Mammals, I Think We Are Called: Dividual

A man look at his reflection in a train station mirror

Dividual

Number 12 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

Doctors battle a psychological disease brought on by taking selfies, using a radical therapy that shatters identity in order to reshape it.

Read an excerpt:

1. The Doctor’s Notes
Sometimes we have to chop the patients’ hands off (it’s a case of survival) to convince them that, yes, this is real, this is happening, this physical body is you, is yours.

“We’ll grow them back,” we reassure them, but even this doesn’t usually get much of a reaction. (Or, if it does, all they want to know is whether the new hands can grow back different to how they look now.)

They sit and stare at the bandaged stumps, but they don’t see them. Sometimes they mutter and glance wildly around the room in what we now know is a search for a mirror. Sometimes I find my eyes following theirs – empathic mirroring. To be encouraged in most circumstances. I force my gaze into a fixed position in front of these patients.

At the very least, the stumps prevent the patients taking photos. To add to the complexity of the illness, we know it isn’t the mirror alone; it is the photos taken in the mirror. Even imagining a photo being taken leads to subtle shifts in how they present themselves.

Exasperated, we may eventually say something like: “It doesn’t matter what you look like.”

“I already know what I look like,” is a typical reply.

Invariably, the self that is described by the patient (in rare moments of lucidity) bears little physical resemblance to the self seen in a mirror.

The hand-chopping was preceded by an experiment in which the eyes were (temporarily) removed. At first, of course, we used a blindfold, but people cheated and pulled it off when our backs were turned.

The experiment failed. It was too quick and too frightening for the patients. They had no experience of consciousness without sight. This, we are slowly realising, takes much practice and they hadn’t been trained. Rather than let go, they clung more than ever to ‘the true selfie’, something they created from a mash-up of famous people (a lot of them about): singers, models, whoever they wanted.

It seems obvious now that would happen.

Those few of us doctors left who have an orientation to the real world know it is a race against time because how long before we, the new minority, succumb to the illness all around us? We cling to objective reality (what else can we do?) to counteract the non-responses of the subjects, now making up most of the world. It is a precarious position, but we must keep the fire of the exterior world alive because otherwise the subjects will cease to engage with material conditions, including other people, and, eventually, society will end.


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Mammals, I Think We Are Called: Barleycorn

Barleycorn

Number 18 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

Folk horror comes to the city. A forensic pathologist and climate change student struggle to solve the mystery of a mysterious headless man.

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In the early evening, the pathologist gives himself up to the mellow autumn warmth as he drives to work through the steam rising from the tarmac. The sun is setting at a leisurely pace, suffusing the sky with an eerie, luminous gold.

As he gets out of the car, the windscreen wiper catches the sun and gleams. Buried memories tug at him, a man, no, something like a man, insects serenading the end of summer in a stubbled field . . . He bends closer. A gold barley seed is lodged in the wiper’s rubber. He plucks it out and taps it against his teeth. Solid.

An image flashes into his mind: a severed head, its hair a tumbled, golden sheaf, its eyes a ferocious sky blue. He’d heard a scream above the harvester’s engine as he mowed down the last swathe of barley. He’d looked over his shoulder and—

How can he have forgotten?

He pushes the seed into a corner of his wallet.

A ray of sun penetrates the darkened morgue through the narrow pavement window. He hesitates at the door, not wanting to turn on the searingly bright lights just yet.

The darkness reminds him of sitting in the farm kitchen. His father had eyed the empty rafter where the corn dolly usually hung, tied with a red ribbon, then plonked the mug of harvest ale down in front of him without a word.

Absurd tradition! The nature spirits are about as real as Father Christmas. So why does he still feel so guilty about not leaving them the last sheaf?

He goes over to the window and stands in the sunshine with his eyes closed. A wave of nostalgia for summer washes through him, tinged with deep sadness, as if it might never come again. And then the vision that haunted him for years: a severed head returning to its body, a man’s parts miraculously joining back together.


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Mammals, I Think We Are Called: As You Follow

A beer glass with beer exploding out the top. The River Thames at night.

As You Follow

Number 4 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

From the dream-like world of a Bavarian BierKeller to the banks of the moonlit Thames, a golden boy leads us on a journey of mortality.

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It is a bold entrance. You cannot miss it, booming out its yellow lights and buxom barmaid cartoon, across from the magnificence of soaring glass. It has beer, beer, beer and other things besides, if you have the money.

Down the stairs, out of the soft end-of-October rain and Halloween nearly over. You duck under the low arch, burly bouncers stopping you, pointing out a far bench, changing their minds, pointing out another, squeezing you in beside a quiet couple picking at something green, out of place among the shouting and singing, the plates of leftover Bratwurst and chips, the men standing and cheering on the boys in lederhosen, with their brass instruments, their paid smiles, to keep going and going and the long wooden trays of spirits, red shots lined up in sixes and twelves, and on one end a sparkler to set them going, to light the spirits before dawn, and they go down down down and light up the insides. And the felt hats all new-looking, hired, and the voices on and on, louder.

It is ten o’clock and the jackets are thrown over chairs, over benches, forgotten, and what should hurt the ears is pure music through this veil of spirits. And the beer steins, two pints, the biggest glasses you have ever seen in LondonTown, all the way from Germany.

It is almost the end of Oktoberfest and it is the thirty-first, the barmaids, white aprons streaked with fake blood, pushing through the cobwebs with more flaming trays as a group of men stand and they are going drink, drink, drink, as one of them holds a glass up to his lips and
churns his throat, head back.

And next to him you see a child, blue eyes and blond hair, fashionable short back and sides, and he is pointing his young thumbs, beckoning the band closer, suggesting a song and clapping hard as it starts up.


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Mammals, I Think We Are Called: Everybody Knows That Place

Illustration for my story, Everybody Knows That Place - a robot hand hovers above a tent at night.
Copyright Black Static, illustration by
Joachim Luetke

Everybody Knows That Place

Number 3 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

A cyborg visits a reconstructed campsite and experiences strong emotions from his distant human past.

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This is how it starts, the tour. They don’t understand. They don’t know they’ve been there before. They think it’s the first time, and once it starts there’s something in their bones – what’s left of them – that wants to go back in time, to be one of those people in camping trousers, waterproof and shiny with numerous and adequate pockets, who drives the caravan onto the pitch, backs it up again and again to get it level. Who forgot the levelling ramps?

They want to be one of those people, but they can’t be. The world has changed, it is too late. They’ve collectively crossed the threshold, like the grasses growing over the verge where they shouldn’t. And yet they feel it, that tiny tug, like a current, but not quite; it’s beyond words and this disturbs them. They know logically that chemical or digital, it’s all the same, but nonetheless they can feel it in the parts that are still human, they can feel a hint, a dark wet organic taste, a nostalgia for something they’ve never actually had.


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Mammals, I Think We Are Called: Mammals, I Think We Are Called

A hare looking into the camera

Mammals, I Think We Are Called

Number 2 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

A writing retreat deteriorates into a confused reality when a sinister writing tutor goes to war with a hare.

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I have been sitting at this table forever, staring through the front window at the hare, its eyes two holes in the mask of its face: concentrated circles, deep wishes crowding behind them. The twilight perseveres, a pale blue coating. All I can do is shift my gaze towards the crest of the hill, but it feels as if it too is staring back – small animals live in those rocks, small animals arranged in neat compartments in a box, waiting for a breath of words to wake them up. That’s what the writing tutor said.

There were twelve of us sitting round the big table that first afternoon. It seems smaller now, filled as it is with imaginary fur and fuzz, hide and scales.

“To write well, you must loose yourself from your moorings, forget who you are,” said the tutor.

Cliché! I rolled my eyes and looked out at the lawn, already feeling oppressed.

The hare sat outside, its silhouette distorted, massive against the endless blue.

The tutor saw it too. “Hares, animals, let’s use them,” he said.

It seemed a safe enough writing topic; thank God, he wasn’t about to launch into metaphysics. Now I wish so much that he’d suggested something else: newspaper headlines, weather, even my parents. Anything else.

The tutor told us he’d found a box on the hill. He’d opened the lid and it was full of miniature, squashed animals – a lion, a bee, a mandrill, lizards. Some were dead.

“You must feed the animals,” he said, as we began to write. “Add detail! Make them come alive. The animals are starving.” He walked round the table and waved his hand in front of our eyes, as if checking our aliveness. “The animals. Feed them! Help them to grow.”

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Mammals, I Think We Are Called: The Goldfinch is Fine

The Goldfinch is Fine

Number 1 of the eighteen stories in my debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called.

A weatherman reporting on looming environmental disaster finds the courage to come out.

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“Slept well?” Kimani, the makeup artist, asks in an arch tone.

The weatherman glances up at him and notices that he also has dark rings under his eyes.

Kimani smears on concealer, then powders the weatherman’s face, before adding blusher and a touch of lipstick. “There you go. Ready to weather any storm.”

The weatherman struggles to keep his weather face on, serious with a hint of cheer, sweeping his hands across the North-East Atlantic towards the UK in the direction of the low pressure arrows. The enclosed broadcast studio, with its strictly delimited walls and ceiling, no longer calms him. He watches himself on the small screen in front of him, still smiling, still making the occasional joke. It could be worse, he could be a newsreader.

The station has gone full CNN lately: live graphics have him standing on a gently lapping sea, explaining the increasing frequency of rogue waves, until an animation of a giant wave surges through his body like a materialising ghost.

“Stay warm and dry, folks,” he quips, and feels like slapping himself.

Lars, the cameraman, comes over to him after the broadcast, headphones around his neck. The weatherman lifts his chin and tries, unsuccessfully, to relax his facial muscles. Don’t scare ’em.

Like his weather reports, the crew’s customary bustle has become lacklustre, distracted. Younger than him, they have always treated him with deference, but also as if he is irrelevant. Now they are finally taking a keen interest in the weather, asking questions. What is going to happen, is what they really want to know.

“I just present the weather,” has become his stock answer. Which is not entirely true: a qualified meteorologist, he knows both more and less than he would like. But what else can he possibly say?

He couldn’t start to explain that ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ are phrases he wishes still had currency. At times, his mind reverts to a childish imagining: the studio windows breaking, sharks and God knows what flooding in, hunting. Although, if it does happen, it’s unlikely the sea creatures would behave in quite that way.

Lars’s last question was about the speed of rogue wave formation, something technical, and he waits for his next with a twinge of dread.

But Lars only asks about the set-up for tomorrow. He towers over the weatherman, but his troubled eyes look so like those of an uncertain child that the weatherman contemplates telling him about the goldfinch to cheer him up.

He dismisses the idea. The goldfinch is his little secret. What would the crew think if they discovered that his private obsession is to watch a small, plain-looking bird nesting high up on a pristine glacier?

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Radio interview, Sunburnt Saints anthology, Chiltern Voice Book Club

Radio: interview, Sunburnt Saints anthology 28th November 2021 Chiltern Voice Book Club

Chiltern Voice Book Club celebrates the launch of Sunburnt Saints, an anthology of climate change fiction, with interviews and song choices from some of the contributors, as well as from Andy Leach and Hannah Persaud, founders of Massive Overheads. The anthology is available from Big Green Books.

Andy Leach – Richard Thompson, When the Saints Rise Out of Their Graves

Hannah Persaud – Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat

Sophie Power – Prince, Sign of the Times

Anna Vaught – Steve Harley, Cockney Rebel – Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile)

Katie Willis – Madonna, La Isla Bonita

Giselle Leeb – Michael Kiwanuka, One More NIght

James Woolf – Bob Dylan, Licence to Kill

Ian Critchley – Kate Bush, Cloudbusting

Matt Thomas – Neil Young, Wonderin’

Rachael Smart – Billy Joel, Uptown Girl

Reading from ‘The Goldfinch is Dead’, in Sunburnt Saints: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Roaring Radio, Soho Radio

I read an excerpt for my story, ‘THe Goldfinch is Dead’, published by Seventy2One. The story won first prize in the Seventy2One Climate Fiction Competition and is published in Sunburnt Saints: An Anthology of Climate Fiction.

Reading from ‘The Goldfinch is Dead’, alongside other writers in the Sunburnt Saints anthology, Roaring 20s Radio (20/11/2021), Soho Radio, Presented by Salena Godden, Amah-Rose Abrams and Matt Abbot. (about 1:19:00)