Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fiction therapy

When I graduated with a creative writing degree seven years ago, I had to make the decision whether I was going to follow my calling and walk in the footsteps of all the people I admired by living the frustrating life of the struggling artist, or sell out to The Man and use my 'skill' of being able to rewrite the same page 50 times in slightly different ways to convince you to book overpriced flights.

If I was bolder, less concerned with financial security and had more interest in writing things people would actually be interested in reading, I could be writing this from a grotty squat above a cafe that reluctantly tolerated my open mic short stories once a Thursday in exchange for helping out in the kitchen. Instead, I'm writing this on a terrible Wi-Fi connection in an inexpensive condo in the Philippines surrounded by a cultural desert but with plenty of money in the bank. I'm not confident I made the right decision.

I've been writing corporate propaganda for a living for five years now, and it's safe to say it's completely sapped my creative spirit. Since I stopped travelling and settled down a bit, I've been taking on so much work that even when I've had an idea bubbling away, I haven't had the hours free to write it. Today was my first free day in weeks, so when no urgent work requests had showed up in my inbox by lunchtime, I eagerly bashed out my latest abomination. It felt great.

This is the sort of story I would normally spend a few days meticulously planning, with diagrams following through on every small detail (like I did for this one). Since I don't have the time to perfect it and become too disillusioned to bother writing it any more (that happens most of the time), here's the raw creative explosion, complete with overlong sentences, needlessly confusing diversions and inevitable plot holes. It doesn't much matter whether you like it, I had a good time.

If I don't have any work tomorrow either, I might even venture out of the flat and do something. Wouldn't that be a novelty!

The Boy Who Lived in Alphabetical Order

This isn't the first time we've slipped up. Did you ever hear the story of Eric Farmer, the Boy Who Lived in Alphabetical Order? Of course you have, you can't have missed it, but fortunately there was never any consensus on whether it was true or just an urban legend or a crackpot conspiracy theory, because that would be much more comforting. We're not pressed for time, are we? I'll begin at the beginning, or one of them anyway.

No one's quite sure when Eric first became aware. The Institute, in its ceaseless, incompetent meddling, tried to force a beginning one time by taking the three-year-old Eric (three years from their point of view, of course) to an Aardvark Farm, where they planned to comfort and instruct the scared, new consciousness they expected to pop into existence inside the child's body. They had their speech prepared – they would tell him everything was going to be alright, but that things were going to get very complicated from this point forward.

While they did observe some decline in the child's vocalisations and memories as they entered the aardvark enclosure, this was still obviously far from day one for the tyke, which they put down to future meddlers presumably being more adept at thinking outside the box and escorting the older Eric to places they'd handily labelled 'A,' 'Aaa,' 'Aaaa' – you get the idea. Then there's the infinity of numbers to choose from, and maybe you could even throw in some asterisks or hit the space bar a few times to backtrack even further. I don't know how it works, do I? That's not my department.

So it goes without saying that by the time of the child's Birth to Marian Farmer, he was already pretty well clued-up on his unique situation and the trouble it would bring them all in the future. His mother later revealed that the infant had explained the situation as soon as they were left alone, which was something of a shock to her as you might expect, but no less difficult for the deceptively mature newborn when you consider that he'd fairly recently gone through Bereavement from his perspective. As he would eventually explain, when his subjective time matched up with ours after the event, the cancer was already present even back then, so his warnings would do nothing but help to prepare her for the inevitable. And besides, he'd already lived through it, so that's just the way things had to be.

Marian followed her son's bizarre and specific instructions as they made their way home from the hospital, trying her hardest to stall him on the Bs so their timelines would stay in sync as much as possible. They took the Bus home rather than a Car or Taxi, which messed things up a little but was deemed to be an acceptable degree of discontinuity that he'd catch up with eventually, and Marian's sister complied with her apparent post-maternal madness by quickly knocking up a sign to christen their house 'Birtz' in time for their arrival, just to be on the safe side. Because who knows how these events were being arbitrarily categorized by whoever or whatever power was responsible? Don't ask me. I mean, how do you categorise your photo albums?

During his first few weeks of physical life, Eric told his mother all he had learned from his various escapades in the #s, As and early Bs up to that point, and urged her to seek out Professor Malik of the BZ Institute – as it would be subsequently renamed for convenience – who had given him the necessary instructions when they had first met back at the Aardvark Farm, several years later or who knows how many years earlier from his perspective. During this self-imposed house arrest, the infant observed a strict diet of Biryani curries and only allowed himself to drink Birz, an Ethiopian honey mead that wasn't the easiest or cheapest beverage to come by in rural Cheshire, nor the most advisable for a newborn's nutrition, but would at least prevent him being lost to time every time he needed sustenance, as would be the case with more conventional Milk or, god forbid, Water.

If you want to put yourself in this child's tiny shoes, you try knocking back the same sickly sweet liqueur countless times in succession with no respite. Not to mention the inevitable days spent on the Toilet when you finally catch up with that undesirable part of your existence. There are many good reasons why life is typically organised by the 'date' field, but all it takes is an errant click on 'title' to mess things up spectacularly. You can rest assured that the individual responsible has been dealt with.

The media caught wind of the story eventually, inevitably, but by that time, Malik and his predestined colleagues had already been informed of their responsibilities from their future selves through the conduit of this tiny child, and had sealed the boy off from alphabetical pollutants as much as possible by moving him each day to the next numbered room in the BZ sequence – BZ0001, BZ0002 and so on. They had already constructed an entire wing of thousands of sequentially numbered rooms for this sole purpose before they took Eric into the Corridor for the first time and the time-shifted boy (who'd already been through all that) informed them that they could have just changed the label on the same door every day. As he was here, the post-B Eric informed them that their whole research project was a waste of time anyway, as they'd never work out what the cause or agency behind his condition was, but they were still obligated to go to the trouble since it had already happened for him, and this knowledge had to come from somewhere. Professor Malik and his colleagues agreed because, as I said, they were feckless.

To be fair to the buffoons, they did succeed in keeping the boy's life as linear as they were able to over the next couple of years through the end of the Bs into the early Cs, save for incidents outside of their control – like the time he got Chicken Pox and the time one of the staff forgot to switch their phone off and a 2 Unlimited ringtone caused the five-year-old to temporarily regress in personality to a screeching, terrified baby. They even succeeded in obtaining government support to keep the child secure from the various malicious powers that would have loved nothing more than to take the boy to a Zoo and forcibly extract the sum total of his life's knowledge so they could shape the future to their own ends. We couldn't have that.

As they very slowly started to wrap their heads around the fourth dimensional situation, one of the team, whose main responsibility was designing colourful flowcharts to put the boy's experiences into perspective, noticed that he'd apparently never travelled beyond the early Ds, as unlikely as that seemed. They'd safeguarded his life so conscientiously against the threats of E to Z, he'd never once seen a picture of an Elephant, made a Friend, nor even allowed himself some Rice or a Poppadum with his endless Biryanis and Chicken Curries.

What's more, Eric's time-displaced consciousness had always seemed to come from some point within the first five years of his life, with no sign of a teenager or middle-aged adult in the mix. There were several conclusions to draw from this:

1. They would very soon be successful in locking Eric in the normal time stream, and he could live out the rest of his days in the customary way.

2. Eric would continue to confine himself to a letter-locked existence through the rest of the alphabet for all his days, and would occasionally have to fake being a child for appearances on the rare occasions he wound up back in the early years.

3. Something more disturbing.

Those clowns had done their part, I'll give them credit, but once the news worked its way up about this remarkable child and we realised what had happened on our end, we gave things a helping hand courtesy of some liberal editing. Ensuring that things wrapped up tidily with a neat Death was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but it was the only practical recourse. Can you imagine if word got out that your lives are nothing more than zeroes and ones subject to the occasional admin error? That's got to be a downer.

I feel I must have told you that story before. Apologies if that's the case, but like I said, I'm not sure who comes up with the file names for these things, so it's best to play it safe and keep things repetitive. We've come this far, we don't want any natural chapter breaks upsetting the flow, do we? If it's any comfort, the individual responsible for your unfortunate situation is no longer with us. When we learned there had been another incident, and that someone was experiencing their life events in terms of 'length,' I was sent here to deal with you through appropriate means.

I know, I know, it's getting a bit excessive. Even compared to those years you spent in a coma, we're well in the clear now. I could finish things here, we'd have another neat ending and we could all move on. But I just don't have it in me, not after Eric, so we're going to play this scene out the long way. I have the time. What's that? 'Eric who?' Didn't I ever tell you the story of Eric Farmer, The Boy Who Lived in Alphabetical Order? Then I'll begin at the beginning, whatever that means.

Dave Warburton
Davao City, Philippines
September 2014

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