Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Tag: short story (page 1 of 2)

Why I Write:Writing Out Loud #3

If money is the measure of success, as a short story writer and poet, I have little chance.

So why do I turn up? Why do I fill notebooks with words? Then copy and rewrite it in Evernote. And then again into Scrivener?

I now know I’m borrowing a talent as it were, but that doesn’t explain my motivation to write. Especially when the story or poem is demanding to be written.

Why do I do this?

Much like a poet who expresses those thoughts best unsaid, the author, Natasha Lester answered for me in her blog Success as a Writer: What Does it Mean? Understanding.

And she speaks for me. I was joyfully surprised by the feedback I received for the Great Blow. I wrote a poem called The Unravelled Heart , then attended a meetup. Two people had read it and they understood.

But the first time I really found out why I write occurred when I wrote a story called Medicine Woman.  A few days after publishing it, I received an email containing the French phrase, “On Ne Peut Sauver Celle Qui Ne Veut L’etre.” My school French could not suffice and I googled the phrase and also checked with my French teacher friend.

The phrase meant, “One cannot help those who cannot help (themselves).” Which is what the story really was about. Which is why I really wrote it.

Which is why i write.

 

I am Andrew and I am an OverResearcher : Writing Out Loud #2

Messy Desk

Messy Desk

You over-research too much,” she said to me.

I looked up from my desk, covered in academic papers. Then down at the floor, strewn with textbooks, references and more academic papers.

Do I? I suppose I do.” My wife shook her head at me.

My name is Andrew and I am an over researcher.

My affliction isn’t confined to my studies, now discontinued, it overflows into the workplace and most recently into my writing. I’m insatiably curious. My excuse, as was said to me is “But I want to know everything.”

What I don’t do is approach a topic seeking facts to satisfy a decided point of view. I can’t actually. I do have a question that needs answering. But I don’t know all the answers, even when I’m finished.

Which means the strangest things happen to me when I take this journey.

As happened when I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. I was one of 3000 writers who compete in three rounds. Each writer is placed in a heat, allocated a  word limit, a period, a topic, a genre and a character. The first round required a 2500 word story in a week, then 2000 words in 3 days, then 1500 words in 24 hours. The winner was Sarah Martin’s The Undertaker. It is a gorgeous and touching story.

My first round genre was historical fiction, my character a Train Conductor and my topic was a Bushfire. I was daunted. I have never written historical fiction before. What I do know as described by Natasha Lester, author of A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald, was that it required immense and accurate research.

Not really knowing where to start, I choose an Australian angle. Surely, in a vast country, often riven with bushfires, spanned by an extensive rail network, surely there would be such a story. Surely the 1977 Blue Mountains bushfires would have such an incident. I found much about how bushfires are fought, how the technology has changed and how the railways do deal with bushfires. Surely not.

My searches kept turned up another disaster, the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. I ignored that. I didn’t want to write about that. Meanwhile the days dripped away. But I found nothing that could start a story. My over research was now becoming an over reach.

With only a few days left, I surrendered. And found my story. In fact, two stories. One was the well-known one of  the Canadian engineer James Root and how he led a rescue train to safety. The conductor, I felt, only had a peripheral involvement. The second story is more obscure involving a rescue under the supervision of a train conductor named Powers.

Finally! I had found what I was looking for. But I had not yet completed my journey.

Then I became immersed in this story. The newspaper reports, several books and a chronicle written afterwards detailed an apocalyptic horror. The fire, or rather fires, were too extensive and fast to fight or flee. There are stories of impossible survival, people sheltering in ponds, creeks and cellars and pure tragedy where people standing side by side survived or died. Clearly, there are many, many stories that can be told of this event.

Mine went like this.

Hinckley in Minnesota was a logging town and the junction of  two railways. After two months of drought, September 1, 1894, was a hot and oppressive day. While fires were common due to thoughtless forestry practices,  a temperature inversion (cold air above hot air), resulted in two major fires becoming a firestorm. Ultimately, the town itself and a large area burnt until the fire stopped.

James Root’s train was approaching the town and had to turn back, picking up survivors until they reversed to safety. Unfortunately, not everyone survived. Powers, however, was the conductor of a train that was trapped in Hinckley when the fire struck. They couldn’t leave. Their route out was blocked by a recently arrived goods train. A decision was made to join the two trains together and flee the town. As they began, buildings and house started exploding around them. They waited, then took as many people as they could. They then backed the train at speed through the fire. They picked up survivors as they ultimately crossed a burning trestle bridge to safety.

The Suicide Express

The Suicide Express (from https://westerntrips.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/hinckley-minnesota-1894-fire-with-no.html)

That was my story. I detested it.  I had written a third-person newspaper report summary. This happened, then that happened, Powers did this, his crew did that and they made it to safety. Yes it was a story. But all the while another story was unfolding itself to me. I just was refusing to listen to it. The deadline drew nearer. I started to despair. It looked like the story would not be submitted.

I thought about my dilemma. I then looked for what surprised me. It was the incredibly strong religious beliefs of both the immigrants (mainly Scandinavian) and the first settlers. The Native Americans’ stories sadly weren’t chronicled in much detail. In recounting the disaster, every person described it in apocalyptic terms using Nordic or Christian metaphors. So often people described the fire as appearing from nowhere rather than approaching from any distance. My over-research was about to become useful.

For it was then that the story revealed itself to me. Through Power’s eyes, this would be the end of the world exactly as described from the pulpit and the Bible. And worse, he had delayed the departure of the train to gather more stragglers. And his point of decision was at the burning trestle bridge.  And it only had immediacy if I wrote it in first person.

Fifty minutes later it was written.

The story didn’t go beyond the first round. However, the judges’ feedback was deeply appreciated. And I had learnt immensely.

Here is the Great Blow.

My name is Andrew and I am an over-researcher. I’m also a curious and reflective one.

 

 

 

 

Drenching Human Sheep

“All rise!” The Court Clerk brayed in a tone of bored authority. The words echoed and then died against the wooden paneling.

There was a pause. The door to the left opened. A short bobbing woman entered robed and wigged even though convention didn’t demand it anymore.  The pause followed her and held its breath.

There was a scraping and shuffling as lawyers, defendants, witnesses and audience rose. And bowed their heads. The judge sat down, her head hovering over the bench above. She feathered her hand at the crowd. With a more respectful scraping and shuffling now, all resumed our seats.

“Even to its practitioners, there are things about anaesthesia that remain a mystery – such as – where exactly it fits in the spectrum of consciousness.”

Thirty seconds in and he was already uncomfortable. He started to shake his head slowly from side to side. His hands were no where to be seen. Like children of a past generation, he was seen and not heard. Short, shorter than the judge by a half head, he bowed his head over the stand in boredom. All that could be seen was a brown shiny bald patch circled by a patch of hair. In another life, he would be bowed over a pew at prayer, held to a vow of silence.

“A state of general anaesthetia is not rendered not by a single drug but by a lights-out cocktail.”

“We don’t care for such pseudo-academic twaddle,” the anaesthetist growled.

“We put people under, hold them under and then bring them back. It’s a simple occupation really. You’re making it far too complicated.”

Unbidden, unusual and unhelpful even if he was being tasked with giving expert testimony. Which in fact he wasn’t. Especially considering this was a coronial inquest.

“Yes, they’re all a secret society, even when I put them on the stand as expert witnesses,” thought the cross examining lawyer in exasperation. But he set aside those thoughts as well as the academic treatise he was reading.  Unlike his interlocutor, the lawyer was grey of hair and of skin too, tall and spare with an economy of movement that belied his age. Only the twisted folds of skin under his chin marked him as ten years later than he looked.

“What about accidental awareness?” his soft voice filled the courtroom.
The anaesthetist stirred. His face peered over the edge of the witness box, red cheeks, centred by the pasty nose of the heavy drinker or worse topped by two monstrous eyebrows.

“It happens,” he said impatiently. “But you make it far more serious than the situation warrants. We monitor the patient closely. We take the action required. Like I said, yesterday,” he drawled with emphasis,”we’re not surgeons. More like farmers,” his tight mouth fluttering at his joke,”drenching sheep. It’s really straightforward, nothing to worry about.”

His voice now which was a dull monotone, more suited to calling out blood pressure, respiration, pulse and blood gases now was a bellow.

“Yes I can see why now. How all those nurses and junior doctors complained. Yes I can see too why he kept being exonerated, without even a reprimand, all those complaints dismissed as mere professional differences rather than personal ones. Sheep dip indeed.”

The anaesthetist didn’t react to the lawyer’s unspoken thoughts. Had they been spoken, his clever counsel would have interjected anyway and dismissed them as irrelevant. But clearly too, he hadn’t been fully briefed.

“What if there’s a incident?”, the cross examination continued.

“We’ve procedures in place. Should it happen,” he said gruffly.

“Thank you for your testimony,” the lawyer concluded. The anaesthetist shrugged, relaxed and almost smiled as he stretched back in his chair waiting for the judge to discharge him.

The silence at first inviting and expectant, continued. For the lawyer was still standing.

The lawyer paused and continued,”Your testimony regarding the science of anaesthetisia.”

Then he intoned, “Now I want to walk you through the incident at hand, the incident that happened on the 28th December, the night of the emergency.”

“What?” He growled. The eyebrows fluttered in time with his silent mouth as he sought his lawyer. But she crossed her legs and folded her arms. And avoided his eye.

“I answered that fully and frankly in my statement tendered to the court.”

“Yes he is his own lawyer! And his counsel knows it!! He’s had enough experience too!” the cross examiner nearly laughed to himself. But his task now required complete absence of all expression: the perfect listener!

“Indeed that is perfectly true,” the lawyer countered. “But the court wishes to hear your story in your own words for the record.”

“It’s all in my statement. There’s nothing to tell. I anaesthetised a patient that died during the subsequent surgery.” Another lost look at the defence lawyer.

“You knew she was dying.”

“No. Her vital signs were all falling. BP dropping, pulse down,breathing shallow, blunt trauma and she had lost a lot of blood.”

“That’s correct and that’s in accordance with the medical records tendered. However, according to Accident and Emergency, she had been stabilised, prepped and ready for surgery.”

“No, not from where I stand.” Came the reply.

“She had deteriorated before you administered the first part of the anaesthetic,” the lawyer continued.

“Yes.”
Then the lawyer stood and unwound himself to his full height.

“Why didn’t you call it? Why didn’t you at that stage abort the operation?”

“Why did you administer the second part of the anaesthetic?”

“I put it to you that without authorisation you carried out an act of involuntary euthanasia on a dying patient.”

“Just like drenching human sheep,” came the reply.

The Last Selfie

The last moments are the scariest, he thought. As he had been told. Apparently you first bob like a cork. Then you are swamped. Then you stretch your arms out to push yourself out of the water. And giving up, your arms and legs climb upward. Then downward. Thus overloaded you sink to the bottom faster than an anchor. So much time to contemplate, he thought.

The wave had already broken and the spray filled the sky. So much power, so much grace, how fortunate to witness. He reached for his phone. But there was no coverage. There’s no one to tell it to now. No photo, no text, could he break into the internet using his thoughts? But there, there was so much bile, cat videos, fake news that would overwhelm his story. Although it might go viral he thought, the last selfie of a drowning man. The channel between him and the point was now frothing green and white. Apparently once you sink to the bottom, it’s like falling asleep and drifting off. He really was annoyed now. He was never going to get his few seconds of fame on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram now. He looked and now the trough was full and flowing towards him. And then the water started building up again. He looked up and saw the spray over arch him again.
A second wave. He assembled the new facts of his predicament with studied detachment resolving to record and relate it for another time. The wave fell and crushed him silent.

Baby Crush

A bald head crowned by a few curls peeks out. Two eyes large and watchful wait and see what I might do.

I’m not moving. I stand silent. I’m a daddy statue.

Tiny hands cover her eyes. She tries to catch my gaze.

No way. I’m having no part of it. Not yet.

She opens them. She peeks carefully at me. Then covers herself with the blanket.

“Peep bo!” The blanket speaks.

That’s my moment. My eyes close. Although I keep the good one only an eighth open. Enough to cheat. Enough not to get caught.

Each time she closes her eyes, I open mine. Each time I see her open her eyes, I close mine!

Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. “Peep Bo!”

“Peep bo!” I say again. Before the blanket went on.

I chuckle as the blanket giggles and rolls on the floor. Then smile at her laughter while she wriggles her way out. Usually she beats me to it. Then as she unwravels…

“Peep Bo!” She got me that time.

The blanket again wraps itself up. It giggles and rolls on the floor. Then she crawls out. And stands a little taller than this morning. Now her jumpsuit is too small for her. But that’s no matter now.

Two arms stretch to the sky. She starts to waggle her fingers. Twinkle twinkle? Yes i’m happy to sing that with her. But no peeking. Otherwise she’ll catch me lip syncing.

Then she stops stock still.

No. I was lucky there. Then not so lucky.

“Jump game.”

Oh no! Daddy workout time.

Arms stretch high. “As high as the sky.”

I squat down. I waddle towards her. I put my shoulders under her arms. Then my hands around her waist.

I lift her up. Until her head is level with mine. Her eyes are already laughing. Daddy’s doing the heavy lifting now.

I stand up and throw her high into the air.

Giggles, then laughter.

I stop just before I let her go. I’m not a dad, I’m an astronaut trainer. Besides she’ll never get vertigo from me!

“Again. High as the sky.”

More deep squats. More overhead presses. My knees ache. My shoulders sing. I sneak a glance at my burden.

She’s frozen in time!! One arm up, one arm out, frozen in a ballet pose.

Carefully I shift her to my stronger arm. I lean forward, most weight pushed backward and draw back the coverlet, sheet and blanket. Then i place her in her bed as if one false move would be the last. She slumps flaccid in her bed. I cover her up. I start to lightly leave…

Her hand finds my finger. And crushes it. I hold my breath. I listen to her breath slow and deep measuring eternity one second at a time.

Yes parenthood is a vocation, it’s not a job. But if someone can tell me how to remove a child’s hand from my finger without waking her, I’d be really grateful!

Captured By An Audience

You never really wanted to go out there. You’re outnumbered for one thing. You know that any false move in front of them will be the last and final one. You’re thinking that the light is too bright, your  voice will be too soft, your tread too heavy, your stance too awkward. You’re really scared to death, deep down. You don’t know why what starts you on those first steps out there. You shuffle tentatively at first. Then you’re puzzled as to why you then confidently stride forth. It’s as if you’re already a success. Like you’ve already been applauded and called back for more. And then you meet.

 

You’re all alone, just you and them. You never expected them to listen, even for a moment. You start as you always do. You focus on relaxing yourself. Or you’re trying to look relaxed. Or acting as if you already are. But now you don’t have time to be confused. You’re already speaking. And listening to your tone, your rhythm, your timbre and your breath.  For it’s as if to your great relief, at the very last moment, someone far more confident than you’ll ever be has stood in for you. And saved you. And for that you silently give great thanks.

 

But in all of that you kept on speaking. And you never think that ten seconds in, they’re looking you in the eye. And that after eleven seconds, you can look straight back at them. And that after thirty seconds in, they’ve stopped fidgeting, all of them. You watch extra carefully and realise you’ve never seen so many people sit so still for so long, ever. You start to become aware that perhaps these people may have started to listen to you. You’d never think that there could be such a thing as an inviting silence. And you’re in it,far too involved now to realise how rare and precious is the privilege they have extended to you. And you meditate upon that and think perhaps you really do have something far more to say than your trite rehearsals. And you keep on speaking amazed and astonished.

But you were waiting for the whisper, the voice too loud, just  enough that will silence you and your words forever. But it never speaks. It is struck silent by the silence.  It never speaks because there’s nothing for it to say. Yet you say it just the way you’ve said it before. And in the reality, it’s better than you’ve ever heard. You never think the pause for breath, which seemed in practice so short and now is an everlasting chasm of time, is perfect comic timing.  You make the joke that you’ve heard far too many times before. You know they’ve heard it for the first time. As now do you.

 

You find yourself unexpectedly relaxing and experiencing that joy of the endless moment. And you’re left wondering why you ever were afraid in the first place!

The Glass Slipper (4) : She Met Me First

It was too dark to film in the pre-dawn twilight. And too hazardous to set up cameras and lights. Or send over their dumb drone in case it crashed and couldn’t be retrieved.

Occasionally, rarely, reality TV did have its benefits and now was one of them. Lonely at last, I thought. But, of course, only for a short moment. For I had to be back ready for the the morning feature. Me splitting wood bare chested (ugh!) for my fans.
I crept softly and slowly still hidden in the night. My torch picked out the sleeping shapes of cows not yet interested in me or milking just yet. Blades of grass reflected their sheen much like shards of green glass. And then the dark swallowed my light. For I had stopped at what looked like a fallen wall.
The last trees I had cleared.  I had left those broken remnants to season and dry. And now I was sawing them into logs and later kindling for the winter. And to boost my sagging ratings.
Behind me in the grey twilight, I could faintly see the camera crew near the house. They were trying to keep warm like ghostly puppets that were losing their strings.

But my work was in front of me, the latest pile of logs. I squatted, bent down, leant forward and drew each log into my arms. Once filled, I slowly stood up and started my trek back to the house.
Still, like the twilight, the other inhabitants paid me no attention. They’d wake soon and the routine would begin. Another day in the life
of “Down on The Farm” : the spun (and slowly unravelling) spin-off show. Featuring the recently separated husband of everyone’s favourite reality star, Ella who was doing I don’t know what.

I stopped.  I thought I saw something. But it was too dark. There is was again. Behind me, I saw a glimpse of curls, followed by a giggle.

“I’ll catch you,” I thought carelessly. I turned ponderously to follow. “Looks like she’s run around me,” I thought again. I finished my sedate circle. Nothing. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I kept on.

Surprised by my thoughts, I said to myself, “It’s nothing,just your imagination running wild in the wild.”
To keep my load steady, I stopped and crouched slightly. I raised left arm and then right and the logs in my arms settled heavily and made a pile yet again. I trailed my way back towards the house. It was still cool and grey and I was a shadow in the twilight. I saw the green roof turn olive-grey in the approaching dawn. The water tanks : squat and silver like oversize 44 gallon drums.
I trudged slowly. As far as I was concerned I had all day. But in the morning silence, I heard the whisper of a smile again, sent to me on the breeze. “A voice too young yet to laugh.”

I stopped again. I took small goose steps as I rotated trying to see the source of my audio dream. I didn’t want to drop my load yet. Still nothing. But something, it must be something. Perhaps…
There it was again. A whisper, now a laugh, curls and a glimpse of a cornflower dress.
To confound my pursuer, I stopped again and turned the other away.
“She’s quicker than me,” I thought carelessly. “Or will be.”
Ignoring the watchers, who had set up camera and microphone, I reached the woodpile and bowed down : a supplicant making his latest humble offering. I threw my arms forward and stepped back in reverential awe. A clump of logs flew forward, thudding and clunking as they hit the altar. Now for the fun part. I took off my shirt and threw it carelessly away. They’d like that, I knew. Apparently it was worth 20 points each time on the ratings.
Next to the stump was my favourite weapon of destruction. A green triangular headed wood splitter. I balanced it in my hands like I was buying a rifle. The head and handle were still smooth yet to be scarred by combat. That would be years I thought. And I had years now. I waited and felt the presence. A watcher ready to ask me a direct question. But she had years too. I heard the camera crew shuffle nervously, as they moved to keep me in view.
Even though the log pile was just the right height, I still leaned down, forward and across. I picked up log number one. I took its weight, squatted and placed it on the stump. Grey silver bark, wood core like cracked ochre. This one had finally seasoned.
I reached down to take the splitter again.
“And how long does it take to season?”
“As long as it takes,” I replied to myself (I thought). I looked up and around. The crew were motionless. They hadn’t seen or heard anything. Otherwise they would ask for another shot.
So I stilled myself, ignored the voice in my head and swung the splitter. Back above my head. I cocked my wrists and swung it just above the small of my back. I waited until it was just about to fall backwards and have no weight at all.
Like the string holding the arrow, I let go, timing turned into power. I struck wood, felt nothing except the tip tapping the stump. “No effort required,” I thought. Turning logs into kindling is the easiest part. Sure beats cutting down trees and sawing up logs. The dark held its breath and watched silently.

Except it wasn’t the dark.
Two more swings. The rest of log number one split into five pieces. I kicked the kindling away. That one done, I began again. Then I stopped. Someone was still watching me. It wasn’t the cameras. Being watched by them was like being stared at and then ignored as uninteresting.

No I was being observed. Closely and carefully. But not uncomfortably.
This time, I slipped and dropped the splitter mid swing. I turned right then left to catch whoever it was unawares. I saw nothing.
I felt her peer over my shoulder as I fell into the rhythm again. Pick up log, balance, pick up splitter, balance, pull back, let go, split log, split, split and kick kindling. Occasionally, I missed the mark, self-consciously. I would have to repeat the blow. Occasionally, too, I knocked the log over instead of straddling it. And steadfastly, I kept ignoring her.
And in the silence, her presence grew in my mind. I could see her curls, and hear her voice, even when she said nothing. I felt her read my thoughts, turn them over in her mind and read them back to me with another question. And slowly, the dawn crept through and the day began.
Much like the parent I wasn’t and had no intention of being, I more and more hoped that she would go away. Every so often, I would turn around to say it out loud. But I was deterred by the media presence.

I forced myself silent. I knew I would be thought mad muttering to myself in the middle of the bush away from my estranged wife.
And every single time I looked for her, she wasn’t there. She was enjoying this game I knew. She knew where I would move and what I would say before I did it.  I senses that this knowledge would not be used maliciously, however, rather playfully and ultimately patiently. For she knew that I would come around. Every so often I would hear a giggle and then a stifled laugh. I knew that she knew. As she knew I knew.
“Who is she? A haunting?” I had heard stories like this. Lost children haunting the place where they had died, waiting for their parents to return. But at dawn? In front of witnesses?
I stopped splitting and looked across at the crew.
“What’s happening?” I asked. No-one replied. “See anything this morning?”
No reply, neither nod nor shake of the head. Maybe they haven’t seen anything. If they had they weren’t saying, they were professional like that. Besides I knew these questions would be edited out.
I still sensed her listening to me. Much like the child I really was, I decided to scrunch the bed covers over my face, hold them close and feign sleep until she left me. I really hoped that she would slip away and find something else to take her attention, as little girls are supposed to do. Well, as far as I knew anyway.
I continued. Pick up log, set it on the stump, scythe the splitter through wood and hope for sparks,  kick the kindling away, dodge the odd shower of splinters, the rhythm continuous and all-encompassing despite the warming day and its hardening light.
In the silence between logs, I finally took my chance.

“Are you a fairy? A tree-nymph? A gumnut baby fleeing the evil banksia men?” The smile whispered into a giggle, then she laughed. At her giggle.
And while she looked over my shoulder, she beckoned the silence with more questions. “Who are you?” I asked (silently) in exasperation.

Her reply was familiar. “Why are you chopping wood here?”

“Instead of elsewhere,” was the implied thought I heard.

“Instead of where you’re supposed to be,” she thought at me finally.
I sensed that she was patient. And insistent. She knew I would answer her questions eventually. She seemed to have years to wait.
The sunrise rose above the green roof. And with it, the cold post-sunrise breeze washed over me like ice water. And then I knew where I was supposed to be and why.
I said, “Ella doesn’t want me anymore. I’m not in a fairy-tale anymore.”
But still her silence called to mine. She reached forward to take my hand.
I knew that I could send her away. But she would keep returning until I returned to her now pregnant mother.
The cameras kept rolling as I carried the kindling up to the house.

I Can Talk To Strangers

I like to talk to strangers. It’s fun. But my mum and dad don’t like it. They told me not to.

When I asked why, they said bad things could happen to me. When I asked what the bad things they wouldn’t tell me.

I didn’t like that. I kept doing it. They kept stopping me.

Then I found out how smart my mum and dad are. Everybody still tells me not to talk to strangers. Well almost everybody. Mum and Dad stopped telling me.

I still talk to strangers. I still like it. Strangers say funny things. I ask them questions. Sometimes they tell me stories.

Sometimes my mum and dad laugh too. When I’m grown up I’ll know how to talk to strangers when mum and dad aren’t around.

The Glass Slipper (3)

Celebrities, I now realise, live in a perpetual fog. And nowhere more so than on the red carpet. This night I’m slow prancing through a warming mist of light. Camera flashes and phone selfie stick shots leave me blinking rapidly and staring dumbly. Further along, the spotlights surround me like a hot cloud. I’m suited up, white shirt, black tie, the male uniform of universal fame. But I do look good, I have to admit that. So my social feed tells me anyway.

Ella like a vision is in front of me. The classic fairy tale goddess : tall, blonde, slim, leading everyone’s eye towards her. Remember, I thought, people don’t stare at beauty like that, they just hold their gaze for longer. It’s her night, after all. That much this simple man does know.Right now, I have little idea why I’m here. It’s an opening night for a product Ella is endorsing. Something, something, folate. I start to fall behind.

“Folate? What the hell is Folate?”

I’m open-mouthed staring at the TV. My reality mega celebrity wife is yet again endorsing another product. And no-one has told me about it. She’s saying what a great health supplement it is. Which is of no use to me at all. I don’t know a thing. And that secret leaks out very quickly. For my followers have tapped into my confusion. According to the social media feedback, that is. The joke continues, smart wife, dumb husband. Not dumb I say to myself. I just do what I’m told. She’s the ball gown, I’m the plastic handbag. And so long as it stays that way, I will have ongoing success.

There’s Ella, in glorious 3D. So real I could almost reach out, tap her on the shoulder and ask, “What’s it for?”

But it’s not me doing the asking. Or the tapping of the shoulder.

Out of the misty light, the voice spoke to me, “Good evening sir, I hope you’re well tonight.”

I squint. I try to see who is talking to me. A smiling urbane gentleman of the old class I thought.

“Thank you, I am”, I replied. As my eyes adjusted, I could see who it was. He was a head taller than me. He was perfectly clean shaven. He had green eyes that were both piercing and twinkling set in a pleasant thin face. He was dressed in a thin grey woollen suit and wearing a earpiece. I couldn’t work out why he was not behind the silken barrier. Then I looked at his badge. And then he spoke again.

“You can’t go any further.” His voice hardened slightly as he emphasised all the words. The scene now starts to make sense to me. Here I am speaking to the most well mannered security guard I’d ever met. And now he is very diplomatically telling me my night was over. I looked behind him. He had firepower on his side. On his left and right were two heavy set men. Now these were the security men that I would cast in the role, I thought. Exactly alike, they were dressed in jet black suits, short, squat, standing silently and watchfully. If my new found acquaintance had asked to burrow they would. But they were more suitable for scrummaging. When I saw men like that coming for me, I always threw the ball away. Although it didn’t help. But this time I stood still.

I said nothing. I was outnumbered. I was told the reason. I was with a rival company. They had orders that it was best I be turned away. The pop and flash of cameras continue as if these were fans asking for a selfie or even an old-fashioned autograph. But not for long, as the real star is moving on.

I started to say, “I’m with Ella.” But I thought better of it.

I decided to be an anonymous celebrity for now. I stayed in the fog. I waited for rescue. Any other reaction I realised would be all over the media in seconds. I looked down at the phone. “What’s happening Jack?” was the theme of the feed. “Who are these people?” they asked. Tempted, I started to tap on my phone. Remembering the advice I had received about social media, I pulled my hand away. I chose to shut up and wait for the lifeline.

When it happens, it makes me believe in science fiction. Yet again, out of nowhere, John and Tash materialise. My producers, who had been avoiding me for reasons unknown for the last week turn up at the time of crisis.

I always thought of them as the perfect couple. Interchangeable. One could substitute for the other. As they do right now. They step right up to the security supervisor, so no-one can easily listen. Two people invading his personal space. The security gentleman doesn’t flinch. He is inscrutable. He tilts his head down to listen. All I can see is his bald head with a light sheen of sweat.

John or Tash speaks first, the other continues the sentence, without the other even stopping for breath. All I hear is the phrase, “Endorsement conflict.” My head just tick tocks as I look from one to another. I know I still look as stunned as I did during the camera, phones and spotlights on the red carpet. I look down. My feed is full of a jumble of emoticons, some funny, others puzzled, of course, some obscene.

John and Tash stop at the same time. They both look at me. They speak in unison, “Don’t do anything until we tell you.” I think to myself, yes, mostly that’s what I usually do, but not always. Especially when I have an unexpected surprise and try and fix it myself. Just like when I tried to placate Ella after she shattered the glass slipper. But we fixed that, didn’t we?

They continue to speak to the butler. I think to myself, he would make an excellent butler. But his tone is firm. Then without speaking to one another, John and Tash start calling on their mobiles. I’m stupefied by now. I think I hope the camera’s aren’t zooming in on my open flapping mouth as well. They’re speaking as one person to different people. “How did they do that?”, I thought. “How did they decide who called who and who went first?”

Meanwhile, twilight surrounds us. The lights, phones and cameras have moved on, seeking Ella’s long gaze. I’m sure she’s thinking of me. But that would be reality TV being too real?

The next thing I hear is a whisper. The two of them talking into my ear. How can they get so close? “Text her and tell her you’re not feeling well. And then go home.” I do as I’m told. It always works. My new found security detail escort me to the waiting car.

The Glass Slipper (2)

The TV screen went black. For three seconds. A sliver of white light appeared. It flickered, flashed and exploded, filling the screen. It was a white out. For three seconds. The screen panned back. The torch started searching the room. Spotlights painted the walls, shadows wavered and stopped. It found two shiny high-heeled shoes floating in the air. The crystal slippers began to spin slowly.

The screen went green-grey. A figure could be seen sleeping on a bed. Ella.

“Will these new slippers win back her heart?”

Another pause to build more suspense.

“I hope this works,” I said.

I wasn’t acting. I looked away. A short clip replayed the fell events of the previous week. I looked away. The shouting, the crying, me trying to calm her down, finally culminating in the smashing of the old glass slippers. And then I made it worse. I tried to reconcile. But I was only doing what I was told.

The week that had been was superficial casual reality TV fare. We were kept occupied, too busy to think for ourselves. We had spent a great deal of time together. But we had spent little time alone. For they had chosen activities that didn’t require us to communicate at any depth. The last week had been an interminable spin of social activities and commercial endorsements. We had ended up being both half-awake and half asleep but too tired to argue or discuss anything. This frenzy of activity was also interlaced with a lot of old footage of us being loving assuming the fans would think things were great.

For Ella wasn’t talking to anyone. As her husband in reality I had even less idea of what was happening. The producers, directors and script writers, when I saw them seemed more energetic than usual. I didn’t think there was a problem until they sent Ella away for a commercial endorsement without me.

That all happened quickly. I had woken early, showered and had gone downstairs to browse for some breakfast. While I made my coffee (ensuring that this week’s brand faced the cameras), I looked out the window. Our coastal home away from home was sited on a peninsula facing east. It was early, and the sea was still blue grey. But then there was that pink-red glimmer that preceded dawn. I watched it as was my habit. Then I saw movement near the bedroom. I saw a a clutch of assistants quickly ascend the stairs. I was signalled not to take any notice. So obediently I didn’t.

But it was only a few minutes and then they returned with Ella. Tall and blonde, the camera caressed her like a lover’s glance. She was stylishly dressed and ravishingly beautiful. I thought for a second, perhaps, she and I? And then she, assistants in tow fled out the door, presumably to another pre-managed, highly-planned but seemingly impulsive media event. Ignored, I went back to my real occupation. Social media lurker. Reading the comments and advice. Ignoring the nutters and crazies but attempting to find a consensus and follow it. After all, that’s how I stayed popular.

For both of us, this had been the first moment of pause since the breaking of the slippers.

And then John and Tash appeared. They were the veteran husband and wife couple who had produced many reality TV shows. They were so close they finished each others sentences. Somehow I felt they wanted the same for myself and Ella.

They spoke together and said that they had sent Ella for the day and wanted to see me for a long meeting. I felt like I had been called into the principal’s office again. I always thought I was in trouble with them. And the meetings followed the same pattern. But today they would offer me a way out. A new set of slippers and a new hope for both of us.

They had already spoken to me about my actions after the slipper was broken. I had acted without authority and they had had to sort it out. I hoped that conversation wouldn’t be repeated.

My response was to say I had only done what I was told to so. After the incident, I simply asked my many followers what to do next. It had always saved me from the freeze of indecision. And this was a major crisis.

I typed the situation as I saw it and asked the usual what do I do here? (#whatshouldcharmingdo).

And then yet again I became a screen watcher. Replies, counter replies and controversies all started streaming into my feeds. Some of the contributors were familiar and they said what I would expect. The usual trolls and misogynists more or less telling me to show her who is boss (or worse). Some of these were quite direct in the means and method of application. It had never even occurred to me to take control like that ever.

I waited. I had been through this before. It was the jury handing down a verdict. Part of being a well-known celebrity was the required bowing down to your followers. Most found it a drawback of fame but it was an upside for me. All I had to do was find out what the majority wanted. And stay famous.

Then the usual unfollowers. Words, often mis-spelt, to the effect that you were both horrible and now I don’t believe in you anymore. And worse. I just hoped those numbers didn’t rise too much. Otherwise we wouldn’t get our bonus.

Then finally the feminists with a message especially for me. Then the trolls calling them worse names and threatening more evil than they would ever say to Ella or even me. I kept away from the ongoing battle between misogyny and misandry. Then the comment directed at me, “Ella has finally rejected the male-dominated constructs as exmplified by the glass slipper.” Yeah right. I hadn’t done the degree. I’m sure even the fairytale didn’t mean that. Besides I had no idea what it meant and how insulting it was meant to be. So I ignored it. Besides I could always block. So I blocked the troll.

Then the marriage counsellors. With them it was either I give in to her or she give in to me. Rarely if ever they said we should give into each other. Besides how would we manage giving in to each other if our followers didn’t like it? It would be fatal for us both.

But in the end there was a majority decision and it was final. They suggested I return to her and make it up to her as soon as possible. Maybe they liked seeing us make up. I know I did. It had worked before. Nietzche was right about reality TV, one lived the same life over and over again! But I hadn’t told John and Tash the producers. And there had been consequences from that action.

I kept my thoughts to myself but inwardly I was disquieted. Even during a public romance watched by many millions, there had been tiny cracks and fissures. But me being me, I just papered over those worries and made sure that she stayed happy. I had also assumed that such disturbances were the result of the very public attention and affection that we both received.

She had lost her temper before but only over minor trivialities. And that made great drama for our audience until she was distracted and moved onto something else. It wasn’t until I reflected carefully that I realised the truth. What I had missed was that those occurrences were becoming more frequent and more intense. I really didn’t see the warning signs. I was too infatuated I suppose.

I waited an hour. My thought was I’ll return and we’ll be reconciled.

Someone had suggested that I surprise her a little. So before climbing the stairs, I took my shoes off. I had been advised to be silent and stealthy and enjoy the moment of surprise. I ran up the stairs on tip toe so I wouldn’t be heard. My heart began to race with both exertion and more than a little anticipation. I imagined that I was not the only one that felt that way. I imagined millions of people holding their breath too.

I stopped short at the door. I didn’t knock. I threw the door open. I ran to Ella. I didn’t really notice how she was until much too late.

Ella was standing by the windows. She seemed to have effectively wrapped herself into a ball. Her head was bowed, her shoulders shrugged forward. She had drawn herself into herself.

She didn’t see me. She didn’t hear me at first. So that part of the plan had worked.
I slowed down as I came closer. I spread my arms wide to embrace her. As soon as she heard my foot fall, she turned and faced me. She was crouched down. I had no idea if she still thought the cameras were off.

All the same she let me embrace her. I leant a little forward as I always did expecting the embrace to continue and be embraced myself. It didn’t.

It was like a dream with me still in it. I can still bring it to mind even though the hurt has gone. She unclasped her hands. She lifted them in front of her face. She stepped back a pace. She put both hands on my chest and pushed me backwards.

Apart from the shock and surprise, I lost my balance and wobbled like a toddler. I stumbled a half step I think. Then I nearly fell on Ella. That was too much for her. In all of that she had not spoken to me.

She jumped backwards. Her back was now against the bedroom window.

Then she looked at me. I will never forget that look. It was desperation and anger and sadness all in one place.

I was angry at being rebuffed. But then this new look-at the time I didn’t know what I was seeing. I locked eyes with her and tried to search her soul for this new sadness.

But those eyes pushed me away as well. It looked as if she had gone back home to her stepmother and stepsisters! But that was my initial guess. My first inclination was to comfort her.

“Don’t touch me. Don’t go near me,” she said.

“Ella, we’re on, they can hear you,” I whispered. But I knew that every whisper carries further on the internet.

I moved forward a little then moved back. I felt her desperation and need for comfort and I felt that she had been alone too long.

In all of my life, all the counsel that I had received about loving women came to naught in that moment. I had to think of something else but I couldn’t.

I chose the most cowardly course. I left the room and left her to herself.
And in the aftermath I had to face John and Tash. I had acted too hastily without consulting them. They said they had a storyline to preserve. My reply was I had followers who depended upon me. Inwardly, I felt caught between many masters: the producers, the audience, and Ella.
And today, they began, “We want you to recreate the fairytale…”
I watched (as did the millions) as the floating slippers disappeared. The grey faded. The scene changed.
Dawn stole softly through the bedroom windows. Framed by the windows the mottled sunlight gently stirred Ella. She slowly woke. As one eye opened, she saw all was white.
“Am I still in my bed?” she said. “Is this real?”

As she woke everything around her was white as snow. The walls, the ceiling, the curtains and the floor all white.

The room was filled with white flowers. As she took her first breath and sniffed we all smelt the tinge of a sweet perfume.
She looked out of the bed towards the window. In front of the window there was a small gilt table. On that table was a clear glass box. Suspended in the box as if caught in air, were two new crystal glass slippers.

She had no idea how any of it had happened. Perhaps she really did have a fairy god mother!

She slid out of bed. She glided as she walked towards the table. She bent down and delicately opened the box.
The shoes! We all heard her gasp softly at their beauty. We watched as she slowly and carefully and gently retrieved the shoes.
Time now stood still. Even the commentary decided to be silent. I watched and waited as she tried the shoes on.

They were new. They were soft. They fitted perfectly. They were perfect. I felt it.

Then she spoke. My heart fell like lead through the floor. I felt my cheeks flush hot. I never had felt so embarrassed and ashamed. And I started to shake. Her face started to quiver. “How much he must love me”, she said.
I felt a nudge in my back. I stole into the bedroom. I approached her slowly. This time she didn’t back away.
It was a beautiful scene. But she wasn’t saying anything to me. I could lipread what she said but they were sweet nothings (to use the cliche).
Then an odd thing happened. Both her arms moved at once, as if she was having a spasm. I paid no attention to it at the time.
It wasn’t until we played it back that Tash pointed it out to me. She said that she had seen two people talking in the same way : a man and a woman. The woman had both arms by her sides. But she held them down quite stiffly and firmly, she said. And then she had lifted her left arm quickly, as if to ward off a blow. She then began shouting.

I realised Ella had raised both arms in the same way. Twice.

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