the m john harrison blog

Category: mjh free fiction

audio: video: reprint news

The audio recordings of Warwick University’s “Irradiating the Object” conference are available on the web here, including Tim Etchells’ fabulous keynote address and my reading of an as-yet-unpublished story, “The Crisis”. The latter, along with this video from the one-day Robert Aickman celebration last year, gives some idea of the contents of my new short story collection, which I promise to release into the wild soon. Meanwhile, the first of Gollancz’s reprints, Things That Never Happen, is in preparation for July. It will be followed by The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. These reprints will have excellent covers–I’ve seen the art–and perhaps further added value: I’ll let you know about that as soon as things become clearer.

the room

This is one of the short stories I read at Lancaster LitFest. Originally it was called “Cocking A Snook”, & it was commissioned and performed by Barbara Campbell as part of her massive “1001 Nights Cast” project–

I lived the whole of that year in a long house with a single corridor running past every room.

While the corridor had no windows, the rooms looked out on to a harbour lively with heat and warships. Some rooms were dilapidated, with holes in the floors, collapsed ceilings, home to colonies of lizards and palm squirrels. Others were occupied by people like me who had never stayed in one place long enough to learn to look after themselves. Yet others were really good rooms, cool, intact, full of contemporary sound equipment, interesting steamed plywood furniture and themes from Western lifestyle magazines. Tired of my original quarters, I was looking for somewhere quiet and without distractions. I had work that needed to be done: even more, perhaps, it needed to be organised.

It was impossible to calculate how many rooms there were in the long house. This information was known only to the figures of authority who often squatted in a line along one side of the corridor eating fish curry with rice. I soon found an unoccupied room, characterised by a large table full of neglected plants in pots and some veinous diagrams at different heights on the walls. Someone had built a shelter out of flattened cardboard boxes in one corner. The floor was littered with dirty flex, yellow cardboard boxes of nails, bags of chemicals that had burst in the heat, and the plastic toys you buy for hamsters. There was some sense that this was the detritus of not one but several previous attempts to inhabit the room.

I had to pick up that mess before I could start. But this is how puzzling the whole experience became: as I got rid of things, new things would appear. Someone’s laundry, rammed into three or four binbags. Personal objects, such as: a broken Breitling chronometer, a framed photograph of the breakfast room of the Colonial Hotel. Confectionary. I would pack this stuff into other binbags and throw them into the corridor, then go back along the corridor for some things of my own. Each time I returned, there was more stuff. It was always different.

At lunchtime I hadn’t done any work. I hadn’t even taken my iPad out of its slipcase, that’s how bad things were. I ate lunch with an old friend, who was anxious to be certain nothing of hers was among the belongings I had moved out of my original room. She was leaving later that day by air.

“These people,” she said, “don’t want help. They’re cocking a snook at everything we think worthwhile.”

“’Cocking a snook’,” I repeated. “You don’t often hear that.”

“It was what my father used to to say.”

We smiled at one another.

Then she took my wrist in one of her hands in a way she had and said, “I want to be sure you’ll be all right.”

I would be fine I said, I would be all right. But when I got back from lunch I surprised another man in the room. He was a local, younger than me, a bit scruffy, a bit ordinary. He wore cheap, ordinary clothes and even his stubble was worn-looking, as if he worked hard at some ordinary job. He had a radio playing the local music. He was stuffing my things into carrier bags and stacking them in the corridor. He thought the room was his.

“It has always been mine,” he said. “It was always my room from when I came here.”

At first, I felt aggrieved. My work needed to be done. It needed, more than anything else, organising. Yet I was quickly convinced by the sincerity of this man’s belief that it had been his room before I tried to occupy it. It had never been “spare”, or mine to organise. I went round picking up my remaining things, while he sat on the windowsill and watched me with a calm expression. Behind him the warships flickered in the heat haze in the harbour.

“If you had nowhere else to go,” he said, “you could use this room. But you would have to share it with me.”

“No, no,” I said.

I was anxious to explain. I could easily go somewhere else, I was just looking for somewhere quiet to work. I was a writer. I was writing about the big changes that were going to happen here.

“They are bigger changes than you think,” he said.

I left him there, his head turned so that he could look out of the window while the radio filled the air with music, and went back down the long corridor, peeping into all the really good rooms, full of expensive old furniture or looking like the lobbies of comfortable hotels, thinking that I would never have a room like that, and rather dreading going back to the quarters I had come from, which would be unwelcoming, disordered, full of flies.

But when I got there I found that the figures of authority had inspected it while I was away. It was now the gateway to a rolling endless landscape of tall grass, under a lighting effect from a the cover of a commercial fantasy novel. In the foreground, lying on the grass in front of a bench, was something which looked partly like a woman and partly like an oriental cat a kind of ivory white colour, which though it first seemed immobile, was slowly writhing and moving, struggling not to become one thing or the other but to remain both things at the same time. Something else was happening, too, maybe some people grouped in the foreground, I can’t remember. I was struck by the potential of this landscape, rolling away under its alien light. I heard a voice say, “You need never leave here.” A beautiful tranquility came over me, along with a sense of my own possibilities.

After a moment or two, the young man whose room I had tried to occupy came up behind me. He touched my shoulder.

“This room also belongs to me,” he said.

look at the speed of it

I said: “Look at the speed of it.”

At midnight on our last day we stood in the exact centre of the Erzsebet bridge, gazing north. Szentendre and Danube Bend were out there somewhere, locked in a Middle European night stretching all the way to Czechoslovakia. Ice floes like huge lily pads raced towards us in the dark. You could hear them turning and dipping under one another, piling up briefly round the huge piers, jostling across the whole vast breadth of the river as they rushed south. No river is ugly after dark. But the Danube doesn’t care for anyone: without warning the Medieval cold came up off the water and reached on to the bridge for us. It was as if we had seen something move. We stepped back, straight into the traffic which grinds all night across the bridge from Buda into Pest.

“China!”

“Be careful!”

You have to imagine this–

Two naive and happy middle class people embracing on a bridge. Caught between the river and the road, they grin and shiver at one another, unable to distinguish between identity and geography, love and the need to keep warm.

“Look at the speed of it.”

“Oh, China, the Danube!”

From Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring.

empty space: encoded in tears

Empty Space is published on July 19th 2012 by Gollancz. Here’s another chapter, less to whet the appetite than taunt it–

Last practitioner of a vanishing technique, with specialisms in diplomacy, military archeology and project development, R.I. Gaines–known to younger colleagues as Rig–had made his name as a partly affiliated information professional during one of EMC’s many small wars. He believed that while the organisation was fuelled by science, its motor ran in the regime of the imagination. ”Wrapped up in that metaphor,” he often told his team–a consciously mongrelised group of policy interns, ex-entradistas and science academics comfortable along a broad spectrum of disciplines– “you’ll always find politics. Action is political, whether it intends to be or not.”

Some projects require only an electronic presence. Others plead for some more passionate input. Today Gaines was in-country on Panamax IV, where the local rep Alyssia Fignall had uncovered dozens of what at first sight seemed like abandoned cities. Microchemical analysis of selected hotspots, however, had convinced her they were less conurbations than what she loosely termed “spiritual engines”: factories of sacrifice which, a hundred thousand years before the arrival of the boys from Earth, had hummed and roared day and night for a millenium or more, to bring about change–or, more likely, hold it off.

“Close to the Tract,” she said, “you find sites like these on every tenth planet. You can map the trauma front direct on to the astrophysics.”

Read on here.

the walls

A man, let’s call him D, is seen digging his way out through the wall of his cell.

To help in this project D has only the flimsiest and least reliable tools: two dessert spoons (one stainless steel, one EPNS); half of a pair of curved nail scissors; some domestic knives lacking handles; and so on. The cell wall, constructed from grey, squarish cinder blocks about a foot on a side, has been carelessly mortared and laid without much attention to detail. But this lack of artifice makes no difference; none of the knives is long enough to reach the last half inch of mortar at the back of each block, and the more D uses them the shorter they get. Each block must, eventually, be loosened and removed by hand, a task which can take several months, and which leaves him exhausted.

His hands become deformed and swollen. After a decade of digging, he breaks through, to find not the outside but a compartment about three feet in depth, full of dust, mouse-droppings and bundles of old newspapers tied with string. Collapsed against its outer wall he discovers the desiccated corpse of another man, surrounded by worn-down meat skewers, bent knife blades, and an artful device made by splitting and opening-out an old metal cup. This man is huddled up with his shoulder and one cheek against the wall as if in his last moments he was trying to push it over; or as if he had pressed his face up against it to try and look out through some tiny crack, the result of a lifetime’s effort. His skin, which has a patient look, is as yellowed as the newspapers.

Taking the corpse under the armpits, D drags it respectfully to one side, selects the best of the tools, and begins scraping where the dead man left off.

Years pass. He is generally full of energy; but, sometimes, when he wakes too tired or depressed to work, he’ll spend half a day reading. In strong sunlight, newsprint can go yellow and brittle-looking in an hour, giving you the eerie feeling that the news is already old. The events recorded—some tennis matches, a bombing, a fake suicide—seem historical and quaint; the people oddly dressed, their figures of speech as hard to sympathise with as their values. After a few hours, D thinks, all newsprint and thus in a sense all news, looks the same. It looks like the paper with which someone lined a drawer thirty years ago. By the same token, the news of previous generations, the kind of news he is now forced to read, looks about six hours old.

A decade of intense effort and focus enables D to break through the second wall. Disappointed to discover another musty compartment, another corpse with a puzzled expression and a selection of home-made tools, he sets about the third wall—only to reveal a third compartment; then, after a further decade, another, and another: until he has made his way through six walls, past the six dead men who can be said, in some way, to have preceded him. Like D, all these men wear the grey civilian cotton jacket in which they were arrested, over combat trousers with a beautiful if rather faded dazzle pattern of blues and browns. Their hands are as bruised and dirty, their nails as broken, as D’s. Their hair and clothes are equally impregnated with dust. But he is glad to see that each one has made some individual addition to the basic toolset—a cut-down trowel from the prison garden, a snapped hacksaw blade, a short length of soft thick metal which he suspects began life as a fire-iron in the prison governor’s quarters—and though they are dead, some of them have quite satisfied expressions.

They died, he thinks, doing what they wanted to do.

Before he breaks through the seventh wall, D decides to see how his escape is progressing, so he makes his way back, through compartment after compartment, to the cell from which he started. Accustomed to living in the spaces between the walls, he has forgotten how relatively large and comfortable it was, with its white paint, metal bed, keyhole toilet and barred window (through which he can hear, still rumbling on, the tail end of the afternoon storm). There’s even a small shelf of books!

D stops to touch the spine of Dino Buzzati’s masterpiece The Tartar Steppe. He takes it down and riffles the pages, looking for the marked lines he knows by heart— “The fact is that now, towards the end of his days, Filimore has suddenly seen Fortune approach in silver armour and with a bloodstained sword; he hardly ever thought of her any more, yet now he saw her approach in this strange guise and her face was friendly. And Filimore—this is the truth—did not dare go to meet her; he had been deceived too often and now he had had enough.” Then he opens the cell door and steps out into the dazzling light and humid atmosphere of the prison compound. The rain has already evaporated from the bare, reddish earth. High above, a brahminy kite patrols the air, all its attention focussed on something D can’t see.

It takes only a moment to walk round the cell block to the place where he expects to break through. Though he taps the wall here and there, and bends down once to touch the mortar, he finds no sign of his own efforts; yet he still feels optimistic. Before he goes back in, he looks over at the wall of the compound itself. It’s six or seven metres high, and featureless but for some black stains. Once he’s got out of the cell block, he thinks, he will have to start on that. It will be a new challenge. D’s quite excited about the prospect, so he goes back inside and starts digging again with renewed enthusiasm.

The Walls is copyright M John Harrison 2007, & first appeared under the title “Still Rumbling” as one of the stories told by Barbara Campbell at 1001 Nights cast.

not a hint of irony

One evening a week I have supper in their garden with my friend B and his family, who live on the hill above the port. The history of that quarter is of a fall from grace. It begins with some medieval prince covering the hill with flowers and ends with a fashionable suburb where the prices now reach European levels. Everyone who’s anyone lives there, diplomat or businessman, or in the case of B “cultural ambassador”. The flowers have long gone. The cheaper streets at the base of the hill, drenched in a rich sunset light, are lined with wrecked cars.

“Not that we mind,” B’s wife told me, without a hint of irony, the first time I arrived for supper, “because they’re really rather lively and attractive, almost art. All the different colours! And people use them as storage, their houses are so small.”

The end wall of B’s garden is rough-plastered a shade of terra cotta. On to the plaster a previous owner has painted a trompe l’oeil gateway a little less than life size, opening on to a trodden-earth path through a wooded landscape. The path leads away along its flat sine curve into distant hills planted with olives. Secondary growth is applied as a mist of green, while the trunks of a hundred trees, very slim and straight, stand away from the path like spectators.

On that side of things, it’s morning perhaps. At this distance it’s really quite hard to tell. You’re too aware of the brushstrokes, the stipple. The effect is best gained not from the garden itself but from B’s kitchen, sixty feet away. From there the faded quality of the paint blurs everything together, turning the garden into an extension of that mysteriously inviting path, a merging effect heightened by the ivies which spill thick and glossy over the wicker fences on either side. Plantings of arum lily, fuchsia and false orange lead your eye to the small acacia tree artfully overhanging the gate itself.

For a moment, especially in twilight, it can have a brief magic.

This evening, as we sit out in the garden waiting for his other guests, I tell B:

“The door in the wall was an icon beloved by late-Victorian and Edwardian alike. The symbol of another life, of lost opportunity, or of opportunities not fully taken. If you pass through the door, the story goes, you cannot be anything less than changed. If you don’t pass through it, you still cannot be anything less than changed.

“Choice, here, offers a fifth major compass point, an unnamed direction or plane. It’s the plane of nostalgia, and of nostalgia’s inverse, a kind of weightless but abiding regret.”

“Bloody hell,” B says. “I bet you can’t repeat that.”

“Don’t tease each other you two,” his wife tells us. “The children are bad enough.”

Her three older girls are in bed, but she is having a problem with the youngest. “Ella, if you can stop crying now,” she says patiently, “Ella, if you can really get control and stop crying, I’ll give you a big bottle of milk. But if you don’t I’ll only give you half a bottle. All right, Ella?”

“If I were Ella,” B whispers, “I’d be pretending to get control now and take revenge later.”

“Bide her time then get revenge on all adults,” I agree.

“Don’t be so bloody horrible,” warns Ella’s mother.

All afternoon the children have worked hard to personalise the gate, surrounding it with art of their own, bold, determined representations of people and stars in unmodified poster reds and yellows, done directly on to opened-out cardboard boxes left over from their recent move from Europe. They have propped their pictures up around the door in the wall like mirror portals, entrances to quite different kinds of imaginary worlds—lively, jarring and expressionistic. Ella’s efforts are particularly determined. Later I will write, “These worlds of hers are not alternatives to anything. Instead they are real, explosive acts of creation.”

The air is warm and soft. The other guests arrive. We talk, we laugh. We eat beautifully cooked fish and tabouli.

Trompe l’oeil is a con, and not much of one really. Everyone who sits in B’s garden that evening is grown up enough to relish this. They would never call the view on the other side of the door a “world” or insist that, to function as art or even as a mild joke, it successfully suspend their disbelief. After the youngest child has gone at last to bed, the adults smile and stretch and help clear away the supper things. They go to the end of the garden and gently collect up the children’s art to protect it from the dew. “Aren’t these wonderful? Aren’t they so energetic?”

Then they yawn and smile, and say goodnight to one another, and one by one pass through the gate, under the unpainted transom with its moulded flowers.

For a moment I watch them run away into the trees, calling and laughing softly. I leave them to it. In the harbour the tide is down, there’s dark algae on the surface of the mud. A swan sleeps amid the yellowing fibreglass litter between the moored boats. I look back at the hill and, parked round its base, all the wrecked cars. Before each one ends its working life, it has already become so patched and repaired that every panel is a different colour. Pea green. Talbot blue. Maroon. Rich yellow of city sunlight. Their wheels are gone. Their seats are long gone. They are held together with bits of string or leather belts, and full of obsolete TVs, hat boxes, bales of clothes, bags of cement!

I’ve lived with a lot less intensity since I arrived here. You might say that was age, but I would have to call it self-preservation. If I felt things as much as I used to—if I allowed things to take their proper space inside me—I’d be in trouble.

Not A Hint of Irony is copyright M John Harrison 2007, & first appeared as one of the hundreds of stories told by Barbara Campbell at 1001 Nights cast.

the good detective

Primrose Hill, that hour when things get hold of you, five o’ clock on a dull Saturday afternoon. Single fathers are leading their little girls up and down the wet pathways and you can see the Regents Park birdhouse draped like fruit netting across the nearer trees. A systems manager walks away from his first wife. All she was doing was making a phonecall, answering a text. She looks up and he’s gone. He’s taken the children with him.

Where is she supposed to start looking for him ? The world’s full of harassed men his age, with two daughters and a suitcase. The trains and buses are full of them.

Eventually someone puts her on to me. She’s upset. It’s new to her, but frankly I’m used to it. People do this all the time. They’re trying to get away from themselves. They’re trying to reinvent, and why not ? London’s kind to the confident. Otherwise, what is there ? Get on the tube in the morning and people stare straight into your face from less than one foot distance. That’s no way to live. So they go missing, and I find them. I find kiddies and criminals, and people who would do crimes if they knew how. I find the people who paint themselves on to your walls, play their favourite music over and over again then leave you nothing but a picture in the night.

I never look for the ordinary ones. They’re too easy to find. They’ve cashed in on the housing differential, abandoned Islington. They’re off to the Cotswolds: no mortgage, walk the children to school, grow your own vegetables. They’ve disqualified themselves.

Listen to this, though–

A man lives in Putney, Barnes, East Sheen, one of those places along the river. He’s an actor, an investment banker, a publisher’s editor–it doesn’t matter. Or he sells something, say mobile phones. Say he sells mobile phones. One day he gets tired of that. He decides to write a travel book about the area he lives in. This area is two miles on a side, roughly square, no hard boundaries. That is, it’s bounded on its north and west by the curve of the Thames: but he can cross that if he wants, and enjoy the other bank–willows, a couple of muddy playing fields and an old bandstand. A little road with allotments on one side which in the spring looks like a lane in the country. Over there it doesn’t look like London at all.

This man buys several notebooks of the brand the famous Bruce Chatwin used to use for his writing. He buys some gel pens of different colours. He buys a Nikon 775 digital camera. Then he sets off into the streets which surround his house, intending to record everything he sees.

Winter. Late afternoon. Christmas is close. It’s on his heels. The streets are dark and at the same time comfortable, narrowed by cars and a sense of warmth, a sense of drawing-together which seems to come from the houses on either side. The women have fetched their kids from playschool and finished parking their SUVs. In one street of little workingmen’s cottages they close the curtains; in the next there are gleams of light from every window. Every street has its own culture. Here it’s more BMWs than Audis; there, they’ll keep a pedigree dog but a pedigree cat is extravagant. Wood floors, a child sitting on a sofa with its knees up, watching something you can’t see. She stares out, startled by the flash of the Nikon. The traveller smiles, waves, moves on. Is that the river at the end of the street ? Is that a Toyota ? He’s already lost.

To begin with, he brings all this back. From the Nikon he downloads smoky still images of Barnes bridge, taken a few hundred yards downriver on an afternoon that makes it look like industrial archeology in Manchester or Bremen. His notes say: “Every rivet stands out.”

*

When I claim some people are too easy to find, what do I mean ?

Poll tax gave rise to a generation which lived in other people’s houses. They formed strong personal ties yet remained evasive, incurious about one another. As a result, never fully sited, they suffered mild depressions and moved on. I”m not looking for them.

A train ride with someone you met yesterday. The smell of diesel fuel in carriage air. You look sideways at her face, you’re not even sure you like her. The plain fact is she looks more grown up than you. Her house is cold and needs work. She has a kid. She says things like, “I’ve always got by on my wits.” That’s exciting but eventually you interpret it as a judgement. Later you see that’s how she lives her life, as a judgement, as an ideological act. It’s too forceful. It’s too blunt. Worse, it doesn’t work. She’s just as compromised and vulnerable as you. Later still the pathos of that hits you, but by then she’s long gone and you are too.

I’m not looking for her.

Afternoon, Old Compton Street. Rain makes it like an older version of itself. I’m doing the bars with a photograph. “Can I just show you this ? This is a sixteen year old boy who’s gone missing. You haven’t seen him round here have you ? No ? Can I just leave this with you ?” Meanwhile in some other street–Ghost Town, Croydon, UK–the boy’s parents have consulted a clairvoyant. She has a vision of him washed up in the waiting room at St Thomas’ Hospital, Waterloo. Easy enough to check. I find he called there using a false name, but “became frightened” and left without treatment. Treatment for what ? They can’t say. That’s a bit more interesting to me, especially the clairvoyant, but it’s still not quite what I mean.

Facts are the easiest things to come by. From age fourteen upwards, girls run away more often than boys. Yet twice as many adult men go missing as adult women. Men aged twenty four to thirty are likelier to disappear than any other group. More people go missing from the South East than any other region in the UK. What did they leave ? Well, they left home. Why did they go ? They can’t tell you. People run away. They relocate, they go missing, as we’ve said. That’s a geographical statement as much as a social one. It’s what makes them easy to find.

The challenge is in the ones who go missing in their own lives. There’s less to know about those people. They live inside us. They have very simple ideas. We rarely hear their voices before it’s too late.

*

What does he want, this man from Barnes, whatever his name is ? His intention is still unclear. Is he a traveller or only a tourist ? Worse, is he a psychogeographer ? To start with, he brings it all back. He comes home, seven every evening, just as if he’s been to work. He’s diligent. He keys his notes into the Sony; he downloads his pictures. It’s an act of capture. For now, at least, his is the narrative of a man who begins to write a book about the immediate area he lives in–a radius of a few ordinary London streets–with every oriel window and garden ornament, every spalled brick wall, described as a feature. Then one day, from a narrow corner in “Little Chelsea”, East Sheen, he hears the following dialogue:

“Now she’s begun to claim it’s boring here.”

“Well of course, it is.”

He stands up close, but he can’t see in. He imagines a room smelling of death, with two old people talking their dreary talk beneath the crosses, pietas, and old photographs on the walls.

“What’s her name ?”

“I only know her as Myra.”

A long pause, and then:

“We wanted that war. All of us wanted that war. World War Three was the great imaginative act of its day.”

“Children are better in pairs.”

After that there’s only a sound like someone doing the washing up. A cough. Later, at home, he realises he hasn’t written any of it down. The next morning he takes the Nikon but forgets the notebook. Soon he’s leaving them both behind. He feels relieved. A little guilty. He feels naked. Two years later his wife finds out he doesn’t work in communications any more. That’s when she calls me.

*

I listen to the family’s ideas. It helps them. I appear receptive but that’s a pretence. All I need is the facts. Who’s missing. When it happened, or when the relatives first noticed it had happened. I don’t want their theories. They come to my office and sit uncomfortably looking at the desk and the dusty filing cabinet and wishing they had gone somewhere else.

Whatever I say they always ask themselves:

“Why did he do this ?”

I could tell them. From age forty he had the feeling of being spread very thin on the world, like a specialised coating. If people weren’t careful with him, he felt, if he wasn’t careful with himself, he’d crack or peel or flake away. Then one day he was trying to understand the instructions for some household appliance, and where it said, “How to set up the timer,” he read instead: “How to let things slip.” In the end, even the correct reading began to seem odd to him.

“Timer ?” he thought.

That would have been the way it was.

For the sake of the family I ask all the usual questions. Did he seem to be getting thinner ? Did he have–some evenings and in dim light–a kind of transparency, an abraded look which you could detect one minute but not the next ? For the sake of the family I look through the stuff he left behind: it’s a collection of professional qualifications, Barbour jackets and Australian stable boots. It’s a shelf of music CDs, English light classical. I find his laptop. I find the travel notes and picture files, stored under Personal, and it’s all much as you’d expect–that naive, eviscerating attempt they always make to express their inner life as a record of the outer. I find the garage he sold the Audi to: it was a TT, very nice condition. I get positive responses at the White Hart, the Bull, and the Sun–he was seen in all three, last Boat Race day. But what did those locations mean to him ?

Nothing, compared to the wall he puts his back against now, as, quaking with Thames fever, he rests after the long slog up through the woods from the railway, past Marc Bolan’s memorial and on to the Roehampton Gate. He’s emaciated, stripped down. He’s so far ahead of me! What began as observation became an adventure then a trajectory of relapse, a going-native. The long slow slide into the heartland of his imagination.

Eventually I’m on some windy hill, Richmond Park, early morning. I know he was here before me, quivering like an animal that’s got the scent of distance in its nose, turning his head slowly so he can discover everything with those new eyes of his. But that was two years ago, and even if he was here yesterday I won’t catch him. He’s got his second or third wind by now. He’s used to it. In his mind he’s pushing an old bicycle loaded with his things, first towards Wimbledon then down the long heartbreaking sweep of the A3 to the sea. It’s his space now.

I call the wife.

I say, “He’s in your house but he’s not here anymore.”

I say: “You knew that already.”

I advise her: “If you find the husk, leave it where it is. They’re often in the garden somewhere; or the attic.”

Some of them you track down. Others you don’t, and often that’s the best thing. Because what are you going to do ? Corner them in the loading bay behind a supermarket in Dalston ? Chase them down a muddy path in Stoke Newington cemetery, calling out in a language they can’t remember ? Back them up against themselves until there’s nowhere left to run and whatever dissatisfaction drove them inwards, whatever fire they’re full of, bursts out of the neck and sleeves of their crap old raincoat and they go up in front of you like a bundle of dry sticks ? I’ve seen that happen, believe me it’s not worth it.

*

Another afternoon, another bar. I’m always on the lookout for the boy who called in at St Thomas’ Hospital then, unable to control his anxieties, left before he could be treated.

“You can’t keep them away,” the barman says. “They’re so bloody anxious to start their lives.” He treats the photo to his oblique, dismissing glance. “They think of this as life,” it makes him say. He laughs. “You should be here in the evenings.” Whatever he’s seeing is so ordinary it’s beyond his power to describe. “Life!” he repeats.

“You run the place,” I remind him.

“Too true,” he admits, turning back to the spirit optic.

A missing person inside your own life.

OK, I’m not sure what I mean by that. But the good detective shares some of those qualities of absence. Qualities of self-disenfranchisement, for instance. He’s a torn place in the web which would otherwise detain him–home, family, profession, culture. I went missing from my own life years ago, but you don’t need me to tell you that.

And what if, in the end, I’m wrong ? What if Missing of Barnes only ran away, the way the majority of them do ?

Well then I’ll know.

One day I’ll stand in an upper room in Harringay, looking out. The rain will be falling almost invisibly on the shiny black branches of the trees, dripping off again in big soft quick drops. At the bottom of the garden next door I’ll see a man working in a shed. It’ll be him.

I see him like this. He’s wearing a blue plaid shirt and safety glasses. His dog sniffs round his feet. Every so often he stops what he’s doing and comes to the door of the shed and looks out into his garden, or across it towards his house. The dog stands by his leg, its head just touching his knee. It’s an old dog with a grey muzzle. After a moment they go back into the shed. He moves the wood from one place to another inside. He puts it up on the workbench. He takes it off again. Everything happens very quietly and comfortingly under the yellow light above the bench, and the afternoon slowly gets dark around him. A growing pile of offcuts appears by the shed door and, absorbing the rain, turns from white to sandy brown.

The Good Detective is copyright M John Harrison 2004, & was originally published in Interzone. More fiction here.

keep smiling with great minutes

Volsie came out of me in a room at the Les Halles Citadines, from somewhere near the top of my left leg.

It was hot and soft, a lot of discrete masses like grapes, or the inflationary universes of the new cosmology. I got hold of it in my hands and struggled with it and pushed most of it back in. I had just that moment arrived–it was my first time in Paris–so I let the rest sink into the carpet and went straight out. I didn’t think much of it. That was my mistake.

Pere Lachaise cemetery, the Metro gate: a lunatic, bearded and dreadlocked, spun round and round at the top of the steps, raising his arms to bless us as we entered, while he recited an endless list of the fallen. “All those who failed to find the ashes of Max Ernst,” I heard him say, “in the columbarium in the year 2006. All those who failed to kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde. All those who wandered about looking for Colette but found only Jim Morrison. All those who went to the wrong place.” It was hardcore rant, rich with the sheer physical sweat of a world being held together for the benefit of the tourists, with their unknowing souls and dormant sense of the relations between the spiritual and the spatial. “All those,” he concluded, as if only now testing the pivot of his argument, “who gave up, but later found a monument to the death commando at Buna Monowitz work camp, and couldn’t for once think of anything cheap to say (being instead silent).

“This song,” he told me, “is respectfully dedicated to all those who refused to sign the truce because it was written in the wrong colour ink.” Too late I understood that he was Volsie too, and so we wandered together in and out of the little unkempt tollbooths and wrought iron urinals of the many dead, up and down between the cobbled levels, dirt paths and exposed tree roots in the sunshine.

“What are you on ?” I said.

“You’ll find out,” Volsie said. “See that man there ?”

I said I saw him.

“Stepped on a grave this morning. Dead within the year.”

He looked ordinary enough to me. He looked like an American.

“Which grave was it ?” I said. “Out of interest.”

“Someone called Darjou, 1757 to 1843. But see the expression on his face ? Dead before August.”

I was puzzled by that: by what it meant for me. I went back to my Citadines apartment with its chic, nervous little kitchen and the special bed from under which a second bed slides suddenly and bangs your ankle. I listened all evening to the quiet yelps of laughter from down in the central courtyard.

You ask how it is that Volsie manifests as an episode of psychic piles one moment, a madman in a famous cemetery the next. You ask what its voice sounds like. Volsie will come out of you soon. It might be in the form of the oyster, it might be in the form of the pearl; it might come out of your mouth in the form of the Teratoma of Entitlement, a ball of dry Victorian-looking gristle, horsehair and compacted papiermache complete with a single eye from a species on the extinction list. You won’t ask questions after that. Answers will be the last thing you want. If you didn’t have bad teeth before, you will now. That cough will soon appear to be the worst thing that ever happened to you; the glaze of the eye–the passive eye of a dead seal, the button eye from a French teddy bear bought years ago by some old friend of the family–will encode all the information you need.

Next morning proceeded with fine rain. Paris rain, not enough to stop anyone going out but enough to soak them piss wet through in half an hour. I walked around. I began by crossing the river a few times, going the same way each time, over by the Pont des Arts and back across the Ile de la Cite, looking down at the tents of the homeless pitched along the bank. I took to the Seine on a sightseeing boat and watched the rain run down the curved viewing glass. I saw Concorde Square, I saw the Alexander III bridge, “the most luxurious bridge in Paris”; I saw the Eiffel Tower lurch abruptly out of its own fog. Arches of blue and yellow plastic flowers ran the whole length of the boat inside; also lines of fake lamp posts with dim lights behind bright orange glass. Right down the middle of the boat. What do you say about something like that ? I didn’t get it. I debarked cold, and had to have a calvados in a cafe near the Musee D’Orsay.

Volsie came out of me while I was there.

This time it came out from a bit higher, somewhere around the upper bowel, and slithered into my lap.

“I know how you feel,” it said. “You feel like an outsider, as if you ought to be living in a tent near the Pont-neuf.” I felt soaked. I felt odd to be sitting with all those purple grapelike universes inflated over my thighs as warm as a pet dog. “Not one of your contemporary lifestyle-choice outsiders either,” Volsie said. “Just some old bloke who can’t fit in.” There are those who believe Volsie is synonymous with death. Others associate him with any journey by train. He was with me in Paris and he was with me on the return journey, where he gurned up and down the aisles of the Eurostar in the guise of a food steward.

“All those,” he said, “who ate Ghent ham and Westland salad, all those who ate macaroon au chocolat noir. You never look me in the eye, but I piss in your mouth while you sleep and you taste it when you wake. Oh, don’t thank me, it’s what I do.” He pushed his face into the face of the woman sitting next to me across the aisle. She was reading the Sunday Times. “Watch this,” he said to me over his shoulder, before passing his face right through the paper and into hers: “They fall alseep like children, clutching their mobile phones.” The Sunday Times, he said, was a red top for people who thought they were special. He said, as if it was connected, “All that counts is the individual moment of suffering.” He said that everything else was ideology, hypocrisy, lies, claim and counter-claim, bullying and self-serving and pretending to be the victim: everything else was the financial news. “The only time people are human any more,” he said, “is in the moment of having their humanity taken away from them by other human beings. Being killed revalues your life, it’s a way of choosing dignity. Another thing,” he said, “I never saw a nuclear explosion I didn’t enjoy. You think that’s all over ? Think again.”

He showed me his own phone, black, rubber-coated, the size of a fox. By then we were in Waterloo.

“This is my stop,” I said.

Volsie walked me as far as the Dali statue. Then he got smaller and smaller across the polished concourse floor and went spinning into the crowd, like a dropped coin of small denomination no one bothers to pick up any more, off towards the Embankment. He was going to the Tate Modern. After that he was off to Clapham to undermine a reading group. I thought I’d got rid of him but I hadn’t. The next time I saw him it was three weeks later, in the Pret A Manger on Cranbourne Street W1. He was a thin man about sixty years old with cheeks hollowed by a fanaticism like the desert wind etc etc, and he was eating the All Day Breakfast with Free Range Mayo. He watched the women going to and fro along the pavement outside, up and down the kerbs, waiting at the junctions. It was Thursday lunchtime. After a while he put the All Day Breakfast down with an impatient sigh.

“You think you see the real world,” he said to me.

“Pardon ?”

“You heard. You think you see the real world. But you don’t.”

I had a bite of my sandwich. He watched me with satisfaction, as if he was eating it himself. “Good,” he said. “Good!”

“There’s a world, then ?” I said. “Somewhere round here ?”

“A world, but not the real one. The real one would—” He shrugged. “I don’t say what the real one would do to you,” he concluded.

“How could I see the real one ?”

He shrugged. “It’s easier than you’d think,” he said. His watery blue eyes measured me. “In your case,” he said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Some are strong enough. Some aren’t.”

“I’m going to a get a pecan slice,” I said.

“Get me one, too,” Volsie said.

When I came back with the pecan slices he was looking out of the window again. I didn’t want to disturb him so I drank my mocha and unwrapped my pecan slice, which I ate in silence. After a while, he smiled to himself.

“Ask me another question,” he said, still looking out of the window.

*

I woke up this morning from the same old dream.

New Year’s Eve, I’m at someone’s house. It’s in Warwickshire. Snow falls on and off all evening. Every so often someone opens the curtains and reports, “It’s wet. It won’t settle.” Then at half past twelve, adults and children alike, everyone puts on their coat and boots and they run out into the village street. One three year old, rather bemused, wears her little Boden parka over her pyjamas. In the orange lamplight every snowflake rushes down to meet its own shadow. The sky shakes with fireworks from some other party, red, greeny-silver and a strange heavy blue, a blue too dark to be seen yet visible anyway just for this one night. Two inches of snow are on the ground. The parents can’t believe it; the children easily can. Christmas at last! They dance in the hallowed empty street. They throw snow at one another. I watch from the window with a woman I have just been introduced to, like me she’s up from London to see friends. We kneel on the leather sofa with our champagne glasses, looking out, saying things like, “This is amazing!” and, “Isn’t this amazing ?” We don’t know each other. We don’t even like each other much. But we can’t stop smiling and saying, “This never happens!” and, “I mean you couldn’t wish for more.”

You can’t wish for more than snow falling after midnight in the lamplight at the start of a new year, to structure the children’s expectations, remain as a memory, magic their lives forever. After that everyone goes safely home wrapped up in a suit of initials, SUV, BMW.

At the end of any dream Volsie comes out of you whether you welcome it or not. It flops down your leg or swells up under your arm. You find yourself at the foot of the stairs still half asleep. Volsie is half outside you, you are still all the way inside it. It is a condition. It is a space or state. You don’t have any further queries when you understand that. What a sight you’ve become. You look even worse without clothes than with them, some old desert man or woman with long hair and half focussed eyes, emaciated or running to fat, with spectacles or without, still reeling about under the impact of having once been born. It’s never any less than that. Some of us are just shocked and appalled to find ourselves alive. It keeps echoing on. For me that’s the meaning of it, anyway; for you, perhaps, it’ll be something else. There are those who equate Volsie with the conceptual motor of the empty heart, those who know him as lovely food and drink. They are not right but they are not wrong either.

Every time I travel into central London by tube, Volsie comes out and looks at the debt-servicing ads. He looks at the ad which tells you everything is possible. He looks at the ad that reassures you, Fly Business and be as cossetted, as protected, as the handsome, lone, powerful-looking wild animals in a conservation park, as if you are under threat when it is you that threatens everything else. “The strangest thing,” he says in a kind of gentle wonder, “is to live in a time like this, both bland and rotten.”

He says, “’Keep smiling with great minutes’.”

Keep Smiling with Great Minutes is copyright M John Harrison 2008, & was originally published in Celebration, edited by Ian Whates.