Pinholes

I remember a summer’s day watching an eclipse through pinhole cameras.

Stood next to the tree in the garden, and the holes in the leaves

cast a thousand shadows of a sun swallowed by the moon.

Recreated on the chipped concrete of the back yard,

a perfect curve as sphere interrupted sphere,

a sight repeated through imperfect circles.

And in the gloom it’s impossible not to marvel

at how small we are.

At how easily we’re all cast under the same shade.

But that day a thousand tiny leaves made a thousand tiny replicas

of an inevitable cosmic phenomenon,

and they did it by accident.


Snow

The snow made the grey ground pristine. A lie with a lie.

Flakes as big as a fist, a breath-wisped cloud of chaos and precise geometry.

Our paths were made exact by the fall, a treacherous cartography of comings and goings.

The things we need to remain hidden made obvious by a blanket that hid the rest.

Our city shaded and shadowed, lit from new angles by solid highlights.

It made corners we knew miracles, told fairy tales in long forgotten patches of dirt.

That zeal to explore, child-like ignorance of physics and strangers.

We ran to the park and made angels in a centimetre,

Patches of skin scratched raw on still exposed concrete.

Wet knees, cold hands, an exploration in innocence and ice.

I left you on the ground, rolled a ball as big as my head,

And threw it into the frozen pond. Shards, cracked, a cloud of exclaimed and wondering breath.

But now the paths I mark are mine alone. A truth in single-file.

The snow was ours, it made our city glister, ruddy cheeks and glinting eyes.

Now it is cold. And I’m walking home on my own.


The Butterfly Hunter

“Gather round,” said the old man, beckoning the little ones to come and sit by him near the fire. “Gather round and I shall tell you a story of the old time, when the forest was wide and your fathers had not been born. When the fields stretched for miles and beyond the fields were trees, and beyond them, adventure.”

The youngsters did as they were bade, settling around the old man’s chair on cushions and rugs, all of them staring into those twinkling black eyes, ready to be transported by the old man’s words. He paused for a moment, letting a hush fall over his audience. For he was a storyteller, and as any good storyteller knows, you need to let a story breathe.

“In the old time, our people were the guardians of the forest. They watched over the trees and the animals, from the smallest sapling to the mightiest oak, from the tiniest insect to the strongest bear. They were good, and they were kind, and they kept the balance of things the way it was meant to be.

“Chief amongst their tasks was the great collection. Every new year, at the midpoint of the summer, one of each animal was brought to the clearing at the very heart of the forest, to show the spirits that our people had been kind and good and that none of their children had perished whilst we watched them.

“Only the strongest men could go fetch a bear and only the smartest men could out-think the wily fox. But the bravest men, the men whose hearts were the stoutest and who would flee from no danger, they were sent to catch the butterfly.”

The children couldn’t help but laugh. “A butterfly?” they howled. “How can a butterfly need the bravest of men? They are small and they are cowardly. No man fears the butterfly.” The old man shook his head and ran a wizened hand through his great beard. “Have you finished laughing?” he said. They nodded.

“In the old time, there was but one butterfly in the forest, and she lived in one particular spot. Deep in the tangled mass of root and vine, through the dens of wolves and monsters whose names no longer mean anything. There, just past the blackest, darkest part of the forest, a single ray of sun shone through to light a single green leaf. That was where she lived, and that was why only the bravest could reach her.”

The children fell into a silence. They loved all the stories that the old man told, but the ones they loved the very best were the ones with great danger and impossible odds. They shuffled in closer, eager not to miss a word. The old man smiled at them. For he was a storyteller, and he had snared his prey.

“One year, a man named Amerek was chosen to reach the butterfly and bring her back to the clearing. Amerek was brave and he was strong and he was quick, but his heart was heavy with loss. That year his mother had passed away, and he had buried her in the forest, next to the place where his father lay.

“Normally, a butterfly hunter will call for a second, an equal to follow them into the forest. Amerek did no such thing. He was tired of death and he would not be responsible for another’s aching heart. ‘I will go alone,’ he said, ‘as all men must some day.’

“And so Amerek went, with a spear in one hand and a net in the other, deep into the bleak, black mass of the twisted forest. He did not feel fear, because he had been chosen. He was a butterfly hunter, and he would do what needed to be done.

“First, he came upon the wolf. But this was the old time, and the wolves were smarter and far more vicious than they are now. ‘How now, brother Amerek,’ said the wolf, uncurling itself from the floor. ‘You are in my place now, and if you wish to pass, you must defeat me.’

“’How now, brother wolf,’ replied Amerek, clenching his fist tighter around the handle of his spear. ‘I have no desire to hurt you, I am a guardian of this forest and I mean you no harm. I seek passage through your place to the places beyond.’

“The wolf snarled a smile, showing off his terrible, razor sharp teeth. ‘You wish to travel further than the places beyond here, I should think, brother Amerek. But where you desire to go, no man of the tribe can ever set foot.’

“Amerek felt the weight in his heart grow heavier, but he did not show it. The wolf was wise and the wolf was cruel, but the wolf was right. Where he longed to travel, the living could never go. ‘If we must fight, then let us make it quick,’ said the man. ‘I will send you to meet your children and your wives.’

“The wolf reared, and with a ferocious howl leapt towards Amerek’s throat. But Amerek was too quick and too strong and the point of his spear found purchase in the belly of the wolf. The wolf slumped to the floor and Amerek knew that he had gone.

“He removed his spear and knelt by the dead body of the thing that was the wolf. ‘I envy you your journey, old friend,’ he whispered into an ear that could no longer hear. And the thing that was the body of the thing that was the wolf returned to the ground and became a new life. Maybe one of yours.

The children gasped, like children do, then begged the old man to go on. He smiled at them and put his hands on his lap and puffed out his cheeks, pretending to be tired, which made them clamour all the more. For he was a storyteller, and he knew there was more to the story than the way it was woven. “Go on then,” he said, “I’ll tell a little more.”

“After the Wolf, Amerek came upon the spider. But this was the old time, and the spider and her daughters were bigger than men. ‘How now, brother Amerek,’ whispered the Spider in tones of silk and venom, ‘you are in my place now, and my place is full of webs and eyes. You cannot pass unless you know the way.’ And then the Spider smiled, because it was the old time, and spiders could smile. ‘But you do not know the way, do you?’

“Amerek glanced about, tightening his grip on his spear. Around him red eyes flashed through the darkness, and long, spindly legs skittered around the dead wood of the forest floor. ‘How now sister Spider. You are right, I do not know the way. But you will tell me or you will die.’

“The spider hissed, and Amerek could tell it was laughing. ‘But you are so sick of death, brave warrior. Your heart is heavy with it, and my daughters can smell it. They taste it on the air. You raise your spear, but the strength in your arm has failed. You cannot kill us.’”

The children sat rapt, hanging on the old man’s every word. And so he paused, took off his glasses, and wiped them gently on the sleeve of his shirt. “But what happened next?” they begged, “How did Amerek get past the spiders!?!”

The old man rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed, then slowly slipped his glasses back on. “This next part is a little frightening,” he said in a low voice, “and I would hate to give you nightmares…”

“But we are brave!” shouted the children as one. “We are not afraid of spiders.” And the old man looked them over, smiling. For he was a storyteller, and he knew that the story lived in those who heard it as well as those who told it. “Very well,” he said, “If you’re sure.

“Amerek knew the spider was right. Though his grip was true and his eyes were steady, he had no will to fight. But there was another way past the spiders to the places beyond, and though it filled his stomach with dread, he knew he must take it.

“‘So be it, sister spider, if you will not show me the way, I will see as you do.” He took a cup from his pouch, and held it towards spider. She lowered her head, with its many unblinking eyes, and from her fangs let out a single drop of venom.

“‘You know the rules brother Amerek. Drink too much and you will belong to me. Drink too little and you will be cursed to wander the forest forever. Or until you stumble into one of our webs.’

“Amerek did not reply. He put the cup to his lips and drank deep. The venom burnt his throat and scorched his lips. It was fire and ice, boiling and freezing as it slipped down into his stomach.

“The cup slipped from his fingers, falling with a thud and spilling the rest of the poison onto the damp floor. ‘I drank half, sister spider,’ gasped Amerek as the foul liquid twisted his insides. ‘Neither lost nor devoured. We are the balance, and the balance lies in the centre of all things.’

“Sister spider hissed, but this time she was not laughing. And though his eyes were blurred with tears and his skin felt like it was bursting in sores, Amerek saw the path ahead of him. ‘Goodbye sister spider,’ he said, though his tongue was swollen, ‘may your webs grow thick and catch many things.’

“As he followed the path before him, Amerek started to feel better. The coolness of the forest soothed his skin, and his insides settled a little more with each step. He walked for an hour, two, maybe even more. Deeper and deeper into the forest, following his feet to find the darkest heart of the trees.

“Finally, Amerek came to the lair of forgotten things. I will not tell you their names, for their names no longer mean what they once did. Let us instead call them Fear, Despair and Dread, for that is what they were. Black things that held no shape but every shape was theirs to make. They ate nothing but their namesakes, and could live only where the forest closed in and all light was squeezed away.

“They felt the weight in Amerek’s heart as he approached, his longing for his mother and his father, and they knew that brother wolf and sister spider had done their job. “How now, brother Amerek,” they whispered in their ancient, forked tongues. ‘You have come into our place, though perhaps you have been here for many days.’

“Amerek felt the cold cling at him. The sun had never seen this place, never called out the names of the things that lived here to warm their bones and still the anger in their breast. This was a place without life, because life needed warmth and warmth never found its way into the gloomiest parts of the forest.

“’Brothers Fear, Despair and Dread,’ said Amerek, his voice steady and calm, ‘I have come to your place to seek passage to the place that lies beyond.’ The three that were one smiled, or would have done if they were not made out of darkness. ‘You seek the light then, that which warms sister butterfly and makes her pretty and strong?’ ‘Or perhaps,’ said another of the three, though which one it is impossible to tell, because they are all the same, ‘you seek a light further even than that?’

“Amerek once again felt the weight on his heart grow heavy. Perhaps the loss was too much, he thought, perhaps it would be better to seek out the furthest light and find his mother and his father. ‘Yesssss,’ said a fourth voice, further away than the others. ‘Come to me, and together we shall find your parents and learn about the light that has no name.’

“The man started. ‘Who is there?’ he said, raising his spear. ‘Who is there and talks to me in the place of the three?’ ‘I am the fourth,’ hissed the voice, ‘and you may call me death,’ Amerek froze. There had only ever been the three, as long as the legends of the great collection had been told. ‘You are here to tempt me then?’ asked the man.

“’You brought me here,’ purred death, ‘because of the weight that lays so heavy on your heart.’ A tear welled in Amerek’s eye. He had been strong, he had been quick, but now, at the end, he needed to be brave. He clutched his spear and his net, and spoke with all the might that remained in his lungs.

“’My name is Amerek, and I am a butterfly hunter. I have defeated wolves and traversed the darkness. I have drunk from the fangs of spiders and followed the old path. I shall not be afraid, I shall not be cowed and I shall not give in to the weight that sits so heavy on my chest. Death is new life, and my parent’s live in me as they do in each and every thing that walks in this forest. Loose your tentacles death, for they shall not ensnare me.’

“Then, with all of his might, Amerek, the butterfly hunter, swung his spear. It cracked through rotten branches, tore up roots, mangled the canopy that held the three’s place forever in darkness. He hacked and thrashed with all of his strength, all of his courage, until there was no darkness, no three to block his path. And in front of him, he saw her. The butterfly.

“She was more beautiful than any creature Amerek had ever seen. Her wings were like delicate lace, patterned with blue ice that caught the light so perfectly that it made the whole clearing sparkle. She fluttered her wings and the light danced and Amerek felt the weight in his heart start to lessen. He lay a finger on her wings and it felt like the softest velvet he had ever touched.

“’You are brave, you are strong and you are quick, brother Amerek,’ said the butterfly. ‘But you are also wise, and that is a prize above all others. Take me back to the clearing, show the spirits that I am safe and that the forest will be protected for another year.’

“’Before I do,’ asked the butterfly hunter, ‘might I ask you one wish?’ ‘I cannot bring back the dead, brother Amerek,’ replied the butterfly, sadly. ‘That is not what I would ask. All I ask is that you remain beautiful, that you search out the light and chase away the gloom.’ The butterfly smiled, because this was the old time and butterflies could smile, and agreed.

“After that day, the forest was full of butterflies, because wise Amerek had chased away the darkness. He lived on for many years, until he was the only one who remembered the old time. And every mid-year, he would return to the butterfly, and they would talk and laugh and sing and everything would be right in the world.

“And that, my little ones, is the story of the butterfly hunter,” said the old man, a single wet tear in the corner of his eye. And they leapt to their feet, cheering and whooping, sprinting out of the door to fetch their nets and head out into the forest.

They would prove they were brave, strong and quick. And perhaps, old Amerek thought to himself, a few of them would prove that they were wise.  For he was a storyteller, and storytellers always kept the best secrets for themselves.


Harry’s Develop Diary – Day Two

Here’s the second part of my diary. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest reading the first part. You can do that by clicking right here.

Hangover. Brush your teeth so you don’t taste the booze every time you breathe. This is a fact. Shower, stare at the backs of other hotels through a window that only just opens and only just closes.

Breakfast is mainly beans and mushrooms at a cafe with lobsters on the wall and maybe a marlin. Hemingway is mentioned. I sit quietly and fume because the menu said hash browns and there was only one.

There are things to do today. But I am wearing trousers and my legs feel like Vaseline wrapped Christmas turkeys. I am sweating so badly when I play the first two games in the indie arcade that I feel sick and I want to apologise and I know everyone thinks I’m disgusting and I am.

If I sweated on your tablet or controller I am sorry and I won’t come again unless it’s winter but even then they turn the heating on and sorry.

One game is called A Good Snowman is Hard to Build and I want to enthuse about it and talk about how you can hug snowmen and sit on benches but I feel like a fucking sweating neck beard prick and I just leave because no one cares what a fat sweating prick like you thinks.

I go to the press room but it’s in a different place and it has a different name. This time I’m brave, I sit down like hey what up, me again journo friends let’s tap out some classics. More like NOT free-to-play yeah? but actually I sit down on one of the leather chairs and get my iPad out.

This is my rhythm for the day. I see a game and then I go sit on my leather chair and write about it. I am constantly horrified at the idea of walking into the press office which is what it’s called now and it being full and then I’m naked and they’re all my mum. It never happens though.

I never know what to do on expo floors. It is not a big expo floor but there are booths and people are giving out T-shirts and I have to say no. I don’t like advertising brands I’m not truly engaged with on my chest. But just sorry in reality and no and sorry.

Most of it is not for me. I don’t think it is for me anyway. I don’t need vibrators for my controllers or a motion capture hat or a VR helmet or a university funding program. I’m sorry I don’t know why I’m here either.

One of the games is about delivering things and you flick boxes and it’s so bright and we’re outside. No one shows me a game that’s brown and about man killing. That is why I’m in the best part of the industry. It’s also the worst part sometimes. Our games go right in your pocket.

Another game is a quiz, and it asks you questions and I get some right. But we’re in a strange Italian restaurant and the owner’s son makes games and hey he actually does make games and these guys might know him but he doesn’t have long hair. He’s a very smart looking boy. This is a fact. Networking.

The second to last game of the day is a Vita not-shooter and it needs plugging in. We stand in a corridor leaning on a baggage drop-off hatch that’s closed and dodge through a maze of black stripes and lasers.

The socket is just in a corridor because the bar is full and this guy probably thinks I’m an idiot for not knowing where all the sockets are. I like corridor gaming. It feels edgy. Like an illegal trade away from the hum and buzz of bar-fuelled chat-working. Corridor expos should be a thing.

Gaming isn’t as formal as booths. This is not the way that I game. I never sit on a stool in real life. I never feel like I’m hogging the game or that I’m infecting it with salt and booze sweat. Sorry again.

I wish I’d played on the beach. I nearly did but we were shouted back because we had drinks. I don’t think I did at the time. The beach is silliness and sliding in sand, or pebbles. It’s splashing and falling and starting fires. It’s childish. Like we wish we were.

I say goodbye to the Hilton metropole because I am tired. I need to be away from business cards and the hard sell and the press room with its leather chairs that didn’t break in the end.

I’m pretty much always on my own at expos and conferences, but I’m never alone. I like to be alone. I think I’m quiet and nice and a bit naive and fun when I’m alone. Not drunk sweats and saying the same thing about your game three times.

I walk back up the hill to the station. It’s still hot. I do not know Brighton. I know two streets, and one of those is broken hotels and people nearly running me over, and the the other is small pavements and people walking too slow.

I don’t turn around to see the sea. I sludge into the station, back to sleep patterns and the cold north where we don’t rollerblade again yet. This is a fact.


Harry’s Develop Diary – Day One

I’ve decided to post more personal things, and things I actually want to write. This is one of them. The second part will probably turn up tomorrow.

There are people rollerblading on the prom. I am from the north, and we gave up on rollerblading in the late ’90s. The wheeled sport has yet to make its inevitable retro-ironic comeback in Hull.

The sea is a cool mix of blues and greens. It is not my sea. My sea is brown. My sea does not so much sparkle as fart and spludge up puffs of scummy foam.

I understand the hotels though. Some of them anyway. Chipped cream paint, net curtains faded to a strange brown. They look out on a thousand oceans up and down the coast of England. Stern Victorian faces crumbling against a sea breeze.

It’s hot. Pink clammy heat that makes my T-shirt curl and stick. The Hilton Metropole is not a hotel that makes sense to me. Its leather is free of tears, it’s carpets are plush and hoovered to the very edge.

The staff do not trudge, they bustle. Everything is purpose, specific, and I am a whale sinking in a puddle of sweat and travel stink. I decide it’s best to work out where I have to go myself rather than ask anyone.

There are signs and I follow them. I tell the man behind the desk my name and he asks if I said ‘Hairy’. I apologetically correct him, bashful for his lack of hearing prowess. I suspect it was my fault. The collar of his shirt is crisp and the collars of my shirts are all still tattered and in the north.

He tells me not to lose my pass, because then I’d have to buy a new one. I nod and smile and wonder if he has to tell everyone, or whether I’ve been profiled as a pass-loser. 

I take a lanyard and carefully clip my pass on to it. This is my third lanyarded event pass. I don’t know where the others are. Maybe he was right.

I now have time to kill. I am awful at killing time when I’m on my own. Throttled by indecision I wander around the front for a while. Almost as soon as I step outside the Hilton a wind whips my lanyard half off my neck.

This isn’t rare. I am not a special case. Brighton sucks up passes like a brand vacuum. It demands fealty because I am trespassing. New places always know you’re wrong. They feel your foreign shape and respond against it. An immune system. This is a fact.

The gnarled, skeletal fist of the burnt pier seems to follow me as I plod aimlessly along. Later on I will learn it is covered in seagull shit. I’m surprised everything in Brighton isn’t covered in seagull shit to be honest.

I discover my two ports of call. A restaurant made of glass that faces out to the strange sea, and a hotel nestled amongst much larger buildings on the other side of the prom. They’re within spitting distance of the Metropole.

A huge holiday inn dominates this stretch of the seafront. It looks like a Jenga tower, blocks and blocks placed safely but not quite precisely. You could imagine it rain soaked and neon slashed on the cover of a Syndicate expansion.

One of the letters on the sign is missing. I don’t think it matters which one.

I head back to the metropole having not killed anywhere near enough time. I should have kept going. That’s always been my weakness.

I see a couple of people I know and exchange pleasantries, then shuffle off to find my first interviewee. I’m running it fast and loose because I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to say. More weaknesses.

It’s not really an interview. I’m just seeing a game. Strongs. It’s called LA Cops, and even if I hadn’t had three hours sleep the night before I still would have loved it.

It’s a punchy, tough touch screen shooter with some clever tactical aspects. Its murders are neon and swift, its developer a bundle of fresh polite energy. By the end of the meeting we’re both playing, Ollie on an iPad, me on an iPhone.

There’s something deeply social about it, and deeply anti-social at the same time. We’re sat in a room where the arm chairs are spongy creaking leather, the walls are adorned with art and fat picture rails, and we’re sat giggling and swearing because our little men keep dying.

For me that’s the heart of gaming. That connection between two people playing the same thing. He’s better than me, which is only fair. We’re in a room of greys and browns dishing out red gushing violence in a world painted in bright chunks of colour.

Too soon it’s done. It’s hot and humid outside. Close and unpleasant, with blue skies stretching between the arms of the bay. The facade of the metropole wouldn’t look out of place in a cheap painting of a street someone told you was in Paris.

I head to the press room to engage with my peers and write up what I’ve just seen.

I always feel like an imposter in press rooms. Partly because I am, and partly because I don’t know anyone. If networking was a game I would die in a spray of my own blood within the first few seconds. Weaknesses.

It’s rare that I feel like I belong anywhere. I am an awkward lump of meat, all confused bits that jut out and flop in to the way. If there’s only one place in a room that’s going to block people, that is where I end up stood.

The press room is small. Not many press-mans have turned up for the Evolve chunk of the conference. There are a couple of wide leather chairs, and a stretch of tables against a wall.

People are doing journalism. Fast rattatat journalism on Mac books with stickers on them for brands or games or I don’t know I don’t look at them. I just sit down on one of the leather chairs and get out my iPad.

It’s fine. I am allowed to be here. No one is going to ask to see my credentials. No one is going to balk at the idea of a mobile writer sharing their hallowed air and beat me to death with an oculus rift.

They don’t either. They talk to each other like normal people who have known each other forever and I instantly become more awkward and stare so intently at my iPad that I get a headache and I’m not typing anything and that’s how they’ll find out so just fucking type something.

Now the chair is creaking. It is going to break. This is a fact. I will forever be the giant quiet mobile jerk who broke one of Develop’s chairs and ruined it for everyone else.

I type something. Lac ops is a gameaboutshooting mans. That doesn’t even make sense. These bastions of the journalistic world always make sense and here I am mumbling out rubbish. 

And all the conversations are going on and should I say something. Do I know any jokes about free-to-play? Are there any jokes about free-to-play?

LA Cops is a good.

This is fucking hopeless. I consider biting off my fingers. But then they stop talking and get some free bottled water and tap their Mac Books and I think of a killer first line and suck it you well adjusted utterly non-terrifying people who are just doing your job. Suck. It.

I finish the words about LA Cops and I still have time to kill. I kill it by walking into town to find a cash machine. I grew up near the sea. If you can smell salt near a cash machine then it will charge you £1.80 and clone your card. This is a fact.

I don’t kill enough time though, so I lean on a wall outside the Metropole and look at the horizon and think how cool and mysterious I look even though there’s a small stain on my shorts from where I dropped some lasagne on them last night.

Eventually I see someone I know, so I stop being mysterious and pasta-soiled and head down to the venue for the night’s reveries.

I help to hang a banner. It goes up straight and remains straight for the whole night. We leave it at the end. You might think it was because we couldn’t be bothered to take it down, but I expect it was because it was so perfectly hung the higher-ups decided to leave it as a monument to banner hanging.

Between banner hang and banner-bandon I drink free beer and judge people. People’s games. Networking is always easier when you already know most of the people there. We talk about games and it’s like being in a gang.

Journos are always the naughty kids at these things. Even sober ones. We chitter when the grown ups are talking, swear like troopers, and look sullen when we’re hushed.

This is a side-effect of our line of criticism. We are still allowed to play with toys all day. More than that it’s actively encourage by people who wear suit jackets. And so our outlook is eminently childish. 

We might be real grown ups deep down, able to express feelings and make risotto and know what risotto is, but push a bunch of us together and we become incorrigible ragamuffins. Especially if there’s crisps. And there’s almost always crisps. I don’t even like crisps. This is a fact.

More than once during the night I have two drinks in hand. I bicker and flirt and make jokes that fall so flat they may as well have been eulogies. But it’s not me. It’s seven pints and two bottles. It’s not comfort, it’s bravado.

It might be who I wish I was, but it’s not who I am. I eat roast stuffed aubergines in a Greek restaurant, then squeeze into the smallest toilet cubicle I’ve ever seen. Another aubergine and I would not have been able to reach the toilet. I don’t know if I meant that how it sounded.

We go back to the party but it’s done. I shout at Alistair Aitcheson for a bit and then feel bad because I’m obviously shouting and I didn’t mean to. Outside on the walk to the hotel everyone says I have big hands and feet and I say I know because I do, but in a drunk way that doesn’t make it sound like I’m the morose thud of a man I actually am.

The hotel is confused about us checking in because its internet connection probably whoops and whistles when it dials into the phone network to download 50-something KB of data a second. Eventually it is not sorted and we are told to go to bed. Then we have to ask the way to bed.

Cups of tea. Talk about films. Angels & Demons is hilarious. Seagulls scream because fuck you sleepers, this is our town now. They’re shitting on things outside the window but none of the things are my things.

Last night there was a fight in one of the rooms next to some friends. One of the friends thought they were just packing. This is what sleeping does to you. I imagine a giant apologetic man with a tea tray rolls into the room to apologise for the check-in mistakes.

 


Updates

Busy.

I’m currently writing for pocketgamer.co.uk, gamescatalyst.com, Imagine Publications and Micro Mart, so I’m finding it difficult to find time to actually write anything on here. I’ve updated the portfolio section, and I’m hopefully going to start up a boardgame blog sometime soon. Hopefully.


Short Story #1 The Mass Transit System

I’m going to try and post more short stories on here, because I like writing short stories. Constructive criticism is most welcome. 

 

The Mass Transit System

 

“The last train always feels like it takes longer to arrive than the rest, doesn’t it?”

Margaret started, she had thought she was on the platform on her own. The man talking to her was tall and impossibly thin; he looked, Margaret thought to herself, like he was made of pipe cleaners. He wore an immaculately clean, white suit that seemed to radiate light, and, Margaret noted with a feeling of discomfort, what looked like flying goggles, hanging loosely around his neck. Oh great, she thought to herself, a lunatic.

Everyone who has spent any amount of time travelling on the underground has a story to tell about a lunatic; it’s almost a right of passage. You’re not really a City dweller until you’ve met one of the swathe of cranks and crazies who haunt the tunnels once the sun has gone down. Margaret already had her story, about a woman who had followed her, shouting the names of dogs and pulling her hair, and she had no desire for another. She mumbled something non-committal, then returned to staring at the adverts on the opposite side of the tunnel.

“It’s because it’s colder, all the joints and cogs and levers and gears are contracting, so everything takes a little bit longer to move.”

“You mean on the train?” Margaret asked, in spite of herself.

“If you want to look at it that way, then yes, I suppose.” The tall man stretched out and, for the briefest of moments, Margaret was sure that the top of his head was going to touch the roof of the tunnel. She blinked, realised how ridiculous she was being, and the man shrank back to his original, gangly height.

“What other way is there to look at it?” Margaret couldn’t figure out why she was engaging with the tall man, she knew better than encouraging lunatics. But there was something about him, something she couldn’t quite fathom.

“The right way.” He shot her an infuriating grin, that seemed to fill his whole face. “Would you like a job, Margaret?”

“How do you know my name? What is this, what’s going on?” Margaret clutched her bag tight to her chest. “I’ve got mace,” she lied.

“No you don’t.” The tall man smiled again, though only with half of his mouth this time. “You need some time to think about it. Don’t worry, I understand.” He reached inside his white suit and pulled out an equally white business card, placing it on the bench next to Margaret.

“Th-think about what?” Margaret replied, shrinking back from the card as though it were cursed.

“The job, silly.” The man bowed so low that has pale nose almost scraped the tiles on the platform. “It has been a wonderful pleasure to meet you.”

He straightened himself with a sweep of his extraordinarily long arms, then smiling still, took three strides to the edge of the platform. “I shall see you again in three full circuits of the earth. Good day.” Without another word, he sprung down onto the electrified tracks.

“No, wait there’s a…” The arrival of the train made Margaret’s next two words redundant, but she said them anyway, “…train coming.”

There was no sickening thud, no shower of viscera or screech of brakes. The train came to a leisurely stop and the doors hissed open. Margaret’s heart was in her mouth, and her mouth was agog. There was one person in the carriage, who was now staring at Margaret with a quizzical look on his face. In the weeks and months to come, Simon would proudly recall his tale of the crazy lady on the last train, who was adamant that a man had jumped in front of the train just before it arrived. He felt like a real city dweller now, with a lunatic tale of his own to tell. It’s hard to say how Simon would have felt had he known that the woman was telling the truth, but then, some truths are only true if you’re stood in the right place at the right time.

 

Margaret passed the experience off as stress, although she had to admit that prior to watching a man walk in front of a train, she had not felt particularly stressed at all. Overwork then, although work had been quiet recently. Maybe she was just going mad, that would certainly explain it. As explanations went, it was her least favourite. Over the next three weeks, life, as life has a habit of doing, overtook the meanderings of her mind. She didn’t forget about the tall man – no one who had seen him would – but being a rational sort, she buried him under jobs and travel and the minutiae of day to day life. Something strange had happened, there was more than likely a perfectly logical explanation for it, but Margaret would leave the exact details of that explanation for someone else to figure out. That plan of action was made slightly unlikely by the fact that she told no one, apart from Simon (who she did not know was called Simon), about what had happened on the platform. At the end of the third week, Margaret had to work late again, and again, she found herself alone on the platform, waiting for the last train. She reached into her bag, to check the time on her phone, and felt her fingers brush against smooth, rigid paper; a business card. She pulled it out of her bag, covering it with both palms as she did. Slowly, carefully, she moved her left hand away and stared at the little slip of card. In embossed, gold type it said “Mr. Langdale, The Mass Transit System, Co-ordinator 1486”. No contact number, no web address, no additional information. Margaret flipped the card over, feeling aggrieved; the reverse side was blank.

“Well, at least this proves I’m not going mad,” she mumbled to herself. “Or it proves I’m going very mad…”

“I think maybe, we are all a little mad, from time to time,” said Mr. Langdale, whose spindly form was now twisted into the seat next to Margaret’s.

“You should be dead,” Margaret snapped without thinking. “Whatever this is, I want no part in it, do you understand?”

“Yes, of course, I’m sorry. I am rather fond of showing off the first time I meet a prospective employee.” Mr. Langdale gave a half smile, but it did little to placate Margaret.

“Showing off? You think risking your life is impressive do you? You could have been mince meat.” Margaret crumpled the business card in her hand and threw it back into her bag.

“No, I could not, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First things first, have you had time to think about my offer?”

“Work for you?” Said Margaret, exasperated. “Do you think I’m insane?”

“Well, of course not,” replied Mr. Langdale, serenely, “otherwise why would I have offered you a job? And you wouldn’t be working for me, you’d be working for the Mass Transit System.”

“You mean the trains?”

“I mean the Mass Transit System.”

“Look,” said Margaret, flustered and angry and confused, “I don’t know who you are, or what you want with me, but will you please just leave me alone.”

Mr. Langdale let out a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a hummed note. “I think, all things considered, it would be easiest if I just showed you.”

“Showed me what?” Margaret adjusted her hands slightly, ready to wield her handbag as an improvised weapon.

“The Mass Transit System.”

“You mean the trains.” Margaret said, annoyed.

That strange sound again. Huuuuuoooooom. “Take my hand, Margaret, and I will show you why this city is unlike any other in the world.”

Margaret hesitated, torn between her rationality and the simple fact that, in spite of herself, in spite of all her years and experience, she couldn’t help but think there was something magical about Mr. Langdale. Not magical in the sense that adults use the word, but actually magical.

“I promise I won’t throw you in front of a train,” said the long, thin man, although there was a sudden twinkle in his eye that made Margaret think that that was exactly what was about to happen.

Tentatively, she reached out her hand, and felt Mr. Langdale’s long, slender fingers wrap gently around her own. He stood up, and she followed, then he reached into his white coat and pulled out a vial of sparkling blue liquid. It looked to Margaret as though it was made from glittter and the glimmer of oil in water. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Langdale deftly unstoppered the bottle with his long fingered hand, and let a single, glistering drop fall onto the platform. The drop seemed to slip through the air in slow motion, catching every possible shard of light as it fell. When it landed it didn’t splash, but sat in a comfortable, perfectly circular pool.

“This may feel a little strange,” said Mr. Langdale.

Margaret wanted to say ‘What will feel a little strange?’ but all she got out was “Whu…” before the world became a shifting blur of colours and concepts. Margaret tried to close her eyes, but found that she couldn’t. The pressure of the spin was too great, a whirling maelstrom of thing and nothing that was as beautiful as it was absolutely terrifying. Margaret felt like the breath had been punched out of her lungs, that her heart was pounding so hard to keep her alive that it might force its way out of her chest, that her skin was on fire with the worst pins and needles she had ever experienced, that if this didn’t stop soon she would throw up the late lunch she’d eaten six hours before all over Mr. Langdale’s suit. At the exact moment she thought that, the spinning stopped and she lurched forward into cool air and solid ground.

“What the hell did you just do?” shrieked Margaret in between gasping lungfuls of air.

“I thought it best not to take you along the lines at first,” said Mr. Langdale, calmly. Much to Margaret’s annoyance, the tall man was utterly unruffled by the whole affair.

After a few more gulps of air, Margaret stood up straight and took in her surroundings. Then she gasped. Then she fainted.

 

“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Langdale in a soothing tone, “almost everyone faints the first time they see the System.”

“Did you?” Asked Margaret, shakily.

“Of course not.” Replied Mr. Langdale with a grin.

“But it’s…” started Margaret, trying to sit up too quickly and regretting it immediately.

“Yes, it is.”

“How can…”

“Because it is.” Mr. Langdale reached over Margaret to a small table and passed her a vial of greenish liquid. “Here, drink this, you’ll feel much better. Then we can get on with the tour.”

Margaret’s inhibitions about taking liquid from strange men had all but dissipated in the spinning frenzy that brought her here, so without thinking she downed the green medicine. Mr. Langdale was right, it did make her feel better. Margaret looked around. When they had arrived, they had been in a huge chamber, but now they were in a small room with a single bed and a reassuring smell of cleanliness, baking and aniseed.

“If you are ready,” said Mr. Langdale, standing up and straightening his already immaculate suit, “I shall explain.”

Margaret swung her legs off the bed, steadied herself, then followed Mr. Langdale out of the room, back into the chamber where she had fainted.

“This,” said Mr. Langdale, with an exaggerated sweep of his long arms, and an undeniable sense of pride in his voice, “is The Mass Transit System.”

Margaret took it in slowly, followed the curve of Mr. Langdale’s arms with a deliberate and paced movement of her head. The system was enormous, a sweeping, cave-filling mechanism built out of cogs and wheels, pulleys and levers, enormous slices of metal, all of them gleaming and polished to a mirror shine. It was breathtaking, the size and shape, the ingenuity of it. The way the parts moved, it wasn’t like a machine, it was like a living, breathing thing. And silent, so silent as its well oiled parts twisted and turned, linking with precision into one another and just as easily moving away. The joints of this behemoth had never and would never creak, because it was tended at all times by a tribe of Co-ordinators, all of them dressed in the same uniform as Mr. Langdale, all of them performing their tasks with the same precision as the system they worked. It was as though they were part of the machine, forever linked into the beautiful mechanics.

“Do you see what it does?” Asked Mr. Langdale, pointing Margaret to a particular part of the machine that seemed to grow out of the rock of the cave.

Except it was the other way round, the system had grown into the rock, not out of it. With a dawning realisation she saw other pieces of metal attaching the system to the rock walls, saw that all of the pieces could move, had to move, must move. The pieces disappeared out of the cave, smooth arms clutching onto the rest of the world.

“It’s not the trains…” she whispered to herself.

“No,” said Mr. Langdale. “It’s the City that moves. Or more accurately, it’s the City that we move.”

“But that’s impossible.” Margaret furrowed her brow, convinced she must be drugged or dreaming or both.

“The impossible is entirely determined by the position you find yourself standing in. With a modicum of belief and a drop of help…” Mr. Langdale pointed at two huge, glass cylinders, both of which were full of the amazing blue liquid he had used to transport them to the cave. “Watch.”

A klaxon blew and the machine sped up, flashing with silver brilliance. The Co-ordinators moved in time with their creation, long fingers dancing on dials and switches, making sure the machine ran as smoothly as possible. Above Margaret’s head, the ceiling of the cave was moving, pulled along by the spinning, purring machine. Jets of pure white steam slipped out of exhausts, filling the cave with the sweet scent of spring flowers and exciting ideas.

“The last train,” said Mr. Langdale, pointing to a huge clock on the cave wall. Its hands clicked to twelve, another klaxon sounded and the machine slowed down, hissing out a final plume of enticing steam before settling to a stop. The Co-ordinators congratulated one another on a good day’s work, then slipped down ladders, poles and scaffolds, leaving the great shining, clockwork thing alone.

“How long have you been here?” Asked Margaret, turning to Mr. Langdale, who had a broad smile on his face.

“Longer than you have,” he replied, cryptically.

A thought flashed in Margaret’s mind, an uncomfortable thought that she had to let out. “But people die. People are hit by trains and they die. It happens all the time.”

For the first time, a look of sadness crossed Mr. Langdale’s long face. “It is unavoidable,” he said, and Margaret felt genuine sorrow behind his words. “The human mind is too strong. It makes the impact real, or real enough to kill. We have tried to find ways around it, but it is beyond our comprehension. We build machines, we understand machines.”

“Why me? Why choose me for a job?”

Mr. Langdale smiled, a broad, warm smile. “We watch the topside, watch how it moves and the people who move through it. Some people move with their eyes fixed on the ground, or on the past or on the future. You always have your eyes fixed in the sky, in the clouds perhaps your people would say. We need people who can see the sky, see new possibilities and chances.”

Margaret shook her head, trying to take in the vastness of the machine, of the lie she had been living for years. “Okay,” she started, “but I should warn you, I am not wearing a white suit.”

 

The station rattled onto the train and Margaret stood up and took a few steps towards the edge of the platform. The great concrete thing slowed, undetectable, and came to a halt perfectly aligned with the carriages. The doors hissed open and Margaret made to step inside. Before she did though, she glanced back at the blue spot on the floor, faded now after two years, but still a more beautiful blue than anything else in the City. She reached into her bag and took out her own vial of the liquid. As she slid onto the train, with the deftest of moves, she removed the stopper and let a single drop fall in the gap between the carriage and the platform. There was no one to see what she did, but as she sat down on one of the seats, she whispered something to herself. Smoothly, the station slipped away, the impossible City spun by the impossible machine, and Co-ordinator 2546 smiled to herself.

“It’s amazing what you can achieve with a modicum of belief and a drop of help.”