I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction.
There were at least five ways home from The Saracen’s Head, and Stan couldn’t think of any of them. He adjusted to the sharp shock of the winter darkness instead, lit a fag, and smoked it savagely as if it had in some way done him greatly wrong. Behind himself, the lights of the pub shut off one by one. Loneliness bit down. Stan Metcalf stoically lit another off the butt of the first. It was late, he was in trouble. Ruby would be waiting.
So this is how the big project first began, as an interior monologue that came to me quite spontaneously while I was still living in Japan, just over ten years ago. This was the voice of a soldier in the water after the Birkenhead went down on February 26, 1852, off Danger Point, a Victorian naval disaster that had fascinated me since I’d first come across the story as a student in the late-90s. It’s rough, but you can see the premise quite clearly. After writing two incomplete versions of the manuscript with the protagonist a soldier from the ranks, the first Irish, the second English, I realised he needed to be a journalist instead…
I didn’t really know what I was doing and I never managed to sell it. I blew the dust off the manuscript a few years later when I was supposed to be writing my doctoral thesis, changing the point-of-view character to a mixed-race girl, and keeping the hippy elements of the original but losing the magic realism. I let it slide when my academic career took off, subsequently publishing a couple of reworked scenes as short stories. This is one of them, which was originally published in Birdsuit 11 edited by Christopher Reid and Andrea Holland in 2002, shortly before I moved to Japan. It’s a far cry from the stuff I write now, but I still have a bit of a soft spot for this one…
It was the end of the frustrating fifties. Mary, my mother, heavily pregnant at sixteen, like her mother before her, and just as tragically innocent of the mechanics of her own body, took to the outside toilet suffering from violent stomach cramps. A convulsive eternity later, with a double scream (one of utter terror on Mum’s part and mild surprise on mine), I was born.
ohn Lennon famously said of the early-50s that ‘Before Elvis there was nothing,’ but before Elvis there were EC comics. In the history of horror and censorship, EC comics are a legend: cool, cult objects from the shady, esoteric side of post-war American popular culture, before the King broke through on Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan, like the fetish photographs of Bettie Page, the Ed Gein murders, wild rockabilly, and the Mad Daddy on WHKK.
‘The thing I love about this job,’ said the soldier, ‘is that you never know where you’ll end up next.’ You and me both, I thought, following him along the deserted seafront. One day you’re doing a bit of freelance journalism, the next you’re on some mysterious Pacific island at the invitation of the owners, all expenses very generously paid. Odd really, given that when I was in the Fleet Street mainstream I was one of their most ardent critics. I shielded my eyes and surveyed a promenade of abandoned cars and looted shops. Off the grid corporate retreats can get pretty weird but I hadn’t seen this one coming.
I first cultivated something like a friendship with Billy, the lonely old boy upstairs, because he reminded me of my dad. But the longer I lived in that little ground floor flat the more he reminded me of myself. The low-rise flats were red brick and post-war, and I had grown up in one just like it myself, with the same narrow hallway with bedrooms in an inverted ‘T’ shape at one end and a heavy door topped with a single panel of frosted glass at the other.