unchecked lists

I wrote a list when I got here, of all the things I wanted to do, and some of the things I had to do. I think I managed about half of them. Maybe two-thirds. Most of them were places I wanted to eat. It’s pretty dumb of me, really. Key West is an island most people go with the express purpose of not really doing anything. It’s designed to undermine the most active of intensions, unless those intensions are to drink margaritas and eat seafood.

I’ve no idea how Hemingway managed to write here. I stare at a page as the morning gets hotter and my eyes get grabbed by a lizard flitting along the deck or a hummingbird whizzing about and then it’s too hot and a tree frog croaks or the pool looks too good or there’s a beer that’s been in the fridge too long and I should probably get that out and sip it while trying to get a word or two down. That’s why I get up early to go for a run before the sun rises. At least if I’ve done that, I’ve done something. I can nap, drink beer, eat ice cream, munch fish tacos on the beach; whatever I want, because I went for a run and did something. Doing something is one of the best excuses for doing nothing out there.

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whispers in the storm

There’s a front moving in. The temperature’s dropped 10 degrees in the last fifteen minutes. Crazy winds, lightning, torrential rain all predicted. The works. I’m looking forward to it; a bit of wrathful weather to break the heat. It’s been hot. And I’ve been hungover. It’s no fun to be hungover when the sun’s burning and the air feels like chowder.

I’m hungover because I drank too much wine, beer, and whisky last night. It was one of those old friends things. The too much you drink is directly proportional to the too long its been since you’ve seen someone you love dearly. It often happens the night before a wedding. Thankfully no wedding today, as I would have been in no fit state. Instead I went for a run in the blazing sun and relentless humidity. I stopped a few times, even when the traffic lights were in my favour. The sea was rough but gorgeous, crashing over White St Pier and drenching site seers. Sweat streamed off my face, a mix of IPA and Talisker from the night before.

When I got back the kids were playing in the pool. I jumped in to cool off but left them to it. I showered and dressed and grabbed my book and promptly fell asleep on the couch. All the adults in the house napped while the kids jumped and splashed and cannonballed and threw the pool noodle at each other. It felt strange to be one of the adults in the house. Alien.

The front arrived. It’s chucking it down, and the sky rages with lightning, thunder, and the loud whispers of trees in the gale.

remembering it now

I’m trying to get this thing started again. Shake the cobwebs off. Get used to writing regularly. There are unfinished drafts in the folder here, attempted posts going back four years, to May of 2015. So it’s not the first time I’ve travelled down this path. I don’t know why it’s harder than it used to be, but I’ve noticed that the less I write, the less clear my memory of things are. The past becomes monochrome and blurred. The old saying that you write it down to remember it now, not later, becomes truer every day.

Nine days ago, I landed in Key West. It was grey and raining. We flew through thunderheads the size of mountains in a small Embraer that bounced and dropped and dipped and everyone, including me, seemed fine with it. Standard weather for a hop to the islands. The guy next to me was asleep before take off and didn’t wake up until the wheels hammered the runway. It’s a short strip in Key West, and pilots have to drop like a rock to stick the landing. The bumpy ride didn’t deter my seat mate’s nap or the chat of the two dudebros seeking advice on bar-hopping from the sleazy asshole who kept referring to the flight attendant as ‘gorgeous’ rather than ‘ma’am’ or the name on her name tag (I don’t remember her name… this is why I need to write more).

I’m here to see my mum and dad. It’s not an easy time, though it’s an easier place to have an uneasy time. The skin on my dad’s face seems slack with the weight he’s lost, and even when he does smile, there’s sadness. We drive up to Miami. I take the morning run, going up, because I find it hard to stay awake when I drive in the afternoon. He’s usually sleeping when we get to the hospice, but we get there at lunchtime so that we can feed him. He wakes up for lunch. His food is pureed now. He failed the swallow test, which should probably be called the chew test, and so cannot have solids. His appetite has been ok the last few weeks, which is a good sign.

Mom sat next to him rested her head on his shoulder. He spoke a few words, indecipherable and incomprehensible. But he smiled his sad smile and met our eyes a few times. Twice a tear rolled down his right cheek. I don’t know what they were for. I kiss his forehead and tell him I love him. Sometimes he stares at the ceiling, sometimes the middle distance in front of him. There’s no way to know where he’s gone, if he’s gone anywhere.

It’s hard to leave, to say goodbye. Whatever of him was with us for a time departed, and we lingered in the hopes that it would return.

The drive back is always quiet. We listened to podcasts and commented on the weather. We stopped for lunch and it was good, but there was someone missing.

everything that's happened since

I've written a whole book since the last time I was on here. Not sure how I managed that, or how I managed to not pour forth on here about the daily hiccups and constant torrents of self-doubt that accompany that particular endeavour. Previous attempts at book-writing accumulated another book's worth of blog posts; meandering missives concerned with the curious space writers occupy. It could be limbo, but perhaps it's more that limbo is the ideal, the space I search for when I'm writing. An in-between space occupied by only me, a part of the world and apart from it. In contact enough to sip a whisky and see the odd friend, but outside so that nothing can exist but the sound of my fingers banging on the keys to Dvořák's 9th. It works as an ideal to aim for, rather than something to expect. Anyway, I wrote it, limbo or not, and I'm rewriting it now. I like the characters more than the book, so the rewrites are to make sure they get the book they deserve. It's slow, but sort of steady. 

Also, through no fault of my own, I appear to be a wine merchant again. In a shop. With wine. And whisky. I missed whisky. Well, I missed constantly dealing with whisky on a professional level. I was never really far enough away from it on a casual level to actually *miss* it. There are thirteen bottles next to my desk and a glass of Springbank next to my trackpad for goodness' sake. Anyway, it's a job with great booze. I will not be talking about it much here. 

There's another manuscript to rewrite, an old one. The first novel I wrote, the one that got me writing in the first place, that is going to need a hefty rewrite as well. Fortunately, my editor doesn't get their mitts on it until October, so I've got time to rewrite the other one first. Hopefully. That book is published next year. You can still get your name in it, if you fancy.  

I've drunk well, eaten well, and run a lot. I've come up with a name for my wine label. It's Cathar(tic) Wines, if you're at all interested. They are not yet available in a discerning independent wine merchant near you. They may never be. There aren't many bottles to be honest, and I'm pretty sure my mum is going to drink most of them. The name's a mediaeval history joke, if you need any further proof that I'm an incurable nerd. I like having a wine label. It's only taken a decade, which is less time than getting my first novel published, but more time than publishing my first wine book.

Other than that, the summer is kind of a blur. Some lovely friends got married, though that was May. Some other friends had parties and others drank on weather beaten picnic tables outside pubs. I tried to get to get to Scotland but couldn't, so I drank a bit more whisky than summer usually suggests and Scotland came to me. 

Someone died that shouldn't have. Who I'd not seen in too long but was so strong a presence in a time and part of my life that still feels and tastes so fresh that it could have been five minutes ago. I can hear her laughing and fighting and shouting with glee and she's not there anymore and while I know that I'm supposed to celebrate her having been there at all, I'm still angry and sad that so bright a life and talent is gone. She drove a red Honda Jazz (when I knew her) and painted horses and liked wine. I disagreed with some of her politics, but liked the way she fought for them. I'm ashamed that whenever I thought, "I've not seen or spoken to her in awhile" I just assumed it would be something time would correct, that we would meet again because that's what people do. But she's gone now and it doesn't seem real.


falling with style

My legs don’t work the way they used to. Every day, there’s a little reminder. Going down the stairs I need to concentrate. Something’s missing. Something that I didn’t even know was there until it went away. An unconscious ability, like a reflex, that I took for granted, unaware of its existence. I’m not even sure how best to describe it, except for perhaps as confidence in the next step. Walking, running, descending a stair case or a ladder; these things are sort of like touch typing, or the most basic aspects of hand-eye coordination. They should be like being able to close your eyes and touch your nose. It’s a simple awareness of oneself in relation to the world. 

And it’s disappearing. Every step down the stairs requires complete focus; balance doesn’t come naturally, it must be willed into existence. My legs are strong; I can run and walk long distances. But every step is a choice. There is no longer the inevitability of one foot simply following the other to propel me forward.

It’s frustrating, but I’m getting used to it. I can still run, so I do. I can still walk, so I do. I can still dance.

To look at me, I wouldn’t strike you as much as a dancer. It’s one of the reasons I like dancing so much. It’s like a nice little surprise that a stocky guy like me isn’t lost on the dance floor, that I can, should the situation require, bust a move.

I don’t do it very often. Weddings; big parties; that sort of thing. I’m not a clubber. I’ve never gone out just to go for a dance. In fact, the thought of that horrifies me - I’ll turn quite taciturn and grumpy should it ever be suggested. 

I never took a dance class. I just liked moving to the music. My legs seem to respond to the rhythm on their own. It was a rare treat; a release. I went where they took me. My inspiration, if I had one, was probably John Belushi as Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers. Similar build, unlikely dancer, but man, he just loses himself in it. There’s a freedom to it. No thinking, just dancing. 

I can’t remember which wedding it was that I realised a part of that was gone. I don’t know what song it was that my legs couldn’t move to the music. It’s a mystery what nerve pathway translates music to movement without a thought. All I remember is a collapse in my heart as I got on the dance floor and my legs wouldn’t move without me telling them to, and even then it was like two lead posts below my knees. I got scared that I’d twist an ankle as I couldn’t count on my balance or coordination. Every step to the beat was preceded by a 1,2 in my head. I had to keep track rather than listen to the music. It wore me out quicker. 

At a party a we while ago, there was a lot of dancing. I forced myself to join in. It was a good party, full of good people. The tunes were great. But my legs felt slower. Out of control again. They weren’t so much moving to the beat as they were responding to gravity. I remembered Woody in Toy Story’s outrage at Buzz thinking he could fly. That he wasn’t flying, he was just falling with style. It felt apt on the dance floor; I was flailing, and my legs were just falling with style. 

I’ve been trying to figure out why it bothers me so much. MS has far worse consequences than making you feel awkward on the dance floor. You’d think the chronic pain and constant exhaustion would be more upsetting, but nope, it’s the fear of losing the ability to dance with abandon only 5 or 6 times a year that brings unease. I'm still going to try, obviously. I will be dragged from the dance floor a sweaty mess until, quite literally, I can't dance anymore. But in the meantime, there's that feeling that something is missing. A sense of something taken away that I can't get back. And the touch of fear that it's just the beginning.

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Walking under the Milky Way

I escaped to the country this past week. It was a quiet affair, just hanging out with an old pal who was housesitting for her boss. As I drove south and west of London, through the average speed camera quagmires, the fields became more golden and the signs for fresh strawberries more frequent. The hedgerows grew taller as the lanes dwindle from two, to one, to single track with far too few passing places. And so it went, small hills and hollows and valleys with fields and the odd splash of native woodland. It was beautiful, but very tame; tempered; there might not be many people in this part of the country, but this part of the country was certainly shaped by people… and had been for at least four thousand years. You might get lost in one of the wee woodlands, but more likely than not you’d find yourself on a quiet road flagging down a newish Range Rover and asking for a lift. There’s something about it that seems like pretend outdoors. It’s probably why I like Scotland so much; there’s a little bit more wild in their wilderness. 

The house was beautiful. Converted farm buildings with a pool and two fish ponds. It was a lived-in place; two eager dogs managed to fill it in spite of their diminutive size. Light seemed a theme, with skylights throughout to allow the sun to pour in at every opportunity. The pool was long; meant to be swum in, rather than a neglected badge of prosperity. 

We fed the fish and the dogs and then opened a bottle of fizz and a couple of packets of crisps. The golden hour came and the waning sun gave the surrounding fields a new intensity of rich lustre. My pal smoked as we finished our bubbles. The dogs chased something in the high grass next to the fish pond. Birds hovered above the stacks of baled hay in the fields in the distance. The hills rolled so gently that England seemed a comfy duvet of green and gold.

We took the younger dog and walked down to the pub at the bottom of the hill. The path down ran between two bare fields, their fruits of harvest already reaped and stacked in large piles. I brought my camera - the light was good. In the duvet fold at the bottom of the hill sat the village, tucked in cozily, before it all rose again on the other side. Closer to the town the trees rose up around us; a woodland tunnel. The path got steeper, and the dog pulled the lead harder because she quite liked going to the pub. 

The pub just looked like someone’s house. There was a ‘no dogs allowed’ sign in the bar so we grabbed a picnic table outside. We drank beer. The night was cool. We talked about whatever; she asked me about writing. I answered what I could. The nice lady called us when our table was ready. It turned out one of the dining areas was just fine for dogs. We both had the pie of the day: chicken, ham, and leek. It wasn’t one of those individual tins with a bit of filo on top, either, but a proper massive slice of pie surrounded by a butter short crust pastry. The chips were good too. The veg sides were a bit meh, but that’s what veg sides are in proper pubs. There was a couple there with an old greyhound. They’d come up from Salisbury. He was quite portly, with thick glasses, nursing a glass of red wine. She was tall, thin, and on the water. They gave my pal a full rundown of all to do when she went to Salisbury. 

There are no street lights in this part of the world. We walked back by the light of my phone, up the woodland tunnel back towards the house. I looked up at the stars and cutting diagonal through the centre of the night sky, like a great pale brush stroke, was the Milky Way. I pointed it out to my pal. We talked about the stars; being able to see them. I remembered the first time my dad told me we were actually part of the galaxy - that all the talk of outer space and the stars related directly to us, as we lived there in our corner of the Milky Way. I was only 5. I don’t know how to articulate how I viewed the world before that startling revelation. Space; the universe; galaxies; they all seemed something that happened somewhere else. A different plane of existence. It was one of the most important and revelatory experiences of my childhood. “Dad, how far away is the galaxy?” “Son, we’re in a galaxy; it’s called the Milky Way.”

All at once it made everything seem bigger; closer; almost touch-able. He went on to describe our place in the solar system relative to our place in the galaxy. 

I spouted out a version of this story for my pal and she had one of her own. I’d turned off the light of my phone and we stood there, staring up and saying wow a lot.


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yet another blog

I used to write more about baseball. Well, maybe not baseball specifically, but my life as baseball season started, and began, as spring turned to summer, to have more and more of an impact on my day-to-day life. Whether it was a sleepless night staying up to watch a loss, or the elation in the morning of the discovery of a victory, and the voracious consumption of articles and game recaps in its wake. The Red Sox form the cornerstone of my spring, summer, and hopefully a bit of autumn. As sports go, baseball’s pace makes for good life metaphors in writing, and it frames life in this time nicely. 

However, over the last few years I’ve not been able to keep up the way I used to. Even staying up to watch the first inning of east coast game is a little too late for someone battling MS-induced fatigue. And without the temptation of the first inning, there are fewer opportunities to lose myself in a game until 3 or 4 in the morning. The timing’s not been too bad for this drift from the day-to-day. The team’s been awful for three out of the last four years (the anomaly of those four, the championship in 2013, is one of my favourite seasons of baseball ever). I can’t hold it too much against them. I’ve not been on best form either. We all go through bad stretches.

Against the Orioles a couple of weeks ago we lost and looked awful and I watched it and bitched about how that was the last game we wouldn’t have a losing record. We were doomed this season, just like the two before. Fellow fan and old friend Alex called me out on it, slapping me with a “typical Boston fan pessimist” label that irked me. An exchange on Twitter later and he coined the idea of “An Optimist’s Guide to the Red Sox”. I liked the name. He said that was the sort of Red Sox blog he wanted to read. 

And so that’s the Red Sox blog I started. Because writing a new book, funding an old one, and writing another blog wasn’t enough, apparently. No, I had to start a Red Sox blog as well. And not just any Red Sox blog, but one I have to update every day. Because the point of this new blog is to look at the bright sides of every single Red Sox game this season. I didn’t start at the beginning, to be honest. I think it was game 7 that I started. And I’ve done 13 thus far. So there are only 142 more to go, not including the playoffs (as of right now, we’re tied for an AL wildcard, so there’d be a playoff). That's a lot of baseball to write about.

It’s crazy and stupid. Sort of a 6-month NaNoWriMo (and yes, I’m writing a novel at the same time). But it’s a different sort of writing than I’ve done before, and deadlines and restrictions can be good things. So here I go. If you’re interested in baseball, optimism, writers out of their comfort zone and hitting “post” before their first cup of coffee, you should check it out. It’s on Tumblr. And it will be updated until the Red Sox’s season is over, whenever that may be.


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missing him

He looked sad for a minute that morning. Stood in the doorway staring out at nothing in particular, his eyes watered up a bit more than usual. They’re watery anyway, in the way that old men’s eyes get, in the way you never think your father’s eyes are going to get. But this was more than usual. A timely blink could’ve unleashed a tear. His hands shoved in the pockets of his shorts, he looked as though for a moment he remembered. Not everything, but something, even just that there was something to remember. And with that he knew that it was time. Somewhere in his lost head, a head that knew little but the most basic of things, and not even those very well, there was a sadness and an understanding. It only lasted a moment, then his brow furrowed at an imagined annoyance, and he pointed at a tree, a tree that had been there for years, and asked what the fuck it was doing there. 

Perhaps I projected. Maybe I saw what I wanted to see. It’s so easy to do with his dementia. It’s not like some forms, where the distant past can remain crystalline and sacred. No, Frontal Temporal Dementia is cataclysmic, deleting almost everything and bringing the structure that held it crashing down. Like erasing a chalkboard, leaving that thin dusty film of white, and then kicking the board into kindling. With so little remaining, it doesn’t take much to put there what you want to see. 

Sometimes he seemed like a great actor who forgot his lines. The words, their meaning, their place. He sounded so like the man I knew. But the things he said, even though they were in his voice, weren’t him. Sudden anger, annoyance, and a stream of swearing at some mysterious slight. And yet all I had to do was stick my tongue out, make a funny face, and give him a thumbs up, and all was laughter. It was something he’d done to cheer me up, when I was little. Then, as I grew up, we would both do it, trying to catch each other out. Now it’s just me, using it like he did, to cheer up a stubborn child. Child? I guess so.  A 79 year-old baby. 

And like a baby, moments of joy were a wonder. His smile and laugh lost nothing. But when they passed, a blankness returned. Disinterest; vacancy. 

We took him to the home on Monday. It was unexpected in the way that inevitable things tend to be. Instead of drama, it was a quiet, paperwork laden process. Every possible disaster played out in my mind, but not in reality. It’s a nice place, run by caring people. His room was nice. He chatted and said hello to the strangers around him. When mom said goodbye he said I love you. I held his hand and kissed his forehead and told him to take care, I’d see him soon. Whatever presence had been there that morning was gone. His attention turned from us to the book in his hands. Pages covered in words he didn’t understand. We left the room and then left the home and part of me was destroyed.

In my head, my father’s been gone for some time. His disease left an echo of the man I knew. We, I, had to be pragmatic about it when mom could not, and seek what was best for her and best for him. Taking care of him was killing her. I knew, we knew, were resolved, convinced, convicted, all this was for the best. But now there’s doubt, not that we made the right decision, but that it’s what I wanted. For her, for him. Because leaving my father there and sitting here without him all I have left is missing him. Pushed down and back and deep for four years there’s no longer his echo to provide the comfort and frustration, to delay that truth. I miss my father. I miss the man he was and the man he is now. I miss him laughing with elfin delight when I stick my tongue out and give him a thumbs up. So that moment on Monday morning, that glimpse of sadness, if that’s what it was. I so desperately hope that was there. That for a moment he understood enough to be sad and that we shared that sadness. Because I’ll miss him for the rest of my life, and he’ll never know.



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lost luggage

There weren’t too many people waiting for their luggage. I guess a bunch of folks found their way through passport control before I did. Everyone’s bag looked the same. My clothes clung to me as clothes do when you’ve been wearing them for too long and flown across an ocean and haven’t showered.

I’m very self-aware in baggage halls. My body and being feel as though they are imposters, abandoned far from comfort and safety; displaced. I sense how once comfortable and loose clothing sticks to me, clinging to my skin in an embrace forced by long hours on the stiff seat of a 747. My eyes are dry, and I want to bury my fists in them, to rub out a day or two’s worth of sleeplessness. I will my bag to appear to no avail. Parents herd their children, dragging them away when they get too close to the conveyer belt. A man in a suit wearing a rucksack looks even stranger than I feel. Who wears a suit on a flight from Miami? Who wears a suit with a satchel-like rucksack? I thought the dude in the cravat was bad. Yeah, there was a guy in a cravat and seersucker, and he looked pretty ridiculous. Do I look normal? Shirt and jeans? I have no idea. I don't feel normal. There is a garbled announcement, something about our flight and our luggage. There is almost no one left now. My heart sinks a bit, and I watch as one of the families makes their way towards the help desk, and then another. There’s a couple there too, who look quite stylish and European. Anonymously olive-skinned and in no way like they’ve just been on an airplane for 8 hours. He’s in a black shirt and black jeans, whilst she could be a stand-in for Isabella Rosallini. They fill in their form and I’m next. I fill it out. I don’t bother asking what happened or where they think the bag might be. I’m tired and resigned to treating myself to a cab home. The guy assures me it’s usually never more than 24 hours. I thank him and head out through the “Nothing to Declare” queue. They’re searching someone. I’ve just got my carry on and wander out.

The cash machine offered the following: £300, £400, £500, £800, or £1000. I laughed and keyed in £40 and walked out into the cold and the wind. I fumbled to get my jacket on and when it was I was not much warmer. The taxis were close, though. My driver was nice. He asked me whether he should go out for dinner with his family for New Year’s Eve, or to his mate’s birthday party. I told him I was a bad person to ask, because I’d just had a week with my family, and had had my fill. He should go to his mate’s birthday party. He laughed at that and then we were quiet for the rest of the drive. There was no traffic, and in short order I was home. With no unpacking to do, I ordered some lunch to be delivered, took my meds, and cuddled the cat, who was very happy to see me. After lunch I searched for a toothbrush and toothpaste, mine being in the lost luggage, brushed my teeth, and went upstairs for a nap. A quick replay of the morning played out before I fell asleep, ending with the cab ride home. I thought again about the driver’s dilemma. I hope he went to dinner with his family anyway.


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hotter outside than inside

The thermometer says it's 83.1 inside and 83.4 outside, so I'm inside.

I've only just managed to get my headphones on, shut out the world, and flick on the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. A little late, perhaps, but the Vince Guaraldi Trio sound that much sweeter for the wait. Time's flown down here, and it seems too short, as usual. Just a week and a day to catch some rays and spend too much time with family. 

I can't pick out any particular day something happened apart from Christmas. On quick reflection, everything else just blurs into one, like a club remix that goes on too long. To separate it out, to organise and put it all in order, from landing at Key West International to hiding here in the relative cool under the ceiling fan, listening to the Beta Band (moved on from Charlie Brown), requires the sort of detailed reflection that used to be very easy for me. It now takes effort. The sort of effort that is very easy to put off until another time. 

In the patchwork of memories of the last week or so, a few things shine bright. Running in the dark, before sunrise to beat the heat, and the stillness of the slumbering island. Vivid starlight giving way to a pastel dawn, watching the growing light shrouded by towering clouds over the Atlantic. My run took me by an old civil war fort now turned into a public garden. It's here I see the city begin to wake, and some that have yet to sleep. 

By the Southernmost Point there are tourists already queueing to have their photos taken. No one organises it. They form a line themselves. It seems ridiculous and civilised all at once. There is no one stood outside Hemingway's house yet. I slow to a walk for the last 100 or so yards and feel the town is much more awake than it was. 

My mother stands by my father sat at the table out on the deck. She cradles his head in her arms, crying, and he doesn't understand why. He doesn't understand anything anymore. She cradles his head and kisses it and cries because she loves him and he's gone now, so far gone with so little left, but she still loves him and needs to care for him even though it's killing her. I look at her, so brave and sad and broken, and I wish I could do more. 

I spend quite a lot of time spent wandering around old town, drinking a con leche from 5 Brothers, marvelling at how fucking cool banyan trees are. 

The salty tang of a margarita on the Afterdeck, as the wind whips the Atlantic into a frenzy and dogs play in the foamy surf. I hold my drink against the backdrop of the sea and it's the same shade as the shallows. 

Just one more day left.


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pennies on the moon.

I woke and it was dark and the moonlight seemed too pale so I got up and walked to the window and saw a small silver sickle emerging from the dirty penny shadow cast by the earth. It was blurry so I put on my glasses and stared for a moment. My camera sat on the chest of drawers to my left. My phone was on my desk. The sliver of silver hung in the sky with the thumb of copper. I stood in the ghostly light, surrounded by the darkness, and watched, debating for a moment whether to pick my camera up and fiddle with it enough to get a decent photo. My indecision drew me further from sleep and so I thought simply to let that moment stand without any record but my memory. Pyjama-clad, looking up into the cool, clear autumn night (well, morning really) as the moon slowly shed our shadow. Whatever dream interrupted had faded. The earth stood between the moon and the sun and I stood between my bed and the window and for once on a Monday morning I had some idea of where I was in the universe.


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finding rhythm in excessive banging

I usually fall asleep in MRIs. I get one every year, though I’ve had two this year. It’s to track the damage done to my central nervous system by MS. I’ve started a new medication, so that’s why I got the second. They want to see if it’s working. This time they injected me with a dye. I’ve not had that before. I sat in a chair as the young doctor opened a seemingly endless amount of sanitised plastic-sealed paraphernalia to accomplish the simple task of putting a needle in me. I don’t really have an issue with needles. I just look the other way. But the methodic rustling of the packaging was a little unnerving. As was the number of components required for the tap. What happened to a plain old syringe? The complexity of the vein tap was a reminder, moreso than the MRI itself, that there’s something wrong with me; something that won’t go away. 

Every time I go in the big metal tube they ask me the same questions and get the same answers. No, I don’t have any shrapnel in me, for which I’m grateful. No, I’m not pregnant. Yes, I’ll stay still as possible. It’s harder now, to stay still, as my back muscles spasm due to the very disease that requires the scan. I put in the earplugs and they give me headphones to listen to dreadful cover versions of already terrible songs. It does little to block out the catastrophic racket the scan makes. It's like being on the foley stage for a Christopher Nolan film. Relentless metal clanging and resonance. At first, it's startling, sort of like I'd imagine the apocalypse to be. But somehow I close my eyes retire from consciousness regardless, finding a sort of lullaby in it all. 

The nurse rolled me out when it was over and removed the tap from my left arm. I was groggy. She asked if I was ok and I said yes. I wandered to the dressing room and put my watch and shirt on. I left the deserted ward and made my way to the exit. It was sunny out, and there was no echo that followed me.


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fresh(ish) start

So the other night I cleared the empty whisky bottles from under my desk and started writing a new book. It had bounced about in my head for long enough. It was only a page or so, but there will be plenty more to follow. I don’t know why it had to be then. I don’t know why I had to clear away empty bottles before getting started. There are still plenty of three-quarter full and half empties under there, which is good as I’ll probably need them. 

The new book is a novel. It’s not like the other novel. And it doesn’t have anything to do with wine. I’ll be playing it close to my chest for the time being with regards to plot and stuff. I don’t need it make sense to anyone else until such a time as it makes sense to me, and I haven’t written enough of it yet for it to make sense to me. Research will probably take me back up to Ullapool and then down to Skye, which will be nice. That will likely have to wait until the new year. 

So why now? Well, why not? I’m still waiting to hear back from my editor about the latest rewrite of In Cathedral’s Shadow, and while I’ve enjoyed the lack of deadlines and structure, it’s beginning to feel weird, like being in a vacuum. I thought I could fill that with a bit more blog writing and even some wine and whisky writing, but it turns out all that sort of writing goes better with something bigger in the background. 

So I’ve started something bigger.


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I’m not the chatty guy in the hospital waiting room.

That’s someone else. I’m the guy with his nose in his book, reading and flipping pages and not being there. Aside from the nurses, it’s just me. Just me and the chatty guy. 

He arrives with volume. 

“I hate these things. Always scare me. They petrify me, in fact. When I was first diagnosed, they scared me to death.”

I look up enough from my book to see him gesturing towards one of those circular, wire-framed, rotating racks. Somewhere else it would be full of postcards, or ordinance survey maps. Here it is full of information pamphlets.

I manage a semi-nod and maybe even a grunt. He disappears to produce a urine sample and I continue to read. I hear a flush and he sits down again and it’s another paragraph before I realise my plight is hopeless. 

The chatty guy in the hospital waiting room will not be denied.

“So how long have you had MS?”

Everything stops. I see the sunrise through a large glass of whisky from my bedroom window in the summer of 2012. I swallow my first response that it’s none of his chatty fucking business when I got MS. This is a place of shared suffering. 

“Three years.” 

A couple of weeks ago I sat on a couch in an old wooden house with an old friend I’d not seen in half a decade and I told her about it and she smothered me with a hug so warm and full of love I didn’t know what to do.

Chatty guy pulls me back.

“How’re you doing?”

I’m tired and fucking sore, dude. But I’m fine. I’m managing.  “I’m fine.”

“Walking ok?”

That’s the fucking scariest question you can ask. “Balance is a bit tough.”

“You do yoga?”

Fuck off. “No.”

“Do yoga, man. It helps with the balance.”

Fuck off. “I run. As much as I can.”

“Wow. Running with MS?”

As long as I can. “Keeps the fatigue at bay.”

He’s going on to my medication. How am I finding it? Fine. Better than injections. So much better than injections. He mentions how scared he was. He points again at the rack of pamphlets about living with MS and tells me how they petrify him. He then tell the nurse that he’ll get all his info from the internet and I know why he’s scared and maybe why he’s so chatty. I’m called into the office and nod towards him and mumble some attempt at “nice chatting with you”.

My meeting turns out to be a meeting to arrange more meetings. I need blood tests and an MRI and some sort of schedule. I leave. Chatty guy is still chatting to the nurse. The MS ward is on the 4th floor. Quiet; away from the rush of the rest of the hospital. The elevator’s crowded but they make room for me and an old man with a cane. 

As I leave the hospital it occurs to me that the chatty guy in the hospital room is the only person with MS I’ve spoken to since I was diagnosed. And I have no idea what his name is.


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looking for crumbs

The one-eyed tern popped about the sand next to the table on the beach. He didn't venture too far into the shade under the umbrella. He kept his good eye flicking between me and the fallen potato chip near my foot. Soon a swatch of twig-like footprints covered that little plot of the beach, ending about 10 inches from the chip. He'd get close and then leap back, cocking his eye up at me, trying to determine if I was trying to trap him. I didn't know the universal sign for 'its your chip now, have at it' and tried to convey my lack of interest in the chip, but he wasn't having any of it. I figured losing an eye made him somewhat untrusting. We sat in stalemate until a little girl wearing water wings ran by, flapping, sending the one-eyed tern elsewhere. I saw him land near where the small waves lapped the sand. I reached down and picked up the fallen potato chip and lightly tossed it over to one of the twig-like footprints and then sipped my beer. A few moments later my cycloptic friend returned, tracing the umbrella's shadow before noticing the closer proximity of the fallen chip. Two short hops and he devoured it, then tilted his good eye up towards me with a look that seemed to say 'is that it?'.


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I need one of those travel tubes for my toothbrush. You know, so you don't get any detritus from the inside of your shaving kit on the bristles because, let's face it, that's kind of gross. I don't know where I lost the last one, but it's gone and my flight leaves Sunday. I don't even know where I got the last one. Probably Boots. But fuck those guys, they don't pay their taxes.

My flight leaves Sunday and I also need contact lenses and there is absolutely no guarantee that they're going to get here on time. One place said they'd get here, but then emailed to say the astigmatism lenses were out of stock and so I ordered some that don't have that correction and they say they'll be here but I'm not betting on it. 

I think I know where my passports are. I haven't double checked. 

There was a fat wad of dollars in the drawer to the right of my desk. I took them out and counted them and there more singles than I remembered. A massive $16. That might cover a beer during my layover in Atlanta. 

My layover is in Atlanta. 

My email dinged and my contacts are arriving before I leave. All of them. The ones I ordered and the ones I ordered because I didn't think the ones I ordered were going to be here in time. 

Passports, toothbrush thingy, contact lenses, currency, plug adaptors, etc and my mother sends an email asking for Cornish sea salt and so I add Cornish sea salt to the list wondering what the fuck is wrong with the Maldon that she has kilos of. 

Dad prefers the Cornish stuff.

If I stop and think about that too hard I'll get lost and never found so I just shrug and add it to the list along with some stuff for the house and shit I better change the cat's box before I leave. 

I keep thinking I'm leaving tomorrow but it's Sunday.


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What I should be writing.

For about the last ten years or so, I've been writing a novel. Well, not solidly. I finished a first draft about 8 years ago and since then, in between failed attempts to find an agent and publisher, have performed various light-hearted revisions and tinkerings with the manuscript. In that time, I wrote and published a whole other book from scratch, held various jobs in the wine trade and moved to Scotland from London and back to London from Scotland. A glance back to 2005 and 2006 in my archives will show several references to 'the book' as well as the navel-gazing and pondering that poured forth in the writing of it. 

And while I never doubted that I would find someone to publish it, there were times that I doubted my lack of doubt. 

Well, yesterday the project launched on Unbound, and with fast enough funding should be published in Autumn of 2015. I need your help for that, and I'm not too proud to ask. I very much enjoyed this process for Salt & Old Vines, though at times it was a battle. So if you've read my blogs and are wondering what I should have been writing at the time, check it out here and pledge. Thank you, and thank you for reading.



ten years

We sat around the table, the two of us, speaking in hushed tones. She was sad, disillusioned. He'd been a dick. Again. I poured out the end of the bottle into both our glasses. She looked at the wine and then at me, her large blue eyes surrounded by a haze of red. Hurt but strong. I took a sip and tried to look at the time without looking at the time.

What are you looking at? It's 4 in the morning. 

It's Game 4. The Red Sox could win the World Series. 

You came over here with wine when Game 4 was on?

You sounded like you needed wine.

I needed wine. You want to see if we can watch the game? 

It was the sort of late that just didn't matter. No exhaustion or sleepiness. It could have been any time of day.


She popped open her laptop and we looked for a feed, but nothing came up. The connection was too slow. We finished the wine and poured a whisky. 

One of the computer labs?

Could work. My ID's a lot out of date though.

I'll get us in. 

The rain pelted. The wind hammered. Both came from the east. It was cold. We leapt over puddles and leant to the right as we did to keep our balance. A proper Scottish gale. It was only a block. Cobbles one street, tarmac the next. A wynd and a half in between.

We dodged the empty kegs outside the Keys and crossed North Street. The lights around the library glowed but it was dark. But we weren't going there. She slid her keycard down and the lock clicked. One lone student sat working in front of a glowing screen. One screen out of dozens.

She logged us in and I found a feed. It was so pixelated. I still can't believe there was audio. Just a small window on a small screen. Small blocks of green and red and white and sand and grey. Blurs, really. My heart beat fast and my breath shallow and then there was no breath. She grabbed my shoulder and still there was no breath. We watched.

Pixelated, impressionist, Keith Foulke flipped a ball to Doug Mientkiewicz and the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. I looked at her because I didn't really believe it. She looked at me because she was happy for me. It's a rare joy to be truly happy for somebody else. We laughed and ran back out into the storm. 

I woke my dad up with the call, but mine wasn't the last. My sisters and brother phoned too. We phoned our dad who handed the bat to Ted Williams 50-odd years before that. He sounded happy and sleepy when I spoke to him. Not as excited as me. As though that flame had been passed to me and he was fine with it. It was my joy and burden now. 

I said goodbye to him and hung up. I said goodnight to her and walked home in the rain. But I didn't go home. I walked to the end of the pier as torrents, gales and waves pounded and the North Sea raged and I looked out into the black and grey maelstrom of night and elements and I shouted and cried and punched the air and my hat soaked to my skull and I laughed because it happened and I couldn't believe it. 

Damp and cold I went to bed about 7 and was at work for 9. My shift ended at 5 and I opened a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996 for my colleagues and friends who knew nothing of baseball or curses or Ted Williams or David Ortiz. I explained everything, or I tried to. No one cared. There was great Champagne, what else mattered?

Everyone is in a different place now. But that morning, that day, ten years ago, everyone was right there, and it wouldn't have happened without them. 

extra hours

Some old friends are coming for a late lunch. I've chosen some wine and there's beer in the fridge, but one of them's driving and the other behaves themselves on school nights. That's ok. I behave myself on school nights too these days. Most of the time. 

There are some things to chop sat on the island in the kitchen. Mushrooms and courgettes. I've not got out the onions yet, but I'll chop a couple of those too, for good measure. One onion to go with the chicken and one to go with the mushrooms. Outside it's a cool, autumnal grey. The piles of fallen leaves look tired.

I put this morning's extra hour to good use. I filled in my absentee ballot for the midterm elections in Florida, caught up with some paperwork and found an extra £6 I didn't know I had. Enough for a pint, at least. Well, in some places anyway.

What I didn't do was work on the book. Instead I'm writing a little blog post, assessing the brief bit of the day that's gone by, planning in my head what's yet to come. It's part procrastination, but only part. A bit of it is stretching. Getting my fingers used to the keyboard again, and writing for myself rather than the day job. There are no perfect writing conditions, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier on yourself. 

I changed the clock in the car and the one in my bedroom. I can never remember how to do the oven. I'm a daylight savings time agnostic. I always appreciate the extra hour and loathe the one stolen, but don't feel either way whether it should be maintained or abolished. It amuses me how arbitrary it is. It makes me yearn to set the calendar back a week or two, to get some extra time that doesn't slip away so quick. Why fuck around with one measly hour? Why stop with a week? Let's turn the calendars back a year or so. I'm sure I could fix a lot with an extra year. That's what I tell myself, anyway. 

what's happened since

My whisky's a little cloudy, which is no bad thing and somewhat reflective of the season. Or seasons, depending on where you are and where you've been. 

I've been to Scotland and France in the meantime. 

I ran into the North Atlantic in the shadow of a threatening storm and dipped through the surf as the sun peaked through the veil of grey towards the horizon. Afterwards the three of us huddled in towels and changed back into our clothes on the beach in Machir Bay. We avoided the riptide. A weather station stood on the cliff to the west. It felt like the very edge of the world. 

The next day I ran and fell and hobbled over the finish line in Bowmore. The rain fell harder as the race went on and I didn't know if I'd make it, but I did. I'll be faster next year. It would be hard to be slower.

There was a house on Islay for sale. In Bowmore. I tried to work out if I could buy it. I couldn't.

I signed the contract for my next book. That was nice.

And then I went to France. I made wine and drank some, too. And beer and gin. More gin even than usual, which is saying something. We bbq'd snails and used Catalan flip knives to cut pieces of bread and cheese for lunch. There was a party at a bar called Jeannine à la Mer in Canet. The barmen wore togas and the barmaid opened my beer with her teeth. The walls stood adorned with fishing tackle and the DJ played ridiculous remixes of both Aretha and the Beatles. Thibault did a striptease and the girls sprayed him with Perrier water. We drank Champagne when the gin was finished because the bar ran out of beer. The heavens opened that night, and thankfully there was no fruit picked the next day. 

Now I'm here again and some friends have left and some friends are back. Some won't be coming back. 

Now I sit down to write and find something else to do. I heard a deadline whizz by me on Wednesday, and there's another scheduled to whizz by me on Monday. My editor says it's okay, he understands. It happens. I know, I say, thanks, I know it happens.

But I still hate it when it does.