A hitch hiker’s guide to chemists

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Space,” notes The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster2

As an anxious introverted recluse, I don’t get out much (even going to the chemist can take planning). I never travelled far in my life (to Belfast and the in-laws half a dozen times, and once each to France and Chicago) and my children have already both accumulated more air miles than me (visits to Belfast, school trips and holidays in Europe). I’ve travelled in space, like we all have, but I think about these things more than most.

At 48 years old, I’ve travelled around the sun 48 times, which is roughly 45,120,000,000 km or 28,032,000,000 miles (and counting). To my mind, that’s forty five thousand million km, but nowadays we call it 45 billion, when that’s not what it is. A billion (in maths) is a million million, just as a million is a thousand thousand. So I’ve travelled 45 ‘billion’ km, which is roughly the distance to Neptune and back, five times.

To put that into the perspective of the universe, it’s about 0.005 light years. So in 48 years, I’ve travelled as far as light does in 42 hours: Strange how that number crops up when you’re considering your place in the universal scheme of things. Even if I’d spent my life travelling at light speed (in which case, I wouldn’t have aged), I’d only recently have reached the nearest exoplanets outside our solar system.

That’s where humans need to go, to places like the Trappist system, about 41 light years away. But we are nowhere near ready or evolved to do more than contemplate the science we need to take us there, or to terraform and colonise the moon or Mars. For whatever future is foreseeable, we will remain a one-planet race, so we have to hope we find ways of getting along as a species and being nicer to our neighbours who were here first. Those are other blog entries, already written or on my mind.

I may not have travelled much on the surface of the planet but I appreciate where I’ve been while sitting on it. It’s humbling and often emotional to place ourselves relative to something else, in space or in time, to remind ourselves not how small we are, but how big everything else is. There’s a regular mind exercise I do, sometimes exploring ideas for stories, and other times just to remember or imagine.

I think of my age now (48), then I go back to a time when my dad was that age, which would be 1990, where I remember a lot about myself. I also think forward, to when my son will be 48 (2052) and imagine what might be going on then. But first, back to a time when problems seemed far away, when I was my son’s age (I was 13 in 1983).

Both are going through changes in their own lives at the moment, yet I can only relate to the younger one, who’s where I’ve been before. My dad is way ahead of me. At 76, he’s travelled that many times around the sun and clocked up just over 71 billion km, equivalent to five return trips to Pluto and just a tiny fraction nearer the closest habitable planets. I don’t see either of them as much as I’d like, because I don’t get out much.

I’ve just put myself through the first part of the human mincing machine which is the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) bi-annual re-assessment. Filling out the form, ‘How your disability affects you’ made me realise how my own mental health has declined over the last couple of years.

When you live a life of social exclusion, depression becomes degenerative. If I’m not fully dehumanised by the whole process, having to prove my mental disability at tribunal (for a third time), then maybe I’ll have the confidence to seek further treatment, now that I’ve seen with my own eyes how bad things can get by writing it all down in an application form. Then I could see more of people.

Just remember, next time you’re looking at the night sky: You’ve been there, about 300 million km away. The Earth passed through that part of space six months ago, but that’s like a walk to the chemist’s on the universal scale. In our singular worlds, we’re much more significant in time than we are in space.

A sneezing (noun) of witches

FICTION | THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve often wondered why I curse a sneeze. A sneeze isn’t an unpleasant sensation, akin perhaps to a mild orgasm of the face, but I curse each one nonetheless: “Ooh, ya fucker,” “Get outa me ting,” and so on (and usually in a regional accent). Then someone told me an old wives’ tale, about each expelled sneeze being a witch’s curse, or specifically the curse of a witch.

FenellaFenella the kettle witch, in an episode of Chorlton and the Wheelies

There’s a difference: A witch’s curse would be a spell cast upon another person; the curse of a witch is the actual words spoken as she escapes. They were all invisible to me, but so are most things which lack proof, and so create intrigue. But for as long as there are questions, fear will remain, because the most fundamental human fear is that of the unknown.

A sneezing of witches is a collective noun I invented, to complement my favourites in the real world: the tower and the crossing, both of which come later. For now, with all these witches now exorcised from my head – and with others sure to join their sisters – I had room in there to ponder an overriding question: Where do the witches go?

Most socially anxious types don’t venture out much (it scares them), but the night holds a comfort for me. If I can’t see so much of my world, there’s less for my inner agoraphobic to fear. It’s counter-intuitive and a paradox, given that humans are meant to fear the unknown (and the unseen). I can only think it’s the horror writer in me, finding a comfort zone.

Aside from our fear of the unknown as a species, the greatest individual terror is to be witness to the degradation and dehumanisation of our loved ones, and horror has as many tropes as witches have curses, limited only by my imagination.

For the protection of my family and close friends, I didn’t go on the witch hunt; I sent one of them instead. My reasoning was that whoever went wouldn’t be killed horrifically before everyone else’s eyes. I still had the issue of me only having a one in several chance of being the one dispatched in true horror story denouement style.

The identity of the person dispatched on the witch hunt is irrelevant for the current narrative, and anonymity increases the jeopardy. The longer whomever is out there, the more time I have to make sure no-one I love gets killed. None of them can write like me though, so I’ll continue in the first person for continuity while I think of plot devices.

You might expect my witch hunt to take place in a dark woods or an old house, but that would be a cliché, so I brought the scary places here, into the studio. I put the kettle on, and was about to conclude that witches were merely the invention of horror writers and skewed local legend, then something got up my nose.

I felt the tell-tale sensation of an invader on my nasal lining and tried to sniff the alien back, but that just agitated the thing. It felt like a tiny dot with legs, scuttling around the back of my nose where my brain comes out. I think it shot some sort of beam, because – like I’d been tasered – I suddenly tensed up and threw my head back in spasm. I managed to fish out a dead ghost (a handkerchief) from my pocket, so that I didn’t offend the rest of the room with what was coming: “Getchoo fuckin’ Bastet”.

Bastet is a name I picked up from a cat once. It was a refugee, escaped from Erwin Schrödinger’s mind experiments, who popped in and spoke to me on the Babel fish over a glass of milk and some sardines on toast. She told me that Bastet was a cat-headed woman and a goddess worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. She also mentioned something about mankind needing cats 3000 years ago, and that we’ll need them again soon. In the interim, she said, thanks for all the fish.

I sipped my coffee as I sifted through the creepy places now filling the room, but still there was no witch. Then another twitch of the nose. “Me bitchin’ innit,” apparently straight out of Jamaica. And I guess I did make her: A curse is a wish by another name, so as I cursed my sneeze, she appeared.

Me bitchin’ innit?” My words echoed, as a bird began to materialise in the chair opposite my spot on the sofa (marked by a stripey cushion, it has the best line of view to the TV and everything is within easy reach (apart from the kitchen)).

She had wings at first, as I heard my words repeated in a slightly croaky voice, like that of a mynah bird. Or a witch: a slender, dark-robed woman with dreadlocks and a crook nose, and skinny black legs protruding beneath her plumage.

They (witches) don’t look like they do in the usual imagined way, and how they’re portrayed in film and literature, at least mine didn’t as she altered form. Mine now looked exactly like someone I know very well and whom I care about very much. If I use that shape-shifting doppelgänger, it’s only a small leap for the reader to place themselves in my position, to imagine themselves and their own nearest and dearest. There are only a finite number of plots, but an infinite way to write them.

Age and gender are interchangeable and the relationship itself as specific as the viewer. It’s as unique and individual as it is personal, so it’s all the more unsettling and surreal when you hear something from someone you didn’t expect (a bit like your nan calling you a cunt, or you calling your nan one).

We thought this might make things easier for you,” she said.

Who’s we,” I wondered, “and what things?”

Your curse, and all of us who’ll watch over you to make sure you keep up your end of the bargain.”

I don’t know what it is yet.”

All in good time,” she said, “such a platitude Steve. You really need to stop writing things like that.”

I can go back and change it.”

Too late, already done.” She adjusted her angle in the chair, now aiming her knees at me. I tried to file Basic Instinct in the back of my mind. “You thought it, Steve. You created another world when you had that thought, so you had to write it down. That world exists now and can’t be undone.”

The theory of fictional realism posits that everything which is possible has already happened. Because of the (to all intents) infinite nature of the universe (or multiverse) it stands to reason, by law of averages, that everything has happened somewhere in that vastness before now. Somewhere out there are worlds where Depeche Mode had more than enough, and another where you can hang with MC Hammer and he lets you touch things. Now there was a world where I’d flogged an already dead horse, and in doing so just wrote another cliché.

You see,” she said, “a shark with lots of pilot fish hanging around underneath it.”

I can imagine, yes.”

And,” she continued, “you see a dog with fleas.” Again, I imagined. “And,” she went on, “you see vultures and hyenas, eating a rotting carcass?” The upward inflection suggested she’d finished by posing a question.

I can see all of those things,” I replied, “in my mind.”

That be some of your friends, and that be your Christmas past, present and future.”

I didn’t have time to collect that thought before she went on:

You see,” she started again, “you see a herd of elephants. They don’t forget and they mourn their dead.” She sniffed. “And you see a tower of giraffes, and a crossing of zebras.” I knew them as collective nouns. “Some of dem, they not be your family.”

I assumed that was the curse, to be forever burdened with those thoughts, the ultimate upshot of which would be me topping myself (I tried that before and it doesn’t work the way I tried). But that wasn’t all anyway.

Your curse,” she rattled some bracelets dramatically, “is as it always has been, living with the guilt of a sober mind, which you’ve not extinguished by swapping the blood in your arteries for alcohol. Instead, that fire and venom transplanted to your pen when your mouth was silenced and you found yourself with no live audience. Now you live alone, on the bank of the river of White Ace flowing by, and every day like a struggling escapologist, when your keys are in your mouth.

You made a wish, perhaps upon a binary star, so you are cursed. Your mind won’t stop creating and imagining, so you don’t sleep. There’s a spell on you which compels you to write those thoughts, for fear that if you stop, you will surely die, because that will be your spirit escaping. Your curse, should you decide to accept it…” Then as I pondered, “Too late, it’s already written innit.” 

So here I am, the sole survivor of that encounter on my planet, having just saved the lives of those who sometimes don’t notice me, by being the one in the story, and I’m forever under a witches’ spell. Cursed to confront my thoughts daily, and my only escape to write and share. Because if I stop, everyone dies. Deus ex machina.

Everyone else sleeps at night, untroubled by dark places of the mind. None of them can write like me anyway.

Fenella 2

A cannabis production, brought to you by the writing prompt ‘Sneeze’.