Fiction: The Stereotypists

Laura was sitting at her desk, which was so new that no one had bothered to even peel the sticker off of the surface. After having spent an hour staring at her computer screen, she began to pick at it, occasionally looking up to see if anyone had noticed she had no idea what she was doing here. Her cubicle was conspicuous only by its plainness. All the others that she had seen had been customised. Even if it was only a photograph of a person’s mother, it was still more interesting than Laura’s.
She had arrived at the building ten minutes early that morning, but had hung around outside until just before she was supposed to start, too nervous to go into the building, and if a secretary hadn’t poked her head out of the door and called Laura’s name, she probably never would have made it inside. The secretary had then given her a floor and cubicle number, and told her that she could take a twenty-minute break whenever she wanted. That had been all the information she had been given.
She checked her watch, and then looked at the big clock above the door. Both said it was only half eleven, but Laura couldn’t take it anymore. She picked up her bag and headed for the break room.

She sat down at a table in the corner, carefully avoiding the eyes of the two women who were already sitting around chatting, and took out the bagel she had bought at the station that morning. Pulling a face at the rocket the deli had put in, she ate anyway. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself by picking it out.
“So you’re our newest Stereotypist are you?” someone said as he sat down across the table from her.
She looked up slowly, taken aback by the attention “Stereotypist?” she asked.
“They didn’t tell you at your interview?”
“I didn’t get an interview.
“Ah. Headhunted?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“They do that a lot round here. It saves money on advertising apparently.”
“But how do they find us?”
“No idea. I try not to think about it. I’m Toby by the way.” He said, holding out a hand.
“Laura,” she replied, shaking his hand.
“Nice to meet you.” He said with a smile. “So if you didn’t get an interview, did anyone actually tell you what you’re meant to be doing?”  Laura couldn’t tell whether to be insulted or thankful that someone was going to help her.
“Not really.”
Toby laughed. “They like to throw people in at the deep end here. It’s a bit mean really.”
“Oh.”
“Well anyway, we’re stereotypists.” Laura stared at him blankly, and he grinned again. “We write stereotypes. You know, like how everyone thinks that the Dutch all wear clogs and smoke weed, or how Americans are all fat and lazy.”
“Okay.”
“My personal favourite is the one about how all chefs have a thing for collecting ceramic spoons.”
“I’ve never heard that one.” Laura said, an apologetic tone creeping into her voice.
“Damn, they must not have processed it yet.”
“Processed?”
“Yep. We write an application, submit it to the board, and if it gets approved, then the stereotype comes into play.”
“So,” Laura began slowly, “we just make things up?”
“No no.” Toby said almost indignantly. “It’s a lot of work, we’re almost anthropologists. We have to study cultures and international relations, things like that, take everything into account. It has to make sense. Like my chef’s thing. A mathematician wouldn’t collect spoons, but a chef would.”
“I suppose that’s logical.”
“Unless we’ve got a deadline of course. Then we can make it up.” He said with a chuckle. “That leads to some interesting things.”

“So does this really work? Do the things we write, they actually form people’s opinions?”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know how they do it, but it really works. For example, why do you think mad scientists all look like Einstein? He worked in the Swiss office before he made it big in physics. He decided that he wanted to be the stereotype for scientists. It’s a bit weird, I have to admit, but he was a brilliant stereotypist in his day. Pity he gave it all up to change the face of science.”
“Is that really true?” Laura was amazed. Having studied physics, she’d always felt a little idolisation for Einstein.
“Of course it is. Mind you, that level of involvement is quite rare, but there’s some leeway for personal attachment. Just try not to be too negative. We had some issues back in the 30s, and occasionally you get some crackpot who slips through, but they get weeded out pretty quickly.”
Toby looked at his watch. “We should be getting back to our desks, we’ve been out nearly twice as long as we should be. No one will mind,” he added quickly, seeing the panicked look on Laura’s face, “but it’s best not to provoke the higher-ups.”
They walked back to the office together, and while Toby explained a little about the ins and outs of office life, Laura, who feeling much better about her new job, began to formulate her own stereotype.

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Poetry: Not What You Expected?

Not What You Expected?

(From the Vaccines)

You saw the world, what did it look like?
You had a summer, under some European sun.
When you were my age,
A lifetime ago.

Were you a lot like me?
Young complexion, with your hair grown out?
Were you ready for it?
Was it what you expected?

You say they’re things I’d rather not know
You say I would not understand,
Well brought up
Rich kid, with Mother’s lazy money.
You got me wrong.

A clear blue sky, turning dirty black,
It’s suddenly colder,
You probably weren’t ready.
Killer. Primal. Animal.

Come on,
Friend or foe?
Crazy, Crazy.
Blow it up,
Growing up
Watch out man,
Their dead, all of them, shot.
(Blown up)
You were only seventeen,
You weren’t ready,
But you earned your stripes.

Momma heard it in the Evening News,
Poppa read it in the Morning Herald.
They wished and waited.

Were you gonna come back?
Were you gonna come back, all right?
Were you all right?

They didn’t know, that you’d been found,
That you were okay.

All lines are lyrics (or were lyrics originally) taken from songs from the album What Did You Expect from the Vaccines, and b-sides associated with their singles.

Fiction: Long Buried Secrets

I don’t have many vivid memories of my grandfather. I only met him a few times, but something that happened on the last of these occasions stands out.
I wasn’t very old at the time, maybe six or seven at most when he and my grandma came to stay. I didn’t like either of them very much. They were both very tall, and I remember I thought they looked like the drawing of Jack Spratt and his wife in my picture book. He was stick thing, and she was round as a pudding, but I would never consider approaching her for a cuddle.
There was something of a communication barrier as well. My dad had tried to teach me some German, but I had been far more interested in playing football than learning his mother tongue, which made talking to two elderly Bavarians with very poor English rather difficult.
All in all, I tried to keep as far away from them as I could, to the extent I’d hide myself away in my room and do homework all night, and wolf down my dinner in minutes.

I wasn’t always successful though. I had to leave my room sometimes, and invariably I caught sight of one of them on my travels, however brief, and it never ended well.
One day, I was walking out of my bedroom to get some juice from the kitchen downstairs. Though I was hurrying, my route led me straight past the bathroom, and just as I reached it, my grandfather emerged, wearing only a towel. He squinted at me short-sightedly, then glared.
Was?” he spat, but I barely even registered. At first I was stunned by the sight of an elderly man wearing so little, but then I noticed that tattoo.
I had seen them before of course, but only on strangers, and my mum had always told me that only criminals got tattoos. I thought this would explain a lot about my grandfather, so naturally I focused my attention on it.
It was quite small. If he hadn’t been so fair-skinned, I’d never have noticed it, but there it was, inscribed on the wrinkled skin of his upper arm; the dark black letters A and B. I didn’t know what this combination meant at the time, and I most certainly didn’t know what it represented.
“What is…” I began, but paused and decided to try out my rather patchy German skills in hope of an honest answer. “Was ist das?” I asked, pointing at his arm.
He glared at me so ferociously I almost thought I’d keel over and die, and he started to shout in German. Bewildered I stumbled backwards, but he strode towards me, and thought I tried to escape, he grabbed my arm with one hand, and the other  keeping a grip on his towel, he marched me through to the guest bedroom where he and my grandmother were staying.
My parents were fairly liberal for the time, so this was a new experience for me. I had a large enough collection of The Beano though to know what was about to happen, and I was terrified. Before we even got to the doorway I was howling.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such gut wrenching fear as I did in the moments between my being bent over grandfather’s knee and hearing running footsteps and my father’s voice start shouting even louder than my assailants.
I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but it made the old man pause long enough for me to climb off his knee and run to my dad, still sobbing my eyes out.
The two men shouted for hours, and some point along the way both their wives joined in, and though my mum spoke as much German as I did, I think she made her point clear. At the end of it, my father dragged his parent’s luggage out of their bedroom, down the stairs, and threw it out into the driveway before slamming the door on their crimson, furious faces, drowning out the unfamiliar shouting almost completely.

Years later, I finally learned that the letters were his blood type, and that it would have been his SS commander that tattooed them to him. This was at school, because I’d always been too scared to asking my dad, but that evening we had a long talk about his family. After that I felt like I knew the grandfather whom I’d always seen as being second only to the devil a bit better, and though I couldn’t forgive his reaction, and certainly not his past, I thought I could begin to understood why he had been so angry.
I share this part with my dad though, because as far as I could make out, he never once spoke to his parents after that day.

Fiction: And I’ll Write Another Time Travellin’ Song

“I don’t care if there are rules,” Charlie thought to himself. “Music in these days was painfully bad.” He paused, then corrected himself, “Is painfully bad”. Even after six months he still got his tenses mixed up occasionally.
As the cab drove off into the distance, he picked up his guitar; he walked up to the building and knocked on the door.
“Who’s there?” someone shouted from inside
“My name’s Charlie Davis. I hear you give out ten dollars to people who want to sing into a can. Um, on your radio.” He added, feeling a little self-conscious of the reference, even though the radio owner would never have seen it.
The door swung open, and Charlie was surprised to see a young woman standing there “And you’re a musician are you?” she drawled, looking him up and down sceptically.
“Yes ma’am.”
“What do you play?” she asked. “And don’t say guitar.”
Charlie could feel his face flushing. “Gru…” he broke off, realising how stupid he would sound to this woman. “It doesn’t really have a name.”
She frowned for a moment, then shrugged and moved into the house. “Whatever it is, nobody else wants to play music for a lady’s radio, so come on in.”
Silently congratulating himself, Charlie shouldered his guitar case and followed her inside.
“The recording studio’s through here.” She gestured to a room that was cluttered with microphones and gramophones.
“Thanks. So what do I do, just go in and sing?”
“Pretty much.” She said, opening the door for him
“Right.” Charlie walked into the room and sat down on the little wooden stool set out in the middle. Unzipping his guitar case, he pulled the instrument out and began to tune it. While he was used to an electric guitar, he’d been coping with an acoustic because that was all they had in these days.
Once he was satisfied with the tuning, he nodded to the woman. “Ready.”
“Okay mister,” she replied, flipping a switch to record the sound.
With a deep breath, Charlie began strumming out the familiar introductory chords.
“Load up on guns, and bring your friends,” he began, “It’s fun to lose, and to pretend”
He didn’t know how he’d got here. There’d been no airplane crash, tornado, or even thunderstorm to suggest a reason why, but here he was. Not having the technical knowhow to invent DVDs, or even the Stratocaster, his only talent to speak of was playing guitar, and so he’d decided to get rich by bringing the future of music forward a little.
“A Denial, A Denial, A Denial.” 
As he finished singing, he looked up at the woman who was standing by the gramophone, a face like thunder.
“This guitar’s not brilliant,” he said, patting it fondly, “but that shouldn’t have made too much of difference.”
“I should have known.” She said taking a step forward.
Charlie was beginning to feel a little concerned. “What?” he asked.
“Nobody takes me seriously. Even after the war, and Amelia Earhart and I’m still supposed to spend my life behind a stove with a baby at my hip. Careers are something for men, Music even more so.”
“No!” Charlie protested, standing up and knocking the stool over in his haste. “I’m taking you seriously!”
“Sure you are! You come in here with your devil racket, with no regard for good taste or even musical techniques, and claim you’re taking me seriously! You’re even worse than those other fellers who just try to block my signal, taking me off the air.” She had been advancing forward as she ranted, circling around Charlie and forcing him, and his guitar, backwards towards the exit.
“That was not a racket! That was innovation!” he shouted. Charlie had always had a short temper, and he was very sensitive towards his skills as a musician.
“Get out!” she yelled, bending down to pull off her shoe.
“All right, I’m going!” he called back, turning and hurrying away before she could throw it at him.

Poetry: Inspiration

Nothing I do is
Hopelessly derivative!
Let me count the ways:…

Literary jealousy and the Imposter Syndrome

Every one has their favourite works of literature, and their favourite authors.

Generally there’s some overlap between these, though not always. If you’re a particularly jealous person – or if you’re worried about your image – then you tend to keep these choices to yourself as if they were your own little secrets that need protecting from people who wouldn’t treat, or love, them as much as you do. Conversely, plenty of people can’t help but share their preferences with as many people as they can to the point of over exposure. I’ve been guilty of both these vices. I don’t think I’ve ever actually told anyone how much I loved The Keys to the Kingdom, while all my bookish friend in high school got sick of my recommending they read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Everyone is influenced by what they like, even if it’s in their attempts not to emulate their idols, but sometimes I find that rather than being inspired by the writers I love, I end up feeling as if I needn’t bother, because there’s no way I can match up to them.

In a way, this is a manifestation of the Imposter Syndrome, the irrational panic graduate students get that someone is going to realise they are not good at what they do to deserve their place (which I get as well, but that’s a problem for another day). In terms of writing for pleasure -or especially money-, this form of self censorship makes no sense at all. One need only look at the best-selling books in the kindle store to find no less than five parodies of a certain erotic fiction novel that shall not be named, as evidence that a lack of creativity never stopped anyone from trying to make a quick quid. The quandary comes when you get hung up on issues of quality and message.

Currently the two writers stimying my creative output are the author Jeffery Eugenides, and the slam poet Marty McConnell.

For the former, my envy is the apparent ease with which he constructs characters (especially Calliope, the narrator of Middlesex) and intricately simple plots. Yes, that’s a contradiction in terms, but that’s part of the problem. I don’t have the attention span to construct as in-depth a biography as Middlesex, or the fractious narrative of  The Marriage Plot, so I find myself wondering what the point is in even trying, since I can’t measure up Eugenides. Never mind the fact that this isn’t my authorial voice or style, I end up finding my voice lacking in the necessary sophistication, and my style vapid and insubstantial.
With McConnell, the problem is different. Unlike prose, I’ve really never excelled at writing poetry that’s more worthwhile than the clichéd and angst filled poems of a middle class teenager with no real problems. I can appreciate it, but writing had never come easily. When I first discovered McConnell’s poetry I was introduced to a new world outside of The Movement or Romanticism. Poetry that dealt with issues I care about, not just broad themes I identified with, or worse, universal themes about the human condition. Unfortunately, discovering it has simultaneously hamstrung  my ability to write it, because outside of the spoken-word medium (at which I am also not naturally suited) I get too hung up on form and style. Which is kind of missing the point really.

I don’t really have an answer for any of this, beyond the simple “Get over yourself and just write,” but  it is a problem I’m going to have to find an answer for, sooner or later.

Am I alone in this, or is it a common issue?

The Last Love Story

She tensed as she heard the sound of a stone skidding across the dusty ground. She looked around wildly, in time to see a second miss her by a few centimetres, and a moment later a third connect with her shoulder. Now certain she was being hunted, the girl turned to run, only to feel her stomach turn to ice at the sight of an eight foot wall.
She cursed herself for being so stupid as to break the cardinal rule of life in Earth’s cities: No matter how hungry, or how desperate, you were, you never strayed anywhere that only had one way out.
Not if you valued your life.
In a panic, she stooped to pick up a few stones, squinted, then hefted it into the sunlight that her attacker had cleverly situated himself in.
There was thud, and a cry, and a couple of seconds later, a boy emerged, hands held up before him.
“All right, all right!” he called.
The girl relaxed, and glared at him. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to show you something.”
She raised her arm, ready to throw the other stone. “You come near me, and I’ll kill you.”
“Relax!” he said, “You’ll thank me forever when you see it.”
She face softened, but she didn’t lower her arm. “I don’t believe you.”
“Please. Look, have you got anything better to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she began sarcastically, “find food, shelter…”
“I can give you both of those,”
“A stick to pound you with.” she continued.
“Please, if you’re not happy, you can pound me then, I promise.”
She frowned, looking up at the sky above, which was beginning to darken, making the small, darting lights of the fighter ships above them seem even more numerous. “Fine,” she said, dropping the stone, “but if this is a trick, I’ll make sure you never walk again.”

xxx

“Well,” he said, “What do you think?”
“Did you do all this?”
“I told you, I found it. It’s been deserted for a while I think, the owner must have managed to get on one of the last of the launches.”
The bunker was equipped with tinned food and blankets, a heavy duty lock on the already sturdy door. “How many keys are there for this?” she asked.
“Just the one,” he said. “I found it under a floor board upstairs.”
She moved away room the door and sat down on the bed. It was a little hard, but much better than the cold concrete she’d had to make do with since someone stole her last hideyhole.
“Why are you giving it to me?” she asked
His face fell, “I’m not giving it to you. I’m inviting you to share it with me. Wait! Just the bunker, not the bed!”
She scowled at him. “But still, why me?”
He shrugged, “I like you.”
“You threw stones at me!”
Sorry, It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “You’re a strange one.”

xxx

He heard her sobbing, and was waiting for her as she stumbled down the staircase. In all the time they had been sharing the basement, enduring several months of uneasy truce, he had never seen her show any signs of weakness. No sorrow for what she had lost, no fear for the future, or even at the fact they were some of last people left living on Earth, rather than orbiting around it.
This made the sight of her almost collapsing down the stairs, blood running down her face, bruises forming on her wrists and her already faded clothes hanging off her in rags all the more shocking
She looked at him with an expression of such helplessness and pain that all he could do was reach forward and pull her into a tight embrace.

xxx

“I want to go upstairs,” she said quietly.
The boy looked up at her from the book he was looking at it. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said, more firmly now. “Today.”
“It’s dark out,” he said, but he struggled to conceal the excitement in his voice.
“I know,” she said, “Please. I need to.”
He didn’t say, ‘But it’s not safe‘. He didn’t say, ‘But you’ve not left this room in over a year and a half‘, He just smiled, and walked over to where she was standing, and held out an arm for her to take hold of.
They made their way up the stairs; slowly at first, but more naturally as she began to regain her confidence. “I’d forgotten what it looked like,” she said, smiling broadly as she looked around the room. “Can we go up to the balcony?”
He hesitated for a moment, then nodded. They made their way up, and made themselves comfortable on the metal floor of the balcony, looking up at the sky. “Was it always this big?” she asked in awe.
“Yes,” he said with a laughed, “But I think there are more fighters up there tonight,” he added thoughtfully.
She shrugged and turned to smile at him. He smiled back, then something caught their eyes and they turned to look up at the night’s sky. Something had exploded into a bright ball of fire, raining down snakes of light towards the earth.
“I wonder who’s winning.” he said.
“I don’t even know who’s fighting, or what for,” she said.
He thought, then began to laugh. “Me neither.” he said.
She looked at him for a moment before joining in. They sat, laughing in the light of the explosion until they  subsided into silence.
He turned to look at her, and saw she was staring at her.
“What?” he asked.
“Thank you,” she repeated, leaning forward and gently kissing him.