, but they didn’t sound happy. They’re just worried that something bad is going to happen. They’re looking for my dad.

Here’s my teacher, Mrs Tanner. She’s asking me about where he is. She’s sitting down in front of me, looking right into my eyes. I don’t want to look at her, so I look down. Which is why I end up looking down her shirt. I don’t mean to, but its just there when I look down. There’s pale skin in there, pale and round.

She asks me again. She sounds angry. Maybe she caught me looking. My head feels hot. I tell her I don’t know where he is. She makes this little sound, a sigh, like she thinks I know something else. But she doesn’t understand. I’m not supposed to tell her anything.

I try to pull my arms back into my jacket, try to shrink. The jacket is too big, and it’s itching me.

This room has a weird ceiling, like tiles, but full of holes, like a hornet’s nest. Over in the corner is a big water container, with a little tap at the bottom, so you can pour yourself a glass of water, if you want. Whenever they stop talking to me, they all go and stand around the water thing, and talk to each other really quietly. But nobody ever drinks the water.

They don’t say it, but I know they think he’s a bad person. I can hear what they say down the corridor, loud words followed by quite ones. But they’re wrong. My dad’s more good than anyone.

Another man appears. I look at him carefully, like I was taught, but I don’t recognise him. He shakes my hand. His hands are sweaty and he hurts my hand a tiny bit when he shakes it. He asks me what my name is. He starts asking me questions, and uses my name a lot.

He says, “Caleb, it’s really important that we find your dad”.

He says, “Caleb, you dad needs help. And we’d like to help him, Caleb. But we can’t help him until we find him. Caleb, can you help us find him?”

I think he’s worried he will forget my name. I tell him he doesn’t need to practice so much. I tell him that I used to forget it myself sometimes, but that I learned how to say it backwards – Belac. That helps me remember it.

He looks at me with a smile, a smile that sort of isn’t one, and then he stands up. He rubs my hair quickly, and then he leaves the room.

I hear an argument outside, in the corridor. I hear “just a kid”. I hear “running out of time”. I hear yelling. I sink into my chair a little bit.

When they come back, they come back in a group, and they’re all really upset. They want to know where my dad is. Did he say where he was going? Even the smallest thing? Did he do anything unusual? What did he say to me today? What was he wearing the last time I saw him?

I won’t cry. My dad doesn’t want me to cry. He told me I was strong. He told me I was a lion. I made a big roaring sound when he told me, and I thought he’d laugh. But he didn’t. He just said, that’s right. He said, you’re my lion.

And that’s why I won’t cry. My eyes are stinging a bit, but I won’t cry.

I kick at the floor with my sneakers. The ones my dad bought for me. I’ve never had ones like these before. They are special. He’d let me buy any ones that I wanted. And it didn’t matter how much they cost. He said he wouldn’t be able to see me for a while, so he wanted to get me the sneakers as a treat. Which made me sad. But the sneakers were awesome. They make you feel like you are walking on cushions.

I kick at the floor, and the floor makes squeaky noises. Like when you’re at the basketball, and the real players jump around, you can hear their shoes.

There’s more talk in the corridor. And then the man from the photo walks in.

He walks up to me and starts talking. He has a different voice from what I expected. He sounds nicer. Whenever he talks, other people around him stop. I guess he’s important. I guess that’s why he was in that photo.

He looks at me, really calm. He asks me about my dad.

My dad knows who he is. 

My dad said people like him are like keystones. That if they go, then everyone else tumbles around them. My dad said some other stuff that I don’t really remember. But I know that this man is important.

My dad said I would find him. That it was my destiny. My reason-something. That’s why he’d shown me the photo. So I would recognise him. That’s why he gave me the special name to learn. That’s why he made me the jacket. That’s why he gave me the button. That’s why he did everything. My dad is really good at planning ahead.

I put my hands in my pockets and feel around for the button. I’m not really sure, so I look up again. It’s definitely the man from the photo.

So I press the button. 

23F – To Do

September 28, 2008

So I’m reading this productivity blog, all ten steps to a better this, that and the other, when I find it. It’s just a to-do list, a program that lets you record everything that needs doing. With little check marks that you can select once a task is done, to give you a tiny satisfying thrill of completion. Simple. Nifty. And, according to the website, absolutely lifechanging.

I’m sold.

Reading the promotional text is like hearing weighty life-lessons from a respected friend, and I’m just nodding along. Yes, I am constantly forgetting to do things! Yes, I am forever writing things down on pieces of paper and losing them! I stand before it as a wreck, trembling, helpless, yet ready to become the very example of dynamic efficiency.

I am ready to embrace change.

So I download it. And it’s amazing.

The tax bill. Gone. The electricity bill, that has so many times threatened with third, final notices, power cuts and worse – history. The article for Surveyors Digest – started. I make more progress in four days than I have in four months. My whole life has completely changed. All thanks to one, simple little to-do list.

And then, I start to notice this odd phenomenon.

Every time I cross one item off the list, another seems to appear. Making a dental appointment should be a cause for celebration, a satisfying tick; instead, it leads to more appointments, white waiting rooms, condescending child-receptionists and x-rays. And while I now know exactly what I need to do, it’s getting harder to keep track of the when.

The list is good. But it’s not enough.

And then I find another program – a calendar. No, not just a calendar, but a comprehensive online date and time scheduling system. It records not only everything I need to do, but exactly when I need to do it. It subdivides my day away from unmanageable Thursdays and bewildering Fridays into sharp-edged little fifteen minute increments.

And it’s colour coded! Orange for work. Teal for personal. Dark grey for paperwork. Pale blue for medical. Ordered. Coded. Fantastic. But…

But some things just don’t fit into either the calendar or the list. Trying to get more exercise – well, that’s more of a weekly goal. I tick it off the list for one week, and then immediately have to write it back in the next. Worse still, I can’t find a place in the schedule for the Surveyors Digest article. I used to have a little spare time mid-week, but now this is taken up with yoga, and the cooking course, and self-empowerment meditation.

For two whole weeks, the article sits on my hard drive, mocking me with its haughty air of incompleteness.

So I find myself a new program.

This one pulls the data from the calendar and the to-do list into a single active desktop, or something. It also comes with birthday reminders, goal orientation tools and a handy numerology chart. So now I’m buying my nephew a birthday gift while resetting my five-year plan in accordance with my birth name and tracking down the current state of my superannuation. Multitasking. Brilliant.

Unfortunately, the to-do list has grown a little. Now I  have to scroll down the screen to see the whole thing. For some time. For a moment I wonder if the four thousand, three hundred and eighty nine things on the list are the cause of my sudden irregular heart beat, my shallow breathing. But then I do a quick web search, and a very helpful website gently lets me in on the fact that I am actually a visually-oriented organiser, and my existing tools aren’t supporting the natural way that my brain processes information.

Aaaaah. Of course.

So I sign up for another program. My hands shake as I fill out the registration form and desperately try to think of another password with at least eight letters, two numbers and one special character. A small price to pay for access to a website that can suck in the data from the list, and the calendar, and the reminders, and the numerology chart, and my latest purchases, and upcoming birthdays of nephews, and parents, and sisters, and estranged aunts, and public holidays, and random photos from strangers, all into one place. With instant messaging. And email alerts. And best of all, my lists and calendars and everything else are now visuals – pie charts, and graphs, and diagrams, and coloured folders. All on one screen. Neat.

I’m breathing. I’m in control. I am ready to start getting it together.

And then a short, tuneless ping heralds the arrival of an email. A simple note from my nephew, written under duress or threat of pocket money being withheld or similar. The program recognises the email address, and my nephew’s badly written fourteen syllable message is neatly tucked away into a “family” folder. This auto-generates a new list item, a reminder to send a reply email, which is picked up by the calendar (giving me a due date for writing the reply) and forwards a string of extra reminders through the system – an alert, a final alert, and a really very final alert, just to make sure.

Unfortunately the final alert clashes with a scheduled life goal re-appraisal. The calendar tries to move the life goal thing to the following day, but that’s is a public holiday. This triggers a reschedule warning, and automatically forwards a reminder to my mobile just in case I’m on the road. My phone, however, is switched off, so it sends back an unavailable notice that sets off a reminder in the system to follow up the missed message. These reminders are picked up by the calendar, which alerts the to-do list while the to-do list tries to force its data back on the calendar.

Now the to-do list and the calendar are desperately updating each other, locked in a battle for domination, scattering alerts, and warnings, and emails as they go. The pie chart becomes a kaleidoscopic spasm on screen, widening and contracting, flashing bright purples, bright pinks, bright yellows, bright blues. Folders open and shut. Twelve thousand things to-do race up the screen. And in the intense, epileptic flicker of the monitor, something pops inside my head.

When they find me I’m still lying here, my eyes open, reflecting the blues and reds of the endless warning messages that are still flashing up on the screen. A small patch of drool has escaped my mouth and spreads slowly out towards the keyboard.

22F – Carpe Diem

August 28, 2008

Today, I have a spring in my step. I know, can you believe it? Me, of all people. I’m intoxicated, drunk on a sense of purpose. And you know why?

I’ve been surrounded by the most depressing, morbid bastards for such a long time. The quiet, awkward ones that don’t know what to say to you. Won’t even look you in the eye. And they’re nothing compared to the totally upbeat, never say die, I believe in you types. Ready to tell you some unbelievable crap, about self-worth, and belief, and love, and the power of the mind. And they come armed – out of nowhere, they produce books. Thousands of books. Entire libraries. Popular titles that focus your internal energies and harness your positivity and embrace your spirit animal or something. It’s like they’ve all subscribed to some literary pyramid-scheme, dooming them to push books on hapless patients for all eternity.

Hang on a second. See that woman over there? Didn’t she just drop something? Let me just go see if I can help out.

No. She’s fine on her own. She doesn’t need me.

Anyway, yeah, these people will go on and on, and really – I just didn’t need it. I was quite comfortable where I was. Well, comfortable for me. For someone who regularly spends nights in screaming pain, drenched in sweat. For someone looking down the barrel of extended hospital visits, and tests, and more tests. For someone dealing with an ever increasing stream of unanswered questions. For someone who – well, I don’t have to get that obvious, do I?

It’s not a great place to be. But at least I was calling whatever shots there were to call, and that was something.

And then it happened. One of them got to me.

One sec. Hey, you ok there? Need a hand? No? Ok. Well, have yourself a good day then.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. This happy person got to me. I think I let her talk to me for a little longer than I normally would (like, at all) because, well, she was actually pretty cute, and I thought, hey, who knows what a little pity can do here?

Turns out not much.

Anyways, I was just getting ready to tune out whatever drivel she was spouting when she puts this gentle, caring hand on my shoulder and looks me right in the eye. She says, you know, none of us ever know how much time we have. Yeah I say, but I’ve got a better idea than most. And then she says this thing, this weird thing, like all the other encouraging stuff, but different. But she sucks in this little bit of air first, this tiny breath.

And then she says: every moment of your life is valuable.

You’ll laugh, but hearing that was like all the clichés at once – heaven opening, light shining down on my head, a troupe of angels with O faces. Every moment of my life is worth something? Why didn’t someone tell me? Here I was, thinking it was all downhill from here, and that my whole existence had just been some kind of joke. A shitty clichéd walk-into-a-bar joke with a slurred ending that no-one can remember.

And all along, somebody just needed tell me that one simple fact.

Look here. There’s something I can do. Poor guy’s overloaded his trolley, and there’s cans of coke rolling everywhere.

Hey mate, can I give you a hand? Want me to lift these back on to the trolley for you? Well, I’d love to help you out. That’s manual labour, and I can do that for you for fifty-five bucks an hour. Cool?

What’s that?

Ok, I’ll put these down then, shall I?

Hm. He wasn’t too keen, wasn’t he? But this is the revelation I’ve had. I’m on limited time. Every last second I have is worth something. So why not charge for it? See, I’ve got this rate card here. Everything’s listed, itemised.

Helping people across the street is three bucks a crossing, flat rate. Holding a door is a bargain at a dollar twenty. Running to make a lift? I’ll keep the door from closing for you for a mere fifty cents.

Wouldn’t you pay fifty cents to not have to wait another eight minutes for a lift?

Chasing down items that have blown away in the wind will run you fifty-five cents a minute. ‘Cause you never quite know how long that will take. Of course, when you return the item and start discussing rates can get a bit heated. Am I holding their things hostage? That’s a matter of perspective. But you can’t tell me it’s not good value.

Passing tissues I keep down to five cents a sheet. I’ll give you my train seat for two bucks, three in peak hour. Spare change is something I’m still working on, but I’ll offer that once I’ve got the business model sorted out.

But like any fledgling business, you have to think outside the square. I made twenty bucks the other day helping out at a café. You know the one down by the park? I spent two hours there making it look like they had more of a crowd than they did. I showed the manager the rate card, and explained what the go was. Really, it should have been eighty, but they weren’t budging and then mentioned something about calling the police. So I though, ok, I can settle for a twenty.

At this rate, I can keep myself busy all day. This is my job, my purpose. I always thought people who did this sort of thing were a bit lame. But I never thought of doing it professionally. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Christmas is just round the corner, and that’s well within the eight months. That’ll be my real growth opportunity.

Anyway, I can see you need to get away, so I won’t keep you. Let’s just clear up the bill shall we? That’s been fifteen minutes of quality engaging conversation, which is down here for… yeah, fifteen minutes will run you a hundred thirty-five dollars. Cash ok?

21F – Handouts

July 11, 2008

It’s cold, it’s damn cold and my toes are curling into themselves and I’m walking right on my toenails, grabbing my sock edges around for warmth. But it doesn’t do any good. There are too many chinks in my armour, where sleeve meets pocket, where neck meets collar, too many places for the cold to get in. I just have to keep moving, keep the blood pumping. I like to hear it in my ears, even if it means braving the cold. Tells me I’m alive.

I keep my feet crunching into the pavement. I’m almost at the station. I can see the stairs that lead down to the arcade, the subway, the comfort of the underground. I step faster, clearing the last few paces before the entrance.

And then one of them is standing in front of me.

I’m a little embarrassed. Normally I’m a pro at dodging these guys, stepping neatly out of the way of their outstretched hands, their plastic wrapped magazines. My favourite move is a lateral side step to the left and behind a fellow commuter – let them get trapped while I slide away unhindered.

Not this time.

He must have been hiding behind the newspaper stand. He steps in, blocking the entry to the stairwell, and he turns and looks at me. Well, as much as these guys can look, if you know what I mean. He’s standing there, not exactly in rags, but his clothes are starting to blend into his body, so that skin, hair and fibre seem to be gradually becoming an unwholesome whole. I pull my nostrils back too late as the odour hits me, prickly and more than a little offensive.

I hate these guys.

He reaches forwards to offer me a free magazine, hygienically wrapped in a plastic film. I look at the publication in his hands – there’s some kind of residue between his fingers and the plastic – a thin, transparent membrane that keeps the cleavage of some famous type safe from some unidentified gelatinous substance.

I’m not taking the magazine.

A grey lip curls back from some yellow non-teeth, and he groans slowly, a tired, breathy sound. He pushes his unwanted gift forward again.

You’d take it, wouldn’t you? You’re one of those people who says, well, at least he’s doing something useful. At least he has a legitimate place in society. Well, you know what I think? Find something else for them to do. Something out of the way. Everyone felt sorry for them and now they’re everywhere, handing out magazines, waving around signs so they get noticed, giving away tissue packets… They’re inescapable. They’re everywhere.

And so you’ll meekly take their offering, wont you? Because you’re supposed to. Maybe you give them a nod and a smile, maybe you make a quick grab and keep walking. And then, first chance you get, the magazines are discarded. You throw them on the pile and jam your gloved hands back in your coat pockets. No one really wants to touch the plastic any longer than they have to.

But everyone acts like we all get along fine.

I take a short step to the left, look for a way past. The magazine somehow remains in front of me. He pushes the publication inches away from my nose, and groans again, and the groan ends in a higher pitch, almost like a question.

No, I don’t want your damn magazine. Okay? I’m sorry you’re dead, and it sounds like a really bad deal, but it’s got nothing to do with me, and me taking your surely fine publication it isn’t going to change too much of anything.

There’s nothing for it – he’s blocking the way. I push roughly into him, careful not to contact any bare skin. I’ve got gloves on, but still – he’s decomposing, right? Surprised, he slides off to one side with what I guess is an expression of alarm, or something, and I tumble my way down the stairs.

Look, I’ve got nothing against the undead. I just don’t want the magazine.

At the bottom of the stairs the tunnel opens up into an old shopping arcade, all tiles and metal grilles. I take a few clattering steps forwards.

There’s another groan. I look back up the stairs and he’s following me. They don’t normally come down this far, I mean there’s no law against it, but its like an unwritten rule, it’s not their turf. I watch him awkwardly hobbling down the stairs, still holding out his magazine, gurgling with the effort.

I start to walk faster. I start to panic.

I hear him pick up his pace as well. No, more than that – he’s running, a grotesque half shuffle, sliding across the tiles, really moving. I break into a run, but he’s already right behind me, and he lets out a cry, not a groan, more of a twisted yell, and his hands are on my back, and he pushes and I’m on the ground.

I look up. He’s standing above me and suddenly he looks huge, massive. He leans down towards me, stares at me with those dead, yellowed eyes. He reaches up a hand, and I shrink away, flinch, shut my eyes.

He roughly shoves the magazine into my hand. And then he slowly shuffles away, leaving me curled up against the tunnel wall, amidst a pile of discarded magazines, holding a crumpled starlet wrapped in plastic.

20F – Fortune

July 8, 2008

“What do those things do?”

“Don’t touch!”

Her hand snaps out across the table, striking his fingers, and he’s surprised by how quick she is. Obviously a lot of life left in her. She looks at him reproachfully.

“You do not touch anything here, ok? No touching!”

“Ok, ok, no touching.”

What a con. What an absolute con.

He looks over at her magic rocks, worn river pebbles covered in markings and scratches.

“So, how’d you end up in this line of work? I mean was it a graduate diploma, or more of a trade?”

“Foolishness. If you do not open your mind, you will learn nothing.”

“And what if I do?”

A tiny pause.

“You might be… surprised.”

She grabs the pebbles in her bony hands, holds them up to her forehead. She starts to mumble to herself. His nose itches from the incense. He sneezes.

She looks up for a moment, then continues to mumble. Suddenly she shrieks, a wild, insane cry, and the pebbles are scattered across the table with a theatrical flourish. She continues to mumble as she waves her outstretched hand, her old, bony, wrinkled hand, over the pebbles.

Her eyes snap open.

“Not everything is good for you. I see a great deal of conflict. A troubled relationship…”

He coughs, excuses himself.

“I’m not in a relationship.”

She looks up.

“It could be a family conflict…”

He shakes his head.

“Only child. Both parents dead.”

“Ah, the loss… That is what I can sense…”

“So the stones say that I am suffering from the loss of my parents, eleven years ago?”

“That is what they say.”

“Smart stones.”

She clears her throat, spits into a small handkerchief. Then she gathers up her dress, this impossibly large, layered concertina of a thing, and drags herself forwards.

“Now, you have been seeing someone… a lady…”

“Ah… no.”

“She is beautiful… you are close to her, yes?”

“Uhn…”

“Maybe this is someone you do not realise you have feelings for?”

“Well…”

“This lady, she is known to you, you have desired her, but she…”

“She what? Just wants to be friends?”

“Yes! And you, you feel so much more…”

He clears his throat.

“I don’t think so.”

She looks up at him, eyes glassy and earnest.

“You cannot deny your true feelings for her! She is…”

“Ah… not my sort of thing actually.”

“You may not even…”

“I’m gay.”

A quiet, tiny pause.

“Of course, it is a… a special other, I have just assumed, because your feelings were so strong, that…”

Her voice trails off.

“Sixty bucks, for this? This is what it is? I mean, at least give me the illusion that there’s something…  something insightful going on here.”

She scowls at him now, and folds her hands roughly into the folds of her strange dress.

“If you do not believe, then I cannot enlighten you.”

“Believe? When you’re doing this?”

He lunges forward and scoops the stones up in his hands. She shrieks again, and pounds against him, scratches him, but he’s holding the stones to his forehead now, doing his own mumbling, and with an overwrought flourish he flings them across the table. She sits back down, crying softly to herself, rocking back and forth.

“You’ve ruined them. They are ruined!”

“There about as good as ever, from what I can see. Now lets see what I can make up about you. Lets see, you’re about to come into a lot of…”

He goes to say money, given that it seems pretty unlikely. But his brain switches a gear, and he says something else instead.

“Jealousy. You’re going to come into a big old pile of jealousy.”

“You have defiled the stones!”

“A sister.”

He stops for a minute, and then gets some traction on the thought. It snowballs.

“You’ve got a sister. Lets get specific and say it’s a twin.  I mean you’re probably an only child, but I can always say she was abducted at birth and you’ve never met her, right?”

She looks up at him, silent now.

“But no, I think you knew this sister. You used to play hopscotch together.”

This is easy for him. Its like writing, back in school, the images just floating into his head. All he has to do is walk past and pick them up.

“And you used to cheat.”

She’s staring at him, watching him, saying nothing, her mouth drawn to a narrow line.

“She knew you were cheating, but she still let you win gracefully. That shamed you. That made you hate her even more.”

He looks up. Her head is down. She isn’t moving, crying, isn’t responding at all. But he’s got a head of steam up now. He scratches his head for a second, and looks for a twist to the story. He looks at the stones, and an idea pops into his head. He imagines it perfectly, sees the two of them years ago, the sister watching from the sidelines.

“She was the gifted one of the family, right? And you? You were the supporting act. And these things? They were hers! You could never make them speak to you, but she could!”

He looks up, stops. He’s gone too far. She’s crying, shaking, shrunk into a tiny ball.

He goes to apologise, realises it would be feeble at this point. At least he stopped where he did. She hadn’t stolen the stones. She never murdered her sister. God, he was getting morbid. She hadn’t spent the next twenty years trying to get the stones to talk to her, hearing nothing more than the clatter as they fall to the table. She was just an entertainer, just trying to make a living.

He decides it would be bad form to ask for a refund.

He glances one last time at the stones, and he thinks of a old knife, and police tape, and blood. He shakes the uncomfortable images out of his head and turns to go.