Tag Archives: Stories

Issue 16: Bloody Television

21 Oct

Yes, this for this issue we have decided to rummage around in the goggle box.  Our post is a bit thin on the ground this issue. It seems that Celia found herself too glued to Don’t Tell the Bride to get her piece finished, while Emily spent her writing window being distracted by The Young Ones on YouTube.  Perhaps they will find the off switch and get a piece up here at a later date.  But for now, please turn on, tune in and put the kettle on for two original pieces by regular contributor, Jim and new donator, Sean.

086Next issue’s theme: Bloody Tourists.  It’ll be out around Christmas.


Bloody Television Contents





082Davie’s grandpa was forever decoding secret messages: they were hidden in his crossword clues, obscured by the weather forecast and embedded in the classified results. The rise and fall of the place names from Portsmouth to Partick could only be decrypted using a form he’d mark off with crosses and figures. Davie thought the balloon had gone up when the old man punched the air at an unexpected announcement from Falkirk, but when the news came through from Ross County he tossed his screwed up coupon into the fire. This show of disgust was enough to loosen the TV’s vertical hold and send Scottish Division Two into a tailspin, until a single thump from Grandpa knocked the world back onto its axis. He was a man impatient for the final destruction of the Daleks, and all other enemies of the planet, and it was to this end that he and Davie would reconvene in front of the telly after their tea of spam and chips. Grandpa was a widower with only the most basic cooking skills, but his close resemblance to that early Doctor Who, a stern professor with knowing eyes and white hair, had convinced Davie they were tuning in to a dramatised version of his grandfather’s own exploits. Monday to Friday, while other pensioners played bowls and bingo, Grandpa was saving the earth from giant maggots or marauding mannequins, then parking his Tardis at the bottom of the hill next to a milk machine that took threepenny bits. During the programme, Davie would peek from beneath Grandpa’s chair, one arm shielding his eyes and the other round Pixie. Both boy and dog knew that if the real life Doctor couldn’t protect them nobody could, but they still liked having each other for company and Davie found the smell of Pixie’s head especially soothing.

To defeat the forces of evil, Grandpa kept a stock of strange objects in his basement, the hidden potentials of which were understood only by him. Davie knew that if they couldn’t all make it to the Tardis, the cellar would serve as a fall-out shelter and impenetrable anti-Dalek fortress. A workshop and storeroom, it was lined with bunches of rusty keys, piles of folded aluminium foil, egg cartons, empty tissue boxes and drawers full of wine corks and beer can pull-tabs; but the items that captivated Davie most were the old valves – bubbles of the most delicate, dust-coated glass, which he would carefully wipe clean to reveal the tiny solar systems within. You could peer through air holes in the back of Grandpa’s telly at the tubes still on active service, steadily glowing hotter and brighter as the hissing blizzard on the front developed itself into recognisably human forms, yodelling and smoking cigars, dressed up as golliwogs or singing in rocking chairs. Using the vertical lines on his own furrowed brow as antennae, Grandpa was able to intercept the signals, so that he knew what was going to happen in advance: ‘There’s a Dalek coming round the corner,’ he’d say, ‘but the goodies’ll hide in that ventillation shaft.’ The charged particles that flew around in the back of the telly and inside Grandpa’s brain were what made thinking and communication possible – but they also contained enormous destructive power. This was why Grandpa carefully stored the valves after their broadcasting lives were over – because they could be turned into nuclear grenades, not exploding but imploding, as Grandpa carefully explained, if you ever had to lob one at a Cyberman.

No sooner had the Dr Who theme echoed into the distance than Grandpa would turn his attention to the wireless and make his grandson listen to the shipping forecast – another stately procession of gobbledygook about mysterious forces and their direction of movement. Grandpa would gaze at the sky, sometimes picking up the heavy binoculars on his windowsill. As well as the maps, atlases and globes that festooned his house, he also had a star chart, which he obviously needed for his space journeys, but which was explained away as a relic of his time in the navy. Black flecks of shrapnel remained under the skin on his temple, as though the pain of the torpedo explosion that claimed his shipmates was permanently burnt into his face.

In winter time, as Davie’s eighth birthday approached, Grandpa told him the names of the constellations with a note of longing in his voice. His battle-hardened outlook had lately taken on a far-away aspect, as though he felt increasingly shipwrecked on Earth and just wanted back to his own world. There had been a lot of adult talk at home about Grandpa and Davie was getting worried that the old guy might be about to board his Tardis and dematerialise for ever, but surely he wouldn’t leave them all in the lurch? One week Davie was told not to make his usual Saturday visit because Grandpa wasn’t well and Pixie was coming to stay for a while. Then late at night his dad came into Davie’s room and found the boy still nervously awake. He sat down and started to explain that Grandpa had passed away. Confused and over-excited, Davie giggled and tried to jump up and down on the bed, but his dad lay him back, shushed him and told him to go to sleep. Davie could hear his dad saying ‘he doesn’t understand’ in the other room. Then the boy started to cry because all of a sudden he really did understand that his grandfather was not an immortal superhero but just an old man who had reached the end of his days.

For a while Davie refused to watch Dr Who, but that was a short-lived phase. Soon the Doctor regenerated as a younger man with dark hair and that made things easier. Davie was allowed to keep something of Grandpa’s and he chose the star chart, which, as a grown-up, he framed and hung above his desk. The coin-slot milk machine didn’t last much longer than Grandpa but the old police box stood at the foot of that hill for many years, until Davie had grandchildren of his own who knew all about Dr Who and would point with excitement at the Tardis on the occasions they drove past that way. When the dark blue shelter was finally removed, Davie explained to the kids that the Doctor had completed his mission in Maryhill and gone to another galaxy, which was fine, because they would still be able to receive his signals, being beamed across the universe through Time And Relative Dimensions in Space.



090The grip of the grain and opioids had rendered his form prone, glass skimming the floor

as he drunkenly slumbered on his lazy boy chair to the soundtrack of old fashioned white static. Unplugged aerial. No licence fee, no spoon-fed deathless images. In his hypnagogic state, the old black and white ultra-vivid dreamscapes unfolded, the days of the electric babysitter as his mother tried to cook to the standard of Fanny Craddock, whilst under the myriad layers of benzo-diazepines. The slurred speech as she tried to take his attention away from Champion the Wonder Horse as he too had his medicated milk. Bed-wetting and anxiety? Valium 10, young man, Valium 10. Ghosted words as his chemically altered synapses fired slowly, delaying the memories as he almost caught up with himself. It was about then, 1965, that he’d stopped conventional education, reading, or having any interest in the world beyond the confines of the cathode ray tube aimed directly as his ten-year-old viewing field.

 His father arrived home with dogged regularity and the boy screamed as his father moved in front of the screen inches away from the 20″ locus of control. DC Jameson was an over-worked vice squad officer who at 43 had seen far too much already. Cathy, what about the boy? I can only keep the truancy officers at bay for perhaps another month or so, he’s no imbecile, is he? Jameson had the directive, commanding tones of one used to berating skinny pimps and dead-cod eyed vice girls as he trawled the streets around Soho. Jameson had caught the tail end of Dunkirk and had the night terrors to prove it, his lad, Simon, troubled him even more. A cherub in a faded Dan Dare t-shirt and organ-stop orbs, constantly fixed on the dreaded TV set. Jameson had too much at work to contend with and usually left mother and son to their demi-monde of dull images as he sat in the fastness of his minute study with his ham radio equipment. Different frequencies, the disembodied voices of wavelength revenants fading in and out; soothing Hungarian baritones, Finnish grammar, the staccato of the Netherlands, a symphony of human tones. Voices, no distracting images. Letting those voices reach out and remove him from the umbilical chord of the 15625 Hertz line rate his wife and child were hypnotized by. Bloody sucking the soul out of them Jameson tuned out the nagging fears for the future of his only son and lit his consoling plug of plum cake. As he pulled at his briar, he caught a vision of a future; an obese nation, apathy and an encroaching state. The first twinges of the ischemic stroke that would in twenty five minutes take him from Chepstow Road, Bayswater to the mortuary at St Mary’s, Paddington were upon him, and he pitched forward from his armchair, hitting the threadbare carpet with the finality of a bass thud. Cathy stirred a moment from her viewing of the TV from the kitchen serving hatch as young Simon distractedly ate cheese and pickle sandwiches, spilling the contents onto the rug in front of him.

 The memories of that evening are largely invented by design as the man emerges hungover from the boyhood reverie and shuts down the cussed static hiss. The overwhelming noise is that of traffic, windows opening onto Chepstow Road, 29 buses heading into the city arteries and shouts from the barely-legal, under-the-counter off licence below. He rouses himself and fancies an ethanoic top-up. Out on the streets, there is nary a soul as aluminium delivery capsules in various colours relay commuters home before the 9PM curfew. He’d been the next one to go tonight, hadn’t kept on with the protests, as his friends who’s fled London had the resistence, people like Old Jody, the Irish street seer, who had warned him that his constant TV viewing was a ‘weakener’ and that his tap water was tainted with benzos. Mad old bugger, but quite accurate in the long run. He’d seen Jody receive a truncheon blow a fortnight ago, for missing the newly-imposed curfew by five minutes. His military bearing made it all the more shocking as he refused to be told how to conduct himself and endured blow by blow until the para-military post-9pm boys tazered him to semi-consciousness.

 After witnessing   that, he’d started drinking heavily, stopped drinking tap water and recorded the TV using an old Dictaphone. When he played back the recording the messages that were a frequency below the suggestible level relayed authoritarian and consumer-coercive messages. Over three long days and nights he put together a compilation of these and listened back, unplugging his aerial and looking at his reflection in the mirror for the first time in decades. He must’ve tipped the scales at 20 stones or more, an amorphous mass of human meat. His face whey-complexioned and the eyes all pupil and hardly any iris, the look of a zoned-out factory-farmed pig. And then the ID tag, clipped casually onto a huge blouson jacket Simon Jameson BBC. Director General. It was only then that he too capitulated to the self same ischemic stroke that had robbed his father of life.

 Old Jody O’Dwyer smoothed his white mane over a scalp livid with dried blood and sighed as he hid in the doorway beneath Jameson’s flat. It was 9.30pm; he’d missed the curfew and compulsory daily vote on prisoner conveyance. The military regime had been by stealth, a draconian bye law here, a bloodless coup there. The government was all but run by PR experts and New Media gurus. Justice had become a literal game show, first as a satire, then as truth. There was a small band of resistance, O’Dwyer and a few others in London, where the orbital roads had become rings of steel around an effective city state. The media achieved the rest. O’Dwyer’s eyes caught the roving CCTV 360 degree hidden device and he smashed the infernal globe with a claw hammer. He’d wait for Pete and the others and thanked an invisible and unknowable god that he’d grown up without television. He whistled Arthur Macbride and the Sergeant and smiled grimly at the fragile present, his penny-bright eyes shining with quiet defiance



Issue 15: Bloody Madness

19 Aug

Welcome back to the jumble sale where you never know what creative writing bargains you might pick up.  This time, Emily, Jim, Celia and new contributor Roger, explore the theme of Bloody Madness. So buckle up your strait jackets and don’t forget your anti-psychotics, anti-depressants or nerve tonics  as we take you through four tales of tipping and slipping over the edge.

Issue 16 will be out in early October, on the theme of Bloody Television.


Tree – by Emily

Deja Vu – by Jim

The Fire – by Celia

Death of a Literary Lion – by Roger


TREE by Emily


Two women sit in a sitting-room in a house on a suburban street, somewhere out on the eastern end of the Central Line.

Jean: I don’t know how she doesn’t get it chopped down.

Betty: What, the tree?

J: Yes, I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t live with it still there in the garden.  Still alive and growing.  Every time I saw it, it would remind me.

B: Which tree was it? Pauline’s got a couple of big trees hasn’t she?

J: It was the apple tree, down at the bottom, near the shed.  I tell you, I’d have had some men round by now to get rid of the blessed thing.

B: Maybe she will.  But it’s got happy memories too, hasn’t it?  Didn’t Ryan used to climb it when he was a kid?  And what about the apples?  Be a shame to get rid of it.

J: You’re telling me that you could eat an apple off of that tree now?

B: [sigh] I can’t imagine what she’s going through, really I can’t.

J: You know I saw her on the day she found him don’t you? White as a ghost.  Not crying, just stood there, in my hallway, her eyes kind of flickering, hands shaking.

B: Poor cow, it was the shock.  Thank goodness you were in.  Did you give her a brandy?

J: Yes, a large one, and I sat her down, right here, in the lounge.  Gave her one of Reg’s cigs, too, and lit it for her.  She hasn’t smoked for donkey’s years, but I knew she’d need one.  She smoked it like she was a robot until the police and ambulance arrived.

B: I know he gave her a few sleepless nights over the years, but she didn’t deserve this.  She can’t have been expecting it.  What a shock.  Does she have any idea why he did it?

J: I haven’t liked to ask, yet.  I don’t think it’s a good idea to dwell on it anyway, the whys and wherefores.  What’s done is done.

B: I’m sure she doesn’t want to dwell on it, Jean, but surely any mother would need to know why.  How’s she going to grieve for him if she doesn’t understand?

J: Well, if you want my opinion, I think it’s pure selfishness.  It’s about the most selfish thing a person can do.  And he must have known she’d find him.  His own mother, who’d cared for him all these years.  That’s not just selfish, it’s nasty, horrible. The ungrateful little…

B: But the poor lad must have been in a terrible state, surely?  People say it’s selfish, but if you think about it, he must have been suffering terribly.  From what Pauline said, he was quite upset when he got turned down by the army.  Perhaps that triggered it off?

J: We’ve all had our setbacks, Betty, doesn’t mean we just end it all, take the coward’s way out.

B: My Kelly said she’d seen him down the Crooked Billet the other week.  He seemed OK, she said, but maybe because he’d had a few.  Or because he was winning at darts.  He was with that crowd from football.  But Kelly thinks he was still cut up about being denied access to his son.  Perhaps that’s what tipped him over the edge?

J: Well, he wasn’t exactly the greatest father in the world, was he? No job, no prospects, no intention of doing the decent thing and marrying the mother.

B: [pause] He was only 19, Jean.  That’s pretty young to be a dad.  It was tough for him.

J: In our day, you made your bed and you lay in it. We just got on with things, didn’t we? Had no choice.

B: We did our best, Jean, we did our best.  I don’t remember it always being easy though.

J: Well, at least Ryan apologised.

B: How do you mean?

J: He left a note.  Didn’t I say? Pauline found it in his room.  It just said “Sorry, mum”.

B: He knew his mum, knew she’d be upset.

J: I don’t think upset quite covers it!  Everything she’s done for him over the years.  All the sacrifices she’s made, especially since his dad left.  Always put him first.  Who’s she got now?  Do you think he was really sorry? I don’t see it.

B: He must have felt he had no other way out.  I think it’s a tragedy.  I know he didn’t have access, but that little boy will never know his dad.  A whole life, a whole future just gone, like that.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

J: Isn’t it time we got going; the funeral starts in half an hour.  What do you think the vicar will say? Does God forgive?

B: I’ll call a taxi. I don’t feel up to driving. I’m sure the vicar will know the right thing to say.  It can’t be his first.  We just need to be there for Pauline.  She’ll need all the support she can get, and not just today.

J: Yes, we’ll be there for Pauline.  But I think the best thing we could do for her would be to get that tree cut down.  Perhaps plant something else; a rose, or something else.  Something bright and cheerful.

B: Let’s not rush into anything, Jean.  Let’s just help her get through today. See what Pauline wants to do.  After all, it’s not the tree’s fault, is it?


 DEJA VU – by Jim


There were two people I knew in the Mental Health Unit waiting area and one of them I was glad to see.  That was Diane, my supervisor from Tourettesco’s, which is what they call the supermarket we work in due to the number of staff who are space cadets, retards or social cripples of one form or another.  It’s a tribute to the high employment on this island, with its oil terminal and numerous fish factories, that it is virtually impossible to be out of work, whatever your disadvantages, since you can at the very least find a job at our place. I’d heard Diane had something like bipolars and the confirmation of seeing her in the queue for the shrink gave me a valid medical reason for finding her a narky, temperamental cow.  The other familiar face was my ex-landlady, who hadher head in a copy of Take a Break.  I managed to sit down behind her before she could look up,engrossed as she was in an article about a woman who’d been raped by her husband whilst having a hypoglycemic fit.  The landlady’s daughter-in-law had told me the old dear was schizophrenic after she was sectioned.  I’d used her removal as an excuse to bale out, because the family had no idea how far in arrears I was, but there was a chance the old lady might still remember, which was why I wasn’t keen to get chatting.  Plus, before being carted off she’d been giving it hideous seduction movements in the hallway at night, blocking my exit from the bathroom, touching me up and telling me she wanted protecting from the guy in the next room, who she reckoned was an Al Qaeda bomber on the run.  Maybe she suspected Alessandro because of his dark complexion and beard, but he was just an Italian hairdresser, temporarily homeless after cheating on his wife with one of the trainees.

            Diane was avoiding eye contact as we sat there and, as she normally spent her time berating me in front of customers, pulling faces behind my back for the benefit of her friends or whispering with other staff to make me feel paranoid, I now took  a spiteful pleasure in her discomfort, especially as I didn’t actually share her sense of shame at being round the bend – I was sat there bold as brass – but then maybe my particular mental illness is relatively high status, since virtually all our brave servicemen come home with it fitted as standard.  You guessed it, I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I didn’t get it fighting for my country, in a car accident that wiped out the rest of my family or anything else you might want to brag about down the pub.  The experience that sent me doolally happened a long time ago and I thought I was just about over it until they started going on about this kid who died.  It was one of these big abuse things that happen now and again, but there was something about this one – I think it was the mug shot they kept showing of the dad.  All the old triggers started having an effect: anything to do with rope, the smell of hay, any loud noise or shouting, even darkness; but to be honest it can just be someone being not very nice to you, and that happens to me a lot.  It happens to us all at Tourettesco’s.

            There’d been a bad one when Diane started laying into Malcolm at the checkout.  Malky has Asperger’s and sometimes seems to zone out and do mad things like running completely out of coins and asking customers if we can owe them their change.  People are less sympathetic to oddballs if they’ve got serious personal odour problems so I wished they would just keep Malcolm on stock control and reductions, because he is good with numbers, but it’s usually all hands on deck at the front.  Anyway, this woman has to wait ages while he’s fucking around with the till roll, then he tells her to cheer up for Christ’s sake.   I’m about to say something along the lines of Malcolm doesn’t mean anything by it when Diane appears and starts yelling at him that he is a total waste of space.  That’s when it came back really strong.  It’s hard to describe because it’s not like anything else.  It’s like your daily life is a quickly forgotten dream that you keep waking up from, back into this insufferable black horror that engulfs everything and which you now remember is what’s actual and real – this is you being shown again how it really is and will always be.  It’s like a nuclear form of déjà vu that comes with an overwhelming nausea and the inability to recall who anyone is, or understand what they are saying.  That’s why it’s really important to get away from people.  So there’s all this shouting at Malcolm and I’m getting up from my till with ten people waiting and going into the storeroom, trying to find a corner between the shelves.  I hunker down behind some boxes and cover my head.  This had happened a few times when it wasn’t as busy and I’d gotten away with it because it can ease off after a few minutes, but this time Diane comes through and finds me.  She is standing over me and shouting and there is no escape so I lift a heavy box full of tins and throw it at her full scale, but she ducks out the way.  I am skipping round the cans of pears rolling all over the floor and Diane is screaming for someone to come and help her even though she can see I am just trying to get out the back door.

            The doc wrote me a line explaining the incident which I took to a meeting with Diane and the store manager.  They ended up designating a safe area for me that consisted of the cleaner’s cupboard.  Diane never once mentioned her own issues even though they were as plain as the bandages on her wrists and, judging by the way she was blanking me at Mental Health, she still wasn’t in a sharing mood.  I got called into my appointment with the psychie nurse who wants to move a finger back and forth in front of my face while I go over in my mind the events that started my problems all those years ago.  She says it will be upsetting but that it will help to get everything into my long term memory where it belongs.  She is a nice woman the nurse, like a youngish aunt with really nice tits, and I’m thinking why can’t she just tell me a story while I fondle her breasts, but we go through the rapid eye movement rigmarole and she is right – it is very upsetting.  She has to wag her finger and then every few seconds stop and ask me where I am now.  I am in the cowshed.  Now Dad is winding rope round my wrists and throwing the other end over a beam.  Now he is hoisting me up.  Now he is doing a few practice cracks of his belt.  At this point I jump towards the consulting room window.  I manage to open it and start gulping in air but the nurse must have pressed a panic button because this bloke runs in and puts me in a restraining hold on the carpet.

            At my next supervision with Diane I told her I couldn’t handle the PTSD therapy, but the story of the murdered boy had blown over, with the father jailed for life, and I’d started to be less fearful of TVs and newsstands.  Diane admitted she had seen me in the health centre and apologised but said she found it hard to be as up-front as me.  I told her it had really helped having my stuff out in the open and the safe area had been brilliant, although it had caused some envy amongst my colleagues.  She said she could understand the reaction of the other staff and asked if I wouldn’t mind her joining me in the there from time to time.

            They give you anti-depressants for PTSD and for bipolars, but I can vouch that the bonking chemicals your body produces when you’re having a passionate love affair are every bit as effective.  The cleaner’s cupboard has mostly been replaced by Diane’s flat as a rendezvous, but we give each other pheromone top-ups throughout the day: brushing past in the tobacco kiosk, squeezed fingers behind the bakery counter – every little helps, as they say.  I worry about the crash landing that will happen when this phase is over and how awkward it’s going to be when we fall out. But, I suppose, if and when that does happen, there’s always Morrisons.


THE FIRE – By Celia


That bin’s on fire again. It’s the boyfriend. Sore from last night’s argument, he’s pacing around the flat: up and down, cheap pumps stomping, wearing down the rug.

I’m awake, drowsy and dizzy.

He’s clutching the mobile; fingers hovering between 111 and 999.

I climb out of bed and pull my T-shirt down towards my knees. I lock myself in the toilet and stand on the seat so I can see out of the small window at the top. The flat’s opposite the fire station, surely one of them can come out and deal with it? The Council or the Mayor or the Government, one of them or all three of them, want to sell it off because of the cuts. There’s a big sign outside. Guiltily, I wish that they would, I can’t relax with the lights and sirens at all hours.

The bin’s caught properly now, I can hear small pops and see orange flames dancing through the holes in the top. The smell’s quite nice, plastic and warm and wintry, even though it’s summer and boiling hot.

There’s someone out there on the phone, I think they’re dealing with it. I just want to go back to bed, but he’s already folded the sofa bed where we sleep back into a sofa and pushed the duvet down behind the wicker chair.

I wonder if it was arson. I want to know what’s for breakfast. Maybe there’s a Mr Kipling French Fancy left over from that pack he brought home last night.

Someone probably put their fag out in it, didn’t they?

He’s happy that I’m engaging with him at last.

Oh no, Celia, I don’t think so. Look at how it’s burning, they’ve used a propellant.

You mean an accelerant, I think, but don’t say anything. Maybe I start to smile a little at his use of this forensic term, he’s been watching too much TV.

Sirens and blue flashing lights fill the living room. There’s a big sssssshhhh as the fire engine puts on its breaks after driving ten feet out of the station and two firemen jump out. They use a hose to douse the flames in foam. It’s out and they jump into the engine and reverse it back into the front of the station.

What did they need to do that for? Are they on commission or something?

It’s all over. We grin at each other. I smile as he fills the kettle and puts the last French Fancy, a pink one with white icing, onto a chipped plate for me.



  vintage ORIENTAL CHESS SET really cool pieces

You may or may not remember Donald Strathearn as one of Scotland’s minor nationalist poets. There was a time, though, when he was hailed in literary circles as “the Scottish Walt Whitman”, thanks to an enthusiastic (and somewhat silly) 1972 review of his long, rambling autobiographical poem of that year, The Cause of Thunder. His star fell just a few years later, but his work can still be found in some Scottish poetry anthologies, mostly key passages from The Cause of Thunder , which was his first foray into free verse. He thought the Whitman tag was ridiculous (he resented any comparison), but Whitman was indeed one of his main inspirations, especially the Civil War poetry. Believing that what Scottish literature needed in the late twentieth century was its own “barbaric yawp”, he looked to Whitman’s intimate, free-ranging, patriotic example. The result is a strange work – the chaotic narrative begins at the moment of the conception of the poet on a picnic blanket atop a cliff in Caithness, and goes on to recount his early life in a series of unstructured, impressionistic vignettes, powerfully evoking his years as a riveter in the Glasgow shipyards and his subsequent ascent to the trade unions. It culminates with his arrest at a protest march organized by the Marxist-Leninist Worker’s Party of Scotland in 1965 – that night, in a small prison cell, Strathearn recounts, his “consciousness erupted, blazing / across the cosmos”.

            The poetry was just like the poet: angry, vitriolic, high-minded, difficult, and nationalist in the most heavy-handed way. Reading it now, you feel that he was trying too hard. Indeed, those who tend to admire it tend to be those who are themselves trying too hard (mostly old school nationalists and Trotskyists). These days I don’t have much nationalist fervour – I don’t really see how Scotland could make it as an independent nation. I tend to think we’d be better off staying put. Why rock the boat? Mind you, these days I haven’t much fire in me for anything. I work as a pub chef, I have sciatica, and I’ve been divorced twice by the mother of my three children. It’s hard enough to stump up my alimony and have enough left over to pay my rent and heat my highrise shoebox. So I don’t go in for politics much now. But back in the 1970s I was a feisty nationalist firebrand and socialist activist along with the best of them, and so I developed something of an obsession with Strathearn, an obsession that was deepened by the fact that we both came from the town of Dunbeath. I wrote him an embarrassing fan letter after reading The Cause of Thunder, and even enclosed some of my own god-awful poetry. To my astonishment, he replied and invited me to have a pint with him at his Working Men’s Club. I never plucked up the courage to go. I’d seen him give public readings and I’d walked in his shadow at a political march in Glasgow. Six foot two with powerful shoulders, long grey hair, and a red-speckled beard, he resembled a Viking warrior (when he took his round specs off). His nickname among colleagues was ‘The Yeti’. He glowered and drank and gave fierce lectures in the universities, railing against everything from industrial capitalism to the “pish-soaked English decadence” of The Rolling Stones. He was quick to savage fools, and often backed it up physically. He punched his brother at their father’s funeral following a dispute over who should lead the pallbearers’ procession. He bickered and fought his family over money and property. He’d been known to turn up bare-chested outside people’s houses in the middle of the night, having decided to settle a perceived wrong there and then.

            Later on, it was understood that he was mentally ill, but only when it was too late to make any difference. His behaviour was seen by one half of the literary establishment as mere poetic excess (he was “wild”, a “primitive”, a “force of nature”, and other cliches), while the other half used it to discredit his ideas. Family, friends, and academic acquaintances gradually distanced themselves from him. His political comrades no longer wanted to be seen with him. His teaching position at the University of Glasgow (his main source of income) was cut. Publications rejected his poems and essays. By the late 1970s he was almost completely alone. The death of his alienated daughter, Elizabeth, in 1978 seemed to harden him further. The following year he severed his city ties and retreated north to a commune near Dunbeath. He wandered from town to town in ruined clothes, drinking himself into madness. His beard got ever longer and dirtier and greyer. He published nothing, apart from questions for the local school exam board for cider money and the odd ferocious letter to a local newspaper.

            I chanced to see him around this time. I was in Dunbeath visiting my mother. I’d just left her house and was driving out through the town in a bitter rainstorm when I spotted him standing in the street. He seemed to have been going somewhere but then simply stopped, as if he’d just lost the will. He was sobbing loudly and rubbing tears and rainwater from his eyes and beard. I could hear his sobbing from the car as I went by. I had somewhere to get to. I kept going.

            It bothered me for months. I was terrified of opening my newspaper and reading of his suicide, knowing that I had left him breaking down in the street. I decided to write to him again. At length I managed to obtain the address of the commune. I didn’t expect him to remember me or write back, but he did. His reply was warm and expansive. He talked of his plans to instigate “a New Poetry for a New Scotland”. He also challenged me to a game of chess by correspondence. Many people with intellectual pretensions try their hand at chess; I was one of them. I wasn’t very good – I’d never had the patience to develop my game – but I felt bad for him, and, admittedly, the notion of playing with an intellectual heavyweight appealed to my ego. I accepted the challenge. His first move arrived in the mail a few days later:


   I responded:       


  A few days later came the reply:


 And so it went on. We played non-stop over the next few years. To keep track, I bought a  chessboard in a charity shop and set it up in my living room to play our games out with real pieces. I didn’t win a single game, however. My best result was managing not to lose one – I somehow dragged things out and forced stalemate. I was fine with it after the first two drubbings; he was clearly a brilliant player. I merely started to look forward to the virtuosity of his attacking play.

            When we began, his moves were accompanied by friendly notes and chess tips. As time went on, he began to share thoughts with me on political affairs and contemporary writers. I was fascinated. It gave me something to think about and look forward to. I did my best to keep up the conversation. I debated with him, taking the side of Labour and the Unionists. Scotland was too weak, our energies too scattered, I suggested. We lacked confidence as a nation. How would we defend ourselves once independent? How would we cope with the debt we’d be lumped with? How would we get our fair share of oil revenues? Where we would stand in Europe? Scotland can’t go it alone, I argued, and certainly not under any socialist government… His replies got longer and more impassioned. It was a thrill for me. I started to mess up food orders at work because I was composing counter-arguments in my head. The debate intensified further. I started to feel convinced of my own arguments. His rhetoric became increasingly violent and obscure. He began to rave about a “New Scottish Revolution” that he apparently believed was going to take place soon. There were long passages referring to Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Robert Owen, and John Maclean, laced throughout with phrases in capital letters: “DIALECTICAL INEVITABILITY” and “ABSOLUTE SELF-KNOWINGNESS OF THE SCOTTISH MIND”. He berated the Scottish Nationalist Party, Scottish Labour, and the socialists for being weak and confused. He lampooned writers of the “pretend Left”. I did my best to stay with it but after a while they became unreadable. Finally, they became outright strange. The handwriting melted into a wild scrawl; surrounding it were inky clouds of equations, diagrams, cartoons, song lyrics, and musical notes. Often the sheets were stained with wine or blackened with cigarette burns.

            Then the communications stopped abruptly, as did the chess game we were in the middle of (I’d actually been doing quite well). The final letter arrived in February 1982. Had the handwriting been legible, I doubt the meaning would have been comprehensible. The diagrams and equations ran off the side of the page. A roughly-sketched map of Scotland was drawn over what appeared to be a star chart with ghostly faces emerging from it. In the middle of it was a thumbprint made in blood. A month or so later, I read in the Standard that Strathearn had been sectioned.

            Six months passed. I didn’t do anything. I thought there was probably nothing I could do anyway. Indeed, I wondered if I had contributed to his mental collapse. Perhaps I should have taken his letters to someone, a doctor or psychiatrist. In truth, it hadn’t even occurred to me that he was ill – I had just thought he was “mad” in the way that brilliant people often are. Have you ever seen the manuscripts of William Blake? I went about my life. I had a new girlfriend. She moved in with me. We had wild pub nights and cosy mornings in bed. I was selfishly happy.

            I still thought of Strathearn, though. I talked about him to my girlfriend, and she pushed me to go and see him. That October, I gave in. I phoned the psychiatric hospital he was in and drove out for visitor’s hours. I was walked up to the third floor of the gloomy hospital building by a chunky-built orderly in white with a shaved head.

            “He’s just had a manic spell,” he said, “He’s on the downturn now, though. You’ll be fine on your own with him. I’ll be outside.”

             He unlocked a white steel door and showed me into a sunlit ward with a large bay window. The poet sat on a wicker chair by the wall hunched over a small table with a chessboard on it. An empty chair sat opposite. He was still a big man, though the broad frame was frail and jaundiced. The white hair had been clipped ludicrously, the grey beard hacked away. He wore thick NHS glasses and faded purple pyjamas with a sky blue dressing gown over them. His long pale feet were bare; his blueish toes gripped the metal crossbar of his chair like talons. He stared at the chessboard with an expression that was both vexed and sad.

            “Hello Donald,” I said.

            He didn’t move. He was fixated on the chessboard. The game appeared to be well underway despite the lack of an opponent. I assumed he must be playing himself. Then, stepping forward, I recognized my own defensive formation from nearly a year ago. The opponent was me.

            “Donald,” I said.


            “Donald, it’s Kenneth.”

            “Play, then, for God’s sake!” he bellowed, gesturing violently at the board without looking up at me. At a loss for anything to say, I sat down in the empty chair. Finally, I made a move I’d been considering after receiving his last. I took his queen’s pawn with my knight. He snorted contemptuously and took the knight with his bishop, tossing my piece high over his shoulder. It hit the window behind him and fell to the floor. I sheepishly moved a pawn forward.

            “Donald,” I said, “how have you been?”

            “The Revolution is coming!” he snarled, snatching up my pawn. “Red Caledonia shall command the nations….”

            In taking my pawn with his knight, he left his queen open to my bishop. I hesitated, suspecting a trick. There was no trick. Terrified of patronizing him, I took his queen. He looked shocked and saddened for a moment, then nodded gravely. We played on. He didn’t look at me once. He ranted and muttered and laughed, all the while making disastrous moves, losing piece after piece. Finally, I maneuvered an attack squad – queen, knight, bishop, two rooks – in for the kill. He was four moves from checkmate. Seeing it, he gasped. A moment later he swung his fist in the air and smashed it down on the table. The chessboard flipped into the air scattering the pieces across the room. A glass ashtray and a mug of milky tea flew off it and shattered on the tiled floor. The orderly shouldered the door and sprinted in, followed a moment later by a stocky female nurse. I stood up and backed away. They rushed up and leaned over him. The orderly held his wrists while the nurse looked into his eyes and began saying his name, telling him to calm down, that it was all right. Strathearn was offering no resistance, though. He lay there, lank and pathetic. His chest began to rise and fall. For a few moments there was just the thinnest hint of the sobbing I had heard from my car on that miserable wet street in Dunbeath, then it passed. A long, glistening tear made its way slowly over the rise of his cheek bone and down into the cleft beneath it, where it disappeared into the thick beard. I motioned to the nurse that I would go. She nodded. I found my way out of the building, and (once again) I drove away.

            A week later I received a letter. The address written on the envelope was not in Strathearn’s hand. Inside was a single sheet of writing paper. It was blank, except for one word scrawled violently across the middle. This was in his hand:


          A week later, Donald Strathearn was dead. Initial reports said it was heart failure, but there were rumours that he’d hung himself with a dressing gown belt. Obituaries appeared in some lefty Scottish newspapers, and a couple of literary magazines noted his passing. I attended his funeral. Academics and literary types outnumbered family by about eight to one. They dominated the tributes. They referred to him as “Scotland’s literary lion” and “our Viking bard”, and they wheeled out the “Scottish Walt Whitman” line right on cue. One of them even seemed to hint that his descent into madness was a fitting end for a such an impassioned, visionary poet. They made it sound as if they’d been there beside him on the Independence march right up to the bitter end. They droned on and on ludicrously. They were soft and chinless. They’d never been to a trade union meeting in their lives. I nearly scoffed aloud, but an uneasy feeling held me back. When it was finally over I went through to the bar and ordered a pint. I sat thinking. A man in his thirties wearing an ill-fitting tweed jacket came in and sat down beside me. He turned and looked at me. He was Scottish but spoke with an Oxbridge affectation.

            “Were you family?”

            “No,” I said, “just a friend.”

            “He was a very great poet. I’m writing my PhD thesis on him.”

            “Oh right.”

            “Yes, I’m charting the evolution of his nationalist thought during the decade 1968 to 1978 and exploring how that influenced his poetic imagery.”

            “Good for you.”

            We were silent for a couple of minutes.

            “I played chess with him,” I said, for something to say, “by letter.”

            “Oh, really!”

            “Well, I tried. I hadn’t a hope against him.”

            “Some do say he was a better chess player than a poet. I don’t agree, of course. But did you know he was an accredited Chess Master back in the day? He played in the Soviet Union during the….”

            “No, I didn’t know that.”

We sat and drank in silence for a minute. Then on an impulse I took Strathearn’s last note out of my pocket and unfolded it.

            “Do you know what this means?”

            “Zugzwang,” read the scholar. “Ah yes. It’s German. In chess, it means a position where the only move you can make is one that will lead to you losing the game. I’d say that calls for a drink!”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “He was conceding the game to you.”


            “You beat the great Donald Strathearn at chess! There’s one to tell your grandchildren about. You must be thrilled!” He clicked his fingers above his head. “Another drink here!”

            “No,” I said, waving the barman off. “I’m going.”

            I got up and went outside. It had begun to thunder and rain heavily. I didn’t have a coat with me, only my black funeral jacket. I stood smoking in the doorway for a while. The iron-grey sky didn’t look like it was going to clear any time soon, but I didn’t want to go back inside. Eventually, I pulled my collar up, tossed my cigarette, and started walking.