Selling Illusion

Saturday, May 07, 2005

[The 5,000 Piece Puzzle]

Six days from now, the date marked as the thirtieth day of the November month, will see the closing date of a competition. Sponsored by Time Warner Books, the ‘Real Writers: Short Story Awards 2004’ see the winning entry receiving a prize to the princely sum of two thousand and five hundred pounds, and a chance to submit a novel to the publisher for consideration. All and all, a competition not to be frowned at. And, for an aspiring writer, a chance not to be sniffed at. So it is of no surprise, especially for anyone who read last week’s article, that I am entering the competition, and, in a reversal of my previous modest aspirations to ‘do well, but not win’, I have changed gears and am presently thundering down the express freeway of success in a juggernaut labelled ‘Top Spot’ with my eyes on one of the top placements.

“Aha,” I hear new readers cry out. “Nab Gil’s hit upon a winning formula, a story so good that it’s inflamed his raging ego to rival Ziggy Stardust’s. It’s going to rock the socks of the Judges, and his bank balance will soon be ringing to the sound of some two thousand pounds.”

Friends’ reactions will be more subtle. With a single eyebrow raised, a simple statement will be echoed throughout the world. “Back again McAllister? Leaving it to the last minute?”

The answer lies, struggling fiercely, between the two.

I have indeed hit upon, what I consider in my humble opinion, a very good story. Something that has been brewing for some six months now: but has yet to become stale and tasteless. Initial premise, character archetypes, ending. All rest, bundled up behind my eyes, waiting to be delivered by hand to the smooth keys of my laptop. As is with anything I seek to write, some things are clear, others more ill defined. There is no constructed, completely defined reality in existence, no borders. Thinly built walls are easily washed aside, entire plots of this newly seeded land can be destroyed, reformed or erased from existence as my mind sees fit.

Thus when I come to write, there is a degree of fluidity around and within a few guaranteed events, a few pre-scripted scenes and conversations. I have never sought to clarify the reason for this form of writing, nor have I had such clarified to me, so the technique, if one was to call it that, is not one assimilated from another writer. It is simply how I do such things. The premise for particular plot threads have been stored up in my mind for some time, and sadly, most have become in danger of stagnating. It is in between these moments in time that I find freedom, spontaneous invention. What were two paragraphs of dialogue can grow into a ten page assault on the sensibilities of the characters in question. Later editing may return the state of play back to its original foundations, but for the most part, there is a great deal of enjoyment from forming many unexpected responses and thought processes. However, at times I draw a fine line between reader interest and writer’s masturbation.

There are many ways I look at the formulation of a story, but underlining all is the sketchy assumption that I am looking at a variety of puzzle pieces, having the components, but not the overall piece. Over time, I gradually build, small shards coming together and being placed with rough approximation to each other. It is only in the finishing stages that the dots are fully connected, and the near complete framework is able to be fully appreciated.

However, as Drifter has attested to on a few occasions, I have the unnerving ability to overshoot word margins to the sum of an extra thousand words. I would claim this to be the product of four years of writing University papers, all with an average word count limit of two thousand. For the most part, I managed to land close within the five hundred extra maximum borderlines. There was a comfortable margin of error. For most of the last five months, I’ve managed to hammer through the five hundred word limit here for a shockingly unsporting two thousand worder. But I would nurture the opinion that those extra words are never wasted on reiteration. Two thousand words seems a complete betrayal to the phrase ‘to the point’, but I would feel it an injustice to curb my writing when I knew I had something more to say. And luckily, it’s a great bunch of folk here that allow me the leeway.

So, upon reading that entries for the competition must not exceed a five thousand word count, I felt I was in safe territory. If two thousand was my norm, then five should see me clear to lavish the story with a sense of occasion and detail that would weigh it up close to the word limit, no editing needed. So, story in mind, I started transcribing the beginnings onto the page. Three paragraphs in, I decided to double check the figures against the ‘Epilogue’ short serialized on this site a few months ago. At around three thousand words, it would clarify in my mind how much space I had to manoeuvre on this new short. Could I go with the longer, more poignant of the two ideas? Or would space restrictions mean a slightly pacer narrative and resolutions that were steeped in blood rather than wordplay?

Open up the document. Select ‘Edit’, and then click on ‘Select All’. A brief slide over to the right saw a quick caress of the ‘Tools’ menu and a plunge into ‘Word Count’.

The numbers blinked back at me. They must be wrong, I reasoned. I’ve probably got a few articles wielded onto this one document, for archiving. I scrolled up and down the pages, looking for any erroneous documents. The three piece ‘Epilogue’ story stared back at me, alone in its confinement. I repeated the procedure, hypnotized by a growing horror.

Six thousand words. With being double my rough estimate, it managed to kill off two birds with one stone. My story was to revolve around one continuous conversation, which would delve far deeper and wider than the conversation that spawned within ‘Epilogue’. The core of the narrative would also seek to ground the reader fully in the reality of the situation that was being presented to them. Descriptive paragraphs were to be important to the development of the plot, and hold clues to the more observant of readers. I wanted to show off my present potential as a writer through a style of fiction that was of my own making, not a copy of a copy of a copy. This seemed to suddenly be very unlikely.

I slammed on the brakes. After some contemplation, I started reversing back the way I had come.

Not to turn round and head back, tail between my legs. No, I was simply getting a bigger run up. The transmission between the solid walls of this constructed reality and a fluid shifting phase of inspiration was completed. During the last few moments of slowing down and coming to a complete stop, a single thought ran through my head.

And this is where this story ends, for the moment. For past has merged with present. A plan was formulated a time ago, outlined in last week’s article. One project has been finished, and the next awaits its completion. The surprise offering of a new trade to work in has been accepted and assumed. Yet complications have arisen from its impact upon my life. Five months of inactivity has seen a surge of thinking creatively. The sudden plunge back into full days’ of work has left the brain jaded and tired, unable to generate the frenzied activity of thought on demand for the few hours left each night. This will be resolved as time goes on, as body takes on its new mantle with ever increasing fluidity and operational standards will return fully fledged to the higher areas of the mind. But time is not what I have. And so, with three evenings’ work lost to the resumption of working days, a challenge sees its way to the front. To rise above temporary mental weariness and reformat a story, write within word specifications, and still construct something that’ll blow the Judges’ minds, all within four days?

Sounds like a challenge for certain. And damn me if I’m not happy to be excepting it. I’m going to do it, because I’ve got something to prove. So it ends here on a cliff-hanger. Sitting silently looking at the horizon stretching out in front of me, a light gleams behind my eyes, and a small smile pulls at the corner of my mouth. That single thought fires across my brain.

Step on the gas.

[Igniting the Fuse]

Tonight, like any other, I power up my laptop to the sight of a wallpaper that has greeted me for the last five months. I’m quite fickle in my ways, and, like my musical tastes, single images are not stationary for any great length of time, and so are not prone to lengthy stays on my LCD screen. This one is an exception. The image is bordered by jet black lines, the kind you get watching cinema presentations on a 16:9 ratio on your television set. Within those walls are two things. To the left, a logo, emblazoned in a unique font, fading into the stark white background. To the right, a single figure, from waist up, eyes closed, head angled down to the left. It is a character I know well, having made her acquaintance at the start of a new summer. It is not the physicality of her that light’s a fire in the core of my mind, but something more insubstantial, something stronger.

As a slight pain emerges across my optic nerves, I glance away from the screen to rest my eyes for a brief respite. Swerving away, they cannot fail to take in the sheet of A4 paper that is tacked against my wall. On it is sketched seven figures, holding together for a group shot. Most, if not all, have been part of my life for over fourteen years in some incarnation or another. Along one frayed edge is a simple statement. It reads ‘For us’. Somewhere below that is a signature: my own.

Both images are simplistic. Yet merged into the fabric of both of these visuals is that of a promise, made a long time ago. The promise was made by me, and it was to myself. It reflected two different sides of my life, both important, and both, equally, sadly, unfulfilled. And I only can blame myself. Chances come and go, but some exist indefinitely, created and fulfilled by the person who made them. Personal, private choices that linger on through conscious thought and dream. The basic premise for their embellishment from fantasy to reality is only guaranteed by the wielder. I have sat, and felt the weight of empty promises upon my shoulders. In their eyes, I see hopes and aspirations that are of my creation. And I have seen those hopes and aspirations turn from flame to ember, from embers to ash.

It was something I did not even understand until recently. With taking stock of the last few years of my life, and where I am now, I’ve come to realise that I haven’t succeeded in shaping the dreams I once had, dreams I thought I always had. The ability to produce them has never been outside my grasp, but I’d allowed the background noise that is generated in anyone’s life to become prominent. The fires have been blanketed, dulled. All by my own hand. Passion had been steadily replaced with apathy, ideas generated and then stock piled on a scrap heap of discarded memory. My path through life seemed to have degenerated into a mass of cul-de-sacs. Regular readers of my column will remember a few weeks back my article describing a fruitless meeting I had with a long serving journalist, in which it seemed my aspirations were dashed and my future career was better envisioned as pulling randomly out of hat. I stated then that this was the saddle that broke the horse’s back. Hence apathy set in, and much of my work has suffered as a result.

The life that I desired, the life that I wanted, seemed to be quickly evaporating. And I seemed complacent enough to sit and watch it slip from my grasp.

Last week I decided to stop being a whining arsehole and actually do something about it.

I had come to the realisation that there was such a thing as being too late, and the last thing I wanted was, in twenty years from now, to look back at the possibilities and freedom that I had right here, right now, and to feel the bitter taste of regret in every aspect of my life, as I let it all pass me by. I had been at the crossroads before, and quite frankly, I was becoming sick of thinking of my life like that. That all I saw was the road less travelled, and felt a sense of unexplored possibilities on the path I had decide on. Sometimes it’s incredibly easy to be an asshole and wallow. I didn’t wish for it to be my forte. I do it badly and half heartily. I’m better at being me, and that’s exactly who I decided to be. Realisation formed into resolution.

“Warm, witty and fundamentally happy individual who isn’t that far up his own ass to admit he’s got faults as well. Seeks to achieve dreams as a matter of principle, rather than distant fantasy. Will travel (a lot), and seek the answer to unnamed feeling within.”

Well, it was a start, an internal log for starting a new chapter of my life. That feeling of grasping life by the balls and doing exactly what I want to be doing. No compromise: a choice, simple and true, to do what I want to do with passion and love, the path being straight and narrow, the horizon wide. I was not painting over the ugly parts, but more an understanding that I could not find any future by fixing my past, but it allowed me a greater appreciation of what I did have, and the lessons learnt.

So tonight, as any other night, I see her face staring at me from the computer screen. But now I can match the weight behind that gaze. For sitting, not two feet away from me, are two complete application forms, ready to be hand delivered to two companies, both for journalist positions. The requirements for the positions and my experience in the field are separated by a canyon of my own making. But I am ready and willing to prove myself to these people. A belief that passion and determination can go a long way in showing potential employers how good I can be in fulfilling these roles. In the mean time, I’ve had two offers for temporary employment. One is a step back into old territory. The other is the representation of an old dream once thought buried forever. Isn’t it funny how your luck can change? The latter will mean realising an ambition, whilst the former will at least mean I’d be employed for the first time in five months, earning a steady pay packet, getting myself back onto the circuit once more.

And even if the Journalism positions prove to be allusive, I’ll find something else. And whilst all this goes on, I’ll be hard at work on personal projects. No longer ‘they will’ and ‘I hope’. It’s changed to ‘they are’ and ‘I am’. I’ve spent all week putting the finishing touches to a tattoo design that will in two weeks be grafted onto a very dear friend, a trust in my abilities as an artist that hopefully will never cease to amaze me. My brain will then gear up to committing to page the short story that has been forming in between tattoo sessions, started already but not finished, for completion this time next week. Printed out, it will be sent off to England for a Short Story Competition where it’s going to amaze and entertain the judges. I’m aiming for the title of ‘One to Watch’. And as soon as that’s is winging its way overseas, my fingers will start hammering the keyboard once more with not one, but two delayed writing gigs. One is a comic script for the attention of Marvel Comics, with assistance and feedback from this site’s very own Schaefer, who recommended me for the gig. The other is one very close to my heart, my first novel. Relief for those who read the first draft and clamoured for more, confusion for others: ‘Gil was writing a novel? Gil can write?’ And with every page written I’ll glance up at that A4 page and offer a face eating grin and murmur ‘I’m doing it’.

Along side this, and once a steady pay check starts coming in, I’ll be able to afford proper art supplies, and start renovating some of the older rough sketches I have lying around into full fledged art pieces. This will be supplemented by my new digital camera, also bought with influx of money. To which I will use with great effect on creating a virtual exhibition for show in my newly created website, generated through the intense study of web design and Photoshop manuals, assisted with generous advice from The Drifter and The Kitten, the Dynamic Duo. And I will enjoy every minute of this process, since I’m working in the areas were I have always been happiest.

I will re-discover my love for gaming, taking my time at each and every piece of software that graces my collection of consoles, appreciating the fine craftsmanship of the game play, and being in awe of the simplistic pleasure of these fantasy worlds being generated. I will not rush through something new, but savour it as a fine wine, and thus elongate every drop of pleasure. There will be a period of mourning when I realise that not every game is as good and rewarding as the 10% of supreme quality that is out there. But then I’ll probably be to busy leaping chasms and dancing around multiple enemies in Prince of Persia 2 to shed more than a single tear.

I will actually get round to seeing the ending sequence of Final Fantasy X, and starting Metroid Prime.

Then, with money saved and debts cleared, in a year I will be travelling across Thailand, breathing in humid air and tasting the scents of a new world. I’ll realise that after years of hoping and dreaming that travelling would see me at my happiest, that it is true. Once returned home, another trip will be immediately planned, then another, and another. I will manage to pick up hard and mind wearying work in Japan, and throughout a smile will dominate my face. After having my fill, I’ll continue on, chasing the setting sun across the world, exploring and meeting a thousand different cultures, giving me a greater appreciation of the world and as I grow and discover a greater understanding of certain unalienable facts, and become a better person through my experiences. I will find the beliefs I once held dear and then cast aside as naivety will be reconfirmed, and a foundation stone of greater resolve will be borne from the events that created them. My perceptions will remain mine, altered somewhat but strengthened in the process.

My own quest. To uncover the questions in my heart and become a better person for it.

Coming back home, I will look at the final draft of my first novel, and then completely re-write it. It will be published, and not win any awards, or any critics ‘Novel of the Year’. But for those that pick it up, it’ll be a hell of a read, and people will feel better for having been privy to the world I constructed. I will then start work on the four sequels, writing the last as I look back at my life, and find that I have no regrets at all, that I’ve lived my dreams, and am eternally grateful for the life I had, and for getting the chance to be at peace with myself.

The last novel will end with a vision of a world saved, and the chance to build a new one from the ashes of the past. It will feel to me, and any that read it, as a journey completed. Some time after I will pass away, happy and content. At my funeral, they’ll play Morecambe and Wise’s ‘Bring me Sunshine’, as my final request. And the atmosphere will be that of a party, rather than a sombre occasion, allowing people to revaluate how good life can be, to which they’ll toast and drink well into the night, until a new dawn.

Yea…wouldn’t be a bad ending for someone who decided not to be an asshole for the rest of their life.

But first steps first. I’ve realised I make a terrible asshole, and the problems are all internal. Time to show myself how to live. Better find the spark to set this all off.

As Johnny Storm would say: ‘Flame on’.

[The Greatest…]

At the time of writing there is just over an hour before select gaming shops around Belfast, and I’m sure the rest of the United Kingdom, will open their doors to an expected and expectant flood of gamers, X-Box in origin, all eager to exchange a wad of four ten pound notes for a shiny metal tin with the words ‘Halo 2’ emblazoned across it. It does not take much conjecture as to what will happen next. They will rush home, idly puzzling in their minds what mysterious illness will be on the cards tomorrow morning to make for an extended weekend off work. Once threw the door, lights will be dimmed, electricity will soar as thousands commence the same ritual of turning on televisions and powering up x-boxes, inserting a game disc inside, and with one hand closing the CD drawer the other will be twirling the hi-fi volume to spindle to eleven. They will make themselves comfortable, grip a Controller S in a sweaty mitt, give one last gasp of breath as they await that familiar music to course through their speakers.

What is less certain is what happens next. Reviews have taunted Halo 2 as the greatest game ‘on X-Box’, ‘this year’, ‘of all time’. A Tsunami that has been months in the making, the build up across industry magazines, from the mouths of fans, and the brute force of advertising campaigns that are seemingly endless. It seems if you’re not with the Master Chief this Christmas, you’re losing out, big time. But hype and the onslaught behind it can only go so far. The real test, despite what sales figures may say, is only a short time away. It begins with the press of a ‘START’ button. Ultimately, immersion and playability will be the deciding factor. And that’s the only way it should be. Conclusions and opinions will come, either this weekend, or sometime in the next few weeks. They will come in the shape of gamers. And that’s how it should be. Not marketing campaigns, nor review scores from official publications – simply from the man/woman on the street. The players, the gamers.

Through means devious or otherwise, I’ve been sitting playing a copy of Halo 2 since early this evening. Four hours is not enough time to form any coherent and truthful answer. I have one, certainly. But it is not one that I will express in any shape or form. Because I haven’t earned the right. But what I can tell you for a fact, right now: it will not be the greatest game of all time.

Because there has never been one, and never will be. ‘Greatest Game Ever’ is a fabrication, a myth applied by marketing people in order to sell more units, and a generous exaggeration used by the gaming journalism profession. I can name five games of the top of my head, which have been rated with such an accolade. Do any of these achieve such a lofty ideal? No, they do not. However, they do contain great gaming moments, and as such should be treasured. For while there may never be a game that out shines them all, there can be great gaming experiences. And they, thankfully, are about in abundance. You know the type. The list is endless, the range diverse as they come, as is mine.

It may be the first time you perfected the powerslide in Ridge Racer, listening to the thunder of the techno soundtrack as you drifted round that first right hander, straightening out as you approached the waterfall bridge. Or that first loop de loop with Sonic, or jumping through a liquid painting with Mario on his Nintendo64 debut. Or is could be Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in its entirety. The memories stretch out, back over fifteen years, through four or five generations of gaming machines.

And the trend is continuing. ‘The Greatest Game Ever’ is still a myth, but there are games that push the boundaries of quality to extreme levels, and rise closer to an art form, towering above the heap of mire that some companies are excavating. Prince of Persia, Burnout 3 and Beyond Good and Evil are three that come to mind. All three I have purchased, played, and have taken up permanent position in my mind as some of the all time greats. Lasting impressions that would bare close resemblance to a great novel, or a fantastic film; the feeling that your life has been enriched with being exposed to such delights as these. To what generates such a empathy is hard to construe on the page, it is something that, in my case, would involve a great deal of arm thrashing, sounds that hinted of primeval and heaven like qualities, and a general registering of a cerebral ecstasy that would have any crack addict searching for my secret stash.

It’s a variety of things. The three games I’ve picked up on here are not tied by any similar genre type. A platformer, a racer, and an adventure. But they all have ‘it’. Something fundamental, something ethereal. Maybe it cannot be identified in itself. Maybe the only way to do so is by recognising the traits developed by an individual with its infection. The most useful and recognised example would be the case of Final Fantasy VII.

It’s been some seven years since the fall of Midgar. The gaming community has seen the arrival of four other Final Fantasy games, and an ever increasing variety of role playing games. Yet the fall out of VII can still be felt. A film set some years after the end of the game is soon to be released in theatres around Japan, and on DVD in America and Britain. Two new videogames are to be based around the events unfolded in VII. Statues, comics, posters; all to commemorate a seven year old PlayStation videogame. Now, this could be seen as a marketing ploy by a company seeking to drum up some extra revenue. But such products would not be made if the interest was not there to purchase them. That interest is there, because for many, Final Fantasy VII had ‘it’, and it had ‘it’ in spades. Just ask someone who has played it about the death of Aeris.

To fill in those to whom a collective ‘who?’ has arisen from, Aeris was the central character’s love interest. And who, over the course of some thirty hours gameplay and innumerable conversations, had managed to chip away at Cloud’s stony, defensive exterior. She was a fully realised character, and gamers responded to her straight forward honesty and pure nature. Such was the power of this medium that a fairground ride was given a romantic and sweet edge, and the embarrassment that should have come with being pulled unwilling into performing in an unscripted play was quickly manhandled into open delight. Over the course of the game a genuine sense of care and love had been bestowed on this girl, and a secret promise that no harm would come to her.

And before the player’s very eyes she was murdered in cold blood at the hands of a madman.
The shock of this, the suddenness of this betrayal, the feeling of helplessness had an effect on many that surprised them. This was nothing like the fan boy lusting of Lara Croft, or the affection held for a certain Italian Plumber. Aeris’ death was real. Frighteningly, sickeningly real. A memory that ironically holds the title ‘greatest gaming moment’ for some.

It is that ability to push past the exterior and touch us deep inside that holds the key to the myth, to understanding the true meaning of ‘The Greatest Game Ever’. In fourteen years I’ve seen and played dozens that lay claim to the title. But it is those that I will remember and reminisce over, those that ten years from now will still feel as fresh and clear as the day that I first played them, those will be ‘it’. And that’s the way it should be, and always will be.

"> [The Principal Violence Inherent in Intensity Analysis]

Looking at recent posts, it strikes me with some surprise that OUATIC has reached its hundredth post, and makes me re-think my time in this good old gravy train. It’s been two months, eight weeks and this; my ninth article for the Powers Above. And I can say with all truth that I approach my writings this week with the same passion and determination that has shadowed every word that has flowed through my hands onto the page since that first guest slot nine weeks ago. It is quite simply, a joy. Every week is spent meticulously chewing mentally on the subject for the Thursday slot, letting it saturate in the deeper recesses of my sub-consciousness until Wednesday evening to early Thursday morning is spent powering out the ideas into coherent words, sentences, paragraphs. So a quick ‘cheers, and have a drink on me’ to the folks on the throne, for thinking I was good enough to take onboard for a longer voyage. I hope I’m still maintaining the faith they placed in me.

To me, being a writer means having integrity. It means writing against the standards not only of your audience, whose judgement will be tough enough to satisfy, but of your own. Every piece must measure up to the last; the next one must raise the bar higher still. The words ‘must do better next time’ should never cross the writer’s lips, let alone his mind. Practise does indeed make perfect. Or at least, a better degree of imperfection. And it is to this I strive. At least, until I get near enough to give it a quick two fingered salute while I race on towards that big old ‘Perfection’ sign somewhere in the distance. Needless to say, I’ve got a long way to go. But it seems I better get there, and quick; the reasons for which I shall divulge shortly.

Back in my first assignment, to document my life in the city of Cardiff, I remarked on my constantly unwelcome companion, writer’s block, my dirty little secret, my mistress. This, however, is not the only partner that has inhabited my bed in the past. Whilst writer’s block is something that in its own way becomes a challenge for one to overcome, it at least has a near-corporeal form inside the mindless wastelands of creation. It is a force of opposing will, a wall to which holds back a land of seething electrical impulses that fire across the psyche more powerful than any thunderstorm. It can be fought, and defeated. If one has but the strength. Sadly, this other cannot. It leeches away at thought, sucks the marrow from excessive fiction and drains the will to write. It is the dearth of any emotion; apathy.

It is she who lies by my side tonight. And it is a struggle to oppress her desires. This is the worst time for a writer. Even one without a tough editorial stance to their own work can fire out the most useless regurgitated nonsense onto the page in deference to writer’s block. Apathy is like a bucket of cold water on a raging fire. Without passion, without drive, there is no power. No determination. And so the writer sits, staring at an empty page, typing a few lines, deleting them, retyping. Over and over. There is no panic over looming deadlines, a wish to impress. Just silence, reflection, and an overriding sense of nothingness. This can be caused by many things, all pointing towards the current private life of the writer in question.

I don’t think you need to guess were this is heading.

It has not been the best of weeks. ‘But wait’, I hear you cry, ‘Gil, isn’t that the best thing for a writer? To throw up onto the page all the bile that’s been tossing inside your innards for the last while? Does pain not generate creative productivity?’ And you’d be right. Andy Cairns, the singer of Northern Irish outfit ‘Therapy?’ wrote a song entitled ‘Happy People Tell No Fucking Stories’. So there is truth in which you speak.

But as of yesterday, my brain recognised a serious flaw developing within the old brain nodes, and so decided it was best to simply shut up shop for a while. A good call, I must admit, and some parts of me gave a standing ovation to the other parts that had decided and implemented the coupe. Nothing life threatening, just a mental defensive reaction to a gradually building layer of stress, it is, on all accounts, a good thing. So at present I am drifting along in safety mode, so to speak. It’s good, it’s keeping me going, but it is a complete bugger when it comes to writing with anything more than a general apathy.

One of the triggers was having one of my dreams crucified in front of my eyes.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that I’m still in some ways a naïve dreamer. Hopeless romantic and journalist do not go hand in hand. Yet somewhere inside I still believed in the hopes and aspirations borne from wanting to see justice done in this world, and that if you’re passionate enough about something, then you can make it happen, you can shape your future. Sadly this does not seem to be a widely respected view. Eager to try and gain some advice and tips on how to break into the field of journalism and pursue a career direction, I arranged an informal chat with a highly placed and long serving journalist. Now, I will state from the off that he was both admirable and kind in his summations, and none of what he said was aimed with malicious intent. But his words and his view on the apparent state of the practise today summed up that I hadn’t a chance in hell of ever realising my dream as a journalist.

Fact one was that even with a BA Honours degree in Journalism Film and Broadcasting, a degree that I fought tooth and nail to complete over the course of four years, it basically qualified me for nothing. After all this time, I still didn’t have a qualification that was recognised as an industry standard. To gain either of the two that were recognised would mean two more years study, or a postgraduate degree back in Cardiff University.

My smile remained firmly in place, a polite exterior.

Added to this, was that with no experience inside newspapers or broadcasting, my promise as a candidate for any position within the field was severely limited, and I was missing several key skills; no education in short hand writing, nothing to indicate that my course was mainly involved in the educating of the laws and ethics that journalists must conform to. The bar was raised very highly for prospective employees, and where I was stationed at the moment, I wouldn’t even make the grade.

The smile remains in play, but added to it is the minuscule rumble of grinding teeth, audible in my ears alone.

I would have to gain experience, but be careful where I did, because if I made the wrong choice, I wouldn’t be able to progress any further up the career ladder. (This particular point was enforced by a story of a local man working for three years on a local paper, and subsequently tried for a better career prospect somewhere else, only to be rejected entirely and told that judging from his current experience he was as high as he was going to go.) I felt a chill run down my spine at the image of myself twenty years from now, stuck in the same job, unable to progress and too old to start all over again in another career.

I ventured the passion I had for travelling and experiencing new cultures, and the idea that I could work outside the United Kingdom.

“You could try, but they’d rather take someone local and who knows the culture over a stranger who’s still trying to learn the language. You could try to bluff it I suppose…”

The final nail went into the coffin.

“But what you’ve got to understand is there’s thousands of other out there like you, trying to make that break. And you couldn’t have picked a worse time to try and get into the journalism practise. The big companies are downsizing, the technology is so simple and easy to use these days, anyone can do it. I’ve seen it as well, folks making no money and wasting it all away trying to make a name for themselves.”

Now, it would be easier to say, for the sake of a better story, that the man was a cankerous old shit, and bore a closer resemblance in manner to J. Jonah Jameson of the Daily Bugle. But that wouldn’t be true. He was simply speaking on how he saw the state of play. But from a personal level, it was agonising. And that was how the chat ended, with a blacker than black picture painted, and as he buried his now empty cup into the bin, my dream went with it. A disquieting death of hope in the grandeur and naivety of the journalistic dream.

It wasn’t until I had shook hands, offered a warm smile, walked out of the news room, down through reception and out of the building that the screaming started.

So the writer inside sits and ponders his future, fingers hovering over the keyboard, blank page staring at him. It will be some days before he begins to write again. And what that shall be; only time will tell.

In the meantime I dust myself off, get back up on my feet, and get back to the drawing board. How I wanted to shape my life over the past few days has failed. For that I am sorry, and thought only what I believed to be a good, sure thing, at its heart lay the best of my intentions. Know that I accept that things need to move on, and that it may be better this way for both. But I will not remain disheartened for long. I will have my mourning period, as the pain of reality hampers my thoughts and prospects. But always on the horizon lays the shadow of a new dream and a hope for the future. And I’ll chase the remnants of those dreams to my dying day.

For that and for the new life I must carve and live, you can be certain I will be here.

[KILLING THE LAST ROMANTIC ACT III]

What generates the melodious love? What is that basic root at the creation of musical happiness? What makes ‘Sonic Death Monkey’ elevate above verb confusion and into the definition of sonic pleasure?

I couldn’t really say.

I’m too busy enjoying the sounds of thousand of songs, hundreds of artists, from the smoke filled vibe of the Blues to ludicrous sub-categories such as Acid Country House. I know a bit more today than I did that fateful night in Cardiff’s University Halls, but I’ve never claimed to know it all. I’m still very much the student in these matters, still learning, hearing new and exciting things. New bands, new genres. But as I sit here this night, a winter gale blowing hard against the walls, the confines of my workplace, I glance over to the rack beside me, groaning with the weight of five hundred or so compact discs, its moans surely becoming louder over the coming weeks as a few more are added to the collection.

Eyes flicker over hundreds of names, and a warm smile breaks on my face. I look to these CDs, and I see memories cascade off each and every one. My life in Cardiff mapped out. From that first month as a Fresher, to a warm June day, four years later, locking the entrance of my residence, closing the door to my life as a citizen of Cardiff, and as a student. Why the subliminal sounds of Alabama 3 will make a secret smile pull at the sides of my mouth, why the thundering peal of a guitar solo found on Arch Enemy’s ‘Wages of Sin’ album still manages to pull a shiver from the base of my spine, and why the smooth playing of Abdullah Ibrahim brings a lump to my throat, all because music is entwined deeply with my life, in a period in which the good and bad times went hand in hand, music has been my constant companion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, back in Cardiff, first week as a Fresher, having just been kidnapped by my peers and carried back into that darkened room, the light still streamed into my rapidly blinking eyes. It didn’t matter. New pulses and pathways were thrusting themselves open, a veritable orgy pulsating throughout my neural networks, all stemming from riff after riff, wave after wave, shooting from the headphones jacked into my ears. For a boy never graced with a single piece of music in his life before, it was if I was ascending to a new state of consciousness. I’d be lying if I could tell you exactly who or what that first taste of music came from, but I can tell you this; it was good. And when it stopped, I reacted in a most ungentlemanly fashion; as if a junkie going cold turkey for the first time in his life. I demanded more, headphones tearing from my head in my fervour for another hit.

Several cds and a Sony Walkman were thrust into my clawing hands. I met my saviour’s gaze.

“Go now – and learn of all that you have missed.”
I proved to be a studious leaner. Thankfully, Jon was not one to constrain himself to any one particular genre, and so, my musical beginning was born into a vast and diverse musical backdrop. A steady stream of the alternative, a side line in the realm of pop, skipping across vast corridors of what could only be termed by Jon himself as ‘crazy shit that I have no name for’, and finished off with deep immersion in metal.

It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship in which I have never regretted, even as my own collection steadily grew and my student loan depleted. Through music, I have found a home, an expression of my deepest thoughts, my turbulent emotions. Music can comfort me, it can make me sad and it can make me laugh; based on its own beauty, certainly. But at the very heart of the matter, it’s the memories that are engrained with a particular piece of music, events that occurred to a particular sound. Even the most embarrassing compilation of music in my collection has a story to tell. And like any good tale, they deserve to be re-read, time and time again.

As I sit here and think, a deep sense of contentment washes over me. Idle memory ghosts through my consciousness, wraith-like and gentle in its touch. For the first time in a long while those reminiscences hold no pain, no tightening of chest or gut with their appearance. I am haunted purely by good thoughts, happy recollections. I believe it no simple coincidence that the bands I fell in love with play on the stereo next to me. Maybe it is tonight and tonight only, that I am filled with this sense of peace, this contemplative mood that surprises me with its relaxed flavour. It is one to be savoured, to be enjoyed. Whilst I originally thought I had more to say, that by ending here I would be cutting things off prematurely, I now know that I am not.

This is where it is supposed to end, for now.

So I’d ask in closing for you, dear reader, to look at your record collection…and see what memories call to you.

All you have to do is listen.

[KILLING THE LAST ROMANTIC: ACT II]

Hurried footsteps shattered the quiet night, shadows rapidly dissolving and reshaping along the length of back alleys, whispered words slid into existence, carrying forwards, harbingers to the dark mass moving in their wake. In the centre of this heaving motion of bodies I was held, against my will, as we passed from under streetlight and into the murkier ends of Cathays’ back streets.

My first week in Cardiff was not going well.

I worried that it might also be the last of my life.

Noises filtered through, back to my muffled ears, deep bass sounds that rumbled in counter-point to the lighter tones of my kidnappers. I was aware of the blackness surrounding my prison dissipating as amber lights illuminated the definitions between face and shadow around me. From somewhere outside came a symphony of sound, metallic in nature, building in crescendo, seemingly in response to the doors of my cage opening, those in front shifting to the side in one movement, swinging as if on a lever. The newly forged entrance gave way to another, larger room, subdued lighting caressing worn and shredded upholstery, a greying and dirty floor, small tremors in time with the low bass rumbling lightly vibrating the contents, causing the window on the far side to rattle violently in its berth.

Two forms detached from the throng and slipped inside, turning outstretched hands to their fellows, who held me in their grasp. I was carefully passed across, aware that those who did so making the transition behind me from the cold night air into this steel incarceration. I was clammed from all sides. I could only stare in front, eyes fixating on the back of a solitary figure, outlined by the street lights outside.

The low bass hum became a long roar, and the taxi pulled off into the deserted streets.

I tried to joke with my comrades, ease the tension that welled up within, nervously twitching my eyes about, seeing if the old one about the Priest and the Rabbi made any mark, any hint of a smile, on the cold faces around me. I murmured apologies for my lack of musical knowledge, my impotence at not being able to name a single artist, song or album, hoping to appease my oppressors, tap in to their good humour, forgiving nature, anything.

The only reply, a soft murmur; “It’ll be over soon.”

I thought long and hard about diving for the door, launching myself onto the city streets, rolling with precision and a debonair smoothness that would even make any ‘70s Television Cop gasp, and probably coming to a stop in a stylish crouch that would have the pedestrians look on in envy for the brief second before I was run over by oncoming traffic.

While my mind played with the fact that that’s never how it happened in the movies, and that realistic endeavour was a bitch when it manhandled in on playful fantasy, the taxi came to a stop, the familiar turn and motioning with an open palm from the Taxi Driver indicating we had arrived at our destination. As I was tumbled out and dragged along by clasping arms and hands, my head snapped backwards in the sudden shift of movement. My eyes beheld a pillar of light, towering over me, cutting out the night’s sky and its brilliance.

It registered that I was back on home ground. The smaller buildings of University Hall stretched out all around, hugging at the base of the Tower Block and its inhabited flats. A brief feeling of safety touched in on my thoughts, before realising the company it kept, to which it bolted out my left ear and flew into the night. Terror cackled wickedly at having solitary residence in my head once more. What cruel jest saw that I was to have enumerable evils carried out on me while in the only place that I felt a certain sense of comfort in? Was there no decency in the world any more?

I was pulled through corridors both known and unknown, through smells and sounds familiar and unfamiliar. Eventually my destination was revealed. A door swung open behind me, the creak and wail unmistakable. That unique sound belonged to the entry point to the residence of my flat mate Jon. I was to be imprisoned on the threshold of my own room, which sat opposite his. I had met and greeted my enemy every morning and evening in my home, not knowing then and the cruelty that lay behind those blue eyes.

I was thrust down into a chair. Hands either side holding my arms in place, I was immobilized. A table light flickered on, swung into my face, capturing my eyes with its unyielding brilliance. A could not see past it, could not look round to take in my surroundings.

A voice arose from behind that small sun. “What were you doing on the night of the twenty seventh?”

My voice trembled as I shouted back. “I was here telling you what I was doing on the twenty-first! Jon, for god’s sake, what-”

A hand eclipsed the light, a single finger pointing directly at me. “Silence. You will soon see.” The hand rose to motion to someone behind me. “Put it on him.” The hand slipped back behind the harsh glare.

To my distress I felt clammy hands clamp my head still, keeping my face forward, into that brilliant luminance.

I felt my hair being pulled back.

Something cold and soft slid over the sides of my head.

Down, until I felt the softness cover my ears, and the sounds around me filtered away.

A low level buzzing slowly rose around me, sifting, fingering my ear drums.

I unconsciously winced, awaiting the pain that was to come, whatever form of torture this was to take.
There was a pause, a second of anguishing slowness that felt a lifetime.

And with suddenness and power that bellied the roar of thunder, it came.

A wail so loud, so pure.

Distilling into the biggest, loudest, dirtiest riff of all time.

It fused my ears and soul as I plunged into Nirvana.

[KILLING THE LAST ROMANTIC]

In my four years of abode in Cardiff, I was exposed to an extensive range of new tastes and experiences, to such a degree that the University life shaped the person that I am today. One of the chief fundamentals that underscored my life over there started way back in the first few weeks as a Fresher, settling into the University Halls of Residence and having the nerve racking experience that all have in meeting an entirely new cast of characters and trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to be as interesting and funny as possible. The first forays into exploring the city life and the Union soaked up the choice of conversation for a good few hours. But the sponge was beginning to dry. A bridge needed to be formed between ‘me’ and ‘flatmates’, and quickly.

The bar was closing for the night, the last snatches of alcohol were being supped, and it was a forty five minute walk home.

My social skills were exiting my body in waves of sweat, despite the early autumn temperature residing in the ‘cool and breezy’ area. My tongue was dry, my mind blank. I had played the ‘drunken Irish fool’ card long enough, coasting me through most of the evening, but withdrawing my hand with the sobering realisation that my accent has been misplaced by those around me, noting with some despair the number of my new colleagues who commented how good it was to find ‘an American who wanted to study in the United Kingdom’ as last orders were called.

Ever had those uncomfortable moments when you’re in the company of a group of strangers? I’m sure you’ve had it at least once in your life, maybe in a similar predicament such as mine. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the crowd are probably as nervous as you are. Never for one minute enters your head, and if so, only for a moment of fancy that quickly fades.

But lucky for me, I stumbled across a conversational goldmine.

One that saw me cunningly side stepping any need to diversify my vocabulary for the rest of that first night, only injecting the occasional comment of a simple ‘no’ or ‘never’.

As we stumbled into the cold night, the last few bars of an unknown song drifting from the Union bar’s music system slipped outside with us. It settled onto the now silent group around me. With a sudden great relief, evident in their voices, my friends started to talk at once, pouncing onto this new topic of conversation like a pack or ravenous wolves. Multiple cries of “what music do you listen to?” and “Don’t tell me you like him as well, do you?” rang through the night around us. The fella beside me, a fine fellow by the name of Jon, turned and uttered the question to which for thirty seconds I had been secretly wincing over, awaiting the eventual onslaught.

“What sort of stuff do you listen to Gil?”

My answer brought a horrified silence from beside me.

My confession? My shame?

I hadn’t listened to a damn bit of music in my life.

How could this have happened? I hear you cry. How could such a travesty occur, and how is it even possible in this day and age? Well, just trust me on this one; this little fish had managed to slip the net somehow. And no, to answer that question at the back, I wasn’t raised at a Monastery.

My companion, gods bless him, didn’t point and start screaming “Witch, Witch! Burn her! Burn her!” in a blatant attempt to show his disgust and to spot check how many Monty Python fans were among us. His eyes took on a sinister shine, and an odd light lit up behind them. I could see cog wheels turn inside his mind. I suddenly understood how a gerbil felt in the hands of a scientist wielding a rather large syringe full of a dubious looking blue fluid.

The word passed back along the line of my sin, my dirty little secret. I became slightly worried. It was dark, I was in a new city, I knew no one, and the locals were looking at me as if I’d just unceremoniously gulped a pint of my own urine. I quivered as unfamiliar hands descended onto my body, grasping my clothes, pulling me up.

I was borne into the night, carried by the mob to some unknown destination.

Fear rode with me.

[The Process of Belief]

“I wish I could tell you more pertinent news, but we’re in a ratings system here;

and the key factor is ‘sensationalism’.

They have you running in circles nine to five. Then five to nine,

you’re mine.

I tell you what they want you to know, and you consider it the truth.

Nobody is opening their eyes.

Our global economy is depleting the world of our lives and natural resources.

And are you happy?

Come on…

I WORK FOR THE SYSTEM!”


- System of a Down: ‘Sugar’





Do you know what the worst concept that an old school romantic can come across? Cynicism. To the romantic it’s the death knell, frantically coupling with distrust to breed a hardening heart. It’s the antithesis of that which is held dear. Trust and belief are tortured and dumped in a grave marked ‘naivety’. For years I disbelieved the very notion of consummating this archetype of ‘the real world’. In a weird, round about way, I was cynical about every being cynical.

However, four years of being force fed the darker truths of Journalism soon changed that ideal. The young, headstrong, naïve boy entered one end. Some way through another year, another module, developed the older, wiser, slightly disillusioned man. Four years seeing, hearing, reading about the ennoble side of the journalistic profession sickened me somewhat, put me off that original envisioning persona of the truth seeker, the man of integrity, true grit, and a passion for doing the right thing, no matter what the cost. What it became I will not describe, just to say that the remaking stands just behind the truth about Santa Claus.

It didn’t help that I felt slightly foolish, the sneaking suspicion that many others knew beforehand played on my mind. I felt everyone else was in on some cosmic joke. That what I was being re-taught for the very first time was what my peers considered ‘the normal way of things’. It was, it must be confessed, somewhat of a shock.

But everyone has to start somewhere. And it was here for me that the seed was planted, the flower bloomed. My very own shadow of the heart, cynicism its native tongue. I had the tendency to doubt what I heard, read, saw, if it were not from my experience. (Even that, for a time, was cast in doubt. But the drugs are another story.)

It started as a joke, and then slowly, painfully waddled into the realm of simple truth. I did not want to become a Journalist. I didn’t want to immerse myself in a world of half truths, of thread bare confessions being peddled of as reality. It was not a simple choice, but one made in the face of a rising tide of despair and awareness. A Tsunami of sickening dread and realisation of what I might become.

Skip ahead in time. I had four months left and counting. The end was in sight. I was preparing to tidy up some loose ends and jump overboard, this ship becalmed with the disappearance of my journalism career. Piling up text books bought hastily at the inception of my Uni life, which then lay unused for the remaining years, (a phenomenon known well to many students, who, on receiving their initial reading lists on the first week of term, rush out and buy as many listed books as possible, coming back to accommodations with a multitude of books that bare little relation to those listed or the course itself.)

I set out to sell my mutated collection back to its birth place, Blackwells Bookshop. It was by some unknown force that closed the shop the instant before I arrived. (I will never be drawn to confirm the claim that I simply got my days mixed up and appeared outside the door on a Sunday.) I swore, I sat, I flicked through the pile I had carried across town. It was then that I happened upon the book that was to change my direction in life.

He did nothing special; did not claim to change the person’s life that read his book, nor gave the secret of a life time of wealth and good fortune. He did something a lot simpler, yet ultimately more profound.

John Pilger sought out and reported the truth.

His book, ‘Hidden Agendas’ strove to uncover the facts in a world bred from sensationalistic tabloid media, exposed truths over the conduct of Western Countries in conflicts the world over. Clarified the roles and actions of individuals high up in the media food chain, revealing hypocritical conduct from those in power. All in a completely non-sensational way, simply tallying up the facts and truths that existed, but had been ignored by the mainstream media. There was the underlining sense that he did this not to further his own name or position, but that it was the right thing to do. He wanted people to open their eyes to the truth. My beliefs were forged anew, his words and elixir for the weak. He gave me strength, allowed my inner arguments, simmering over four years, to breathe. Despair turned to anger, sickening dread to resolute action.

I wanted to be a Journalist once more. I realised that I had been approaching the whole thing in the wrong state of mind. I didn’t have to stand against the bullshit downpour from the tide of sensationalistic paparazzi media. Hell, I didn’t even need to be standing at the same beach. I could do it my own way, the right way, and be the sort of Journalist I once believed in.

I extracted a lesson from that book. I had seen a lack in the kind of Journalistic quality and integrity I believed in through my course. I intended to fill that breach. Not the kind that I had been privy to over the course of numerous modules, but to be something I believed in. The truth isn’t ‘out there’. It is here, in the public domain. It is in the hands of those that react as a conduit to the wider world. To use the authority granted as a Journalist to uncover the facts and present them to the public.

Certain Media I had been subjected to failed to do this. For instance, anyone perusing the news media a few months back would have been subjected to a deluge of column space and talk time to the Manhunt Scandal. This topic related to the death of a teenager at the hands of a killer who apparently re-enacted a murder scene from the Rockstar game ‘Manhunt’. Plastered over many tabloids and news bulletins was the ‘fact’ that videogames caused violence in children and influenced them into harmful practises and opened them to a multitude of adult themes. Now, I could wax lyrical for a day and a half over the fact that this game was rated with an 18 certificate by ELSPA. I could give reasoned arguments as to why videogames do not cause such behaviour, I could even draw comparisons with Television and its desensitising nature of so called ‘family’ programming.

But instead I will state one small, but very important fact. That for all the headlines, all the media outrages, concerned parents, banning of the said game from certain stores across the United Kingdom, few tended to give much space to the core truth, fewer still on the statement given by the Police over the initial outbursts. That the videogame in question was found not in the killer’s bedroom, but in the victim’s, and the tragedy had been based on an attempted burglary. The Police saw no correlation between game and murder. Yet despite this obvious truth, this sensationalised lie was even brought up in Parliament in Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Now, don’t feel guilty if this particular fact had passed you by. I myself am guilty of this very thing. Only research for a final term essay dredged that truth into my inspection. Like many others I had the tendency to glance over various headlines, and extracted the story from that. Four years of a BA Journalism course and I still manage to fall for it, that despite the British media having it head up its arse for so long, I’m still surprised when I see them talking shit.

I am tired of this supposed ‘stupid public’ that is supposed to exist. Truth be told, I believed it for a short while, that there was a nation of people out there who took the Sun and others of its ilk as the standardised truth. The fact that the paper was still selling after so long gave life to this peculiar notion. It is a notion that died sometime ago in me. Certainly, from my own experiences, the public I know seem smart, intellectual, and have a drop of cynicism mixed in with a healthy dose of good humour that such tosh is printed. Many simply refer to the tabloids as ‘the funnies’. Cartoon comedy with an injection of surrealism. These are the people I wish to talk to, this smart, cool, savvy audience, ready to open their eyes, ready and willing to hear the truth. They will not be lead like mindless sheep. They will make deductions based on the world that they exist, not the fabricated creation of paranoid media nation.

The only difference between the zombie media and the doomsayers is the breadth of their possible audience.

“Uhuh, gee Bill, I converted fifteen impressionable people today to the flock of my cracker jack cult. Just stood out in the street and wailed my ass off, shouting that the injustices befallen to me must be the fault of everyone else in my life, and that I offered my own brand of ‘eternal salvation’ to anyone that listened. Then, when the idiots started biting, I just reeled them in.”

“Well hell Jack, I wrote my shit down, in big ol’captial letters and printed it. I converted fifteen thousand of these sheep to believing all that I say. And I made them pay for the privilege of being force fed this garbage until my words became their words, my thoughts theirs. I’m their God. They hang on my every article.”

Now, do I think that if I write in CAPTIAL LETTERS and SHOUT OUT my opinion across the news stands, that I’m right by default? No, I’m not.

Do I believe what is printed across the papers as fact, as the untainted truth?

Am I three years old?

No. I’m an adult, with a mind and voice of my own. I can interpret my own vision of the world without your ‘help’. So here’s a message to those hacks who propagate the world with their disinterested and thoughts of money and making a name for themselves:

FUCK YOU and your sensationalism.

FUCK YOU and your proposed ‘truth’ and ‘integrity’.

FUCK YOU and your celebrity gossip, devoting more pages to Britney marrying than highlighting real news.

And FUCK YOU and your propagandistic, ‘one owner; one voice; one vision’ interpretation of the world and that ‘all should follow in your path’.

You are not a rock star; your voice and face do not need to be recognised in city streets and the world over. What are important are your actions, the message you bring to the world. Exude the strength to fight for the truth, show smarts in the stories you seek, integrity in every word and article you write. Death to sensationalism.

Take that to the bank, cash it, and take a vacation out of my life. End of rant.

And at that, I’m not going to preach, for I do not believe you, the reader, to be the mindless sheep that eat what is fed to you. Nor am I going to try and inform you of what your choices are, what you should believe, what you should discard. This entire piece may be based on fabrication. I don’t blame you for not trusting me. This is just another disembodied voice printed on the internet. All I do is ask that you open your eyes.

Look around you, do the research. If you’re interested read John Pilger’s ‘Hidden Agendas’. That the name rings a bell but nothing more shows that this is not a man after your money, not after the fame and fortune of the rock and roll star that is the Journo. He is doing it because it’s the right thing to do..

I used to believe that truth and integrity were goods things. I believe in them still.

[Epilogue; Third Act]

His eyes searched his companion’s, seeking some falsehood to his claim. His hand, gripping tight the black shirt beneath his fingers, faltered slightly, as if the release would confirm the lie. He blinked tears away and dropped his gaze, twisting his body to one side, ashamed of what he had done. He felt the other’s hand cover his; lightly and carefully pull it from its vice-like grip. He relaxed his hold, and his arm easily slid back onto the bar, his left hand again cupping his brow, rubbing feverously. His head shook from side to side as he did so.

“I’m….I’m sorry. I just felt that lightening slip from beyond my grasp even as I remembered it…and I became so frustrated, so angry. I come back to the present, to consciousness, and here you are, right beside me, the every embodiment of all that I cannot achieve. You’re just, just….standing there. And I felt, like, you were taunting me. Laughing at my inability, my limitations.” He glanced down at the bar, eyes scouring the scene, trying to fit the jigsaw piece of shattered glass together in a matter of an instant. Fingers became unfurled, a living exclamation mark. “Jesus…”

Hands reached over the bar once more, this time snagging a small, dirty cloth in to collect the bronzed ocean that seeped over the bench, round up the crystallised icebergs that pierced through the surface, sharp edges gleaming in the soft light, parts embedded in the hard wood, such was the force of their expulsion as the remains of the glass tumbler. He forced cloth land masses between deeper waters, sponging the remaining whiskey into lakes, distilling them further into smaller and smaller rivers. Icebergs became dry land masses in their own right, congregating closer and closer together with each sweep of the soggy rag, and once collected in one mass, it was briefly named the continent of Iceland before being eclipsed by the other tumbler, placed face down in order to secure the splinters.

Wringing out the fabric as best he could, he threw the cloth back into the sink whence it came. He arched his fingers together, making a small cave between his hands to which he hid his head under. He noticed his companion do the same, with the notable exception that he leant his head above his own cave, small smile to playing across his lips. They did not look directly at each other. But the knowledge that that smile was in place was contagious to him, he snorted lightly as a replica slowly wheedled it’s way upon his mouth.

Again he attempted an apology. “I’m sorry.” He felt those eyes upon him as he spoke, saw the head turn slightly to regard him. The eyebrows raised, the smile ventured into the pastures of irony.

“You know you’re the one that arranged this. Do you so like to hurt yourself that you intentionally ask for the one person that you like the least to come? So you can skewer yourself onto a spike of your own design? I thought us over that by this stage, by this time.”

He felt those eyes blaze out behind those dark glasses, gave himself a small sigh in response. He adjusted his head slightly towards the visitor. “Do you think so little of me, think I don’t appreciate what you have done, what you did for me, that I would dislike you so?”

His companion waved his left hand in dismissal. “No, of course not,” fingers folded inwards, his index finger jabbing the air. “But it is a fact. You dreg up the worst things from your memory, the mire and muck, over and over, replaying past events in which you were hurt, in which you hurt others, to a point where all you can do at night is sit and clutch at yourself, thinking massaging your temple will help you exorcise your demons. But you do not. You feed them titbits, keeping them on the edge of death, and then engorging them when you wish; when you feel you need to be punished. Over and over, a constant cycle. What you just remembered, it brought pain, did it not? And seeing me, brought anger, and a brief taste of defeat. You do this to yourself. Even after all that has happened, all that I have done, yes, as you say, what I have down for you, you still call me to this place, still call for my presence. Is this you embracing the pain? Do you hold it close like a much loved toy of old? Or does it thrust into your breast, a dagger in the dark of night, the only thing to keep you aware of your existence? Are we still here, still existing, in this place?” The words, whilst seeming cruel in their inception, were wielded with a voice that spoke of trust and kindness.

No answer came. It was futile. Both men knew the truth. Left the excuses and reasons to rattle around hollowly in the back of their minds. His companion extended his thumbs, forming a bridge, caught his chin on it, and sat.

Stubble was scratched again, futilely, avoiding the silence. An inhalation of breath. Another. He spoke, words quiet whispers onto the fading mist, curling their way stealthily to the ears of the listener. “Every time I think I’ve worked through it, it’s gone, just like that. Like when you’re breathing unconsciously, you don’t even know you’re doing it. Then, one night, could be three weeks away, three months. But at some point, one unimportant, night like any other – it hits you like a lightning bolt. Three am in the morning and you awake. The event could be different every time, could be a continuous repetition of the same nightmare. But its not. It’s a point in time; a fucking memory unearthed from whatever grave you buried it in. A section of your life that makes you sick to the bone, makes you ill with remembrance. But you can’t close your eyes to escape it, because that’s where it hides, its domain. It’s you r own head, your own mind, you can’t escape it, and you feel the need to do something, anything to get it out of there, anything to stop your imagination feasting on that segment and move to something more pleasant. But any memory afterwards is connected to that one, and its magnified under the microscope of imagination, and soon you enter a cycle, this ugly painful fucking cycle of self abuse to which the picture is wide screen with surround sound. And it’s playing in all the theatres in your mind’s eye. So yes, I still wake up clutching myself, still scream silently for the pain to end, to try and make this all stop. I still make trips to that hollow, even if I wish it otherwise. But I’ve become used to it. I fight through it, with a resolve I thought I once didn’t have.” His teeth clenched onto his outstretched hands, biting onto his index fingers as if to silence himself from speaking any further.

The figure beside him rubbed his hands together, and then turned his head fully to stare at the dishevelled drinker. “You don’t look at the mirror across the bar, facing you. Yet, you look at me. You would bring yourself to look at me finally, after all this time, but not at yourself?”

“Because I can look at you. I can look at you and still feel the glimmer of hope, the catch of my breath. I can still think that out there somewhere, that possibility exists of a better man. But if I look just five feet in front of me,” his fingers twisted to point, “that blind faith is destroyed. I see what I AM. What I have become now. There is no hope there, no dream. Just cold reality.” He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t blame anyone else. I did this to myself-”

“No, and that’s the problem. You take all these burdens on yourself. You are your own judge, jury and executioner. And with your own judgement, you will always remain guilty. Always you remain self-limiting, slowly chipping away at steadily hardening heart of stone. Don’t you see? You always perceive me from the third person; I’m always someone else to you. But that which you seek, that which you think you cannot grasp, you feel, have felt it, when you see me. Have felt it when I wandered the Lands. You feel it, in this place, at this time. You can accept it in this place. But answer me this; where are we? Where does this, all this, exist?” His eyes lit. “Within your third eye. Within your mind and soul does this place dwell. You can feel that unburdening, that enlightenment from me, here. You can become me, you are me. You think when I closed the borders that that feeling would die with me? It is still here, it still exists, because you made it, because you found it. Because of you.

“I left, we left. It was time for you to heal. Something inside you decided that, and so I came. I did what you could not…to bring the pieces back together again. Their time was finished. You think the Lion wants to be here?” With that he turned and pointed to the table behind them. A guttural snarl ripped through the quiet bar. It increased in volume as the seconds rolled on, ending in deep bellowing roar.

The drinker didn’t even turn. “I don’t think he is happy to see you.” He had to raise his voice over the loudness of the growls emanating from behind him. They tailed off as his companion reclaimed his seat.

“He wouldn’t be. I destroyed his world, his haven. He was the only one that tried to stop me. But don’t you understand?” He looked as he saw the head give a unmistakable shake. He was sure if he was just faking, or genuinely didn’t know. He continued anyway. “The Lion isn’t even here. All you can perceive is the sound of growls and roars. If you tried looking behind you right now, all you would see is a still picture, no context, and no depth. A flash, a brief outline of him sitting by that table. Because he no longer exists. The only thing you can focus in on is the television on the corner bracket, because that’s easy. You’ve seen that type a thousand times over in a thousand different situations. But him? Me? The others? Us? You cannot shatter what has been forged. Why do you think you cannot match my gaze, why do you think when you look at me it is only through tear stained eyes, blurred and unfocused?

“It is because you are chasing a dream, looking for an echo that once was. I exist at the corner of your eye, I’m the feeling you get when you enter a room and you sense someone has just left through the opposite door. That’s all I, we, are to you now. A shadow of fragments. We are here, oh yes, we are here, but we are one. Your heart and soul carries us, we see with your eyes now, we carry your voice. The Lands no longer exist, I saw to that. What are here now are puppets of your creation, pulled by your strings. I speak as I would, act as I would. But that’s the difference. As I would. This is not me. You know that. When I talked before, when I acted, I did so of my own initiative. You had no say. You are hoping by calling to us, we will come back.

“We will not. We cannot. Fragmenting your psyche was the only way to deal with the trauma you went through these past years, and even now, you are seeking to unravel what we, what you, have achieved, because you’re scared. Don’t be. You told me you were looking in the wrong direction, at several points in your life. Don’t make the same mistake again. Strike forward, but remember who you are. Remember that you’ve survived this personal hell, and feel the strength that lies behind your eyes, feel the strength that you have discovered, that is at your core. You thought when I destroyed you world, brought the pieces back together…that we were lost. That you were healed, that that was the end of your journey. It is only one stage. The next step you make is right in front of you – the exit of this place, and whatever lies at the other side of it. That weight that pulls you down? Self doubt. Harbouring the belief that no matter how far you go, no matter how hard you strive, you will always make an error, make a mistake that sends you back down into the much and grime that you feel bound by. It is that fear, that holding on, which has seen the creation of this bar, this last place, this stop before you can move on. It is time to arise. It is time to evolve. You feel that sense of enlightenment just beyond your grasp – go out and find it. Because I will be waiting at the end of your journey, everything that you want to be, everything that you see as good and noble in this world, that dream has not gone, has not died. It lives out there, for you to make of it the best you can.”

As he spoke, he made no move to change his position, no moving of limbs, or raising of voice to hammer home his point. He remained quiet and reflective, his voice drifted out of his thoughts in slow, sure, measured tones. He only glanced over at the still figure at his side as he ended his speech. He noted the shoulders no longer slumped, saw the hands were pulled away from his head, leaning on the bar, noticed the face was firm with a resolution that he had always known to be there. He looked deeper, at the very bottom of this man’s soul, and saw the blooming of something so very small, but alight with the flame of a new sun. It would be a long road ahead, he knew, and the flames could die out again, but somehow, he doubted it. He was not surprised then when his companion stepped off his seat, leant down and swooped up his travel bag, swinging it onto his back with a quick twist of his wrist. He passed by him without a word, striding towards the door. As he approached his steps slowed, then stopped. He half turned back towards the bar. The figure there has not moved, as if waiting for this hesitation.

The voice came, tired but firm, across the room. “So you think I’ll make it?”

The man at the bar glanced over at the figure outlined by the light streaming through the doors. “That’s a question you can only ask yourself.”

“I am.”

There was a slight pause, until the bald man’s face broke into a huge smile, nodding as if he only just got the joke. He heard the figure approach the doors. The slow creak as they opened, protesting every inch. He murmured a unheard goodbye as the doors slammed shut, one last time.

He sat, at the bar, fingers folded, lips brushing up against the warm flesh, touching the ice coldness of a single metal ring on one index finger. He stared upwards, and watched, with great interest, as the lights slowly dimmed, and went out.

[Epilogue: Second Act]

He became mesmerised in the a small sliver of whisky that drifted it’s way slowly and sedately down his glass, before softly kissing the cold metal of the singular ring that marked the border between index finger and knuckle. It slipped quietly out of sight into the dark recess of his curved palm. He patiently twisted his hand, whilst tilting it slightly backwards, an old drinker’s habit unconsciously freezing both the holder and held, freezing that scant millimetre before the imprisoned liquid residing in the tumbler would spill golden tears, cascading in long waterfalls down the cliff face of his arm. He stared for just a few fleeting moments at that space that marked the ending of his palm, seemingly holding his breath for the arrival of this escapee.

A small smile pulls at the corner of his mouth, his shoulders sag slightly, as a slight sigh exited the confines of body. He raises the tumbler higher, bows his head lower, somewhere in between forehead and frosted glass meet, the hand moving the ice cold feeling in small circles just above furrowed eyebrows. As his right arm disengages from its objective, the left moves in, hand wiping the newly formed droplets across weathered skin, sliding down face, slowing steadily as the course skin of fingers meets roughened stubble, bending inwardly as torn and uneven nails scratch across cheek, into chin, and plummeting onto neck. The hand turns on itself, reversing its direction and paralleling its original course back up to supporting the head.

His eyes flit right, taking the figure beside into consideration, not staying long enough for it to come into focus, back to the glass, along to its twin sitting dry on the bar.

“Drink?” His eyelids slide closer together, small lines form around the sides, above, and below. He stares resolutely at the middle shelves on the other side of the bar. Even so, he sees a hand slide into view, catches the motion by the sudden sharp light emitted from the silver watch banded around his companion’s wrist, the metal catching the low lights of the room and strengthening them through the polished silver. The hand reaches for the other tumbler, grasps it, spins it upside down, and softly touches it back down onto the wood, the message clear.

For the first time, a voice floats into existence from the figure, several bars lighter than the drinker. “Why do you always ask if I am to drink? You know the answer.”

The hint of a snarl presses along the lips of the drinker. “It’s a test.”

“A test?” The voice queries, light, with a drop of humour, having being carefully instilled on top of a foundation of strength.

“That one of these days I manage to get you off that higher level that you exist on. Fact that I keep trying means I still don’t believe that you are fucking infallible. That’s why.” His voice held no malice within its creation, but a weight behind it that touched upon a great weariness.
.
There was a split second of laboured silence. Then: “You were saying…?”

A frown broke upon his face. His left hand left his face, waving the surrounding smoke away, as if seeking through the mists of memory. There was the notion of things, ideas, reminiscence flitting across the eyes. One swooped back, perching on the present and staring into the past, connecting the two. Fingers clicked in recognition. His mouth opened, and the barriers of time broke down and flowed into the present, overriding recent past. Past and present surged into one and passed into oral language.

“Three years later. Teenage years hit, and I go through all the usual garbage that youngsters are supposed to go through. The growing, the adapting, the realisation that the world ain’t the nice, warm comfortable place you thought it was. Heh. The pain, the bullshit and torture, more like. My childish whims have been mostly stamped out, pure thoughts now given the impure edge of a puberty stricken male. Not that I’ve forgotten the past, but I’m looking forward, not back, you know?” His eyes roll heavenwards with the practise of one bereft of common sense in days gone by. “Idiot. So, dallying about, then there’s this one day. I watch this documentary about a fighter pilot, talking about his experiences, of half a life spent up in the skies, coasting along clouds and stretching his plane, and himself, to the absolute limit. He’s known for his reckless behaviour, and his disregard for protocol. But his disregard for safety, now, now that gets him commendations and the respect of his superiors. There’s stock footage of planes arching through the sky, similar to those he would fly. But the piece that interested me was the segment of this guy taking himself on board one of those flight simulators. You know the ones I’m talking about? Get yourself inside this metal box, which is attached to a long metallic crane. Within there’s a mock up of the innards of a fighter plane, and the display screen in front of you carries a virtual landscape, initially of a runway, but whenever you ‘take off’, it flows and shifts as if you were looking out into the real world.” With this he folded his left hand flat and twisted it about, parodying a small plane dancing across an imaginary sky. “Real life simulator, you see? You move the control stick, this metal coffin moves in sync.”

“So, the producers attach a small camera within the cockpit, just behind this ex-service man. What he’s seeing must be more exciting than a tin box swivelling in space with all the grace of a pregnant elephant. So, I see him go through the flight procedures for taking off, and then he’s away. There’s this split screen shot, one side showing this awkward bitch of a bucket awkwardly nosing up into the air, like submarine breaching the surface of the ocean, but inside, shit. Inside its all blue skies and a smooth exit off earth and into the heavens. It looks so damn real. Now,” with this he shot his finger forward, index focusing in at some distant point in his mind, “Thing is, the camera is equipped with a microphone, and its picking up all sorts of sounds from in there. Don’t know whether it was fully intentional or not, because I’m guessing they wanted to concentrate on the creaking of the metal, the crack and twist of the seat as the weight strapped into it, the pilot, is thrown this way and that, reacting to the simulated flight pattern. Give this piece a bit of tension, excuse the pun. But as the film keeps rolling, as I keep seeing the replay, I think I hear something, just on the edges of sound, prolonged, persistent.”

His eyes become questioning, his face mirroring some long past memory that slowly ebbs behind black nothingness. His head turns with measured slowness, his eyes fixated forward, the mind behind them focusing elsewhere, and he combs his long locks from one ear. He is listening. “I strain to hear, coming closer and closer to the screen, until I reach over the slowly turn the volume knob up. I hear it clearer. It’s a litany. Repeated, over and over. The voice, it’s the pilot’s. I see from the corner of my eye the speed ratio on the clock on the screen. He’s pushing this virtual plane to its very threshold. I’m surprised, for a second, that the plane isn’t falling apart seam by seam. Its then that I see what he sees, forget that this isn’t real. He’s pushing himself, he doesn’t see the cockpit, doesn’t see the rest of the readouts.”

“Even without seeing his face, I know what he’s looking at. What his mind is focusing on, what he seeks out in the vast ocean of blue, as the speed increases, as the wind whips and rips at the surface of the plane, shooting past at unbelievable speed. He sees that place, just ahead, out of reach, so close he can almost touch it. His voice enters my mind, touches something forgotten for three years, cloying, reaches behind my soul and caresses that something else, between his voice and that infinite blue, my eyes take in what he sees, my ears take in what he says, over and over, more persistent with each breath, more desperate with each gasp of air.” His eyes are wide now, his breath coming hard, he is caught up in the memory, his left hand now reaching out, shaking as it does so, trying to grasp something beyond thought, beyond memory. “‘It’s there, I can see it…I can almost touch it…it’s there…I can see it…I can almost taste it…it’s there, there in front of me…almost…almost…’”

He sits motionless for long, silent moments. The smoke drifts through the air, curling its way around his form, sliding smoothly over the outstretched arm. It is a pose he holds for over thirty seconds. Then the eyes dim, the hand falls to bar, then immediately up again to grasp and rub eyes that squeeze shut, trying to shut the memory out, trying to hold the feeling in. The other hand clutches the glass, the arm trembles with repressed emotion, and briefly his companion waits for the glass to crack. Its contents shake violently, swishing inside in accordance with the heavy breathing that shudders through him, echoes of an intense struggle surging within. The eyes blaze open suddenly, a moist film covering the pupils, a single fierce blink cuts them loose from their lofty position. They leap over the boundaries of eye lash and run loose down into the thick trenches of facial hair.

His voice is thick with emotion, more a cry than a question. “What is it? What the fuck is it? Why can’t I just touch it?”

His glass drops to the bar, shattering on the hard wood, fragments and liquid spreading out over the surrounding area. He ignores the damage. His hand launches out, grips at the person next to him, pulling them un-mercilessly off their seat, drawing them to him. Tear stained eyes turn to the face now beside his, blinking away moisture so it will come into focus. The voice rasps, the teeth grinding together, a symphony of pain as the question is repeated.

“You fucking infallible bastard. Why can’t I find that feeling and you can? I can feel it radiating off you, even now. It disgusts me. Why you, and not me? Answer me.”

The voice crawls into a near whisper, pleading and angry at the same time. The eyes move from their fierce glare of his fist clawing at a black shirt, up into eyes that matched his own, as the tears disappeared, his vision comes into focus once more.

The eyes that look calmly into his are tinted somewhat by a pair of dark glasses, the head bald save for the slight marking of recently shaved hair. But they are the only notable differences between the two men. He stares into the mirror of his own face, stares at his companion’s eyes, eyes that hold behind them something different, something more, strength long lost to him. The mouth tugs at a small smile, a perfect copy of that which he had performed only a short time ago.

The voice which responds is firm, calm.

“You are the only one that can answer that question. That is why we are here, this one last time. Before the end.”

[Epilogue, First Act]

It was the last time he would find himself there.

He sat, as he had found himself doing from time to time, staring at the two crystal clean tumblers side by side, one full, the other empty, both resting in front of his eyes, resting on that solid oaken stretch of bar. A residue of whisky hugging the base of one, the remnant of a pourer’s shaken hand, idle whimsy making it’s clinging touch the only reason for the glass’s secure foundation upon the bar. Drinking in the pure amber that shone out, the ambient light above somehow piercing through the constant mists of smoke that hung softly over this quiet place, as it was often known to do come the close of night, this that it was, this time. As it was, every time. His right hand reached out to the tumbler, index finger tracing a slow downward line along the chilled surface. His left arm forming a bridge, the hand supporting the bowed head. The eyes remained focused on the activities of the right. The embers that glowed behind them spoke of a mind elsewhere.

The surrounding area was silent, as it always was, as it always stayed, whenever he found himself here. He never acknowledged the other occupants of the room. They never acknowledged him. The occasional crack whipped out across the room from the corner television, casing shifting and contracting in balance with the changing temperatures. He never paid heed to what was on. His gaze never lifted. His finger skirted up the glass, encircling the top, softly stroking the rim, and then gently entering what lay within, slowly twirling the two melting ice cubes this way and that, no order or routine in his touch. Occasionally his hand would cusp the glass in its entirety, spin the contents within in time-consuming fashion, around and around, and then reattach it with the residue. Every so often the ball of the right foot would give a quick two-tap onto the base of a small bag looped round the stool he sat on. Every time the small thuds, the feeling of pressure, reassured some part of his mind that everything was were it should be.

The sound of his next check was echoed at the entrance to the bar. Two quiet footfalls were followed by seven more, as a figure descended into the bowels of the basement.

Silence.

The ragged sounds of a battered door being abused into swinging on archaic hinges, and then back again.

More footfalls, padding, hushed, coming closer. Arrowing in to the direction of the bar.

A shift in the air beside him, the vague billows of smoke shifting, exiting a newly occupied space.

The faint scraping of re-arranged seating, a slight groan of wood as an elbow comes into view, placing firmly onto this stretch of the bar.

His eyes never unfocused from that far distance, mind never leaving the far plains of deep thought. His right hand slips from its protective shielding of the sweet amber. Reaches over and behind the bar, muscles tense along the arm as the hand grasps something. The arm retracts, a half empty whiskey bottle is extracted, hand firm on the neck. Hovers for a second, before shifting across the second glass, arm twisting, bottle opening descending above the top, ready to empty out its heart onto another lover.

Elbow evolves into arm, evolves into hand, which slides between bottle and glass, covering the entrance.

The pourer halts his advance, retreating back, returning the bottle to an upright position once more and pairing it with the first glass. Hand slips off one and resumes its idle stroking of the other. The eyes never look up, never look right. Looking right would mean excepting what was to happen. Looking up would mean matching gazes with the mirror sitting astride the bar, and that wasn’t an option. Never an option. The grip on the glass becomes tight, the skin round the eyes hardens, and the dying embers briefly flare. All for a second, and then are brought under control. A small sigh escapes the mouth. The breath in becomes stronger, lungs inflate. The mouth opens to speak, hangs open for a second, waiting for the spark behind the eyes. He senses the shift next to him, the repositioning of body to consider him more clearly. It unnerves him, the breath mutating into another sigh, a struggle to contain what was breaking free within.

A break, another try, then;

“I used to run.”

“I used to run, didn’t do it for competition, nor for sport. This is years ago, back when I was a kid. I didn’t do it to run from nobody, though there were the odd time when it was the order of the day to avoid getting an ass-whuppin’ from the local bullies,” a snort, coupled with a small smile. “But that’s a different story.”

“I used to run, just for the hell of it, feeling the wind on my face, seeing the scenery rush by me in blur of motion. I had no goal, I just kept running, until the breath was taken from my body, the adrenaline purged out of my system. Too much energy as a kid, you know? Used to think it was from all the damn protein the folks kept pumping into me on the long summer days. But the more I did it, the more I felt…” the hand wandered from the glass, lightly fingering the air, pulling something intangible into focus. “Free, I guess. It was like suddenly being aware of this great weight, inside,” he touched his chest, tapping over his heart. “The only reason I’d feel it was because I felt like I was escaping it, whatever ‘that’ was. The more I ran, the faster I went; it was like, hell, like I was nearly flying. That if I just went that bit faster, just went that bit further, I’d break free. I’d be soaring over the clouds. And just beyond that…” The hand fell to the table, fingers tapped out quick rhythm.

“Well, I didn’t know what was beyond that. Just like I didn’t know what the weight was. But I knew there was something there. But when you’re a kid, how do you describe these things? You haven’t the words, haven’t the knowledge. You can’t distil that feeling into an acceptable word in the English language. Sadly, sooner, rather than later, did that feeling disappear from my mind completely. All children grow, and put aside childish whimsy. It’s a god awful process, looking back at it. You think, ‘hey, this is the direction I should be going in. This is the world that my peers live in, and so should I’. Becoming a teenager, trying to become an adult? Christ. Looking back, you think ‘fuck it! I was facing the wrong direction all along’. Child’s naivety is a great thing, a great thing. I came into the ‘real’ world, and what I would have wished for would have been a few more years with the blinkers on. Nice, secluded, safe world to live in, just for one or two more years.”

“Anyway, I’m getting off the point. So, I stop running. There’s a slight difference between a kid running all over the place and a teenager. Kid, you think; ‘aww, must be playing’. With a teenager, the assumption with folks is; ‘hey, he must be running from someone. Think he stole something?’ Or maybe I wasn’t getting enough protein those days. Either way, I stopped running. And soon after, I forgot all about that feeling. Until three years later.”

The arm in his field of vision shifted slightly, the wrist swivelling round, and he pictured, rather than saw, eyes glance down at the silver lining of a watch. His fingers reached over to cover the face, resting only a brief few moments to make the message clear, before sliding back down onto his glass, raising it upwards so the light would catch the last glimmer of frozen ice disperse into the golden liquid.

“There’s no need to go yet. We have time.” His other hand disengaged from supporting his head to wave around, indicating the room and its inhabitants. “In this place, time bends to my clock. So you have all the time you need to hear my story out. So, three years later…”

[Enter story title here]

So I’m sitting by the computer this day last week, and I receive a message on high from the Lord. In bold type, from his position of the Throne of Ouatic, he issues his command. “Little Nab Gil,” his gravely voice intones, rising above the background noise, “whilst skill and sure writing is what I need in these sad days of empty guest slots in my green pastures of Ouatic, there is a lack of such types. So sadly I must turn to you. Write me a small piece on the life and times of being a Cardiffain. Make it interesting, and make it sexy. And remember, I am all knowing. Mess this up, me lad, and I will let all know of your involvement in the Rainbow River incident two years ago outside Callaghan’s.”

Being a writer, my response was a sure hearted and honest “oh fuck.” Luckily, I also happen to be Northern Irish, thus not just excusing me a multitude of sins, but imbuing me with a confidence (some would say ego) that would see me through this latest predicament with ease.

That was five days ago. The clock is counting down, and there lies an empty document on my laptop, eager to be filled. Sadly I find I am unable to deliver, having suffered from writer’s block at the precise moment I need my skills. The document is availed with excuses, “this has never happened before” and that “it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence”. My laptop sniggers in my general direction. Ever my mistress, she knows that I lie, knows the truth of my impotence. Four years together on the University essay circuit makes sure of that.

It’s not that I’m bereft of ideas or a lack of an interesting commentary on four years in another country. For Christ’s sake, I’m Northern Irish! Isn’t an engaging and witty, cheeky young scamp, loveable rogue stereotype supposed to be in my blood? So I’m not lacking in loving the sound of my own voice then, that’s to be sure.

But anyone can write, but to write and make it interesting, to capture the reader’s interest, now, that’s another matter. This isn’t fantasy, which is my forte. This is not about not creating a new world, imbued with unfamiliar social dynamics and heroes battling evil across the breadth of a novel. Hell, I started writing fiction to escape the shackles of reality, a place for my head. Over ten years of doing that, it’s bloody easy. I can readily apply my own secret formula for reality building.

But my own life? That’s another question, with a completely different answer. Could I keep the reader entertained? I’m not so sure. Easy does a slow fox trot out the window, hands entwined with my confidence.

Blank slate, a feeling of pressure.

Time ticks onwards.

I think back to the beginning point, the time I moved to Cardiff, the reasons why, my thoughts back then. What was I hoping to achieve?

To grow. To expand. To look outside the bubble that was my life to that point. To see the bigger world, and escape the limitations and narrow mindedness that dogged my country, my life. I wanted an adventure.

A small thought bubbles to the surface, to erupt silently in my consciousness. Isn’t that the beginning of nearly every fantasy story ever created?

That eruption affects the close by continent of Recent Memory. There’s a landslide, and a steadily larger selection of images, words and replayed segments thunders down into the plains of the present. They clash with the spent, hungry mouths of imagination, engorging them, feeding them. A fusion takes place, the birth of something new, components of something familiar sparking behind the eyes of this new creation. And there’s fire in its mouth, a new flame in its words, whispering a red hot stream steadily across my eyes, feeding down in my arms, my fingers. They lightly stroke the keys in front of me. Then produce a more urgent touch, a firmer tap, and then a contact that burns with its urgency, heating the inner workings of the processor. My laptop, my mistress, groans in compliance, struggling to keep up with my ardour. Words are spilling out, spreading across the page, eager for release.

Applying the formula.

Approaching my life as if I were writing fiction.

The fantasy? The young would-be hero, ready to start out on a new undertaking, that will see him travel the wide world to seek treasures both material and emotional. He is young, he is naïve. His journey will ultimately change him, for better or worse. The reality? Me, four years ago. The tender age of nineteen, never set foot outside my home country of Northern Ireland for more than three weeks, let alone on my own. I was ready for a fresh start in the city of Cardiff. Hadn’t looked at any brochures, hadn’t checked any references, all I knew was it was to be my University destination for a hopeful BA in Journalism Film and Broadcasting. I had a minimum of three years. Three years of possibility, three years of mystery, three years to explore. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the quest I take took more turns than my intestinal track. It’s a ripping yarn, a real page turner, just like the best of fictions.

Central premises of the fantastical are almost always based upon the foundation stones of myth, incarnations of god like figures, bastardisations of the lowest of the low. This is the by-product of time’s embrace, of the hero’s journey retold over and over, as past is swallowed by gross exaggeration. The great thing about Cardiff is that this exaggeration is made redundant. Those characters dwelling in mythical fairytales? They live round the corner; they pass you in the street. They breathe the same air as you, their footsteps marked on the streets you walk every day. They are alive. Be mesmerised by the singing revolutionary Wolf Man, who resides in one of the many underpasses of the city. He is ready to whisper dark deeds and foul play of local governments, chasing at the heels of unsuspecting Irishmen who do not offer him greeting on artic winter nights. But also equally capable of hounding you with a wolfish smile and a jaunty song, no matter what time of night it be. Be a feared of the Shaky Hand Man. A lonely soul who’s want for human contact hides a dark secret, wandering the streets of Cardiff forevermore, the rumour of reasons for his incessant need reaching the ears of one particular Irishman precisely three minutes after first contact. Or simply revel in the sheer joy of the penniless singer Toy Mic Trevor. Many a time when our hero was feeling low, he would look upon this humble fellow and be cheered. Come rain, sleet or snow, Trevor would sing in his own mumbling way, a smile never leaving his lips. He did it not for money, or the eventual fame that would come to him. Why he did it, I’d never know. But that mystery of his eternal good hope and humour keeps his legend alive to this day.

There I have my gods, my demons. They lie on the backdrop of my story. But what is in the foreground? If any fantasy story’s core focused on its hero, it was the characters he met on his journey that were the soul of the piece. A Han Solo or Chewbacca, a Gandalf or Aragorn. Friendships forged over journeys eternal taught so much, gave unselfishly. There would be betrayals, arguments, but there would be those that remained steady, un-wavered. My tale would be different in this respect; it would not tempt the reader with the usual shock tactics, surprise reversals, cruel back stabbing. For there was none of that in my time in Cardiff. It’s not many a tale where it’s hard to fathom a solitary bad figure in which to closer scrutinise, to mark as the villain of the piece. But this tale is such. All those I met, be it University, work, or chance meetings in clubs, not one single individual could I offer up a damning tirade on. These good people gave me heart, gave me strength, through numerous good times had, through laughter shared and close ties forged. Many a reader may damn me for ‘treading too carefully’, or plain being boring. But it will always be with a smile in my heart that I write of my adventures with friends old and new in all my time in Southern Wales, and I will always be happy and content with that.

Now, there is something else missing, something that every good fantasy story has, hidden away, in pages verging on the three digits. The twist, the shock, the ending that was not expected. There was a villain in this piece, but their identity remained secret. All those awaiting my downfall through another’s hands will be sadly wrong. The battle was not lost to external sources, but an internal one. Through a steady decline I became my antithesis, buried deep into the mire and murk to which I had looked at with disgust so long ago. But the course followed the same as many had done before. A path of the lost, of destruction, the slow painful climb upwards once more, the rebirth and salvation. That it matters not that you fall; it is in the getting back up again that is of importance. The messages at the end of the tunnel, the lessons learned at journey’s end.

And yes, like my peers, this story is not hollow in tales of love and romance. Of discovering the realisation of a dream once believed to be a romantic’s naivety. But that is one part I will keep private. An enclosed part of my heart that only an ever flowing line of beverages, a small open log fire, and a salty packet of peanuts would manage to overthrow. Of that section of the hero’s tale, there will be no more written.

So in all, I may just have an idea for a tall tale or two. In four years, my life was quite an adventure. It goes something like this…