Hello. How are you doing? We never hang out any more. I miss you. I miss us. Everyone’s just so busy, that’s the problem. But we have to find make the time. Soon. We should get the whole gang together. We can drink Bloody Marys like we used to and talk about the old times. Do you ever think about the old times?
Do you remember how it used to be when we were together?
Once, we drank Bloody Marys together, just the two of us, just the once.
We didn’t have so many commitments then, any of us. So much work, so much keeping up with everyone to do. But we tried harder as well. Let’s not tell ourselves that it was just easy. We used to try, that’s the difference between then and now. One of the differences, I should say. I know there are others.
Now I only ever see you at weddings, haha, it seems like, only at all these weddings, though there can’t be many left now.
Then when will I see you?
When I think of those times, the times when the whole gang was together, do you know what it is that I think of? this is what I think of:
We’re sitting at some table, the whole group, or some configuration of the group, at one of those countless tables that we sat around and endlessly chattered, as we came together and played games and shared meals and celebrated birthdays, as we drank wine, argued about politics and had falling outs that didn’t matter even as they were happening. And in this aggregate memory of who knows how many nights over the course of, god, it’s upsetting even to guess how many years…, what I think of is the two of us. Though we’re not sitting beside each other, maybe we’re even at opposite ends of the table. But somethingsomething has been saidbeen said, some comment by Laura about a boy of hers, or by Faisal about that dog, that fucking dog of his, and I’ve looked up at you and found you already looking at me. Or maybe nothing at all. Maybe I’ve just fallen into a pleasant red wine slump of contentment and gratitude, where I’m happy to be in this place with these people, and I’ve looked up and found your eyes already waiting for me. And you smile, and it’s like lying in bed in a stretch of sunlight on a freshly laundered Sunday morning.
And you roll your eyes and smile.
It’s like lying in bed in a stretch of sunlight on a freshly laundered Sunday morning.
I think of those moments, how we’d hold them between us, until the sling of our gaze would pull apart, and the moment would fall.
We knew each other’s thoughts without ever having to speak them. We were just held in the curve of the same wave, and we lived there for years, without ever thinking it was something special. It’s only now that we’ve been carried apart that I realise just how special it was, and I begin to worry that I’ll never have it again.
What do you worry about, I wonder?, whenever I take a moment to check on the pixel-thin version of you: the denatured, diminished social media shadow that is all of you that I’ve left myself. That only makes me miss you more.
My name is Alan Alan Trotter. You can contact me at email@example.com, or sign up for my newsletter. (I send the newsletter once or twice a year. It will tell you about things I write – where to find them and that sort of thing.)
You can also follow me (if you want, there is really no obligation) on social media. I am on Twitter and Instagram, and also Mastodon, because why not, pile them on I suppose.
I am yrs years old. Unless I am dead. There is a snippet of code which calculates my current age to display it above. It has no way of knowing if I am still alive. It just presumeshopes, as I hope, and maybe you hope too – if you know me; depending how you feel about me.
I grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland. Now I live in Edinburgh with my partner and our dog, Sylvie Sylvie the Miniature Schnauzer. A photo? Of Sylvie? Oh, haha, I don’t know if I have any. Oh wait yes I do.
It’s beautiful here. Before this we were in BrixtonBrixton, South London for eight years. (My partner and I. We didn’t have a dog yet.) But you know how itLondon is. It’s expensive, is how it is.
I have a PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. It was funded by the AHRCthe Arts and Humanities Research Council. Without that funding it couldn’t have happened, so thank you, AHRC – and you, UK tax payers. (Maybe you are a UK tax payer? If so, thank you.)
My thesis was on writing that makes unusual use of its unusual form. This website might be was an example. Along with the writerwriters B.S. Johnson, and Alasdair Gray and others. I made a short film about B.S. Johnson, too. You can watch it on YouTube.
I write fictionwrite fiction. My first novel, Muscle, is out now published by Faber & Faber. It’s available to buy (you can get it from your local independent bookshop if you have one or from Foyles or Waterstones or Blackwells or Hive or Wordery or get a signed copy direct from me or you can, if you really have to, get it from from Amazon), and people have, unavoidably,, happily, I suppose, had opinions about it. They have said things like: ‘Dazzling… Trotter is a very fine writer and Muscle is an unadulterated ultraviolent delight.’ 1
And: ‘Muscle turns the noir novel on its head… A unique debut.’ 2
And: ‘Reads like a tragi-comic mash-up of Elmore Leonard and Samuel Beckett… Trotter is undoubtedly a writer to watch.’ 3
And: ‘Essential reading… Bold, blackly comic and satisfying, this page-turner’s sure got smarts.’ 4 The Sunday Telegraph
As well as: ‘This is a remarkable, radical, historical novel… You are practically strapped into a broken chair in a smoky, dingy room and forced to watch a writer at play, to watch his imagination, and what imaginations he gives his characters, zoom.’ 5
And also: ‘Amid the violence and vendettas, it’s the intricate, razor-sharp prose that really hits you… Reading Muscle is like being being thwacked in the stomach by Marlon Brando after he has just recited the works of Milton from memory.’ 6
In addition to which: ‘A novel of strange ennui and sudden horror, of stories within stories within stories… When it all converges, it does so with the elegance of an unpicked safe.’ 7
Other people who have said nice things about Muscle include Daisy Johnson, Nikesh Shukla, Kevin Barry, Jess Kidd and David Keenan.
Daisy Johnson author of the Man Booker-shortlisted Everything Under said: ‘Muscle unfolds like a series of Russian dolls, each more Beckettian, winding and wonderful than the one before. Compelling enough to read in one gulping go.’
The editor and author Nikesh Shukla (The Good Immigrant, The One Who Wrote Destiny...) called itsaid: ‘A dazzling, muscular debut that is as gritty as it is absurd, Muscle manages to surprise at every turn.’
Kevin Barry, winner of the Goldsmiths Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award, was good enough to say: ‘What a rare and accomplished debut this is – it teases out classic noir riffs and set-ups but in a language sinuous enough, and with invention ripe enough, to make them feel new.’
Jess Kidd, winner of the Costa Short Story Award, author of Himself & The Hoarder: ‘Muscle bowled me over. The language of it – the complete boldness and control. A striking debut from a fierce talent.’
David Keenan, who wrote This is Memorial Device and For the Good Times, called it: ‘A breathless, breakneck debut; a dizzying amalgam of exploded hard-boiled-isms, modernist acrobatics and halucinatory sci-fi, propelled by relentlessly inventive prose.’
I also write short stories.
Some of them are available to read.
‘The Taking of the Birds’ I wrote for Somesuch Stories. It startsgoes: This is it:
The taking of the birds was something that none of us had seen coming. As far as political allegiance went, there was a time when it would hardly have occurred to us to wonder which side the birds were on but if it had, or if we had been asked, the answer would have been obvious. What did we know in those days? We knew that the crops grew tall for the glory of the nation, that the sun rose to light our way, that the swaddling seas protected us from aggressors and parasites. And if asked to say on whose side the birds stood.., we would have said that they too seemed a part of the natural glory of our country: they could only be with us.
There was, after all, extremely good evidence in their favour. Since they were in our country but not in prison, they were friendly to our cause and wholeheartedly opposed to the enemy’s. Their freedom was absolute proof of their innocence, as the arrest of even a previously well thought-of neighbour was proof of their guilt.
And if it could be shown, as it apparently could, that the birds spent a portion of the year in the land of our enemy.., then it could only be the case that they travelled there to spy on our behalf, that while there they sowed dissent or gathered information for our use. Because how else could they be allowed to come and go so freely?
Still, suspicion did fall on the birds, but not abruptly. Long before, as our desire for equality became serious, we went to some of those who had greater power and much more money than we did, and we demanded that these things be more evenly dispersed. To begin with they resisted saying, as they had always said, that they had worked hard for these things and deserved them. They had accrued their wealth and power by the sweat of their brow and their superior natural attributes, and in a world in which effort and ability were unequal, as they evidently were, true fairness rewarded individuals accordingly.
This time we were not dissuaded. We argued with them. We pointed out how much of the wealth and power was inherited, and all of the mechanisms they had devised to preserve that wealth and power for their beautiful children, at the inevitable expense of our rather less beautiful children, some of whom had shabby clothes and suffered from stress-related Irritable Bowel Syndrome. We pointed out that even the natural attributes that enabled them to succeed so abundantly were not things that they had chosen, but gifts they were lucky enough to have received. Their intelligence, their business sense, even their capacity for brow sweat had come from a combination of circumstance and genetics in which they had no say. You’re down here in this deterministic universe with the rest of us, we said, and we put something of the sort onto placards. (Though many of us found the phrase clunky and made placards with our own slogans that were pithier, but perhaps risked diluting our message.)
The rich and powerful pecked at the issue of determinism, trying unsuccessfully to muddy the issue with talk of quantum physics, retro-causality and true randomness, but again we stayed firm. We pointed out that no randomness or uncertainty embedded their success in any extra-natural ‘them’ who had created their positive attributes ex nihilo and thereby earned them power and a great deal of money. We also made clear that the talking-things-through-and-making-placards part of the proceedings could only continue for a limited time before we moved on to the bloodletting and the beautiful-children-clogging-the-gutters-of-the-streets part of the proceedings. And, in fairness to them, they took this point and promised to return to us with real, substantive thoughts on how greater equality could be achieved in solidarity with one another.
At times, while they discussed the matter among themselves, we would stand in the sight lines of their mansions, offices, restaurants, museums, galleries, sports facilities, farmers’ markets.. and members’ clubs, and there erect a guillotine, say, or spend an afternoon pointedly sharpening our axes, or we might hold up photographs of their sleeping children taken through a telephoto lens. In this way we hoped to focus their minds.
When we finally met again, they very graciously refrained from mentioning this behaviour. They were civil and eager to agree concrete plans for how best to achieve our common goals. And, it became clear that their thinking on what true equality would mean was subtler and grander than anything we had succeeded in fumbling towards with our own, more restricted abilities. So, while many of us began with doubts about their commitment to fairness, those doubts should have been (and largely were) quickly erased by the ambition of their plans.
The world, they had come to realise – from our conversations and from those times we had stood near their windows readying instruments of death – was a pitiful morass of inequity. To avoid being sucked into despair we would have to concentrate, to aim our attention. As a person wanting to strike a match must draw it sharply in a single direction.., so for our revolution to catch would require us to begin at a single point in the expanse of all that was wrong , from which we would sharply, decisively proceed. This all seemed extremely true to us and they expressed it with a great deal of eloquence. Where, we wanted to know, should we start? The birds, they said.
Think of the hardships of existence as a kind of tax, they said. We don’t simply have more money than you and it is shortsighted to focus just on the economic question.
Perhaps we could begin with the economic question, we suggested, just as the match needs a single point from which— .
—It would be easy, they cut in— for us to address the economic differences between us, but it would also be insufficient. Neglectful, even. We should consider all the manifold ways in which our hard-earned privilege—
—Not always hard-earned, we quietly reminded them.
—affects our lives. Many of these ways, including our money, cars, members’ clubs, art galleries, farmers’ markets, private offices and so on.. are enjoyable. But many are not. There is, for example, the not-inconsiderable psychological burden of knowing that you– our friends and neighbours – are enduring without the same luxuries we enjoy. In ways like this what appears to be privelege is in fact trying, difficult, tiresome. And so it is with everyone’s life. The good exists in poise with the bad, and it is that poise that we need to calibrate if we are to achieve real equality in which the benefits of each existence should be reasonably balanced against its sufferances – and not just for everyone, but for every life. Look to the birds.
We looked at the birds.
There were chickens in their hundreds of thousands crammed into wire cages not much larger than the chickens themselves, each one pressed into position like a fuse into the heart of a machine. On the very first day of their lives they had been debeaked and injected, the start of a medical regime designed to adhere them to a life of unremitting darkness and squalor. Sometimes, they developed a madness that would cause them to peck violently at the vent in their own flesh from which they industrially birthed egg upon egg upon egg. Chronic pain, cannibalism, group starvation to promote laying..: these things were not uncommon. These birds seemed to us to be heroes, enduring unimaginable suffering for the people of the country that they loved.
Then there were pet birds. They contributed in their own way to the public good through the happiness that they brought to their owners. Their sacrifice, though, was much smaller than that of the chickens. It was true that they had given up their freedom, and in some cases the freedom they might have enjoyed uncaged was considerable, but they were well cared for, they were loved and kept healthy. It would have embarrassed any sensible, decent pet bird to have their obligations compared to that of a chicken. The chicken, noble and selfless, endured an incredible tax on its existence, a tax more substantial than any merely financial tax levied on any person who ever lived. The pet birds, on the other hand, received a great deal of preferential treatment for what were extremely minor responsibilities.
And there were the gulls, terns, robins, quails, kestrels, pigeons, sparrows, herons, cranes, swans, geese, swallows.. and all the other birds that freely enjoyed the benefits of living in an advanced society such as ours. What did they contribute in return? Nothing. Only certain ineffable, accidental contributions to a well-functioning ecosystem and perhaps to the decoration of an aesthetically pleasing sky.
It gave us a lot to think about, this business with the chickens and the budgerigars, canaries and parrots, and the swans, gulls, terns, tits, cranes, geese, sparrows, goshawks, pigeons, house martins and swallows. The wealthy and powerful suggested that a good first step would be to establish a commission that could properly investigate and then provide a comprehensive report on the birds. But at the very least, the injustice was striking. Even though the chicken was suited to its sacrifice in a way the other birds could not be, no discrepancy of so startling a degree could be tolerated in a country intent on the pursuit of equality.
Several things happened next. A committee was formed and began the long process of evidence gathering. Meanwhile, some obnoxious elements on our side regrettably wasted time criticising the talk of the birds, which they mischaracterised as a sideshow, a distraction. In response, the wealthy and powerful, full of ardour for a fairer society, suggested some sensible and temporary changes to the law – measures that would allow any chatter (that might otherwise derail us) to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. We of course promptly agreed to these changes: this was self-evidently an extraordinary, unprecedented period in the history of our countryand it made sense that extraordinary (and only very temporary) measures would be required. Using these new powers, the wealthy saw that some token arrests were made and the backchat quickly abated. Our time was freed to address the quandary of the birds, and how they could be more equitably taxed.
One Member of Parliament made a speech suggesting that the life of the chickens might be made easier. They could be allowed access to sunlight and to outside space. This would, in turn, make them less prone to excessive pecking at each other and themselves, which would make it unnecessary to shear their beaks with a heated blade. With some freedom of movement and a higher quality of life, they would move closer to the superior existence of the pet birds.
We were momentarily moved by the MP, but the wealthy and powerful, together with the media, reminded us that this MP was an idealist and pointed out how laughable his speech and opinion were. The production of eggs was necessary and the only way to secure them in sufficient quantity was by following tried and tested methods: the extreme limiting of movement and light for the birds, and all else that these things entailed. If there were ways to alleviate the suffering of the chickens, then they would of course happily see them done!, but, in the real world, to unburden the chickens was quite impossible.
There was also, they pointed out, an insult to the chickens implicit in everything the MP said. The chickens were, remember, heroes, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the nation, in which everything and everybody now worked together in glorious pursuit of a single goal: the crops that grew high in the fields, the sun that lit our way, the seas that swaddled the shores.. and so on and so forth.
To say that we could as well have managed without their efforts was to cruelly dismiss all that they had done: the deaths, the chronic suffering.., the brutally pecked and bleeding cloacae.
Put like this, it was clear that the MP had misspoken badly. It was also not long before some unsavoury information about his personal life arose in the press. Disgraced, he was removed from office and later arrested, under some of the new legislation that had been implemented.
In place of his ridiculous, and unrealistic and ultimately treasonous suggestions, the matter was left in the rather more serious hands of the committee. They continued to explore ways to make conditions more equitable for the birds, and these efforts included rounding up small numbers of volunteers selected from the budgies, pigeons and finches to see if they could be managed in conditions more similar to those of the chickens. This was done even though it would have little practical value, even if the eggs produced in unnatural quantities by such treatment would be worthless and have to be disposed of, for a reason much larger and more noble than mere utility: to provide these birds with the opportunity to be as heroically selfless as the chickens and find purpose in our great, shared toiling for equality.
An ugly period followed. Some of us went to the rich and powerful because we were troubled by the mistreatment of the volunteer pigeons, finches and budgerigars, troubled by the ever larger number of arrests that occurred under the new and no longer very temporary legislation, and troubled that, despite the promise of a spark that would become an all-consuming revolution, the committee was still years from delivering its initial report on the best way to achieve bird equality, while the rich and powerful were still as rich and powerful as ever, but now with additional legislation that we had realised lacked oversight and due process, and which they could wield against us as they chose, and with more committee positions that they shared amongst themselves.
The rich and powerful sat us down. They asked us if we thought the adjustment – from the grotesquely unjust society we inhabited to the gloriously fair society to which we aspired – would be easy. And when we replied that we knew it would not be easy in the least.., they explained to us why they had to remain rich and powerful.
The reason was simple: for as long as we were pursuing equality, we would need strong tools at our disposal and we simply could not afford to do away with their accumulated wealth and power. It was precisely these things that would allow them to carry out the hard work of the revolution for us, to flatten mountains and with them plug canyons. Nothing was more valuable to our cause; nothing less than the whole effort depended on these reserves of strength. They had told us that their lives included both good and bad effects of their money and power: well, this was the heavy burden that they carried for us. Much as it might please them to give it up, to do so would be the same as a soldier laying down his weapon when confronted by the enemy. Whatever happened, their money and their control over the country would have to be maintained until all else had been corrected, or we were doomed to failure .
We said we needed some time to think this through. Of course, they said.
When we had fully come to terms with the reasoning of the rich and powerful, we had to admit that they were right. We wondered why we had not come to it ourselves: of course their privileges represented an increased capacity for achieving reform, of course they were our only hope for winning justice. In fact, it was clear that anyone fighting to reduce their wealth and power, as some of us still were, could only be seeking to undermine the revolution.
Inspired, we suggested some of the ringleaders of this movement for arrest. This won us some favour with the rich and powerful, at the cost, unfortunately, of some of the unity of our own group. Insults and thrown fists became common, disharmony burbled and plashed menacingly, liable to grow more serious. And then the transmission was intercepted.
It came from a government official in the country of our enemy and in it they claimed for themselves the fealty of the birds.
What did we know? We knew that the birds were free to come and go in our country and had not been arrested. This was clear evidence of their loyalty to us and their commitment to our cause. However, they were also free to come and go in our enemy’s country, which must have seemed to our enemy clear evidence of the birds’ loyalty to them.
But it would be nothing short of treasonous to suggest that the judgement of our institutions was no better than the judgement of the enemy’s. In a corrupt and failing society, such as we knew our enemy’s to be, the institutions could only be staffed by the mentally diseased, the inadequate and the reprobate. They believed they had the birds fealty: they had to be mistaken.
On the other hand, in such a rotten state as our enemy’s, justice would be so depraved that honest people must surely make their nests in prison cells. We returned to this point: if the birds visited freely with our enemy, they could not be trusted.
We do not know what to believe. But articles have begun to appear in the press questioning the birds, suggesting that they may have had their minds warped by exposure to the political blasphemies and insanity of our enemy.That these articles are published is a sure sign that the rich and powerful had grave doubts about the birds.
How exactly all this will end, none of us can say, but we hope for nothing but the best, though some of the birds have begun to be taken.
‘Godspeed’ was published in Under the Influence. This is how it opensgoes if you want to read it here:
We buy the dog, the puppy, whose name in this story is Maggie, though really it is Sylvie. We might have considered calling the dog (as opposed to the fiction) Maggie, but some friends called their baby Maggie, removing it from our list of possibilities. Besides – perhaps particularly being Scottish – the name still feels too redolent of Thatcher to give to a dog. But in the story she is Maggie, who, even if just in this notebook, will therefore outlive Sylvie and also pre-decease her. (One of the few things I know so far about Maggie’s role in this story is that she will have died before the end.)
Maggie is a black Miniature Schnauzer. The day we meet her she is bounding around a small fenced garden, benevolently ignored by her shaggy, grey-and-white mother. Maggie bounds, and she licks at Alex’s fingers as if she knows that she has walked into an audition. Dark and completely disinclined to stay still, she is impossible to photograph. Her two unclaimed littermates are also healthy, fluffy, easy to fall for, but she is mischievous, playful and curious, or we project these traits on to her. Quickly, ineradicably, she makes a claim on our hearts.
She is six weeks old and we come back two weeks later to collect her, having bought everything we think it’s possible we’ll need (it’s not enough, not nearly). She lies in a bed in Alex’s lap and I drive with tender slowness, keeping the car at least 10 miles below the speed limit. Maggie edges to the lip of the bed as we travel and when we realise that she is trying to escape the glare of the sun, the terror of our new responsibility is such that this feels like a crisis, as if she might fry like an egg.
It is on about the day that we take her home that a friend of a friend is beginning to notice something apparently wrong with his hands. Is it harder for him to tie his shoelaces? Why should holding cutlery feel a little awkward, as if his hands are stiff with cold? He’s busy with work and won’t find time to explore these questions for a while, but maybe, about now, they start to occur to him.
At home we enter into an enforced fascination with piss and shit. For weeks we note each minute at which Maggie empties her bladder or has a bowel movement. We write this down because we are too tired to remember it, tired from taking her outside to piss or shit every hour and from not sleeping through the night. There’s tedious work and sleeplessness, but she makes up for it. She is an affectionate, adorable delight and we are, basically, ensorcelled. She is also an incredible silent comedian, falling off sofas and cushions with a graceless precision that Buster Keaton would envy. Still we exhaust ourselves with anxiety.
Puppy rearing, it turns out, like so much else (any attempt to carefully assemble words, for example), means moving at multiple speeds simultaneously. We are like cartoon characters racing at leg-spinning speed only to be trapped in stasis by a cheap looping background. Except we zombie-shuffle through constantly recurring episodes of piss and shit, while at the same time newness occurs at great velocity. We take the dog out, and take the dog out, and take the dog out, and take the dog out. Meanwhile Maggie can’t make it down the steps and then she can, she learns to sit on command, she chases after leaves for the first time, and plays fetch, she starts to nip and learns that she isn’t to nip, her first baby tooth falls out and then her last, she is fully twice the size she was.
We are eager for the arrival of the well-behaved dog in place of the exhausting puppy, and already nostalgic from watching the puppy depart day by day.
In the fourth week that we have her – while she is still a terrifying vulnerability and, a tedious chore and a ceaselessly original delight – there is an election.
Normally politics has an unpleasant fascination for me. It feels, particularly around elections, as if I am sitting in a public space overhearing a conversation about a medical complaint – maybe something grotesque and purulent the person has discovered growing between their toes – and every time feel compelled to lean over and ask if I can see. I want to read long newspaper interviews with this weeping sore. I want to fave forty thousands contentless joke tweets about it. I want to dab my finger against it and taste the pus.
For whatever reason, the election passed without this instinct inhabiting me.
Part of it might have been just the recent weeks of dog-tiredness. Another part of it belonged to a much longer process of attrition, the feeling that, through the course of my life, politics had worn down to a point. A distasteful, if working, model of governance had successfully embedded itself and ensured that, whatever happened in any given election, power would simply pass on power to power for ever more: inequality would continue to widen, anger at the system would be diverted into resentment (for immigrants, for the working poor…), the market would slowly and surely overwhelm all notions of shared, public good, and so on. The great victory of this narrowing of what politics could be was its ineluctable slowness. It became, ultimately, just too fucking depressingly boring and predictable to resist. Or any way, I couldn’t bring myself to think about it any more.
I concentrate (this is, admittedly, when I concentrate on anything, because I am slothful and distractible) on work, on writing (moving from short stories, which I’d sometimes never finished in the past, to a novel, which promised a similar lack of conclusion), and on the pleasures of owning a dog.
We give her so many nicknames it’s amazing she ever realises she is called Maggie, but she does, and we can’t get enough of her.
Some of the nicknames fall from the dog as she grows from puppy into faithful hound. She doesn’t trot to her food bowl with quite the same puppyish energy or fall from furniture quite so often, but she maintains a saintly and beautiful-to-witness belief that everybody she meets is good and worthy.
Meanwhile Liam (not his real name, to make it easier to lie about him, as I’m lying about Maggie, and ‘Alex’, and me), the friend of a friend with the new dexterity problem, takes it to a doctor.
They give him some tests and tell him that he has Motor Neurone Disease– an incurable, progressive illness that will see him dead, in all likelihood within the next two years. He can hope to live to 30; it is extraordinarily unlikely that he will live to 35. Over the course of the time he has left his body will shut down in stages. Like a block of ice warmed from all sides, less and less of his mobility will remain until finally none of it does. This is a process that he has already noticed in the compromised movement of his fingers, but which will spread, which will restrict him to a wheelchair, remove his voice, his ability to feed himself, his ability to breathe without a ventilator, and which will finally kill him.
He has gone for reassurance or treatment, and instead found that on his way to the doctor’s he has accelerated through life almost to his deathbed.
What has he sped past? 50 or 60 years he could reasonably have expected to enjoy. And then he has entered into an awful slow motion: the final moments of existence, the body’s closure, prolonged to incrementally degrading months or, if he is lucky, years.
What does this feel like?
Depression, in my experience, retreats unhurriedly and when it advances moves in a single leap. Over the course of more than a decade, I’ve had the tempered pleasure of feeling it recede, like something grand but infinitesimal — like coastal erosion, or gum shrinkage. And although it’s true that it can still pounce, the further it has to travel the less force it seems to achieve. I no longer think that any pounce will dislodge me from existence, which at one time wasn’t beyond contemplation. Instead I’m here, I wait it out, and it grows bored of me and, inch by inch, it cedes the possibility of freedom.
How would this slow expansion of wellness be affected by sitting in an NHS office with a doctor (a doctor unable to hold back his own tears) and being told that you have MND, and what this means? How would the rest proceed?
I worry that depression would arrive, victorious and gloating, for this final triumph. Maybe just to stand over me victorious, and send scrambling from the crevices of my soul any ability to find joy in the time left. But maybe – worse – to turn me into a co‑conspirator, a vector of hatred and spite, embittered and impossible to be around, almost spitefully eager for the end.
At any rate this isn’t what happens to Liam.
The next two years pass quickly, which is to say they take two years to pass and we barely notice them. I take up the hobby of watching YouTube tutorials for things I have no intention to do. How to build a bathroom cabinet, how to set and check lobster traps, how to design a Soviet-era-style logo, how to fix a tumble dryer, how to install a wireless doorbell system: the important thing is that they have no utility for me...
I discover that it’s possible to consume YouTube tutorials at double speed, and cannily free up time to consume more of them. If, after watching two or three accelerated YouTube tutorials, you watch one at its intended speed the instructions sound drunkenly slurred out. If, after watching them for hours, you have a phone conversation with a parent, you can momentarily convince yourself that you are hearing them in the grip of a stroke.
I watch these videos with my legs up on the sofa and the dog curled into them. It feels as if she exudes peace – she is a hearth I huddle to for it. (Though if we leave her alone she sparks and yips with anxiety: it’s clear from the greeting we get on our return that this time without us is horribly extended.)
Liam dies– in increments, as the disease requires. But he also manages to live at an astonishing pace. He travels, he marries, he fundraises and campaigns. The campaigning results in changes to the law, and to the quality of care that others will receive who follow behind him. The fundraising produces an amount of money that I’ll withhold in case it appears unconvincingly large when transposed to fiction.
We observe this at a distance, and it’s something to see. Close up maybe there is more spite, and rage, and a person would be entitled, certainly. But he has been pressed into a hell of being dismantled – and as he has been picked apart, he’s made something quite incredible from himself. It’s an effort that exists entirely beyond my capacity for cynicism, in a different space-time, where words hardly seem to exist.
Five years must have passed, because there is another election, though I’m only just aware of it. By this time we’ve moved to the countryside, regretted it, moved back into the city – we’re thinking of moving again, maybe. Alex has climbed higher and higher in the structure of her NGO with an admirable steadfastness of purpose.
I’ve basically meant to leave both the jobs I’ve had in this time, but so far have only got around to leaving one of them. I’ve written half a novel that’s eagerly awaited by no one, the usual number of people to eagerly await tiresomely clever-clever postmodern literary novels about detectives and time travel. In the novel a character sits endlessly in a chair, wrongly convinced he is going to find a way to redeem his wasted life, which runs out of him like he’s a barrel with an open tap. I spend a lot of time sitting in chairs working on this novel, in a parallel which (implausibly) it never occurs to me to unpick until just now, this moment.
Maggie has a bad encounter with another dog when we’re out walking. I get to her in time, and she only needs a few stitches, but for the next month she goes back to pissing and shitting indoors, too scared to go outside. During this month we begin to let her sleep with us on the bed sometimes. She will never be quite as friendly again, except to us – her love does not diminish, but it narrows.
Politics becomes more and more insistent, nastier and nastier, and I catch myself beginning to lean over, to attend to it again. There is a referendum and I stay up as the votes are counted.
The night of a vote, the people on television drop out of time. Every ballot has already been cast, but they are stuck peering into detuned crystal balls. It is worthless in a categorical way that few other things can aspire to be: all of the insight and accuracy of clairvoyance, about a decision that has already been made. Nothing would make as much sense as to get some sleep and wake to the result, but the whole cargo cult ritual has to happen, and I get lost in it.
Over the next few years we find that politics is, in fact, capable of change and of speed. Things become crueler with an intensity and pace that surprises us. We go to protests, sometimes; sign petitions at a volume that demonstrates how token an effort this is; we read John Gray. I wish I had the energy, the quickness and vigour, to respond to the world as it deserves. I learn from YouTube the theory of how to speak in a British accent and how to juggle fire.
Maggie slows down. She develops an old woman walk. I buy a small ladder that is specifically made to help old dogs get on to your bed. She has pancreatic problems that develop into diabetes. She has what the vet says he is ‘pretty sure’ is cancer (he doesn’t want to explore too thoroughly because of her age). Treatment, even diagnosis, has become less kind than doing nothing.
In an irrational pique at absolutely fucking everything I finish the novel in a week-long push. The whole thing has taken more than a decade and can be read in an afternoon. Maggie also reaches a conclusion, but we are slow to accept it. It gets so she can only move when we hold her hindquarters up by the tail for her.
Like all dogs she is a space dog, shot out at a relativistic speed that has separated her experience of time from ours. I am still in the same long moment of my life that I was when I met her, but inside it I met my best friend and she grew old, and her last moments after the injection are hard to describe and feel very slow.
You can buy ‘A Hospital for Boys’ as an ebook. It’s a horror story and pay-what-you-want. I get an email when someone buys it, telling me how much they paid. I really don’t mind when they pay nothing. I’m just glad someone’s interested in reading it. I just thought that you might want to know about the email I get.
‘All this Rotting’ is a digital short story for phones. (‘Mesmerising’ Big Issue. ‘Nauseating’ Irish Times.) It was published by Editions at Play and cost about £3, but now appears to be free (??).