The Greenishness

This story is probably true.

It happened to me when I was sixteen. My parents had gone out one summer night and I was home alone. It was hot, windy and cruelly moonless. I had rented the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet (that’s not the scary part).

As Paul Schofield rasped ‘horrible, horrible, most horrible,’ there was a powerful gust of wind outside, all three framed prints on the living room walls simultaneously crashed to the floor and the house and I were plunged together into silent, powerless darkness.

I don’t know how long I stood, watching a greenish retina-ghost of Paul Schofield drift under the darkness and melt, thaw and resolve itself into a gloom. The wind blew trees into the windows, I hoped. I turned away from the darkness — away from the darkness, because my dilating pupils told me there was, somewhere in our blacked out house, a light.

It was coming from behind me. From my bedroom door. There was a sickly, greenish glow coming from under my bedroom door. It flickered. And then … it moved. I felt my way to the kitchen, grabbed a bread knife and ten seconds later was standing, barefoot and adrenalin-drunk, out in the street.

I stood shivering in the heat. Time passed. I was a sixteen year-old boy standing in the street with a bread-knife handle sticking out of his pyjama bottoms. I was either going to have to go back in or explain this to my parents when they came home.

I’d locked myself out and the only open window was my bedroom window. It was brighter outside than in. I couldn’t see the … greenishness through the closed curtains. As I climbed in my lips peeled back from my gums in terror.

I fell in. The knife vanished. Green flashed. I stared straight into the display of my battery-powered clock radio, which had fallen upside-down onto its curved back in the wind. The time was 10:04. I’d like to think the upside-down numbers spelled ‘FOOL’. But it was more like …

‘hOOL’


This story was originally published, in audio form, as part of Tim Sterne’s 2012 Halloween podcast.

jfc should’ve had a daughter

if ghosts were real, they’d be far more annoying


do you think squirrels like coffee, Ed?

First published in the ‘Time’ edition of Materiality, a fantastic publication from Pinknantucket Press. Go read it, even though it’s not exclusively about squirrel people.


It looked as though this time it would be squirrel people.

hey there, [Ed]! Truly Enormous Coffees™ customers who liked squirrels also liked [insert related product titles here]!

Ed watched as they scurried around their simple shelters. It was a more purposeful scurry, a more deliberate scurry than the scurries he thought he might remember. Squirrels, in his memory, although he barely remembered the word memory now, scurried. They scurried away from
 things like cats, eagles and luxury sports utility vehicles. They scurried towards things like nuts, unattended hot dogs and other, pheromonically winsome, squirrels. They followed instincts, like the other simple animals.

follow your instincts, [Ed]. To your nearest Truly Enormous Coffees™ MegaCafe™, where the Family Latte Bucket is now only [special offer price]!

This is what Ed remembered. What he didn’t remember was squirrels scurrying around little bark huts, making minor alterations with a sharpened rock.

Ed peered over the little hill again. It was definitely going to be squirrel people. He looked up at the sun. No change. There was plenty of time. Ed sighed, walked on soft-skinned feet back across the continent to the distant desert and gently lay his head under his favourite unstable boulder. He pulled out the wedge and almost managed a curious thought about squirrel people before the usual squishy pop.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

Ed woke up.

morning is the perfect time for a truly enormous Truly Enormous Coffees™ coffee, [Ed]!

He lay still for a while. The windy desert ravine in which he lay grew a little deeper. Wind and rain came, eroding the land around his flawless skin. His boulder millimetred its way downhill, fetching up, after a handful of epochal floods, against a bluff.

who’s up for a treat? Anyone? How about you, [Ed]? You look like a guy who deserves a Truly Enormous Coffee™!

Ed remembered the squirrel people. He remembered the purposeful scurry. He got up and walked through what was now a coolish, grassy plain. A thousand or so miles away he stopped. Below him the savannah dropped into a newish river delta, with a shimmering ribbon of sea on the horizon.

The entire vista, he could see, was striped with green and yellow in rectangular patches. He thought he could make out artificial ponds and cataracts in the rivers. In several places, clusters of structures stood. They were very tall and narrow, pocked with neat holes. As he approached one he saw long, furry-tailed figures, almost his size, moving amongst them with a purpose and intelligence that had millennia ago discarded any association with the word ‘scurry’.

Ed was right. It was squirrel people this time.

Hooray, [Ed]! Let’s celebrate! Guess how!

He stepped behind a tree. It was very important that the squirrel people did not see him. Not after everything that had happened with the Octomeleons.

those Octomeleons were really keen, weren’t they, [Ed]? As keen as we are on our new range of Long Machiatotalitarians™!

Thinking of the Octomeleons made Ed pause for a few days. The memories he thought he remembered about the Octomeleons were unpleasantly bloody, and sparked even more ancient memories. Worse memories. Memories of the Aftermen.

Ed cast about himself anxiously, and seeing no more convenient option, quickly strangled himself with a hanging vine.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

On waking, Ed’s first reaction was nostalgia, as it had been such a long time since he had seen metal or felt panic.

He was strapped to a table in a high-walled, narrow metal room. Above him loomed several tall, furry figures, their toothy faces partly obscured by what appeared to be shiny, blinking instruments hooked over their cute little ears.

at times of stress, [Ed], treat yourself with a Massive Mocha™!

Ed almost struggled, but by the time the impulse had even begun to form one of the squirrel people had clambered up the wall to one of several neatly constructed niches, fussed inside for a moment, then returned head-first with several larger instruments in its arms.

The squirrel people began to move about Ed fast, far too fast. Ed had not directly experienced action faster than a glacier in a very long time. The sudden lurch of temporal perspective dizzied him. He thought he might vomit, but he couldn’t remember having eaten in several million years, so he stopped, on the grounds it would seem unnecessarily theatrical.

The squirrels were communicating with each other in slow, measured squeaks and nuanced grunts across Ed’s prone figure. Ed’s consciousness oscillated as his brain hurtled back to a speed he had chosen to abandon. As he began to black out, a squirrel person wiggled its nose decisively, leaned over Ed and placed a single, simple apparatus onto his face.

Ed gasped. He felt his mind open, accelerate, spread out and reveal itself. Wizened pathways unfurled; old knowledge leapt back to life.

All his memories rose up from the grave.

He remembered the Octomeleons first. It had only been a hundred or so million years ago. Ed had been excited to observe the Octomeleons, had hardly been able to wait as he watched them evolve from the ocean to the land, using their problem-solving brains and unsurpassed pattern- matching chromatophores to quickly establish a dominant position in their environment.

He remembered anonymously, silently abetting their progress towards a uniquely Octomeleonic form of civilisation. A model bark hut here; a subtly scratched example of arithmetical notation there. They rapidly developed language, culture, domestication, social and political stability. A highly honed form of etiquette based on strategically replicating fashionable wallpaper patterns on the skin.

Then he remembered the day when, finally convinced they were ready, he revealed himself to the Octomeleons: their invisible benefactor, multimillennial all-father, god.

About two thirds of them died in the ensuing global religious war before it occurred them to kill their god. They killed him and killed him, but Ed always, increasingly sheepishly, rose on the third day.

The surviving Octomeleons who didn’t die of theological despair eventually starved themselves by mutual agreement.

Ed watched as the squirrel people scanned, read and processed these memories. The tall room was silent. Without discussion, they adjusted the instrument on Ed’s beautiful, perfectly symmetrical face. It dug further into his brain.

wow, you’re the victim of horrible medical experiments, [Ed]! Buy a coffee!

Ed didn’t feel pain, because that was taken care of, and it was taken care of now, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

He remembered his life. His first life, among his own species. He was respected, a scientist, a healer, a searcher. He fought death, the great encompassing anxiety of his species. He dreamed of a world in which death had been defeated, suffering eliminated, decay and imperfection banished.

A world in which people would continue forever, their perfected physical forms unchanging, finally free to fulfil their grand, spiritual and material potential.

He remembered his breakthrough. Developing it in secret so it could be free for everyone, not monopolised by the powerful. Ingesting it first, in the noble tradition of self-experimentation. Sending the machines into himself, the tiny machines that would repair any damage, correct any flaw, prevent all decay, perfectly preserve the body at an atomic level.

And they worked.

hey, [Ed]! Yay, we work! You work hard too, and that’s why you deserve a Truly Enormous Coffee™!

It had perhaps been a mistake to make up a fake sponsor at the last minute to test the machines’ social media advertising system. It probably wouldn’t even be needed, once the liberated super- species transcended economies and money, but what the hell. He could tweak that later.

Plenty of time.

He told no one at first. He had to be sure it was safe. Humans died, died for decades and centuries, while he lived discreetly, the secret next step in human development. He slipped through society undiscovered, undying and undecided. He watched them bicker and war. Maybe humanity wasn’t ready quite yet.

And then time passed, and his attention span began to slip. One day, jolted from a dream into action, he came forward. But his species had moved on. Generations had passed. Thousands of generations. It had been much longer than he had thought. Had he slept? Why was everyone so tall now?

Ed, the perfect specimen, the fulfilled man, immortal, had been superseded.

The Aftermen cast him out, an unfashionable throwback. He wandered the emptier spaces while they warred, explored, evolved and then, unexpectedly, left. He saw traces of them across the sky, long clouds disappearing up. But by then he’d stopped thinking so quickly.

It was terribly silent after that. He died. Ed died frequently. He tried very hard to die. He bathed in lava. He leapt from cliffs onto carefully prepared spikes. He weighted himself and dove into the sea. His body broke, burned, bubbled. But always:

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

And then the Octomeleons, and then long silence again. And now squirrel people. Ed looked up at them. He knew he was seeing a brand new squirrel person facial expression, because no squirrel person had ever learned what these squirrel people had just learned.

He knew what they must do.

do you think squirrels like coffee, [Ed]?

Ed flexed his perfect, toned muscles. The bindings were strong. The squirrel people clambered back up the wall to gather more instruments.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

For a while, events moved faster than Ed was able to follow.

In time, things settled down again. Ed avoided the immortal squirrel scientists. They haunted the remains of the long-abandoned squirrel people civilisation, bashing in their perfectly furry little heads, screaming for coffee, scurrying shamefully like their far-distant ancestor species, their descent from which they never discovered before bringing it to a halt.

Ed couldn’t remember anymore what had happened with the rest of the squirrel people. They’d got awfully tall.

There were more people after that. A kind of vast hive-sentience developed among giant wasps. The fungi were doing interesting things. Things got into and out of oceans, trees, the sky and in one case an acid lake. Ed observed it all from a careful distance, never appearing in their cultures as anything more than a blurry, crypto-zoological myth.

Then it grew hotter, and nothing else was alive.
Ed watched the sun. It was close now, he knew it.
It grew hotter still. Much of the surface of the planet liquidised. The air turned to sulphuric acid.

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

Through constantly reconstituted eyeballs Ed saw it happen. The sun reached out, reached further, kissed the surface of the planet and Ed’s grateful, shiny skin.

His last thought, before he melted into the solar wind, was ‘this had better work.’

… tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika tika …

boy, [Ed], the dead interstellar void is cold! You know what you need?

We need to talk about the hippopotamus

Some weeks you’re moodily incubating a brilliant idea, some you’re just a surly, frustrated arsehole.

In the best weeks, it’s both.

This week, I’m bereft. I’ve surled and mooded my way through an entire week to find myself marooned at my desert island of a desk without an idea or a Man Friday to help me find one, partly because I don’t have a Man Friday but mostly because I’m pretty sure just imagining having one is quite racist.

So it’s Manless Friday, I have no ideas and I might be an imaginary racist.

Brilliant.

I have a strategy for this moment. I look up. It’s desperate and unpleasant, but needs must.

On the brick wall beyond my laptop there is a fluttering spray of curly post-it notes upon which I have written every half-formed, random and/or incomprehensible idea I ever spurned. I tell myself I keep them to remind me to be discerning.

That is not why I keep them.

I extend a hand towards them now. It means reaching over my laptop lid. If I can just do it without disturbing —

I don’t know why you think sneaking past me will work, preek.

—the plastic pteranodon blu-tacked to my laptop lid.

‘Shush,’ I say. ‘I need to do this, and I need to do it with an open mind.’

It’s not so much your scryeee belief that I’m an over-vigilant pteranodon that disturbs me, says the Pteranodon of Ptruth, as your belief that my mind might have been elsewhere for a moment. Kraaaaaarg.

‘I’m not listening to you,’ I say.

Then how can I be talking? I think we need to discuss this. Kah kahkaaaaah.

‘No!’ I say. ‘Discuss it with someone else.’

Someone else? Dear oh Lord, gAAAAaaaaaahrag. You were one of those kids who wondered what Ossie Ostrich got up to during the week, weren’t you?

‘HE STAYED IN HIS BOX BECAUSE HE LIKED HIS PRIVACY. Listen, shut it. I’m done with you. You were a one-off event, a brain explosion brought on by stress and general weirdness, but I don’t need you anymore. I’ve got plenty of better ways of telling stories. Look, I keep a wall full of them.’

Ah yes, the Wall. Now, are you sure —

‘Quiet. As if I need a plastic toy to construct a narrative. I can pick from dozens. Watch this. Today’s new idea is on its way.’

I reach out and pluck a random post-it from the wall. It reads:

HE’S A COP WHO’LL STOP AT NOTHING TO GET TO THE TRUTH

— He should stop at some things. List of things he should stop at:

  • releasing sarin gas
  • eating baby
  • molesting old hippopotamus

There is a long silence.

‘Do you think imagining Man Friday is racist?’ I ask.

I think, says the Pteranodon of Ptruth, that we need to talk about the hippopotamus.

The parable of the naked smorgasbord doppelganger

I can’t make an ellipsis, and it’s killing me.

It’s usually fatal, yes. Kraaa.

I try doing three full stops. They fail to automatically team up into a single glyph. I bemoan the decline of the Spirit of the Blitz.

Oh sure, World War Two Londoners had no trouble persuading three little dots to shift slightly closer together, scrawk raag, what with their communal sense of punctuation. On their laptop screens. In 1940s England. I expect that was what kept them safe from all those bombs. This is just like that.

I try doing an em dash, and I can’t do that either. I also can’t do diacritical marks, leaving the accented words I type creepily naked, like a doppelganger eating crepes at a cafe smorgasbord. I want to kill myself.

Funny you should say that, craaaAAAaw. It’s a little known fact that keyboard gremlins are usually what set off those self-immolating Tibetan monks.

I look up. The Pteranodon of Ptruth gazes back at me from its blu-tack perch on top of my new laptop.

Sorry, was I talking out loud? Sreeg.

‘I know where you’re going with this.’

Only I was just thinking—

‘Don’t you dare.’

that there is

‘I paid good money for this thing.’

a hashtag for this. Preek.

I #headdesk. #FML, I think. #WTF. #PteranodonofPtruth.

Warmer. Warmer. Red hot. Cold. Squeee.

I lurch up from my keyboard. ‘I know which arse-bastarding hashtag you mean!’ I say. ‘It’s for people who moan about scorched latte milk or slightly inferior jalapeños in their ten-dollar food-truck tacos!’

Um—

‘THIS IS NOT A FIRST-WORLD PROBLEM. Well it is, but it’s a proper one. I paid quite a lot of money for this laptop, which I need to use for my job, which is writing. If I can’t type some characters I need … well, it’s more or less useless.’

— have you noticed —

‘Quiet, I’m monologuing. If the laptop can’t do its job, then all my first-world money, and the first-world money that went into designing it, and the third-world labour that built it, and the rare elements they dug out of third-world countries to make it, are wasted. It’s like someone bought a luxury yacht and it turned out there were no toilets on it. Yes the yacht is luxurious, but it’s still a problem if the rich nobs on board have to crap over the side—’

— would you just —

‘I’m not some frivolous roué in a … in some sort of façade of—’

PREEEEEK.

‘What?’

Say that second last word again.

‘Façade. Why?’

Oh.

‘Why’s that suddenly working?’

I think you head-butted the ‘num lock’ key before. Gräk.

‘Is that … which one is — oh. It’s quite hard to see in that corner.’

The Pteranodon of truth looks at me. Äänittäjää, it says.

‘Is that a pteranodon swear?’ I ask.

I think it’s Finnish for ‘recording engineer’, says the pteranodon. But it’ll do for now.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune.

I don’t know, I’m a god damn pteranodon

I just blu-tacked my pteranodon to my monitor. If this were a euphemism I’d have already called an ambulance.

It’s not a euphemism. It’s a two-inch tall plastic pteranodon. I don’t know why I’ve suddenly blu-tacked it to my monitor, and now I don’t have long to find out, because I’ve just returned from my boss’s office, where I quit my job.

The pteranodon gazes levelly at me, or at least as levelly as pteranodon can gaze who is permanently posed in a wings-out, gape-jawed, waiting-for-Ray-Harryhausen-to-call-action stance.

Are you, it shrieks cretaceously, absolutely sure about this? Raark.

‘Sssh,’ I say. ‘I’ve got all these emails to look at.’

I look at the emails. The pteranodon looks at me. It has no choice.

It’s just—

‘I’m not listening.’

Yet here I am talking, caw.

I look up from the emails. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Yes you do, screech. Just look at you, sweating, edgy, openly anthropomorphising a plastic dinosaur during work hours like a common nine year-old. You think you’ve made a mistake, graaa raark, don’t you?

I pick at a bit of nothing on my desk. ‘Actually, pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, they’re pterosaurs. You see, dinosaurs fall into two groups, saurischia and ornithis—’

You think, insists the pteranodon, that you’ve made a mistake.

I look the pteranodon in its tiny, inexpertly painted, basilisk eye. ‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Maybe. But it’s done now, isn’t it? The decision’s made, so I hardly need a plastic party favour talking smack about it.’

Hey, you put me here, scrawk.

‘And I could easily replace you. Look, this drawer has three other plastic dinosaurs in it and a paper crane my friend made out of a headshot of Kevin McCloud—’

I’m not a dinosaur, preek.

‘“Preek”? What the hell kind of made up crap is “preek”?’

Oh sure, because you know what sound pteranodons make. In the wild. Here in Parkville, in 2013, in the wild. Preek.

‘I KNOW ALL KINDS OF THINGS, YOU TINY PLASTIC PRICK. I’m clever. I haven’t made a mistake. I’m not leaving this team of dedicated health workers in the lurch, because there are loads of people who could come and write their vital online psychological interventions. It’s totally okay and not at all selfish and cowardly for me to quit now. I like me.

‘And someone else will definitely employ me. Almost definitely. You’ll see. When I leave here with my specific plan to write something and then something else and then five book deal and then something something massive success and buy a castle, and you’re a gargoyle blu-tacked to one of my lesser crenellations, you’re going to look back on this churlish doubt of yours and feel,’ I say to the plastic pteranodon stuck to my monitor, ‘very foolish indeed.’

I sit back triumphantly in my swivel chair. The pteranodon stares at me. Jaws agape.

What the hell are you talking about?

‘What?’

I was asking you, says the pteranodon, if you thought it was a good idea to stick a toy to your monitor.

I look at the pteranodon.

You share this desk. Someone called Jane uses it half the week.

‘Does she like dinosaurs?’ I ask.

I don’t know, says the pteranodon with a sigh. I’m a god damn pteranodon.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune.

The writer’s blog tour

Last month Chris Miles tagged me in the Writer’s Blog Tour. The idea is that Writers challenge some colleagues to answer the same four questions on their Blog, after which they are allowed to Tour the local milk bar, where there are usually at least two Lemon Calippos left, unless the damn School Kids have cleaned it out first.

Which means I need to get cracking.

What am I working on?

I once argued that typing is not writing in the same way that a bottle of tequila is not a jug of margaritas, but in both cases it seems that a really ardent commitment to the former can, in a very real sense, do the trick. So to stick to work I’m currently adding words to today, the list is:

  • a young adult novel, working title The Orchard Underground, in which a kid discovers a giant, wonderful secret under his boring home town, and then realises that one of them will destroy the other and only he can choose which
  • a children’s adventure book series, currently untitled and in its very earliest days, involving twin ten year-old detectives, a mystery granddad and, possibly, capes
  • (very much for my own amusement) a TV series in which a spectacularly inept documentary film crew follows, and generally terribly exacerbates, a series of bitter interpersonal feuds

But.

You know when you’re working hard, on something you love, and you’re totally into it, and then … BAM, you suddenly wake up to find you’ve been staring out the window for ten minutes with a completely different thing dancing around your mind?

That. All the time. So before, after, during and far too frequently instead of work on my current projects, there’s a non-stop burble of ideas, sentences, names, images, scenes, stories. Some have pretty clear shapes, but most don’t. I’m working on those, all the time, right now as I type this. While I’m toasting the sandwiches. As I’m filling the margarita jug. Which is a metaphorical margarita jug. It definitely is.

*throws hanky over webcam*

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

I don’t have an easy answer to questions about genre, and it’s mostly, I think, because I haven’t got one, yet.

If I were a more ambitious, career-minded writer, I’d have a chosen a genre and readership long ago, worked hard to write good books to appeal to those readers and established myself as a known and respected writer of, say, true crime cookbooks or celebrity animal autobiographies.

I admire writers like these, both because they have a clear sense of what they want to achieve and because — and I can’t stress this enough — their books are actually in bookshops, on bookshop counters, in bags on the way home from bookshops and on nightstands, where a receipt for $24.95 makes a natty bookmark.

I haven’t worked like this, at least not yet. I’m a genre and readership pinball: to pick a few examples, I’ve written a science-fiction comedy novel, a series of columns on the subject of doubt, a children’s adventure story, a regular sports column (don’t ask) and, most recently, a three-year, PhD-length set of online therapy resources for young people who have had an episode of psychosis.

But all of those projects inform each other, and they’re all informing the YA novel and children’s series I’m working on now. It’s important to be across the genre you’re writing in — there’s nothing artistically or commercially helpful about spending a year writing a book to discover that Rainbow Rowell wrote the same thing only better a year ago — but I like my influences to be far broader. The books I’m currently writing are influenced by Axe Cop and Jorge Luis Borges and tsunami videos and a drawing my son did of a robot chicken being piloted by Princess Bubblegum and a picture I found on the net of a motorbike grown into a tree.

Someone can tell me later how that story differs from others in my genre. Although if all of that turns up in Rainbow Rowell’s next novel I’ll be livid.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I can. I am always — every minute of every day — aware of the unfairly luxurious nature of my career. I’m not working hand-to-mouth, so I can choose my projects. I can’t justify that colossal, unearned privilege, so I try to make what I do worth it. I write only what I love, what other people might love, what I haven’t already seen elsewhere and what I think I might be able to do well.

Beyond that — because of that — I don’t question. Douglas Adams once said he didn’t know what he seriously thought about something until he’d worked out exactly the right joke to make about it, and I expect I’m similarly afflicted. I can’t seem to help writing comedy, but the subject of that comedy usually turns out to be something I care about far more than I realised at the time. I think maybe I write comedy as a form of compassion, not to prick holes in something but to empathise with it, so I’m never tempted to put myself above it.

I also quite like cocks, so there’s a lot of that in there too.

How does my writing process work?

This is where, ideally, a sequence of neat, informative and confident dot points about my daily routine would arrange themselves. The first would read:

  • 5am: idea, first thousand words

and the last:

  • buy castle, retire

I’m a lot more chaotic than that, and if there’s a single most important thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer, it’s that that works for me. I plan, write and edit my current novel using a random combination of cardboard system cards, a loose, wall-sized whiteboard that sits on my lap, a folder full of scribbled notes, various files on my laptop and a wall covered in blu-tacked reference images. Some days I need them all: some I sit and type like a demon. Some days I make a hundred words in eight hours: others I watch the Daily Show and try on every hat in my house three times until I hate myself, then sit down and turn out a thousand words in forty five minutes.

If I get stuck, I change tack. If that doesn’t work, I open a new file and start typing absolutely anything until it does work. If that doesn’t work, I get the hell out of there. Some days it’s better if you don’t touch anything.

And then I keep doing that. It’s messy and unromantic, but it works, at least until I think of something better or become a shepherd.

*

Now my favourite part of this exercise, in which I get to tag three other writers to answer these questions. Here they are:

Amy Gray is the author of most of the best columns getting written round these parts, and is also my only trusted source of news on Japanese dating sims.

Siv Parker is a writer and screenwriter whose hypnotic tweetyarns have been haunting my Twitter feed in a way that makes me crazy that I didn’t think of it first.

Josh Vann is a designer, illustrator, teacher and writer currently collaborating on the graphic novel The Spider King, about which I am so excited I can barely even.

Keys to the kingdom

Well, I mean honestly, you wouldn’t believe what happened to me the other day.

I was driving my relatively quite nice car, which I can afford in part because of the many advantages with which I was born, down to the local shopping mall, which is clean, safe and offers a range of consumer items which, by global standards, is obscenely grand and convenient.

I parked and my son and I walked through the car park, past a couple of almost certainly ridiculously overqualified men swapping jokes in Urdu as they pushed an anaconda of trolleys up to the service entrance.

Inside — this is before the really shocking thing happened, don’t worry, I’ll get there — I strode by the brightly lit shops and attractions, unthreatened as usual by anyone on the basis of my skin, gender, sexuality, religion or class.

I know, I know, but I’m getting to it. Just wait, you’re gonna freak when you hear it. Seriously freak. GetUp email campaign freak.

I was there to get some keys cut for my investment property. Look, I know, I really do, but we try to be appropriately embarrassed about it and have determined to give the ludicrous tax-break money to a good cause, because we can.

Anyway, long story short: we passed loads of people of all colours, creeds and persuasions, all shopping happily and comfortably but still statistically likely to be treated less well than me by employers, the media and state, and reached the key-cutting booth.

The key-cutter, who on average would likely earn significantly less than me if I’d trained as a key-cutter, left her tiny lathe to take my keys and tell me no problem and return to start cutting.

Then she saw my son. Wait till you hear this.

‘Got the day off?’ she said.

‘Sorry?’ I replied.

‘Looking after your son for your wife today, are you?’ she said.

Well, I was boiling, I was. ‘No,’ I said coldly. ‘I’m his parent. I’m with him three days a week.’

Her eyes widened. ‘OH!’ she said. ‘That’s WONDERFUL! How BRAVE you must be!’

‘I beg your hand-delivered gilt-edged unconditional royal pardon?’

‘Well, I mean, it’s amazing that you stay with him like that!’

‘As opposed to running away from him, like normal? For my KIND?’

‘You don’t see many men doing the Mr Mom thing. It’s so lovely!’

‘Whereas you see loads of women these says doing the Little Miss Man thing and getting jobs in professions,’ I hissed through unpartable teeth.

‘Hang on a sec, love, this tiny lathe’s loud. I’m just about done.’

She returned with my keys. I paid her in righteous silence and stormed home, past refugee doctors pushing mops and people with disabilities struggling to reach jumpers on a trestle table I’d earlier blithely thumbed through, to fume amid the collection of books and consumer electronics which it’s statistically much easier for me to accrue than just about anyone else in the world to accrue, and tweet about how shocking and unacceptable it is, in this day and age, to experience genuine discrimination.


Originally published in the King’s Tribune, which you should definitely read even though its tiny-lathe coverage is slim at best.

The bomb inside Inside UFO 54-40

Sometime in 1981 a man named Edward Packard sat down in front of a pinboard covered with meticulously linked system cards, had a sudden idea, and wrote a time-bomb into my life. 

The bomb was written into the twelfth in the Choose Your Own Adventure series, titled Inside UFO 54-40. In each CYOA book, the reader makes decisions to jump from page to page, hopefully to reach a successful end. The best possible ending may be reached by wise choices during the story. This applies to every title in the CYOA series.

Except Inside UFO 54-40.

In Inside UFO 54-40 the reader is kidnapped by aliens seeking a ‘planet of paradise’ called Ultima. Only enlightened humans can reach Ultima; the aliens cannot. The book begins with a ‘SPECIAL WARNING!!!’ which reads, at least in part, as follows:

[…] many never reach Ultima, because no one can get there by making choices or following instructions!

There is a way to reach Ultima. Maybe you’ll find it.

A quick flip through the book by a sufficiently frustrated ten year-old reveals that there is a page on which the reader reaches Ultima, but it is not linked to from any other page. Yet the reader has been assured that there is a way. The reader might, if the reader is the kind of credulous and hopeful young reader who believes that if a way is promised a way must exist, if only the reader is clever enough to find it, tear Inside UFO 54-40 to pieces, both figuratively and literally, searching for that way.

The reader may, after months of fruitless analysis, eventually give up in shame, losing the memory of Inside UFO 54-40 but carrying around for decades a nameless, gnawing sense of failure.

Then, very early one morning in early 2008, during a series of long, sleepless nights tending a baby, the reader’s delirious, near-delusional mind will suddenly spark on Inside UFO 54-40 and be instantly visited by a devastating revelation.

There is only one way to reach Ultima in Inside UFO 54-40. You cheat.

You just turn straight to the page. There is no system. There is no cleverness. The reason the reader can go where the aliens cannot is by exiting the diegesis, breaking the book’s rules and cheating.

Boom, goes the bomb.

This is wrong. Packard cheated. I was cheated. A book must have a system. Choose Your Own Adventure books must have a system. If it’s okay to cheat Inside UFO 54-40 where is it not okay?

Packard made a fool of me. I felt like an idiot. I was naive. I was hopeful. I was …

I was a child with a moral system so optimistic he believed there must be an honest way, and so strong he refused to accept there was not for thirty five years.

There is no way to reach Ultima in Inside UFO 54-40 without cheating. This is my complaint to Edward Packard. It is also my thank you.


Originally published in Crank, Issue 1 by Pinknantucket Press.

The at least fourteen horsemen of the Bookpocalypse

On the highest hill of a lifeless, leafless, endless moor, the Four gathered on their spectral horses. They watched impassively as a vast green line traced its way from one horizon across the troubled sky and almost, but not quite, to the other.

‘The Hour is nearly come,’ crackled Fire, his eternally burning robes casting strange shadows over his ancient, bearded visage.

‘It is Time,’ Water agreed through the constant drizzle obscuring his cowl.

‘The era of paper is at an end,’ beamed Light, calmly fading a random patch of ground to colourless nothing.

‘All of ——- will see its ——– and final —-,’ hissed Censorship.

There was a brief silence.

‘Sorry?’ said Fire.

‘Nothing important,’ said Censorship.

‘Well, alright,’ said Fire. He raised himself in his saddle. ‘The portents and the omens have all come to pass. The End Of Times And Times New Roman is here. See how the Destroyer approaches!’

As he spoke the green streak edged almost imperceptibly closer to the horizon.

‘We shall sweep down into the world of the real and destroy all physical records of human culture. Come, horsemen, we ride!’

‘We ride!’ cried Light.

‘We —-!’ cried Censorship.

‘Hang on a sec,’ said Water.

The others reined in their horses. ‘What?’ said Fire.

Water wriggled awkwardly on his horse, dislodging a large, furry lump from the back of his sodden plastic mac. The lump fell, expanded and became a fifth figure on a horse. A pungent smell drifted across the hill.

‘Hi,’ said Mould and sneezed a cloud of spores. ‘I also do cheese, but that can go either way.’ A fringe of something unpleasantly biological hung low over its brow.

‘Have you brought your kid along?’ demanded Fire.

‘I’m dividing up the work, aren’t I?’ said Water. ‘It’s easy for you three, all you’ve got to do is burn, snip and very gradually fade your way through all that paper and ink. Meanwhile I’ve got everything from baths and misplaced gin and tonics to facilitating the growth of moulds, mildews and fungi via the inherent hygroscopic properties of lignocellulosic materials! If you think I’m handling that lot alone you’re taking the piss, which I also have to cover, although I’ll grant that’s a rare one.’

Fire glowered around the group. ‘Well, alright, but that makes five of us. Four is more … usual. And traditionally one horseman does the job lot, regardless of scale.’

‘Welcome to the twenty-first century, mate. Remember when we got called in for Work Choices?’
Fire shifted uneasily. ‘Yes, well, I’d prefer we didn’t talk about that. Still waiting on the call to do that cremation.’

‘You’re lucky I’m letting you get away with horsemen, too. Since when did the materialisation of allegorical agents of ultimate entropy require slapping outie tackle on them all?’

‘Look, I’m letting you get away with Bring A Child To Work Day, aren’t I? Or don’t you think dads should be allowed to mix work and parenting?’

Water shuffled crossly but chose the path of least resistance. ‘Five we are, then.’

‘Right. On, we Five —’

‘Six, I think,’ beamed Light.

‘Sorry?’

‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Fire, Water, Light, Censorship. Leaves a lot unattended, doesn’t it? There’s loads of other stuff. Basic entropy, for a start. What happens if it’s just badly bound, or the paper is crap, or it’s got, I dunno, dodgy staples in it or something? Basically asking to fall apart. Who handles that?’

‘You mean inherent vice?’ Fire thought for a moment. ‘I suppose, but I really had hoped to clean this whole thing up with minimal fuss. Clock’s ticking and all.’

The green line ticked closer to the horizon. Fire waved an impatient flaming hand and Inherent Vice appeared among them, fiddling with his horse’s tack.

‘I dunno, I reckon there’s something wrong with this stirrup. Maybe I can just —’

There was a series of tense metallic pings and he fell off his horse, followed quickly by the saddle, bridle and reins. He tried to reassemble the equipment but it rapidly disintegrated, and then his horse died.

‘Stupid, broken bastard why isn’t you I mean aren’t you who even made this arse I can’t where’s the —’

‘Ahem,’ said Fire discreetly.

Inherent Vice spun round. ‘Oh, hello,’ he said. ‘Are we off out apocalypsing again? What’s it this time? Haven’t been called since Internet Explorer. Lovely to see you all. Can I walk? Only my horse is ill.’

His trousers fell down.

‘That’s … the tailor was supposed to … sorry,’ said Inherent Vice.

‘Oh f—— H—,’ said Censorship.

‘If we are all satisfied,’ crackled Fire, gesturing up at the green line almost touching the plain, ‘the Destroyer is almost here.’

‘Actually …’ said Mould.

‘What?’ exploded Fire.

‘Well,’ said Water, ‘once you start thinking about it, it’s quite complex, isn’t it? What about careless children? What about bugs and rats and snails and stuff? What about just doing something silly like leaving it on the train?’

There was a rumble of hooves as three more horsemen crested the hill.

‘Oh, give me a break,’ said Fire.

Careless Children leapt from their horse and ran straight for Fire. ‘Hello!’ they cried. ‘Can we have a cuddle?’

‘What? No, get off — Jesus, what is that? Is that jam on your fingers?’

‘Can I turn the pages? Pleeeeeeease?’

‘Oh, it’s all in my beard now!’

Bugs And Rats And Snails And Stuff oozed curiously over to Water on its frankly unhappy horse.

‘One millimetre closer,’ said Water, ‘and I summon Inadequately Secured Packets Of Green Pellets.’

The writhing, verminomorphic mess hissed and oozed away again.

‘What’s your big thing?’ said Light to Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train. ‘Forget your flaming sword, did you? Oh go on, do the act, I love this kind of thing.’

‘Oh no,’ said Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train, ‘I’m just a freelancer, you know. I get called in for these things, but I don’t really have the budget for the whole song and dance. Got to keep time for my novel, you see.’

‘Oh, that’s really interesting,’ said Light. ‘I must talk to you more about that after the what-have-you. Wait …’ Light suddenly cast about, patting his pockets and saddlebags. ‘Hey, have you seen my big torch? I need it to — I was a bit distracted and I … I’m sure I had it when I left home.’

But Doing Something Silly Like Leaving It On The Train had already gone to engage Mould in a distracting conversation about shower grates.

‘Oh, that was BRILLIANT!’ said Light. ‘Let’s get more! Hey Water, let’s do more!’

‘No, wait, stop!’ said Fire, but a steady stream of mounted harbingers of very specific doom began to mount the hill.

‘Greetings,’ said Bending The Corners Down, bowing low.

‘Hello!’ said People In General. ‘Bit pessimistic, I would have thought, but there you go.’

‘Hi,’ gasped A Big Texta With The Lid Off drily. ‘Sorry I’m late, lost my hat.’

‘How are you even sitting on that horse?’ said Light.

‘ENOUGH’ commanded Fire, and silence echoed across the plain. He thrust a burning finger upwards, where the green bar had traced its course across the entire sky. ‘The Destroyer is come!’

The sky briefly flashed the message 100% DOWNLOAD COMPLETE, there was a sort of colourful windmill effect and then before them stood one final horseman, the bringer of the Bookpocalypse, the Destroyer.

‘Hello,’ said ebooks.

‘Ooo, controversial,’ said Light.

Fire drew himself up and boosted his flame. ‘We welcome you O great Destroyer of books, corrupter of paper, enemy of the physical —’

‘Whoa whoa whoa, hold up there big feller,’ said ebooks. ‘What’s this now about the destroying of physical books?’

Fire’s flame flickered a little.

‘Um,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you here to bring about the end of, of paper and the crushing doom of the … the Bookpocalypse?’

‘Oh my no,’ said ebooks.

The wind whistled awkwardly across the hill.

‘It’s just, you know, we’re all here,’ said Fire.

‘I know, and look at you all!’ ebooks cast an iEye over the hill where Leaving It Folded Open Because You Couldn’t Be Arsed To Find A Bookmark was arriving, summoned by Light and Mould, who hadn’t been paying attention. ‘But I think there’s been a bit of a mix-up in the wires, [swipe]. You see, I’m not here to destroy physical books. I don’t think I could [swipe] do that if I wanted! No, I’m what’s called a complementary technology. People are [swipe] going to find a million new uses for me, but they’ll never forget physical books, [tap for next chapter].

‘And anyway, I’m physical too! I’m made of plastic and a different kind of plastic and wires and rare metals they [swipe] dig up from under a forest in the Congo, just like physical books are! There’s really no such thing as a non-material book [swipe]. I’m really just here to add a new level of materiality to every story you love to [swipe] read, [return to table of contents].’

‘Wow,’ said the collected horsemen. ‘You’re great, ebooks, and really shiny! Now that we don’t have to worry about the end of physical books any more, let’s all hang around exclusively with you in complete confidence that everything will be fine.’

So ebooks led the at least fourteen horsemen of the Bookpocalypse off the plain and shouted each one to a pint at the epub.

Pursued, at a stealthy distance, by A Really Big Solar Flare.


Originally published in Materiality Number 1: BOOK by Pinknantucket Press.