Ripple [Part 2]

Part One of ‘Ripple’ can be found in last week’s post [January 7th]. In this concluding episode Oliver is drawn to the canal he’s avoided for so long…

Ripple

            …His phone rings. Wrenching his eyes from the laptop he dives from the swivel chair and snaps the lid down on the device.
“Oliver Grantley” he croaks into his phone.
“Olly it’s only me, Mel! What’s with the formality?”
There is a pause. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I was working. The phone has broken my train of thought.” Oliver doesn’t want this. Doesn’t want his sister to know what he’s seen. She will think he’s lost it. Maybe he has lost it.
“I’m really sorry, Olly. It’s good that you’re working though. Are you sure you won’t change your mind and come round tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight, meeting a friend. We’re going for a drink.”
“Oh Olly! That’s great! Is it anyone we know? Male or female?”
Oliver stutters, frowning. “No. No one you know. It’s someone from work.”
“What’s her name then?”
Now all he wants is to tell his sister to get lost. “Paula. Her name’s Paula. Look, I have to go. I have a report to finish.”
“Alright Olly. But I want to know how it goes tonight. Call me back tomorrow!”
At last she hangs up. He tosses the phone on to the sofa, folds his arms and looks out at the city. After a moment he goes to the kitchen and swallows a couple more pills before going to his desk and glowering at the offending computer. He lunges forward, snatches it and stuffs it into his bag.
Outside the breeze has stiffened, whipping up eddies of litter and dust and tugging harder at his collar as he strides along. His deceased wife’s throaty laugh swirls around him in the wind. How many nights had he spent in the guest room after her claims of feeling ‘too exhausted for company’? How many times had he put his hand in his pocket to fund yet another ‘night out with a friend’? He could stand these deceits, and more if she’d shown him some affection instead of scornful jibes and mocking laughter.
He’s walked half a mile or so before he realises where he is; on the tow path. He stops, hitching the bag higher on his shoulder, takes a few steps to a bench and sits. The flowing canal is mesmerising, travelling along in it’s relentless passage to the harbour, carrying small islands of detritus-tangled sticks, discarded coffee cups and bits of polystyrene packaging or plastic bottles. He shivers. When they’d walked here last summer it had seemed romantic. He’d felt proud showing her the waterside. There had been swans bobbing on the water and a kingfisher darting amongst the willow trees that hung over the bank trailing leafy fronds, leaving ripples.
Today’s ripples are from the insistent, blustery wind. Beneath the surface there are dark, wavy shapes like hair; like black, glossy hair and the air is rank with an earthy smell of rotting vegetation. He leaves his bag on the bench and shuffles towards the canal side, drawn by the undulating contours below the water. He peers down. She’d asked him if there were fish he remembers and they’d leaned down to see. He’d put a restraining arm around her for protection. Weeks later he’d followed her, watching her swaying hips as she made her way down to the canal, hiding in the lush undergrowth while she lay on the bench with her lover, her skirt pushed up and her head thrown back as the other man drew his lips along her long, white throat.
Afterwards the man had left without a backward glance, striding away on the path, smoothing his hair and tucking his shirt in.
Under the wrinkly surface there are pale shapes, sometimes still, sometimes moving like soft, creamy limbs in the flow. This is where they’d found her. Oliver had been in the flat when they came to tell him how they’d pulled her from the canal, speaking in hushed voices, solicitous, offering counselling, offering to call someone. He shouldn’t be on his own, they’d said.
Later he’d had to go and identify her as she lay on a slab, her cold features bleached, her ivory skin blue-tinged; no trace of scorn remained on her pale lips, no remnant of guile under her dark eyelashes.
They’d traced the man from forensic traces along the path.
“He got what he deserved” Mel had said when Nerina’s lover was sentenced to life.            But Oliver knows better.
He is on the edge now, leaning forwards towards the shapes, drawn by them. She’d stood on the verge, her back to him as he’d emerged from his hiding place. He’d only meant to shock her, to make her see sense, to see how angry he was. She’d hit the water without much of a splash and the sounds were more like strangled squeaks than a scream, her slender arms flaying a little, making circles of ripples that radiated out from her head as it sank. A steady flow of bubbles rose to the surface, slowing after a couple of minutes then the brown, snaking canal had continued on as before.
A white hand flutters among the weed, beckoning. On the surface her face is appearing again, swaying in the ripples, mouth half open, smiling. A gust of wind rushes through the trees on the bank, roaring in his ears as he takes another step towards the undulating shape, where her arms are open to receive him.
In the bag on the bench Oliver’s laptop is wide awake, its blue screen oscillating as a gentle stream of bubbles rises from the bottom to the top in a never-ending stream.
 

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Hopeful Travel on a December Day

I listened to a programme about the way the digital age is influencing literature and drama. Thrillers and crime novels are becoming trickier to construct in these days of mobile phones and closed-circuit TV. It is more difficult to make characters disappear and dialogue has become problematic with the advent of text, email, messaging and so on.
This week’s trip to visit Offspring in her new house illustrated perfectly how our lives have been transformed since devices became essential in our lives. A quick glance around a crowded train reveals rows of passengers travelling together on a shared journey  engrossed in their own little world of screen, plugged in, switched on and oblivious to everyone and everything around them.
Things have moved on since stepping into a carriage and settling into a seat would be interrupted by interminable blurtings of ‘I’m on the train’. A mother climbs on with a toddler and searches for a seat before taking out a phone and placing it in front of the child; pacification by screen. Around me individual travellers sporting earphones are watching videos, listening to something, typing something, reading something, scrolling, swiping, clicking. Almost everyone is lost in their own world, communing with unseen entities.
To me, any unfamiliar travel is interesting, whether it offers stunning scenery or not. This winter trip, taken on a dank and gloomy December day is not pretty, does not offer historic sights or amazing vistas-but although I have my own tiny screens tucked away ready for a waiting room or a platform, I am held enough by the changing views from the window. I like it all. I like seeing the misty fields, the sleepy villages and the towering pylons of the docklands. I like the industrial conglomerations and the uniform suburban streets. I love to peer down into the gardens that line the tracks-abandoned toys, vegetable beds unkempt in their winter state, lines of laundry hanging in the damp air, neat rectangles of lawn and summerhouses with misty windows.
We change trains. The platform where we wait offers people watching opportunities and I’m struck by the way travellers dress. There is a plethora of hole-in-the-knee jeans, a look I’ve not been tempted to adopt, having long ago abandoned high fashion in favour of comfort. On the next train I’m taken with the sight of a man reading a paperback. It is a Dave Eggars novel. I’m tempted to ask if it’s any good but fear I’ll be intruding.
We change again-and again. [It is not an easy journey]. I’m struck by the paradox of this travel. Altogether this expedition to the outer reaches of the capital has taken four trains and a bus. All of the vehicles [including the bus] have been stuffed full of phone-wielding, laptop-tapping screen users. Technology moves on apace. Transport does not.
The return is no better, requiring a bus and a further four trains. The windows are dark. I sit back and delve into the reaches of my rucksack for my Kindle…

It’s Christmas. Happy Christmas to all my lovely readers, whoever and wherever you may be…and a happy and peaceful 2018.

 

Cracking the Second One-

We are in southern France, attempting to find some vestiges of the summer we felt cheated of in the UK.

I had also meant, whilst here to attempt to get the first draft of Novel 2 knocked off. In the event it’s proving more difficult than I’d imagined, for a number of reasons.

When I wrote the first novel I thought it was hard; now I realise that it was a proverbial walk in the park compared to the wild, flapping, untameable story that is the second book. Novel 1[ The Year of Familiar Strangers] ’s central character is loosely based around a person I knew in the past and many of the episodes in the story are real incidents that only needed a little embellishment, a little alteration, to form the basis of what I still consider to be a ripping yarn. Several of the peripheral characters were also lifted from real life and very little invention was needed. I even had the locations in my head [no surprise that much of it is set in France!].

Novel 2 is as different to 1 as a toothbrush to a vacuum cleaner. All of the characters are inventions. I’ve had to get to know them as the story has progressed, never sure if their actions are true to type or too far-fetched for credibility. The plot continues to escape my direction, twisting and turning and having a mind of its own. The nearer I think I’m getting to the denouement the longer it appears to be taking to crack it. There is a constant need to refer back in the text to ensure continuity and half the time I forget who did what, and when. I want to tie the ends up, bring the threads together in some semblance of logic, a conclusion that leads the reader to say ‘Ah, so that was why/where/ what, but like Alice, every step I take goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go.

A further difficulty is that having chosen to set the novel in the moderately near future and then taking too long to write it leads to ideas getting high-jacked by reality. Did George Orwell have this problem with 1984? I am now loath to tie it down to any date due to the rapid technological developments that are catching up with-and in some instances overtaking those in my novel! This is frustrating-technology moves along faster than my novel-writing! And the future is BIG. HUGE! It is a mistake to try and corral it into a novel.

Choosing to hand-write the last section hasn’t helped. Having visualised sitting in the sun scribbling away and penning the final words with a flourish I’m contending with strong breezes, insects and the lure of cycling, walking and sightseeing. Ah yes-I should be so driven as to eschew such pleasures. This morning we woke to rain, so if you will excuse me I can’t be frittering away my time on frivolous blog-writing; I need to get on before any more innovations come in…

‘When You’re Sixty Four’…dum-de-dum…

I’m about to be 64. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, the song was written by Paul McCartney when he was sixteen-an age at which you could never imagine becoming sixty four and at which you would think it to be a very old age to be.

Like everyone says, most days my body does feel ancient, but inside my head I don’t feel much different, or old. Every day some part of me aches or feels stiff. I forget things. Words escape me. I’m not au fé with some of the more contemporary aspects of technology [I can’t tell my mega-bytes from my giga-bytes]. Some of the ‘classic’ acts at Glastonbury seem newbies to me.

But I keep abreast of current affairs, I like to try new things and I know it’s best to keep moving regardless of what hurts.

I’ve just reached another age threshold by officially becoming a state pensioner. I’m one of those women whose birthday falls between two dates that have been used to equalise the genders so that men’s and women’s retirement ages are the same. Fair enough. I’ve no quibbles with it. But most delayed pension age women are upset not to have been informed sooner [not until a year before the previous state pension age [60]]. I’ve been fortunate to have paid into an occupational pension scheme, but for many of those who have not there was no time to plan for a later retirement date and many have suffered huge financial losses [with the loss of their home for some] due to the lack of warning.

I’m also about to apply for that Holy Grail of retirement benefits- a bus pass. For the last few years I’ve been trailing behind Husband as he hops on to the bus, flicks his pass on to the scanner and slides into a seat while I scrabble for change or apologise for presenting a note. There have been times when I’ve been the only fully-paid-up passenger on a bus.

I’m also being offered a winter fuel payment and have received a [so far] small amount of state pension payment-at the same time as the announcement that due to a tax adjustment my occupational pension is reduced.

We are constantly being reminded that we have an obligation to keep ourselves healthy; to eat a sensible diet, not over-indulge, not imbibe an excess of alcohol, count steps, not have sugar, do this, don’t do that. Nobody can argue that we should not over-burden our already beleaguered and precious health service.

What a pity, then that three appointments I’ve had to have a scan on a relatively minor problem in my foot have been cancelled because I ‘don’t meet the criteria’ for help. Were the problem to be sorted I could get back to doing my thousands of steps, exercising and doing my bit to keep out of hospital wards and GP surgeries.

Sixty-four eh? However did that manage to creep up on me?

A Leap with a Leaf

On the whole, vehicles are one of my non-interests, along with football and cricket, talent shows, fast food, misery memoirs and a few other tedious topics.

In a discussion on cars I’m interested in reliability first, followed by comfort and economy in equal measure. In a blatant betrayal of gender stereotyping I have opinions on colour, preferring black over any other but accepting of anything except pink, orange, red or lurid.

My first car, like many first cars, was a humble, ancient, faded turquoise Austin A40 with steering wheel so huge that steering around a corner was akin to half an hour’s workout on a rowing machine. Subsequent vehicles became newer, though never new. My least old car was also the worst, an indigo VW Polo that exhibited some kind of electrical fault and let me down with irritating frequency-most famously by giving up at traffic lights at a busy roundabout whilst I was wearing nothing but a bikini and flimsy sarong. Let this be a lesson, readers. This was also before the days of mobile phones.

Now, however it is time for my trusty, comfortable, economical, black Peugeot to find a new owner. It is also time for Husband and me to put our money where our mouths have been for so long and leap into the unknown with an eco-friendly, electric vehicle. They are cheap to run, cost nothing to tax and, most crucially do not belch noxious fumes into the environment. What can go wrong? We’ve adhered to our rule regarding no new cars and have purchased a two year old Nissan Leaf, an alien road ghost with a mysterious array of buttons and beeps.

We’ve begun to learn the ways of this enigmatic machine. We’ve learned that it drives as an automatic, that your left foot must never stray unbidden on to the ‘hand-brake’, which nestles on the floor under your left foot in a sly, provocative challenge as the result is a screeching kind of emergency stop. We know that it will refuse point-blank to cooperate unless your right foot is on the foot-brake [a more benevolent pedal].

We’ve begun to unravel the secrets of the ‘rapid’ charger at motorway services, having spent a frustrating half an hour unravelling the cryptic instructions for insertion, another half an hour in the dispiriting cafeteria [where you are at the mercy of the provision and the prices] and a further half an hour of mild panic discovering how to remove the charging nozzle.

We now know that the extravagant claims of 100 miles per charge are somewhat exaggerated, that a degree of planning must go into any journey of length and that the prices at motorway cafés render the price of the ‘rapid’ charge a little less economical.

We don’t expect to use the car for long journeys and we no longer have regular commutes to make us dependent. The change is a leap of faith in a time when leaps of faith may seem foolish or imprudent. It isn’t possible to make radical changes in the volatile climate of this unstable world but perhaps taking a deep breath and helping to clean some air is a miniscule step towards improving our immediate environment. Who knows?

The Future According to Grace

Developments in technology move faster than it takes to draw breath, don’t they? This is how it appears, anyway to one who is becoming ancient. A small item in the [on line] paper I read bore the headline ‘How to organise and store your digital photos’. Goodness! A couple of decades ago storing photographs was all about new developments in photo albums and shelving. Do you mourn the loss of photo albums? Or are you delighted to have less dusting and more space in your home? So many technological developments concern scaling down-in some instances to nothing at all.

The same applies to books of course. Myself, I am a convert to digital books-with the great exception of children’s literature, of course. To me the content over-rides any sentimental attachment to paper. I am uncertain, however on the issue of ‘condensed book apps’ which precis novels down into 15 minute reads-this may be carrying minimalism a little too far.

Then there is television. Sets are becoming ever slimmer. Who remembers the enormous sets of the fifties with their tiny, flickering screens inside large, elaborate wooden cabinets? And film-videos seemed like an incredible leap forward in innovation but were soon replaced with the much reduced DVDs then the physical was done away with altogether by downloads. Music has moved in the same direction, with one click replacing the need for record players and records, cassette tapes and ultimately CDs.

Could this happen in the kitchen? It may have already begun. The need for kettles has been negated by taps that produce boiling water and there is more in the pipeline [so to speak] with robotic food preparation and smart this, that and the other.

And while all this minimalising, scaling down and disappearing altogether has been going on, we, the owners [figuratively] of all this technology become bigger and bigger. I wonder then that technological wizardry has not been developed to shrink humans, too. Yes, of course there are gastric bands and so on but these are not guaranteed to be successful or permanent. The idea of shrunken food, however has been tackled in literature. Turn-of-the-century writer Stephen Leacock [http://www.online-literature.com/stephen-leacock/literary-lapses/10/] wrote an amusing short story about a baby who snatched and swallowed a tablet containing 13 Christmas dinners which did not end happily.

The obvious outcome must be that the need for human beings is removed altogether. I imagine there will be developmental stages where man and computer merge. In the beginning the machine will be an appendage such as we see already [think earphones and those weird Bluetooth thingummies fastened to peoples’ ears]. The takeover will progress with insertions into brains, replacement limbs and organs then mobility aids will remove the need for limbs [now think Daleks from Dr Who]. Reduce the jelly-like substance at the heart of the machine and…Bingo! Man disappears from the Earth to be replaced by technology. I just hope the machines make a better job of it all than we have.

The Dark Screen of Ignorance

You have to chuckle at some journalist’s ideas of we older folks. They consider us to be bumbling techno-phobes who cannot fathom the mysteries of computer-thingies or cope with new-fangled technologies such as mobile phones. ‘Older people’ are often cited in articles or programmes about how portions of society are ‘missing out’ owing to their circumstances. Their bills are higher for not being on line; their inability to surf leaves them stuck with High Street offerings.

It is true, however that there are still substantial numbers of people who, whilst having some access to computers via libraries and so on continue to be stuck in a time warp where developing technology is concerned. I hope some members of my lovely writing group will forgive me when I say that communication has become tricky without the facility of email and that access to information, sharing of work and ideas has never been easier than it is in this age of the internet.

Take social networking. Since Facebook became, much to the annoyance of the young, mainstream, many of my peers adopted it, irritating the young to a point where they all left in disgust. Those who didn’t cited worries over security, concerns over boring content or fears that it is somehow irrelevant or not intellectually challenging enough as reasons. Of course all of these things are true to an extent, however facilities exist to eliminate them. You adjust the settings on security, you scroll past the boring or the mundane. A great deal of the sniping over social media, I feel is fear disguised as snobbery. Who wants to be caught looking at a friend’s holiday snaps? It might make you appear to be interested. Horrors!

Keeping up with developing technology is tricky. As soon as we grasped the fundamentals of email and Google there were Smartphones and apps to deal with. ‘Don’t you Skype?’ ‘Don’t you do Instagram?’ ‘Don’t you use Dropbox?’ The relentless inundation of innovation can leave you flailing with inadequacy; but rather than shrinking in horror at the idea of adopting new technological developments we need to try and apply our ageing brain cells to it.

Of course all this is very well when your children are on hand to assist. Once they have flown the coop though you may find yourself adrift as I did yesterday, making a nail-biting trip to PC World and steeling myself for the fifty pounds fee to repair my laptop, which stubbornly refused to illuminate its screen when unplugged. The cheerful assistant offered me a jaunty smile as he pressed a button on the keyboard, restoring light to the screen. Little wonder-he can dine out [if his PC World salary allows] on the tale of the geriatric ignoramus.