Timothy Embargo could not have predicted he’d find himself on a train on a Wednesday hoping to find the American Dream in Mainland Europe. His job consisted of writing out addresses, the reason for which he was yet to find out. One day, having written out his five-hundred and seventy-six thousand seven hundred and forty-fourth address he finally forgot the address of the house he’d grown up in. He stood up, and he left forever.
He gazed out the window as the train stumbled out of the station. Cityscape became townhouses became suburbia became rural greenery. Each scene outside the window blending. A transient blur. Like music. A note arriving and departing in an instant to make way for the next.
He began to write on a notepad he had decided to buy at a newsagents’ on the way to the station, but he couldn’t remember ever having written anything besides all of those addresses. He started with these in the hope it might lead somewhere:
17 Morose Disposition, Sydney, Australia. 27 Wasted Prayer, Houston, Texas, USA. 11 Trapped, Berlin, Germany. 200 Preordained Calamity, Cardiff, UK. 67 Forgetting, Cairo, Egypt. 19 Regret, Mumbai, India. 98 The Beginning…First there was fear, and before there was fear there was nothing. And fear begot knowledge. For knowledge is the fear of not knowing. It is the fear of not being prepared. And this fear remained. It warned us of death. It reminded us of the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the moments falling through the cracks in the ground beneath us.
And slowly it began to dawn on him that he wasn’t sure if he’d forgotten the address of the house he’d grown up in at all, or if - in fact - he’d never known it. And then he tried to place a firm memory of having actually written out all of those hundreds of thousands of bizarre addresses, or if it was something fabricated by his overactive imagination. A memory of having met a man in a black fedora called Professor Bastard arrived and departed, followed by a memory of the day he realised he had never met anyone, followed by a memory of the day he’d spent trying to figure out what his hands were for. Each new memory blending into the next. A transient blur. Like music. Because, of course, Timothy Embargo was bound to reawaken any second, but who knows what his name would be this time around? His eyes would close, and he would forget, and a sudden jerk would occur, springing his consciousness into life, and he would be a new person, with a new back-story that had never taken place.
His eyes began to close.
Maximillian Freefall awoke on a train knowing that it was going to be at least another hour before he would be able to finally confront Mandy about his failing business. He felt it was better to do it face-to-face rather than over the phone. It was the least she deserved after all she’d been through. He glanced down to see some scrawling handwriting that he instantly recognised as his father’s. He had picked up the notepad in a rush as he left his parents’ house after he had visited them a few days back on account of his mother’s collapsed lung, knowing he would need one on the journey. He was unaware that he was taking something that had already been written in. It looked brand new, with a small, pink price-tag stuck to the front, as though it were just bought at a newsagents’ near a train station. He looked down to read the words even though he’d read them dozens of times on his journey, trying to get to the bottom of what his father had written. It started with some addresses: 17 Morose Disposition, Sydney, Australia. 27 Wasted Prayer, Houston, Texas, USA. It went on until he arrived at a second beginning in the writing… First there was fear, it read, and before there was fear there was nothing.And fear begot knowledge. For knowledge is the fear of not knowing. It is the fear of not being prepared. He glanced out of the window and caught his reflection, a black fedora rested on top of his head, swaying gently with the movement of the train. And this fear remained. It warned us of death. It reminded us of the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the moments falling through the cracks in the ground beneath us. He picked up the pen resting beside the notepad and began adding to what had already been written… And fear begot love. For love is the fear of loneliness. And as he wrote, it began to dawn on him that his handwriting seemed to mirror his father’s. On closer inspection, the similarity became eerie. And slowly he started to question whether he had picked up the notepad from his parents’ house at all. And whether he had even been there. And what his parents even looked like. It normally took much longer than this, but the handwriting was the trigger this time, and any second he was sure to reawaken.
This post, ironically, started out as me just posting a link, and then expanded into a post when I started to try and describe the link. To understand this irony, please see all of the words below.
I’ve been trying to get into the habit of writing some more flash fiction. (I wrote some yesterday, in fact, that I sent to the same website that posted my last piece to see if they wanted to post this one. If they don’t then I’ll post it here. Either way, it’ll be available soon.) The reason I want to write more is because I have a big old dissertation to write and I can see it sapping away the time I get to do the more fun kind of writing. Flash fiction’s a good way to keep me ticking over because I find it’s about coming up with one idea or one scene and just starting and seeing what happens. Plus 750 words or so is a lot quicker to write than a novel, I find. So, once again I’m writing a post without thinking about how it relates more directly to this blog’s ‘remit’, but I suppose I’ll say this - it’s probably a good idea to keep writing if you want to be a writer.
Anyway, back to flash fiction (although, strictly speaking, the post I’m about to link to is about short stories - normally a bit longer than flash fiction - but I think the principle about the way people read them are the same). This is a post by Sean Smith discussing the short story from his blog ersatz esoterica, and it’s where I found a link to this article by Nicholas Royle about short stories. I liked both Sean’s and Nicholas’ take on the short story.
“a story that is designed to be read in one fell swoop forces back the tedium of reality and its responsibilities. It doesn’t let you out – you are forced to maintain your suspension of disbelief until it is done.”
“There’s a particular intimacy you get with a short story, partly because you usually read it in a single sitting…Also, precisely because short stories are short, writers tend to feel more inclined to take risks, try something new.”
That last sentence is definitely true. With the bits I’ve written here and there I’ve always been trying to go for a different style, or to try something new. However, there’s a chance I could be considered some kind of nasty betrayer of short stories or flash fiction, because whenever I write one there is always a thought running through my mind about how I could apply what I’ve written to something bigger, in the hope that this small idea I’m jotting down could end up expanding into another novel.
This could be considered a good thing, it’s an exercise and a way of coming up with new ideas without being frightened by the vast word-count needed to cobble together a novel, but it also suggests that short stories for me aren’t enough on their own, that they’re incomplete novels. And I’m certain that’s not true, but, like Sean, I’m aware that short stories are not part of the curriculum, and they don’t really make their way into the canon of the ‘classics’ that everyone must read to supposedly become some kind of a real person.
Despite all of this lovely acceptance of short stories that seems to be going on in this post that I’m accidentally writing, though, this blog is meant to be, somewhere along the way, about novel-writing, and so I suppose I should try and reign it back in, and, without wanting to sound like some peddler of hideous cod-philosophy: every novel has to begin without anything at all having been written. Some people might be lucky and have the whole thing mapped out in their noggins before they’ve put pen to paper or digit to keyboard, but most of us aren’t superhuman freaks.
Cult Fiction originated in a couple of bits of nothing much I’d written. One bit was really a short story about something totally unrelated to what the novel would eventually become, but I used an idea from it to create a reasonably crucial part of the finished thing (and it was the title of this, The Platinum Staircase, that was the original title of the novel).
So, I suppose I could conclude with something like this – perhaps it’s a good idea to think small before we try to go for the big guy that is the novel. Maybe a self-contained short story is a great way to start in working towards something bigger, especially if the idea of writing a whole novel seems daunting? Although, maybe that’s a disservice to what a short story can do on its own, as a piece of fiction that can keep its readers’ attention throughout the whole story without interruption? And wouldn’t it dampens the impact of the original short story if you spent the whole time thinking about the bigger option rather than concentrating on making it work as a short story in its own right? Or maybe I’ve done it again and I’m just asking rhetorical questions that I never intend to answer? I don’t know. Whatever. I’m going to make a sandwich or something.