Redemption on ice

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A man and a woman have been pulled over at the roadside by their local police.

To complicate matters further – at least for the man and woman in question – they are black.

The burly copper asks, ever so seriously, if they are aware of some obscure motoring infringement they might have made. It’s a belting hot Continental Summer mid-day and you can practically feel them sweating.

You might have seen the video.

Just when you think something awful’s going to happen, the second policeman produces two ice-creams – one each for the driver and passenger – and says it’s against Highway regulations to be driving without ice-cream.

The woman literally screams with laughter and as she and her passenger accept the proffered ice-creams the conversation becomes a little more natural – but only just – between more laughs. At which point I’m left thinking:

  1. Isn’t that a Happy Ending!
  2. But…

Now then. I’m not fully au fait with the past record of Halifax, Nova Scotia’s finest. Are they generally known as a friendly, approachable bunch, or do they have some ‘issues’ in their past (or worse, their present)?

And if the latter, or if – heaven help us – someone like Chicago’s force should try a stunt like this, what are we to make of it?

Meanwhile, I write my fiction. And in among the characters I’ve created is someone whose past deeds are dreadful but who has – quite literally – had a change of mind (this is sci-fi, after all). His ‘new’ character craves forgiveness from a past victim – or at the very least wants the said victim to trust him enough that they can carry out a scheme which both would want done, together.

How is one to write the new, ‘reformed’, character believably? Or in fact any ‘reformed’ character under more normal circumstances?

Because a writer of a tale involving ‘redemption’ has to deal with this dilemma: if the character changes too little, are they forgivable? And if they change too much, are they ‘credible’?

I think this little vignette shows a way.

Let’s imagine two police officers who have genuinely abused their power in the past take it upon themselves to imitate our two Nova Scotians’ cunning stunt.

Although their intentions may be laudable, and they are doing no-one any direct harm this time round, they are nevertheless putting themselves in a position of massive power over their ‘victims’. And in that way, although they look – and believe themselves – reformed characters, they still want to exercise power. In that one crucial dimension, even though they’ve gone from ‘evil’ to ‘good’, deep down they haven’t changed.

 

 

But is it Evil?

 

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For reasons known only to the Great God WIP (Work in Progress, which at the moment is a novel with a botanical theme) I took it upon myself to write a scene from the point of view of a Bindweed.

For this I had to find out more about the Nature of the Beast than the little I already know: that, given half a chance, the thing would outgrow and strangle practically everything on our vegetable allotment (with the noble exception of the Rhubarb, who apparently makes its own weed-killer, and the Globe Artichoke, who is basically just a giant thistle with gourmet pretentions).

Plants communicate with each other, including across species. Not by whispering when we’re not listening (though to be fair this has never been proven), but by chemical messages below the soil, and occasionally above it. I have personally experienced this. Picture the scene: one spring morning I noticed a couple of cheeky dandelion flowers on our lawn. With nothing better to do, I dug the plants up. In doing so I noticed more that hadn’t flowered. And more, and more, until I’d dug up every dandelion I could see. I remember their fragrance – quite strong but not unpleasant.

The following day the several who’d escaped this intended wipe-out were all in brazen flower. I’m still convinced that they knew, somehow, that they were in danger and were doing their level best to make sure someone among them got to make seeds.

Another one from my own experience: watching the bamboo on our allotment bend away from a bonfire we’d lit next to it. You could actually see it move.

And there’s a lab in Australia who have managed to show that plants can find water just from the sound it makes.

So why not write from a plant’s point of view? In checking certain things for research (for example, the technical term for the tubular white roots which form that infuriatingly durable network from which the Bindweed draws its apparently boundless energy) I discovered they are Rhyzomes (Rhizomes in the States) and the plant itself is a Bine.

Bine?

Why had I never heard the term before?

A Vine  – for example a Pea plant or a Grapevine – throws out little curly tendrils to clasp on to whatever it has chosen for support, whereas a Bine – the Bindweed, or indeed our Beans – wraps its whole stem about its support in a helix. The Bindweed helix always turns clockwise (as you lie on the ground looking up, that is), so here in the Northern hemisphere that means it turns against the path of the sun – widdershins, as they say.

It is, therefore, obviously Evil. Which makes it an interesting character to write about, no?

 

 

Story seeds

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The back of the Seed Drawer is a weird and wonderful place. Its inhabitants, those seeds unlucky enough to have been bought in a ‘bad year’, gather dust in the quiet time between one upheaval and another.

Perhaps their purchaser was lured out early to the garden centre by an unusually warm and sunny March, only to have had all hopes dashed by an April loaded with gales and sleet. Good intentions may, on the other hand, have been stymied by the unforeseen imposition of a house move, a new job, or some other devourer of time like the sudden need to care for an elderly relative who lives 150 miles away. Or open heart surgery.

But this year has brought something else altogether.

Here in the UK those of us lucky enough not to work one of the ‘key’ jobs formerly known as ‘unskilled’ have had to stay at home – and to do so through an unusually sunny spring. Only Wales had the good sense to keep garden centres open. Us Sais here in England had to make the best of what we’d got.

What I found, on gleaning the drawer, were not so much seeds as story prompts:

Mrs Lei (a bean, not shown here) works as a Neural Miner in the dark underbelly of some evil organisation powered entirely by disembodied captive brains – a bit like The Matrix only with added pickaxes and dirt.

Munstead Strain is obviously a closer-to-home version of The Andromeda Strain (A search for Munstead reveals it is, indeed, in the Home Counties. It was even designed by somebody called Jekyll. The plot thickens…)

Double Mixed and Fiesta Gitana Mixed bring to mind rom-coms, the first one peopled with Updike-type characters only less serious, and the second with English ex-pats in Spain.

At this point I felt the need to search for mentions of these seed names: where had the companies, or gardeners, got their inspiration from? I found only one site, in the whole world, bore any mention of ‘Neural Miner’ seed and that site, by a bizarre coincidence, was the only place I could find mention of ‘Weretors of Elgebar’.

And in a further twist, since I drafted this blog yesterday, that site appears to have vanished!

So I may never know what curlicues of the imagination could have caused someone to give a plant such a name.

Midnight, on a jagged mountain top. Clouds scud across the full moon. A cluster of fractured towers loom black against the sky. A single, cold blue eye gleams, as if alive, from one of the empty windows. Elgebar, finally aligned. Tonight, the towers have awakened and will claim what is theirs…

Mass Observation

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This Blog is entitled ‘In Surreal Time’ and experts are in agreement that there’s no time as surreal as the present. Inspired by this, some wag at HMG came up with the bright idea of encouraging everyone to ‘write their day’ in the style of the World War 2 Mass Observation project, on 12th May. I have never been a patient soul and so I shall write up just a typical working day in our house instead, drawn from a combo of last week’s days.

Our workplace – transport engineers in an office not a million miles from York Railway Station – had always had I.T. problems. That was, until about 15th March when, well in advance of HMG’s lockdown announcement, they found enough laptops, peripherals and connectors to send us all home to work. No-one – as far as I know – was lain off (although some one in 10 were furloughed last week). People who’d been working on-site were either redeployed or, with extra precautions and if qualified and willing, required to work alone.

I was literally the last to leave, carrying with me a lap-top that I.T. wanted back but couldn’t have, a screen belonging to someone else, and possibly the last HDMI cable in the building.

To my astonishment, the IT from home has (so far) worked flawlessly.

I get up at about eight, having had breakfast in bed (because basically I am spoiled rotten). I shower. The shower’s another piece of good luck: its predecessor had a slow leak (into the kitchen) and was replaced just a couple of weeks before it all kicked off. These days it would probably be illegal, barring emergency, to have a plumber work indoors.

There are two computers in the spare room: the laptop from work, and my ancient P.C. upon which (for example) I’m writing this. If I’m a little early I might post a few tweets first to catch the morning crowd before disconnecting the monitor, mouse and keyboard from my machine and hitching them up to the laptop.

We have a Teams meeting at 9 every working day. Words can’t do justice to the sheer genius of this idea: suddenly you’re not alone, there’s banter, information from high-ups, confirmation of what you need to do for the day, and of course the familiar faces of workmates (plus a chance to kneb at the places where they live).

The house turns into 2 offices for the morning: one here in the spare room, and one in Eugene’s study.

We generally make soup for lunch, and have it with bread, cheese and the like. This week it’s been sorrel soup made with leaves from the garden. My work lunchbreak is 12 till 1 and I generally stick to this. The University often end up making Eugene work through lunch hour in exchange for some daft time like 3 till 4.

I work though till some time between 5:30 and 6. I email with a summary of what I’ve done, then disconnect the computer so that I can spend the evening on my own non-work emails and twitter. Sometimes we watch the News (Channel 4 at 7 pm). Victoria Macdonald is the new Kate Adie for this disaster. This week the U.K.’s official death toll became the highest in Europe. As an island, and with the greatest lead-time, we should have had the lowest. Nearly all the health workers you see dying are Black or Islamic. My theory is stress (the extra stress caused by racism), coupled with Vitamin D uptake. An enquiry has been launched but I’m not sure who by, and no-one seems to have much confidence it’ll find the answer.

Over this weekend I’ve watched the confusion as government-sanctioned V.E. Day celebrations have collided with exhortations to stay home and keep calm. Not everyone has a front garden with enough room for a tea party. We do, but V.E. Day in this house is 9th, not 8th, and it’s not a time for tea-parties either. Eugene is up early to cycle on deserted roads in fresh sunshine to the memorial at Great Ouseburn to lay flowers (an even number, for mourning). Someone, since last year, has been good enough to fasten a vase beneath the two plaques (one in English, one in Russian).

I have been gardening. Two sacks of professional compost, bought on a belter of a sunny day after queueing for an hour in the car-park at B&Q (in a line helpfully decorated with 2-metre makers for Social Distancing), have revitalised the planters at the side garden and they are now full of seedlings (herbs salad, beans, sunflowers…). It’s remarkable how much better the professional compost holds the water than soil shovelled from the garden does. It also looks neater.

I can’t help but love the empty roads and the quiet. Yet for every car journey not made there is likely somebody’s daily wages gone, so it’s selfish of me in a way. The 80% furlough money covers far from everybody – only ‘old economy Steve’ types with a regular salary and PAYE.

I wear a paper mask if I’m going into someone else’s building, but not for general outdoors. I’d like to, but it mists up my glasses. No-one has come up with a solid work-around for this, though everyone with face furniture suffers it.

As for writing: it had already taken a bashing when I started work last June. Nowadays it’s almost impossible. I like to write set in ‘the present’ but where is that ‘present’ now? Think of all the characters in novels who travel so easily, who hug or shake hands when they meet; who are generally not in shock at what’s just happened. Do we set our tales in a generic near-past, now so out-of-time? Or in the actual present with its weirdness?

And if we write set in the future, what’s that going to look like? We don’t even know if a vaccine is physically possible. The common cold – also a Coronavirus – has no vaccine and it’s not for lack of effort on our part. We don’t know – I at least have not yet heard anyone mention it – what the psychological effects will be upon all of us when it finally sinks in that we are no longer top of the food chain.

 

 

Stuff of Nightmares

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I seem to have been writing a lot of Horror lately. This may – or may not – have been the result of having just finished wading through a text about the neurology, psychology and purpose of Nightmares.

For most people the peak era of nightmares is toddlerhood. In that sense at least, I am like most people. Some of my nightmares – getting lost in a derelict house inhabited by Something Menacing that I Never Saw, or being pursued through a speeding train, again by SMtINS, I can still remember, along with the typical wading through treacle, or not being able to move at all. My childhood nightmares seem, at least according to the agreed ‘definition’, pretty much the classic formula. Not to be confused with ‘bad dreams’ which are still unpleasant but more mundane and without that nameless, abject terror.

The text delved into related matters: REM sleep, slow-wave sleep, the roughly 90-minute cycles of these and other sleep states in a normal night, and what happens when any of these states are disrupted. It got quite technical – I’m sure the parts of the brain were named by a committee whose remit was ‘make these words as forgettable as possible by people all over Western Europe.’

The part which really puzzled me, though, came next.

The character, constitution and body chemistry that make some people more prone to  nightmares than others are to an extent hereditary. If – after a million or so years of human-racing – nightmares haven’t died out then they must, in some bizarre way, have been useful.

Perhaps they still are.

The theory proposed here was that in prehistoric times those of us who suffered nightmares were held in awe and believed to be privy to esoteric knowledge no-one else could get at. We were considered useful. We were also in a way powerful because in our ‘other life’, in darkness, we had confronted Evil Things and come away unscathed. But to reach all these benefits we had, of course, first to tell other folk what had happened to us in the night…

I can’t quite make sense of this. People are surely more likely to believe the nightmare victim the source – or at least the conduit – of Evil Things rather than their vanquisher. And people who were regarded as having a connection with Evil wouldn’t have lasted long – in a tribe they’d be excommunicated and later, in modern but pre-industrial times, they’d be executed as a witch.

And as if that’s not enough, why toddlers? Why did nightmares come to afflict the very people least able to put their terrifying experiences into words, and thus to benefit from them?

Perhaps we were just supposed to remember them for later, and write Horror stories…

 

Image By wartburg.eduimage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1170857