No. 28 TENSE

A novel in tiny, impromptu serialised snippets…

Chapters 1 to 3

The past is the past, where the dead live. The future is chaos where the unborn wait. Every human being who lives, who has ever lived or who will ever live, will live in the Now. Never so much as a nanosecond earlier or later.

The same goes for every animal, plant, river, puff of wind or grain of sand. Everything that has ever existed, that exists now, or that will ever exist is constrained to exist entirely within the infinitesimal flash of creation that is happening now. Now. Now. Now.

The entire universe and everything in it slips instantaneously from now to now, creating the past and anticipating the future, without ever persisting in its transitory state for longer than the flash required by creation to create the next instant.

The rumoured Big Bang, if bang there ever was, continues to this day, rippling ever onwards and outwards, moment by moment, instant by instant, flash, flash, flash.

Our consciousness, our awareness of this amazing unfolding, is pieced together like an animation, flickering from second to second, creating the illusion of continuity, of continuous change, when in fact all is discontinuity. Existential angst, which any degree of self-knowledge would proclaim as the very essence of the human condition, is the only possible, natural, sane response.

This therefore was the very anxiety experienced on a daily basis by our hero as he machete’d his way through the torment of life. Imagining himself as a ping-pong ball suspended upon a tiny column of air blown thorough a straw by a small, asthmatic child, he wrestled second by second with the certainty that any moment might be his last. After all, how long could one expect said small asthmatic child to continue to blow? What is the maximum duration possible even under the most auspicious circumstances? Whatever it might be, things didn’t look good.

It therefore came as something of a surprise for him to encounter, as he did, just before midnight, on that particular New Year’s Eve, the woman who smiled sunshine. There was no other word for it. Her face at rest was perfectly pleasant, symmetrical, with all the right bits in reasonable proportions. Her eyes were a piercing aquamarine, and if her face were at rest, that would be her most notable feature. When she smiled however, the clouds pulled back, and against an acetylene blue sky, she smiled pure sunshine. Warm, radiant and instantly beguiling. She exuded an existential joy that could, or might if he would let it, soften our hero’s angst, allow in at least the possibility of better times to come. Here at last was a metaphysical Ventolin, balm for the constricted bronchia of our allegorical asthmatic child.

Would he speak to her? Would he summon up the courage? Or would the moment pass? Would it slip instantaneously and irretrievably into the domain of the dead and moulder through all eternity alongside every other missed opportunity.

In the sombre halls of Valhalla would our hero’s forbears slap their foreheads in disbelief, stamp their feet in frustration, and mutter ‘Gutless fool’ into embarrassed silence?



Chapter 2


We all have our ‘Sliding Doors’ moments. Whether planned well in advance or apparently random. We can all point to pivotal moments in our lives when we went left when we should have gone right, when we hesitated when we should have jumped in, or, alternatively, when we jumped in with both feet when we should, most definitely, have hesitated – in retrospect.

For our hero, the next few minutes, pregnant to bursting with possibility, promised to trigger either a helter-skelter, roller-coaster ride into an unknown future, or a timid, inglorious retreat into morose introspection and self-hatred. Which was it to be?

For those given to the optimistic and wholly implausible paradigm of free will, driven by chance and the accidental emergence of pattern within our otherwise plainly haphazard lives, the outcome was up to him. On the other hand, for those intellectually and emotionally drawn to the equally unlikely notion that free will is an illusion, and that everything, down to the tiniest detail, the tiniest possible instant, is preordained and inevitable, the die had already been cast. Our hero would be propelled to his doom like the proverbial lamb to its inevitable slaughter.

He could choose or not. Either way his future, whether destined or fortuitous, would emerge. And emerge it most certainly did.

Transfixed by the solace of her smile, our man hesitated, just for a moment. But a moment was all the woman needed, oblivious to the impact she had inadvertently had upon the hapless fellow, to march smartly from the crowded supermarket. Once again, as had happened so many times in the past, he was faced with the conundrum of choice. Yet again this tiny speck of humanity must, in the face of what he suspected was an implacable or at the very least an indolent universe, wrestle the future into a configuration of his own choosing. We can all appreciate I think, what an immense, potentially overwhelming task that would be.

The two kilos of best minced beef which he had snapped up as it was on special, adamantly refused to register at the self-service checkout. Within seconds a breezy and efficient looking young woman appeared silently at his side, brandishing an electronic pass key and demanding to know if he needed any help. He said not, but the self-service checkout supervisor, for this is what her name badge proclaimed her to be, blithely ignoring his claim, swiped her pass against the till and keyed in the appropriate price. She smiled sweetly and walked away. ‘Bitch’, he thought to himself, entirely without justification.

The woman with the smile was still visible through the glass walls of the supermarket. She was on the phone. Into the vacuum of indecision rushed a familiar, if not entirely welcome, vortex of morose introspection and self-hatred. There was a certain comfort to be had in familiarity. There was something to be said for the known, even a dreary known, when set against a potentially malevolent uncertainty. Our guy was not a great risk taker. He was not at all the sort to make a heap of all his winnings. Maybe it was better this way.

He began to slump into his habitual slough of despond. And would have continued to do so but for the fateful, or entirely accidental, intervention of harassed middle aged woman accompanied by altogether too many children. Into the backs of his ankles, with a sickening crunching noise, crashed her fully laden shopping trolley. Left unattended for the briefest moment while a snotty nose was wiped with a grubby tissue, the trolley, perhaps in some phenomenological manner sensing its freedom, picked up momentum as it careened down the slight incline in the direction of our emotionally imploding hero.

The pain was immediate and excruciating. A pristine fight-or-flight response, hardly used since childhood, snapped him into a sudden, savage rage. Unable through long avoidance to focus his wrath upon another human being, the roiling mushroom cloud of anger and indignation poured outwards and away, finding at last its target in the miserable, wretched universe that had hounded him for as long as he could remember. Enough was enough. The world could bend to his will or break, its call.

Only one person saw the agonised look on his face as he made his decision. Only one person noticed as he drew himself up to his full height, squared his shoulders and marched out into the supermarket carpark. The trolley woman’s daughter, who had backed away at the very first sighting of the grubby tissue, and who takes no further part in this tale, watched him go.

Within a few steps he caught up with the woman.
‘Excuse me’ he said, his voice sounding surprisingly firm and confident even in his own ears. The woman turned.
‘You have a lovely smile.’ The man waited. The woman said nothing.
‘Actually, lovely doesn’t quite do it justice. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but when you smile your whole face lights up.’ Still she said nothing.
‘It’s like sunshine.’ He trailed off. At last the woman responded.
‘Thank you. That’s a lovely compliment.’ There was a pause before she continued.
‘My name’s Sally.’
‘Tense’ he said, ‘everyone calls me that. It’s a nickname.’
The woman smiled. Our hero blushed beetroot.
‘Tense’, she rolled the sound over in her mind for a moment, ‘pleased to meet you.’



Chapter 3


As our hero began to speak, a plane flew overhead. It seemed lower than usual, deafeningly loud. He stopped speaking, waiting for the ill-timed intrusion to end.
He and the woman with the sunshine smile stood silently, staring at each other for a few moments as the huge Airbus A380 wallowed slowly towards its nearby destination.
‘It’s the ten o’clock from Dubai.’ Tense shuffled his feat uncomfortably, bravura fading fast.
‘Is it?’
‘Yes.’ Tense was a gentleman of exceptional self-knowledge and had, as his psychotherapist was always so very keen to remind him, “a very rich inner life”. Consequently, Tense realised that, like a clay pigeon at the very end of its trajectory, about to fall humiliatingly from the sky, unless he acted with unaccustomed speed and resolution, he was about to crash and burn. He gave it another go.
‘I wonder…’ As he began to speak again the, now gloriously snot free, child of the trolley woman careened into his leg. Having in the past relied solely upon purely ontological proofs either of a malevolent universe or a capricious God, here at last, snot-free child in combination with sudden appearance of a low flying aircraft, was clear cut epistemological proof. Whatever, it was enough to precipitate him once more into action.
‘The universe is out to get me.’
‘That must be disconcerting.’
‘It is.’ Here, once again, the conversation faltered, and would have stuttered into silence and utter failure had not the young woman offered her opinion.
‘I don’t believe in a malicious God.’
Tense was flummoxed. Had she not just witnessed the Machiavellian workings of the substrate of our shared hologram. Or to put it another way, was she mad? Intrigued by the possibility that there might be someone even more deluded than himself, Tense decided to investigate.
‘Is it that you don’t believe there is a God, or that you believe that God is not malicious?’
‘Oh it’s not a matter of belief, I know there is a God and I know that God is good.’
Tense, subjected without warning to an animalistic fight-flight response for the second time in so many minutes, stifled the almost overwhelming desire to turn on his heel and run.
‘W.T.F?’ he thought.
‘You’re quite right’ the woman smiled, bathing Tense in warm, comforting sunshine and a sense of general wellbeing, ‘I should have said, I’m an Angel.’
‘You’re an Angel?’
‘Yes.’ Sally the Angel continued to smile. Calm and quite unabashed, she gazed around the busy carpark. Tense, as so often before, found himself in uncharted territory. She was gorgeous, no doubt about that, and he was besotted. So what she was mad as cut snakes, he could see the advantage of having an Angel in his life.
‘Well what brings you to earth?’
‘I’m on my holidays.’
‘You’re on holidays?’
‘On Earth?’
‘Where are you on holidays from?’
‘Well Heaven of course?’
‘My reading of the scriptures has been regrettably sketchy, but why would anyone leave Heaven to go on holidays on Earth?’
‘Well there are only two possible destinations, I mean, from my point of view, and Earth is the better of the two.’
‘Ah, yes, I take your point.’
‘Besides’ Sally smiled again with renewed vigour. Tense almost passed out.
‘It’s nice sometimes to do a bit of field work,’
Tense was momentarily lost for words. The morning was getting on and he was hungry.
‘Coffee?’ he ventured.
‘Sounds wonderful, with salmon and cream cheese bagels?’
‘But of course.’
‘And bacon and eggs?’
‘And fresh fruit salad with double cream and vanilla bean ice cream?’
‘Well, let’s see what they have.’
Sally burst out laughing and took his arm, ‘Only joking.’
As the young couple walked slowly, side by side in the direction of a nearby café, Tense found himself musing on the events of the morning. He’d fallen in love, sustained, no doubt permanent, damage to his Achilles tendons, met an immortal, spiritual being and messenger of God, successfully chatted her up in a supermarket carpark and invited her for coffee.
Against all experience and his better nature, Tense found himself conceding, things were looking up.


No 27. Chimera

I want to tell you of my love.

I want you to see what I see, to feel what I feel and to understand what I understand, when she is near. I want this more than anything in the world, but I cannot.

There are not words enough to describe her. She cannot be encompassed by mere expressions. She cannot be circumscribed, defined or contained in any way. She is beyond classification, she cannot be constrained or limited by a mere label. To attempt to classify her in any way would be a sin.

She cannot be known, that’s the problem really. She can never be understood. She is ceaselessly new. With each passing instant she is renewed, remade and original. There is no predicting her, each evolution from one moment to the next is utterly unforeseen and unexpected.

But perhaps I gush.

We can never be whole, together. We are doomed, from the outset, to misunderstanding and loss. There are times when I fear that she is not real at all, that she is a figment of my febrile imagination. I am afraid then that I have lost my mind completely and that I am in fact secured in a strait jacket, cocooned in a nice snug padded cell, quietly bashing my brains out against the softly upholstered walls.

She is more than a passing fancy though, of that I am certain. She is a universe in and of herself. Perhaps I exist inside her. Perhaps I am the passing fancy, a solipsistic figment of her imagination.

I see other men with their women sometimes. Pale, emaciated shades, their blood tepid, the flow turgid and without vigour. I feel sorry for them of course, but I keep my own counsel.

There is no doubt that she is to some extent a fantasy. My friends tell me so, subtly, obliquely, not wishing to offend. She is a construct, my construct. My imagined perfection realised in a woman. But I cannot see it. I cannot distinguish the fantasy from the reality. I cannot say where reality leaves off and fiction begins. I can see what they mean though, my friends, I can recall past loves from whom a veil suddenly fell, revealing them as ordinary, unremarkable people. I can remember the exact moment when the glamour was cast off and cold, hard truth revealed. But what has this to do with my love? It is a false comparison.

My friends put my feelings down to some kind of eccentricity, some caprice or whimsy on my part. Nothing deliberate, and certainly nothing depraved, but perhaps a little wilful. Perhaps a little lacking in rigour.

They say I manufacture illusion, that it suggests perhaps a neurotic need on my part. A need to have found the perfect woman. To have found perfection somewhere, something or someone. Some have suggested that it is nothing what so ever to do with the woman herself, that her apparent perfection is entirely my projection. Further, some have suggested that I am placing too great a burden upon my woman. That I am placing her on a pedestal and thereby setting her up to fail.

Some of my friends, the kinder ones, suggest that my loves are a kind of daydream. That they progress under their own logic irrespective of the woman involved.

I can, for the sake of argument, accept that in the past the women I have fallen in love with have indeed turned out to have feet of clay. None has lived up to their early promise. But this is certainly not my fault. You can’t blame me for that.

No. 26 MSG

Sacrifice is good. Self-sacrifice is better. Self-punishment is best.

That is my mantra. Those are my beliefs. I don’t care what you think.

Having said that, I suppose I should clarify; it’s not sacrifice in and of itself that is good. It is not sacrifice for its own sake that matters, it is sacrifice for the sake of another. I make my sacrifice for love. I make my sacrifice to love.

I live alone, in an empty apartment. I like to describe it as my ‘cell’. I enjoy being thought of as ascetic in my austerity. My frugality is semiotic. I have a table and a chair, a bed, a malfunctioning cooker and a neurotic fridge. I have a copy of an old Russian Orthodox tryptic on the wall. It’s not very attractive, that might be part of its charm, if it had any.

There is a certain smell to it, you would expect that, a sacrificial smell as of meat left out too long. Not yet charnel, but gamey certainly, toothsome to some.

One cannot sacrifice the unimportant. A trivial sacrifice is no sacrifice at all. I live and die by that. If you’re going to make a sacrifice, make it a self-sacrifice. Sacrifice of self, of something deeply personal, is what counts, and after that, always, inevitably, there comes self-punishment.

That’s where the rubber hits the road. With the kiss of the lash comes submission, and pain of course, and ecstasy. Payback.

I eat sparely. I am parsimonious in my use of ingredients. For a long time I survived on tinned sardines or pilchards and a large sack of Bulgarian cracked wheat. I do not invite people to dinner. I do invite people to meet at my place just as I am finishing dinner, before we go out to some hedonistic hell hole. I have become something of an expert in one-pot cooking. Self-denial and abstinence add zest to my epicurean experiments.

The taste is good, no matter how subtle the castigation or chastisement may be. The flavour rolls around on the tongue, redolent with penance and the penalty to come. It is a flavour enhancer, Monosodium Glutamate for the soul, the promise of a reward.

There is a certain flamboyance to sacrifice, done right. My beloved must know of my sacrifice. Whether the object is to trigger guilt, to witness even for an instant the downward curve of her lip or a sudden widening of the eyes in recognition of the gift, or even if, instead, the intention is to impress the beloved with the sincerity of the offering, either way, my beloved must know, and I must know that she knows.

She knows. I know she knows. I revel in it, her knowing, in the invasion of her mind with the certainty of my pain, the corruption, if you like, of her self with my pain and disgrace.

Sacrifice has a certain look though. You would be aware of that. Whether as an heroic attempt to maintain self-respect, to keep up appearances when all is lost, like a Salaryman long since terminated, or as an oh-so-subtle demonstration of rights waived or advantages foregone. Sacrifice is down-at-heel, definitely. Reproach veiled.

I dress plainly, in a manner evocative of some early protestant sect. I do not overdo it. One does not want to look like a caricature.  Sometimes people think I’m a medic of some kind, perhaps a palliative care nurse. Well she is my ‘charge’ in a sense, and I am her ‘carer’. I presume I must give out signals. Maybe it’s the mark of Cain. Whatever.

Sometimes she bites her lip. The gesture is ambiguous. I am uncertain as to its meaning. How should I interpret it? Sometimes she will stand, pale and fragile, sweet scented, a camellia blossom, browning visibly, threatening to swoon for want of sap.

Perhaps she is impressed. Perhaps she realises the depth of my commitment, the totality of my vow. She should do. It is plain enough to see – if she would just look. If she would just for one moment open her eyes and take a really good look. There it is. Laid out upon a fresh clean damask tablecloth for all to see. There is my love. There is my sacrifice, and there, and there.

Does she look? Does she see? I am in an agony of self-doubt.

Perhaps she is ashamed. That could be it. Perhaps she knows what she is putting me through and is wracked with shame. Or guilt – better still. Perhaps remorse fills her. Perhaps she is mortified by my pain and suffering.

I do not know. I can’t tell which.

Perhaps she is disgusted. She is sickened by the growing realisation of her part in my misery.

Well I hope it is guilt. I hope she is drowning in a lake of repentance and regret. My torment, a throbbing stigmata in her mind.  Occasionally I glimpse the shade that lives forever behind her eyes.

No. I cannot say that. I must not. I cannot be the author of her suffering, although that would not be the worst thing.

Even more hateful than the stigmata is the cicatrice, the sign of healing, the scar tissue forming over a closing wound.  Sacrifice entails injury of course – injury to both. It is not enough that the priest should suffer, the deity must suffer too. That knowledge is evidently secret, no one must ever know.

She must not recover. There can be no recuperation. I do not want to see her ‘on the mend’, ‘recuperating’, ‘getting better’. I want her impaled like some stupid English tourist in Pamplona, gored, naturally, but alive.

She has good days, when she wants to, when it suits her. She has days when one might suspect there is nothing wrong with her at all. On these days she will make some comment or other, some explanation will be forthcoming to explain her unexpected perkiness.

‘People have been so kind’ she says, ‘on days like these I feel I really may be on the mend.’

‘Mend-schmend’ I think to myself, ‘by evening the bitch will have had drifted back into a decline.’

I do not mean that. I am overwrought, that’s all. I would never hurt her. I could never hurt her.  She is everything to me.

My apartment is silent, other than the hourly chiming of a plastic East German cuckoo clock someone once gave me. It may have been a joke. I’m not a good judge. It keeps good time.

There is a grittiness to my reality, like fine sand on concrete under bare feet or the high contrast black and white of some old found-footage from before the war. She is complicit, you knew that. Whether consciously or not, she aids, even if she does not directly abet. She has seeped into the fine grain of my life. Every sensation burns when I am with her, corroding the nerve endings, there is fire in the softness of her breath on my cheek – when she sleeps.

She is my cilice, and I hers – though she is unaware of that.