Friday, August 21, 2020

A Lockdown Story

Isolation

 

Gary McMahon

 

 

Outside, the wind was rattling the patio furniture and making the window panes creak in their casings. The tree in next door’s garden swayed like a drunkard, as if threatening to topple at any minute.

            Jackson stared out through the French doors, the weather distracting him from the computer screen. He didn’t like working from home; he preferred to be in the office, surrounded by people he didn’t really like but whose presence provided some kind of familiarity.

            Rain began to fall in grey diagonals across the window glass.

            “Great,” he said, softly. “Another day of British summertime.”

            The song playing on the radio was familiar but he couldn’t quite place the title of the track or the band who’d performed it. Something from the mid-90s, when he’d been in his heyday. He missed those years of freedom. At the time they’d seemed like the promise of something even better – a precursor of yet more adventures to come – but now they were nothing but faded memories left on a shelf to gather dust and wither away. Sometimes he liked to imagine the ghost of his past self, stuck in time around 1996, drifting through the life he might have had.

            Something passed by the small window to his right. A flitting shadow, as if someone had strolled along the narrow pathway at the side of his house.

            Smiling, he thought: and there he is, right on cue. The pale ghost of me.

            He stood and approached the window, peering outside. There was nobody there. Even when he moved to the French doors, he could see that the garden was empty.

            “I’m losing my mind,” he said to the room. The isolation was causing him to see things.

            Group gatherings were still banned by law, so he couldn’t invite anyone round for company. Not that there was anyone to invite since he and Hannah had split up. Their friends, it turned out, had only ever been her friends all along. She’d even taken the cat when she’d moved out, just before the national lockdown kicked in and nobody could move anywhere.

            Nothing stayed the same. Everything was temporary. Even when you thought your life had settled into a rut, the wheels were always capable of coming off to send you careening along another channel.

            When he turned back to the dining table, where his desktop computer and two monitors were set up, there was someone sitting in his chair. At first glance, it was little more solid than a shadow, but as he watched it grew in definition, taking on substance, becoming a person.

            The ghost of me, he thought again.

            “I’m lonely,” said a small, dull voice. “I desire company.”

            Jackson sat down on the other side of the table, facing the figure. Its face was vague, barely a smudge, but he could see that it was looking directly at him. He’d been wrong about the identity of the interloper. It wasn’t him, it was someone else. Someone he didn’t recognise.

            “I’ll do what I can,” he said, not knowing entirely what he meant by the statement. It felt as if he was saying something bigger and more encompassing than the current situation allowed for.

            “That’s all I ever ask of anyone,” said the odd muted voice. “To try your best...”

            The figure reached out across the table and lay a hand on top of his outstretched fingers. It felt like mist; it was cold and moist and unsettling, yet nestling beneath all that there was a strange sense of comfort.

            Time slowed; the wind dropped; the rain continued to fall, but in silence.

            Jackson felt weightless.

            The figure said nothing else. It just sat there and waited for Jackson to begin. His thoughts were muddled, but he knew that, given enough time, he would work out exactly what the visitor wanted from him.

            Then perhaps everything might make sense.





© Gary McMahon 2020




Rain drops on the window with green | Premium Photo


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Is This All There Is?

Lately, my life has been reduced to working from the dining table at a job I hate for people I want to punch, and sleeping (or trying to). That's it. There's nothing more. My existence has never felt so empty.

Karate training is the only chink of light.

I wish I could find it in me to write again. It seems like I've lost touch with the only thing that defines me as a person. The only thing I'm good at.

I'm not sure if the Corona virus crisis has prompted an existential crisis, or if it would've happened anyway. In April I turned 51. I started thinking about how I've spent my whole life drifting from one situation to the next, buffeted by external forces.

I've never had a plan, only a series of Plan Bs.

I've never had a real purpose.

I'm not sure why, but recently this has begun to bother me.What have I been doing here all those years, and why? I have a sense of urgency, a great burning need to change things, but I don't know how.

I come from a background, and a generation, who were written off before we even started. Fatherless children. Rudderless lives. Half the people I went to school with now have alcohol problems. Too many of them are already dead. At school, we weren't taught how to hope; we were taught to make do. Nothing was ever expected of us.

I'm not sure what any of this means, but I want it to mean something. I want to come out of this period of my life having changed things. My fear is that nothing will change. It'll all just stay the same.

Maybe next week will be when I'm able to write again. Maybe the words, when they come, will be the harbingers of those changes I desire.


Sunday, January 5, 2020

White Rabbit Story - December

I'm sorry this final White Rabbit Story is so late. Christmas got in the way, and illness (both myself and my wife), and a lot of other real-life banalities I won't mention.

But here it is, December's White Rabbit Story. I hope it was worth the wait.



Ghostly




Last night I saw the ghost again.
            I was coming down the stairs and he appeared in the hallway, as bold as brass. Startled, I took a step backwards, stumbling slightly on the worn carpet, and yelled “get out!”
            The ghost looked at me with bagful eyes. “No. You get out. This is my house.”
            “Why are you haunting me?” I said, feeling bolder.
            The ghost looked confused. “But it’s you that’s haunting me.”
            Neither of us moved. A phantom stand-off. One of us was lying, but both of us was convinced that we were the one telling the truth.
            “Just leave,” I said.
            “I was here first,” he replied.
            There was no wriggle room here, no space for discussion. I wasn’t going to back down, but nor was he. We had reached an impasse.
            “I’m alive,” I said. “I know I’m alive.”
            He smiled. “As do I.”
            “So where do we go from here?”
            He paused, blinked. He looked solid enough, but when I looked down at my body, so did I.
            “I have no idea. We need something to help us get past this – something to tell, once and for all, who’s the ghost.”
            The rest of the house was silent. Outside, it was dark and cold. Rain began to fall against the windows, but I could not hear it, only see it on the glass.
            “I’m cold,” he said.
            “I’m not. The dead are always cold.”
            He grinned. “Oh, it isn’t going to be that easy.”
            “How about an arm-wrestle,” I said, jokingly.
            He nodded. “That sounds as good as anything, I suppose.”
            I followed him back down the stairs and into the living room. The lamps were on, providing some mood lighting. The television was off. He sat down at the small dining table near the window and rested an elbow on the table top, flexing his fist. I sat down opposite and did the same.
            “Ready?”
            I nodded. “I guess so.”
            We both leaned in, ready to take the strain, and clasped hands. Or tried to. Our hands passed through one another, not making contact.
            “Interesting,” he said.
            “What does it mean?”
            He had no answer. Neither did I.
            Outside, the rain continued. There was no sound. Not the house creaking, the wind blowing, or the rain falling. I could not even hear myself breathing. Or him. I could remember nothing before coming down the stairs: everything prior to that moment was lost in a mental fog. It was if I only came to exist in that moment.
            I wondered if he felt the same.
            Silence filled the house.
            We waited.
            And we wait still, sitting together at this table, searching for feelings that we cannot experience, emotions that will never come to fill us, lost memories that cannot be found.
We are both the ghosts of this place, and yet neither of us can remember dying. If we’re honest, we cannot recall ever living either. It is as if we have always been here, in the house, in the silence.
            The rain continues. It never stops.
            I do not believe it ever will.

                                                          

                                                                                                                           ©Gary McMahon 2019

Monday, December 2, 2019

Beasts

About a week ago I finished the first draft of a new novella, Glorious Beasts. This pleases me for several reasons, not least because it's the first substantial piece of writing I've managed to finish for a few years. I've done the occassional short story, but nothing longer than 5,000 words. The novella clocks in at just over 20,000.

It's a strange beast, this one. And hopefully a glorious beast. It's set decades after a cataclysmic event that reduced the world's population by more than 50%. It feels like a western wrapped up in a horror story - there are a lot of influences in there, including Julia Leigh's The Hunter, The Road, Mad Max, The Hills Have Eyes, and the Turkish horror film Baskin.

In my head, this world-breaking event - The Plague Years - happened in the mid 1970s, well before home computers and mobile phones came into existence. I wanted to hark back to a time before social media, a more innocent time when everything wasn't splashed across the Internet. I also wanted to write a story where I didn't have to write about moden technology. I'm bored by it; I needed to bypass it for once in the plot instead of having to allow for it.

The story started off being about a man and his son climbing a hill. Then, as I wrote it, things evolved and it became the story of what was inside that hill, and what was inside the man's barren heart.

I'm about to start the second draft. I only hope I can do the story justice.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

White Rabbit Story - November

This month's White Rabbit Story is a little different. It forms the opening of a novel I'm working on. The novel is called Fingers, and now that I'm back in the swing of writing regularly, I'm hoping it'll be the next big project I actually finish...




Don't Talk


When he woke in the night he was thirsty and his eyes were sore. He climbed out of bed and went downstairs to the kitchen, where he filled a pint glass with water from a tap and drank it down in a series of huge gulps.
            The dream still clung to him like scraps of paper blown in a gale. He couldn’t shake it off. Probably wouldn’t be able to until it was morning and he was fully awake.
He always knew it was a dream. He’d been experiencing it for most of his life. It wasn’t what he’d call a recurring dream, because it didn’t come often enough; but it was certainly a dream that had repeated since he was a small child.
            As best he could remember, he’d first had the dream when he was twelve years old, so that meant he was always twelve years old in the dream. It was as if the dream had stuck there, like a stylus in a scratch on an old record, and he’d been unable to move on.
            The dream always followed the same strand. It never wavered.
            It went like this:
            He was a small child and he’d just woken up from a dream. The bedroom window was open and a light breeze was blowing the curtains. He got up and closed the window, shivering from the chill. The streetlight outside his window flickered once, twice, three times, and then stopped.
            He turned back to his room. The family dog was sitting on the bed. They’d had the dog a long time. It was old, and its fur was patchy. It was a mongrel but nobody had ever managed to decide which breeds had mixed to create this hybrid hound.
            “Come on Fluffy, get down from there.” His mother didn’t like the dog climbing up on the beds.
            He glanced towards his bedroom door but it was closed. He had no idea how the dog could have gained access to the room, unless it had somehow got outside and climbed in through the open window.
            He walked over to the bed, sat down next to the dog, and stroked its neck. The dog nuzzled his hand.
            “Come on, boy. I’d better let you back out, or mum will kill me.”
            Standing, he heard the bed creak; the mattress undulated.
            As he walked towards the door, he heard someone cough – a polite cough, like the kind of sound someone makes when they’re trying to get your attention.
            Turning, he stared at the dog.
            “No one will ever believe this,” said the dog, in a voice that was calm and soft and quite well-spoken. “Tell whoever you want that your pet dog spoke to you, and they’ll just laugh and think you’re joking. Persist with this fantasy, and they might think you mad. Dogs don’t talk.”
            He felt a chill again but this time it wasn’t the wind.
            “Fluffy? What did you say, Fluffy?”
            The dog stood up and plopped down off the bed, then walked to the centre of the room. It squatted down and took a shit on the carpet.
            He didn’t know what to do, what to say; this situation was too much for a twelve-year-old boy.
            The dog strolled calmly to the door and waited to be let out. He opened the door and watched it leave. The dog didn’t even look at him, it just walked along the landing and vanished around the top of the stairs. He heard its paws gently padding on the carpet as it went downstairs.
            This was always the point at which he woke up, his head filled with questions that he couldn’t have verbalised if someone had asked him. Usually, he felt some kind of obscure muted terror.

It always took him a long time to get back to sleep.


                                         

                                                                                                              ©Gary McMahon 2019



Tuesday, October 15, 2019

White Rabbit Story - October

This month's White Rabbit story is, again, a little late. I think I've abandoned the first of the month as the date for posting these, but as long as they go up monthly the experiment remains valid.


So here it is...




Made Redundant



When our regional manager came for his annual tour of the office, we were all quiet. His walk through the halls of the building was accompanied by a kind of hushed awe. Nobody dared speak in case it drew his attention. We all just got on with our jobs and prayed that his gaze would not come to rest upon us.
The truth is, none of us workers knew how to react. Our regional manager had been dead for six months.
He looked good, for a dead man. His skinned was tanned, his muscles were tight. He looked as if he'd been on a holiday and come back fit and healthy.
The fatal car crash hadn't seemed to produce any adverse effects, at least as far as his appearance was concerned.
When he went into a boardroom and shut the door, there was a sense of relief, yet it was edged with a note of despair. Something was about to happen. We all knew it.
Fifteen minutes later, something did happen.
"Good morning," he said as I walked into the meeting room, where I'd been summoned to see him.
"Good morning. Is everything...okay?"
He nodded, smiled, shuffled papers on the desk. His hands were large, with big knuckles. They, too, were tanned.
Without further preamble, he said: "I'm afraid we have to let you go. We're scaling down the work force. Your role has been made redundant." It was like a list of items rather than a spoken sentence. An agenda. He looked right through me as he spoke.
I hadn't even been given the chance to sit down. There was nothing much left for me to say so I said nothing and turned away.
And yet I did not feel too broken-heated. After all, it was my role, and not I, that had been made redundant.
When I left the room, I shut the door gently behind me. As I walked back along the corridor, I glanced at him through the glass panels. Our regional manager. Once again, he was looking at me, but at the same time he looked through me, as if I wasn't even there. His eyes were glassy and devoid of anything that I would describe as humanity. The word that crossed my mind was insectile.
On his calm, dead face was a tiny, wan smile. A single fly buzzed around his head but he didn't seem to notice it there. I didn’t even know if he could see it.
I left the building without picking up my stuff or saying farewell to my colleagues. I’d barely known them anyway. Five years working alongside these people, and we were strangers to each other.
I sat in my car and stared at the building, noticing for the first time the mould on the bricks, the cracks in the structure, the way the doors and windows sat at odd angles in their frames.
As I watched, our regional manager opened the meeting room window and climbed out onto the narrow ledge. He shuffled along a few yards, then paused, raising his hands to the sky and looking upward. Then he stepped off the ledge.
I started the car and backed out of the space, drove towards the main gate. When I glanced in the rear-view mirror, I saw his small, dark-suited figure stand and brush itself down. There was a hint of disappointment in his stance, the way he carried himself…or so I thought at the time. I might be romanticising the image, making more of it than there actually was.
He turned to stare at me as I drove away. I couldn't make out his individual features, only the blank, white oval of his face and the sudden movement as he raised his pale hand to wave goodbye.








©Gary McMahon 2019




Wednesday, September 18, 2019

White Rabbit Story - September

During 2019, as a kind of literary experiment, I plan to publish a new piece of flash fiction during the first week of every month. These pieces are called The White Rabbit Stories.


Sorry about the delay posting September's story but I was away on holiday in Turkey during August. This should see me back on track with this project.






Where Things Would Take Him
 


Gary McMahon


 
He went down to the beach and stared out at the sea, trying to clear his head. There was a huge grey rock a few yards from the shore; he waded in, knee-deep, and sat down on the rock. It was covered with patches of kelp, but not so much that it was slippery. The rock’s surface, in fact, was smooth and oddly soft. Once he’d adjusted his position, it made a comfortable perch.
            So much had happened in the past few days: his wife leaving him for another, much younger man; being made redundant; finding out that that his wife had re-mortgaged the house and had not kept up with the payments.
            Everything had happened so fast, taking on its own trajectory. A life pulled apart in the space of a week. Now he had nothing left. His entire life before this point was a sham; scrape away the surface matter and there was nothing underneath.

            He smiled. This entire period, now that it was finally over, had proved liberating. He was free. He could do whatever he liked with the rest of his life, and, surprisingly, the prospect did not scare him. It made him feel alive. For the first time in many years, he was truly living.
            Staring at the horizon, he wondered where things would take him, what path he might eventually follow. The sun dipped lower and the sky changed colour, a dark expanse with slashes of yellow and orange.
            What a beautiful sight, he thought. What a beautiful end to the day.
            The sound of the sea was peaceful. Gently lapping waves. The occasional splash of something darting near the surface.
            It was then that he understood the tide must have come in without him noticing. He looked back at the shore; it was a mile away. The beach was empty. He could see his car parked on the gravel car park next to the road, but no other vehicles were visible.
            Puzzled, he looked around. Surely the tide could not have come in so fast…and, now that he thought about it, there was a sensation of floating, drifting but with purpose. It felt as if he were on a small boat, bobbing on the tide, heading slowly, almost furtively away from land.
            He looked down at the rock. It was moving, muscles flexing at it pushed itself gracefully through the water.
The rock was taking him out to sea.
At first his mind was unable to grasp this concept, but reality slowly seeped in, and then came the terror. The knowledge that he was in danger, the nature of which he could not completely understand.
            By the time he realised it was not a rock he was sitting on, the smooth, grey thing beneath him had rolled smoothly over to show him its teeth.




© Gary McMahon 2019