Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for July 2013

Weaponised (Mechanical Augmentation)

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 The second smoldering target flipped down, and the third one on the range popped up. Serrah turned to the plexiglass wall behind her.

‘Daddy, this is boring!’

‘Just keep at it, sweetheart,’ he called through the intercom. ‘It’s a demonstration, not a test.’

With a groan, she pointed her left arm at the target. The skin along her wrist and forearm broke apart, revealing the metal innards. Her hand flipped aside.

BANG. The gun in her artificial limb fired, and again blew the head off the target twenty metres away. Another one. BANG, back to her smoking right hand. Fifth target. Thoroughly tired with such child’s play, she lifted her right leg up and another concealed gun flipped out of her knee-cap. It only took off the target’s ear, so she lifted the other leg, took the time to aim, and got it in the centre of the neck. The mistake would look bad to the suits Daddy was with, but she could only have made that shot first time if she had on the aiming program in her eye-com – and that would have only made this exercise even more skull-numbingly boring.

‘Okay, princess, we’re done. Have fun the rest of the day, and I’ll meet you at the hub for dinner, all right?’

‘Whatever,’ she said, striding to the range door. He’d be late, as always. That’s the way it went whenever he showed her off. He’d spend all day lunching with them, charming them, before bringing them to the range, and then he’d spend all evening showing them his workshop and charming them even more, before diving in for the kill.

She wondered which layer of corporate bureaucracy he was in now. It was a never-ending stairway of well-dressed people and red tape, and it got on her nerves having to show off her arms to every single group of them. But it would all be worth it, he said, once it was over. Once he had full backing, he wouldn’t need to hide her secret anymore. ‘And then we can finally get justice,’ he’d said.

Serrah walked out of the range by the side exit – the one that looked like a janitor’s closet, made specially so she could bypass the strict security of the front. It took most people months to get the permit for the range, with multiple psychological checks before they would allow anyone near a gun. Ammo was precious, after all, and bullets extremely dangerous for the ship. She didn’t get why anyone would bother with the hassle. The range was only like playing loud, recoil-heavy darts.

The door came out by 5th Avenue, on the shopping district. She perked up as she saw the new quarterly ranges in the windows: bright floaty dresses, shorts, sandals. The heat in the districts had been edging up over the past week, as the temperature controls in HQ simulated the beginning of summer. The ceiling displayed blue sky and scattered white clouds. Maybe she would get Daddy to take her to the agricultural district this week. When it was summer, nothing was nicer than to go out into the fields and feel the artificial wind buffet your hair, trying to catch the dandelion seeds as they whirred past.

‘Miss Marsden,’ came a voice behind her, ‘shouldn’t you be in school?’

She rolled her eyes before turning around. In a district of fourteen thousand people, how did anyone manage to find her so easily?

‘I’ve been at a doctor’s appointment, Mrs Holborn,’ she said to her elderly neighbour. The lady sniffed and looked her up and down.

‘Well, I suppose. But surely your limbs are fine by now? You seem to be at an appointment every second week.’

‘I’m a growing girl, ma’am. Bye!’

As she walked away, Mrs Holborn called after her:

‘I’ll be talking to your father about this, young lady! If you’ve been missing school…’

Serrah laughed to herself at the old bat’s naivete, skipping down a side street. Daddy had barely been to school, he’d said. He didn’t put much faith in it, except for meeting friends. Better to teach yourself, and question everything, he said, instead of having facts fossilised in your brain. After all, hackers teach themselves, and since they don’t play by the rules, they’re always finding new ways to wreak havoc. We have to do the same.

She decided to go to the observation deck. It was always better to visit it during the day, when everyone else was busy and the deck was quiet. So she ran to the edge of the shopping district, swiped her wristband across the lockpad, and half-stepped, half-swung herself down the escalator. It was a steep, white-walled passage down to the observation deck. She couldn’t wait for the day she was tall enough to reach the ceiling when standing on the escalator rail. Some of the boys in her class could do it already, and Daddy said she would be as tall as her mother in a year or two.

The doors at the bottom opened as she jumped off the last step, and the vista of space spread before her. Black, endless. There was a faint glimmer far away on one side that could be an asteroid, a dwarf planet, or some gleaming space junk. She could see nothing else – only the rest of the Ark, stretching for miles along either side.

It hurt her mind to think of how far they were from anything. Old people like Mrs Holborn still had an inherited anxiety from their forebears, a worry of something going wrong, a fear of extinction. But we would’ve been extinct if we’d stayed on Earth anyway, Serrah’s father had said. His generation, and hers, had grown up with faith in the Ark’s hundreds of checks and failsafes. The problem was people who would sabotage that for their own ends.

‘When we left Earth, everyone was on the observation deck,’ he had said during one of his impromptu history lessons. ‘It was packed as people watched the only home we’d ever known disappear out of sight. Then every time we passed by a planet, everyone would crowd here again.’

It had been a long time since that happened. The vast expanse between Uranus and Neptune was all Serrah had ever known. And they were still years and years away from their destination. She was born on the ship, she’d live on the ship, and die on the ship, without ever feeling natural atmosphere, and without ever seeing real sky, real earth, real wind.

She stepped up to the vista, where the projection of space outside was just as sharp as reality. Once upon a time, humans had used windows on everything, easily broken glass instead of photorealistic displays onto solid walls. Submarines were one of the few exceptions. One of her favourite lessons had been about submarines, and the ocean on Earth. Her great-grandfather’s diaries had said that space was like the bottom of the ocean: lightless, weightless, disorienting. She couldn’t imagine what ocean was like: water as far as the eye could see and with no bottom, moving because of an orbiting moon miles away in the sky. She couldn’t imagine it. Even the sea life district held only water tanks with visible bottoms and sides.

‘You wouldn’t have been able to go in the ocean anyway,’ Daddy said one night when she was younger, and he was adjusting the circuits in her left arm while she talked about Earth and gestured with the right. ‘I wouldn’t risk the damage salt water could do to you. If your arms and legs seized up, you could drown.’

That was why she hadn’t been a swimming pool since she was very little. Daddy thought of everything.

It was nice to come here and remember the past, and the mission humanity was on, but Serrah had been given her own mission and decided that the darkness of space was enough for one day. She headed back to the escalators, taking a different passage this time, up to her residential district.

Nufilly, District R18. It was hotter here than the observation deck. Her elbows and knees hurt a little bit as they changed in temperature. She’d need summer adjustment, for when it got hotter. She wondered what it must be like to not have to consider these things. She came onto her street.

The hubs ran in perfect unison on either side, and she looked to see if anyone had changed the skin display on their otherwise identical home. The Grays had changed theirs to pink for Sally’s birthday last week and not changed it back yet. Mr Neilson had changed his from a picture of one ancient Earth building to another slightly-less ancient one. And then there was her house: it still looked its original white, as if it had never been changed, but in truth it was a specially-made skin. Running along the bottom, in tiny cursive writing, was the quote:

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

Daddy was weird with quotes like that, but hardly anyone noticed the line down there, and she felt like it was their own little secret that only smart people could notice.

Using her wristband to get in, she flopped down on the couch and tried to decide what to do. She had English homework, and Politics homework as well, but she didn’t want to do that right now. There was nothing on the media centre that she hadn’t watched or listened to. Her friends would be just coming out of school right now, and she didn’t want to listen to their complaints about her skipping class again.

With a sigh, she went to the fridge, hoping something new and tasty had appeared there since this morning, but as she opened the door, the display on the front blinked into life and spoke:

‘Today is: May, 21st. Reminder: Claire’s Birthday. Claire is thirty-nine years old today.’

Serrah froze, blind to the food in front of her. Mom’s birthday. She should probably go see her.

She changed out of her school uniform and left, suddenly feeling like she could do with a rest but knowing she had to go out. Everyone else’s home displays were less fun to look at as she walked further up the street. Everything else was less fun on the way to the crypt.

A door between the two houses at the end of the street opened onto the passageway down to the crypt. She stood on the walkway, no energy to walk along with the moving tiles, as it wound its way between districts, eventually sloping downwards. A few metres from the end of the walkway was a grey arch covered in religious symbols, and quotes in all languages. To the right was a flower kiosk.

‘Some pretty red ones,’ she asked, swiping her wrist against the payment pad. The keep passed her a bunch of red peonies with yellow centres. Not pretty enough, she thought, but it wasn’t right to make a fuss in such a place. She took them and walked under the arch.

Line after line of small white stones with names engraved on them, each standing over a small box of ashes. Flowers sat in vases on either side of the gravestones, the newest and most visited being most overshadowed with petals. Many graves held multiples, with urns on steps above each other, two or three levels, sometimes two to one step. There was little space in front of the memorials for grieving families, but space was at a premium on the ship, after all.

The air was filled with the half-musty scent of old flowers. The air was dimmer than upstairs, and the hush was smothering. A couple was holding hands in front of a new grave, one sobbing at the ground. The only time Serrah ever felt guilty for being rich was when she came here, when she walked past the packed lines and tight packs of mourners, to the door at the end. Behind that door, were the memorial rooms. Three could be hired for anniversaries, so families had privacy to remember their departed. The rest were permanent, and cost more to buy and upkeep than a yearly average wage. But he wouldn’t have settled for anything less, for her.

Serrah came to the room where her mother’s remains and memories lay, and – after a moment’s hesitation – she beeped in. She pushed the door open, and knew immediately that the room was occupied. It was only after she stepped in that she heard the sound of sobbing, and then it was too late.

The memorial room. Lowlit. A tight, “cosy” place. Seating ran along the left and right walls. Along the top above that, were the monitors, playing a continuous, silent loop of a woman with auburn hair, laughing, smiling at the camera, dancing in her wedding dress, holding a baby. On the opposite wall to the door, on the display, there was the box of ashes, and the stone, which read Claire Louise Marsden. Above it was a still photograph of her mother in her early twenties. And underneath, curled up on his seat and sobbing so hard it looked like he might break, was her father.

‘Oh, princess,’ he said, unfurling himself as he saw her, wiping his face. ‘Sorry…I didn’t know if you’d be coming along today. C’mere, let’s get those flowers out.’

She passed him the bouquet and he arranged them in the vase by the stone. Serrah gladly looked away from him to the videos on the walls. They always fascinated her, seeing this mythical woman who gave birth to her caught moving and smiling as if she was still alive.

‘C’mere, sweetheart,’ Daddy said, opening his arms for a hug. ‘Let’s have a look at her.’

Reluctantly, she knelt on the seat beside him and hugged into him. His chest shook as he breathed, juddering against her chin.

‘You see she was beautiful just like you.’

‘I know, Daddy.’

‘And she was the sweetest person you would ever have met. No-one else was like her at all.’

‘Yes, Daddy.’

He pulled back and looked at her. She didn’t like to see her dad all red-faced and weak. Just an hour ago, he had been convincing the richest people in the entire ship to back his secret, illegal contraptions, in the face of governmental punishment – and he did it like it was the easiest thing in the world.

‘Every day you look more and more like her, you know. It’s just – it’s a travesty that you’ll never know your own mother. Nothing’ll ever put that right.’

Serrah said nothing. She felt she had missed nothing. She had friends, other relatives, other women to help her as she went through puberty, to help her with girly, womanly things. For the rest, her father was there. She didn’t need anything else.

They sat in silence and looked at the videos a little longer. Then her father reached out and touched one of the displays, pausing it and swiping it back to the menu, putting the sound on as he did so. He scrolled through the hundreds of hours in the hundreds of days recorded there, until he found one he had marked as important. They were his memories, his recordings, after all.

‘Here,’ he said.

It was just after Serrah had been born. She felt no connection to the ugly goblin-faced creature wrapped up in Claire Marsden’s arms. Her father’s eye was very close to them both and every bag under Claire’s eyes and every wrinkle on Baby Serrah’s fingers was visible.

‘Isn’t she wonderful,’ Claire Marsden whispered, for the baby was asleep.

‘She is,’ came her father’s voice,with the slight distortion of sound that the old eye-coms always had for the wearer’s voice.

‘What should we call her?’

‘You said you wanted to call her Sarah, if she’s a girl.’

‘Maybe. But…she looks too special to be just called Sarah. It needs to be prettier.’

A brief duck in and out of Claire’s face as her father kissed her.

‘Maybe “Serrah”, like S-E-R-R-A-H. That’s pretty.’

Claire Marsden gave a tired laugh.

‘She’ll be correcting how people spell it her whole life. She’ll never forgive us.’

‘So be it,’ said James Marsden, kissing her again.

Serrah’s father stopped the video, pulling her out of the hug, his chest heaving. He struggled to stop the tears, and struggled even harder to speak once he had them under control.

‘I swear to you,’ he said. ‘I’ll make them pay for this. I’ll get the corporations on our side, dive into the rotten heart of the senate, and I’ll find the people who did this to you both. And together, I swear, we’ll kill them.’

‘I know, Daddy,’ Serrah said, tired.

He gave her a kiss on the forehead, kissed Claire’s picture by her grave, and left. Serrah sat, the weight of his grief, his anger, oppressing her. She didn’t like the idea of killing people, but it was what Daddy had said she would do, ever since he started welding the propulsion chambers into her fake arms. She vaguely remembered, when she was six, how she cried and missed her real arms and legs, because these ones were clunky and clumsy and didn’t feel right. Now she knew no better. She didn’t miss her mother. She didn’t miss her limbs.

But she wouldn’t kill for herself. She’d do it for him. So he wouldn’t cry like that anymore.

She looked at the screens around her again, and saw that the last one he had touched had returned to the menu. Serrah had never had the chance to see any of these memories by herself before now, never seen what her mother was like outside of the memorial’s silent loops. She scrolled through and saw the tags on them: Serrah’s first steps, Serrah’s fifth birthday. The last video had been viewed twice as much as the rest. It wasn’t tagged, but she knew what it was: the last time her parents saw each other alive. She scrolled away from it, back into the past, a sick sensation in the back of her throat as she imagined what it must be like for Daddy to rewatch that video, knowing he had had no idea of what was going to happen next.

She started clicking on random videos that she hadn’t seen before. Boring banality. Claire wiped up Baby Serrah’s food from her lips as she made plans for the day with James. They visited parents and friends. Boring, boring. Days and days of boring plans, smiles and hugs. She had to quickly skip past some groping and kissing, and close videos entirely at some parts. Gross.

One random video, not long after she was born. Claire was crying. A baby screamed in another room.

‘I can’t do it, James, I can’t, she won’t stop crying – I can’t do it anymore – I’m not good enough for this –’

‘Sh, sh, it’s alright, it’s alright…’

‘I can’t do it, I can’t!’

The first sign of frailty, of humanity. In bits and pieces, memory by memory, the real Claire Marsden materialised. She cried when she failed. She said she wasn’t good enough for her job, for her family, for her husband. She got angry when she thought she was being criticised. She made crude jokes. The myth fell away, and her mother came out – and she wasn’t the angel that Daddy had always said. But that was worse than if she had been unattainably perfect. Knowing she had been real, seeing what she was, finally made the heartbreak of her death true for Serrah.

She stopped after a while, tired of being in her father’s eyes but still eager to see more of her mother. She went up a menu, on a hunch. Her parents had been two of the first to get the eye-com implants. Surely, while her mother’s body sat there in that urn, her memories still existed in digital form? And she was right. Another folder, another million files: Claire.

She clicked through at random again, this time going oldest to youngest. Childhood. Fighting with friends Serrah had never heard of. It was funny seeing her aunts and grandparents when they were younger. Parties with boys (most fast skipping and closing of videos). Boring work. Then, meeting her father. More smiles and lovey crap. The wedding, which Serrah had seen a hundred times from her father’s point of view, but never from hers. Him, young, handsome, tears in his eyes during the vows. Skip, skip, Baby Serrah, tiredness, crying. Daddy holding her hand as they walked down the street, and Claire saying: ‘Look at that, aren’t you two sweet?’ Toddler Serrah throwing a fit because Daddy was going out to work that night. Toddler Serrah asking what this, and this, and this and that is, her eyes growing as they explained about Earth, and travelling through space, and how she would never see anything like Earth, just as her parents wouldn’t.

‘But it’s not FAIR!’ Toddler Sarah yelled.

‘Well, we had no choice. It’s just the way things had to be.’

Serrah hovered over the last video in Claire’s file. October 10th,Year 102. Unlabelled, but everyone knew what it was: the Hampton Disaster. When they talked about it at school, people would whisper and turn to look at her, look at the seamless joins where her real skin met her fake skin, look at how brilliantly crafted her limbs were, because her father was a genius engineer, didn’t you know, and that’s why they were rich and she had the best arms money could buy.

Serrah took a breath and tapped the file. A moment of hesitation from the computer, and then a message came up:

This file has been blocked for viewing under Ordinance 7014: Judicial Evidence.

Serrah came out of the menu and put it back on the silent video of sixteen-year-old Claire dancing in the park. She kissed her mother’s photograph, rearranged the flowers, and left the memorial room. As she walked through the crypt, she looked again at the graves, and looked around, wondering where the graves were for the rest of the victims of the massacre. No-one was going to avenge them. The culprits had disappeared without trace, leaving thirty dead and more injured besides.

‘It’s likely the disaster was a hacking theft gone wrong,’ her teacher had said. ‘The automated cars were reprogrammed and driven through Hampton in District C31, on the way to a factory storage. The hackers were probably going to take them from there.’

‘The cars were rigged with explosives underneath,’ Daddy had told her. ‘I found the remains stuck to the undercarriage.’

‘The hacking must have gone awry, because the cars crashed into the district wall. One of the gas lines inside was ruptured by one crash, and likely ignited by a torn cable from another crash.’

‘Explosions don’t happen so easily,’ Daddy said. ‘We made all the failsafes in this ship before we left Earth, and we’ve only improved them since then. It was terrorism. The government had been getting threats for weeks, and not done anything. And even now, they haven’t done anything. They’ve swept it under the rug, and pretended it was an accident.’

Deep in her memories, Serrah remembered screaming, smoke, blood and glass scattered on the ground. She more clearly remembered hospital, where she cried because it still felt like her hands and feet were there, though she had only stumps. She remembered Daddy beside her bed, crumpled like he had been today, a tight-wrought ball of grief.

Serrah gave a last look at the crypt, and made her way back upstairs. The light brightened, and the noise grew louder the higher the walkway climbed.

‘Why would anyone do that?’ she had asked – had always asked. ‘If they damaged the ship, the entire human race would die.’

‘Some people don’t think in that wide a scale,’ he said. ‘They only think about what they want now.’

She didn’t understand. She had asked so many questions, and even he didn’t have all the answers.

‘Don’t you worry, Princess,’ Daddy had said, as he fitted the last panel in place. ‘I’ll find them. I already know who some of them are. I’ll learn what’s been hidden from us. When everything’s in place, and I’m deep in their system, we’ll go after them. And together…’

Here he had ruffled her hair.

‘…we’ll make them pay.’

Serrah Marsden, as she walked home, felt her elbows and the weight of the ammunition laden in her arms. Thirty people, all with grieving, lost families like hers, all without justice. For the first time, she felt her father was entirely justified, and felt glad with what he had done to her.

She would be their weapon.


Written by G.J.

31/07/2013 at 8:44 pm

Savage Writing: Never Have I Ever

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Theme for this week was “secrets.”


 ‘Let’s play Never Have I Ever,’ he says, and the torment begins. You never know how to play Never Have I Ever right. The basics are fine – say something you’ve “never” done, everyone who has done it takes a drink. No questions asked. Except questions are always asked, when the confessions are surprising. And that’s what they are: confessions. Drink-engineered forced confessions, the equivalent of a child being pushed into the box by their parents, made to tell the old community stalwart every mundane hatred they had that week. I did nothing this week, Father. Too bad. Confess.

But at least priests don’t judge you, or don’t say they judge you, and at least priests aren’t normally halfway into a bottle of Jagermeister and pissed off as they learn who’s been sleeping with who. The point is to say what you’ve done, and see who else has done the same. The objective is laughter, over-sharing, and realising you’re not alone. The danger is being the only one who drinks, and the silence as everyone looks down and tries to forget what you’ve said, as everyone’s opinion of you lowers simultaneously.

You sit there with your rum and coke and you don’t want to drink it as quickly as the game will make you, you want to savour the bottle because it cost you twenty quid, but at the same time you want to drink with everyone else, you don’t want to be the only one sitting with a full glass after ten minutes, the only one with a boring, unsecretive life. Everyone forms their circle round the table, filling their glasses, taking preparatory swigs so they will stand the exposure.

So it begins. The first “Never Have I Ever” involves sex. Because they all involve sex. They say it can be about anything, but at this time of night, with this level of booze, it is always about sex. If your sex life is boring, tough shit. If you haven’t had sex yet, even bigger tough shit. You can try to talk about masturbating but they might not see that as good enough. All part of the game.

It goes round. Sex in other people’s beds. Breaking furniture from doing it too hard. Fantasising about your teachers, your cousins, your best friend’s siblings.

It comes round to you. You grip your glass and you don’t want to talk about that kind of thing. You want to lighten the load.

‘Never Have I Ever…accidentally flushed my goldfish down the toilet, when I thought it was dead but it actually wasn’t.’

It was the worst moment of your eight-year-old self, now tossed out among people you’ve barely known for three months. Some smile in sympathy, ask about it, mention films where that has happened, some folk mention their own pets, but most are silently unimpressed.

‘Next!’ he shouts, eager to get back to the good stuff.

Round one, failed. You sit and try to drink slyly when the weird stuff begins to come around. Being caught masturbating. Sex in front of the cat. ‘That’s not a secret,’ he shouts, because everyone knows cats are indifferent, and everyone’s done it, right? And the shouting across begins. No, it’s weird. No, it’s normal. The confessor takes a huge gulp of their drink even though it’s not the next turn yet. Everyone takes secret drinks, outside the game. Get it over with. Laugh at your own shortcomings. The headache tomorrow will take away the knowledge that you let nine people get a glimpse at the vulnerable core of you, the horny, shitting, unacknowledged part.

It’s you again. Your mind is blank.

‘I can’t think of anything.’

Seconds stretch. They are looking at you. ‘Come on,’ they start to say, ‘just anything,’ when you know that’s a lie. It has to be good, it has to be weird but not too weird, but people are getting restless, annoyed, an off-sync chorus of ‘Come on, anything!’ has started. People are splitting off into their own conversations. More drinks poured with shaky hands. You flail inside.

‘Um, Never Have I Ever…Never Have I Ever…stuck my finger up my bum to see what it felt like.’

Silence. Millisecond darts of eyes from person to person. No-one touches their drink. Not even you.

‘Well,’ he says, and that’s all he says, because no-one has drunk. No-one will touch that. You are ashamed of mentioning such a thing.

‘Next!’ someone shouts, and the other person begins immediately, having saved their confession from their last turn: ‘Never Have I Ever…’

You quietly take your glass to your lips and have a tiny sip, saying in your head that it’s for your last go, because it was true, and you’re sure you’re not the only one, but you can’t say anything. Better forget it, and hope everyone else forgets too.

‘Never Have I Ever….cheated,’ says one quiet girl, and five people drink. The atmosphere dives into bleakness. Will anyone be able to drag the fun back into this room?

Before the next secret starts, a can of beer flies off the table – committing suicide, you think – and onto the floor, and everyone starts talking and moving, trying to get towels and kitchen roll to clean it up, complaining about the spillage onto their clothes and shoes.

‘I’m going to the loo,’ say three people at once.

‘I’m going for a fag,’ say another two.

It’s over, thank Christ, it’s over. The host puts on the TV and turns it to a late-night foreign game show. Everyone adjusts their seats to watch. You grab your rum, and realise you’ve run out of mixer. Nevertheless, you pour yourself a triple. Down in one.

Written by G.J.

25/07/2013 at 8:24 am

Winged (Biological Augmentation)

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The wings ripped out of her back, tearing through their membrane, raining epithelium on the floor and causing the blood to run in rivulets down her shoulder blades and spine.

‘Interesting,’ the scientists said to each other as she screamed herself hoarse. One had offered her a hand to hold through the pain but she had refused, instead panting ‘Painkillers, painkillers!’ To which they shook their heads. So instead she scraped her nails off the floor as she clenched and unclenched her hands, forehead on the cold ground like she was praying, buckling under the contortions and spasms as the wings burst out of her body in fits. They were bigger than her, a heavy weight pressing down on her fragile body, an unwieldy menace that could break bones with one twitch. That’s why the scientists stayed back as she and they writhed.

Finally, the movements were still. She lay where she was, sobbing at the throbbing ache in her upper back, the pain that panged down to her hips one way and down her shoulders, neck and arms the other. It was a body-wide migraine. Only after they had seen that the wings were safe and quiet, did the doctors rush in and press cool pads onto her, wipe up the blood and mucus and bandage the wings so they could not lash out and harm anyone. She could barely stand – her muscles were overwhelmed by bodily assault – but they picked her up and put her onto a trolley, and wheeled her away, face-down, still crying into the pillow. Never human again, she thought. I’ll never be right again. And – as they had done for months now – the weight of her monumental change in human anatomy pressed down on her, twitching, itching to fly.


 A year earlier, a woman known as Cassandra Day was seated at a table in a room in a blank-faced building in London. A mix of circumstances had brought her to rock bottom: she was penniless, heading towards prison time, and contemplating suicide. Dr Johnson, the leader of the project, had specifically requested people like her for his project. People who needed hope, he said to his employees, who needed a purpose and the support that modern life wasn’t giving them. People whom no-one would miss, he added silently to himself. But Cass didn’t know that, as she sat at that table, wondering why she had been brought there, and if she cared, and whether life was worth the effort and heartache at all.

Dr Johnson sat opposite her and explained the project. She didn’t believe him, didn’t believe such a fairy tale was possible, but she said nothing in the face of his lab coat and jargon. If nothing else, it would be free board and sustenance without the stigma and harassment of jail. The worst that would happen was dying, and she wasn’t so averse to that right now. So she would have agreed anyway, even if the doctor had not put that fatal seed of hope in her heart.

This will be ground-breaking,’ he said. ‘You and the other participants will be the first to ever undergo such a potential shift in anatomy. You will be the first of your kind. It will not only make a huge difference to science, but also to the world.’

She raised her head at that.

 ‘A difference to the world?’ she repeated.

Dr Johnson nodded, the strip light glare falling over his lenses as he leant forward and smiled.

‘History will remember the first winged people. You and your cohort will mark a new era of human endeavour, a turning point in man’s quest to improve himself. As I said, for body modification, this will be…ground-breaking.’

He made that pause for dramatic effect and it worked exactly as he desired on Cassandra. She looked at the table, and thought about what a useless piece of shit she had been her entire life up until now, and finally saw the chance for redemption.

‘I’ll do it,’ she said.

The doctor smiled and pushed the forms towards her, and without reading them she signed away her future.


More cries of pain echoed through the hallway. Cass turned her face towards the door and watched the shadows flicker across the light round the edges. Her neck was sore, but the ache everywhere else in her body, coupled with the overwhelming exhaustion, made movement impossible. She thought of Giles Corey, and how the rocks pressed down on him in Salem as he refused to answer for his innocence or guilt. She felt pressed half to death as well, except Corey’s rocks were not tied to his skin and flushed with his own blood. Still the tips twitched and nervous impulses ran along the new bones and muscles.

I wonder who it is, she thought. Sounded like a woman. The two who had been closest to breaking – those with the biggest tumours on their backs after her – were Robert and Kelly, so it was likely Kelly. She wondered if her eighteen-year-old frame would handle it. Cass couldn’t imagine how scared the others must feel right now, if they could hear the screams in their rooms. But it was lonely, being the first, being left here in the dark with this weight above her back. As if they expected her to sleep.

Last week, Dr Johnson had shown her a picture of a bird’s wing, saying how the bones mapped onto the human arm, with radius and ulna and only one finger and tiny thumb. ‘In a way, we’ve made you grow two extra arms,’ he had said.

Two extra arms would have been useful, and she would have known how to use them. The unwieldy bandaged lumps on her back would never be natural to move. But, she thought as she heard male cries join the female – that was probably Robert – at least I won’t be the only freak in existence.


Day after day of physical exams had taken place before they started giving her the drugs, and those drugs were only in preparations for the injection into her back. In the week before then, the subjects had come to know the basics of each other – age, place of origin, simple likes and dislikes – without delving too deeply into why they were there. Robert was a recent divorcee who said he had nothing to lose. Kelly was in trouble with the law as well, and struggling to come off cocaine.

‘I only joined because of the pain meds,’ she joked.

After a few days, Cass treated her like a younger sister, and Robert like a stepfather. They all knitted like family, and it was necessary to have that support once the injections were done.

The needle sank into bone and left two red ridged marks on her shoulder blades. The very next day, they had become two tender lumps, and Cass had to say goodbye to sleeping on her back for ever after.

‘I’m a monster,’ Kelly had cried as they continued to grow, as the scientists continued to pump them with cells and nutrients and chemicals. When Cass looked at Kelly’s back, she saw the hideous purple stretch marks, the spider’s web of veins and capillaries spread across the surface of those two mounds. When she reached around to feel her own back, she could feel tensely packed liquid, like a water balloon. If she tried hard enough, she would touch the fragile bone beneath it all, quivering beneath the surface. Everyone, both young and not-so-young, cheerful and pessimistic, looked a freak with their humpbacks.

‘No-one else has ever done this,’ she said to Kelly. ‘We’re pioneers, not monsters.’

‘In the future this won’t seem strange at all,’ Robert said, wincing as he instinctively tried to lean back in his seat. ‘But the people who do it first always have a hard time of it.’

So the tumours grew, and they had to reconfigure their sense of balance to cope with the new weight on their shoulders, always leaning slightly forward so they didn’t tip over. Specially made clothing was all that would fit their humps. When she banged against doorways, and bedposts, and other people, the pain ran right forward to Cass’s chest and down to her hips.

Every two days, she lay on her front in the lab while they injected and took samples and prodded and measured her humps. Hands rummaging all over a part of her body that was no longer hers. Dr Johnson showed her the imaging of it: a fuzzy white twiglet in a tweezer-shape. As time went on, one side grew thicker, while the other grew dendrites like a frosted branch.

‘It shows that you’re young and have looked after your body,’ he said. ‘They’re growing far faster for you than for anyone else. At this rate, you’ll be the first person to ever have wings.’

She was proud when he said that, but as the lumps grew larger and larger and threatened to eclipse her torso in size – preventing her from walking without aid – the fear grew greater than the pride. She told herself she was not a monster when she looked in the bathroom mirror, but it never quite sank in, no matter how sincerely she said it to other people. But maybe that was because she knew she had a deep wickedness, a monstrosity that was the reason she had first been brought to this place.


In their spare time, the company paid for courses for everyone. Training courses, language courses, anything that wasn’t too strenuous on their bodies and would help them in the outside world. ‘It’s how they get more public funding,’ one of the others said. Helping the needy.

‘More like keeping us occupied so we don’t make a fuss,’ Robert said.

Cass had asked for a laptop connected to the net for her studies. A week later they confiscated it from her.

‘We don’t need the police bothering us,’ Dr Johnson said – the first moment she had seen him truly flustered. ‘Part of the condition of us keeping you here was that you wouldn’t cause any trouble. You don’t want to go to prison looking like that now, do you?’

But she couldn’t help it. The lack of information about outside was driving her mad. There were newspapers and books here but there was no connection to other people outside, there was no social media, there was no way to find him. And she still thought about him all the time. She wondered what he was doing, who he was with, what he would think of her if he knew what she was doing. How amazed he would be when he saw her with wings. He would apologise for sure, then. He’d say he was sorry.

They gave her the laptop back with the wireless disabled. She ignored it apart from writing her assignments, seeing little point in it otherwise.


When they wheeled Kelly next to her, the two shared tear-filled half-smiles.

‘What do they look like?’ Kelly asked her. Cass moved her eyes up, but all she saw was a mass of bandage the same shape the hump had been.

‘Big and uncomfy,’ she replied. A tear leaked out of each of Kelly’s eyes as she tried to keep smiling.

‘I didn’t really realise what this meant,’ she said.

None of them had. That was the point. Only people who didn’t think through the ramifications had said yes.


The next morning, they took Cass into a lab and asked her to stand. She thought they were joking, since she could still barely move for the ache, but the starched white coats insisted. So she pushed herself off her front, and as her spine bent a spasm jolted up and into the wings, and with a cry she flopped down again. A few quick x-rays, latex fingers prodding around her flesh, and they demanded she try again. She looked at Dr Johnson, pleading with her eyes.

‘I know you can do it,’ he said. ‘Come on, girl.’

They hovered around her, telling her to keep her spine level, to bring up her legs under her, and finally to straighten to sitting. She unfurled upright, wobbling a little but used to the weight behind her. More soft words and guidance, and she shifted to the edge of the gurney, placing her feet on the tiles below. Two assistants on either side, ready to grab her hands and help her, when the doctor’s voice broke through:

‘Let her do it alone.’

I’ll collapse, she screamed inside. But he was not going to help her, and she’d better show him that she was even stronger than he forced her to be. So she pushed off the gurney and the full force of her weight bore down on her ankles, no more painful than it had been yesterday with her tumour.

A full second later, gravity hit her wings, and pulled at the join where the new muscles met the old. She stumbled back, reaching round to grab them with her hands. Two bandage-covered points met her, and instinctively she pulled them forward to relieve the weight off her spine, the same way she had used one arm to hold up the other when she had broken her collarbone as a child.

‘Interesting,’ Dr Johnson said. ‘Clearly more support is needed. Help her with that, McKay, and Davis, get a mirror. I imagine Miss Day will want to see what happens next.’

More assistants put their hands on her wings, keeping them up, and she resented their touch over what, she was slowly accepting, was hers. When the mirror was brought in and placed in front of her, she barely saw her ragged face, strain as she did to see the edge of white behind her. One by one, they cut and peeled away the bandages, and she felt them fall away as she would feel something fall from her hair. At last, air hit her new surface, and the assistants stepped back.

A breath. She stretched her weak muscles, and over the tops of her shoulders, she saw dirty white feathers move. Her third and fourth elbows were still being supported, and with that she could really stretch them. She felt herself brush against skin and cloth as the feathers, in the mirror, expanded and eclipsed the people behind her. Her head swam.

I’m a bird, she thought.

Dizziness overtook her and she was hastily helped back onto the trolley. In her delirium she decided that none of this was real, none of it was truly happening, that it was all some long fever dream before she died. But the doctor’s ecstatic face as she was pushed past him, as he ordered the next one to be brought in, pierced through the haze enough to remind her of the truth. She woke several times over the next half hour, and each time she woke she reached into her new limbs and made them move, reach, spread out. Then the dizziness of the exertion would cover her mind again, and she’d fall to a half-fainted sleep, resting until the next test of her new strength could be made.


The barrage of tests stepped up once she was well enough to stand without support. The muscles of her neck and shoulders became hulk-like with the steroids they put into her, but at least she was strong enough to support her own weight – unlike Kelly, who was still stuck crying in bed, along with many of the others, their vertebrae and spinal columns strained too far by the pressure. The men were having a better time of it, but like Robert they had unexpected complications: wings far smaller than expected, blood-pressure critically low through the new channels, tips turning black and coming off. A healthy young man would have grown wings that thrived, but no-one in Dr Johnson’s experiment was considered “healthy.” After two weeks, Cass was the only one hale and strong, and Dr Johnson’s eyes shone when he saw her come into the lab.

‘Try to beat them as hard as you can,’ he asked.

She expanded and closed her wings like an accordion, and the resulting gust of wind thrilled her. A few more beats, and the charts on the walls flapped and trays of instruments trembled. Cass and the doctor both laughed.

‘I think it’s time to take you to the gym,’ he said.

The warehouse gym had been used to keep them in shape from the start, but was now empty of subjects. Still in her backless gown, though happily with pyjama bottoms on, she stood in the middle of the mats, and beat her wings as hard as she could, feeling her legs buffeted by her own gale. Pushing herself, she thought she would try to flap them faster as well, and as soon as she did, the air gathered under her feathers and pulled her two feet up off the floor.

She fell back down, nearly fainting again, laughing wheezily at the fun of it all. Dr Johnson ran to her and propped her up, manic with happiness.

‘She’ll fly,’ he murmured to himself, before repeating it louder and louder: ‘She’ll fly. She’ll fly!’

I will, she thought, I will, I’ll fly, and no-one will ever hold me back again!


They were jealous, of course. It was mankind’s dream to fly. Kelly was too dejected to speak to her, Robert too sour, every one of them suffering too much to stand her happiness. Even the staff looked at her in envious disdain. She was surprised by how little she felt at the loss of them all, when they had been so close before. But she was full of obsessive wonder, and pride, and their rejection meant nothing to her now she held power in her body, in her second arms and all that supported them.

In the gym, she flew higher and higher, from a few inches to a foot to a metre. It was too hard on her muscles to go beyond that. But birds rarely flew far without the support of wind, Dr Johnson said. So they took her out to the car park, where the high walls of the compound shielded her from sight. It was deliciously easy to float in the breeze there. The utter freedom of being high above anyone else, without support from any machine or contraption, was intoxicating, and she begged Dr Johnson to let her out again.

‘We don’t want to push you too hard,’ he said.

She told him that he hadn’t considered that when they were all toppling over from the weight of wings, when he had forced her to stand mere hours after her back had been torn apart. He hadn’t thought of it when dealing with the other subjects and their twisted spines and deformed bodies.

His eyes narrowed at that point, as if he had only just realised that she had life in her, and wasn’t just a toy doll he could command without protest.

‘Maybe it would be best if you rested,’ he said. ‘The gym will do for what little exercise you need, until I find a suitable place to unveil you to the world. The outside is still a little dangerous for you right now.’

Dangerous for you, she thought, because I could fly over the walls and you know it.

For three days she sat in her room, wings curving round her body, stroking the feathers, always marvelling at what had become of her. A plan was born in her mind, hatched the moment she first stretched those wings and knew her own potential. It would be easy, because she was powerful. All it required was patience, and when it came to certain projects, she had a full supply – as long as she knew the prize would be worth it.

On the third day, the white coats took her to the gym and she delighted in stretching herself, pushing her muscles to a beautiful ache and making her heart hammer. She couldn’t do much more than ascend and clumsily descend, but she knew she would glide far if she had the air beneath her.

Dr Johnson came to watch, as smug as always on seeing her progress. He waited for her to finish and take her post-training, agonising shower (the water pressure was always too high), before telling her the news:

‘I have a date,’ he said. ‘There’s a conference next week, and I’ve promoted my place at it. In ten days, you will be the envy of everyone, and famous as a wonder of science.’

She wondered if she would be famous like a conjoined twin in olden times. Gawked at, pointed to. When the police had taken her in, when they had walked her along the landing, down the apartment stairs, and out to their car, all the neighbours had peeped out their curtains and whispered to themselves: that’s the girl I told you about. Would all the researchers at this conference be like Dr Johnson? Would they talk about her like they would a cadaver, even if she was right there?

The plan burned in her mind, and she knew she had to seize these next few days.

‘What day of the week is it?’ she asked Dr Johnson.

‘Thursday,’ he said. ‘The conference begins a week on Monday. Don’t worry, you have plenty of time to prepare – you’re a marvel enough as you are.’

His flattery touched her, but she knew she couldn’t put faith in him.

‘What’ll happen to everyone else?’ she asked.

He looked surprised, as if he had forgotten what so many of his assistants were dealing with day in and out, as if he thought she hadn’t noticed the cries and shouts and recriminations bounding off all the walls outside her room.

‘Surgery and rehabilitation,’ he said, nonchalant. ‘With any luck, they should all go back to normal within a few months. We’ll be able to examine their excisions and see exactly what went wrong with so many of them. Next time, we’ll be able to improve our success rate.’

Next time.

She’d always been shoved aside for someone better.

It was Thursday. She knew where he would be tomorrow night. She knew how to get out. Dr Johnson would see that she was not the peaceful specimen he thought she was.


Cassandra broke the window easily with a fierce beat of her wings. The noise made her jump – she didn’t think it would be quite so easily. The sense of her own strength swam through her head as the alarms rang, and she managed to squeeze herself and her wings out the smashed frame and into the cold, free air. She gulped in a few breaths, flexed herself wide, and jumped as she heard footsteps behind her.

She didn’t fall. There was an instinctive expectation that she would plummet to her death, but instead she felt like she was barely moving, as the draft pushed up against her body and kept her high. Adjusting the angle of her wings, she tipped into descent and the wind blasted against her face as she flew down, eyes leaking from both air force and joy.

With straining muscles, she flapped hard and brought herself still over a low rooftop. People were out on the streets, already shouting drunk. A Friday night in the East End – not long until trouble would brew around here, and she was still quite physically weak. Nevertheless, she had to move, and risk being spotted. It had been months, and the ache of longing had grown quiet in the face of her transformation – but now she had the chance, and the means, the desire flared up, making it impossible for her to do anything else.

It was harder to fly than she realised. She had to fight the wind, and rest on every rooftop, and by the time she was in Hackney her she couldn’t move her left wing muscle for pain. From there she had to roof-hop, with a clumsy seagull-like flap to keep her aloft. Finally, though, she saw the Empire come into view, just in time to see the crowds stream out of the doors, chatting about the show that night, laughing as they remembered and retold the best jokes they had heard. He would be here, she knew. The crowd might be too dense to see right now, but she knew the route he would take.

After a rest, she continued on, careful to avoid the lights, trying to balance being unseen and able to see. She walked and hopped up the street until she came to his turning, past the tube station, and there the exhaustion and pain took her and she lay on the rooftop, head dangling over the edge, watching and waiting in the dark.

There! Her heart cried out with glee. She still knew every part of him inside-out. His messy short hair, his crow’s feet and laughter lines, his stubble. She thought for a moment she could die happy at just the sight of him – and then she saw the woman beside him.

Black-dressed, leather jacketed, red-lipped nothing, she was. They held hands. Cass watched as they walked, and where he should have turned left to continue to his flat, they went right, ducking by the bus depot. Out of sight.

Cass struggled to her feet. Never had she felt so poisonous as she did at that moment. Without a care to the people nearby, she ran and flung herself across the road, onto the opposite roof. Shouts of ‘Did you fucking see that?’ followed her, but she ignored them as she ran to the other edge of the roof, and looked down.

There they were, all squished against the wall like filthy rats, one dark-haired dark-clothed giggling mess. I broke a window, Cass thought. I could break them both easily. That’s what I’ll do.

‘Jack!’ she called out.

The pair broke apart, looking around. He was frightened already. Good. She felt her poor muscle, worn out from the effort, and begged her gift to last one moment longer. Then she dropped off the roof.

The streetlight gleamed behind her as she floated down to the couple. The girl shrieked, and Jack gaped. Cass thankfully rested her feet on the ground, and let her wings drop. All over her shoulder was in pain, but it felt nothing compared to the pain inside her heart.

‘Remember me?’ she asked.

‘Oh dear God,’ he said, falling to his knees. The girl turned and ran back to the street as fast as she could. Cass was glad to have Jack to herself. Even now, after everything, she loved him. If only he had ever understood that.

‘I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me,’ she said to him. ‘You’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you.’

‘Oh God, Cass, I’m – I’m so sorry!’ he said.

Her anger softened. Did he finally understand, after all? Understand all he had done, and all he meant, and all she had become because of him?

‘It’s okay,’ she said, ‘I forgive you. I know I scared you a little, but you never needed to take it to the police, Jack – I would never hurt you, right? I love you. I’ve always loved you.’

She took a step towards him and he shrank back. His eyes were wide as moons, mouth and eyebrows contorted into a terrified grimace. He had hurt her beyond anyone else in the world, when she had only wanted to stay with him and love him forever – and no-one understood that. Don’t go near him, everyone had said, don’t contact him, or else – said her family, friends, police, court. As if they could stop her thoughts always returning to him, as if they could arrest her constant, bittersweet yearning. They didn’t understand that they were meant to be together. They didn’t understand, and they had no control over her any more.

‘Please,’ she said, reaching out her hands, ‘don’t you want to come with me and talk to me? I’ve got so much to tell you about what’s happened to me. You wouldn’t believe it–’

‘Oh fuck, oh God, please don’t,’ he sobbed. ‘Cass, I’m so, so sorry – I didn’t mean – I never meant – fuck, I didn’t have a choice, you were calling every day, threatening the people I loved – I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, I had to get you out of my life – please, you know I never, ever meant to push you to this…’

She drew back as the realisation sank in. For a second she felt less corporeal, less real, just for the idea of it.

‘I’m not dead,’ she said.

Jack’s shoulders stopped shaking and he stared. She, with her wings, in her specially-made white nightie – the thought made her feel ill.

‘I’m – I’m not dead, Jack, I’m alive. They experimented on me so I’d stay out of jail – I grew wings – look, I’m real!’

She lunged forward and brushed a hand across his warm face, but for once the touch held no delight for her. He cried and jumped back, stumbling onto his feet.

‘Jack – Jack, please!’

He swore, over and over, shaking his head, before finally his will gave way and he ran. Cassandra was left in the shadow of the building, feeling every ounce the monster she had always been.

She struggled to the rooftop again, away from the curious people in search of the screams. At dawn, security found her, and the police – and Dr Johnson – took her soon after.

Dr Johnson was most disgruntled.

‘You’ve pulled your muscles after all that,’ he said, during the examination. Like old times, she was on her front, crying into her pillow. ‘I hope to God you haven’t done any lasting damage. I’m putting an ankle monitor on you from now on, so this doesn’t happen again.’

Kelly and Robert and everyone else had been transferred away to home and hospital without a goodbye. She was the only one who could never resume her old life, the only freak left out of them all. All that freedom, all that power, but she’d never be allowed to use it, and she’d never see outside again – not that there was much point, any more. I might as well have gone to prison, she thought. I might as well have killed myself.

‘Cheer up,’ Dr Johnson said the next week, as they were being driven to the conference. ‘Remember, you’re a pioneer. You’ve opened a new door for humankind. And after the hole you were in when I found you – well, I’d say you’ve redeemed yourself now.’

She wrapped her wings around herself like a cocoon. That was all her new arms were any good for.

Written by G.J.

17/07/2013 at 3:04 pm

Savage Writing: Mhairi

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Task for this week was “unpronounceable”. I’ve been homesick.


 Mhairi didn’t know which to regret: that written Gaelic was so different from spoken Gaelic, or that her parents had moved her down to England in the first place. Back in Ayr, everyone knew how to pronounce her name, and everyone knew Gaelic words were never pronounced as they were spelled. Here in Leeds, Gaelic was a mythical language akin to Elvish, and the girls and boys in her class thought that “Varry” was a name she had made-up, a joke that the new girl was playing on them all. She could have lived with that, but on her second day in class, James Robinson walked by Mrs Rowntree’s desk and saw the class register. He burst out laughing.

‘Who the hell is Ma-Hairy?’

His friends gathered round the desk while Mrs Rowntree popped out to the staffroom, and they all laughed, saying:

‘Who the hell is Ma-Hairy?’

Mhairi kept quiet, until Lucy Parker pointed at her and said ‘It must be that new girl, her last name’s Jones, in’t it?’

‘You’re called Ma-Hairy?’ they said, gang of five short, spotty boys with bad haircuts rounding on her.

‘It’s pronounced “Varry”,’ she replied, but they didn’t hear her.

From then on, she was Ma-Hairy Jones, or more often, Ma-Hairy Balls, as James Robinson and his pals liked to call her, shouting out in the corridor and grabbing their crotches. ‘Ooh, Ma-Hairy Balls!’

‘It is a weird name though,’ Karen Gilligan said, two days later at lunch. Since Monday, Mhairi had been inching closer to her group’s place on the long cafeteria table, because Karen and the others seemed the most approachable clique in the year. Finally, on Thursday Karen acknowledged her, and she saw a way to get in and make friends. Ten seconds later, one of the other girls whispered loudly “Who’s that?” to the one beside her, and the one beside her replied, full-volume: ‘That’s Ma-Hairy Jones.’

‘It’s pronounced “Varry”,’ Mhairi repeated, to which Karen replied ‘Ah, cool,’ then added that it was weird.

‘Yeah, Em and Aitch don’t make Vuh,’ one said.

‘In Gaelic they do.’

‘Do you speak Gay-lic?’


‘How come your name’s Gay-lic then?’

‘Coz my mum liked it. Loads of people have Gaelic names in Scotland.’

‘Is it nice up there?’

Mhairi stopped and didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to describe Scotland as a whole, because it was never whole for her. There was Ayr, which was a bit shit, but a lot less shit than Irvine, or Kilmarnock, or any place where there were loads of neds. Arran and Troon and all the west coast and islands were pretty and boring as fuck, from when she and her family went camping around there. Glasgow was where it was at, for shops and things to do, but could get sketchy as fuck. Edinburgh was posher, but brown and full of tourists. Aberdeen was grey and cold and she couldn’t understand the way people talked there. Orkney and Shetland barely counted as Scotland, and nowhere else was important, just hills and neds and rich people on holiday.

‘Yeah,’ she replied after a second.

‘How come you’re down here?’

She explained about her dad’s work, and then the conversation fizzled away. She tagged along as the group went outside to sit by the bushes, Karen and another girl discreetly smoking away from the security cameras. It was a gorgeous day, with the sun beating down on their heads and sweat-stains forming in the armpits of their shirts.

‘I want my mum to take us up to Scarborough this weekend,’ Karen said. ‘Since weather’s meant to be really nice til next week.’

They talked about the beach, and how nice it’d be to wear a bikini, and how much nicer it’d be to be in Spain or Ibiza or somewhere like that. Mhairi zoned out at the thought of the sea. Her parents had taken her through to Harrogate last weekend, and she had found it weird to look out the window and see nothing but fields and trees, for miles around, with only modest hills every once in a while. No mountains, and no sea. On a day like today the Clyde would be sparkling, and everyone would have their dogs out by the beach, and the air would smell of salt and seaweed instead of trees and grass. She’d never thought about the sea while it was there, but now she knew it was far away, she wanted to be by it more than anything – running about writing her name in the sand and building sandcastles and skimming stones like a wee kid.

She felt an urge to talk about the sea back home, but Karen had turned the conversation to clubbing, and dancing. And then Mhairi wanted to talk about ceilidhs, and highland dancing, and all those boring old-people things that had been so lame before, but were now pretty cool in her mind, because they were from back home and no-one down here knew what they were. She wanted to explain how “ceilidh” was spelt, and how Gaelic was weird like that but you just put up with it being everywhere, along with all those other Scottish things that had stayed in the background her whole life, taken for granted until just now, when she was away from them. Like being beside the sea, and only a few hours from honest-to-God mountains. It sprung up on her as weird, and unfair, that all these things that had been normal, like her name, had suddenly become abnormal now she was away from home, and would always be abnormal, as long as she was here.

The group was talking about music now, and she let the urge to talk about home pass, because she didn’t want to seem even weirder than they already thought her, and she didn’t want to seem obsessed with Scotland. She joined in the talk about pop hits, and for a while she forgot about her home-sickness, and thought she was getting on alright, until James Robinson and his pals walked by and saw her.

‘Look! It’s Ma-Hairy Balls! Ooh, Ma-Hairy Balls!’

Karen and her friends giggled as the boys gestured to their crotches. Mhairi turned away, embarrassed, with the piercing desire to go back home, to where she came from.


The day after the meet, a 15-year-old asked me “Is it cold in Scotland?” then, since he had only ever been to Edinburgh to play rugby, asked if we watched a lot of rugby up there. I laughed at the timing. The truth is we all do this kind of thing – I was just never used to being on the receiving end until recently.

Written by G.J.

12/07/2013 at 11:18 am

Savage Writing/Musing: The genius

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I forgot to post this last week! So sorry! The theme for the meet was “Inspiration” and I found no fiction forthcoming – mainly because I think it’s the wankiest, most navel-gazing shit when writers write stories about writers. So here is a little personal essay on that part of me that forces me to write.

The type of “genius” referred to here is the classical sense. Inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk which I watched years ago, before I had any idea who she was.


 The genius, the deity that appeared out of my brain age seven and has bothered me ever since, has the personality of a five year old. It is hyperactive, sulky, weird, and an all-round contrarian.

It told me I had to write, and gave me no choice in the matter. Had it asked my English teacher, I’m sure she would have told it that while I was competent at writing and quite enthusiastic about her class, I never had the perspicacity or the precision of language necessary to win the prize for Best in English out of our 60-pupil year group, let alone the talent required to be an author. No, the genius asked no-one’s permission when it decided to flood my brain with harrowing tales and melodrama and absurdity, again and again until I became addicting to creating them. If I had been given the choice, I might have relished being able to choose a vocation for my life, as opposed to merely deciding what I should do to keep myself alive while I chase my impossible calling. It might be nice having something you devote yourself to, something you do that has impact on the world, instead of being slave to your own hallucinations. Everything productive to society that I do is just time-wasting until I next write, is just an interruption to the daydreams in which I live my life.

So the genius grabbed me when I was too young to understand the implications, and ever since it has been my one dependable companion. The genius will never shout at me for hitting the ball out in rounders, or not invite me to its birthday party; it will never imply that I am too fat for that outfit or too ugly to get a boyfriend. Not because it is a kind spirit, oh no: it is because it is entirely self-centred. ‘Take this idea!’ it says. ‘And this! And this! Here is an image – isn’t it captivating? Here is a phrase, a specific collection of emotionally-laden words – can you imagine the circumstances surrounding the moment they’re said? Who cares about your life, your pain, they don’t exist to me – quick, take this plot before it vanishes!’

I enjoy the escapism the genius gives to me, true, but over time I have learnt its childish ways, and the problems having such a deity in your life can bring.

First of all, my genius is a plagiarist. It voraciously consumes everything that comes into contact with my mind, from books (the genteel, benevolent, socially agreeable influence) to films, music, comics, cartoons, video games, newspaper articles, pictures on DeviantArt and Google Image Search, random conversations, and comments on internet forums. Then, it decides to vomit up a tale that mixes them in the strangest way, the literary equivalent of seeing breakfast’s beans heaved out with 9pm’s red wine. ‘Cool atmosphere,’ it says of a video game, ‘now let’s put in the characters from that anime you watched two years ago.’

‘You can’t do that!’ I cry. ‘I need to be original! I can’t come up with some great story if it’s just going to get me sued!’

‘Too bad, you’re hooked,’ it says, knowing my addiction. ‘Oh, and I added in one of the guys from the first season of Big Brother too, I turned this character evil, made these two gay, and the whole thing now takes place on a spaceship on a generations-long trip across star systems.’

‘I don’t even read sci-fi,’ I sob.

‘Oh well, you’ll just have to fudge it. Bye!’

And then it disappears, leaving me to change names and dust over the similarities to the source material as best I can, like a murderer trying to hide a shallow new grave.

The unoriginality of the genius even stretches to plagiarising itself. I stop it, while it’s half-way through a gabble about new characters and their backstory, and give it a wary look.

‘Waaaait a minute, this handsome and emotionally tormented man is very similar to the handsome tormented man in the last book idea you gave me.’

‘But this one’s different!’ it lies, and continues on regardless. I have learnt to accept the archetypes with resigned humour, and try to differentiate them as best I can.

The second problem I have with the genius is that it is fickle. You would think such a brazen copycat would never run out of ideas, and that’s often true, except ideas do not come at a steady rate. The genius’s time schedule is more akin to buses than church bells: barren times of chewing over old ideas will always give way to four inspirations at once. At least you always want a bus when four come along at once, though. The genius delights in juggling beside me in the middle of the night, or in the shower, or during academic essays.

‘Hey,’ it saunters up, ‘what’cha doin?’

I tell it I am busy. Not listening, it replies: ‘Well, you’ll never guess what! There’s this king, and he’s actually an evil king but not that evil, because he becomes sympathetic throughout the story, and he has this power to inhabit other people’s bodies and be young again through them, and–’

I plead but it is useless. If I am in the shower, or just about to fall asleep, or during a walk, I ask it to hold the thought, hold the exact conversations and turns of phrase that are so perfect, until I can write them down. Then, when I finally have paper or am at the laptop, I turn and say:


It whistles.

‘Well what? I’ve forgotten.’

So I commit myself to making a half-rate faded photocopy of the perfect fantastic ideas of the night before.

It is one little revenge I have, being enslaved to such a creature: I am utterly incompetent at delivering its tales. Sometimes it gives me fully-formed narratives that hover above my head, just waiting to be transferred to reality; other times it gives me multiple ideas and we craft them together to make something interesting and really unique. It doesn’t matter: they all get botched in the journey between air and page. I am a faulty conduit.

‘No,’ it moans, ‘no, this has a completely different atmosphere to what I told you. Why does this part seem so short compared to my plan, and this part so long? Why has this unhinged character gained a sane and coherent view on life? Why has this sympathetic character become so annoying? Why can’t you do any of it right?’

‘You should have picked someone better,’ I tell it, ‘someone who reads intelligent books all the time and got prizes for English at school – not someone who spends half her life reading blog posts and forgets how to spell the word “occurrence.”’

It grumbles and gives no reason for having me over anyone else, because like Athena it burst from my head alone, and it is as stuck with me as I am with it. So we tolerate each other, and occasionally I write something good enough that it tips up its chin and says ‘Not bad. Maybe you might actually get something published one of these days.’

I have a moment’s happiness before it all starts again:

‘Anyway, I know you’re in the middle of a first draft, and that you have another book sitting waiting to be rewritten again, and a folder full of ideas that you’ve barely touched, but I was just thinking about the father-daughter relationship in this film you saw last month, and I was thinking how cool that would be mixed in with this…’

Written by G.J.

03/07/2013 at 8:02 pm