I began writing Shrapnel in 1998, for reasons that are explained in the full length working title: “Shrapnel: extracts from a documentary fiction on the subject of money, containing many fabricated quotations, in which one hundred ‘lucky’ pennies are found, gathered from city streets and saved towards the purchase of a lottery ticket.” The original notion was, as this working title bluntly states, to collect one hundred randomly found pennies and use them to buy a lottery ticket, documenting the precise circumstances in which each new penny was added to the total along the way.
As I kept the journal, the one hundred entries began to be exceeded (I documented, but didn’t count towards the total, all the two-pences, ten-pences, pound coins, plastic toy-money tokens and the like that appeared, as well as the actual 100 pennies). At the same time, one or two-line notes started turning into paragraphs, whole pages, three or four page documents. By around 2005, when the 100th penny was finally added to the pile, I had a slightly chaotic document of around 75,000 words.
I came to think of Shrapnel as a kind of photo-essay without pictures, a series of stills whose interest, if they had any, lay in their backgrounds and details. There is a story, of sorts – one that emerges by chance from the random distribution of the moments that are included in its pages – but it’s not a story with the usual kinds of character motivation, or much in the way of clear cause-and-effect, consistency or logical narrative development.
It works like this: one thing happens and then another thing happens later. There may or may not be any connection between the different things that happen. The outcome of an incident we have witnessed might very well happen outside the written story, while the outcome of an incident that we didn’t witness might abruptly occur as though it has come from nowhere. As one passage in the text itself asks:
“Can a story be constructed on entirely random principles? My agency in telling this story, if it is a story, is removed, as though I’m suspending my choice about where I live by throwing a dart at a Mercator World Map and aiming to build a house wherever the tungsten point pierces the paper. The strongest likelihood is that my dart will fall into the deep ocean. The land is only a fraction of the planet’s total surface, after all, and even that fraction is greater than the number of dramatic and conventionally memorable incidents in a human life. These occupy only a few small clearings; tiny atolls and islands dispersed among vast tracts of thinking about nothing in particular, being in transit, watching television, filing paperwork, standing beside a production line, gazing idly out of a window before or after something else happens…”
[Shrapnel: Chapter 23].
So the question is: can a story be constructed in this random way, much as life itself is? The honest answer is that I’ve no idea. Let’s begin with the (fake) quotation that acts as a kind of epigraph to the whole text. Every chapter has one of these fabricated quotations as a heading, and while none are genuine I hope they seem convincing enough to pass as if they just might have been said, by real people not too far removed from the fake identities they’re attributed to, in the times and places they claim to have come from. But perhaps they don’t.
“A guy walks into a bar with a bunch of inmates from an out of town nuthouse, their day out, you know? So anyway, he tells the barman they’ll try to pay with buttons and bottle tops, but not to mind it, just take it like it’s real dough and he’ll settle up properly at the end of the night. So they spend the night in there, and the barman’s shoveling bottle tops and buttons into a tray, and after the nuts go back out to the van the guy goes over, asks the barman how much he owes. ‘Seventy-three dollars and eighty-five cents’, the barman tells him. ‘Fine’, says the guy, ‘you got change for a hubcap?’”
Bill Mitchell: Live at Miami Beach (1977)
“Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps, they tell us, but what if we can’t afford boots able to take that kind of strain?”
Unemployed Steelworker (1983)
The first thing you need to talk about is money. Often, it’s the last thing you need to talk about, too. In between is what money allows you to do, or what you have to do to get money. Which is why this is a story about money, whatever else it might become along the way. We need to get this straight at the start. Call this a kind of public information statement, a bit like the TV announcer after the watershed telling you a certain programme contains sex, violence and strong language, right from the outset. You can decide for yourself whether you want to change channels at this point. If you don’t, this is where we begin.
“See a penny, pick it up,
all that day you’ll have good luck.”
English traditional rhyme
The first real penny, the penny that started it all, was found that Sunday. That particular Sunday, the Sunday she was due to leave, it was raining lightly, the heat in the air thickening around us as we walked. We weren’t saying anything, and I was looking around, taking in the buildings, scanning the storeys above the shop fronts where open windows released the sounds of stereos and televisions into the late afternoon. I was distracted, going over a scene in my mind, trying to work out why it was still niggling at me.
It had happened the day before, when we’d been trailing around the kitchen department of John Lewis. I’d been trying to look interested in the utensils she kept showing me, to enter into the idea that one day we’d actually have a kitchen again, and that these things – a thick wooden breadboard, a polished steel toaster, a set of razor-sharp wooden-handled kitchen-knives – might be of use. If were being honest I’d have admitted that I wasn’t interested, that I was bored, but it seemed to be making her happy, so for that reason I was disinclined to cut the time short, or suggest doing something else.
Anyway, what had happened was that while she was admiring a fridge, opening its freezer compartment, running her hand over its rounded aluminium door, the glass shelves inside, I found myself drifting into another part of the aisle, watching people turning objects over in their hands, trying to imagine their lives, wondering whether I’d really want to trade circumstances when to them we might seem more prosperous and contented than we felt. Maybe if we’d swapped finances with, say, that affluent looking pair of thirty-something types checking out the Dualit toasters, we’d be worse off than before. How could you tell? I was thinking nobody really knew what anybody else’s life was like.
Then I’d seen her. A woman in her early forties, dressed in a smart, beige suit, her tasteful jewellery unobtrusively arranged around her shoulder-length blonde hair. What I was seeing, I realised only slowly, was the moment at which she’d slipped an expensive silver corkscrew into the belt of her skirt, then frozen, locking her gaze onto mine, her mouth open in panic as she felt me watching her. We’d stared at one another for a few seconds, and then I’d just shrugged, nodded, smiled at her and turned away.
When I turned back, she’d disappeared into the crowd, and I walked towards the shelf where she’d been. I found myself disappointed that she’d replaced the corkscrew, obviously feeling herself exposed, the risk too steep to be worth taking. Even, perhaps, slightly irritated at the judgement this implied, as though she’d decided I might point her out, bring the store detectives running to seize her on her way through the revolving glass doors into the street. When I picked it up, the metal of the corkscrew handle was still warm, its shine smudged with the sweat of her hand. Her fingerprints, even, very clear and cleanly scattered on the steel, which for some reason I’d felt compelled to wipe away.
Just one of those things that plays on your mind sometimes, I’d supposed, but it was only when I became conscious of my surroundings again that I realised we hadn’t spoken for three streets, just walked, barely registering one-another’s presence. The light rain was easing up, the sun coming out again as the clouds fragmented overhead. The sudden warmth on her wet clothes and hair intensified the smell of perfume as she walked along beside me, lost in whatever her thoughts were at the time.
Stubbing a cigarette underfoot without breaking step, I looked around at her as she rummaged in her bag for sunglasses, slid the black frames over the freckled bridge of her nose. Her hair was starting to frizz a little around the parting and fringe, and as we emerged into the open space of Devonshire Green I could see a half-dozen boys playing football in brightly-coloured Adidas and Nike strips, shouting as they went, kicking a half-deflated orange ball at the piles of coats and bags that marked the goalposts on either side of a dried-out mud patch. Their voices seemed lost in the air, and they ran around with the kind of listlessly frantic energy that only boys between the ages of twelve to fifteen seem to have.
I wasn’t really paying attention, to anything, just kind of taking it all in on autopilot, so I almost missed the glint of the penny in the yellow grass at the edge of the path that caught my eye just then. I’d been trying to cheer her up all weekend, and took a few steps sideways to pick up the coin, looking at its dark circle in my palm as I straightened up. The first thing I noticed was that it pictured a goat, not the usual image on a penny, and seemed to have found its way here from the Isle of Man. Perhaps the reason it was here was that it’d been refused somewhere and discarded, but it was nothing much, just a single penny dropped on a slippery footpath after the rain had stopped. But then, maybe it was also a way of breaking a silence that was starting to feel uncomfortable.
“A lucky penny”, I’d said, holding it out to her. “A lucky penny with a goat on it. You don’t see that every day, do you? Anyway, I was always told that if you picked up a penny and kept it safe it would bring you good luck.”
She took it from me, then turned it slowly over in her fingers, as though trying to see the point I was trying to make. “Better collect a hundred,” she’d said, after looking at it for what seemed like a long time then handing it back. “If they’re that lucky you can buy a lottery ticket”.
There was a bitter edge in her voice that increased in sharpness as we moved on, heading towards the station, where I’d watch her board the train and disappear for another week. I’d supposed that was why we weren’t speaking much, because it was a bit upsetting, but maybe I was wrong, maybe it was something else.
Maybe it was because we’d had no real money for four years now, and I wasn’t sure anymore if she was being serious or not when she said things like that. I’d already been wondering for months whether I should do a bunk, leaving the back-rent unpaid so that I could finally afford to get away from where I was, move down to be with her where she’d gone to take the only job either of us could get. Maybe I needed to consider everything, even that one half-sarcastic, half-wistful remark about collecting a hundred lucky pennies to buy a lottery ticket. Maybe at this point it didn’t matter whether a plan made sense or not.
Let’s face it, it was an idea, at least, and – who knew? – maybe something would come of it. Fifty-four million to one, or whatever the astronomical odds against you were, didn’t seem any worse than those we’d felt ourselves facing those last few years anyway, and the investment was small in comparison. Bank charges didn’t even offer odds. They just took it then kept it, twenty quid at a time.
Over scalding, watery coffee in plastic cups on the station platform, waiting for a train that was already running thirty minutes late, I’d leaned towards her and said two things, only one of which I believed to be true at the moment I said it.
“I’ll do it”, I’d said first, “the thing about collecting the hundred pennies. It’ll be a sort of experiment. Maybe it’ll win, who knows?”
When she’d simply stared at me, then turned away and looked intensely into the space hovering just above her feet as though it might reveal something useful, I’d put my arm around her and said the second thing, the thing I didn’t really believe myself as the tannoy crackled out a barely comprehensible announcement about her incoming train, and she began to gather her coat and bags together, preparing to walk away.
“It’ll be alright”, is what I’d said, the last thing I said before she pecked me on the cheek and boarded her train, heading down the carriages to grab a seat, waving perfunctorily as the doors slammed along the whole length of the platform and the wheels started creaking into life, somewhere just out of sight.
“The world is where life happens, if you can afford it”
Don Michael (1966)
How this led to the cold, wet morning I’m about to describe is unfathomable. I answered the telephone in her room in London while packing my bags to leave, a single penny found the afternoon before added to the few left in my pocket, only to be told that she had been attacked in the street and was now at The Flower Store on Seven Sisters Road, sitting dazed among the powerful scents of gardenias, roses and extravagant lilies. I’d pulled on my shoes, ran the quarter-mile or so to the shop through the early morning crowds.
Two girls in Flower Store overalls were scrubbing blood from the pavement outside the Blackstock Arms, and as I reached the place, almost out of breath, two paramedics were wheeling her across the pavement, towards the open doors of an ambulance. She was lying back on a stretcher beneath a green blanket. It was funny, because my first thought on seeing her was that the blankets should have been red, that was what you saw in all the films and TV shows.
Her clothes were bloodstained, a pale green suit splattered with purple stains, and that was another thought, that the colours of her clothes, blood and the blanket under the flashing blue lights of the ambulance somehow co-ordinated, as if someone had taken the trouble to art-direct the scene. Two policemen were strolling into the shop doorway, sliding out notebooks, their radios crackling on their lapels. Blue-black uniforms, fitting right in with the lush greenery of the shop’s indoor foliage.
When I reached her, she leaned forward, looking at me blankly, as though she had no idea who I was, but was somehow reassured to see me. She was asking, over and over: “What have I done? Am I under arrest?”
“My make-up’s ruined”, she kept repeating as they strapped a transparent oxygen mask over her mouth to try and counter the effects of shock, shining a pin-light into her eyes to check for dilation as the police sauntered across the pavement, clambering into the back of the ambulance through the still-open doors. The older one of the two spoke first, and while he asked the medics if she was able to answer questions I looked at him, close-up, the grey flecks just starting to overpower the black in the close-cropped hair visible beneath the line of his cap, his jowls reddened in the cold. He looked uncomfortable, bent forward under the low roof, folding himself into the two-foot gap left by the stretcher and an array of equipment.
The medic had been right. Theoretically, there was no reason why she couldn’t answer questions, but a more realistic view would have been that she was still too deep in shock to make much sense. The policeman nodded as he listened, then turned to face her, raising his voice a few decibels, like someone trying to get through to a deaf Aunt who kept her hearing-aid switched off to save the batteries. He went through the motions, asking what she remembered while she looked at him suspiciously, still convinced she was under arrest for something she couldn’t remember doing.
I kept a tight grip on her hand, trying to translate a few of the fragments and filling in on things like where she worked, whether anything was missing from the bag, whether she was on medication or using drugs. Some of his questions were long, and my attention kept wandering over his shoulder, to watch the commuters peering in, the old men coming out of the off-licence further down clutching cans of Special Brew or plastic cider-bottles, sheepishly crossing the road outside the Bakery and heading towards the gates of Finsbury Park. It was still cold, the grey light still pulsing blue as the lights flashed somewhere over my head.
She remembered nothing whatsoever, just kept turning to me, asking about her make-up, the cats, whether she was under arrest or could go home now, the transparent plastic mask steaming up then clearing with the ebb and flow of her speech. Somewhere in my mind was the thought that she might now crack and disappear, might never emerge from this cocoon of shock, might be far off, somewhere, and never return. Maybe this would have sent her over the edge, given that things weren’t so good even before this morning.
I kept having weird thoughts, noticing things like the way the gold of the Special Brew can picked up the nicotine colouring in the straggly grey hair of the man clutching it to his patterned sweater, the way people would feel their gazes drawn into the back of the ambulance then look away quickly, as though mentally crossing themselves or warding off the evil eye. We’d passed this scene ourselves, many times, and I understood the process: the surge of excitement at a drama in the street, the need to look, the self-censorship of that automatic curiosity, and last, most importantly, the feeling of gratitude that it was someone else. By the time they’d turned the corner, their minds would already have erased it. Mine always had.
The policeman’s voice was drawing it back into focus, though. I couldn’t keep walking this time, couldn’t just erase it, or be thankful it was nothing to do with me. I was on the inside. The light was harsh, bright, hurt the eyes. The colours were high-contrast, too: white, green, red, blue, yellow. The policeman was looking right at me, saying something to me, about calling at the flat later, after we’d been to the hospital. The word ‘flat’ seemed inappropriate, somehow.
“It’s only a bed-sit, really”, I heard myself correcting him. “While we look for somewhere else. She moved in last Wednesday night…”
He looked at me strangely, as if trying to figure out whether I was on drugs too, or just tired and distracted. He seemed obsessed with drugs, had been asking her about them, asking the medic, but instead of asking me he just pulled out a plain business card from his top pocket, asked me to call the number when we were back at home, or if the hospital did decide to keep her in for observation, to let them know which ward she was on.
“Just routine questions, nothing to worry about”, he said reassuringly, managing to imply that there might be. “I think we’ve got enough from witnesses in the shop to get a good picture of what happened, but we’ll need her version on file, even if it turns out she can’t remember much”. With that, he started to unfold himself, one limb at a time, clambering backwards, out through the open doors, the relief showing on his face as his feet touched the pavement.
I heard a driver climb into the cab somewhere behind me, a door slam and a key turn in the ignition. The engine vibrated the whole vehicle with a low, comforting hum. The other medic appeared between the open doors, climbed inside and slammed them shut behind him, nudging me aside to remove the oxygen mask, check her pulse and dilation, then gently replace it as we lurched sideways into the traffic. Her hand was still gripping mine with a strength that seemed absent from the rest of her body.
I also remember feeling disappointed that they weren’t using the sirens, just crawling through the rush-hour congestion between here and wherever it was we were going, as if what had happened wasn’t that serious really, not serious enough for sirens, anyway. I distinctly remember wondering what would be, running through the scenarios of imminent birth or death.
After that, the details start to fade and blur together as I write, my mind drifting into automatic mode, or just shutting down for the duration, staring at the manufacturer’s name stamped into the plastic of her oxygen mask until the word, the letters, everything, turns to gibberish.
“Blind Faith is replaced not with Reason but that same Blind Faith disguised; for money depends on Faith, on its appointed Priesthood, and on the shaping of our needs to its whims. Indeed, by veiling themselves as Merchants & Bankers, these Priests defeat Reason through the imposture that lack of Imagination is her sole quality, and in all but this particular ask that we submit to their Judgment without explanation. This we do, deceiving ourselves that in our Thoughtless Drudgery we perceive the true shape of the world, as servile in our Dullness as the most excessive Mystic chained by the dictates of his Unreason, all the while declaring to the world that our eyes are open…”
Elijah Hunt: A Sermon On Human Reason (1824)
Sometimes it’s hard to remember things, exactly. I remember that the day before I leave, there is a neatly-dressed Jamaican man in the Post Office, standing at the window near the doorway, and talking to himself in a voice at a level just above the conversational. His accent is so precise and considered in its enunciation that it seems to carry a bizarre authority as we shuffle forward in the queue, listening.
“A bad world”, he is saying to himself, the back of his black coat turned towards us, “a bad world indeed. Why, a man could be killed here, and none would care, none would watch or intervene, no indeed, no god watching and all these cars going on so fast, it is indeed a bad, bad world … For a man could be killed and forsaken here, and none would care, none take pity on his neighbour’s soul, his brother’s plight, this is indeed a wicked world…”
I am drifting off, half-lulled to a kind of waking trance as his voice keeps circling its single theme, his head shaking from side to side as though resigned to The End Of Things, As It Hath Been Prophesied. No-one reacts to him, and it is almost as if he isn’t here, as though each of us has decided he is a collective hallucination we must not acknowledge, for fear we are the only one experiencing it.
I buy my stamps, and turning from the counter to leave I realise I will need to excuse myself to this man. I catch his serene gaze as I squeeze between his coat and the queue, step into the street, and look again at the one-pence piece and ten-pence stamp gathered together on my palm, hardly remembering where in the Post Office I’d found them.
I remember walking from the Post Office back along Blackstock Road to the room on Finsbury Park Road, and finding her asleep in the single bed we’d been sharing, and would soon be sharing permanently. I remember the police calling round to question her again, a huge bunch of flowers arriving from The Flower Store, which we’d thought had been sent by the staff, after her ordeal, but had instead been ordered by her work colleagues and arrived with a small card signed by everyone.
I still remembered walking her from a taxi, stuck in traffic, which we’d had to leave three streets early because as the shock wore off, she was nauseous, stopping every few steps to dry retch, as she’d done in the car, before the driver, concerned for his upholstery, had finally cracked and asked us to disembark under the railway bridge between Finsbury Park Station and the Stroud Green Road.
I remembered all this, and the train joumey to her parents’ house in Leicestershire, and handing her mother the bag with the blood-stained suit inside, wondering what to do with it, but knowing it couldn’t be there at the bedsit when we returned to London, if we did. Remembered staying the night with her there, then going on to Sheffield to prepare for leaving, arriving back on Sharrow Vale Road around 10pm, still less than a full day on from taking the phone call, walking in on Tony and his mates lying around among drained cans of Special Brew in a cloud of spliff smoke and body odour, and not caring, heading straight up the stairs to bed without even bothering to acknowledge their existence.
I remember putting on a CD, collapsing on the bed, letting the waves of ambient electronic sound lull me into a deep sleep, every part of my mind and body aching when I woke in the darkness, sensing the shape in the room only slowly as my eyes adjusted to the faint streetlight coming in through the open skylight. And finally, suddenly alert again, I remember lying still, feigning continued sleep when I smelt Tony’s clothes in the room, saw him with my wallet in his hand, rifling through the contents.
He’d not seen me wake, not clocked the change from eyelid to open eye less than five feet from him, and when I leapt to my feet, he started like a trapped rabbit, dropped the wallet and made for the stairs. My instinct was to grab him, pull him back, but I resisted, instead lunged forward, kicked out, my foot hitting the small of his back as he tried to turn and lost his balance, grabbing at the banister as he plunged shoulder-first into the tight turn of the stairwell.
When he hit the bottom step, crawling towards the first floor landing, I was on him, my knee jammed into his spine, my hands locked around his wrists as he squirmed beneath me, unable to wriggle free.
“You’re fucking dead, you cunt”, I told him. “You. Are. Fucking. Dead…”
“I didn’t do it”, he whined, “I did fucking nowt…. just fuck off.”
I twisted the knee, piled on all my weight to that that one pressure point at the base of his spine.
“FUCK OFF”, he shouted, “leave me the fuck alone…”
I let his wrists go, knelt harder on his spine, moved my hands round his neck from behind and worked my fingertips into the crooked bulb of his larynx, pressing in, slowly but hard enough to choke off his breathing. Every time he tried to move his arms back and reach me, flailing blindly into the air, he simply increased the pain in his back, winced and went slack.
“I did fucking nowt“, he said again, his voice cracking as I began to work my fingers behind the lump in his throat. “I wanted a borrow of a quid, for some milk from that garage, I’d of given it back…” His voice gave out to a wheezing cough.
There was a moment, I remember, when I felt I could have just kept squeezing, strangled the life out of him, and woken the next morning happy that the dream had fulfilled my wish, but I also felt the dawn chill in the house, the vile smell of stale booze and sweat on Tony’s skin, the ache in my own body, and I realised this was real, it was actually happening, now, and if I’d kept going he’d be choking, weakening, as he was beginning to do by then, and my hands slackened, exhausted, and I lifted my knee from his back, stood over him as he crawled away then, once out of reach, climbed shakily to his feet, rubbing his throat, glaring at me warily, hatefully, before opening his mouth to speak, thinking better of it, and running downstairs.
I heard his key in the front door, the door swing open and a pause before he shouted “fucking psycho, you” then slammed it shut behind him, jolting the banister I was leaning on and vanishing into the early hours.
I remember going back upstairs, closing the unlockable door at the foot of the attic steps, wedging it shut with boxes, each one heavy with hardback books, a stack of three braced against the treads of the stairs, impossible to open from either side. I remember checking that everything I’d had in my wallet was still there and I remembered that someone was coming over to load all these boxes into an old Volvo estate tomorrow and put them into storage till they’d be needed again, whenever that might be.
After that, I remembered how desperately I needed to sleep. I needed sleep so badly that I pushed the wallet deep into the pocket of the trousers I was still wearing, rummaged in a box for the claw hammer we’d used at the old house to put up pictures and do the odd repair, and slipped it under my pillow. I kept my hand on the smooth wood of the handle, for reassurance, in case he came back, then blacked out till morning.
“That Macaroni guy who invented the radio. What did he listen to?”
Max Johnson: The Dr Bleezenhauer Radio Hour (1951)
All morning a song has been going round and round in my head, something I can’t quite place, but somehow in the voice of Smokey Robinson, Jimmy Ruffin, maybe Motown, Stax or Atlantic, but most likely generic, the ghost of a 45 that never quite got recorded, or one recorded in so many different forms that the one in my head works as a synthesis of them all. I can hear it as I walk, humming it aloud to myself, half-convinced it doesn’t exist:
Where do you go when the money’s gone,
When you’ve lost every cent and the rain comes on,
When you’re brokenhearted and the cold sets in,
Oh, where do you go when the money’s gone?
It’s the chorus. My mind isn’t on what I’m doing, but it hardly matters in this quiet street. No traffic to watch out for, no pedestrians shaving the edges of that bubble of personal space I shoulder through crowds to protect. Only a voice crackling on a Pye dansette under a stylus that needed changing months before, etching its presence into a microgroove already ground beyond clarity.
Is this a memory, or an invention? My head is full of these things, circulating TV shows that noone else recalls in an atmosphere of songs that never quite got written, but all familiar and instantly recognised. Occasionally, a tune I’ve long categorised as synthesis beams through the ether of a shop’s daytime oldies station, with neither a group’s name, a label, year or title to pin it down, only a resemblance.
And here I am again, stopping beside a skip and sand-pile to pocket the silver cog of a fifty-pence piece as builders carry stacks of bricks into a gutted house, their tinny transistor tuned to Capital Gold and squeezing a chorus between the DJ chatter and commercial break, something like:
Where do you go when the money’s gone,
When you’ve lost every cent and the rain comes on…
“If all the rain was money
and all the money rain
we’d all be dry in our road
but not be poor again…”
Childrens’ Rhyme (1934)
I’m not sure where this is going. Can a story be constructed on entirely random principles, or do I need to fill in the gaps between incidents? Maybe I’ll find that the key dramatic turns and crucial plot developments all happen between finding coins, so that you, the reader, are now left with the incidental anecdotes that preceded and followed the absent real action, if there was even anything that might be called that to begin with. Well, so be it.
Take today. There are people everywhere, some rushing by, some hawking watches, socks, mobile telephones and disposable cigarette lighters in the street. The cars in the road are edging forward slowly, white headlights pressed close to red tail-lights, the occasional blink of orange smouldering in the late afternoon darkness as someone indicates they’re about to break from the stream of traffic congested at the junction. There’s a flurry of horns and shouts as pedestrians edge through, their coats whipping out behind them as the wind picks up. Newspapers and carrier-bags fly overhead.
What does this tell you? Perhaps that my agency in telling this story, if it is a story, is removed, as though I’m suspending my choice about where I live by throwing darts at a Mercator World Map and aiming to build a house wherever the tungsten point pierces the paper. The strongest likelihood is that it will fall into the deep ocean. The land is only a fraction of the planet’s total surface, after all, though even that fraction is greater than the presence of dramatic and memorable incidents in a human life. They occupy only a few small clearings, tiny atolls and islands dispersed among vast tracts of thinking about nothing in particular, being in transit, watching television, filing paperwork, gazing idly out of a window before or after something else happens.
In a real story, a story with no particular relationship to how lives work, the kind of story that is satisfying precisely because it makes a kind of sense we’re denied anywhere else, each action has its subsequent effect, every character development is grounded in a clear set of psychological motivations. Perhaps the lovers drift apart due to some incident in their shared past whose nature we will discover in a chapter further down the line. Perhaps the man moves from one city to another after the woman he loves is randomly assaulted in the street. Perhaps the woman who throws darts at a map to decide the destination she’ll travel to next is testing a theory.
Meanwhile, an Iowa mother might travel to Italy and research her grandfather’s wartime records in a rural archive, learning something important about herself along the way. A Glasgow lawyer wrongly accused of a crime might have only a few days to clear his name and expose the plot against him, going on the run to Edinburgh or Paris, Berlin or Johannesburg, wherever it’s necessary to go in such an emergency. An English narrator whose name you are never given may be losing his grip after an affair with one of his students goes wrong and his marriage and academic career both lie in ruins as he embarks on a mission to redeem himself.
Perhaps the hero of the fantasy epic, who is continually saved from his enemies’ swords by timely arrivals and crumbling cliffs, or the interstellar warrior fighting alien forces on a small red planet on the outer edge of a previously unknown galaxy, both find themselves killed in the first chapter, or the third, or the seventh: a random lucky shot, a laser beam or sword-stroke that doesn’t narrowly miss its target, not this time. They both thought they were there to the end but only realise, too late, that they are disposable foot-soldiers who were on the wrong side all along.
This is how it is. We inhabit a world where motivations are not clear and no obvious or just cause and effect takes place, not really, not often enough to truly convince as an organising principle for our own experience. There can be no guarantee that any comprehensible story arc will emerge from the random points in time being strung together. How often does a written story unfold as it would in life? The woman who would like to travel to Italy to research her grandfather’s elusive war records can’t get the time off work or afford the flights and accommodation so dreams about it while the potentially transformative opportunity passes her by.
The Glasgow lawyer only hears of the false accusations against him when he’s already been held in a secure unit, with no time or opportunity to refute them. The trails of evidence that would have cleared his name in Edinburgh and Paris, Berlin and Johannesburg, simply fade away and besides, even if he had got there earlier, his chances of finding the information he needed were always vanishingly remote. He now sits in a remand centre awaiting trial, watching Harrison Ford in The Fugitive and dreaming of a similar storyline for himself, a useless fantasy of justice winning out over circumstance and bad luck.
So it continues. The bag I watch someone leave in the tube station is not a hold-all full of drugs money or a bomb after all, just a bag stuffed with washing and socks and tattered half-read paperbacks that was carried by an absent minded traveller who no doubt returned later, long after I’d left the scene, to try and find it. The intentions someone expressed with such absolute and undeniable determination in chapter three are forgotten by the end of chapter four and never referred to at any point that follows.
And here we are, not knowing where we’re going, resigning agency over the story, landing in the deep waters of those inconsequential oceans yet again. But maybe, just as it’s futile to go seeking Indian tigers in the Mariana Trench, so we’d never have seen anemones and bioluminescent jellyfish if we’d stayed on land. Following a tungsten dart into the Pacific Ocean might sometimes be the best thing we could consider doing.
This is where it lands, then, for the moment. I am buttoned tightly into my summer jacket, my bag too heavy for the wind to move, my hair blowing into my eyes as I walk quickly, keeping my head down. I almost miss the three coins, clustered together at the edge of the kerb, a two pence piece and two pennies, the twentieth and twenty-first found so far. I jangle them in my palm with a sense of contentment and feel their chill fade slowly into the thin lining of my trouser-pocket.
(Sheffield, London, Nottingham 1998 – 2007)