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?

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The scaffoldist

‘The thing is,’ says Oscar, draining his coffee, ‘is that the British one pound coin is very thick, and around the edge it has something written in Latin.’

‘Right,’ I say.

‘Or Welsh.’ He orders another latte. ‘One of those two. Which is the one with lots of ‘w’s?”

I’m not sure I should answer. There’s a short silence.

‘Doesn’t matter. The point is it’s got something written around it, and this is what you need.’

‘You want me to write something in Welsh around my edge?’

Oscar looks despairingly around the café. ‘Let me go through it again.’

I’ve invited Oscar out to ask him about why I’ve gone three months without writing anything new. He returned just last night after two weeks at a conference in London, and although he says he’s had twelve hours sleep I can’t help but suspect the jet lag has not fully worn off.

For example, he’s about to say: ‘It hasn’t been three months for a start, it’s been eight.’

I blink at him. ‘No it hasn’t,’ I say, but a shadow is creeping through my mind and I don’t say it with much conviction.

Oscar’s latest coffee arrives. He points it at me. ‘When did you finish your novel?’ he asks.

‘February.’

‘Right. And what have you written since then?’

‘Well, I started work on a screenplay, for a while, and I’ve sort of begun plotting a second novel —’

‘So are we calling it eight months?’

‘Aren’t you here to help me?’

‘Cool your jets, we’ll get there. So, it’s fair to say things started winding down for you when you finished The Last Monk, yes?’

I know he’s right, but instead I say, ‘Is it fair to say you’ve just increased the magnitude of my problem by five months?’

He smiles and rummages about in his pocket. ‘And this,’ he says grandly, ‘is where this comes in.’ He pulls his hand out of the pocket and triumphantly thrusts a small, round object across the table towards me.

I look at it. ‘It’s a button,’ I say.

‘I couldn’t find a quid,’ says Oscar. ‘Just imagine it’s a pound coin.’

‘It’s got fluff on it,’ I say.

‘It’s a bloody quid, alright?’ says Oscar, snatching back the button. He holds it up. ‘A pound coin, symbol of a proud nation and all it stands for, and so that no one ever forgets it has stamped around its circumference its guiding principle in Latin.”

‘Or Welsh.’

‘Possibly. And I don’t really know what it says, which sort of harms my argument.’

I decide to discreetly pay for the coffees.

‘But,’ says Oscar, running his finger around the edge of the button, ‘it doesn’t matter, because what this is is scaffolding.’

I decide I’ll pay for them now. The waiter is lurking.

‘You got up every morning for six years and you knew what you were going to do that day, right? You were going to work on your novel, because that’s what you did. You had a project, a guiding principle.’

I wave the waiter away.

‘Now you get up every morning and you could do absolutely anything. A screenplay? A short story? Another novel? Three hours at Officeworks fondling the fluorescent pens?’

‘How do you know about that?’

Oscar leans forward. ‘Your job isn’t like other jobs. Other people have bosses. They have reports to fill out, ditches to dig, sales to make. They have bosses. Deadlines. Structure.

‘Your job isn’t like that. No one tells you what to do, so with the entire world to choose from you flail about. ‘Cause there’s no structure. Everyone needs a structure to work in, and it’s your job, professionally speaking, to build your own.

‘You can’t just be a novelist. First you have to be a scaffoldist.’

I look at him. I look at the button. ‘Do you know where my dictionary of quotations is?’ I ask.

Oscar pays for the coffees.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and whenever

I’m turning my study upside-down but I still can’t find my dictionary of quotations. It’s starting to obsess me: if can’t find my dictionary of quotations I can’t write the blog post I want to write, and I’ve been putting it off for far too long.

The quote is about procrastination. It’s from Macbeth, and I know it begins “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, but I can’t remember the rest, and I really want it for a pithy opening to my latest post, which is three months overdue. I don’t normally like being ostentatiously post-modern in style, but I’ve got to break this drought. Forgive me blogosphere for I have sinned; it’s been eighty-seven days since my last post. And counting.

I try one of the filing cabinet drawers I never visit, but all I get is a needlessly mocking puff of dust.

I don’t know why this winter has found me unable to complete the simplest chore, yet here I am at the desk, looking at the big orange square for the first time in twelve weeks. Or I should say, there I was, because now I’m in the kitchen, and I know I don’t keep my dictionaries in the kitchen, but I do keep the kettle there, and the tea.

And the things to spend forty minutes making sandwiches with.

Outside the window, through the girlie grey steam, the autumn weeds are waving in a distinctly springish wind. I think I could almost qualify as a perpetual motion machine, infinitely running a distracted loop between the untended garden and the untended computer, if it weren’t for the midpoint between the two, which is the television and which is being tended just fine.

I stopped doing creative things three months ago. What happened?

It’s got a sort of light blue cover. It’s got to be around here somewhere.

To be continued…

Living in the future

I’m in a funk.

There’s nothing to write, I’m bored and frustrated because of the nothing to write, I’m cranky because of the boredom and frustration, I’m slightly sleepy because of the crankiness, and this sleepiness has lead me into the aforementioned funk.

I can blame it on many things. I have a cold (or a specific form of demonic possession in which maleficent agents of Beelzebub crawl into my sinuses and perform horrible ablutions — medical opinion is divided), and maybe that’s it. My study is painted dark red and has no proper window, my mobile phone has contracted fainting sickness, Naomi Robson exists — all these are distressing to varying degrees.

But it’s not any of this, and I know it. There is one reason alone for the funk, and it is this: I’m living in the future.

Readers of the previous post will know that I recently received a piece of tantalising news, namely a very positive report of my novel The Last Monk from a publisher in London. It is now in the hands of the man who will decide if he wishes to publish my book or not, which decision he will make some time in the next few weeks.

So I’m clock watching. Ideas languish, cruelly neglected, on my whiteboards; a film script about feuding university professors which I began a few weeks ago and which was starting to look quite promising has slipped down the back of my mental couch cushions and vanished from sight. How can I possibly write until I hear from London?

I asked my friend Oscar about this problem at a café yesterday. He told me that since he had bought a house several months ago, he had found himself obsessing about mortgage payments, putting off little purchases and pleasures for an imaginary day when his financial pressures would abate.

He found himself, he told me, living in the future.

‘What do you mean?’

He ordered another coffee. ‘You know about living in the past? When you can’t stop thinking about some traumatic or embarrassing thing from years ago, so it occupies your life now and stops you getting on with things?’

I’m familiar with the concept,’ I said.

‘Well, this is exactly like that, and just as unhealthy, except instead of the past, it’s the future that stops you getting on with things right now.’

I considered this. ‘How are you dealing with it?’

Oscar drained his coffee. ‘I order another coffee whenever I feel like it, for a start.’

He did.

‘And that makes you feel more connected with the here and now?’

‘Well, the more coffee I drink the more impulsive I become and the more coffee I order,’ explained Oscar, ‘so by late morning I tend to feel connected to the here and now, the ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a quasar at the edge of the known universe I’ve decided to call Ian.’

‘I’ll get the bill,’ I said.

He’s right, of course. I can’t write anything now because I’m obsessed with an email I might receive next week, or six weeks from now. Or never. Whenever I start work on, say, my script, instead of inspiring myself with comical pratfalls and misunderstandings over an oversized marital aid, I’m thinking: ‘Is this the right project to work on next, career-wise?’

So screw it. I’m going to take Oscar’s advice, connect to the here and now and write my script, because that’s what I feel like.

I’ll just quickly check my email first.

Girlie Grey, part two

… continued from Girlie Grey, part one.

‘Can I help you?’

‘Thanks but I don’t really like tea.’

It is Fitzroy, 2003 and the sales assistant at Tea Intersection shrugs.

‘Have you considered the possibility that you might be in the wrong place?’ she suggests.

‘All the time,’ I say. It was supposed to be flippant, but she checks the panic button.

The Evil Sulphura has brought me here. I married a career supervillain who apparently really didn’t know about my caffeine problem when she announced on our engagement that she was also a coffee connoisseur. Sometimes even a criminal mastermind gets lucky. Now she is across the street at Macchiatotalitarianism fondling plungers, and this is the only other shop in this part of Brunswick Street that doesn’t sell pornography.

’There is one I like,’ I venture.

‘Yes?’

I never drank tea before the 1998 Event. After two years of caffeine abstinence I discovered green tea, which has almost no caffeine, and after a handful of mildly exhilarating experiences in the safety of my own kitchen started to experiment with black tea, which I quickly determined was awful. In fact, experimentation proved that I loathed black tea universally.

With one exception.

‘It’s a bit embarrassing,’ I say, ‘but I can’t have coffee, and the only tea I like is Lady Grey.’

She bites her lip. I’m not the macho type, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling I’m being set up.

‘Lady Grey?’

‘Yes sir,’ says the maitre d’. ‘It’s a blend of black tea varieties flavoured with orange and lemon.’

Picasso is a fine restaurant, one of the finest in Las Vegas, and an excellent place to be a groomsman, but suddenly the entire wedding party is watching me expectantly and I don’t know why. I definitely didn’t order tea, but I was just loudly ranting about it. How loudly?

‘Lady Grey,’ I breathe.

‘Yes,’ says the maitre d’, his face a picture of condolence. ‘Sadly, sir, we have no Lady Grey tea.’

Sulph appears at my side. ‘What’s up?’

‘She says they don’t have Lady Grey tea.’

‘No, wait,’ says the Tea Intersection sales assistant. ‘We have that kind of tea, we just don’t call it that.’

I catch my breath. It’s always grated on me that, of all the Russian Caravans and Irish Breakfasts and even Earl Greys, the one I became addicted to is called Lady Grey. Why, I proclaimed loudly at every occasion before and since, couldn’t Lady Grey be called Monster Truck Killer Death Football Tea? It’s just tea after all, there’s nothing especially ladylike about it and anyway it’s not grey, it’s bloody orange!

Now here was someone telling me they called it something else. I followed her in a three-cup adrenalin rush to a shelf populated by silver tins with prim pink labels.

In Las Vegas, the groom and best man appear behind the maitre d’, who leans over me.

‘Here we are, sir,’ says the assistant. My mouth falls open.

A tiny mischievous smile flickers across his face.

‘We like this name much better.’ Sulph has to stuff a packet of coffee into her mouth. I read the label twice. A grim calm settles over me.

‘But we do have some …’

The world, I decide, will hear about this.

‘… Girlie Grey!’

The maitre d’ erupts into hysterics, followed closely by the rest of the party and random other diners. He shakes hands with the groom, who had evidently heard me complain once too often.

‘Dude!’ he says.

‘Dude!’ says the best man.

I carefully straighten my cravat and tip my chin up towards the art.

‘… oh dude …’ muses the groom. Tiny tears are forming in the corners of his eyes.

The world, I decide, will hear about this. I turn to the maitre d’.

‘I’d like a very large coffee, please.’

This true story was written with the assistance of four cups of Lady Grey, a quarter-caff espresso and an Orange Pekoe speedball.

Girlie Grey, part one

The maitre d’ is hovering over my shoulder. An original Picasso is hovering over his.

‘I’m terribly sorry sir,’ he says in an accent so fluid I can’t tell if it is French or Hispanic, ‘but there’s a problem.’

I begin to sweat under my cravat. It is Las Vegas, October 2005, and I am about to reap the whirlwind.

It is the Alsace, October 1998, and I am in the back of a Citroën 2CV going very quietly insane. The autobahn streetlights are following me. Twilight is closing in, and the trees bunched around the border crossing are screaming at each other across the Rhine. Astrid and Gabrielle are talking in the front, but I can’t make out the words. I think it’s about me. Petrified, I sink down in the seat as low as I can in expectation of the cramps.

In this state, there is no way for me to clearly remember the reluctance with which, two hours earlier, I had accepted an offer of a second café au lait.

Gabrielle and I are at the beginning of a three-month backpacking tour around western Europe which I am already concerned to find scattered with little hours of madness. Having flown into Stockholm three weeks earlier at the end of a thirty-one hour long day long to discover my backpack was enjoying an unexpected but exhilarating side-trip to Bangkok, having to first sleep in, then dry myself with paper bedsheets bought from the hostel which smelt — unfairly but convincingly — like urine, and then recovering the backpack three days later with a long-lost sibling hug and an inadvertently ardent moan which distanced me from the others in the hostel foyer, I was finding the traveller’s life a bit like coming over the crest of the rollercoaster to find the rails missing on the other side.

I made up for it by drinking a lot of coffee, and this, I reason in Astrid’s kitchen in Freiburg when I start to come down, was proving to be a tactical error. Something is going on with me and coffee.

‘Perhaps you should try drinking something else instead,’ Gabrielle suggests.

I switch to Coke.

Two days later, after a long and thirsty walk in the Black Forest, it takes an hour to persuade me, with admonishments that a entire nation is not trying to kill me just because its hostels offer marinated chicken wings for breakfast, out from under the blow-up lilo in Astrid’s spare room.

On the train to Florence, Gabrielle and I reason it out. It doesn’t take long.

‘Let’s face it,’ says Gab. ‘You’re tired, you’ve had a rough start and neither of us can afford to eat properly.’

‘Agreed.’

‘And every time you have a cup of coffee or a Coke, it makes you sick.’

‘Okay, yes.’

‘And — well, a pain in the arse.’

I consider this. ‘I like me,’ I say.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Gabrielle says, ‘you’re charming enough, in your own way. It’s just that we’re going to be spending the next three months together, and you may never get to do this again. You’re going to have to stay away from caffeine.’

I let Verona and Bologna pass by in a funk of reluctance. I never much cared for cola drinks, but my love affair with coffee has been long, passionate and at times downright dirty. What will I do if I can’t have coffee?

The rolling fields of Tuscany roll by like giant rolls caught in the middle of the most satisfying roll of the season, and I glare at them for enjoying it so much. Sunflowers, I note sourly. Grapevines. Vegetables of some sort. More vines. Lots of vines. More sunflowers, then more vines. What the hell do they do with all these grap—

‘I’ve got a plan,’ I tell Gab.

‘Fantastic,’ she says.

In Florence, I switch to wine.

The maitre d’ is holding both my gaze and, I am very aware, the attention of everyone around me.

‘Is everything alright?’ I mumble.

He makes a well-trained sympathetic pout. From over his shoulder, a cubist woman’s eyes glower at me from one side of her head. ‘I am terribly sorry sir, but we have searched the kitchen and we have no Lady Grey tea.’

He watches me benignly. I didn’t order any tea. The tables around me have fallen silent.

Oh God. He has heard me.

… to be continued in Girlie Grey, part two.