The gas man called. He said he’d been standing at the door for hours, but I didn’t know. How could I know?

We’d just had the new lamps fitted. We liked them. They glow beautifully and there’s that odour, somehow it combines nostalgia with a whiff of progress. But one of the lamps was hissing and not igniting. I wrote to the gas company but received no reply. Instead they sent the gas man. He’d knocked he said, but when you’re composed entirely of gas, knocking is difficult and sometimes friction can lead to sudden combustion. He tried sneaking under the door, he admitted, but half way through he realised he might split in two.

The pigs like the smell of the gas too. Perhaps they think its edible. They eat almost everything. George ate half a cushion yesterday and earlier this morning Henry devoured one of my faux rattlesnake-skin trainers. The ducks are oblivious to smell but despise noise, especially the flugelhorn. The goat is a malevolent creature and its thoughts are not worthy of consideration.

We keep upstairs on the electricity supply, but only for the molecular drive. This is the third one we’ve had since we moved in and so far, touch wood, it hasn’t let us down. Gabriella’s transformation into a cloud of chrysanthemum petals for her graduation party was astonishing, although she said some of the other student transformations were outrageous. One graduate had used what must have been one of the higher end molecular drives to reassemble himself into a continuously evolving fire demon, his head pushed out into a snout, like a crocodile, then folding back to create huge ears, his eyes bulbous, then tiny, brilliant and blue one moment, fiery red the next. Unfortunately his license was not up to date and advertising broke in about an hour before the end of the party. His torso became a bottle of McColl’s Watermelon Soda, his head a pulsating jar of a low quality, high sugar brand of peanut butter.

This afternoon I need to get in touch with the stone mason. The garden wall has a crack in it, and it’s in danger of toppling into next door’s sauna. Every day something needs attending to. The last time the stone mason came he was unable to initiate his gravity inhibitor and by the time he got here his bicycle had two buckled wheels.

And while the Moon continues to promote the escapism of Holman’s Dream Hotel, I don’t see how a younger generation will ever cope with the demands of domestic life. The local magistrate has increased tithes and even a cup of third grade sencha at the tea house is now almost twenty five per cent more expensive than this time last year, but often served without any genuine reverence for the tea bowl.

This evening John is returning from his trip to the Seventh Lair of the Bewildered Rabbit. He loves it there, says he prefers it to the Fifth Lair, which most well balanced people agree is the most exciting. I have an illuminated manuscript to finish, and then will slaughter the goat in preparation for the weekend. He looks at me with those demonic eyes and I know the devil resides in him. Death will release his soul and then it will be held in one of the jars in the Cupboard of Essences, ready for release on the Great Day of Rejuvenation when all things return to the beginning of the journey of life, which for most of us is a routine of duties, obligations and errands, an endless succession of dreary chores.


Perhaps it’s the weather, but reception during the last few weeks has been poor. The Kami have been much quieter than usual. I’ve tried listening in, but there’s only a blur, a high pitched whistle, a hum, a low drone. Sometimes I can hear all of these simultaneously, but recently I’ve heard them successively. And more recently I’ve begun wondering if this disturbance is a form of communication, other spirits trying to get a message through.

The Kami usually speak in sounds that resemble bells, a whirring series of chimes, sometimes sweet, other times there is a darkness about them. There’s always some interference from spring rain. The humidity of summer months can cause strange disturbances too, but thinking back I’m wondering if what I’m hearing is not meteorological interference but other voices.

Everyone I speak to says winter days offer the best conditions and when I ask ‘better conditions for whom? The Kami? Shouldn’t we be trying to listen to other spirits? Couldn’t what you think of as interference be other voices?’ My question is politely ignored and the subject changed to family, schooling, the sort of thing where we are expected to have some safe common ground. I sense they suspect I am a heretic but I am simply curious, cannot accept there are not others trying to get through, maybe ancestors, or perhaps voices from the future.

When I reread what I’ve just written I know it seems as if I am slightly mad. If anyone else had written this I would think they were mentally ill or lacking intelligence. I have always been someone who relies on evidence, who does not accept what he is told at face value. I am by nature a sceptic, yet this does not mean I have closed my mind, far from it. And yet because of my views on this I sense I am becoming shunned by others, even some people who have been close to me.

But I will continue to listen, not searching for any sounds particularly, nor even evidence of what I already believe, but just to listen, to be a receiver, to remain open to all possibilities.


Larry shaved every day, cleaned and trimmed his nails, checked his eyebrows, plucked rogue hairs from his ears and nostrils. He used a good moisturiser. He laundered his clothes regularly, ironed and folded, ensured everything he wore smelt fresh. He visited the barber every two weeks for a trim.

Larry cleaned the bathroom whenever he used it, even in the morning, making him have to rush to get to work. He scrubbed the bath, the sink, the toilet bowl. He swept the floor, dusted the mirrors.

At work he was pleasant and professional and despite his lack of formal qualifications had risen to a senior role in the firm. He tried not to engage in frivolous conversation, believing that while in the office he should focus on what he was paid to do. If the weather allowed he went to the park in his lunch hour, walking the same route, spending only a few minutes sitting to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich he bought in a corner store. He’d get back to the office ten minutes early to have a cup of tea and to ensure he was at his desk on time.

Larry worked in his garden on Saturday morning, tidying, pruning, weeding. The garden was neat, controlled. He knew the names of every plant, and those he did not know he researched. In the afternoon he joined with neighbours to pick up litter in the local park.

When he met friends he tried to keep his conversation away from himself, to ask about their family, work, their worries and woes. When they asked about his concerns he waved them away, he led a charmed life, he said. He rarely exhibited any extreme emotion, neither laughing uncontrollably, or displaying anger, sadness or regret.

He ate in moderation, and took care to look at the calorie count on food packaging. He enjoyed trying out herbal teas, especially those that he read were good for calming the mind. He avoided sugar and tried to spend an hour before sleep listening to a classical music station.

But when sleep fell upon him he was overwhelmed with horrific nightmares. Of his hair and teeth falling out, of demons that tore him apart and ate him, of plummeting from great heights, of being hounded by merciless criminals, of committing some unnamed indiscretion and being locked up in a tiny dark cell, forgotten, alone. He often woke drenched in perspiration, terrified that his life was meaningless, that he had achieved nothing, that this was how it would always be and that nothing would ever change.

When morning came he showered, shaved, trimmed his nails, checked his eyebrows, plucked rogue hairs from his ears and nostrils. Each one represented a demon to be exorcised, a fear to be conquered, an anxiety purged.


In the warm hum of the Institute for Experimental Computing, the director and her assistant were sitting either side of her desk discussing progress. Christina had to make a presentation to one of the Institute’s chief backers and she knew she had to word her report in such a way that made their recent work exciting without promising immediate results, although articulating the precise level of her excitement while balancing it with significant caution was more difficult than she imagined.

‘Perhaps,’ she said, pausing to consider what it was she wanted to say, ‘we should avoid the word computer, it’s too loaded. To these people, a computer means the thing that sits in their office, it’s nothing more than a piece of furniture, or a TV. We need something more dynamic, what other word could we use?’

She loved Bharat’s eyes, the warmth of them. He was leaning forward in his chair and his eyes searched out thoughts, like a pair of torches, meticulously working the dark floor of his imagination, and as he was so absorbed she took this opportunity to admire the texture of his skin, his compassionate, youthful face.

‘Processing?’ he suggested. He realised he had spoken too soon but she had been scrutinising him, almost with impatience. He knew this was the wrong word, but used it to distract her for a moment, give him some time to think.

Macfarlane didn’t like Bharat’s suggestion. It was too abstract, a bit limp. She was about to speak, then closed her eyes and nodded, as if weighing up his idea even though she had already dismissed it. She didn’t want to come across as too blunt. She felt uncomfortable so sat back, folded her arms.

‘Perhaps something more organic, more alive,’ she said at last, opening her eyes again. ‘Maybe something slightly intangible, so to avoid any obvious connotations.’

They had been working on the project for over a year, and although they had clear results, they were far from where they wanted to be. They could show that a fungal computer was able to collect and transmit information on air quality, soil degradation, temperature and so on. But fungal computing was slow and would never compete with conventional technologies. She noticed Bharat’s eyes suddenly focus on something. Not anything in the room. He had located a word.

‘How about intelligence?’ he said. But then he immediately shook his head. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘this suggests artificial intelligence.’ He sighed, as if he were somehow letting her down. Again, he had felt rushed, pushed to come up with a word before he was ready. But he could smell her perfume, tried to pull away from the thought he had of kissing her neck. ‘Something more organic, yes.’

There was something between them that neither could acknowledge. She was ten years older, his boss. She had a partner, a child. And he was her subordinate. She could not take advantage of her seniority.

He could not risk ruining his position, his career. He knew his thoughtful demeanour masked a steadfast ambition but his admiration for her had become stirred up by desire. He often found it hard even to look at her.

He sat quietly, took some short breaths. ‘How about sensitivity?’ He said at last. He knew this was good. ‘We are talking about the sensitivity of fungi.’

She liked that. It was simple yet it suggested a great deal. Yes, it was abstract, but everyone knew, or thought they knew, what it meant. And this is exactly what they were exploring, how fungi sensed the world. It was a little ridiculous, but it would provoke a response. Somehow it had an edge on intelligence.

‘Fungal sensitivity,’ she said, and she put her head back and laughed and Bharat took the opportunity to look at her and he ached inside and returned his gaze to the floor.


‘I want noodles but I don’t want onions. Just noodles and soy sauce, yes. And no green peppers. They give me indigestion. Plain noodles, soy sauce. I’ll stir in my own peas. Just plain noodles and soy sauce. And chips. But not chips from the Chinese. Go two doors down to the Happy Plaice. The chips are better.’

He said all this without looking away from the TV. He was watching a competitive antiques show.

She listened to her father patiently, wishing she hadn’t suggested a takeaway. She would have preferred to cook something but he wouldn’t like anything she could rustle up here. She liked fresh vegetables. He never touched a vegetable. Except peas, chips and baked beans.

‘Go to the Chinese, make the order, then get the chips while they’re doing it. Usually takes ten minutes,’ he said. ‘And there’s some cider in the fridge.’ Not a please or a thank you. ‘My wallet’s on the table.’ He did a sort of royal wave to indicate the general direction.

She wondered which table. There were at least three, no four: a nest of tables spread out across the room like small ruminants and in the middle of these, a spindly runt, the old family camping table. Each was piled with various objects: remotes, batteries, spectacles, spectacle cases, a magnifying glass, shreds of a lottery ticket, bills, envelopes, receipts, a screwdriver, a dismantled plug, fuses, a pair of binoculars, a wrapper from a Mars bar, a shoe horn, gloves and next to them, the wallet.

She didn’t move towards it, she wanted this to be her treat. ‘Ok,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you in twenty minutes or so.’

‘Oh,’ he said, again raising his royal hand, ‘and could you nip into Londis and get me some Digestives? Plain ones. I like them with my tea.’

‘Sure,’ she said. The antiques show was drawing to a close. The red team looked dejected. They’d lost fifteen pounds. Credits, then perky music accompanied her exit. She felt weirdly jaunty and couldn’t explain why.

‘I’ll put the kettle on for the peas,’ she heard him shout. She pulled the front door behind her.

As she made her way across the evening to the shop she wondered: did he mean plain chocolate, or just plain, without any chocolate? Bugger. She’d buy both, just in case.

Seeking the Eternal

As a child I threw stones at cans balanced on bricks at the end of the garden, climbed trees, rode my bike, kicked a football against a wall, collected elastic bands, loved horror films, drew pictures of superheroes, played by the canal, caught tadpoles in a jam jar, burnt holes in paper by concentrating the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass, looked forward to going to my grandmother’s for her mashed potato, stuffed my face with my mother’s lemon meringue pie, her chocolate cake, her big breakfasts. My father was always smiling, rarely complained, he was keen on practical jokes and, as a professional in a small Welsh provincial town, loved to undermine people’s expectations of him by wearing and an obviously false moustache and a deerstalker decorated with plastic flowers.

I often ran to school with my homework, smug that I would be top of the class. There was one boy who might have been smarter than me, but he wore glasses and had goofy teeth, so I could discount him as a threat. I was scruffy, often grubby, but, as everyone said, like my dad, I was always smiling.

And then adolescence hit and something went off in my brain. Something more than chemicals. I became a slave to my two obsessions: girls and music, the latter a means of attracting the former. I taught myself the piano, the guitar, played in bands. But what had gone off in my head was the search for something more. Being in the present wasn’t enough: I wanted meaning. I wanted the universal. And so I went on a quest. I stuck a huge piece of paper to my bedroom wall on which I would construct a diagram of everything, a system in which physical, psychological and spiritual worlds would somehow be welded. I soon realised the key was how I saw the world, not what the world was. I read CEM Joad’s ‘Teach Yourself Philosophy’ and I knew: philosophy was key to all understanding.

Many years later, I am an adult in my own home with shelves of books: philosophy, psychology, science, religion, art, music, poetry. I have read many of them, but not all. And, although I am dubious about coming to conclusions, any thesis is waiting for its antitheses, I can see meaning at last. And it’s this: throw stones at cans, climb trees, ride your bike, burn holes in paper, enjoy mashed potato, stuff your face with lemon meringue pie.


She saw the men on the roof of the house opposite, the scaffolding, the ladders. Three of them in black, one in fluorescent orange. Rain blew, wind shook telephone wires. She watched them as she sipped her coffee, she was at the window, still in pyjamas. Yesterday they stripped the roof, removed every tile, working as a machine, all knew their roles, tiles slid down the roof from the top, not one fell. Today they were fitting the new roof, tiles black as liquorice, working their way down, mechanically, no conversation, almost no communication. It was like a ballet, she thought. She wondered if they were aware of their elegance, their grace, their beauty. Tomorrow they would be gone, the new roof would be in place, bright in the autumn sunshine and she would miss them. And she looked across the other rooftops and imagined earlier ballets, and then she conjured up all the bricklayers and road makers, the bridge builders, the networks of pipes underground, the electrical cables overhead, the fizz of signals whizzing through the air, and the theatre and industry of humankind became a beehive where what was happening was something more than what was being produced and she felt dizzy with awe and something close to love.

Astonishment (4)

The human heart pumps approximately five litres of blood every minute.

You’re in the loft looking through boxes, books, ephemera, photographs, heirlooms, objects of no monetary value that you somehow cannot throw away. Things that will still be here when you are too old to climb the ladder.

In experiments conducted in 2022, a Eurasian jay demonstrated delayed gratification by ignoring a piece of cheese and waiting five-and-a-half minutes for a mealworm.

William said we should walk up to the far end of the beach because it was nearer the sun.

The passenger next to me has red hair, a red moustache and beard. In the basket at his feet, he tells me, are Boston lobsters. I imagine them as red, like him, but they are alive, uncooked. He looks at me and says he thinks I am afraid of flying, he’s right. He buys me a whisky. Seconds after the drinks arrive the plane spins, out of control, he flies through the air above me, I see his lips mouth the word ‘fuck’.

The oldest star known is HD140283, 190 light years from Earth, initially thought to be 14.3 billion years old, half a billion years older than the universe.

You found a book of your mother’s in a cardboard box taken from the old house. It contained recipes she’d collected in her teens written with a fountain pen, in blue ink.

After Yuri Gagarin landed in a potato field, some distance from the planned rendezvous site, he was taken by horse and cart to the nearest collective farm to use their telephone.

You remember sitting in the school library with Paul who told you he was arachnophobic. So you drew a spider and held it up and he grimaced and turned his head away. The next time you sat together you drew a blob on a piece of paper that lay between you, adding legs, slowly, one by one, he was oblivious until you added the fifth, and then realised what you were doing and covered his eyes.

When does the abstract become the representational?

In 1992 Eddie Mabo, a Torres Straits Islander, won a legal victory against the Australian government when he proved ownership of the Islander’s homeland using the evidence of traditional songs.

Colette’s father told her the names of things, encouraged her to illustrate and label flowers, trees, buildings, rocks. Her mother took on walks and allowed her to listen, to watch, to see.

The last chapter of Ulysses begins and ends with the word ‘yes’. The word ‘Ulysses’ contains the word ‘yes’ as does the first word of the book: ‘Stately’.

The Artist in Revolt

The artist used to believe in creative freedom. The artist regarded any demand placed upon her, by those who commissioned her work, or the institutions who requested something for an exhibition, as a restriction of her freedom. She resented being led by fashion or the economics of production: should she, for example, forego her desire to use azurite when no one would know the difference, unless they were a chemist or a particularly fastidious art historian?

The rectangle, she believed, was determined by the need of a painting to sit within the aesthetics of a building, usually an old building. Why should her work be at the mercy of a dead architect?

If she wanted to create a work the size of a pinhead, she would. Or, should she feel the subject matter required she create something to be wider than the sky, that was how it should be.

No art work should be dictated by social norms or current tastes. The artist’s role was to push at what was acceptable. Society would catch up, or rather society would come to understand and eventually accept and even enjoy what was initially seen as difficult or obscure but by then the artists, the true artist, would have moved on to explore new territory. One cellist she knew had performed her solo work, alone, with no audience or recording equipment, in the hold of a vast container ship.

This is what she once believed. But now she was beginning to wonder.

It was her father who asked her, somewhat absent-mindedly, in the park, as they were walking one autumn afternoon, just the two of them, after the opening of her show at a nearby gallery, ‘where is beauty in all this?’

Beauty is learnt, she argued. Beauty is a social construction which she was as susceptible to as anyone else. Beauty is a deception, a triviality compared to what really matters, injustice, poverty, famine, the destruction of the natural world. And so she went on, and even as she was speaking she felt her father’s scepticism, his doubt, even though he made no sound, and she felt it as her own doubt.

Only moments before they had shared their pleasure of the trees, their leaves and she had, she thought, been ambushed. But it wasn’t her father, it was the day, that moment in the park, that second that they were together in the eternity of all things, the lifespan of the universe.

And some need in her spilled over, some long suppressed need that even as it spilled and fell, as it tumbled out into the colour of that autumn afternoon, she didn’t understand. It was a need that was both receptacle and what would fill it, it was journey and destination. And there and then she knew she was no longer an artist. No word, no image, no music would ever be enough.

Stone’s End, Fell Hole, Happy Hill

Yes, there my great grandmother threw a stone and where it landed she named it Stone’s End. And there great grandfather slipped and fell, so he dug a hole and named it Fell Hole.

Grandpa Jones buried his beloved Rufus in the vegetable garden and from then on it was known as Here Lies Rufus. His wife lost her wedding ring on a beach in Dorset which, from then on, the family called Lost Ring Sand.

When Grandma Miles obtained her medical qualification she and her peers went to the pub across the road from the hospital and got so drunk she spent the evening throwing up on all fours in what she calls Sick Street. Not long after that Grandpa Miles moved out of the city and built their house on Darrow Hill he called it Rubicon. He was never going back.

My mother used to walk on Happy Hill and my father sometimes took a short cut through Dog End Alley. None of these places exist in the same way, in the same minds, anymore. I remember the place names, but not the places, they don’t exist anymore, except here, in this story.