All posts by Peter McCune

  • Happy Endings

     

    No one in our class really understood Marie. We were only about six when she joined our school, and even then, in that instinctive way that kids sometimes know things, we could all tell she was different. Most of us accepted her, though. People always say how kids can be cruel—which is true—but I think we just wanted to have fun back then. And fun meant having as many friends as possible and seeing who could do the best cartwheels on the school field.

    Even in those days Marie had funny clothes; she said that her parents let her wear whatever she wanted, which made me so jealous. She wore mismatching colours that were so bright it looked like she’d coloured herself in with highlighter pens. Me and Stan thought she looked like a bird because of all the colours, her big nose, and her skinny arms and legs. Stan thought calling her a bird was an insult, but I loved that she was like a bird, and I reckon that I loved her even then, on the first day, when she came up to me in the playground.

    ‘I like your hair,’ she said to me.

    ‘I like your jumper,’ I said.

    ‘Thank you. It’s my favourite. Can I ask you something?’                                                 

    ‘Yeah.’

    ‘Can you tell that I have magical powers when you look at me?’

    ‘No,’ I said. ‘Do you?’

    ‘Maybe,’ she said, smiling her goofy little kid’s smile that she never lost completely. Then she skipped around the playground and I ran after her. We talked about magic some more and pulled sticks off one of the hedges to use as wands.

    We were a wee gang from then on— me, Stan, and Marie—but I can’t remember a lot of what we got up to. And it’s funny, ‘cause even though I’m almost seventeen, I can only really remember the last two years properly. Being a kid seems to have turned into one big day, maybe ‘cause it went by so fast.  I’ve got memories of Marie from back then, but they’re more like separate feelings and images rather than complete stories:

    We went to my house a lot, where we mostly played with my toys and watched TV.

    I was confused once ‘cause she cried when I gave her one of my Barbies. It wasn’t even one of my good ones and I didn’t really like Barbies.

    Mum got annoyed once ‘cause we ate all the bread and jam. But it was Marie who ate most of it. I remember she had jam all over her face and her and Stan couldn’t stop laughing. She chased after him saying, ‘I’m gonna jam kiss you to oblivion!’ I didn’t know what oblivion was, but it was so funny and Stan couldn’t run or breathe he was laughing so much.

    Marie usually got sad when it was time for her to leave; she sometimes found some reason to stay a while longer.

    We danced to Spice Girls and even Stan joined in, but he made us swear not to tell anyone. There was nothing as wonderful as seeing Marie dance. It was mostly ‘cause she didn’t give a toss, but she was also pretty good at it. I didn’t have any rhythm and I felt embarrassed at first, but after a while it was impossible not to join in, ‘cause it was so great watching Marie flail around like a mad swan, moving however the music swayed her. So I stopped giving a toss too, and it felt great.

    We were watching Disney films one night. Just me and Marie. ‘I think they should make Bambi again,’ she said, ‘and her Mummy should be okay this time, and the film can just end with them all playing.’

    Marie stopped coming into school at some point; I don’t know when exactly ‘cause she missed school lots and it wasn’t weird that she hadn’t been in for a few days. Then Mr Kennedy, the headmaster, came into our class one day in his big cloak that made him look like Professor Snape. He told us that Marie had been in an accident, but that she was going to be okay. But he didn’t say what had happened and he still wouldn’t tell me and Stan when we asked him at lunchtime; he just said she’d been in an accident and that it was private.

    We heard rumours about her. Some people said that she’d gotten very sick; others said that her stepdad had burned her and that she was in hospital. Some said that her family had been in a car crash and that they’d moved afterwards—which sort of made sense, ‘cause they had actually moved out of the house; I know ‘cause me and Stan went to the house one day to see if maybe she was there.

    Some of the windows were smashed, but it looked like the kind of house that always had smashed windows. There was a pile of leaves on the doorstep that Stan just kicked aside, which bugged me ‘cause it seemed sort of disrespectful. We peeked through the letter box and saw about a hundred letters on the floor, so we pretty much knew she wasn’t coming back. But I still hoped she’d come into school one day and just sit beside me as though nothing had changed. A month passed. Then a year. And I eventually stopped hoping she’d come back. One day I stopped thinking about her at all.

     

    I was fourteen when I saw Marie again. Me and Stan were in Regent Grammar by then—same form class and everything, which is sort of funny, if you think about it. It was first period and we were in Mr Andrews’ English lesson doing Romeo and Juliet when there was a knock at the door. Marie came in, but I didn’t know it was her right away ‘cause her hair was so long and tatty that it covered most of her face.

    ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘I’m new. I was told to come to this class.’ Her voice was quiet, but familiar.

    ‘Wonderful,’ said Mr Andrews, who was the nicest teacher in the school. ‘We’d love to have you. What’s your name?’

    ‘Marie Fitzpatrick,’ she said, and it all clicked in my head. I looked at Stan, who hadn’t realised at all that this was Marie, our Marie. I elbowed him and whispered ‘It’s Marie!’ and his eyes near popped out of his head.

    She seemed so different, though. And I was different too. I didn’t feel like I could just go up to her and say hi. Instead, I made sure she could see me and I answered loads of questions so that Mr Andrews would say my name a few times and point me out to her. I waited all day for her to come and say hi, but she never did.

    I tried to talk to her the next day, but she just mumbled something I couldn’t understand and fluttered away like a little wren. She never talked to me and never even looked at me. It hurt a little that she’d forgotten me, but I tried not to get too upset about it.

    Everyone in Regent gradually realised how weird Marie was, but even the bullies understood that she was off limits. Or maybe they just realised that they’d get into too much trouble if they got caught bullying someone like Marie. She wasn’t much bigger at fifteen than when she was at primary school, and she had white scars scattered about her face that looked like little petals. I thought they were pretty and I tried not to think about how she got them.

    Marie used to talk to herself. She laughed quietly at her own jokes at the back of class, and when Mrs White once asked her what she was laughing about Marie just went quiet, like she was being told off—which was a shame, ‘cause Mrs White was smiling and was obviously just trying to include her.

    Mostly, people left her alone, and she didn’t seem to mind that ‘cause her big beak of a nose was always in a book. Sometimes I saw her take out some tip-ex and a pen and make changes in whatever book she was reading. After she’d been at Regent for about two months, I managed to sneak up behind her and peek over her shoulder to see what she’d changed in her grubby second-hand copy of Romeo and Juliet. I could just about see the pages, which looked yellow against the bright white of the tip-ex, but I didn’t get a chance to read it before she noticed me and ran away.

    One day, Marie came into school in a cape—like a superhero’s cape—only it was obviously just a bit of old purple curtain she’d cut and sewed along the edges. I felt like we were in primary school again and I could see her dancing so clearly in my mind. She smiled her little kid’s smile that day and I was in love again.

    I bet it took every bit of restraint the bullies had not to make fun of her in that cape. Me and Stan actually fell out ‘cause he was joking about Marie, saying she was a freak and I shouted at him and told him to take it back. And when he didn’t I punched him as hard as I could on the arm and walked away.

    It’s weird how something good can come out of something so bad. When my dog Fiver died Marie finally noticed me again, and I don’t think she would’ve otherwise.

    Mum still made me go to school, even though I couldn’t stop crying. The other girls were nice to me, and even Stan was kind in his own clumsy way: he bought me a Wham bar from the tuck shop. I cried on and off until lunch time; I just couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to see Fiver’s silly walk and waggy tail again, that she’d just stopped being alive as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

    I sat on my own during lunch and I wasn’t very hungry, but at least I hadn’t cried in a while. Then Marie came over and sat beside me as if it was something she did all the time.

    ‘I heard about your dog,’ she said. ‘I think life is so hard sometimes that it sort of takes your breath away.’

    I couldn’t speak. I’d wanted to talk to her for so long, and here she was beside me, but I didn’t know what to say.

    ‘I’m sorry I haven’t said hi before now,’ she said, then she held my hand and squeezed it gently.

    I let her.

    ‘And I’m so sorry about Fiver,’ she said. ‘I remember her when she was a puppy.’

    I started to cry about Fiver all over again, but I was also so happy that Marie was with me. She hugged me until the end of lunch, and I didn’t care if the other girls were looking at us. 

    When the bell went she reached into her bag and pulled out the purple cape, which she’d folded up tight.

    ‘I know you like my cape,’ she said, handing it to me.

    I didn’t know what to say. I knew she was trying to be nice, but it wasn’t really the cape I’d liked, it was her wearing it. Where most of the girls were trying to dress like grownups, Marie was happy to dress like a little kid. I envied her freedom, which feels so stupid now.

    I knew I couldn’t give Marie the cape back, so it made me sad that I wouldn’t see her in it again. But I thanked her and there was this awkward moment between us where I wanted to tell her how great I thought she was and that I remembered how good a dancer she was. But somehow the words didn’t come, so I just put the cape in my bag and walked back to class.

    That night, when I unfolded the cape I found a book hidden, wrapped inside the fabric. It was her copy of Romeo and Juliet. Because Marie had given it to me, I decided to read it, even though I already knew the story. But Marie’s version of the story was different; she had made changes using little strips of tip-ex and neatly printed letters. She’d only made small changes at the beginning, but she’d actually tip-exed the entire last act, which was more than twenty pages long! She’d changed it, giving the play a happy ending. She made sure the priest’s letter got to Romeo in time, so that he knew Juliet was just pretending to be dead and that she was really just in a deep sleep. So instead of killing himself, Romeo waited for her to come find him and they went off together, living happily ever after.

    Reading Marie’s version of Romeo and Juliet made me feel like my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I’d heard people talk about love as feeling like that, but I’d never felt it for someone before. It wasn’t like the way I loved Mum and Dad or anything—it was bigger and scarier and so wonderful that I couldn’t stop smiling.

    I found her the next day and told her how much I loved her happy ending, which seemed to make her really happy. She came up to me after lunch with two more books, both full of tip-ex and her neat handwriting. The first book was about Icarus—that guy with the wings who fell. Marie made it so that instead of flying close to the sun and melting his wings like he was supposed to, he flew backwards, into the night. There, the air was cool and the wax kept the wings together until he reached land.

    The other story was much longer. It was A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and it took me over a week to read. Marie had left most of it as it was; it was just the ending she’d edited. I don’t know what was supposed to have happened in the original, but it can’t have been good, otherwise Marie wouldn’t have changed it. She made it so that the nurse in the story had her baby and they all lived happily ever after in Switzerland. I didn’t really like the story, but I liked that Marie shared it with me.

                For the next few months, she kept bringing me her tip-exed stories. I read them, then we talked about them after. Well, I talked mostly, and she listened. She was quieter than she used to be, and she looked tired all the time. She was so different to how she was when we were younger and it made me sad in a way I didn’t understand. I still don’t, I suppose. But I was also glad that she let me be her friend again. We talked about the other stories she was going to change and she said something that I know I’ll never forget:

    ‘Life’s too hard already. Stories should make us happy—at least for a while.’

    I agreed with her. I still do. So I started editing books too, but I wasn’t nearly as good as Marie. Not back then, at the start. But I think I’m pretty great at it now, if I’m being honest.

    I asked her what had happened with her scars and where she’d been all those years. I asked her a few times, waiting for the right moments, but I guess no moment was right ‘cause she never gave me an answer and always managed to change the subject. So I stopped asking after a while and just let those things go unsaid. I like the idea that she’d tip-exed over her bad memories and that’s why she wouldn’t say—‘cause she’d made herself forget. But I know that’s not how memory works. Not really. So I just let her be herself. She was still like a little bird, except her feathers weren’t the neon blues and yellows of highlighters anymore, and we didn’t dance to the Spice Girls. But we talked a lot and we edited a lot of stories. It was better than before, but harder too.

    Then she stopped coming to school one day, just like before. This time the principal actually told everyone what had happened. He announced it at assembly, just before the prayer. I could barely speak or think properly for days, and it’s only now that I’m starting to get my head straight about her and how I feel about it all. I keep thinking it’s like that letter in Romeo and Juliet and I wonder if someone could’ve got to her in time and said something. And I wonder if I could’ve helped her if I’d known how bad things really were. But Dad says that there’s probably nothing I could have done and that obsessing over it won’t help her, or me.

    I worry that she’d have hated this story because it has a sad ending. But I hope she wouldn’t. I hope she’d smile that kid’s smile that always made my heart feel too big, take out her tip-ex and her pen, and get to work. Perhaps I’ll edit it myself and take out most of the bad stuff—give it a happy ending, Marie-style. But right now I need this version, ‘cause it’s about her. What I saw of her, anyway. And I can’t edit out the real her just yet.

     

  • Be Careful What You Wish For

    Dear mortal,

    I would like to introduce myself to you: my name is Azur and I am a genie. If you were told that there are no genies in this world, then you have been lied to, for I most certainly am a genie.  Or a djinn, as some used to call my kind. But I am a modern genie and I prefer this term to the old names for me and my kin. We were not made from Shaytan as some men have claimed. Indeed, Shaytan is not even a genie: he is a man. This is obvious, don’t you think, if you consider his pride, his great sorrow, his humanity?

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  • The Male Gaze: Editing out sexism

     

    I’ve procrastinated with this blog post for months now. Recently, I’ve perfected a new skill where I don’t write anything at all and just think and think about a story or blog idea until I’ve found the reason why I shouldn’t write it. And then I don’t write it. There are lots of reasons why I was a little wary of writing about gender; I think men need to be very thoughtful when weighing in on this, just as white people ought to be careful when they talk about race. But I suspect I have something useful to say about the male gaze in writing. I think the male gaze is a fast track to bad writing and that we should all avoid it.

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  • Music, Finally

     

    Maybe you’ll finally feel it. It’ll come from nowhere with a guitar riff from a Fleetwood Mac song you’d always loved but hadn’t listened to in years. Maybe the crunch and honey of the guitar will make you smile and the swish of hi-hats will tap your foot along to the rhythm and you’ll be overwhelmed. Maybe you’ll understand the way some people used to talk about music and you’ll realise that the small things are sometimes enough. And you’ll cry, then, because it’s such a relief that the small things can be enough.

     

  • From Glasgow to Saturn

    from_glasgow_to_saturn_peter_mccune

    This week, I attended From Glasgow to Saturn’s Issue 39 launch at Dram! It was great to see the finished book and to listen to the readings by the other contributors. I also gave a reading, because it still scares me to read aloud to groups of people, because I want to get other these nerves eventually. This is the the third FGtS anthology that features a piece of my writing and I’m chuffed to bits that the editors liked my submission. This edition will hopefully be available to buy from Amazon shortly and you can buy the previous edition (which contains one of my essays) here.

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  • The Diagonal Woman

     

    Because, if you actually think about it, it’s totally fine to start something with a conjunction. So that’s how the Diagonal Woman does it, sometimes, when it feels right. And sometimes she does it because it feels wrong—because wrong can be interesting.

    The Diagonal Woman has sometimes been a man, when the man felt diagonal enough to get the job done. And don’t you even try to tell me the Diagonal Woman isn’t a woman, or that there isn’t something so perfectly diagonal about the whole woman business.

    When she plays you at chess, the Diagonal Woman sometimes imagines she’s playing checkers. It fucks the whole game up, but it’s interesting, and she might just get away with it.

    One time, the Diagonal Woman tried to be Icarus—the wee flying guy with wings that melted in the Sun when he flew too high. The Diagonal Woman laughed when she got the idea to turn the complete opposite way, flying east until the Sun set behind her and the night’s sky opened up. She flew wherever the hell she wanted at night, with the moonlight showing her the way and the stars watching on, blinking, taking little pictures of her with their cameras.

    That’s what it is to be The Diagonal Woman. You just go diagonally . If you’re built like a sprinter and sprinting is bringing you no joy, stop fucking sprinting. Try going for long runs, gradually, over months and months. It’ll be hard. You’ll want to speed up—to see if you’re still fast. But don’t. Fuck sprinting. You’re a jogger now. Take your time, and don’t push it; not running today, with your achy legs, is the best way to run tomorrow. One day you’ll run five miles. Then six. It’ll be easy and it’ll be so freaking diagonal you’ll laugh.

    If you’re the kind of person who does ten things before breakfast and it’s bringing you no joy, just be the Diagonal Woman and do nothing. I dare you to. I bet you can. I bet you can sit there with yourself for hours and it’ll be okay. Sure, it’ll be diagonal, and uncomfortable, but you can do it. You might even like it after a while.

    If you give yourself to someone and things don’t work out, you might find an old ache for them months later, like the phantom itch that follows an amputation. And you might want to get back to them but you can’t imagine how to get there. Don’t worry. Be diagonal. Go on a dating app, accidently find them and start a chat like you’re complete strangers—like you don’t know every single detail about them. Maybe nothing will happen. So what.  That’s okay. You’ll be okay. But maybe they’re trying to be the Diagonal Woman too and they play along, pretending they don’t know that your favourite animal is the capybara and that you have far too many shoes. Maybe you’ll flirt; maybe you’ll make little in-jokes about each other yet keep up the farce for days—or weeks. Maybe you’ll meet up and you’ll both be so diagonal that you’ll slot together in ways you never did before.

    Sometimes change isn’t diagonal and it finds us in little tiny moments, over years. And sometimes change has already happened and we didn’t even notice it because we were too busy trying to walk in a straight line to realise we’d been going diagonally the whole time. It can be easy and it can be hard, but it’s always interesting.

     

  • Don’t Write Duran Duran!

    As far as writers go, I’m still relatively young and inexperienced, but I’m not going to let that stop me offering advice to other writers and creative people! In fact, I feel like I’ve levelled up in the last year, both in terms of my writing abilities and my insight into living as a creative person. So, with my hard-won insight, I’m trying to get some of my ideas onto this blog. I wouldn’t take a break from writing fiction if I didn’t think I had something to say. This blog post is about writing or making something you believe in, as opposed to something you think people want. And it’s about loving what you make.

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  • Ren

    Ren swallowed every pill on the tray.

    ‘Thanks Ms Argent,’ said the doctor. ‘You’ll feel the pain start to ease off in thirty minutes or so. Drink plenty of water.’

    ‘Thanks doctor, I–’ she began, but the doctor had already made it more than halfway towards the door.

    Perhaps there’ll only be one more day of this. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

    ‘Granny!’ a voice shouted from the door.

    ‘My little gremlin,’ Ren said, stifling a cough. If she started coughing she might never stop.

    Sarah waddled in, followed by Siobhan and Colm. Sarah scrambled onto the bed.

    ‘Please, doctor! Help!’ Ren cried with as much melodrama as she could muster, ‘A terrible little gremlin is trying to give me hugs and kisses!’

    Sarah’s high-pitched giggles were beautiful and she kissed her grandmother’s face. Ren stopped shouting and closed her eyes. She smelled Sarah’s talcy skin and she was young again—a new mother, between acting jobs, holding baby Siobhan in her arms. She was peaceful in that moment—or at least in the memory of it—and she didn’t worry which pub Brian had been in for days or which woman’s bed he was hiding in this time. Ren was sitting in the café near her flat, and she sniffed Siobhan’s downy hair; it had a smell she hadn’t known before and her heart clattered and banged so violently that it hurt. Ren was overwhelmed by her baby’s newness and helplessness. Her sleeping face stirred, her brow stiffened, and her little mouth, always so serious, began to pout as she awoke from whatever dreams a sleeping baby can imagine.

    ‘Granny? Open your eyes.’

     Ren was back in the hospital room with her family, her little people, and that pain screaming in her lungs and down her back. The pain was almost everywhere now and she couldn’t remember how it felt to be without it.

    ‘Why are your eyes closed?’ asked Sarah.

    ‘I was just remembering what it was like when your mummy was a wee thing, younger than you are now. Your hair smells like hers did back then.’

    ‘What did her hair smell like?’ Sarah’s face was so serious it made Ren smile.

    ‘Well,’ she paused and made a great show of thinking about it, ‘it smelled like horrible gremlin snot.’

    ‘Uugh!’ said Sarah, sticking out her tongue.

    ‘I happen to love little gremlins,’ Ren said, and Sarah hugged her.

    That lovely pain was in her chest again.

    Colm shuffled around to her left. He sat facing her, his back to the window; the sunlit blinds glowed brightly behind him, hurting her eyes and obscuring his face so that he was just an outline of her son. He held her hand and squeezed it gently. Then he lifted it to his lips and kissed her fingers. It was a natural gesture for him, even though he was almost thirty. She loved how he’d always been unafraid to feel whatever he felt. In this way—in all ways—he was hers and not his father’s. Ren couldn’t see a single feature of Brian in him. It was as though she’d budded him purely from herself, like a gardener cloning her plants. Perhaps that’s why she loved him a little more than Siobhan. And perhaps this was narcissistic, but it was too late to care about that now.

    ‘You okay?’ asked Colm.

    ‘Yes. Well, no. I suppose I’m not. But, you know…’

    He stared passed her, avoiding her eyes, and although she couldn’t quite see his face she knew that he could see hers, that he could see clearly how sick and emaciated she had become. She rolled over a little in her bed and moved her hand over her eyes. No son should have to see his mother like this.

    ‘You’re crying, Granny,’ said Sarah, on the other side of her. ‘Why are you crying?’

    ‘She’s just feeling emotional,’ said Siobhan. She looked at Colm, nodded, then picked up Sarah.

    ‘Come on. We’ll see if that wee shop down at the entrance has any sweeties, eh?’

    Sarah struggled in her mother’s arms. ‘But I want Granny!’

    ‘I know, but we’ll come right back. Granny’s just going to talk to Uncle Colm for a wee bit. Alright? Come on. We’ll phone Daddy at work and see if he’s coming to visit.’

    Sarah looked sullen, but she kept quiet as Siobhan took her away. The room was too still without her. Ren felt the warmth of Colm’s hand in hers. His skin was soft, except for the tough calluses on the tips of his fingers. He must have seen her squinting at the light as she tried to look at him because he stood up and walked around to sit on the chair on the right side of her bed. Such a sweet boy.

    She must have winced in pain because Colm grimaced and squeezed her arm, careful not to disturb the needle held in place with tape.

    ‘How’s Jamie?’ she asked, putting the pain aside, rising above the black exhaustion pulling at her.

    ‘He’s good. He’s playing at the opera house tonight.’

    ‘Lovely. What’s the opera?’

    ‘Parsifal. You know the one about the knight on a quest for the Holy–’

    ‘–I know about Parsifal, you pup.’ Ren said. ‘I saw it in London back in the noughties, when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I’ve seen it several times since.’

    She eyed him and he avoided her gaze.

    ‘Why aren’t you playing in it?’ she said, completing the question her eyes began.

    He ran his hand through his hair.

    ‘Colm? Why aren’t you playing? Do they not need a principal cello?’

    He rubbed his eyes.

    ‘Colm?’

    ‘I can’t play at the minute,’ he said. ‘Not with you in here, like this. They’ve given me compassionate leave and Marla’s getting a chance to play first chair. It’s a good opportunity for her.’

    Sweet Colm. Feeling everything.

    She smiled at him. ‘It’s okay, you know.’

    ‘It’s not okay,’ he said, his voice cracking a little, his eyes studying the floor.

    ‘No, I suppose it isn’t, but I know it will be. It’s just one of those things.’

    He started to shudder, his grief terrible in its silence, and she had no clue how to help him.

     

    A long silence held them both and Ren might have been lulled to sleep by it if she hadn’t been forming a plan in her mind.

     

    ‘Maybe it is okay,’ said Ren, hesitating before deciding to go on. ‘Maybe it’s okay because I’m going to be a second timer.’

    Colm stiffened and sniffed wetly. Ren didn’t understand the expression on his face at first. Then, gradually, she could see happiness there, and fear.

    He rushed to the door and closed it.

    ‘You’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re going to be a second timer,’ he hissed. ‘How’d you get the approval? Surely you don’t have the money—or the points?’

    ‘That’s a lot of questions, pup,’ she said, ‘and I’ve got five thousand points, if you must know.’

    The shock on his face was brilliant; drama had always been Ren’s gift.

    ‘How the hell did you get five thousand points? You’ve almost got enough for a third time.’

     ‘I got the points from back when I acted in Macbeth,’ she said. ‘Someone must’ve seen me in the play and thought a lot of my performance. It says so on my transcript: five thousand Second Time Points awarded for an outstanding performance as Lady Macbeth in blah de blah blah.’

    ‘But that was twenty years ago,’ Colm said. ‘Ordinary people’ve only just started getting sent back.’

    ‘I know, but I guess someone that’s part of the programme—some scientist, probably—must’ve seen me in Macbeth and remembered to save those points for me. It’s mad, but there you have it.’

    ‘But time travel didn’t even exist then.’

    ‘You’re normally brighter than this, pup,’ Ren said, considering a new angle. ‘Look. Someone, probably one of the first people to go back in time, will’ve gone back to a point prior to the invention of the technology that makes time travel possible. This person, my mystery benefactor, must have watched me act my socks off back then. They must have been so impressed that they made a note of my name and the number of points they thought I deserved.’

    Colm’s face scrunched; the poor boy was so confused he looked like he might go cross-eyed. Then he let out a loud, exasperated breath.

    ‘But that many points would only usually go towards a scientist or someone useful,’ he said. ‘It’s weird for them to give so much to an actor.’

    ‘Come now, boy,’ she said, smirking, ‘don’t write off my entire career. It was maybe not saving lives, but it was a good thing. I took people away from themselves for a moment or two. And that can relief can be exquisite.’

    ‘Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry. But when did you find out about this?’

    ‘About seven years ago. When this all started, I got a letter from The Second Time Programme. It told me about my points and how far that’d get me back. ‘And it told me the rules. As if we don’t all already know about their damn rules.’

     She stifled a laugh, and it turned into a cough that lasted for over a minute. She buckled forwards with the pain of it; her body only felt strong when she was coughing. Colm rubbed her back until the coughing subsided.

     ‘Why’d you wait until now to use your points?’ he asked, when she was still again.

    ‘I waited because Siobhan got pregnant and I was going to be a granny for the first time. I had to hang around for that.’ Ren took her glass of water from the bedside table and took a sip. She felt like she might drop the glass, but Colm took it from her before she could.

    ‘Then,’ she continued. ‘Then you got into the orchestra and met Jamie. I’d never seen you so happy. I had to see what happened next. I had so many people—my little people—I couldn’t just close the book and not read the next chapter.’

    Colm smiled. He hadn’t smiled at her like that since she’d been in hospital. Probably even longer. She stroked the dimple on the right side of his face. Neither of them spoke for a while.

    ‘So,’ Colm said, dispelling the little silence they’d made with their thoughts, ‘when are you going back?’

    ‘Tomorrow,’ she said, perhaps too quickly.

    ‘Ah.’ His eyes welled up again.

    ‘It’s okay,’ she told him.

    ‘I know it is, but I’m going to miss you.’

    ‘They’ll tell you that I died in my sleep, but you’ll know better, won’t you?’

    He nodded, holding her hand to his face.

    ‘Don’t you tell anyone about this, you hear?’ said Ren. ‘You could get in big trouble just for knowing about it.’

    ‘I know,’ he nodded. ‘It’s safe with me. I won’t even tell Jamie.’

    ‘Good,’ she wiped the tears from his face.

    ‘When are you going back to?’ he asked.

    ‘My points get me back to 2012.’

    ‘That’s far. I know they say that it’s all totally safe, but I’ve heard about second timers making such big mistakes that their children are never born. Aren’t you scared you’ll slip up?’

    ‘No, dear. It’s complicated.’ Ren stopped and thought about it for a moment. ‘Okay. Well think about it like this: all time travel that will ever happen has happened already, so no one can become unborn and everyone who’s alive today will always be alive today. The man from Second Time explained it to me, but it’s all stuff I’d heard before on the telly. We’re sent back into our own minds, into our younger bodies, and all that jazz… But the Second Time man emphasised how foolproof the failsafes are that stop us ruining our timeline. Whatever I do, whatever I change, it’ll be small.’

    ‘So you can avoid Dad this time?’ he asked, his voice quiet.

    ‘Yeah. They’ve already cloned yours and Siobhan’s DNA. They’ve made embryos that will be sent back in time. All I have to do is turn up at the clinic on the days you were conceived and they’ll implant you. It’s incredible how they’ve done it.’

    Colm picked at a bit of rough skin on his finger. His right heel jittered on the hard tiles.

    ‘So he can’t hurt us again?’ he asked, not looking up at her.

    ‘No. He can’t hurt us. Actually, he’ll never have hurt us—if we’re getting our tenses straight.’ They both laughed.

    ‘Is it okay that you’ll never meet your Dad? I won’t be able to explain it to you. That much will be changed forever.’

    ‘Yeah. That’s fine,’ he said. ‘Just be happy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. You won’t get infected this time around?’ He asked. ‘Or should I say that you won’t have got infected this time?’

    ‘No. I hope not. What’s the point in getting a second chance at things if you have to go through all of the bad stuff again? I know when and where I got it, so I know to just make sure I go to a different hospital or to tell them that I don’t want a blood transfusion after the operation.’

    ‘But won’t someone else get it, then?’ he asked.

    ‘I don’t know. But is that really my responsibility?’

    He looked sad, and maybe he thought it was her responsibility. Maybe he was right.

     ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘they said they’re going to fix everything sooner or later.’

    ‘Sooner or later is meaningless now,’ said Colm, tears in his soft eyes. ‘And when you go back we’ll be different, and this conversation will have never happened?’

    ‘Yes. Perhaps. Or perhaps we get to live this life before it changes. Perhaps we’re here, really here, and then tomorrow, when I’m twenty-five, I’ll change things so that this never happens. But it will have happened. Because it did. We’re here now. We’ve always been here. You know what I mean?’

    Ren could tell that he liked that idea. She knew he was right about her disease. She hadn’t thought about that. She’d lived with it for twenty-five years and she couldn’t remember the last time she felt truly clean. When she was first diagnosed, she scrubbed her skin for hours in the bath and she fasted and drank only water for days. She felt purified for a little while. And the drugs brought down her viral load so it was negligible. They told her the virus was actually undetectable in her system. But she knew it was always there. She could feel it.

    ‘But what about the cancer?’ Colm asked.

    ‘What about it?’

    ‘Can they prevent that? Never mind the bloody HIV—it’s just sitting there—it’s the cancer that’s killing you.’

    ‘I don’t know. They said that there’s a chance I mightn’t get it the next time. But there’s also a chance that I might get it earlier. It’s all guesswork with cancer—even for them. But at least I won’t have the other one hanging over me, eh?’

    ‘Yeah. I suppose,’ he said and he stared at the floor, looking for his next question.

    ‘Do you have any requests?’ she asked.

    ‘What do you mean?’

    ‘Is there anything you want me to change for you?’

    ‘No. I mean, no thanks. I wouldn’t change any of it. Not because there’s nothing I’d like to have gone another way, but because there’re no obvious big things to change.’

    They were silent for a moment, neither able to follow an idea so big, so nebulous.

    ‘Being twenty-five is the only thing I’ve let myself think about,’ Ren said, eventually.

    Colm smiled. ‘What were you doing then? Was that when you were in Oz?’ 

    She nodded, ‘Yeah. I’d just broken up with Michael Bowe. He cried when I told him I was going to Australia alone. I mistook his tears for weakness and I was embarrassed for him. If only I’d settled down with someone that could cry.’

    ‘Well I suppose you’ve got me and Siobhan; we’ve been known to shed a tear or two.’

    ‘Yes. That you have. You’re braver and more sensitive than most.’

    ‘I wish I’d toughen up a little, though,’ he said. ‘It can be a bit much sometimes.’

    ‘Yes, wee thing, you feel too much. But then, so do I. Just remember that there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to get distracted sometimes. Just let your mind wander onto something less painful. Maybe, if your brain allows it, lie to yourself now and then: say it’s all going to be okay, even if it probably isn’t. Feeling everything is the best way to be alive, but it hurts.’

    Colm nodded. Something in her words felt like an ending and neither of them knew what to say next. The pain flushed through Ren’s back, along her legs, and to the tips of her toes. But this pain was somehow separate from her, hidden away in a different room of her body. They sat together, in silence.

    Finally, Siobhan and Sarah came back.

    ‘Everything okay?’ Siobhan said, looking scared.

    ‘Yeah,’ said Colm, ‘we’re just a couple of softies having a bit of a cry.’

    Siobhan’s posture relaxed and she let go of Sarah’s hand. Sarah walked around to Colm and hugged him.

    ‘Mummy said to hug you.’ 

    ‘Thanks, chum. I needed that,’ he said and he kissed her cheek.

    ‘Mummy also said that you’re the nice one, and that she’s the useful one.’

    Colm laughed, and Siobhan’s instant embarrassment was soon replaced with a smile.

    They talked for a while. Ren mainly listened as she dipped in and out of consciousness. It was nonsense talk, really, but it was nice. Then Colm took Sarah to the toilet and it was just Ren and Siobhan.

    ‘So,’ said Siobhan, ‘how are you actually feeling?’

    Ren coughed a little, but even her coughing had lost its power now.

    ‘I can’t lie to you,’ she said. ‘I think I’ve got about one more day in me. Maybe less.’

    Siobhan’s eyes filled up.

    ‘Oh, not you too,’ said Ren. ‘I’ve just had Colm crying his eyes out.’

    Siobhan sniffed and looked up. No tears. Siobhan was always strong.

    ‘No. I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m okay. We knew this was coming.’

    ‘We did. Now I’m sick of talking about death. It’s boring me. I need some normality. Tell me about work; have they closed that deal yet?’

    Siobhan rolled her eyes. ‘Believe me, you don’t want to get me talking about the bloody deal. It’ll be the death of me.’

    ‘That’s a little insensitive, Siobhan!’

    They both laughed.

    Colm and Sarah returned and they talked until the nurse came to announce that visiting hours were over. The nurse must have seen the fear in Ren’s face, or perhaps he also suspected that she didn’t have long.

    ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘They can stay. Just keep it down and I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ He set a fresh glass of water beside her bed and left. He didn’t even pretend to offer her food.

    Sarah fell asleep on Ren, and the September sun began to set. No one bothered to turn the light on and the room darkened with the rest of the world. Ren felt light, almost weightless, as though all that was left of her was a little bit of air floating around in her head. It dawned on her that she might die now, in front of them all and it would undo everything she had said to Colm.

    ‘Right, little ones,’ she said, her voice as big and confident as she could make it. ‘I need to get some sleep, so I’m chucking you all out.’

    Colm and Siobhan looked solemn, but tired, and maybe a little relieved. But Ren saw something else in Colm’s eyes.

    They gathered their things and Siobhan kissed Ren before lifting Sarah, limp and sleeping, up into her arms.

    Colm hugged Ren tight.

    ‘Good luck in Australia,’ he said so that only she could hear him.

    She winked at him and they left her with waves and smiles.

     

    Late into the night, the pain got so bad that they increased her morphine.

    ‘I’m going back in time tomorrow,’ she said, the room spinning like a vortex. ‘The Second Time people.’

    The nurse sighed and looked around for a doctor or another nurse before he spoke.

    ‘Yes,’ he said, his voice as bright as he could manage. ‘I know all about it, Ms Argent. Second Time has sent me to get you ready for the procedure.’

    ‘Oh, wonderful. I was so scared for a while there… but I can’t even remember why.’

    ‘I know,’ he said. ‘There’s no need to be scared. Let’s get you back in time, eh?’

    ‘Yes. Yes. That’s so wonderful. My little people all over again.’

     

     

  • The Complexity of Influence

    This is an essay about imperfect memory, creativity, and unintentional plagiarism. It is followed by a poem that relies heavily on intentional plagiarism.

    In Ray Bradbury’s book-burning dystopia, the only way to save books from the firemen is for people to memorise them. Once they have committed each book to memory they become that book:

    Read more

  • Madam Felicity

    Madam Felicity was everything Eddie had wanted a psychic to be. She was olive-skinned, somewhere between sixty and two-hundred years’ old; her eyeliner was caked-on thick with little dramatic ticks on the outsides; and she wore a medley of clothing borrowed from pretty much every religion Eddie knew of, including a massive purple turban that created the illusion that her cranium bulged up to fill the space underneath – a huge brain to conjure and harness such awesome psychic powers.

    ‘Come on, Edward,’ she said and her voice was heavily accented, but hard to place.

    ‘How’d you know my name?’ said Eddie.

    ‘Because I’m psychic, dear. And because you called yesterday to make the appointment.’

     They both laughed and Madam Felicity’s generous smile lingered on after they’d stopped laughing.  What had Eddie been so worried about? She looked nice. This was going to be okay. And anyway, no one’s properly psychic.

    ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I see we have a sceptic. This is fine by me. I am not offended. Your money is good whether you believe me or not.’

    ‘Yeah. I guess I don’t really believe in this sort of stuff. Sorry.’

    ‘Nonsense. Nothing to apologise for.’ There was that warm smile again, and she touched his hand in reassurance. ‘Oh,’ she said, pulling her hand away like it was a scalding hot cup of tea, ‘there’s plenty of juice coming off you, boy. But we’ll get to that. Let’s ease in with a tarot reading; how does that sound?

    ‘Yeah. Sure. That’d be fine.’

    Eddie picked at the dry skin on his palm and tried not to think about Ruth. There was no such thing as psychic powers, but he still didn’t want to make it too easy for her.

    Madam Felicity took out the deck of cards and shuffled it lengthways, which Eddie had never seen before. She shuffled slowly, deftly, calmly, and there was a rhythm, a motion, that lulled him for a moment.

    She flipped the first card: a stylish crescent moon with The Moon written beneath it.

    ‘Hmmm,’ she said, and she sighed. ‘You poor soul.’

    She flipped over the next card: a young man holding a stick with a little dog alongside him and The Fool written underneath.

    ‘Ah, dear,’ she said, and she cried a little and wiped her eyes with her sleeve, smudging her eyeliner.

    She flipped over the next card: an angel with a horn and a flag with naked people beneath him and the word Judgement written underneath.

    She gasped and looked up at him, tears falling freely now. None of his friends, his counsellor, or his mum had looked at him with such gentle pity. Her soft eyes, muddied with tears and mascara, were too much for him to take.

    She moved around to his side of the table and held him for a while. He let her. It was impossible to tell how long he sat there in her arms.

    ‘I don’t know how you managed to leave the house, let alone come here,’ she said, when her breathing calmed a little – although there was still a faint shudder in her voice. ‘It’s so hard to sustain such intense feeling without shattering into pieces. But it’s also kind of beautiful.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Eddie.

    ‘But remember,’ she said, leaning back to look at him, to smile for him, ‘it’s okay to close your ribcage if you can’t take it anymore.’