Tuesday 21 May 2013

People Plagiarise Poetry (from a work in progress)

The wine was in a cardboard box. Andrew was on his fourth glass.
‘Are you not drinking a wee bit too much?’ said Dug. ‘You’ve got to drive us back.’
Ah, thought Andrew. Someone else offering to mother me. Trying to keep me on the straight and narrow. Dug as mother substitute. I should feel spoiled. Moira? If it were up to her I’d be drunk every night. She likes the fact that I pass out when I’ve had one too many. But let us return to the theme! ‘It’s not about forging friendships,’ Andrew said. ‘It’s about putting your face around so your name gets printed on a page somewhere.’
‘Sounds like using people to me,’ said Dug.
‘Absolutely right!’ said Andrew, and pressed the button on the box. The wine trickled out. ‘There’s a lot of it about.’
‘Really?’ said Dug.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Andrew. He took a long mouthful. It was chewy. The bottom of the box. The dregs were probably alive with scurf from the wine pressers’ feet. It tasted nice, though. ‘How many times do we have to have this conversation? Writers, artists, musicians – they’re all tarred with the same brush. You’ve said so yourself, your friend Mooney...’
‘Not a friend,’ Dug corrected him.
‘...whatever. The only thing they’re interested in is M-E, and I’m not talking about yuppie flu. The art, if we are lucky, comes as a welcome by-product, but let’s be honest, their heads are jammed up their arses.’
Dug had to agree.
‘Writers are the worst of the lot,’ Andrew went on. ‘Your hero – yes, yes, sorry, ex-hero – Scotchboy, is a case in point. I’ve only met him once, but he’s a nyaff. Who cares if he camped out at Glastonbury in 1973? Of course, the question you now want to raise is ‘Did he?’, and that’s fine, but his publisher is only pandering to a fad. I glanced at his latest offering earlier on. From assorted typefaces he’s moved on to coloured typefaces! I mean, come on, Dug, it’s the kind of thing B.Ed. students are told to avoid on their first day at the teacher trainers. The Cardinal Sin of Bad Presentation. Of course, his publisher will be spending loads of money on marketing – he’ll have to. Have you any idea how much it costs to do a print run in coloured ink? No, Slim Scotchboy has come and gone. And if he hasn’t, he’ll keep churning out the same guff till his next three book deal expires. Just you wait and see.’
A small smile was playing at the corners of Dug’s mouth. ‘You’re contradicting yourself,’ he said. ‘Going by what you’re saying, you should be going out of your way to cultivate a friendships with people like Melville McCroft’
‘But I don’t need anything off him,’ said Andrew, bluntly.
‘And I do?’ said Dug.
‘It’s the way of the world, Dug, especially when you’re young. Oops, now’s your chance.’
The man was shuffling through the crowd, his watery old eyes trying to focus on the vision before him. He slowly circled the boy, the sickly old shark that he was, taking in the spectacle: the overcoat, the floppy hair and the pallor. What an old git. Hands off, he’s mine, Andrew wanted to say. But his relationship with Dug was way beyond that now.
‘So you’ve studied Greek, young man?’ said McCroft. He handed Dug a fresh glass of wine. Every Glasgow Writers’ Circle shopping lister was crammed into the room, all of them craning their necks, envious of the attention being bestowed on this nobody.
‘Yes,’ said Dug. ‘I did the Anabasis for ‘O’ Grade.’
McCroft’s eyes widened as he performed mental calculations as to Dug’s age. ‘Ah, Xenophon,’ he said. ‘The sea! The sea! Although I’m much more of a Plato man myself.’
‘Aye,’ Dug laughed. ‘I’ve met him.’
McCroft leaned in. ‘Really?’ he said. Andrew caught a whiff of the perfume – Aramis meets pipe tobacco. Young poets beware, he wanted to shout. The man was not to be trusted. It was time to put a stop to this...
‘It’s a long story,’ said Dug. ‘I read Book 1 of The Republic at Uni.’
‘Mmm,’ said McCroft. ‘The standard introduction. In translation, of course?’
Andrew fashioned a fist with the fingers of his left hand and coughed lightly into it.
‘Yes, I see you, Andrew,’ said McCroft, although his eyes never left Dug. ‘Well, young man, I hope you enjoyed my poems this evening.’
‘Aye,’ said Dug. ‘The one you did about Nemesis – the story of my life!’
The old fraud looked crestfallen; Andrew had to stifle a smirk. Then he thought, fuck it, and let it shine.
‘Oh, that wasn’t one of mine,’ McCroft admitted. ‘I did that as a wee nod to Norman – he’s hovering about somewhere.’ He smiled, and offered a hand. ‘However, I’m glad we, eh, connected.’
‘Is there anywhere I can buy your book?’ said Dug.
Andrew let out a laugh; a guffaw. Your book?! He’d have to remember that one.
McCroft, reluctantly, turned to him. ‘How’s it going, Andrew?’ he said, his voice devoid of interest. ‘Still typing out other people’s poetry? Not mine, I hope. It’s rather too well known to be of any use to you.’
Andrew felt his face reddening, but checked it. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it, Melville,’ he smiled. ‘I don’t write for the teenage market.’
McCroft’s left eyelid twitched. He raised his voice slightly to an effeminate grate. ‘Wagging tongues would have it ,’ he said, ‘that one of your recent efforts in the SPO was more than insignificantly inspired by my ‘Margaret in Half-Light’.’
‘Not at all,’ said Andrew.
‘And as for cribbing the scribblings of the insane,’ said McCroft. He still had a grip of Dug, who was following this doe-eyed. ‘Don’t get me wrong, Andrew. Rumour and whispering are things I abhor, but plagiarism is something...’
‘Yes,’ said Andrew. He positioned his glass under the box and pressed the button. A red bubble appeared at the end of the plastic then sucked itself back up the nozzle. ‘It’s a terrible thing.’
McCroft’s tone changed in an instant. He sounded like an angry teacher berating an errant pupil. Pretentious old wanker. Everyone knew that his career was built on ripping off Norman MacCaig something rotten. He’d proved it earlier on, for Christ’s sake. ‘It stinks, Andrew!’ he shouted, killing every conversation in the room. ‘By the way, young man – oh, it’s Dug, is it? – if you do any writing yourself – original writing, I mean – why not send something along to the SPO? I’ll be lowering myself into the editor’s chair in a few weeks. The current incumbent has decided to move on to something slightly more remunerative. Nothing to do with writing poetry, of course.’
Andrew’s hand tightened round his glass. He inhaled slowly to stop the whine that was forming in his throat.
‘Same goes for you, Andrew,’ said McCroft. He winked at Dug and moved off into the crowd. 

Saturday 18 May 2013

from South Shore Road

...The piano had been there since before he was born, it was more of a fixture than anything else in the house. He'd taught himself to play out of an old yellow songbook. He remembered his mother standing with her hand on his shoulder singing Killarney, that beautiful voice she had. Years ago, right enough. He'd still been living at home when she died. She was young.
     He opened the lid and touched the keys, the first time since he came back. The first time in a long time. It was out of tune, all the way up the board. He splayed his fingers into a chord, how did Killarney go, it was a G, but the dissonance...was that the word? Dissonance was supposed to lead to something, it was supposed to beg resolution. It wasn't dissonance. It was just a noise, a mess.

Friday 17 May 2013

from a work in progress (2)

It was easy money, even though it wasn’t much. Business was slow. Christmas had been a washout, then there was that big storm. No tourists. They had stopped giving tips, anyway, austerity was affecting the hospitality industry the same as everything else. I could have done with the extra cash. There were never enough books in the library, I had started buying my own. D’Mello’s ‘Language and Identity in Bilingual Settings’, all fifty quid’s worth, was open on the counter. I’d had to crack the spine to get it to lie flat. I needed to reacquaint myself with Discourse Management for my next assignment. The plan was simply to get my Masters. There was no plan after that. It was proving difficult. I seemed to get sidetracked too easily. People, the kind you thought you could depend on, had a lot to do with it.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

from a work in progress

It was easy money, even easier because business was so slow. Christmas had been a washout, then there was that big storm. No tourists. They had stopped giving tips, anyway, austerity was affecting the hospitality industry the same as everything else. I could have done with the extra cash. There were never enough books in the library, I had started buying my own. D’Mello’s ‘Language and Identity in Bilingual Settings’, all fifty quid’s worth, was open on the counter. I’d had to crack the spine to get it to lie flat. I needed to reacquaint myself with Discourse Management for my next assignment. The plan was simply to get my Masters. There was no plan after that. It was proving difficult. I seemed to get sidetracked too easily. Men, the kind that you thought you could depend on, had a lot to do with it.

Monday 13 May 2013

Edinburgh Triptych

Edinburgh Arrivals

Her flight touched down at eight fifteen. Deceit. It had got her this far, and it had got her here on time. Deceit was an ally, it could be depended on. She loved her family, she loved them all, but she needed this, she needed to be here. She found a toilet and changed into a pair of jeans. For now, the pretence was over. She wasn’t here on business. She was here to spend the day with someone she once knew. He had been a boy back then; she had been a slip of a girl. They had gone off on different tangents, but everything was about to converge, here, now, after half a lifetime. She checked her face in the mirror. It was too early for makeup. In any case, she had been told she didn’t need any, that she was beautiful.
She followed the signs for Arrivals. A man was there, waiting. She looked around, but he was the only one. He mouthed her name, this man with grey hair and fashionably ripped jeans, this old man dressed in the clothes of someone much younger – a man trying to be something he wasn’t.
He had promised her the boy; she was confronted by a stranger.
His arms closed round her and she thought of her children. He kissed her and she thought of her husband. Most of all she thought of herself, of choices and lies, and how she had so willingly been drawn into this huge mistake.

Arthur's Seat

The grass is full of mud. I feel responsible. It was my idea to meet. I know what lengths she has gone to. It can’t have been easy for her.
Arthur’s Seat is directly ahead. The summit is shrouded in mist. The summit is up in the clouds. It was my idea to meet her in Edinburgh, but the suggestion to climb to the top of an extinct volcano was hers. I tried not to read too much into it. I’m still trying. There was a storm last night. Flights were cancelled. I was worried she wouldn’t make it, but she is here.
I want to hear her voice. Her accent is different to what it was. A southern English vowel jars now and again, but it is still her voice. I want to sit down with her, I want to look into her eyes and tell her things. I want to tell her why we are here, but it is hard to find an opening. She talks, and I make silent excuses to myself. I am worried about being clumsy, of saying something she won’t like.
We only have so much time, and it is running out.
The satchel on her back looks heavy. She turns to me. ‘Could you carry this?’ she says.
‘Probably not,’ I say. I am joking, but she does not look pleased. ‘Come on,’ I say, and manage to slide one of the straps down her arm.
‘No, it’s okay,’ she says.
I move behind her and remove the other strap, but she is resisting. I laugh, and pull harder. I think I hear her laugh, too. I think I hear her say my name. It is the first time she has used it since we met. But I can’t be sure. I want her to say it again. I want her to look at me and acknowledge to my face that she knows she is here with me.
We walk slowly round the bottom of the hill. She tells me things about her life, about things that have happened to her. She says something about music. Pianos. We both play. Then something about a man she knows. ‘He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,’ she says. ‘Have you ever heard that?’
I don’t know who she is talking about, my head is somewhere else, but I like the expression.
The ascent – the real ascent – begins. She is a fit woman. She strides into the distance, high and far, almost disappearing into the mist. It is impossible for me to keep up.
‘Come on, old man,’ she laughs. ‘It’s not that steep.’
But it is. It is too steep for me. I have to take it slowly. Time is running out, but I can’t go any faster. Then the rocks begin. The mist catches in my throat. I see wet steps fashioned out of boulders.
She has stopped. She has to be careful. Her boots have no tread, she says.
I take the lead. I have to prove something.
I offer her my hand.
She looks at it and I know she is scared to touch me.
She is looking at my hand as if taking it would be going too far.
She grabs my sleeve. I feel the tug through the material. I want to touch her hand. I want to feel the skin of her hand in my hand. I want this woman, who was once my lover, to touch me. I want her to want to touch me. I want confirmation that I am still a man in her eyes, that I am still in the game. Back then, our relationship was defined by the word ‘control’. I couldn’t control her. I still can’t. I want something she won’t give, something she can’t give.
She lets go.
We are almost there. I step onto the final boulder and I hear her slip. I turn, her right hand skids off a rock and she falls awkwardly on one knee.
‘Jill!’ I reach for her and again she takes my sleeve. It is my fault for not insisting. ‘Give me your hand,’ I say.
But she doesn’t. She can’t. She has tissues in her satchel. She cleans her hand and scrubs the stain on her jeans. Thank God she’s all right.
‘It’s a good job I’ve got a pair of trousers with me,’ she says.
I don’t believe her. ‘What?’ I say.
‘I told everyone I was coming here on business,’ she says. ‘I wore trousers on the flight. I got changed when I arrived.’
I don’t want the details. I don’t want to hear this.
We walk slowly to the cairn. Her phone rings.
‘Can I get this?’ she says.
The phone is in her hand. What am I supposed to say?
‘Hi, Paul,’ she says, and I am consumed by something I haven’t felt in years. ‘Oh...uhuh, yeah...look, Paul, I’m just – what am I doing? I’m just going into a meeting. I’ll see you tonight, okay? Bye.’
She is an excellent liar. There could never be a future in this. But this is not about the future. It never has been. It is about the past, and the things I have to tell her about it.
We have reached the summit, but there is no view of the city. There is no view of anything. All I can see is her, standing in front of me. She is veiled in mist, like an apparition. I imagine that the mist has turned to smoke. Smoke is weeping from the dead rocks. Something has been rekindled and is awakening, coming back to life.
‘I got this for you,’ I say, and give her the envelope I prepared this morning. She opens it. ‘It’s a lucky charm,’ I say. ‘To ward off the evil eye. Do you know what the Greeks say about the evil eye? It’s not as bad as it sounds. If you look at someone and you think they’re beautiful, you can put the evil eye on them. You’re beautiful. I’ve told you that before. It’ll protect you.’
She examines the gift closely, as if it might decipher what I just said.
‘I should have given it to you earlier,’ I say. ‘You might not have...I’ve been falling in love with you for the last three months.’ The words are out, where they have to be. It is too late to take them back. Time is up. ‘I know it sounds...but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I’ve fallen in love with that girl again, the one I used to know. I wish we hadn’t lost touch. I know you’ve forgotten what...’
‘Stop, please,’ she says. The trinket hangs limp like something useless, like something lifeless, like mist, like something only a fool could believe in. ‘Please don’t say that.’
‘But there’s so much...’
She clenches her fist and the chain snaps. The stones scatter on the ground.
A dozen blue eyes stare up at us from the muck.
I hear something in my throat.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
She doesn’t move. I gather the stones myself. I can’t bear to look at her. ‘Why did you come?’ I say. ‘What’s the point of you being here?’
‘You’re right,’ she says. ‘This is all a mistake. It should never have happened.’
I put the stones in my pocket. She can do what she likes with the chain. ‘All I wanted was to talk to you,’ I say. ‘Is that what you’re afraid of?’
‘Don’t speak to me like this,’ she says.
The mist is getting thicker. It confines us. It is inside us, making it hard to breathe. Our voices. We sound like people who are drowning.
‘Why did you come?’ I say.
She struggles to find the words. The chain is tangled round her fingers. ‘I’m not as stupid as you think,’ she says.
I know she isn’t stupid. I think of the lies she has told. They have a life of their own.
Her hand is outstretched. The skin is grazed. I see blood. Blood and what remains of my gift. The silver has lost its sheen. Parts of it are red. ‘You’d better keep this,’ she says.
‘I got it for you,’ I say.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Give me the stones.’ I watch as she tries to put the charm together again, but it is impossible. She opens the envelope and places the pieces carefully inside.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I say, even though it does. I am desperate, tired of being alone. ‘I apologise. It’s all my fault.’
‘You look as if you hate me,’ she says.
‘I don’t hate you,’ I say. I could never hate her. Not the way she means.
We find the way back to the steps. She offers me her hand. I hold her gently – I do not want to hurt her any more than I have. Hurting her was never my intention. We are up in the clouds. Her face is close. I watch her breath dance with mine. We stand here, looking at each other. I am trying to read her eyes, to read her expression, but I don’t understand. I don’t understand her. I don’t understand any of this.

Edinburgh Departures

They were dressed in black. Corporate Bohemian. They could have been mistaken for a couple. She talked incessantly, her coffee cup at her lips. She was being herself, he guessed. He had spent the day trying desperately to be something other than what he was, trying to be something she might want, something more Corporate than Bohemian. Her lips were moving, but he couldn't hear. His own voice was loud in his head. Don't leave. Not yet. Please. She placed the cup on its saucer. 'I'd better go through,' she said. He embraced her. It wasn't like the last time, twenty years before, when he was the one who was leaving, when she had begged him to stay as he wiped tears from her eyes. 'I wish I'd had kids with you,' he said, but it was too late. She was gone, turning the corner into Security, the place where they check for things you shouldn't be carrying.

*     *    *

Edinburgh Arrivals and Edinburgh Departures were first published in Ink Sweat and Tears. Arthur's Seat appeared in New Linear Perspectives.

All three stories are taken from my collection, A Man's Hands, which is available here and here.