Tale #101: A Story In The Afternoon

My niece was looking at all the things on my shelves. Not the books – although she liked to run her hands along the shelves and push any that were pulled out to the front back as far as they would go – but the assorted other ephemera that had accumulated there: dinosaurs, badges, watches, postcards, rocks, a moomin, two bags of go stones, all those little creatures we’d made out of plasticine the last time she was here and which were now all fuzzed with dust.

Six months ago is a long time when you’re 3 (not so much when you’re 41 and it feels like last week sometime), and by now she had forgotten she had even made them. Today on their re-discovery she had given them all new names, one by one – Berri, Captain Cat, Baby Jack, The Dragon Who Is On My Side, The Cyclops, David, Berri 2.

On the top shelf there was a framed print from a book of fairy tale illustrations. It was so high up she couldn’t see it properly, and so she asked me to take it down and show it to her.

“Who’s that, David?” she asked, pointing to the girl in the picture.

“It’s Little Red Riding Hood.”

“And what’s that?” she said.

“It’s the wolf.”

“He looks so grumpy!” she said, picking the picture up in both hands so she could get a closer look at him.

“Well, he is a bit,” I said. “You must have heard of Red Riding Hood before?”

She shook her head firmly.

“Is she one of your friends?”

“Well, no,” I said. “It’s an old fairy tale. Like, I don’t know, Snow White or something. Have you seen Snow White?”

She nodded her head.

“The prince had such a silly voice,” she said. “We couldn’t stop laughing when he started singing!”

She paused for a moment, her eyes fixed on the picture in her hands.

“I want to hear about Red Hiding Hood,” she said. “Can you tell me the story, David? Can you tell me all about her?”

“Okay,” I said. “But it’s a bit gruesome, you might not like it.”

“Grooosome,” she repeated, with her perfect child’s mimicry of the new and unheard. “What’s grooosome?”

“It means it’s… It means it isn’t very nice.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well make it nice, David. I want a nice story. Not a grooosome one.”

“Alright,” I said. “So, it goes like this…”


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, right out in the woods somewhere, there lived a little girl, who was just the sweetest, kindest child in the world. Wherever she went, she always wore her bright red coat, because it was her favourite coat (and her only coat), and she always pulled the hood up, even when it wasn’t raining, so her ears wouldn’t get cold.

She really hated getting cold ears.

Every Sunday morning, when she woke up, she’d bake a whole tray of cupcakes and cookies, and then after lunch, when they’d cooled down enough to touch, she’d pack them into her little picnic basket and take them round to her grandmother’s for afternoon tea.

Now, like I said, Little Red Riding Hood (which was what everyone called her), lived out in the woods, but her granny lived in the forest. Right out there in the deepest, darkest, furthest away place she could. It was the middle of winter, and there was snow on the ground, and the air felt like it was ice, and the sun was so low in the sky it might as well not have risen at all. It was so bleak

Not that this deterred Little Red Riding Hood, of course. She went out to her grandmother’s house with her cakes, just like she did every weekend, because she wasn’t merely the sweetest girl in the world, she was the bravest, too.

With every step up the path, the air got colder, and the snow got deeper. The trees grew taller, and thicker, and so close together that it slowly became darker, and darker, and darker, until at last it was so dark you’d have thought it was the dead of night. And then there would be a little red glow on the path ahead, and then another, as a series of little lanterns laid out especially for Little Red Riding Hood lit up the path all the way to granny’s front door.

She knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She knocked, and knocked again, and there was still no answer. But then the door swung open with a creak and Little Red Riding Hood stepped inside.

Now, she was such a good girl she remembered to take off her snowy, muddy, little red boots off by the door, and while she did she called out into the cold gloominess of granny’s house, “Oh Granny, oh Granny, I’m here, I’m here.”

There was no answer, so Little Red Riding Hood crept down the hall, and she pushed open the door to the living room, and said,” Granny, oh Granny, where are you?” but the room was dark as dusk, and just as cold, and there was no answer from there.

Then she pushed open the door to the kitchen, which was dark as night, and twice as cold, and called out,” Granny, oh Granny, where are you?” but there was no answer there, either.

Finally, she pushed open the door to granny’s bedroom. It was blacker than space, and three times as cold, but when she called out, “Granny, oh Granny, where are you?” a voice growled back, “I’m in here, my dear, waiting for you.”

“What are you doing in there, Granny?” Little Red Riding Hood asked, as she stepped over to the bedside and into the shadows. “It might be dark and cold, but it’s not yet time for bed.”

“I’m just resting, my dear,” growled out the voice. “While I waited for you.”

Little Red Riding Hood reached out in the dark, and put her hand on granny’s shoulder, and kissed her on the cheek, or where she thought her cheek would be, there in the dark, where she couldn’t see a thing.

“Oh Granny, you’re so furry!” Little Red Riding Hood laughed. “Why are you wearing your big winter coat and that nice thick scarf when you’re in bed?”

“I’m just keeping warm, my dear,” growled out the voice. “While I waited for you.”

Granny rolled over, and looked up at Little Red Riding Hood, her eyes as big and bright and red as lanterns.

“Oh, Granny, what big eyes you have!” Little Red Riding Hood, with a sly little smile.

“All the better for seeing you with, my dear,” growled out the voice.

“And Granny, what a big wet nose you’ve got!”

“All the better for smelling my dinner with!” growled out the voice with a lick of its lips.

“And oh Granny, what a big wide mouth you’ve got,” Little Red Riding Hood said. “with such big long sharp snapping teeth!”

“All the better,” growled the voice, as the wolf leapt up out of the bed and revealed himself. “For eating all your cupcakes with!”

“Oh Mr Wolf, what a waggly tail you’ve got,” she laughed, as he pushed his snout into the picnic basket and snaffled up all the treats with his long hungry tongue.

Well, not quite all the treats. Little Red Riding Hood made sure she kept one safe for when Granny came back in from the shops.


“Cupcakes!?” my niece snorted derisively. “Wolfs don’t eat cupcakes, David.”

“They might,” I said.

“Wolfs eat meat, David,” she said. She looked at the picture again, then back at me. “Was that the real story, David?”

“Well, it’s a story,” I said.

“Did you make it up?”

“Well, yeah,” I laughed. “Bits of it anyway. You told me to, remember.”

“But I don’t want a made up story, David. I want the real story.”

“You told me to make it nice. So I made it nice.”

“Well I want you to tell me the real story now,” she said, looking not at me but at the picture in her hands. She traced her fingers across the glass, letting them slide along the lines of her body, the contours of his mouth.

Then she turned and looked up at me. Looked straight into my eyes.

“I want you to make it as gruesome as can be.”



1. Written on and off over the last two years or so, but primarily in June and December 2019


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The New Brothers Grimm

Somehow my A Thousand And One fairy tales project has reached Tale #100 today, and to celebrate that I’ve decided to make some new tales explicitly out of old ones, rather than just sort of generally out of old ones.

And so, in The New Brothers Grimm, I take sentences, paragraphs, and fragments of original Brothers Grimm tales, and then re-assemble them into something new.



1. All of these were made in February and March 2020
2. They were all made using sentences from the Jack Zipes translations used in The Complete Fairy Tales collection, published in 2007 by Vintage.
3. Various minor changes to nouns, tenses, names, etc, were made to keep things consistent.
4. In a similar way to the In The Terminals Of Minraud trilogy of Burroughs cut-ups I made last year.
5. Which I thought might be interesting at the time
6. But which proved not to be interesting at all
7. To anyone
8. But me.


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YOU (September 1994 – June 1996)

You. You’re six foot two. Six foot two and fourteen stone but that doesn’t matter because you’re a coward. A coward and a wimp. They know. They all know. They all know because they’ve always known because they’ve known you all these years and there’s no growing up away from it, there’s no changing who you are, who you were. They know and you know and that’s all there is to it. It’s too late for anything else. There’s no escape. Not now.

You’re sixteen. Sixteen and six foot two and you’ve got long hair and you’re greasy and you stink. You can’t smell it, you can’t smell anything, but you know it. You know it and everyone knows it. You can feel it. You sweat and you sweat and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You dread sitting next to people in class. You dread the sweat patches under your arms. You dread the summer, dread not having a jumper for protection. Dread having to raise your arm in class, dread people looking, people seeing your shame, those yellow stains that won’t wash out, won’t ever go away.

You’re sixteen and you just want to be liked but you aren’t liked. You’re sixteen and you’re boring and you’re weird and annoying and a coward and you smell. You’re sixteen and you’re an arsehole. You’re sixteen and no one knows you exist. No one cares.

You don’t exist. That’s what you think. You don’t exist at all. You’re separated from everything, separated by a great distance, lost all the way back there at the back of your skull, miles from the world, back there in the cave of your mind, the cell, miles away from everyone and everything that’s passing you by. You peer out, the world in slow motion, the world so far away everything takes an age to reach you, takes an age for you to understand, to react, to respond. You want to shout back, because of the distance, because they might not hear you, might have forgotten you, because you really don’t exist you don’t have any presence you don’t even register you don’t you don’t you don’t.

You don’t.

You used to be clever. You used to be clever but you’re not any more. You used to be clever and you used to be able to do things easily, do everything easily but now you can’t. You can’t and you don’t. You don’t know how, don’t know how to force it, don’t know how to try, don’t know how to persevere. You don’t know how to dare. You can’t do it. You don’t do your homework and you don’t read your school books and you don’t go to your lessons and you lie. You lie. You lie about why and you lie about what you’ve done and what you’ve not done and where you’ve been and where you haven’t been.

And you lie about everything else. You lie about what you know and what you’ve seen and what you’ve read. You lie about what you’ve said and what you think and what you feel. You lie so much and so often it should be confusing but it’s not. You remember every lie you’ve ever told, remember who you’ve told them to, when and why. You keep it all in your head, a tree, a tree of knowledge, of deceit, of shame. A tree of possibilities, of better worlds than these, roots and branches you can escape down temporarily. You can never stay.

You evade direct questioning. You deny everything you can. Deny them the chance of using it against you, using it to challenge you, ridicule you, bully you. You deny it all, deny what you’ve done, deny what you know, what you don’t know, deny what others have done, what they’ve said. You deny your own mind, you’re own knowledge. You deny certainty. You insert mistakes into your answers, pretend you can’t remember things, can’t remember what was said, what you’ve read, what you know, what you’ve always known, what everyone knows, what everyone knows about you.

You would deny your own name if you could.

You like nothing. You admit to liking nothing. You’re scared to like things. You’re scared how much you like things. How much you like what you read and what you watch and what you listen to. Deep down you’re afraid you like everything, anything, anyone, anyone that would have you. You’re afraid of having no opinions of your own.

Opinions are important. You know that. So you borrow them. You borrow them from your brother, from magazines, books, films, tv. You hate what they hate. You’re not afraid of hate, of hating things, of admitting to hating things. Hating things is easy, comfortable. Hating things is comforting. It’s the only comfort you have. You wear your disdain like a jumper. Wear it to hide the uncomfortable stains of the things you like.

You read. You read everything. You read anything. You read and you read and you cannot stop.

You read Stephen King and and James Herbert and Clive Barker and Shuan Huston and Richard Laymon and Dean Koontz and Thomas Harris. You read novelisations of Doctor Who serials and Star Trek episodes and The Omen movies and Aliens and Star Wars. You read Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams and Arthur C Clarke and Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov. You read Tolkien and CS Lewis and the Iliad and the Odyssey and books about talking moles and talking rats and talking rabbits.

You read Shakespeare’s sonnets, Hardy’s poetry, Marlowe, Browning, Wordsworth, Coleridge. You read Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith, Fleur Adcock, Joolz Denby. You read Shakespeare’s plays and Hardy’s novels and Conrad and Dickens and The Death Of A Salesman and Death And The Maiden and Margaret Atwood and Harper Lee.

You read the NME and Melody Maker. You read Edge and Super Play and Total and even all your old copies of Your Sinclair, over and over again. You read 90 Minutes and World Soccer and Four Four Two. You read your younger brother’s copies of the Beano and Shoot. You read your older brother’s copies of Select and Vox. You read your friends copies of White Dwarf and Smash Hits and Empire and Variety. You read the newspapers in the common room, the free papers that come through the front door, flick through every magazine in John Menzies.

You read every page of teletext every day while eating breakfast, and then again after school, just in case anything has changed. You read the ingredients on boxes of cornflakes, packets of crisps, tins of beans, bottles of sauces, cans of drink. You read the labels in your clothes, the warning stickers on the backs of all your electronics, even the price tags on every item in the co-op. You remember them all.

You remember them all because you work there on Saturdays and there’s nothing to do but remember every item and every price and every customer that comes in. You work on the tills and you restock the shelves and you work in the stock room and you work out the back cutting up empty boxes and putting them in the skip. You don’t smile and you don’t talk and you don’t make mistakes and you get paid fourteen pound and fifty pence for 8 hours work every Saturday, or 9 hours work by your reckoning because of the hour for lunch that they don’t pay you for because you’re not working. But that hour’s not your own now is it, it’s not your own at all. It’s theirs. They’ve stolen it.

You spend every lunch hour and every one of those fourteen pounds in the record shop next door every week. You buy everything. You buy anything. You buy cd singles, cd albums, 7 inches, 12 inches, tapes. You even buy videos if they have them. You buy records by Smog, Gravediggaz, Ruby, Senser, Blur, Oasis, The Verve, Portishead, Pulp, The Bluetones, The Wannadies, Supergrass, The Stone Roses, Gene, Animals That Swim, Ash, Tricky, Massive Attack, Back To The Planet, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Jimi Hendrix, Underworld, The Afghan Whigs, Dinosaur Jr, The Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield, Kristin Hersh, Smashing Pumpkins, Gene, Built To Spill, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Public Enemy, Low, The Beastie Boys, The Brotherhood, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Tori Amos, Tindersticks, The Walkabouts, Whipping Boy, Prodigy, Bomb The Bass, Leftfield, Spooky, Lamb, Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, The Boo Radleys, Bob Marley, Alice In Chains, Sabres Of Paradise, Two Lone Swordsmen, Aphex Twin, Orbital, Autechre, The Chemical Brothers, The Auteurs, The Nubiles, Beck, Compulsion, The Breeders, Sugar, REM, Pop Will Eat Itself, Wu Tang Clan, Come, Dave Clarke, Plastikman, David Holmes, DJ Krush, DJ Shadow, Tortoise, Tiger, Super Furry Animals, Drugstore, Radiohead, Earthling, Erik B and Rakim, The Roots, The Fugees, Stereloab, Spiritualized, Jane’s Addiction, The Jesus Lizard, Joy Division, Lambchop, Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, Primal Scream, Prolapse, Rachel’s, Rocket To The Crypt, Slint, Therapy, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Scott Walker.

You listen to them all and you love them all and you don’t tell anyone whether you love them or hate them until they’ve told you whether they love them or hate them so you can agree or disagree arbitrarily in whichever manner seems most fitting at the time.

You’re in a pub. You’re in a pub and it’s the summer and you’re seventeen. You’re seventeen and you’ve got long hair and you’re sweating and you stink. Your with your classmates and you want to fit in but you don’t know how to fit in and you don’t know what to say so you watch the tennis on the tv and you drink your pint and then you finish that and buy another one and you stare at the television and you don’t smile and you don’t speak and you don’t cheer.

Look at the grim reaper, someone says. They laugh. They laugh at you and you don’t flinch or turn or acknowledge it in anyway. You just drink and listen and watch the screen pretending obliviousness but you’re not oblivious at all you’re intensely aware of everything you’re so aware of everything you can feel it you can taste it you can see it like smoke.

The grim reaper because of your thick black greasy hair like a cowl, your unsmiling face like a skull. Looking down at everyone, looming, looming.

The laughter hurts. You’re six foot two and you’re seventeen years old and they’re laughing at you and it hurts, it hurts. It always hurts. You borrow someone’s walkman and put the cd you bought that afternoon in and listen to it all afternoon instead of going to your lessons, the same three tracks over and over again until it’s time to go home and you want to cry but you don’t cry.

You read. You read everything. You’re seventeen years old and you hate yourself and you listen to music while you read. You read Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, and Iain Banks. You read On The Road and Naked Lunch. You read Dracula and Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

You read maths textbooks, science books, Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman and Roger Penrose and whoever else your older brother has books by. You read the dictionary, old encyclopaedias. You read books on chess and go and card games and dice games. You read the backs of video boxes and the sleevenotes of every album you own. You read videogame instruction booklets and the rules in all your boardgames and the operating manual for windows 3.1.

You go to gigs every week, whenever you can, whenever you’re asked, whenever you’re allowed, wherever you can get served. You go to gigs and you love it and you don’t care why you’re invited or who you’re seeing or where you’re going. You just love the music and the noise and the smoke and the drink and the crush of it and the movement and the heat and the shouting and the queueing and the waiting and the posters on the wall all bad photocopies advertising whoever’s coming next.

Even here you don’t fit in. You can tell. You’re too young you’re too boring you’re too much of a conformist you’re not enough of a punk. You’re an impostor. But you love it too much to care. You hide behind the drink and behind the noise. Hide yourself behind it and hide your joy behind it. Hide your joy behind whatever you can, behind your disdain, behind your sneers, behind your hair and your coat and the crowds and the noise.

Hide your joy because it frightens you more than anything has ever frightened you.

You go to see Gene, Laika, Elastica, Kites, Garp, These Animal Men, SMASH, 60 foot dolls, Dogs D’Amour, Dog Eat Dog, The Nubiles, Back To The Planet, Salad, Oasis, The Beastie Boys, covers bands playing hendrix and and cream and the stones, covers bands playing rage against the machine and pearl jam, your friends bands, their friends bands, anyone, anyone.

You love it best when its winter. When its packed and it’s ended and you go outside and you can feel the sweat freezing on your body under your clothes, everyone standing around in clouds of frozen breath and cigarette smoke while you’re all trying to sober up before one of your dads comes to pick you up and take you all home and its finished again for a week, a month, back at home, back at school.

You wish it would be winter forever but nothings forever except for school, except for being seventeen and six foot tall and ashamed of yourself and ashamed of your body and ashamed of your life.

You react to a joke in the common room with a fury you don’t understand, kick a friend out of his chair, scream at him, call him a cunt, come on then, come on then you cunt, and in the silence you can hear the smirks you can hear the giggles the laughter you can see his disgust you can see how much he despises you how much they all despise you. You pick up your bag and march off home and you can hear the laughter still you can hear it all the way home you can hear it all weekend. You’re seventeen and you’re six foot two and you’re a wimp and a coward and you’re an arsehole and they hate you.

You hate you. You turn your fury inward and hate yourself, hate everything you’ve ever said and ever done. Hate yourself without respite. You sleep with your leg jammed between the bed and the radiator in the hope you’ll snap your knee ligaments while you sleep. You try not to look when you cross the road. You slice open your lip when you shave, and your chin, your cheeks. You hesitate with the blade at your neck. You wait until everyone has left the house and smash a glass in the sink in the hope it’ll slice open your hand. You want it to look natural. You want it to go unobserved. You don’t want to have to explain. You don’t want anyone to see.

You burst the blisters on your feet, peel the skin away in long strips until the pain’s to much, until the blood’s too thick, running too fast. You try to summon up the courage to break your own nose, to slice cuts into your own head, across your arms, into your own wrists. You never do.

Your sister finds a story you wrote. A story about committing suicide, a suicide note abstracted away as fiction, as a story, just a story. She reads it in front of you, to herself, in your room, the single most excruciating minutes of your life to date. Are okay? she says. when she’s finished. Are you sad?

You’re not sad. You’re never sad. Of course you’re not sad. It’s just a story you tell her. Just a story. You aren’t sad at all. She leaves you alone and you will never write a story again, never write anything down where it can be found, where people can see it, where people can read it and find it and find out how you feel. You’ll never let people see inside you and see what you are. Never again, not now. Not now.

It’s summer again. You’re six foot two and you’re eighteen and you’re 15 stone and you keep your jumper on no matter what, no matter the heat, no matter how sweaty you are. You’re eighteen and you stink and you think of your body as a tomb from which you cannot escape.

You read a book by Stephen King. These are the best days of your life, it says, these years at school. These are the best friends you’ll ever have, it tells you. You’re eighteen and you’re six foot two and you hate yourself and you can feel yourself falling, falling down forever, falling down into the tomb of yourself and these are the best days of your life. These are the best days of your life.

These are the best days of your life.

1. Initially written in March 2014
2. Then hidden away in shame for another 6 years
3. Until now
4. When I re-wrote it
5. A bit
6. And made it slightly readable
7. But no less shameful.
8. The picture above was taken by my sister, in August 1994
9. So it’s probably cheating really to include it
10. But I do not care


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The Second Moon

Having been unwell for some time, and, matters having come to a head during the spring, I was being kept, for the summer at least, in a cottage in the hills that belonged, in some capacity, to a dimly remembered aunt. This sequestering was as much for the benefit of my health as it was for the protection of my family’s reputation, for my illness was of the kind that was considered to reflect badly not just on myself but my family as a whole, being seen, as it was, a malady of morals as much as one of health.

A stern, muscular woman, whose name I neither knew nor had any inclination to learn, cycled daily to the house from the nearby village that lay, unseen, on the other side of the surrounding hills. She would bring me a basket of food, return my laundry, and take down instructions for anything urgent that I might require, but other than that brief daily interaction each morning, I was left thankfully alone, and my days were spent in a restful, almost dreamlike, solitude.

The cottage itself was unremarkable, but perfectly adequate for my needs, furnished as it was with a comfortable bed, a well provisioned kitchen, and an armchair by the fire in which I could pass the evening reading the works of Milton and Donne by the glow of smouldering coals. A dusty yard, into which I dragged the small table and a chair from the kitchen, overlooked a meadow thick with wildflowers, the slope of which curved downwards to a small silver lake almost entirely concealed by the overlooking hills.

Indeed, when I mentioned the lake to the stern woman one morning as she brought me a basket of eggs, bread and thin slices of cold meat, she was entirely ignorant of it, despite having lived in the neighbouring village the whole of her life. Upon seeing it, she clapped her hands together loudly and declared it a beautiful impossibility, for she had climbed those hills many times with her lovers, and never seen even a hint of this idyllic pool.

When I eventually made my way to the lake, several days later, on an afternoon of such intense heat I could feel the warmth radiating from the baked earth through the thick soles of my shoes, it became apparent why its appearance was such a mystery to the woman from the village.

A horseshoe of yew trees lined the shore to the south, east and west, and although, as I bathed my feet in its cool waters, I could turn and see, back the way I had come, the cottage silhouetted against the dazzling blue of the sky, looking forward I could glimpse nothing of the surrounding hills above (nor through) the dense foliage of the trees.

I circled the entire lake, enjoying the respite from the sun that the shade of those trees provided, and in counting the minutes it took me to return to where I had begun, I estimated the circumference of the lake to be, perhaps, a mile, or maybe slightly more.

The surface, untouched by even the faintest breeze, was as smooth as glass and it reflected the sky as perfectly as a mirror. I spent the rest of that afternoon and much of the evening reclining against a tree and watching the reflected clouds dissipate and reform upon its surface.

I dreamt that night, and indeed, on many nights subsequently, of the lake rising, its silver surface placid and unbroken, the yew trees circling it drowning in its waters, until eventually it formed an inland sea that stretched from hilltop to hilltop, and lapped, ever so gently, over the doorstep of the cottage and around the legs of my bed.

A few days later, oil for the lamps had run low, and while I waited for the woman to bring me more from the village, I was left that night to rely on the light of the moon, which, as luck would have it, rose full and bright in the star-flecked sky at a little after 9 o’clock.

As the moon rose above the hills, I followed, from my chair by the back door of the cottage, its reflection as it traversed the surface of the lake. Yet when this reflection reached the far edge, I watched in quite some surprise as, instead of, shall we say, ‘setting’ at the western shore, it instead reflected, and began traversing the lake in the opposite direction, back towards the east, and the point from where it had risen.

The moon above, of course, did no such thing, continuing on its journey across the heavens undisturbed, and I realised, with a feeling that can only be described as relief, that what I had been watching had not been the reflection of the moon, but instead a submerged light shining up from the depths of the lake and illuminating its surface from below rather than above.

After returning to near the centre of the lake, the brightness of the strange circle of light began to dim, and by the time it had reached the far shore it had fully faded from view, the waters of the lake becoming once more as black as the sky above them.

I stayed in my seat until the early hours of the morning, but this mysterious emanation made no return, and, while no doubt inventing numerous feverish explanations for the strange occurrence, eventually I must have fallen asleep in my chair, for I was woken by the full glare of the midday sun and the harsh sound of the village woman’s voice as she announced her arrival at my door.

Although the woman had displayed no animosity towards me, (nor indeed any hint of friendliness), I was still somewhat circumspect in my dealings with her, for I did not know the extent to which she knew the circumstances of my health or the reasons for my stay.

She was, at least in some capacity, in the employ of my family, even if it was at several layers of remove, and I was still, even after a month of solitude, filled with a wariness that bordered on paranoia when it came to not only my privacy here, but also in the possibility of my day-to-day actions, no matter the benign nature of my current lifestyle, being relayed to the city with a more salacious spin placed upon them.

As such I made no mention of the strange light I had observed beneath the surface of the lake, while also trying, as best I could, to hide the fact that I had slept in the chair in the yard rather than in my bed in the cottage.

And yet, from the brief taciturn conversation I endured with her, as she delivered to me fresh bread and an urn of thick black oil for the lamps, I received no flicker of interest in my activities of the night before, and as such was left to ponder, for the rest of the afternoon, on the necessity of my earlier furtive manner.

I attributed this strange reflectiveness on both the sleep deprivation from which I was evidently suffering, and a lingering headache that did not ease until I took myself to bed in the early evening, whereupon I collapsed into a deep dream-filled sleep.

The dreams were of a kind so vivid and involving that they felt as if they were the lived events of a second life, and by the time I rose the next morning it seemed that, rather than a single night, many months had passed.

Faint remembrances of these dreams lingered on the edges of my perception the next day, and although some of these images were disconcerting in their strangeness, the overwhelming feeling that they engendered was one of contentment, and I went about my morning routine in a mood almost reminiscent of joy.

For so long my melancholy had acted as a restraint upon my senses, but as it lifted I began once again to perceive the world in the fullness of its splendour. Colours seemed brighter, and my sight, as I viewed the hills from my window, clearer, as if a haze had been removed from the air and everything was viewed through a pristine lens.

The sound of distant birds, even the cyclic buzz of insects from the meadow, became sharper, yet, simultaneously, more distinct, and I appreciated each one as a separate marvel rather than an accumulated drone.

I was eating mulberries from the tree at the top of the path, exulting in their succulence, when the woman cycled into view, and as I held up my hand to greet her, I noticed that my fingers were stained a deep red from the juices of those fruits, a blemish I expect was mirrored upon my lips.

The strange emotions present in me caused me to speak with a certain ease and familiarity to the woman that I had not found possible in previous days, my lingering paranoia evidently eased by the previous nights dreams, and soon I found that not only had my senses returned to their fullest extent, but so had my desires, and it was not long before I lay naked beside her in my bed, the relative coolness of the room doing little to douse our passion.

Although I had recovered some of my strength in my time at the cottage, my physique was still quite diminished from its previous vigour, and as I looked down at my body as it lay against hers, I was overcome with a dizzying sense of vertigo, as if her sturdy frame was a great precipice over which I peered down at my own withered flesh as it lay discarded, distantly, at the bottom of some unexplored ravine.

Afterwards, as I fed her mulberries in the shade of the tree, I asked her if she would be missed back at the village while she lingered here with me, and when she shook her head, I spoke unguardedly about my vision of two nights previously, and the second moon that traversed not the sky above but the lake below.

“Sometimes,” she murmured in response to one of my more fanciful speculations, “you have to decide whether to believe your eyes or your heart.”

I considered this a strange, not to mention facile, thing to say, but made no attempt to counter it. Instead I nodded a weak assent, for the afternoon was too pleasant to spoil with unnecessary dispute, and so I gently turned the conversation towards a more agreeable discourse.

Alas, later, as the woman readied herself to leave, I provoked a disagreement, although quite by accident, and which was all the worse for it being such an unthinking act on my part. At least a deliberate provocation can serve some purpose or intent, but this was so unnecessary I gained absolutely nothing from the endeavour.

Overcome as I was with these intertwining emotions of contentment and joy, I said, off handedly as she left, that perhaps, in her next letter to my family, she could mention the improvement in my emotional state as well as my physical wellbeing, and recommend, if only by implication, that my exile here need not linger on into the autumn.

Her face regained a measure of its thin-lipped sternness at this, but I continued blithely, saying, with a nervous laugh, that of course she need not mention the exact circumstances and exertions of this afternoon, and here it was that the misunderstanding occurred.

Even though my paranoia had dissipated, I had, I realised, accepted the assertions conjured by that affliction as fact, and assumed much in the way of her conduct and knowledge that was not attributable to anything other than my own mind. For, as the woman explained, patiently yet bitterly, she was not in contact with my family, and knew nothing of my circumstances, having assumed that the note she had received laying out the duties of her summer employ was authored by my own hand, and the money attached from the same source.

Further, the suggestion that she might speak of our earlier tryst was, of course, quite unreasonable, having the implication about it of some measured threat on my part, for the consequences for her, a married woman resident in a small pious community, of the discovery of such a relationship were far greater than they ever could be for me, a man of evidently self-sufficient means, hailing from a far-off city and an even more distant class.

Having resisted the urge to argue earlier, I now found myself responding to every point, as if, just by the application of my words, I could erase the substance of her accusations and absolve myself of any wrongdoing in this affair. This of course did not prove to be the case, and long after she had left I was still ruminating on the particulars of the argument, and found myself quite unable to regain the calm that had settled upon me throughout the day.

That night, not long after dark, I saw, once again, the second moon. As before, its initial path mirrored that of the true moon, before being reflected from its path by the far shore of the lake, and beginning its return journey across the black, unseen, surface of the lake.

I rose from my chair and hurried down the hillside, but I had gone little more than a third of the way to the lake before the second moon began to fade, and by the time I reached the water’s edge there was no lingering trace of its light at all. I slept fitfully that night, and rose early the next morning in a state of excited agitation.

My hands and lips were still stained red with the consequences of yesterday’s mulberries, and try as I might as I made my morning ablutions, I could not scrub myself clean no matter the vigour with which I scoured my hands with the brush.

In a frenzy of activity, I made plans for an expedition that very day, and spent the morning gathering the necessary tools from the house – a lamp, rope, matches, knives – and loading them up on the table in the yard.

I hoped to tell the woman from the village of my plans, and ask her, as a way of apologising for yesterday’s impoliteness, to join me on the walk, but by noon, she had still not arrived, and I was too impatient to wait any longer. I left her a note containing an effusive apology for my conduct the day before, and then proceeded with my plan.

In the dilapidated barn that stood, obscurely doorless, behind the rusted threshing machine and the ruins of a petrol pump in the far corner of the yard, I had seen, on the one occasion I had explored it, a small rowing boat, and it was to this I made my way.

I dragged it, with great difficulty, from the barn and then, after tying a rope to its bow and loading my equipment inside, somewhat more easily pulled it down the hill towards the lake, leaving behind me a wake of flattened grass and crushed wildflowers.

Although it was not exactly a herculean task, it still took me far longer than I had supposed to reach the lake, and by the time I did my body was so tired from its exertions that I sat down by the side of the boat and dozed.

By the time I woke it was almost dusk, and my arms were still so weak from their earlier effort I was not sure I would be able to row, even on waters as serene as those of that enigmatic pond. My fears were unfounded, however, and as I pushed away from the shore and drifted slowly out towards the centre of the lake, I caught the first glimpse of the moon in the sky above, and not long after, a glimmer of the one below.

As the submerged moon began its secondary journey back across the surface of the lake, untethered now from its gibbous sister above me, I manoeuvred the boat towards its path. Soon our courses met, and that ghostly apparition passed not over the surface of the boat but beneath, proving then that this truly was not an aberrant reflection of the known moon, but a projection of something more startling from the depths of the pool.

I leaned inquisitively over the side of the boat, trying to glimpse the source of this emanation as it passed through the waters below. In my eagerness to see I leant too far, and fell with a sudden splash over the side of the boat and into the cold waters of the lake.

As I fell beneath the surface, I caught a glimpse of some strange white orb, as smooth as a pearl, glowing with its own enticing light, drifting through the swaying vegetation at the bottom of the pond.

I rose to the surface to catch my breath, and then dove down once more and tried to follow the light’s path, but the task was more difficult than I expected, and I quickly lost track of its movements through the dense foliage beneath me.

Returning to the surface again, I tried to calm myself by taking a series of long deep breaths, in the style of a diver, and then, having swam a small way on the surface of the lake so that I was directly above where the light shone brightest, dove down again.

As I swam this third time towards the pale illumination of that second moon, its light seemed to grow brighter yet ever more diffuse as I approached it, and soon the whole lake bed was aglow around me. I saw then that what I had perceived previously to be the leaves and fronds of submerged weeds and vines swaying in the depths, were in fact the up-stretched hands of the drowned.

The corpses lined the lake bed in their dozens, their torsos half buried in the silt, their shirts billowing around them in the currents, their arms reaching up hopelessly towards the sky, their fingers slowly undulating in disconcerting patterns that reminded me, somehow, of the hypnotic movements of cuttlefish.

On seeing that terrible vision, I tried to swim back up towards the boat, but several outstretched hands grabbed at my arms and legs. Fingers hooked themselves through the belt of my trousers and held fast to the cuffs of my shirt, and they held me there and would not let go.

As I struggled, I looked at the faces below as they turned upwards, one by one, and stared impassively at me. Each was a perfect replica of my own face, their waxy visages blank enough I could read any number of contradictory emotions and accusations upon them. Contempt, admiration, resignation, resistance.

In these faces I saw the reflections of my past misdeeds, rebukes for any number of personal failures. I wondered dimly in the hallucinatory light how many times before had this illusory moon drawn me here. How many of these deaths had I deserved.

I struggled, I struggled, and then, as the light I could not reach flickered and faded, in the dark I struggled no more. Above me the moon became obscured by clouds, and was gone.



1. Written in August and September 2019


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They blamed it on the large hadron collider. I’ve never been convinced. They blame everything on the large hadron collider.

The explanation goes something like this. It was switched on. It hummed and whirred and trembled, glowed and burned and radiated, all that shit, and then, as all that tremendous bunched-up coiled fucking energy burst out and collided with itself, in that momentary momentous moment, through some fundamental altering of some fundamental aspects of the fundamental, it split the world into two.

Or untethered it from an adjacent identical world. Or scuffed away the muck between this layer of reality and the next, rendering what once was opaque now ultimately translucent. No one was really sure. But something along those lines anyway.

And like I said, I don’t believe a word of it anyway.

It’s a fucking delusion to think we can know what the fuck it is that happened. It’s insane to think we did this.

I mean, it’s not like I have any better explanation. I’m not claiming I have all the answers. I’m just saying they definitely don’t either. Just cause I don’t know the truth doesn’t mean I have to believe theirs.

And if it was the large hadron collider, it sure took a long time to take effect, for anyone to notice. Like, when was it they turned that infernal machine on, anyway? Ten years ago? Twelve? I don’t know. Fucking ages ago, anyway.

Yet, no one noticed anything until, what, a year ago? Two? I mean, what the hell was happening for the other ten years. Yeah, yeah, I know, it was incremental, too small to notice, a rift so tiny that even if you did notice you just ignored it anyway, all the usual excuses.

That hardly sounds scientific, does it. It barely even sounds rational. Oh, we just ignored it! For ten years! Yeah, right. And they say I’m the one that won’t face reality.

Then suddenly, two years ago, it was noticeable. A persistent little fuzziness round the edges, of everything. Like when you look in the mirror and there’s a ghostly set of teeth offset just slightly behind your real teeth. But not just in the mirror, and not just with your teeth. Our world and the next were parting ways, ever so slightly, like two previously overlapped images slowly being slid apart.

It’s an entirely visual phenomenon, soundless, smell-less, heatless, and at first it seemed pretty trivial. You’re handwriting always looked ever so slightly smudged. People would complain at the cinema that the projector wasn’t focused properly. At Wimbledon, no-one could tell for sure if the ball really was in or out, no matter what the machines claimed with such implacable certainty was true. Eye tests at the opticians were a right fucking futile faff.

But then, things got worse. You’d try to look someone in the eyes, to show the deep sincerity of what you were telling them, but instead you got distracted by the shimmerings of their pupils, the overlapping edges, the glints of light where all should be dark, and I’d end up looking so shifty and evasive as I looked from edge to edge, eye to eye, finally down and away, or up or away, off to the side, anywhere but that mesmerising, terrifying separation of edges and lines and circles at the centre of their irises.

I gave up eye contact pretty quickly, moved instead to looking at people’s mouths as they spoke. But then even that, as the separation of worlds continued inexorably, soon presented problems, ghost mouths, ghost teeth, ghost tongues.

Ghosts all the way down.

People calculated the rate of the separation – sixteen point one eight something something and so on micrometres a year. A millimetre and a half every century, or whatever. I mean, it’s nothing, is it? We could have just ignored it and it’d have been okay. We’d have got used to it. We’d never even have noticed it.

And, christ, we’re all getting old, everyone’s eyesight’s getting worse every year anyway. It’s barely even worth worrying about. It’s fucking stupid.

So, apparently, anyway, this is why it took so long for anyone to notice, and therefore, if you accept their measurements, if you believe their extrapolations, this proves it started then, when they turned that thing on, like they’d always said. This proves, they say, with pinpoint high powered laserlike accuracy, the moment we started drifting apart.

Yeah, yeah, right. I mean, how convenient. How terribly fucking lucky. It’s always easy to make up facts now to fit your theories of what happened then. Well, maybe they should have come up with a theory then that explained all these subsequent facts now.

Maybe if it’s all so bloody certain and incontrovertible they never should have flicked that fucking switch in the first fucking place.

My wife calls me irrational. My wife, ever the scientist. It’s always someone else that’s wrong, isn’t it? Not them, not their calculations, their theories.

It’s always me that’s wrong.

Hannah’s a physicist. She’s spent years working on this. She thinks this makes her an expert. Yet all the physicists everywhere have spent years working on this. It’s all they ever fucking talk about. They can’t all be experts. They can’t all be right.

They can’t even fucking agree.

The most fundamental contention when it came to the split world theory – with all the theories, to an extent, but especially the split world theory – was that, as the universe is, at its base, probabilistic, once the universe is split things should diverge, not slowly, but wildly. Chaotic infinitesimal quantum events should cascade until these atomic micro fluctuations became macro deviations.

An atom here should instead have been an atom there, causing that atom to go there, and so on, all that well-rehearsed chaotic butterfly nonsense from Jurassic Park. It shouldn’t be like this, orderly and neat, everything exactly still in its right place, all just slowly, neatly, sliding apart, atoms and molecules and organisms and structures all obediently locked together, arm in arm, even as we all slide inexorably, predictably, continually apart.

This had always implied an entirely deterministic universe, the end of free will, all that shit. And no-one wants that, wants to admit that we’re just tiny little cogs in a relentless, remorseless machine. Everyone agrees that that would be awful, unimaginable, unacceptable. Hannah agrees.

I don’t.

I want that.

I would kill for that.

But there’s no going back now.

Hannah solved the problem, proved it beyond doubt, won the Nobel prize, everything. Free will’s a fact we’ll all just have to accept now.

I came home from work one day. Hannah was sitting at the kitchen table, facing me. And she was, transparently, sitting at the kitchen table, her back to me. The two Hannah’s – my Hannah, the real, solid, Hannah, and the other Hannah, the transparent Hannah, the ghost, the duplicate from the separated world – were talking to each other – talking to themself.

The conversation was conducted soundlessly, the pair of them signing faster than I could understand, babbling on excitedly, in the snippets I could translate, about the incontrovertible nature of their proof.

This proof that sat, transparently, before me.

They worked through the implications of their forced separation, questioned whether they should publish, and how – singularly? jointly? Was there even any distinction yet? Would there be later?

They spoke about whether they should risk the revelation of their method, of their accomplishment, of how anyone, everyone, when they wanted, could see their own ghost.

And about how, just by having accomplished this, even if they kept it quiet, even if they never published, they had already changed the world – both worlds, ours, theirs – forever. There would be a cascade now. There was no going back. They both agreed on that.

They both agreed on everything, but they especially both agreed on that. Already atomic chaos had been unleashed, divergence that could never now be converged.

There was, like I said, no going back now. The differences would stack, multiply, cascade. Change will become chaos.

They didn’t say that last sentence, I did. The two of them jumped, turned, looked and finally saw me. The one me, still overlapped, still singular. Ghostless. My Hannah’s me, and that Hannah’s me, standing there dumbfounded, locked together, frayed at the edges but intact at the core.

They looked at me, and I looked at them. One, then the other, back and forth, back and forth.

At least, Hannah said, both Hannah’s said to me, although I only heard one, that this proves she was right all along. Free will, split worlds, the large hadron collider, all of it.

I didn’t agree.

I will not agree.

Even now, with the Nobel prize, with all of it, with everyone separated out into two, with the whole world doubled, I still hold out. She’s wrong. They’re wrong. Your wrong. Everyone’s fucking wrong, but me.

It might make me sound like an arsehole. I can live with that. I’ve lived with that all my life. But, accepting that… I can’t. I can’t.

I came home today. It was like the first time again. They were there in the kitchen. Hannah and Hannah. And Hannah and Hannah. They’d separated out a third layer, and a fourth, teased new selfs from beneath each of themselves, one to My Hannah’s left, one to the Ghost Hannah’s right.

Even I could see the implications of that. This is never going to end. Soon now there’s going to be a fifth Hannah, a sixth, a thousandth, a millionth, and so on, forever. A trillion separated lives, all interacting, all wilful and realised and free, fractalising the complexity of every goddamn fucking thing.

There’s going to be so much free will now. So much it’ll never fucking end.

The four of them look at me. Still just me, singular, solid, tethered me. Four layers deep, all held together by my own fucking defiance.

My own fucking fear.

I look at her, and her, and her, and her. They’ve decided to leave me. I can see it in their eyes, see it behind their smiles. And I can’t say I don’t deserve it.

Still, that doesn’t mean I can accept it. I can’t. I just… can’t. I mean, I’d acquiesce if I could, I really would. I love Hannah. I do. I promise I do. But, but, oh god, but…

The thought of it. The thought of seeing myself. That’s what I can’t…. I just can’t. Urgh. Seeing myself. Seeing myself. Seeing myself sat there, across the room, outside of the mirror. Seeing myself like others see me. Hearing myself. Talking to myself, listening to myself. It’s just. Oh god, it.. it…

It’s bad enough in here already, alone in my own brain. The thought of that, duplicated, triplicated, it’s… it’s too much.

It’s too much.



1. Written on August 1st, 2019
2. The illustration is Separation by Edvard Munch
3. but split
4. and duplicated
5. etc


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