Thirty Days Has November

Some people call ’em blog posts. I call ’em brain spews.

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So November is fast approaching, and as if I didn’t have enough to do starting a new job, searching for a house and looking after two small children, I thought I might write a book. In thirty days. For fun.

This is because November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (possibly the clumsiest abbreviation ever). While this will be my first NaNo, I joined a local NaNo group earlier in the year and found a bunch of the friendliest, most welcoming and knowledgeable people you could ever hope to meet.

Want to know about obscure 1960’s country artists? Sure.

Looking for handy and insightful writing tips? No problem.

Updates on short story competitions? You got it.

Beta readers for your as-yet unpublished novel? Take your pick.

But now I get to find out what NaNo is all about for real. There will be a series of events and write-ins throughout the month, not to mention general supportive behaviour and spontaneous pom-pom waving. I will be honest, I don’t think I will get anywhere near the 50k word count which qualifies you as a NaNo ‘winner’, but a month of hardcore writing and meets with some lovely, likeminded people, sounds like a win to me.

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Cleanse/Spike/Flip/Erase

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I did surprisingly well at school, considering how little time I spent there. I went to university, as anyone with half a brain was expected to, but after three years all I had to show for my time was an £80’000 debt and a Desmond in Computer Sciences. That’s a 2:2, by the way. And you think my debt sounds big? Try studying medicine for seven years. That’s why there are no doctors any more. It’s a tax on intelligence.

And that’s how they get you.

Fresh out of university, drowning in debt and with no career prospects, I was wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. Then I got the email.

‘How would you like to pay off your student loan within one year?’

I had a hefty government loan, four maxed-out credit cards and I also owed substantial amounts to at least three different drug-dealers.

So, of course, I replied, “Yes! Where do I sign?”

They act like you have been headhunted, like you’re special, that they have singled you out and they HAVE to have you working for them. But you soon realise you’re not their trophy or their prize. You’re simply another acquisition.

Okay, so I did manage to clear all my debts within my first year. And you can work whatever hours you like, wear whatever clothes you want and there is an unlimited supply of free coffee and jellybeans. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

Ah, but what did I actually do?

Well, the company has four departments: Cleanse, Spike, Flip and Erase.

Still none the wiser?

They provide discreet technical services for people with money. Lots and lots and lots of money.

I worked in Cleanse. This is where everyone starts, cleaning up the digital detritus that people leave behind during their lives. This can range from sanitising a dumb rich kid’s social media profile, to retrieving tit-pics that some silly young actress sent to her ex. If you have ever been caught speeding, been arrested for shoplifting, made a sex tape, got into a fight, vandalised a shop window or been captured in a delicate position outdoors-style, and you want it gone, they can make it happen. In these days of 24 hour digital surveillance and facial recognition software, a Cleaner can pull all your best bits together in one place. A handy memento of your misspent youth, which you can then watch at your leisure, or destroy however you please.

Which brings me to the next department: Spike. Spikers get paid more than Cleaners, but to work in Spike you have to have no morals. None.

Spike does the opposite of Cleanse. They can ruin your life through the medium of zeroes and ones. For a vast sum of non-traceable cash, Spikers can plant any number of incriminating and devastating things within the digital footprint of your enemy; kiddie porn, illegal bank transfers, non-existent affairs, there are a thousand ways that Spikers can royally fuck up someone’s day. I know a few Spikers, and they are all the same. And boy, do they love their job.

But there are rival companies, and it could be a constant battle between us and another Cleaner or Spiker. They plant a picture, I take it away. It’s all about timing. That’s why every department has field officers. Mostly ex-military intelligence or law enforcement, now getting paid private sector wages to be professional snoopers. When is the best time to send a text message from a made-up mistress? When the case’s wife is right next to his phone. When is the best time to deposit millions of pounds of mystery money into a case’s account? When the taxman wants to have a look at her bank records. The field officers can plant physical evidence too, in order to support the digital stories the Spikers weave. Field officers make more money than Cleaners and Spikers put together, due to the amount of risks they take.

So what’s my problem?

I have almost zero risk, I earn amazing money and I can come to work in my pyjamas if I want to. Up until last year I had no problem at all.

That was until I met Jake. We went on a few dates, and when he asked what I did, at first I just told him, “Something boring in computers.” But we started to get more and more serious, until one day the thought of keeping such a mammoth secret seemed not only impossible but incredibly hurtful.

So I told him the truth.

I didn’t take the decision lightly. As you would imagine, the powers that be are not too fond of their employees blabbing about our particular line of business. But I realised I was falling in love, and wanted to be honest from the start. I thought he might be curious, maybe slightly perturbed.

He was horrified, and begged me to quit.

“These are people’s lives you’re messing around with. I can’t be with someone who does that.”

I told him I was only a Cleaner. I tried to improve people’s lives, not ruin them. It was a pathetically thin justification, and I knew it. He gave me an ultimatum. The job or him.

But of course, it’s not that simple. You can’t just leave a job like this. You know too much about them, and they know everything about you. I had never heard of anyone asking to leave the whole time I had been there.

I arranged to have a discreet chat with a friend of mine in Flip. Outside work, of course, in a very noisy bar, sitting behind a column to obscure the view of the cameras. I still wasn’t sure if I could trust her, so I broached the subject carefully.

Flip were responsible for creating identities. A case wanting to start a new life could be furnished with a whole digital life history, completely fabricated by the Flippers. They also provided the paperwork necessary to flip your identity; hard stacks, we call them. A hard stack always consisted of birth certificate, National Insurance card, passport and driving license, but depending on the creativity of the Flipper you could end up with an open water diving license, a lifetime membership to The Groucho Club, a yellow fever vaccination card or a backstage pass to the Sydney Opera House.

After getting her guard down with a few glasses of mid-price shiraz, I asked if she knew of anyone ever getting out. She raised her eyebrows so high I thought they were never coming back.

“Wow,” she whispered into her wine. “You know you shouldn’t be asking things like that.”

“I’m just curious,” I assured her. “You’ve been there longer than me.”

“Well, there was one guy, in Cleanse, like you…”

She proceeded to tell me about an employee who squirrelled away small packets of cash in different secret hiding places, withdrawing different amounts from different cash points each time, so as not to draw any attention. Eventually he had enough money saved to buy his own hard stack, and approached a Flipper from our main rivals.

“Did he get out?” I asked.

“Well, I never saw him again, that’s for sure.”

After that, I let the matter drop. But her tale inspired me, so the next day I took £200 out of a cash point, took it home, and stuffed it in an envelope. Over the next three weeks, I repeatedly withdrew some smaller, some larger amounts, but it all went in the same envelope. I then took the envelope on a short walk to the local park. I knew there were no cameras near a small wooded copse at the far end of the park, so I wrapped the envelope in clingfilm and buried it in the under the gnarly roots of an old tree.

I repeated this cycle ten more times, hiding envelopes crammed full of cash in different, camera-free places across town, all the while having to plead with Jake to give me more time, more time, more time.

Eventually, the day came when I was happy that I had enough stashed away in various nooks and hidey-holes to make my approach.

I had already decided on a freelance Flipper that I had found on the Dark Web, accessed through my neighbour’s Wi-Fi. She always left it open. The Dark Web was not a fun place to hang out; too many hitmen for hire and only one font, but it did the job.

I called work and told them I wouldn’t be in. I needed to retrieve my envelopes before anything could progress. The initial trade had to be made to set the wheels in motion; hard cash for hard stack. From then on everything was strictly button clicking by my Flipper.

I kissed Jake on the top of his head on the way out. I didn’t say goodbye. I knew I would be back soon, and then we had the rest of our lives.

As I pulled the front door shut, my friend from Flip was walking down the garden path towards me.

“Hi,” she called out. “Just wanted to see if you were OK. You called in sick today.”

“Dodgy tummy,” I said as she carried on walking closer. “Probably a virus, I’m heading off to the Doctor’s now.” I hoped the idea of catching something might send her packing. “What about you? Haven’t seen you at work for ages.”

“Yeah. I got a promotion,” she said, as she reached into her handbag. The thick leather looked creamy and expensive.

“Wow, well done. Where are you now?”

The silencer felt cold and heavy as she pressed it to my temple.

“Erase.”

Scream If You Wanna Go Faster

Some people call ’em blog posts. I call ’em brain-spews.

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There are a multitude of reasons not to take life-coaching tips from former Boyzone singer Ronan Keating, not least of which being the time he wore a snakeskin suit. Which, by the way, he is now so embarrassed about he has had all photographic evidence removed from the Interwebs. I know, I looked. I found this instead though. Equally abysmal. The cowboy hat was a nice touch.

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But for me, Ronan is guilty of something far worse than crimes of fashion, imparting as he did, the immortal line;

“Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it.”

If by this he means one of those rollercoasters that you get on, and you don’t have a safety harness, and it stops every 30 seconds for you to decide whether it goes up, down or loop-the-loop, and everyone on the rollercoaster experiences a completely different ride of their own making, and sometimes it goes for ages with nothing happening all, and at the end you die, then yes Ronan, life is exactly like a fucking rollercoaster.

But, there seems to be a massive proportion of people in the world who have taken the gospel of Saint Ronan to heart. They think that life is something that happens to you. On the day you are born, that hydraulic harness pins you down with a hiss, and you are locked in for the ride. The twists and turns are all laid out before you. You are a passenger, powerless to do anything but cling on, and perhaps hold your arms up in the air at certain points to show the world you are a “crazy” risk taker.

But, your life is your own.

It is not a rollercoaster.

If anything, life is more like one of those travelling fairgrounds. Loads of different rides, each offering its own unique style of life or death peril (especially when you see random nuts and bolts rolling around on the floor) and you are constantly being spun round by greasy-haired teenagers wearing vests. There is temptation at every turn (candy floss, donuts hotter than the surface of the sun, rat-burgers, cheap speed), you have to make split decisions (is it worth spending £2 to go on the Ghost Train when you know it’s going to be shit) and if you keep trying to hook those ducks long enough, you could go home with a massive, fluffy toy giraffe.

In my own roundabout way, what I’m trying to say is YOU can make things happen in your life, you don’t have to be a back-seat driver. It’s so much easier to sit there and blame the economy, your parents, the alignment of the stars on the day you were born or the fact that you never got a Mr. Frosty for Christmas, even though you asked for one every year (I’m not bitter though, everyone who actually had one says they were rubbish).

I only started writing seriously this Easter, after years and years of thinking I could never be good enough. I would start writing something and bin it the next day. Then a lovely friend, who is also a hugely talented best-selling author, told me the only way I would find out if I was any good was just to write and write and write until I’d actually finished something.

So that’s what I’m doing.

When I was a little girl, the only thing I ever wanted to be was an author. It’s taken me 30 years to take the first step.

My life is not a rollercoaster. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure book, that I’m writing myself, one page at time.

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Incidentally, whilst researching for this piece I learned that “Life is a Rollercoaster” was written and produced by the frontman of The New Radicals. You know, they did that song. You know the one. That bile-inducingly awful pile of goat-turd “You Get What You Give”, where the middle-aged singer whines about how he is going to go round to those big sell-outs Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love’s mansions and “kick their ass in”. He runs around in the video with a load of teenagers, like a creepy man-child Christian youth group leader. Hey kids, I’m one of you, just another young rebel. Now, why don’t you come over here and let me give you a shoulder rub.

He also wrote songs for Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Enrique Iglesias. How can one man be responsible for so much ear-pollution? There should be a law against it. Perhaps a carbon offset situation for the music industry; if you must pump out MOR chart pap for people with no taste, you should be forced to put a percentage of the money you earn into developing actual talent. Just a thought.

Another extract from “The Golden Virginian”

This extract picks up where the last one left off – Tommy and Alf are going to see Ethel.

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A short cab ride later found Tommy and Alf standing outside a block of flats; a single column of concrete modernity, stretching up into the sky for 14-storeys. It was the tallest building for miles around, and the views from the top floor were stunning. The view when standing at the bottom was not quite so inspiring. A burnt out car sat across three parking spaces, a blackened shell of its former self surrounded by shattered glass. A sagging sofa filled another space. If the police were ever called to the flats, certain residents would throw missiles down at the patrol a car from the balconies, including it was said, fridges, T.V.s and even three piece suites.

Alf and Tommy entered the block by an industrial sized metal door covered in obscene graffiti. The lobby, of course, smelled of piss and there were two discarded shopping trolleys blocking the doors to the lift which, of course, was out of order.

“Which floor we going to Alf?”

Alf took a huge breath. “Thirteen,” he huffed as he started up the stairs.

Of course, thought Tommy. Of course it’s the thirteenth floor. Why would it be anything else? He started the climb.

Half way up, wheezing heavily, Tommy begged Alf for a rest.

“Who are we going to see again?” he puffed, bent over double with his head between his knees.

“I told you; Ethel. You know her already. Know of her, anyway.”

Tommy thought hard. Ethel. Ethel. The only Ethel he could think of was…

“Not that old woman who walks around town with the dodgy wig? Everyone says she’s the oldest prostitute in Gravesend. We’re going to see some old tom?!”

Tommy took a gasping lungful of air and started up the stairs again after Alf.

“She’d better have some food,” he grumbled.

“Oh trust me, son, she will.”

Finally at the thirteenth floor, they walked past grimy doors fitted with multiple locks, metal bars and even a full length wrought iron gate, until they reached a very clean, very smart red door, with no extra security, and a raffia mat in the front with the words “There’s no place like home” printed on it in curly script.

Alf lifted a hand to knock when a thin voice from inside called out, “Hold on, I’m just getting something out of the oven.”

The smell of baking was drifting under the door, tickling Tommy’s nostrils with warm deliciousness. His mouth would have watered if it wasn’t so dry from walking up thirteen flights of stairs. The unmistakable tinkling sound of a fully laden tea trolley came from behind the red door, which opened wide to reveal a very, very old lady with the blackest of black hair piled on top of her head in a beehive almost a foot tall. The wig was perched at a slight angle, giving a leaning tower of Pisa effect to the jet black cone of matted hair. Her face underneath the wonky wig, though wrinkled in every conceivable place – her eyelids, nostrils, earlobes, lips all had wrinkles upon their wrinkles – was still strangely youthful. Her eyes, though covered with early cataracts, were bright and her expression was sunny and open, like a perfect summer’s day, and she instantly made Tommy feel safe. A twitch of confused recognition hit her face when her eyes met Tommy’s, but then she smiled and shook her head, as if to dislodge an idea that was taking root.

“Come on in, then. There’s a fresh brew in the pot. Sorry I’ve not put on much of a spread. I didn’t get much warning you were coming,” she aimed this at Alf.

Tommy looked past Ethel at the trolley. He could see hot crumpets, oozing butter; lemon drizzle cake with sugar crystals sparkling on top; square slabs of bread pudding stuffed with fat raisins; the pastel yellow and pink checkerboard of sliced Battenburg cake; pale scones topped with thick wedges of clotted cream and strawberry jam with whole strawberries in it. His mouth forgot all about the climb, and he started to drool.

Walking into Ethel’s flat was like walking into the cleanest, brightest, nicest smelling charity shop, crammed wall to wall, floor to ceiling with all manner of curious bric-a-brac. Every piece of wall space was covered with framed pictures, ranging from insipid watercolours to jazzy pop-art. Her mantel held no less than fifteen carriage clocks of various shape and size. A large dresser on the farthest wall from the door housed hundreds of tiny crystal animals, a group of sad clown figurines, and a full set of Babycham glasses adorned with the famous leaping fawn. There was no television, nor was there a radio anywhere apparent, but there was a huge gramophone on a wooden stand taking up a whole corner of the room. Tommy squeezed in next to Alf on the two-seater while Ethel took her seat on an upright armchair. All had embroidered antimacassar covers on the head and arm rests, to protect the furniture from Brylcreem and dirty fingers.

“Alfred, you can be mother, and I will have a nice chat with our young friend here.”

While Alf poured the tea into delicate china cups, none of which matched, Ethel turned to Tommy, who was stuffing a slice of lemon drizzle into his face. It was sharp, sweet and supernaturally moist. It was often the case with the munchies that whatever you ate seemed like the best, most delicious thing in the world. Ethel’s cakes were actually the best, most delicious things in the world, stoned or not.

“So, Thomas…”

“It’sh Tommy,” he said, spraying crumbs all over himself.

“Tommy. Do you know who I am?”

He looked sideways at Alf for help. Alf gave him an encouraging nod.

“Don’t be shy, Tommy. Who am I? What’s my name? What do people call me? It’s ok, I’ve got a thick old hide, I can take it. Who am I?”

“Well…I would never say it, but I’ve heard…well…once I heard someone say you might have been a…well…” he reached out for his tea, and took a scalding gulp, bringing on a spluttering coughing fit.

“I’ll make this easier for you, shall I?” said the old lady.

Tommy nodded at Ethel, still coughing.

“My name is Ethel Tilley and I am a whore.” This sent Tommy off into such violent spasms, he thought he might choke on his tea.

“In fact, I am the oldest whore in Gravesend,” Ethel dropped her voice to a stage whisper, “Although, to be honest, business has been a bit slow of late.”

Tommy, still trying to suppress the urge to cough, took a long look at Ethel Tilley. The opalescent eyes, the crepe paper eyelids, the deep creases running vertically down her rouged cheeks, the slightly dusty wig.

“How old are you?”

“Manners, Tommy! You never ask a lady their age.” Alf gave him a swift clip round the ear.

“Put it this way: Samuel Pepys said I was the most handsome wench he ever kissed,” she said with a twinkle deep in her milky eye. “I myself have had better, but you don’t want to know about that. It would make a little boy like you blush.”

The name meant nothing to Tommy, and he stared blankly at Ethel. A dim light began to flicker in his peripheral vision. He tried to ignore it and reached for another slice of cake. His hand completely overshot the plate and knocked over the milk jug. The flickering became stronger, like a Super8 film reel running in the next room.

“I was born in the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and one, in a back room of The Mermaid Tavern to a young whore named Ann Tilley, and on my next birthday I will be 397 years old.”

Tommy barked a laugh. “Yeah, alright Grandma! I think you need to go easy on the cooking sherry.”

“You don’t believe me? Let me show you.”

Ethel reached out and took both of Tommy’s hands within her own. Her skin was so soft it was barely perceptible to the touch. She held her hands over his in a prayer pose, and touched her thumbs together.

The second her thumb pads touched, Tommy was slapped in the face by the sea. Cold salty water sprayed his eyes, making it impossible to see. The soft couch he had been sitting on was gone, and he could feel his feet beneath him. There was no carpet underfoot, just a hard floor, which was rising and falling, making him instantly nauseous.

Ethel pulled her hands away sharply, and Tommy was dropped back in the cosy living room. He reached up to his face, which was bone dry.

“How did you do that?” said Tommy and Ethel simultaneously. They both looked at each other in confusion, then over at Alf.

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t think he’d even heard of Shade until this afternoon.”

“I hadn’t. I didn’t do that!”

Now it was Alf and Ethel’s turn to stare at Tommy.

“I can assure you, my lad, that you most certainly did do it.” Ethel paused, her cloudy eyes searching his face, “But you don’t know how, or why or even what you did, do you?”

“That’s because I didn’t do anything!”

“Tommy,” Alf said gently. “Ethel is nigh on 400 years old, and has been mastering Shade her whole life. She knows what she’s talking about. Now, I don’t know exactly what you did, ‘cos I wasn’t part of the connection, but I felt a surge as you touched hands, and if Ethel says it was you, then it was you.” He looked to Ethel for an explanation.

“I was going to take him back, put him in a projection and show him where I grew up. But he took me, Alf, he took me. And it was the strongest projection I’ve ever been in. I could taste the sea air, feel the spray on my skin. Like we were on a ship. Does that mean anything to you, Tommy?”

“No, no, nothing. Look. I believe Ok? I believe all of it – Alf being The Searcher, Shade, you, everything. But I’m tired and freaked out and had enough, and I just want to go home to bed.” Tommy looked like a bewildered child who has woken up not knowing where they are.

“Alright, Son. Tell you what, I’ll call you a cab. You get home and get some rest. Be at my house tomorrow morning for breakfast, and we can get started properly. You can see what being Searcher is all about.”