Something I missed earlier this year was the release of an episode of The Wandering Bard, a podcast on the topic of writing, travel, place and identity, in which myself and Jenn, my occasional collaborator with whom I wrote last year’s The Night Visitors, talk about the north, going on holiday, horror and the role of the artist post-Brexit.
You can listen to the whole thing here.
Today is a year to the day since I started to make my wife sick. I celebrate quietly in the kitchen: a small bowl of cold apple crumble with cream.
'It's incredibly rare for it to progress at such a rate,' Dr Korbel had said during his morning visit. He seemed genuinely upset. 'You should make preparations. Funeral arrangements, last run-through of her will. That sort of thing.'
I've never been able to remember the name of the disease they've wrongly diagnosed her with – progressive bulbar something-or-other; too many syllables, if you ask me.
I hear noises from upstairs. I finish my food and go to see her. She's drowsy but awake. I administer her with the 200mg of morphine prescribed by Dr Korbel along with my own 100mg shot of trimatanyl, the mystery ingredient causing her illness no-one has as yet been able to detect.
She says something, whether a protest or some feverish nonsense isn't clear: Her speech was the first thing to go. In the past few days she's become entirely incomprehensible.
'It’s alright,' I say. I tell her I love her and stroke her hair until she's asleep.
I go out into the garden. I love it here, but it is difficult to maintain. I am growing lamb’s quarters and touch-me-nots. There's a sheltered corner where I'll plant an African violet when the summer sets in. I lie down on the patio and watch the clouds moving overhead.
We met at university. I was a mature student, she an academic. After her first lecture I approached her and told her I'd recently read an essay she'd published on hamartia in Othello. She was impressed. A week later, we talked again. I let slip my age – 37. The same as her, it emerged. We were born on the same day. 'What are the odds?' she said; she laughed, touched my hand.
We had our first date a fortnight later. The theatre, of course: a revival of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, pompous and dull. Afterwards, we went for drinks. We talked.
We went out again a week later. A meal and two bottles of champagne. I’d been saving up for years, so I could afford to splash out. I asked her about herself, about her childhood. Her parents had been wealthy. They had had a messy break-up: her father had taken her away when she was six; she had a brother who had remained with her mother. She'd not heard from either of them since.
'Aren’t you curious about your family?' I asked. 'Do you think your mother misses you?'
'She was psychotic!' she said, with a laugh.
'And your brother?'
'He was younger than me. I didn't know him.'
She became drunk. In the taxi she cried and told me how lonely she was.
'I know you are,' I said. 'So am I.'
I waited until our third date before I initiated intercourse; our tenth before I asked her to marry me.
I completed my degree, enrolled immediately for a Masters and, after that, began my PhD. All the while with my wife supervising. My thesis was 'Motive and Pragmatism in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore', in tribute to that instigating date. The process of research and writing I found boring – infuriatingly so – but it did give us an excuse to sit up for hours, talking Whore. Avril would maintain, quite sensibly, that Giovanni, the play’s protagonist, does what he does out of clear-cut guilt and self-loathing.
'No, he doesn't know why he does what he does,' I'd tell her. 'He's compelled to act. He comes up with the why afterwards.'
She frowned. 'At times this whole thing seems less literary research,' she said, flipping through my manuscript, 'more… pathological speculation.'
She was right. I was awarded my doctorate, but only with some severe editorialising on her part.
Since then we have been working together, academics first at neighbouring institutes (me at the former polytechnic, she at the university proper) then, after I'd put the hours in – editing a rather arcane but well-received collection of essays on the more minor Elizabethan dramatists, overseeing a Fulke Greville symposium – at the same university. A junior position to my wife, of course.
Naturally, while I beavered away at my own obscure career, hers was taking off: she was invited to edit the Cambridge edition of Marlowe's letters; she appeared on The History Channel; she presented papers in America. Shortly before her powers of speech evaporated, she had even been invited to write and present a documentary on Jacobean tragedy for Radio 4.
It was hard to know when to put a stop to it all.
She's awake again when I return indoors. I sit on the edge of her bed and ask if I can get her anything. She's too drowsy to understand. I could be saying anything. I tell her our department has asked me to design my own undergraduate module. It's to be called 'Madness and Macbeth'.
'Each lecture will focus on a different protagonist who dedicates himself towards something inexplicable,' I say, all lies. ‘Like Giovanni in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, giving his life over entirely to an act which, on the surface, seems insane.'
She mutters, low-pitched, free of consonants. She has trouble keeping her eyes open.
The reality, as Dr Korbel put it, is that she could pass away at any moment. I can't help but think it would be poor form for her death to occur without her realising I have caused it. Poor dramatic structure.
But why? She would want to know. Why? Tragedy is a question mark.
I pinch her hard on the forearm. Her eyes bulge open. She used to be so beautiful. Now her hair is a mess, nestlike and grey. Drool seeps from her mouth in a slow, steady flow.
'You know, you've never really told me about your childhood,' I say pleasantly.
She makes a croaky sound: 'Mah-jurrr-hurrr...' My childhood?
'Yes. Do you remember your psychotic mother? When did your rich father die? Where's your poor brother?'
But she's already fallen back asleep, her face sad and troubled.
I go back downstairs, switch on the television and watch the snooker.
I know she pines for them. All these lonely years, without even realising, pining for her forgotten family: a strong, loving mother and a little brother.
That brother. She's longed for him since she lost him. I know it. And yet, more than she ever suspected – more than she would have ever permitted – she has had him.
And, of course, I’ve had her.
A brief note, mainly for a few readers who’ve been very kind about a couple of recent blog-posts about my experiences of becoming and being a father (here and here). I have a new short story due for publication in Being Dad, an anthology of fiction by writers who are also fathers.
On the surface, fatherhood may sound a little like a rather narrow subject matter, but, when I started putting together my story and looking into previous examples of paternity in fiction, the amount which presented themselves seemed incalculable in both number and permutations: the question of what it means to be or to have a dad has been a constant throughout literature. From Telemachus and Odysseus through to Seamus Heaney, JM Coetzee and Wole Soyinka (to name a handful of Nobel laureates), the ways in which the father-son dynamic can be enacted and utilised are myriad, the expectations and realisations timeless, and the tensions, fears, joys, fulfillments – these all pull you close to the core of what constitutes the human experience.
Anyway, as well as my own story, in Being Dad there is also fiction from some other amazing, top-notch father-writers: Dan Rhodes, Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, Nicholas Royle, Courttia Newland, Dan Powell, Rodge Glass, R.J. Price, Tim Sykes, Lander Hawes, Andrew McDonnell, Iain Robinson, Richard W. Strachan and Samuel Wright. All very exciting. The book will be available next year but you can pre-order it from as little as £5 from the Kickstarter page with the option to add various exciting extras should you so wish.
My story is rather catchily titled ‘=VLOOKUP(E2,‘[Turnover year end 2015.xls]Q1SalesLeads’!$E$2:$F$1001,2,0’ and, by way of an appetite-whetter, here’s the opening section:
I wrote the following for the Curious Tales blog, explaining the inspiration and process behind our latest book, Congregation of Innocents, an anthology of ghost stories which you'll soon be able to purchase.
Let’s begin with a little bit of recent history. The first Curious Tales book, the one which brought us together, was titled The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales. It was a book of ghost stories for Christmas by a small group of contemporary writers in tribute to MR James, the olden days Christmas ghost story godfather. The book was illustrated by Beth Ward in an elegant, quietly melancholy fashion redolent of James McBryde, MR James’ artist of choice. We then put together a mini tour of suitably atmospheric events at which each of us read our stories in their entirety.
Part of the beauty of The Longest Night, and part of its spookiness, was the book’s ephemeralness. We had 300 copies printed and numbered. We agreed there were to be no reprints and no Kindle edition. Our mantra was once it’s gone, it’s gone.
This seemed fitting for the sort of publication we were aiming for, tying in with a Jamesian preoccupation with obscure books. It remains an entertaining thought: that in years to come someone, whilst browsing a secondhand bookshop, will discover this slim, mysterious collection with its spooky artwork and no ISBN, take it home and be disquieted by the uncanny tales within.
A year later we put together a sequel, Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales, this time taking our cue from Robert Aickman, another, much less cosy and much less well known writer of supernatural fiction whose centenary took place in 2014 and whose reputation we were keen to do our bit to rehabilitate. This was reflected in the darker tone of the book and its murkier artwork. Similarly, we tried to make other changes: we increased the size of our print run, staged bigger, more theatrical events, and – as indicated by the subtitle – included a pair of guest authors in the collection. But we remained guided by our own curious philosophy, a mixture of DIY ethic and ethereal weirdness.
All of which brings us up to date. This year we’re back with a third anthology. Congregation of Innocents: Five Curious Tales, which will be available for pre-order in the coming weeks.
This time we’ve moved out of our collective comfort zone, taking our inspiration from an American author. 2015 marks fifty years since the death of Shirley Jackson, a writer perhaps best known for her novel The Haunting of Hill House, and her short story ‘The Lottery’, both of which are fairly representative of an otherwise frequently overlooked body of work. Jackson’s fiction takes place in the gap where the supernatural meets the psychosomatic, where depths of menace and aberration underlay the United States’ cheery suburbs, where housewives’ hallucinations hint towards a demonic mythos at work in the world. But – a couple of things which I’m not sure can be said with any confidence of James or Aickman – there’s a playfulness to her fiction and a prioritising interest in character.
Collaboration became our watchword. Before any of Congregation of Innocents was written or illustrated, a good deal of planning was put into what we wanted the feel of the book to be. In 2015 we’d also published a pair of digital, interactive novels – both the fruits of collaboration – and it seemed to us that this way of working could be used to create a book of stories which, despite being authored by different individuals, had a cohesion and an uncanny unity. We put together something of a mood map for the book, in reality a list of buzzwords written on post-its and stuck to a wall: hot, stuffy, queasy. We all read a good deal of Jackson’s fiction, particularly her short stories.
In the very early stages of planning we’d asked ourselves who we might invite to contribute as a guest author. By the time we came to the post-it note stage we were dubious whether a guest author was something we were after at all. This was a collaborative project through and through. What we wanted was someone who would collaborate with us. The obvious person then seemed to be our friend Ian Williams.
Ian is a comics artist whose work is informed by his daytime job as a physician: he writes and illustrates Sick Notes, a regular a comic strip for the Guardian about medical news. The Bad Doctor, his wonderfully observed graphic novel about a middle-aged GP, was published in 2014 and had met with critical acclaim. The notion of including a graphic novelist, one au fait with sickness and the mechanics of frailty at that, in the collection seemed somehow both so apt and simultaneously so counterintuitive that Ian seemed to be perfect collaborator.
After this came Beth’s artwork. We have always been keen that the illustrations be much more than simply illustrative, and all the authors agreed that we would wait until we saw the artwork before committing digital ink to digital paper. We then worked towards the imagery. The stories were then edited in unison, with the aim of creating an end product of consistency, with tone, themes and imagery overlapping from story to story. America too dominates Congregation of Innocents. Or, rather, British imaginings of America. Again, for a bunch of solitary writers all of this lies well outside what we think of as our comfortable norm.
And so there we have it. Although it obviously functions as a short story anthology (and an excellent one at that – I think it’s the best thing Curious Tales has produced) Congregation of Innocents is also book which serves to close something of a trilogy and which, we hope, is as intrepid and challenging a read as it was to put together. As well as a graphic story from Ian Williams, the book will also come with an introduction from another very special guest author, whose name we’re keeping under wraps for the time being. There will be four-hundred copies printed, available to buy online and at the tour of events (stay tuned for further details on these), and, as always, once they’re gone they’re gone.