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Philip Pullman and Me

La Belle Sauvage

The Book of Dust Cover – completely beautiful

It was my first day of work at the British Gas call centre. I’d got the job through an agency and wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Rumour had it that the seats had sensors on them so they knew when you weren’t at your desk. This was all put into an algorithm for the team leaders to check you’d spent enough time in front of your computer screen, headset on, actually working. There was to be no hiding out in the toilet.

We were having our mass inductions. A Team Leader called Darren (I think) strode confidently into the room. He was around five foot six with a thin body and hollow cheeks. He bulked out his frame with an over-sized suit and power shoulders. He was enthusiastic as he introduced himself and told us where the fire exits were in case the building caught fire during the induction.

‘Ok guys,’ he said. ‘I want you to imagine you’re on the phone to a customer and they think there’s a gas leak. What do you do?’

He looked around the room for raised hands. You fool Darren, I thought; none of us are here to participate. We’re taking this crappy job to get money and do smallest amount of work possible. We’re not going to play your stupid games. But to my surprise, hands were going up. Darren nodded to one.

‘Open the windows.’

‘Good. Great answer. Yes, open the window. That way, if there’s any gas it can be let out through the windows. What else?’

‘Don’t turn on the lights.’

‘Yes! Really good. Does anyone know why you shouldn’t switch the lights on?’

‘Because it can cause a spark,’ said several voices around the room.

I was horrified. Why was everyone trying? It was as if they wanted to do a good job.

Of course the reason for this, as I discovered some years later, was because they were good people and I was a twat.

‘Brilliant!’ said Darren. ‘Great stuff. Yes, turning on a light switch can cause a spark that can ignite any leaking gas. Ok. Maybe it’s best to have a break at this point.’

We’d literally been having our induction for about fifteen minutes. Over hot drinks people talked and started the process of getting to know one another. I stewed in a corner. I hated this. I didn’t want to be here. I’d only got a job because, about a week previous, my mother in her exasperation at my not working had called me a Fat Lazy Ginger Slug. Just think about that for a second. A Fat, Lazy, Ginger Slug. From a mother to a son. A slug! Have you seen those things?! But it worked. That very same day I was back in the job market and The Novel was on pause.

Orange slug

Ginger Slug

In fairness, The Novel was really just a phrase I used to spend every day eating cream of tomato soup and watching Spongebob Squarepants. But surely this, being told the stuff about gas leaks I’d been taught in school at the age of eight, was a bridge too far. I had a Batchelor of Science degree in geography from Swansea University – did they not realise this?

Break over it was back to work. I can’t remember the second part of the morning but at lunch I trekked across Cardiff city centre to Waterstones and saw on one of the tables a book called Northern Lights by an author called Philip Pullman. You should never judge a book by its cover but this cover, with a golden compass-like instrument surrounded by weird symbols, drew me in. I paid for the book and took it to the rooftop café of the David Morgan department store.

David Morgans

David Morgan

Don’t bother looking for it; it’s not there anymore. It’s now a TK Maxx – quite a fall from grace for a prestige boutique store that once employed none other than Michael Aspel.

Michael Aspel

Aspel getting a tour David Morgan’s

But I used to go there a lot, to the top floor, where you could hide away and look out across the Hayes, at all the people rushing around.

I bought myself a tea and sat down with my new book. And was immediately transported. The very first sentence had a strange new word in it that piqued my mind: dæmon. I didn’t know what this was, other than Lyra had one and its name was Pantalaimon. I had no clue that the idea of a soul existing as the form of an animal outside one’s body would give me, later, some of the most moving moments I’ve ever read in books. I was hooked by the meeting that takes place in that opening in a re-imagined Victorian Oxford, by the the talk of a mysterious element called Dust that had supposedly been discovered by the mysterious Lord Asriel during an expedition to the North and how, through this Dust, he’d found a city that existed in another dimension.Northern Lights cover I sat there and read and the time ticked by until it was time to go back to British Gas. But I didn’t want to go back to British Gas. I wanted to stay here and keep reading. Dramatically, I told myself this was a watershed moment. I was going to choose a job or a book – a career, or something else. And of course there was the added frisson of a wrathful mother thrown into the mix.

I chose the book.

I read all afternoon and took the train into town until the end of the week, pretending to go to work, when in fact I was going to the rooftop café to read Northern Lights and then, after that, The Subtle Knife. I was completely in love with these books. They were so rich and dense, but such page-turners as well. After I finished The Amber Spyglass, the last in the trilogy, I was devastated. But I knew what had to be done. I needed to write my own epic trilogy of YA fiction. And so began a two year period of The Beginning of all Things, the story of a mysterious group of figures who could alter the laws of physics to stop evil from penetrating and overwhelming the world. Unfortunately, it was rubbish. But I did feel that I cut my teeth writing that book (I only completed one of the three).

In the meantime I kept an eye on what Philip Pullman wrote, devoured Lyra’s Oxford and had tears in my eyes at one sentence in Once Upon A Time in the North relating to Lee Scorseby’s gun. About five years ago (I think, it could be a little longer, or a little shorter), I couldn’t sleep and found myself trawling in the depths of the night the forums of Philip Pullman’s official website, which he used to post on from time to time. And I came across an entry mentioning something called The Book of Dust. I kept searching. The Book of Dust, like Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, seemed to be a companion piece to the His Dark Materials trilogy. But this book was going to be much bigger than the other two companion pieces. It was, I learned, a major project. That the title contained the word Dust made me really excited. The theory of Dust was, for me, one of the most compelling things about the original books. I was overjoyed and became, as I am wont to do, obsessed with this new book. I Googled it at least every month but nothing seemed to be happening. About a year later there was another nugget of information: Pullman had said that he was now spending all his time on the novel. I knew his technique. Every day he goes to his shed (actually, he no longer goes to his shed as he’s moved) and writes three pages longhand in his notepad. That’s his day’s work. Sometimes he writes them quickly, sometimes it takes him nearly twenty-four hours. But every day he writes three pages.

Pullman was on Twitter and every few months I Tweeted him: Can you tell us about the progress of the Book of Dust? And occasionally he would. The answer was always the same. “Today it is three pages longer than it was yesterday.” So I knew this book was going to be huge. I often thought of it, growing by three pages a day, for many years. It would be over a thousand pages. This was music to my ears. But still no news. It was only this year, 2017, that news of The Book of Dust broke in the mainstream. And it was no longer one book but three! I could not wait. Because David Morgan’s closed in 2005 I knew I would be unable to relive the ceremony of beginning this new trilogy in the rooftop café so I interviewed new venues. The winner was the Costa Coffee on Park Place, opposite Cardiff University’s Main Building. It was a red brick Victorian building with warm décor that reminded me of the Dark Materials world. Added to this, it had opened around Christmas time, the time I first read Northern Lights. Bear in mind I started planning reading Book of Dust there around 2012. I know it’s quite pathetic but these small rituals are what I live for. Last month, the Costa on Park Place closed. The building is to be demolished. So I won’t be reading the novel there. For some reason, this really distressed me for a good few weeks. But eventually I moved on and started thinking of alternatives. My new frontrunner is Café Zest in Howells – another old world department store, in a hidden corner on the second floor where you can disappear into the city. The book has been out for three days now. I ordered a signed copy from WHSmith and the orders have been messed up so I haven’t even got mine yet. I’ve picked up copies in Tesco and Asda and have managed to restrain myself from reading more than a few lines but from the opening paragraph I already know the world of the originals is still right there. I’m copyediting a new book at the moment so have made the decision to not start The Book of Dust (or La Belle Sauvage as this instalment is called) until I’m finished because I want to give it my full attention. I’ve waited the best part of a decade; a few more days won’t hurt.

Those original books have become something more to me, just as a song helps crystallise important moments in a life, so these books did the same for me. They came along at a time when my journey could have taken a completely different direction had I not bought Northern Lights and returned to British Gas. Not a better life, or a worse life, but a different one. Perhaps beyond the Dust that universe is playing out right now.

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Classic Form Custard Slice

Custard Slice Classic

The Classic Form. It has everything.

 

Managed to find myself a classic form custard slice the other day, on a day trip to Monmouth. What’s happened to custard slices these days? I first noticed the change around 2003. The classic form was being slowly replaced by a newer, more “continental” version, not dissimilar to the way native red squirrels were out-competed by their larger cousin the grey, when they first arrived on these shores from America in the 1870s. The deep mustard yellow of the classic form custard had given way to a more vivid, lemon yellow, a ludicrous colour. And the pastry had switched from short crust to the less satisfying filo. Whereas the classic form could be turned on its side and sliced easily (see photo) the newer form went into structural meltdown under the weight of a knife. This was in part due to the strange molecular shift that had taken place in the new custard. The older, classic form held together well, a tightly-compacted mass held within a strict latticework of chemical bonds. The 21st Century custard is like mush, as if the classic form has undergone a kind of trauma, as happens to shale deposits under the liquefying pressure of fracking. Taste. In the classic form there are layers of sensation: from the sweetness of the pastry that melts into the indulgent stodginess of the custard with the high note of the icing coming through at the end. That “pilgrimage” of taste is lost in the Y2K Slice. Now it’s just a slimy coldness from start to finish. The pure aesthetic of the Classic, the contrasting colours, like the flag of some exotic Caribbean island, has been replaced by various shades of cream. I still eat them, don’t get me wrong, but they have fallen way down the league table. The Classic Form is hands down my favourite food and I have watched silently its sad demise in this new technological, globalised millennium but finding this treasure up a side street of the sleepy farming town of Monmouth has awakened a fight in me. We must bring the classic form back. What else is the disintegration of the Classic population than the beigeing of our society, the sliding creep towards mediocrity we see across all art? Whale populations across the globe are rallying; conservation efforts can work. Get round your grans’ houses. FORCE her to make the custard slices of your childhood. We can do this. As my great hero Barack Obama (also, I assume, a massive fan of the classic form custard slice) always used to assure us. Yes. We. Can.

Custard Slice 2000s

The Y2K slice. Just look at it. What a mess!

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My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 3/3)

overhead-light

A few nights later the headaches still hadn’t eased, the sense of dizziness remained. I decided I wouldn’t be helping out with the brain experiments at the university any more. I’d started taking long walks because I was becoming restless at night. That same feeling of something being close wouldn’t go away. But despite this I was compelled to walk at night. I felt consistently uneasy and to curb the headaches I was taking painkillers all day and they were making me zoned out. I thought about contacting Carl and telling him what I was experiencing but knew it was pointless. The dull pain and fried feeling were nothing to do with the experiment. They were to do with whatever it was I was now convinced had followed me out of that room. Carl could do nothing for that. I researched phosphenes but nothing like what I was going through was to be found anywhere in the literature. I wondered if I had somehow psychokinetically brought something from some other place and even though I knew how patently ridiculous that was, the feeling wouldn’t go away.

My sleep had changed. I could no longer remember my dreams and I was falling so deeply into sleep that when I woke up it was almost as if I’d drifted so far away I hadn’t been in my body at all. This might have been due in part to the volume of painkillers I was taking. I was also losing weight quickly. Despite these deep sleeps I was exhausted in the days. By the time I finished my day job and then my shifts in the library at midnight I was drifting across the road, trying to keep my eyes open on the drive home. And all the while the pervading sense of a presence being near.

Christmas came and went but the festivities did little to rouse me from the malaise that had descended. I was cranky and was snapping at people in work and at home. My girlfriend said she was worried about me but I’d just respond by shrugging or mumbling something under my breath.

The university would email me from time to time to take part in more experiments but I didn’t respond. I noticed the messages from Carl had dried up entirely. In the weeks and months after the experiment he’d been dropping me the occasional line to check I was ok. I never replied to him.

Then, one night, at the end of January, I was out walking. It was well past two in the morning and it was sleeting. I’d taken to walking for two or three hours at this point, waiting until Amy had gone to bed so she didn’t realise I was staying out so late. Sometimes she’d wake up when I got back and sometimes she would ask the time and I’d tell her it was half twelve or one o’clock and to go back to sleep. That night I felt like I could walk forever. My route usually took me around the housing estates because I felt too unnerved to wander off onto the trails and nature reserves that surround my house. But that night something was different.entrance-to-canal The presence, which was now so familiar that I hardly even noticed it was pushing me towards the canal that ran behind the abandoned mental hospital. Along either side of the canal grew tall tress, that leaned over the water like a cathedral archway and as I moved beneath them the light from the streets was soon absorbed and I was near complete darkness. Almost immediately the presence drew close to me, behind my back and it pressed something like a hand to the back of my neck. Pain shot through me and down my face in the exact way it had all those months ago in the lab. It buckled me at the knees and I fell, almost into the dark waters of the canal.

I heard a breathing now, behind me, shallow and trembling. Where the presence had made contact with my neck I felt a coldness and a flowing, as if I were bleeding. I put my hand there but it came away dry. But there was a sensation on my hand, of a vapour moving across it, out of my neck. Something was flowing out of me. I could feel it. The best way to describe it is was as if my body had a kind of meta-webbing right the way through it, something beyond science but which will essential to my existence as Rhys Thomas, all the way down to my fingers and toes, and that meta-webbing was being drawn out of my through the back of my neck. The feeling was, truthfully, awful. It was so far removed any experience to which I can relate that it couldn’t be said to have been painful, but something beyond that, like the feeling when a dentist is trying to pull out your teeth, but right through my body. I was paralysed by it. canal-dark

The breathing behind me grew louder as whatever it was gathered strength directly from me. A survival instinct kicked in. I had to do something. With all the effort I could muster, I managed to break the grip it had on me. Quickly, I turned, and as I did I saw the shape, dark, with a grey border, like the phosphene I’d seen in the experiment but bigger. The diamond shape was human-shaped now, but more massive, and it was floating, its feet pointing downwards. It had long arms that reached out to me ask if it were begging. Its head, tilted to one side had a darkness in the lower half, a gaping mouth. It was there for a second. It reached out its hand and pressed it slowly against my face, firing that electrical pain down it. It’s not real, I kept telling myself; it’s not real. My brain created it, my brain created it. The world blazed white and then the darkness came back, and the presence was gone.

The next morning I suddenly felt better. It felt like spring had arrived early. For the first time in months there was a warmth in the sunlight. I stopped going for walks at night. I wasn’t tired all the time. The memory of that night by the canal faded quickly, as if it wasn’t real but hallucinatory. I attributed the lifting of the pall to the change of weather – I figured I’d just been grouchy and achy because I was working hard and it had been a long, cold, wet winter. My migraines had disappeared so I spent the next month kicking my co-codamol reliance that had developed since the experiment.

A few weeks after that I received an email from the TMS Lab Manager at the university. She was asking about Carl, asking if I could go to her office. Suicides in universities are more common that you realise but not widely publicised for obvious reasons. Carl had thrown himself from the top floor of the psychology building, down the stairwell, hanging himself with a length of hosepipe. The Lab Manager only told me this after probing about what had happened with my experiment in the basement. I told her nothing had happened, other than it was stopped it early because of the pain. When she told me the date Carl had died I knew at once it was the same night I’d been at the canal but I of course did not mention this. Up until I was told of the suicide I had all but erased that night from my memory.

Apparently they discovered in Carl’s office a hand scrawled journal filled with incoherent babble about something following him. The TMS Lab Manager showed me the journal. The handwriting was neat at the start, the first page being dated the 13th October, the same date as the experiment in the basement hence the Lab Manager’s request to see me, but got messier later on. There was a lot of stuff about wave particle duality in quantum theory and matter emerging from nothing and then disappearing again. But the thoughts were not ordered or coherent. It looked like the ramblings of someone going insane. By the end it was dark lines of black ink scratched deep into the page and there, in the scrawl of the final entry, a vaguely witch-shaped form, a coherent darkness against the darker chaos. I handed the journal back to the Lab Manger and looked out the window of the 5th floor, across the university buildings at the golden leaves sweeping across the lawns of the war memorial gardens and said I couldn’t help. Things come into existence, then they go away again into the fabric and it’s only our minds that create any meaning.

THE END

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My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 2/3)

Statue.jpgThe year was drawing on. The leaves on the trees were changing colour and falling. I turned up to meet the PhD student, who we’ll call Carl though that wasn’t his real name, one evening after work. The sun was setting earlier and the golden leaves were being blown by a strong wind across the street. Carl met me in reception. Tall, thin and blond, with a ragged knitted jumper, skinny faded black jeans with turn ups, and Doc Martin boots he looked like an arts student from the 90s. He shook my hand and smiled nervously.

My last experiment had taken place on the fifth floor of the psychology building but this one, he said, would be in the basement. He led me down a dark stone stairwell with metal handrails and along a dimly lit corridor to a poky little office with desks and chairs from the 1960s. There were some beaten up old books on a wooden shelf and a couple of threadbare chairs.

We went through the safety questionnaire again and then he explained what was going to happen.

‘Ok. You’ve have tCDS but this experiment involves TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation. I’ll be stimulating small regions of your brain through magnetic field generation. The coil in the device will produce electrical currents that we’ll fire into your brain. Are you afraid of the dark?’

This question caught me off guard. ‘No.’ Like anybody I’m afraid of the dark if I’m scared but generally it’s okay.

‘This experiment will take place in darkness.’ I hadn’t expected that. ‘The hope is that when I apply the current you’ll be able to see a phosphene.’

‘I don’t know what a phosphene is,’ I said. sky

‘A phosphene is a shape, or a form, that appears before you. It’s not real but it will seem real. Your brain creates it. It might take the form of a circle or light or a shape. Everybody has different ones.’

‘Like a patronus,’ I said, trying to lighten the mood, that had suddenly become serious.

‘No, they’re not like patronuses,’ he said, po-faced. ‘If you look behind you, you will see a chin strap and some vices that we’ll use to keep your head steady when the experiment is taking place.’

When I told people about my last experiment where my arms had twitched involuntarily they said I was crazy and now I was starting to see what they meant. But I was here, deep underground, and I would feel stupid if I dropped out now. Plus, I wanted to the money. Carl strapped me in, with my chin in a small bucket so that I was facing the wall. The vices clamped on to my temples. Then, the same as last time, he applied the current with the machine and parts of my body twitched without my knowing: my arm, my foot shot out, my leg vibrated. I told him I was in no discomfort, and this was true, but I did think the twitching was stronger this time.

‘I’m going to switch off the lights now,’ he said, from the corner of the room. And he killed the lights. I heard him approach me in the darkness, not saying anything. I felt his presence behind me and by this time was extremely disturbed.

‘I’m going to apply the current,’ he said. ‘If you see a form then let me know.’

The grey rod collected its electricity and fired it through my skull into my brain. In the darkness it shocked me.

‘Are you ok?’ said Carl.

‘I’m fine. I was just surprised.’

‘Ok we’ll try again.’

Leaves on Lawn.jpgThe second shock was as strong as the first. It felt like a flash. Something sparked up in front of me. Didn’t it? I couldn’t be sure but it felt like I’d seen a darkness against the greater darkness of the room. It was like an elongated diamond, spread lengthways with a vaguely silver outline. The shape of it wasn’t geometrical though, it wasn’t simple. The edge of it rippled, like it was being blown by a phantom wind. I didn’t say anything to Carl. I couldn’t be sure I’d seen it or if it was just my mind playing tricks. The next shock was stronger than the first two. It was so strong it felt like a condensed scream accompanied it. The form was there again and this time it was more defined. I started.

‘Ok?’ said Carl.

‘I think I saw something. I don’t know. How do you know if you really see it?’

‘You should just know,’ said Carl. ‘Did that one hurt?’

‘It did, a little. I think. I don’t know. I’m happy to try again,’ I said. I was fascinated now. I wanted to keep going.

‘We’ll try again,’ he said.

I waited for the next spark, holding my breath. When it came a shocking pain cracked down my face, like a lightning strike, splitting either side of my nose and carrying on in two distinct lines to my jaw. More shocks ran down my arms. I jolted violently in my seat and at the same time caught a glimpse of the floating diamond shape. In that microsecond it looked like it was turning, and that there was the idea, at the top, of a head, face. I created it with my brain, I told myself to stay clam. It’s…not…real.

‘Ok I think we’re going to have to stop the experiment,’ said Carl.blurry-leaves

I heard him run back across the room to the light switch. As the light flooded the room everything seemed normal again. Carl hurriedly released me from the head grip and asked again if I was ok.

‘I’m fine,’ I said, though in truth I felt a little frazzled. I didn’t want to tell him this because I might want to do more experiments in the future and one of the safety questions was, Have you ever had an adverse reaction to TMS. But I did tell him about the pain in my face.

‘There are nerves in the face,’ he acknowledged. ‘If I hit them it won’t do any lasting damage. Maybe the current was too strong.’

‘That’s fine,’ I said.

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By the time I got out of the building it was dark and rain was spitting in the wind. I walked down to my car along the now empty street. I felt-light headed, like I was drunk, but I was bound to feel like this after a disturbing experience like the one I’d just had. The sensation of something following me could also be explained away by me being a little out of it. Whenever I turned around nothing was there save the autumn leaves blowing in the wind.

The light was eerie, not quite the right brightness, too bright around the streetlights, too dark in all the other places. I got into my car and checked my mirror. I stared for several minutes, convinced that something was there, lurking. I could feel it. But I was being stupid. It wasn’t real. I started the car and went home.

TO BE CONCLUDED…

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My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 1/3)

20161026_190314

Around eighteen months ago I was strapped for cash. I’d been working nights at C—— University’s physics, engineering and astronomy library and had access to the bulletin boards on the university’s intranet. Late one night I was trawling the site when I came across an ad to get paid for taking part in some brain experiments over in the psychology and brain imaging centre. The three month summer break was coming up and I’d have some extra time so why not? I’d recently taken an interest in neuroscience so I fired off an email to the Lab Manager.

One week later I was walking through the doors of C—-C, the university’s brain unit, and down several sets of stairs underground where the MRI scanner was housed in a concrete tomb, around which the rest of the building had been constructed. The MRI technician ran through the safety procedures and, as instructed, I removed anything metal from my person.

‘So this is basically safe,’ I said to her.

‘Oh yeah. I’ve had like seventeen of them.’

This seemed like a lot of MRI’s to have.

The study itself involved being inserted into the scanner for two hours and just relaxing. This was perfect for me. They were checking differences between the brain activity in a “normal” person and sufferers of schizophrenia. There would be heavy banging sounds from the gradient coils but I was given ear plugs for these and I could watch a DVD or even fall asleep. I selected Planet Earth from the choices and went into the room that housed the scanner, an intimidatingly large tube of metal with a narrow bed in the centre which could be moved in and out of the machine on a set of small runners. The technician was behind a thick glass partition and spoke to me through a headset, telling me when the machine was being switched on and when the bangs were about to begin. But in truth it was fine. It wasn’t as claustrophobic as I’d thought because a mirror above my head was reflecting the TV screen behind the machine so I wasn’t even aware I was in an enclosed space. As the enormous magnets in the machine were switched on the spinning nuclei of all the hydrogen atoms in my body aligned on their axes into a state of quantum coherence. The technician pulsed radio waves through my skull into my brain, forcing the aligned nuclei to exist in the spooky quantum state of superposition where they spin both left and right simultaneously, as expressed in terms of probabilities until observation takes place. As all this happened inside my head I watched happy penguins skimming on their bellies across the ice of Antarctica, and then fell asleep.

When it was all over I asked the Lab Manager if there were any more experiments I could take part in.

‘I haven’t got any at the moment,’ she said but they’re often looking for people to help in TMS experiments.’

‘TMS?’

‘Transcranial magnetic stimulation. It’s a handheld machine they use to stimulate your brain, far less intimidating than an MRI machine. There’s a database you go on. I can ask them to contact you if you want.’

‘That’d be great,’ I said.dsc_0116

My first day of experimentation with TMS was a simple study to test the effect of blood glucose on cognitive tasks. I had to refrain from eating for a few hours and then conduct some memory tests whilst receiving tCDS, transcranial direct-current stimulation. I sat in a chair whilst the TMS Lab Manager went through the safety procedures. I had to complete a couple of lengthy questionnaires to check it was safe – Have you ever had an adverse reaction to TMS or tCDS? Have you ever had a seizure? Are you claustrophobic? Do you have any metal in your head? Have you had a stroke? Are you taking psychiatric or neuroactive medications? And other unsettling questions. I answered no to them all and we could continue. The Lab Manager inked some dots on to my face and scalp and explained that whilst I was taking part in the cognitive tasks she would be firing an electric current directly into my brain. I said that would be fine. Before we started she needed to do some tests. Standing behind my chair she held up a grey rod about a foot long with a C-shaped tube on one end. She counted down from three and fired a current in. Nothing happened.

‘Tell me if you feel anything,’ she said.

‘I didn’t.’

She fired again but this time my left arm twitched without me doing anything. I felt something run from my neck to the end of my middle finger. It was strange. Something had entered my brain and without permission had taken over my motor faculties. But more than that, along with the shock I was hit instantaneously with a catastrophic sensation of insignificance, as if I’d just had unlocked the fact that we are really nothing but electrical signals flowing down puny muscles and meat on the surface of a tiny rock in a vast cold universe that has no purpose. In the grand scheme of things we are nothing. But mostly it was tingly

‘I felt that,’ I said, smiling to let her know everything was A ok.

She marked the area of my scalp where the current had been applied. She repeated this a few times, increasing and decreasing the strength of the current and moving the rod to different areas of my skull until she was happy, and then we conducted the experiment. It was an odd experience and maybe after it took place I had a gentle headache but this might also have been a phantom pain born of paranoia. In theory I shouldn’t have a headache. But it was just two hours of work and the money was pretty good. It’d pay for a meal out with my girlfriend, Amy. halloween-vortex

 

‘Are there any other studies coming up?’ I said, later.

‘There’s a PhD student looking at phosphenes. I can hook you up with him.’

I didn’t know what a phosphene was. ‘That’d be great,’ I said.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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The Time I Went To Watch Regina Spektor and What Happened

When Regina Spektor released her supreme album, Far, and was playing in London I of course bought tickets. Two tickets, one for me and one for, let’s call him Rafe. Rafe is a very dear childhood friend of mine who lives in London. I would usually stay with him at that time. He lived above a chiropractor’s in Oakwood and I would look forward to sleeping on the top of the market air mattress.

 

There I was with my travel pack, riding into town on the Megabus. There is always that frisson of excitement when Old Lady Thames comes into view between the towers of London and this time was no different. I met up with Rafe and we had a few drinks whilst he told me about his new Australian girlfriend, who was a very passionate person. We finished our drinks and headed over to the Hammersmith Apollo. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Hammersmith Apollo but it has the most beautiful flyover outside it that you really must see.

Anyway, Regina was on great form. I had fallen in love with the album when it came out but played live the songs really shone. Blue Lips I remember being a highlight of the earlier songs in the set. Around half way through the concert I felt a tug at my arm. It was Rafe. We’d both had a fair bit to drink by this point and he was slurring a little.

‘What’s that?’ I said.

‘I’ve gotta go.’

‘This is some kind of sick joke,’ I said.

‘My new girlfriend has texted and she said she needs to me to go over there. She said she’d be passionate with me.’

‘You can’t do this, Rafe,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how to get back to your flat.’

‘Yeah you do, it’s easy,’ he said. ‘Sorry, sorry.’

‘But you have an eighteen year old Italian female as your flatmate and she doesn’t know who I am and I can’t just turn up there – she’ll think I’m a lunatic come to kill her.’

‘No no no,’ he said, ‘it’ll be fine. It’ll be fine.’

And that was that. Off he went into the night. I returned my attention to Regina. Ah, what a great concert that was. When it was over I threaded my way through the streets and underground tunnels of the great city and, eventually, all fun completely disintegrated after over an hour of travel, I arrived at Rafe’s flat.

My worries about the Italian flatmate resurfaced. She might be up there now, watching TV or reading or book and all of a sudden a strange drunk was about to bowl in saying he’s Rafe’s friend and it’s ok to spend the night in a flat which has no locks on the bedroom doors.

I checked the windows upstairs. The lights were out. I’d just get in there like someone in the SAS, make myself a delicious glass of refreshing water, and get to bed. She’d be none the wiser. And the plan went off without a hitch. The flat was silent and dark. I crept along the landing, past her closed bedroom door, clutching the glass of water I’d made in the downstairs kitchen. I got into Rafe’s room and breathed a sigh of relief. I was pretty hammered by this point and fell asleep right away.

I was awoken the next morning by the sound of my phone ringing. It was Rafe.

‘I’m late for rugby. You need to get my kit and bring it to Richmond.’

‘Where’s the kit?’

‘In the airing cupboard in the bathroom.’

‘No problem,’ I said.

I ended the call. I’d already decided not to shower or anything because of the Italian flatmate so I’d be gone soon enough and the episode would be over. Nobody would notice my not being showered – I was, after all, travelling on the Megabus. I got all my stuff ready and listened at the door for signs of the Italian girl stirring. There were none. This was going to be simple. I’d grab Rafe’s kit and get the hell out of dodge. The perfect crime. I edged open the door and poked my head out. The coast was clear. I tippy-toed across the landing and into the bathroom, silent, like a cat. In the bathroom I spied the airing cupboard in the corner and headed over. ‘Oh my,’ I remember remarking to myself, ‘this is a very deep airing cupboard.’ Rafe’s kitbag was on a shelf right at the back, about three feet away. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought to myself if I went in here and then the Italian girl came in just as I was in the cupboard. A wry smile and a shake of the head at my amusing thought and I entered the airing cupboard. I collected up Rafe’s bag and at that moment I heard a noise. The landing. Oh no. But, of course, oh yes.

It was one of those airing cupboards with slats so you could see through into the main area of the room. You’ve all seen them, whenever there’s a perve in a film perving on someone. In came the eighteen year old Italian in a white bathrobe. I watched her through the slats. I was now in a crisis point. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t just stay here and wait in secret whilst she got showered, wait whilst she dried off and went about her toilet… could I? I could spare her modesty by cowering in the back of the airing cupboard, I thought, just as a cowardly rat might find cover under a pile of rotting food. But then I thought, no that would simply be too insane. There was no choice.

I psyched myself up, slung Rafe’s kitbag across my back, took a few deep breaths… and leapt out of the airing cupboard. There was a moment. A brief second where our eyes met before the she realised what was happening. I stood there, she stood there. I thought about what to say, how to explain this. But what words could there possibly be? The answer is of course obvious: none. So instead of speaking I lunged towards the door. The Italian was between me and the door so she thought I was lunging for her. Weirdly, she didn’t scream, she just stepped towards the toilet as I flew past. I yanked open the door and ran across the landing, thinking, what the hell must she think? It took longer than I thought to get across that landing and down the stairs. I could feel her eyes staring at my back as I thought to myself, well, Rhys, this is going to be a real low point in your life.

I finally got Rafe his kitbag. He found the story very amusing. I told him he had to explain what had happened but he said that wasn’t going to happen. With that I headed back to Victoria but I had a few hours to kill so I detoured to 221b Baker Street for a visit to the Sherlock Holmes museum, which was absolutely awesome.

Me in 221b

Here I am in Holmes’ chair at 221b Baker Street – Superb

 

 

 

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My Car Park

I would like to set up my own car park one day, to find a small plot of land in the city centre and cover it over with lovely black, flat tarmac painted with pristine white parking boxes. I would like to plant laurel bushes in foot tall wooden planter and have them grow to a height of eight foot, perfectly maintained, so that when the car park is empty at the end of each day there will be just the smooth tarmac, the bushes, and the sky, an oasis of calm in the mayhem of the city. I will have a yellow arm barrier at the entrance that I will control from my small but comfortable booth that I intend to work out of.

On a unit underneath the window overlooking the car park there will be two screens; one for the closed circuit television and one for my television with an inbuilt DVD player, not only for playing films but for CDs as well. The antennae will be fastened to the outside of the booth because the TV will also have Freeview. Above the unit will be a narrow shelf-cum-desk and, on casters, a tall chair. From here I will watch the entrance of the car park and have my till, roll of tickets, mobile card machine, barrier remote and cordless intercom receiver. I will have a small cloth pouch for change as I will collect the parking money personally when customers enter. They will have the option of buying a ticket, for one hour, two hours, three hours, and so on until the closing time of 7pm. The tickets will be colour-coded for ease of reference when I am patrolling. I may hire a member of staff to work evenings though they would need to demonstrate an understanding of the zen philosophy of the car park. Only then will I know they are trustworthy. In the booth there will be a comfortable sitting chair where I will spend most of my day reading, writing, drawing, watching television, listening to music or podcasts, or looking out the window across the main area of the car park at the top of the hedge and the sky beyond, the clouds knitting and fraying behind the skyscrapers. Next to the comfortable chair will be a small table for my drinks and snacks. A tall reading lamp will be behind the comfortable chair so that in the dark winter nights I may still read my book in good light. A framed map of the world will hang behind my chair. I will need a view of the CCTV screen so that I can see new customers arriving and leaving. The intercom terminals will be before and aft the yellow arm barrier so that drivers wishing enter and exit the car park can contact me if I am in my comfortable chair. The other end of the intercom, my end, will be remote, as will the console for the raising and lowering of the yellow arm barrier. When I am sitting in my chair I will store these devices either on my lap desk, or on the small occasional table to my side. The comfortable chair and small table must be portable so that I can take them outside the booth during summer. I will also need a sun umbrella (parasol) , possibly stored in an external, lockable ottoman where I can also keep a broom, a cordless hedge trimmer, a snow shovel with a stock of grit for those slippery winter mornings, and any other maintenance equipment.

Back in the booth a sideboard will run along the wall next to the hedge. Underneath I can keep files, books, a fridge, a printer, a blanket, a stationery box and an electric oil heater. On top there will be a kettle, a tree for mugs, a tea set and a pot for coffee. There should also be a foldaway chair for guests, though this must be comfortable enough to watch an entire film in. My car park should be a world away from the larger world, peeled off to make a little pocket of tranquility, much in the same way a tepui rock stack in the highlands of South America has no contact with the forest below. Perhaps I will cut recesses out of the hedgerow in places so that I can supply wooden benches for drivers who may wish to take a moment of contemplation between their busy jobs or shopping days and the stressful journey home. Who knows, perhaps somebody will one day pass on from this world and leave in their last will and testament an instruction to buy a new bench for the car park, with a small brass plaque nailed to it with their name, the year they were born and the year they died and a small inscription of how they liked coming to the car park. I will usher drivers to and from their spaces – some regulars may prefer a particular space they can call their own – and in so doing subconsciously learn the unseen algorithms, the counterintuitive flows that occur in any complex system, of how to get people in and out with maximum efficiency. Perhaps one day someone will be having a terrible day but then she can close her eyes and feel the wind on her face, and envision her car parked safely within the car park with its smooth tarmac and neat hedgerow. People will tell other people of the small oasis of calm that is my car park and perhaps in time its message can expand beyond the edges of its eight foot tall laurel bush extent and into the wider world, like the hedge-dwelling birds such as the humble linnet or the sing-song yellowhammer, the little wren or even, at Christmas, the robin red breast, who I hope will nest there and make the their home with me.

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