The young boy was sitting by the side of the road, his jacket ripped, one shoe missing and his face streaked with mud and tears as he stared ahead, long past crying and almost unaware of the seemingly endless parade of similarly dishevelled people who trudged past him.


The Prodigal Penitent


The Confessor gathered his robes about him and hurried through the halls of the cathedral, having been alerted to the presence of the stranger by a neophyte. While a penitent at the feet of the cathedral’s sacred reliquary wasn’t in itself a strange thing, indeed while under normal circumstances it was almost the whole world’s purpose to facilitate such devotions, these were far from normal times. (more…)

The White Room


The darkness took them, but it was not the end.

Suddenly the tumult and trauma of the mountainous, impossible waves crashing down upon them ceased and they felt as if they were floating, almost bodiless and suspended in a void which was not cold or empty but warm and gentle.

Gradually they experienced a sense of light and surfacing. They drifted to consciousness while feeling that they were held in a bright realm as opposed to the dark void, only slowly realising that they were lying down in a physical space.

They opened their eyes to find themselves lying on a shelf, covered in a soft mattress, with what looked like a crown of light above their head, gradually retracting into the wall. Slowly sitting up, they looked around and saw that they were in a square room, only a few metres wide, lit from above by a diffuse light of no obvious source. Everything was white, from the walls, ceiling and floor to the shelf and mattress they were sitting on, even to the clothes they were wearing.

That clothing was a plain top, trousers and slippers of some comfortable cotton-like material and the mattress they were sitting on seemed to be covered in the same fabric, albeit with a spongier interior. The walls and shelf all appeared to be made of moulded plastic, with no obvious flaws or more importantly, doors…

Turning around to look behind them, there appeared to be no opening or even seam in the wall where they had seen the crown of light fold into it. That was… interesting.

All of a sudden, a sense of claustrophobia swooped over them, the feeling of being entombed in this immaculate vault causing their breath to feel stilited in their chest and their heat to race.

As their breathing caught in their throat, an aperture opened in the wall in front of them, through which poured a blinding light. A statuesque female entered the room, clothed in much the same fashion as themselves, except in a shade of a azure blue and smiled coldly.

‘I hope you are recovered from the assay simulation, the results were most interesting…’ she began.

Interrupting, they asked, ‘What am I doing here, what is this place, what was that… nightmare?’

The woman seemed momentarily taken aback, then recovered her poise.

‘Ah, sometimes there is a side effect of the assay process, which results in some temporary amnesia. This will pass in time. In any case, you were referred to this facility on account of some… social abnormalities and were submitted to the assay simulation to assess how severe these abnormalities were and what the best form of treatment would be.’

‘You say abnormalities’ they replied, ‘what do you mean by that?’

She smiled again, just as coldly as before and said ‘You were reported to experience an unwillingness to integrate with the aggregate social activity of your peer group, preferring to spend both work and leisure time in isolation or when in a communal area, still detached.’

‘What’s…’ they began to interject, but she continued.

‘Furthermore, when pressed into social interaction, you have espoused non-conformist preferences, contrary attitudes and caused distress to your peers who tried to correct you. This disruptive and recidivist behavior was reported by your line manager and the concern merited referral to this facility.’

Incredulous, they replied ‘I’ve been tortured because I think the entertainments are boring and I’d rather read alone.’

Again, the cold smile. She replied ‘You have not been tortured, merely been placed in a simulation which would assess the root of your deviance and ascertain the best way to treat it. The findings of the simulation are that your mental and emotional state result in chronic introversion and make you unsuitable for a functional role in our society. Fortunately, we can fix you.’’

Already scared, and increasingly angry they growled ‘You can FIX me? What does that mean?’

Sensing the tension in the subject, the cold smile was replaced by one which seemed to echo a picture of empathy. ‘Using the same technology used to assay your mental state, we can recalibrate your emotional responses and intrinsic preferences to make you a more integrated and functional citizen.’

‘But will I still be myself? What if I don’t want to be fixed?’ they all but screamed at the seemingly emotionless woman.

‘It’s for the best, for you and society at large. You will submit to the recalibration.’ she replied, not rising to the implicit tension.

‘You can’t do this to me. I’m a person. Let me go.’

‘Conformity is not optional. The recalibration will commence now.’

They lunged for the door, but were held in an invisible field and pressed back down onto the shelf. The crown of lights reappeared out of the wall and once again the darkness took them.

Book Review: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

It’s no coincidence that my renewed energy to get back to my writing came shortly after I started reading prodigiously again – having been frustrated in this lifelong vocation by a combination of having two young children, poor mental health and taking on other commitments.

In any case, Grief is the Thing with Feathers had been recommended to me by a friend and passing through a bookstore en route to a bus station ahead of a lengthy journey (five hours on a bus being a great excuse to spend quality time with some books) it was sitting there in front of me with a buy one, get one half price* sticker on it and I scooped it up.

I read the book in one sitting on the bus – it’s not a lengthy tale, only 114 pages or so – and have found my thoughts returning to it in the days since.

* Incidentally, the other book I picked up was Ancestral Machines by Michael Cobley, seeing as I enjoyed the original Humanity’s Fire trilogy, but I haven’t got into that yet.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a story about a father and two sons dealing with the loss of their wife/mother, and how they are helped through this by their houseguest/friend/familiar Crow.

Now, this pitch is aimed almost directly at my soul in particular because I lost my mother when I was eleven, I currently have two young sons (and a thankfully, alive wife) and I’ve had a lifelong affinity for crows, partially because of their mythological connection to the afterlife, resulting in my having a  tattoo of a crow on my arm. In any case, the subject matter hit particularly close for me but the themes of grief and loss are pretty universal and should resonate with most people.

The real trick with this book is that the story is told from the various viewpoints of the Dad, Boys and Crow, each with their own distinctive voice, as if they are writing diary entries, reminiscing or just uttering a commentary. While the Dad and the Boys are both in their way grief stricken, wistful and searching, Crow is phlegmatic, onomatopoeic, irascible, crude and violent in his stream of consciousness thoughts and the contrast really stands out and is the crux on which the story turns.

There is a tremendous honesty in this book, not sheltering from the sadness and awkwardness that characterises grief and the ways in which many outsiders concept of ‘helping’ really doesn’t, moving on seems like a betrayal and how the loss of a person can leave a family with a tangible emptiness and fragility.

I feel I might have missed something by not being familiar with the work of Ted Hughes (something I shall remedy forthwith) who is referenced throughout the book and I understand, directly influenced the character of Crow.  However, that potential lack of comprehension did not dilute my enjoyment of this book and my attachment to the characters in any way.

From the surreal and affecting start, through violence and humour to the heartbreaking and triumphant ending, Grief is the Thing with Feathers has impressed on me more than any book in a long time.

It made me cry and I’m thankful for that.  I wish I’d had a Crow.

The Nights Promise


The night had promise. I never knew what that promise was, but ever since I was young, it called to me. As a boy, I used to sneak out of the house and go for long walks, reveling in the way that streets looked so different in darkness, at the animals that came out to poke through the rubbish and the strange and different sounds which permeated the unsilent night.

All that said, I could never put my finger on what drew me to the night. Sure, I can wax lyrical about the abandoned moonlit streets and the peculiar sounds and sights of the hours of darkness but in truth, that was never what led me to roam after nightfall.

That fascination with the nocturnal continued through my teenage years and student days, often getting in the way of my schooling or a normal social life, whatever that means. Taking jobs that allowed me to stay up late, from working at 24 hour convenience stores to being a security guard in an office block – as if someone was going to attempt to steal a building full of budget stationery and out of date computers – allowed me to indulge my preference for the hours of darkness and take long walks through abandoned streets lit by the halogen glow of streetlights or little more than the moon.

Nowadays, that meant working behind the bar of a late night club, an employment which still left me with several hours of darkness to enjoy before the unwelcome dawn chased me to bed.

Tonight’s shift had been a quiet one. There had been a strange mood amongst the clientele over the past few weeks as stories of assaults had turned into what seemed to be an especially brutal serial killer preying on the nighttime streets. There was talk in the less-responsible newspapers and blogs of an indiscriminate murderer who’s peculiar kink seemed to be for evisceration and making a real mess with their victims. None of this was confirmed by the police or broadsheet press but nobody could miss the forensics tents and police tape which had been all too obvious of late.

Naturally, this has caused people to become a bit more careful with fewer folks deciding to stay out late and get a little unwise with drink lest they run into the so-called Night Artist, who’d gotten his tabloid moniker because one wag had said he was painting the town red…

So, it had been a pedestrian shift with just a few regulars in at the bar and the DJ pretty much giving up any pretense at trying to play floor fillers early in the night. That meant that the usual post-closing tasks of cleaning the bar, sweeping the floor and making sure the toilets didn’t have any illicit occupants – be they passed out or amorously engaged – didn’t take as long as usual and soon he was pulling his jacket on and heading out into the night, with the notion of taking a long drive into the country rather than go for a walk.

On the way to his car, parked two blocks up from the club, he heard a shout from an alleyway. That wasn’t especially strange at this time of night but as he passed, half expecting to see some homeless folk arguing over a favoured spot he saw a large male figure in a long black coat pushing a girl against a wall, with the girl struggling but unable to shake off her assailant.

On account of some sense of duty, he shouted hoping that the attacker would flee as usually happens when such nighttime attacks are interrupted, but instead the tall figure turned while still holding the struggling girl against the wall and glowered at him.

He was shocked by the figures gaze, eyes like burning coals smouldered in a sallow face that seemed sunken in shadow. A long moment passed as the figure looked at him and seemed to be measuring him the way that a lion views a sickly calf which has become separated from the herd.

The girl moaned, still struggling but ever weaker as the attackers grip remained close around her throat. The motion was enough to break the moment and the attacker looked back to the girl.

Despite every instinct which told him to flee, he stepped forward again and shouted, telling the attacker to leave the girl alone. The burning eyes again fixed on him, now devoid of their questing curiosity but instead filled with annoyance and the dark figure moved suddenly, advancing upon him with the now unconscious girl tossed aside like chaff to impact against the wall and slump to the ground.

He found himself unable to move, to flee and he watched the attacker approach with a sense of terror that strangely turned to an unlikely serenity. Suddenly, a flashlight pointed into the alley and two police officers appeared at his shoulder having been attracted by the shouts.

The attacker, limned by the high power bulb of the flashlight was revealed as a tall, powerfully built and well dressed man in a long coat, with a gaunt face and shock of raven dark hair who paused, smiled and opened his arms in the universal gesture of supplication.

The first police officer looked between the two men with a curious look, clearly judging based on their appearance but his female colleague looked past the tall man and saw the girl stirring deeper in the alley, with the crimson splash of blood showing on her face. Immediately she shouted and told the tall man to stand against the wall, but he moved impossibly quickly, shoved her into the other side of the alley and then charged towards the two men knocking both down and by the time they had regained their feet, he was nowhere to be seen…

He was taken to the nearby station to give a statement, which backed up by the girl’s testimony that he had interrupted an assault and possibly saved her life resulted in a quick release back into the night, on the proviso that he remain available to answer any further questions the investigating officers might have.

Again, he walked to his car, although by a different route, not wanting to pass the alley where the incident had occurred. The police had noted his impression of the attacker’s intense gaze and remarked that the girl had said something similar but they were far more interested in the mundane details such as his height and clothing, with one officer remarking that such characteristics are often attributed to violent attackers as a more civilised mind struggles to rationalise the incident.

Putting the memory of the burning eyes and shadowed aspect down to tiredness or a trick of the light, he got into his car and turned on the ignition. A short drive into the country would clear his mind and then he’d turn in for a longer sleep than usual. Perhaps he had been burning the candle at both ends and taking his proclivity for a solitary, nocturnal life a little too far.

He switched on the radio and tuned it to a night-time drive station and reversed out of the parking spot, taking the turn that led to the expressway and out of town into the hills. The drive was soothing, the abandoned night time streets fading smoothly from the orange lit urban aspect to the silver glow of the moon on this clear night, with his headlights picking out the road markings and the eyes of deer and tails of rabbits by the roadside as he sped by.

The shock of the incident had almost passed as he approached the river, tributary to the larger watercourse which flowed through the city. He smiled as “Don’t Fear The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult came on the radio, laughing lightly at the irony.

Tapping the familiar beat of the song onto the steering wheel, he saw a flash of movement in his mirror and looked up to see the fiery gaze of the attacker peering back at him from the rear seat. He started to shout and turn as the figure lurched forward and he felt arms with a steely grip grasp at his arms and a sudden piercing sensation in his neck. His foot pressed down on the accelerator as the force of the assault turned his hands on the wheel and the car started to slide just as they approached the bridge.

The vehicle hit the barrier side on at fifty miles an hour and the poorly maintained metal was no match for the impact and peeled apart, allowing the car to tumble over the edge and into the river.

The attacker had been thrown forward by the impact and into the windshield, yet persisted with their attack as the car started to fill with water. He fought back but the shock of blood loss and the cold water filling the car took his strength away. He could see lights shining down through the water behind his attacker, blood pouring from small wounds in their face as they lunged in again to bite at his neck at he blacked out…