Sliding Doors and Short Cuts

Physics and cosmology (the study of the origins, evolution and fate of the Universe) are essentially mathematical now, in its theory and its experimental practice (in the case of physics). Current mathematical modeling demonstrates the possibility of the existence of multiple, perhaps and infinite, number of parallel universes. The theory also predicts that in some circumstances these universes can be moved between, can leak into one another, via ‘worm holes’ in the space-time continuum. One is tempted to say, from a commonsense point of view and based on experience, these possibilities are merely artefacts of the mathematics. Even though much of the world can be modelled mathematically it doesn’t mean that the world ‘is’ mathematical.  Much of the world can be described in mathematical terms but a description is not the same thing as that being described; a model is not the same as what the model is of and a map is not the same as the terrain mapped. All models, maps, theories, whether constructed with numbers, lines or words, are partial and incomplete representations of something else. To some extent words and mathematical formulae have their own internal logic; they are realities in their own right and have their own rules and customs. It is entirely possible that the multiple parallel universes are modelled by mathematics are possibilities of the maths, not the universe. It is a permanent feature of the use of instrumentation and apparatus in science that the scientist has to distinguish between the pre-existing reality the instrument enables us to see and measure and features that are observable that are caused by the instrument itself, the artefacts. In this case maths is the instrument and the parallel universes it enables us to see, at least theoretically, are artefacts of the instrument, mathematical possibilities rather than actually existing.

But are they? The films Short Cuts and Sliding Doors suggest there is a real world interpretation or interpenetrating parallel universes, real world analogues.  The films suggest ways that multiple biographies, lives, leak into one another and can be consequential for both (some or all). Bute there are not an infinite number of different personal universes, experience, necessity, contingency and fate. Every life traverses cusps, hinges, moments when decisions (conscious or otherwise) or events. Every door chosen or even unknowingly traversed through opens up a new landscape of possibilities but also closes an infinite number of other doors to many other landscapes. Even the conscious decisions may seem to be trivial at the time, ad are the external events that impinge and impact on individuals’ lives and biographical trajectories.  When an individual choses to go through a particular door at the confluence of multiple possibilities and possible choices, this impacts and makes a difference to all the other current interpenetrations into other lives, near and far. One life leaks into other biographies and reconfigure their landscape of opportunity, obstacles, their structure of necessity and contingency. Adding the Short Cutes and the Sliding Doors modes of social interaction, immediate, proximate and afar, we end up with infinite possibilities for personal universes, the lapsed, the actual and the possible.


Cycling short story

On a July morning, already hot, the metallic blue cloudless sky promising it would be another scorching day, Thomas set off from the cottage he and his family had rented for the last five years just north of Bergerac in the Dordogne. The others were only just emerging from their beds and he would be back in time for a shower and to join them for breakfast.

He sometimes manages to cajole his son-in-law James to join him on these early morning rides but generally he found himself riding through the narrow wooded lanes alone. This suited him fine. He always enjoys doing the circuit he discovered when they first stayed at the house five years ago but James, who is 30 years younger, was rather competitive. Riding alone allowed Thomas to enjoy the early morning tranquillity as the road wends its way through the woods and fields of the valley side. Since retiring they stay at the cottage every year for two weeks and nearly every day he rides round the circuit before breakfast. And so far every year he has gone home with a faster time than the year before, thanks mostly to James.

The eleven kilometre circuit is roughly triangular, rising gently through the forest in between grassy banks of ferns and wildflowers and up the valley side. At this time of day cars are few and far between and more often than not the ride can be completed without seeing a single vehicle. You can hear them approaching long before you see them so you are never taken by surprise, not like the deer that occasionally run across the road. Concentration is always necessary as the margins of the road have loose gravel, especially on the bends where the occasional car pushes it, and in the early morning there are sometimes damp patches left from the overnight dew yet to be burnt off by the warming sun.

After the first three kilometres uphill the circuit turns left at a T junction onto a  wider flatter road, still gently rising, for another three kilometres before turning left again for the third leg of the triangle home. This, apart from a few short undulations, is a downhill swoop through a series of sinuous bends. The road is narrow, like the ascent, with gravel and trees on each side. For most of the descent the bends are open enough to see through them and choose a line that avoids the hazards without braking. About one kilometre before home the road bursts out from the trees into the bright sunlight and curves sharply to the right above a steep valley side where, looking straight ahead, the village can be seen nestling by the stream in the valley bottom. The road takes a final left hand bend past a farmhouse and a couple of old tobacco drying sheds where you brake hard before crossing the little bridge over the stream and home.

Riding with James is always hard. Apart from being younger he is also fitter and lighter, a particular advantage on the initial lengthy uphill section. It is here that he gradually leaves Thomas behind and by the left hand turn at the top he is usually a good 100 metres ahead. Thomas however is an experienced cyclist and had in his younger years been a successful amateur racer. At one time he had been invited to join a professional team as a domestique, a support rider for the team’s star riders. He had seen several other riders of similar or even greater ability than his fail badly having sacrificed education and career to pursue their cycle racing dream. So he reluctantly had declined.  He retired from racing in his 30s when career and family demands became dominant, but started social riding again for health reasons in his early 60s, to lose a bit of weight and get fit for his keenly anticipated retirement.

He had forgotten none of his technique and race craft. By pacing himself up the three kilometre hill he could minimise his loss to James and accelerate over the top so as to hit the flat section at a good speed. James on the other hand tended to over extend himself and lose speed in the final metres before the top. Consequently, at the moment he was near exhaustion, he had to continue his effort to get up to speed on the flat. Thomas, hitting the summit faster, could get up to speed on the flat much quicker. This meant he was usually able to close most of the deficit before the next turn into the three kilometre descent. Once going down hill he was in his element. James was, understandably, more cautious on the descent, only pedaling occasionally and braking for most bends. Thomas pedaled all the way down in a high gear, approaching speeds of 40 mph at times, rarely skimming off a little speed with the gentle application of the front brake. His experienced and confident use of gears, superior bike handling and selection of lines through corners meant that he always caught James on the descent and disappeared up the road to finish comfortably ahead at the cottage. But each year it got harder, each year James left him further behind on the hill, and each year it took a little longer to catch him on the descent. And each year James was stronger, better bike rider and Thomas got older.

This morning he felt good. The air is still and cool with just a hint of the coming heat of the day. The sun was already quite high in the east, filtering through the tops of the trees and sparkling in the dew on the leaves, creating fragmented rainbows in the last lingering strands of mist. He seemed to be gliding up the hill effortlessly. Looking at his Garmin bike computer it looked like he was on for a record run. There are only three days left of their holiday and so far he had not beaten last year’s lap time. Maybe this would be his last chance. He accelerated over the top of the hill and swung left, revelling in the feeling of speed and power, the almost effortless responsiveness of the bike, reminding him of the glory racing days of his youth. The flat section seemed to fly backwards past him and almost before he realised it he is at the turn at the top of the descent to home.  Lifting the left-hand pedal and shifting his weight to the inside he momentarily freewheeled through the left turn even faster than usual, changed up and put the power down. This time he was not chasing James. It was him against the clock, the so-called ‘race of truth’. Nowhere on the descent did he touch his brakes. He knew he was taking risks but he could see the line he wanted through the bends and backed his skill on sticking to it. He was flying: he whistle of the air in his ears, the rhythmical swish of the tyres on the road with each pulse of power he put through the pedals. He attacked the short rises and sprinted down the next slope at ever increasing speed. In his imagination, he is on a lone breakaway, only 20 seconds in front of the rapidly catching peloton, the sprinters’ lead out trains sacrificing every ounce of energy to overhaul him and get their man to the front for the finish! One more rise to get over and then the final downhill swoop to the line to receive the adulation of the crowd cheering and banging the barriers as he roared past, arms in the air. Last bend; he emerged into the full sunlight, caught a glimpse of the cottage at the bottom of the valley. The grass verge reared up into his face. Then blackness, silence. Nothing.


He was out training with his team mates on the third day of the training camp. They were usually in Northern France in early July training for the soon to come lucrative post Tour de France races held all over France, Belgium and Holland but this year they were at a new location a few kilometres from Bergerac where their main sponsor was based.  A stage of the Tour was finishing in Bergerac in a week’s time and the sponsor had managed to get the team invited to a supporting race the day before and was keen they had some success and got some TV exposure to promote the business.

He was a recent recruit to the team and it had been a step up compared to the races he had been doing well in before and, not surprisingly, he was struggling to impress so far. He had been big and strong for his age as a junior and made his way up the lower echelons of amateur teams and races relatively easily. But this was a harder, harsher world he found himself in now. The races were longer, hillier and faster. He was making progress but the unrelenting high speeds and constant attacking and chasing characteristic of top pro racing found him unable to be strong enough in the last crucial kilometres to do the job he had been employed to do, be part of the flat out high speed lead-out train for their top sprinter, to shelter and take him through the melee of accelerating, fading, switching, swearing riders all intent on doing the same job for their sprinters, shoving past elbows, forcing their way through briefly opening gaps, to deliver him to the front for the final burst to the line. He was good at this fast, reactive bunch sprinting that required lightening reflexes and a fatalistic attitude to safety. That is why he was hired. But to do his job meant he had to be at the front with power to spare in the last kilometres. Too often he wasn’t. Although nothing explicit had been said, he knew this may be his one and only season with the team. This training camp could be his last chance to make it.

First he had to impress enough to get picked for the race team. Then he had to impress in the race itself. Their top sprinter was recovering from injury so, if it came to a bunch sprint for the win, they would have to rely on their second best sprinter, a bit old in the tooth now and not as bold and ruthless in the sprints as he used to be. There had been occasions when he had failed to keep his position at the back of his lead-out train, blocked or shouldered aside by a rival. Sometimes he hadn’t made it to the finish on some of the hillier routes. This meant that his lead-out train could ride their own race at the end allowing the strongest remaining to shine, even win on occasions. Lack of confidence in your sprinter often meant that it was worth placing a strong domestique in any promising looking breaks that got away, especially on hillier courses. If the sprint came down to a small group of tired riders with no recognised sprinter among them, everyone had a chance. He was well aware that if he could make the race team, with a bit of good fortune, he had the ability to do well.

The route of today’s training run replicated approximately the roads and gradients of the last half of the race course. The hardest climb of the race day would be quite early in the 120 kilometre course, a couple of long but not especially severe gradients with a short, steep kick at the top of the second, about 40 kilometres after the start. At that point it became the domain of the heavier, faster ‘rouleurs’ who had plenty of time to catch-up with the lightweight grimpeurs, the specialist climbers. He was an indifferent climber given his weight but, although at great cost, he could usually stay in touch with the peleton by starting the longer hills at the front and then drifting slowly to the back as the incline took its toll. If he was still in the bunch, however far back, with the advantages of drafting and the help of a team mate or two he could make his way back to be near the front without too much trouble. He was also one of the fastest descenders in the pro ranks, an advantage of being comparatively heavy. If he got dropped on a particular steep hill, as long as there was a reasonably long and preferably twisting technical descent, he could usually catch the peleton, aided sometimes by the shelter of the supporting vehicles following the race. If the last hill was close to the finish, generally his race was over. Even if he regained the bunch before the end the frantic pace of the last kilometres forced on by the lead-out trains made it impossible to regain the front and his place in his team’s lead-out.

These were unfamiliar roads they were training on but they had a lead car to show the way and to warn the approaching traffic if any. The windless day had become oppressively hot and all sensible people were sheltering in the shade of office, home or bar. So far they’d seen nothing else on the roads apart from the occasional lethargic insect. He felt good today and he sensed some complacency amongst his team mates in the sultry heat. They were approaching the top of a long but innocuous incline made arduous only by the heat and he felt the pace slacken towards the top, an almost imperceptible easing of the pressure on the pedals. With only the descent to come, a few short sharp hills, what they used to call ‘rompers’ back in England, the day was almost done. They had been encouraged by their directeur sportif to make a race of it but few had the stomach for it and he had not cajoled them into greater efforts for some time.

This was an opportunity to liven things up a bit and make a claim for race selection. With about 200 metres to go to the top of the hill he eased off the front casually as if inadvertently. He did not want it to look like he was making an attack. No one took his wheel although it would have been but a moments effort to do so and by the time he crested the rise he had a lead of 20 metres. He would now back himself and his descending skills to hold the group at bay and get to the training run’s notional finishing line just outside the village they had set out from that morning.  A few metres further on the narrow road curved to the right into a tunnel of trees, suddenly dark apart from the stroboscopic flashing of the sun between the branches and leaves. As he entered the curve he silently engaged his highest gear and launched a ferocious attack down the first steep section of the descent. He was out of sight round the next bend before his companions realised that he had flown the coop. A chase was quickly organised but most of the work was left to those less certain of their selection for the big race, not the strongest riders. They mainly sat at the back keeping an amused eye on things, assuming the fugitive had little chance of staying away.

Now was not the time for caution or doubts. He maintained the pressure on the pedals and hurtled down the first steep sections knowing full well what risks he was taking. None of them would be coming down here at his speed. The lone rider with the full width of the road to exploit could usually descend faster than a group. No braking, just intense concentration on his chosen line. As usual on descents, the car had pulled a fair distance in front as racing cyclists could descend narrow winding roads faster than any car. The road levelled into a more gentle decline and he tucked into an aero position to reduce air resistance. Solo time trialling, another skill gained from his amateur days in England, was another of his great strengths and was much used by the team when he was asked to close down breakaways or pace his leader back to the peleton after a puncture or bike change. Today it would serve him in his own right. Suddenly, clipping both verges as he straightened out a bend, he emerged from the forest into the blazing sunlight to find the team car directly in front of him. Before he could think, he swerved to the left and squeezed past without slackening speed, glimpsing as he did the shocked face of his directeur as he momentarily filled his side window, and was gone.

The sun was now full in his face and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. As they did he glanced to his left to see in the valley below the village and his destination. He was now confident he would arrive alone. Even if the group had been closing on him, which he doubted, the car was now a potential cause of delay between them and him. A short rise and then the last curve before the final descent to the finish. Without slackening speed he lent the bike into the bend, drifting out to the side of the road and the barrier to stop cars falling down the steep valley side. And there was an ambulance and, a little further on a group of people helping to lift a laden stretcher over the barrier and onto the road. He could not tighten his line to miss the helpers and so rode through the gap between them and the back of the ambulance, hitting the barrier head on. Glimpses of the blue sky between his legs, then forest below, then blue again and then he was rushing at the tree tops. Sensation of breaking bones, the crack of his back breaking drowned by the sound of a branch snapping, a tremendous jolt as he hit the ground, his innards forced up into his chest and forcing the air from his lungs, and the sharp crack as his head split on a rock, his last wild thoughts and sensations, along with the cherished memories of his life, his fears and dreams, all seeped away into the oblivious dark soil of the French countryside.


A pink veined, fluttering light suffuses everything. A few fleeting shapeless shadows come and go as the light brightens. Dull aches mingle with a comfortable soft warmness and a rising sensation of murmuring slowly increasing in volume. Thomas wakes up in hospital to find his family around him. His wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. It becomes evident that he is in a hospital bed surrounded by curtains, tubes and wires. A screen on a stand beside the bed displays his vital functions. He has no recollection of how he had got here but tries to hang on without success to the fading fragments of something, he knows not what, that had been passing through his mind and consciousness not a moment before. A feeling of wind, elation, freedom, youth, animal invincibility, oneness with the laws of physics, maths and nature – a joyous elemental state of existence he must have once known. But now a feeling of desolation and loss, of regret and remorse. Whatever it was, it was once his, however fleetingly, and it was gone forever. He slept.

A day later, fully awake and basking in the warmth and concern of his loving family, he learnt that he has survived a heart attack. He had collapsed by the side of the road onto a grass verge on the hill just above the holiday cottage. His son-in-law James had just been setting off after making a late decision to go for a bike ride and go round their usual circuit in the reverse direction to meet up with him on the road. He saw him fall from his bike up the hill above the village and had had the presence of mind to shout back to the house to phone for an ambulance before he sped up the hill to see what had happened and what was to be done.

Death By Stages – prologue

So here I am, propped up in my arm chair writing the last few pages of my memoir, if that is what it is. By the time my palliative nurse lets herself in tomorrow morning I’ll be gone. More accurately, still here but dead. Just my mortal coil. I will have shuffled off, God knows where. I’ve been preparing for this for a couple of years now. I’m fairly confident the cocktail of pills I’ve been collecting will be enough to kill an elephant and should have no trouble seeing me off and all the malignant tumours I have become unwilling host to. My little ‘tenants’ as I have come to see them have been gradually growing and multiplying for some time now and are on the point of completely overwhelming me, their reluctant host.  We’ve got along quite well with increasing help on my part from happy juice. But they’ve won, albeit briefly as their own death will follow mine almost immediately, defeat plucked from the jaws of victory. They clearly hadn’t thought it through.

You will have found these words at the beginning of a manuscript I started writing two years ago when I was first told that they had done everything they could and now it was just a question of time. I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer five years ago and at the time the consultant and his team were quite confident they had caught it early. There were a few small low grade slow growing tumours and I would probably die in my old age of something else. Two years later, after more tests, scans and a biopsy, I was informed that the cancer had developed into a much more aggressive form and had spread into surrounding organs and bones. They were wrong in their initial prognosis but as it happens they will be right about me dying of something else, I’ll see to that. The new prognosis was that I could probably have another couple of years reasonably active and enjoyable life but then we would be in the end game.

After my death sentence was pronounced and we got home Morag and I had a few glasses of wine and talked it over; the usual stuff about finances, bucket lists, who to tell, how to tell them and so on. After the third glass we even began to plan a farewell party, a sort of non-funeral, for all our friends and relatives, a big bash in a hotel all expenses paid where I could join in a celebration of my life. There’s no reason to believe people would be any less dishonest on such an occasion while I was there than they would be at a proper funeral without the deceased listening in. It’s amazing what a wonderful person you turn out to be once you’re dead. The party never happened and was probably not that great an idea anyway given Morag’s likely future financial requirements.

One thing I did decide though, without telling anyone, not even Morag, was I would write a memoir. I remembered seeing on YouTube a series of videos titled ‘dance like nobody’s watching’. Let yourself go, have fun, don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks. I decided this would be the approach I would take to writing this account. I would write it as if nobody will read it. In practice I knew someone probably would but the main thing is that I wouldn’t care. In fact it is being read, by you. What follows in the manuscript will offend some people and often cast me in a bad light. So be it. Eventually no one will remember and no one will care. They say you are not really gone while you still live in the memory of those that knew you. This sounds like about 80 years maximum. The only person who I don’t think will be personally offended by this is Morag who I truly loved and have never been duplicitous with. She no doubt, if she reads this, will be offended on behalf of others but I can live, or rather die, with that.

After the bad news I was subjected to various treatments options designed to slow down the progress (a rather strange word to use for something that was gradually killing me) of the disease and try to prolong my life as comfortably and for as long as possible. After that it would be all about pain control and steady decline. Morag and I decided to be moderately optimistic and assume we still had two years of active life together and that’s pretty well how it worked out. It was then that I decided when it got to the point when I couldn’t do much else I would begin to write a story of my life; not ‘the’ story you’ll have noticed.

Essentially this is all about me. I’m not writing it for anyone else and I don’t care, after I’ve gone, who if anyone reads it.  Writing as if no one would read it gave me licence to write badly, ungrammatically, indulge in cod psychological and philosophical reflections, attempt the odd bit of doggerel, plagiarise, even be offensive by telling the truth. No need to pull punches when there is no chance of getting hit back. As far as plagiarism is concerned, it will almost certainly be inadvertent. If anyone should read this and spot something they think I have stolen from them, I wouldn’t bother to waste any money on lawyers. The money will all be gone.  Apart from me the story will also be about anything I decide to write about. Any profundity will probably be accidental. Any profanity will be entirely intentional (pee, po, belly, bum, drawers).

Prostate cancer is designated with a score that indicates the volume and aggressiveness or otherwise of the tumour or tumours. It is then awarded a ‘stage’ in its development on which depends the prognosis, your chances of a cure or, if not, how long you’ve got. Initially my score was quite low and I was told my cancer was at stage T1. This meant that no surgical or other sort of intervention was necessary and it was just a case of keeping an eye on me and every three months or so having a blood test and, if the test was worrying, a scan. Contrary to expert prediction, within a year my cancer had reached stage T3 and I had surgery to remove my prostate. Too late as the cancer had escaped my prostate and invaded other parts of my body.  Over the next couple of years, despite various other treatments, radiation, hormones and so on, I raced through all the other stages and am now faced with oblivion, hence the rather clever title (in my opinion) I’ve given this memoir, Death by Stages.

This memoir is mostly a reflection some events in my life. Of course a reflection can only be a version of the real thing. I am a witness to my own life but even so my account may not be reliable. Many eye witness accounts of the events of the Second World War and the experience of the blitz in London are notoriously at odds with one another. For some it was a time of community, shared concern and support, all mucking in together and singing the old songs in the underground stations and cellars. For others it was a time of sexual abuse in the dark, black markets, hypocrisy and exploitation. I once went to a reunion at a children’s home with a friend who had spent a few prepubescent years there and in the main had not had a bad experience. I met some others who had been children there at the same time who had very different experiences, of fear, neglect and loneliness. One in particular, over 40 years later, seemed to be still very much affected by his years in the home and attributed much of what had gone wrong subsequently in his life to the emotional and psychological baggage he was burdened with at that time, the lack of confidence, the sense of worthlessness and betrayal, the habit of defensiveness and blaming others. Neither my friend nor this unfortunate individual were mis-remembering, let alone lying. They both told the truth as they saw it, remembered it; two different versions but also two different truths. There is no reason to believe that a person is the most reliable witness to their own lives let alone the context of that life. This document will be based on my truths as best I can tell them but certainly not ‘the truth’.

But, for what it’s worth, the following is my story.


Two years on

Apart from the last post with a link to a Guardian article on how authors write, I haven’t posted here since November 2014. So much for a new writing career! I’ve some excuses of course, a serious mountain bike accident last year and cancer this year, but I can’t say I’ve not had the time. I just lost interest and motivation. However, that might be about to change as I’ve started the free 8 week OU on-line course Start Writing Fiction.

Looking at animals

I’m reading John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals’. He claims that animals look at their environment in response to cues and are only in fear and uncertainty when the relevant cues are visible. When a human looks at an animal it not only sees the gaze of the animal but reflexively sees themselves as through the eyes of the beast. In addition to this there is a complex layer of cultural understanding and supposition that shapes and modifies the gaze of the human. Berger claims that humans are the loneliest of species, due in part to their capacity for reflexivity, their awareness of lack of knowledge and constant uncertainty. “Whereas in animals fear is a response to a signal, in men it is endemic’. When human meets human there is always a complex and uncertain process of interpretation, imputation of meaning, and negotiation. When human meets animal there are elements of this process but much more circumscribed, much less complex and with a limited range of possibilities.

In some cases (pets would be a paradigmatic case) animals can offer a quality of companionship not available from other human beings. They are faithful, loyal, non judgemental, non threatening, offer a certainty and constancy that does not require the dance of compromise and accommodation demanded of human relationships. This is illustrated by the example of Christopher in Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’.

Hilary Mantel’s rules for writers

Published in the Guardian

1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.

8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.


This was supposed to be a short story complete in itself but the first chapter in a novel in which each subsequent chapter takes up a thread or issue first introduced in this story.

Sarah entered the meeting room five minutes early. She knew Geoff had a previous meeting at which he was planning to make an intervention during ‘any other business’ so would probably be late to this one. Hopefully she should be able to insert herself at the table amongst friends and avoid him sitting either next to her or opposite her, as had been his tactic at previous meetings where he could contrive it. Even when he has failed to do this he had sometimes managed to seat himself so it was almost impossible for her to avoid eye contact with him if she had to address the Chair.

She stood near the water cooler as others began to arrive for the meeting. She exchanged greetings and watched as one or two of them began to sit at the conference table. After a while, having made some calculation of how the pattern of seating occupancy was shaping up, she sat next to James, one of the trainers from the IT Department she had worked with on numerous projects at the Institute. She asked him how his visit with his children the previous weekend had gone. James had had a particularly corrosive break up about a year earlier with his wife of nineteen years and had only recently managed to assert his rights to see and spend time with his two teenage children. Sarah, although never having been married herself and childless, had become a source of comfort and understanding for James over the last year as he had confided in her in great detail and with a frustration and anger that sometimes brought him to tears and incoherence. Sarah could only listen and offer words of sympathy as she did not feel qualified in any way to offer advice. But talking things through with her seemed to have helped James keep a controlled perspective on his situation and helped him shore up his resolve to see the painful process of gaining access to his children through without doing anything stupid or counter-productive. The previous weekend had been his first unsupervised meeting with his children, a lunch and visit to the cinema, and Sarah knew he had been looking forward to it with great anticipation but also fearful of how it would turn out.

In response to her question James told Sarah that it had gone pretty well, in fact as well as he could reasonably have expected, but some aspects of the visit had worried him for some reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. There was something about the children’s demeanour and behaviour that made him feel rather on edge, almost as if he was under some sort of scrutiny, or as if there was some sort of game being played to which he didn’t know the rules. Perhaps they could meet for lunch? As Sarah agreed to this she was watching the door to the meeting room as there was still a vacant seat next to her beyond which sat Roberta, not everyone’s favourite person as she had, in some people’s opinion, far too much power to veto their proposed plans and projects due almost entirely, it was said, to her personal relationship with the Finance Director. She had some friends of course, some genuine and some who only strategically engaged her friendship, but if none of these turned up soon the seat might still be empty when Geoff arrives, in which case he would almost undoubtedly sit next to her.

Sarah took the opportunity to greet and engage in small talk anyone who passed by or paused on their way to get a drink from the table near the water cooler where tea, coffee and biscuits were on offer, hoping that one of them might choose to slip into the vacant seat beside her. It was a considerable relief when one of Roberta’s colleagues sat next to her. In many respects it would be far easier if Sarah’s situation with Geoff were common knowledge and her friends could be knowing and active collaborators in shielding her from Geoff. In other respects, however, things might be much harder. She would have to step down from various groups and committees she was involved with, she would undoubtedly have to abandon some key strategies she was pursuing to advance her career and promotion. She may even find herself in a position where pressure mounted for her to get involved with complaint and disciplinary procedures.

As the Chair called order and enquired about any apologies for non-attendance that had been notified, Geoff hurried into the room, somewhat dishevelled, an untidy collection of papers under his arm, and looking extremely displeased with something or other. He glanced round the room, his frown deepening almost imperceptibly as he saw Sarah and made his way to an empty seat at the far end of the table opposite the Chair.


I had the misfortune today of witnessing a fatal accident, or rather its aftermath. I had emerged from a bridle path onto the main road about a mile from home, having been out for one of my regular constitutional walks, when I saw a small group of people around what was clearly someone lying half in the road and half on the pavement. The group was silent and, as I got nearer, it became evident that the unfortunate individual on the ground was dead. He was a middle aged man, probably late 40s or early 50s, dressed as a walker; in fact dressed pretty well the same as me – quite expensive looking walking trousers, boots and cagoule but slightly scruffy and frayed and looking as if they had given good service for quite a few years. The expression on his face was one of mild surprise but the angle of his head and the copious amounts of congealing blood left little room for hope. On my enquiry a tall thin competent sounding woman said he was indeed dead as there was no pulse or breathing. Apparently she had some medical knowledge. It had been a hit and run driver someone said. A few cars had stopped to find out what was going on and an ambulance had been called. A siren could be heard in the distance, getting gradually louder. There was nothing I could do. I hadn’t witnessed the accident and the casualty was beyond help so, as the ambulance arrived, I drifted away from the scene and continued my walk home. I glanced back as the crowd separated to let the paramedics through and saw what I had not noticed before. The dead man’s left arm was extended along the gutter and grasped in his hand was a large white handkerchief.

I wonder if blowing his nose, or containing a sneeze, was the last conscious willed action of the poor man’s life. What was he thinking about, if anything, as the car struck him? Was it a happy thought, a regret, an anticipation? How inconsequential it would have seemed to him had he known he was on the verge of extinction, of nothingness. Perhaps any thought, however mundane and prosaic, would have been infinitely preferable than this knowledge. As I slowly wended my way home in the gathering gloom of the December late afternoon, I found myself wondering about the dead man and the last moments of his life, what he was feeling and thinking, what, in the event, utterly meaningless concerns coloured his last conscious moments.

TBC, Hanky, cold, effect on forthcoming meetings and activities. Hopes for the future over the years – being a grand father perhaps, promotion, retirement, a new life with a new woman, swagger the nut strewn way, live abroad, live on a canal boat, how the years would have been spent rather than the gradual dissolution into chemicals and carbon – the material stardust rather than the metaphorical star dust sprinkled future of his hopes and imaginings. Oblivion seized him before he had a chance to seize the day.