2017 – Productivity Or Else

 

Happy New Year everyone.  First of all, best wishes for the next twelve months.  And that goes double to you Bill Murray and all our other international treasures who didn’t die last year.

Okay.  This is a short post about productivity, what I did with my 2016 and what I hope to do with my 2017 in terms of creative stuff and getting things done.  Hopefully this post doesn’t come across as being all about me (it’s short anyway as I mentioned!) and it’ll make you think about your own plans for this year – whatever it is that you do and hope to get done.

If you’re an author then I’m sure you’ve got your own productivity schedule mapped out for 2017.  That doesn’t just include what you’re creating bookwise but also other things such as what you can improve on in terms of marketing and promotion.  Things that’ll make you make better art.  Things that’ll help more people discover who you are and what you do.  Maybe you need to implement some changes to your lifestyle, cutting out things like TV or socialising in order to be more productive.  Yep that might sound harsh but this writing lark is all consuming (especially if you’re indie).

Increased productivity requires a sacrifice of some sort.  Usually it’s the fun stuff that has to go but more often than not it’s worth it.  I’m not saying don’t watch TV or go out with your mates but couldn’t you cut back on it just a little?  How much is entirely up to you.  Maybe you’ve been dying to start work on a novel for ages but can’t seem to find the time.  What about cutting out some sleep?  An hour?  Forty minutes?  Where there’s a will there’s a way.  Who needs eight hours anyway?  I average on six and it’s plenty.

We can all improve.  We can all become more focused.  This is the time of year when we’re most likely to implement changes in our lives.  But sadly in the months to come, a lot of us are going to blow it.  We’re going to get distracted, burn out or just lose interest in the changes we’re thinking about now.

That doesn’t have to be you though.

2016 was a productive year for me personally.  I released four titles and I’m proud of them all.  That makes a total of five books (the first was published in December 2015.)  For the most part, I’ve just completed my first full year as an independent author (late 2015 to late 2016).  And it was hard bloody work I can say that much.  The good news is that it’s only going to get harder.

So I’m putting it down here on the website.  My writing goals for the next twelve months.  This is what I’m going to produce in 2017.  And I’ll be back at the end of December to check up on myself:

 

March 2017 – Release the final book in the FAB trilogy.  This is what I’ve been working on over Christmas and New Year.

May 2017 – Produce and release a FAB box set.

June 2017 – Release the third book in the Future of London series.

September 2017 – Release the fourth book in the Future of London series.

November 2017 – Release a box set of the first four Future of London books.

December 2017 – I plan to be in Scotland next Christmas and New Year.  But I’m hoping to get the last original release of the year out before I go – the fifth book in the Future of London series.

***

Right, I’ve done it.  Made plans, published plans.  Four original releases and two compilations.  Six releases.  It’s down and I have to do everything I can to stick to these goals.  That doesn’t mean I’ll be skimping on quality or taking shortcuts though – I’l continue to work with a professional editor, graphic designer and formatter.

Obviously if I get hospitalised for a long stretch then my plans might have to change.  Same thing if I meet my maker in 2017 but fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.  To those authors who crank out a book a month (what are you on?) it probably looks like I’m slacking in 2017.  To those who write one (or less) book a year, you must think I’m a sadist.

Each to their own.

Best of luck all to you all.  Work hard, have fun and happy writing/creating/living.

 

Mr Apocalypse (Chapter Sample)

 

The walk to the New River always filled him with dread.

He made his way along Stanmore Road, his hands gripped tightly around the steel handles of the wheelbarrow. It was a miracle the old thing was still in one piece. The blue paint on the tray had mostly flaked off and the tire wasn’t far from being completely flat. It was long overdue for the scrapheap or at least a major reworking that might give it a second chance at life. It was worth a shot. He’d been spending too much of his spare time staring into space and thinking about the past and his parents. Maybe it was time to do something practical. To be constructive.

He travelled west. The morning air had cooled slightly and he’d decided to wear his dad’s old leather jacket over his usual black t-shirt and jeans. As he walked, he could hear the helicopters in the distance. They were moving towards Central London, which meant that most of the drops in the north had already been made. The supply parcel would be there waiting for him at the river – sitting on the edge of the walkway like it always was. Maybe he’d get lucky and find two of them today.

He cut through the overgrown jungle that was once Ducketts Common. It had once been a well-manicured public space where people had picnicked and organised community fun days – now it was wild and vaguely threatening in its unkempt appearance. The pathway that cut through the common was barely visible anymore. It would probably have been buried underneath the grass altogether if not for his once-weekly visits to flatten it out.

Just as he was leaving the Common, his eye caught sight of something lying a few feet from the concrete, half-buried by a mound of drooping grass.

It was an envelope.

He put the wheelbarrow down and stared at the white paper. It was peering out at him in between the long blades of green grass. He took a look around. Standing still made him more than a little nervous. But curiosity got the better of him like it always did. He walked over to the envelope and picked it up. It felt slightly damp and was tattered at the edges. Although it had looked white from a distance, time had dulled the exterior to a warm shade of yellowy brown.

Tucking the envelope into his back pocket, he looked around again. All clear. He picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and continued towards the New River.

He walked down Hampden Road. It had been a long time since he’d bothered with the local sights and when he passed the old Methodist church on his right hand side, he barely glanced in its direction. Still, on more than occasion he’d felt compelled to go into that place, sit down and see what happened. Not necessarily to ask for a miracle, but ask for something. But he never did go in. It was a large building and there was always the possibility that someone or something was lurking in there.

He didn’t linger around the houses on Hampden Road either. They were still and silent. There was something menacing about them. The gardens were overgrown wastelands with bloated hedges and wheelie bins that were drowning in grass and yet still neatly stacked in driveways. There were no cars on the street. Not surprising, most people had driven out of London back in 2011. It was the surest way of getting out in time and if you didn’t have a car, he imagined that people had begged for lifts off neighbours and strangers, filling the vehicles up until they were literally stuffed with bodies.

Whirr-Click.

He walked faster, making his way to the end of Hampden Road and then towards the grassy descent that led to the New River. Parking his wheelbarrow at the edge of the road, he climbed over a short metal fence and walked down towards the water.

The New River wasn’t exactly a river. It wasn’t new either. He remembered back in 2011 when he’d first moved to London, the disappointment he’d felt upon seeing it for the first time. If it was a river, then it was the skinniest fucking river in the world. It had an interesting enough history – it had been completed in 1613, and it functioned as a water supply aqueduct that brought clean drinking water from Hertfordshire into North London. It was a narrow waterway, barely the width of a small canal, and with a stone footpath running alongside which made for a pleasant walk.

It was upon this stone footpath that he now walked along, his eyes searching for a glimpse of the parcel. In the early years the supply crews had dropped several parcels on this footpath alone and in the neighbourhood as a whole. These were intended for the local residents but the number of people in the area had dropped significantly and many parcels were left untouched. Now there were only one or two parcels at most. That was why it was so important that he showed up at the river every week and why he meticulously counted seven days from each drop to the next – if he were to miss one Drop Day and if the parcel was left untouched then the helicopters would probably stop coming altogether.

He walked along the path. Every thirty seconds or so he’d look back towards the fence, keeping an eye on his parked wheelbarrow. That there was no one around to steal it didn’t matter. The need to protect his property was an urge that he couldn’t shake off, a deep-rooted instinct that belonged to another time.

After a short walk, he found the parcel. It was sitting on the side of the path furthest from the river, close to a fence that blocked off the back of a residential area. Supplies were always dropped in the same large white sacks, which were about the size of a king-size pillow. They looked similar to the type of packaging that he recalled seeing on old news broadcasts in which aid was delivered to Third World countries during the height of a famine.

Squatting down, he picked up the bag and hoisted it over his head. The package pressed against his shoulders and neck. He took a deep breath and secured his footing on the path. Packages were heavy – they were literally stuffed with the likes of fresh fruit, bread, meat, as well as toiletry items including toothpaste and toilet paper. All bundled into one sack and designed to last precisely a week until the next drop. Of course it never did last that long. He never understood why the parcels were always bulked out with large ice pads and absorbent pads, not to mention a shitload of scrunched up paper that was supposed to protect it from damage. But there was a lot of paper. They could easily have done away with some of the internal packaging and put some more food in there.

He looked around for a glimpse of a second parcel. Not that he was feeling lucky but it was worth taking a moment to look. If it were anywhere it would have been dropped further down the path. It would be nice to have it if it was there, to have a little more food in the house for the coming week.

Still holding the parcel over his head, he hurried back down the footpath towards the fence. Once there, he forced the sack through a large gap in between the metal bars and it dropped into the perfectly positioned wheelbarrow with a thud. Then he turned around hurried back down towards the footpath.

Five minutes. But don’t go too far, okay?

Okay.

By now the sun had come back out and the leather jacket on his back was getting heavier. His eyes glanced longingly at the river. What would it be like to take a dip in there? To soak his skin – would the water feel as good as it looked right now basking under the sunlight? Was this the warm bath that he’d been waiting for?

He stopped walking.

A noise. Behind him. Close – how had he missed its approach?

He spun around and his blood ran cold.

It was a man or something like a man. Staggering towards him. It was wildly bearded with hungry eyes that looked through him. It wore the tattered remnants of what appeared to be a navy suit, its colour and style long gone, the fabric bedraggled and in ruin. Half a tie swung from the collar as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut right through it. The red skin on the savage face was a mess – riddled with painful looking sores. Its nose was badly burned at the tip – either the result of excessive sun damage or it had been disfigured by fire. Its lips were dry, with chunks of dead skin attached. In one hand it brandished a filthy looking butchers knife and as it approached, the savage stabbed repeatedly at thin air, back and forth, like some sort of pre-murder ritual.

Seconds later, it lunged forwards.

He only just managed to get out of the way of its attack. He moved his feet backwards and manoeuvred his body out of range of the blade. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard a voice repeating over and over:

‘Distance. Range. Distance. Range.’

The savage swung the blade with little skill, but what it lacked in finesse it made up for in ferocity. It aimed at his midsection. With every reckless thrust, came a primordial grunt that sounded something other than human. He was forced to retreat backwards and at such speed that he tripped and fell onto the grass behind him. At that moment, he was vulnerable. The world was upside down. He fought furiously to regain his coordination, all the while preparing himself for the sensation of a steel blade piercing his skin.

Fortunately the savage had already slowed under the heat. Its ferocious assault was now somewhat laboured and it failed to take advantage of this opportunity to finish the fallen man. It came after him but slower, like a raggedy man plodding through quicksand. It had lost his explosiveness and its breathing was heavy. Still, it wielded the butcher’s knife with the same murderous intent. That look of ravenous hunger in its eyes had not tired.

The savage squatted slightly, as if it was about to leap on top of him. But as it came forward, he launched a vicious upkick from the ground that caught the beast smack on its nose. Upon impact, the butcher’s knife flew out of its hand and the savage yelped and stumbled back towards the river’s edge. It put its sunburned hands over the damaged nose, which was leaking blood at a furious rate.

Quickly he rolled over to his right in order to grab the knife. But the savage was back before he could get there. The thing that was no longer human mounted him and threw down a volley of deranged punches at his face. As it did so, blood dripped from its nose and landed on his face like warm raindrops. It leaned forward, baring its rotten, yellowy teeth and snapping at his face like a vicious dog. Its breath smelt of death.

From the ground, he wrapped one hand around the savage’s throat. Then he pushed its head back with everything he had, forcing those foul teeth away from his face. It wasn’t hard to budge the neck – it felt as if the muscles inside the thing had wasted away, which meant it was running on little else but rage and hunger.

With the other hand, he reached frantically for the butcher’s knife lying at his side.

As he did so, the savage squealed with excitement.

After several attempts, he found the handle of the butcher’s knife. Without hesitation he brought it up and thrust it in a sideways motion, aiming directly at the savage’s brain. He missed the target and instead of going through its head, the blade slashed across its face, carving open a long and deep tear that ran down from the eyes to chin.

The savage screamed. It was a hideous sound. Then it fell backwards, its hand trying to stem the rapid flow of blood that was gushing out of its face.

He hurried to his feet, sensing that this was his chance to finish the job. But to his surprise, the savage wasn’t done yet. It charged at him once again despite the fact that its face was barely hanging on at the side.

It came forward at a manic speed. Fast and yet clumsy, like a throwback down the evolutionary ladder. It screamed, like a squealing pig hurtling towards its own doom.

He thrust the knife forwards. The blade found its home in the upper torso, entering deep into the stomach. There was no doubt now – it was over.

He took his blood-soaked hands off the blade and stepped away, his heart pounding, his lungs grasping for breath in the hot air.

The savage looked down at the butcher’s knife that was stuck in its chest. At the same time its face was still leaking litres of blood. With surprising gentleness, it tugged on the handle of the knife. Then realising it wasn’t going to come out, it let go again. It staggered backwards. The wild look in its eyes became something else. Serene. The fury faded to blackness. It seemed to accept what had happened and perhaps in its final moments, it remembered what it had once been.

It took another step back. This time it tumbled over the edge and fell backwards into the river. There was a loud splash and then silence.

He walked over to the edge and looked down. The body was floating in the shallow water. He stayed there for about a minute, trying to convince himself that the thing down there was indeed dead. That it wouldn’t come after him.

Then he took off, running towards the wheelbarrow.

***

He lay under the bed sheets for hours. His body shook violently as he saw the rotten teeth snapping at his face over and over again.

He could still its breath in the bedroom.

He’d already been sick six times and it showed no sign of stopping, despite the fact that there was nothing left in his body to throw up. All his strength was gone. Still he went back and forth between the bedroom and the bathroom, dry retching with all his might in an attempt to feel better, to vomit the experience and memory of what had happened.

After the seventh trip to the bathroom, he collapsed on the floor. His chest felt sore and dry. All he wanted to do was to get back to bed and stay there until he felt something other than what he was feeling. He crawled out of the bathroom on all fours into the hallway, steadily making his way to the bedroom.

Then he saw it.

It was curled up, tucked in between the hallway floor and the gap under the door – the door to the room that had been his parents’ bedroom. It was a hair – a simple hair, but it wasn’t his. This one was far too long to have ever belonged on his head.

His mother’s hair.

Gently, he reached out and clamped two fingers around the hair. He brought it towards his face and marvelled at its beauty, like someone with gold fever looking at a pan full of treasure. Such a simple thing. A single strand of tawny hair that shone in the sunlight. It could have fallen from his mother’s head that same morning.

He closed his eyes and tried to remember her face. The little things. How she had looked when she smiled and even the peculiar things, like the way her top lip twitched when she was angry with him.

But he couldn’t see her anymore.

All he could see were a set of rotten teeth, still snapping hungrily at his face.

 

Mr Apocalypse (Future of London #2) is available at these retailers:

https://books2read.com/MrApocalypse

L-2011 (Future of London #1) is now free to download:

https://books2read.com/L-2011

L-2011 is now FREE!

 

Hello everyone,

It’s almost Christmas and it’s time to give you all a wee gift 🙂

To mark this week’s release of Mr Apocalypse – the second book in the Future of London series – I’m delighted to announce that the first book , L-2011, is now free to download.

This is where the Future of London begins.  If you’d like to download L-2011, here’s a link that will take you there.  The book is free in several territories via Amazon (Apologies if that doesn’t include yours yet – it’s beyond my control) It’s free on all other digital retailers too.

Thank you and I hope you enjoy L-2011.

Mark

https://books2read.com/L-2011

P.S. If you’ve already read L-2011 and are ready for Mr Apocalypse, here’s a link to Part Two.

Mr Apocalypse – The Blurb

 

This is the blurb for Mr Apocalypse (Future of London #2) – Out 20th December

London has been cut off from the rest of civilisation.

The people there abide by no rules. There is no police presence. No laws or consequences. There is only the ravaged city, hidden behind two superwalls since the carnage of 2011.

And yet they are not alone.

The survivors don’t know it, but their lives are being broadcast 24/7 to the outside world on a reality TV show called The Future of London. Their every move is scrutinised by millions of people on social media.

The star of the show is a mysterious loner – Mr Apocalypse. When one day, an exotic stranger appears in his life, the viewers demand even more intimate access to their hero’s life.

But these demands will also lead Mr Apocalypse down a dark and twisted road.

So whatever you do – don’t touch that dial!

The Future of London is about to change forever.

Ideasville

 

Writers.  Do you have it?  That one location where creative ideas breed like rabbits?

Otherwise known as Ideasville.

And just for the record – Ideasville is not the desk.  The desk is a dark, cold and terrible place where in the normal course of things, mental graft and the grind take over from magic.  At least that’s how it works for me.  Maybe it’s different for other people and if so, how do you do that?

Think of Ideasville as being like those little islands in Japan that are inhabited mostly by cats.  Thousands and thousands of cats.  Well replace cats with creative ideas and there you go – Ideasville.  I’m talking about that one place where no matter what, it’s always possible to get inspired.  Where the magic happens consistently.

And for me, it’s the shower.

It goes like this – I step into the bathroom and close the shower door.  I stand under the warm running water and yes!  Here it comes.  The breakthrough that’s been evading me for so long (or at least since the last shower!)

Phew.

It’s not the little ideas that come to me in the shower either.  Usually it’s the good ones, the important ones, the ones that will make a real difference.  That’s the beauty of Ideasville – it rarely stops at a single eureka moment.  Just as the first idea is settling in, another one appears literally out of nowhere.

I haven’t even picked up the bar of soap yet.

But what is it about the shower that inspires me so?  Think about your own Ideasville – what are the main ingredients/conditions of that place that make it work for you?

Well…

Keith Richards once said that ideas for songs were floating around in the atmosphere, just waiting to come down to us.  Keith did a lot of drugs of course, but I think he’s right and that this applies to stories too.  I don’t think we can force ourselves upon these ideas – they come to us when they’re ready.  This reminds of me a quote that I wrote down a long time ago.  This one’s attributed to Mozart:

‘It is when I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone and of good cheer…that ideas flow best and most abundantly.  Whence and how they come I know not, nor can I force them.’

Alone and of good cheer?  Does that work for you and your Ideasville?  That sure sounds like me in the shower.  Most people are happy in the shower though aren’t they?  That’s why we have a tendency to stay in there for longer than we should and sing songs at the top of our voices even if when we sing we sound like (and I’m stealing this) a dog barking into a bucket.

Thinking back to Mozart’s quote, perhaps we’re at our most creative when we’re in a state of relaxation.  I feel particularly at ease in the shower.  I can shut the door and when I turn on the water I turn off the world.  At least for five minutes.  No phone.  No music.  No podcast playing in the background on a loudspeaker – nothing but the sound of water and silence.

Solitude is also good for creativity – that’s no secret of course.  It’s hard to be creative when there’s too much noise going on in your life.  Recently my parents came from Scotland to visit my wife and I in Australia.  They were staying in our house for a few weeks and I took a break from writing and editing and marketing.  I did normal things – like going out and all that stuff.  It was fun, but I noticed during that time that my brain stopped working like a writer.  I didn’t have a single idea over that three week period.  Nothing.  I barely thought about the creative side of writing and I was rarely alone.

Three weeks later my parents returned to Scotland.  My wife went back to work.  I was alone again in the house (apart from the animals).  I took a shower, completely relaxed and by myself.  As I turned the metal lever, the water started flowing again and so did the ideas – almost immediately in fact.

Solitude and relaxation.

Eureka.  I was back in Ideasville.

 

 

 

He Used To Be The Bearded Baby

 

(11,000 words approx)

Jack Hope Junior was born with a gargantuous red beard.  It was already perfect (as beards go) at the moment of birth.  On both sides of his face, the hair was sumptuous and layered, and at the base of the chin it hung low with the swagger of a rock star.

Of course, the Bearded Baby’s birth inspired a medical hullaballoo.  Here was a newborn child with something in between a hipster and a lumberjack beard stuck to its face.  And everybody knew that wasn’t right.  Almost as soon as he arrived, experts were brought in from around the world to examine the extraordinary child and these included medical specialists with decades of experience in extreme abnormalities and genetic disorders.  In particular, the hospital sought those with expertise in polygenic diseases, as well as single-gene disorders.  But after much poking and probing was done at the poor child’s expense, nothing abnormal was found.

Which meant the Bearded Baby was normal.  Normal that is, apart from the beard.

Extensive blood tests were performed on Jack Hope Senior and his wife Hattie, who the hospital staff had requested should remain as ‘guests’ in the aftermath of the birth.  Mum and Dad had been as shocked as everyone else at the sight of their newborn son but that initial horror had passed quickly.  Although they didn’t see much of Jack Jnr in those first few days of his life, what with all the tests being carried out on him, they loved their son and wanted nothing more than to take him home and get on with the rest of their lives.

Jack and Hattie were subjected to intense interrogations about their respective family lines, and in particular the hairiness of each one.

‘Did your father have a beard?’

 ‘Are you prone to coarse body hair Mrs Hope?’

 ‘Was your mother a particularly hairy woman?’

This went on for several days but the Hopes bore it well and after hours of interrogation, nothing unusual could be discerned about their family lines.

By then, news of Jack Jnr’s birth had spread all over the world.  Someone in the hospital had taken photographs of the Bearded Baby on their iPhone and leaked them onto the Internet.  After that, all hell had broken loose and the media had promptly surrounded the hospital in their droves, all desperate for a glimpse of the Bearded Baby and if possible, an interview with his parents and a selfie with the kid.

As the news spread, the world began to react and speculate about the meaning of Jack Jnr’s beard.

In the Vatican, the Pope interpreted the Bearded Baby’s birth as a sign of divine intervention.  “Clearly God is sending us a message,” the Pope said to his followers in a hastily arranged live broadcast. “Who does that beard remind you of, if not our Lord Jesus himself?”

“You think this is it?” asked one Roman Catholic viewer to another as they were sitting on the couch at home watching the Pope’s broadcast.  “Do you think this is the Second Coming?”

“Nah,” said the other one. “He’s ginger!  I mean c’mon.  Whoever heard of a ginger Messiah?”

The scientific community also chipped in with their opinions on the Bearded Baby.  Leading anthropologist, Dr Patrick Docherty, from Harvard University, suggested that Jack Jnr was indeed a sign but of another sort.

“What this tells us,” Dr Docherty said to reporters, “is that humans are evolving at a phenomenal rate.  We have clearly taken another step forward on the evolutionary ladder and our bodies are now maturing in line with our increased intellect.”

Other anthropologists disagreed with Docherty’s theory.  “At last,” said Dr Roger Fielding, of the University of St Andrews, “here is evidence of humanity’s regression.  We are regressing back to the primitive age from whence we first came.  Why?  Who knows?  But Jack Hope Jnr is indisputable evidence that for whatever reason, we are reverting back to our original animal selves.  If the Bearded Baby is indeed a sign, then he is a sign of humanity’s de-evolution.  I tell you, it won’t be long until we as a species are throwing off our suits and ties and crawling back into the swamps.”

By now, Jack Snr and Hattie had had enough of the circus surrounding the existence of their son.  They weren’t criminals and they had done nothing to warrant a lengthy detention in the hospital.  All they really wanted was to get their son back home, away from the prying eyes of the world and return to the sanctuary of their normal lives.

So they told the people at the hospital – the doctors, the scientists, the whatever elses – that they were going.

There was much resistance from the medical staff.  But the Hopes gathered their things together and left anyway and there was no legal reason for others to stop them.  Jack Snr discreetly ordered a taxi to come to the rear entrance of the hospital, and so they took their baby and went home, all three of them.

In the days and weeks that followed, Jack Snr and Hattie resisted every lucrative offer that came their way.  And there were many of them.  They turned down multiple book deals and even their own reality television show, to be called Living With The Hopes.  They turned down countless interviews, all of which would have earned them a small fortune for less than an hour of their time.  But the Hopes were intent on shunning the media attention and living a quiet life.  It wasn’t always easy but they forced themselves to spurn these tempting offers.  They knew the importance of being a good mum and dad to little Jack and that was all that mattered.  It was the simple things.   They had jobs and didn’t need the extra money to be happy.

But life in the spotlight was hard and things began to change quickly.

The paparazzi were a major problem for a start.  They hounded the Hopes from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, camping outside the house and it seemed like they were always on the tail of either Jack Snr or Hattie whenever they tried to go somewhere.  They followed Jack Snr to his office in the city and were frequently seen within the building masquerading as janitors, postmen and cleaners.  Whenever they managed to catch up with Jack Snr in the corridor or in the bathroom, the lucrative offers would come flooding in.  If only they would give up little Jack to the public eye.

But Jack Snr said no.  He always said no.

The paparazzi however, wouldn’t take no for an answer.  When Jack Snr continued to rebuff them, they tried harassing his work colleagues and offering them money to help change Jack Snr’s mind.  Eventually it got out of hand and Jack Snr was called into the boss’s office.

“I’m sorry,” his boss said, sitting behind a wooden desk and chewing anxiously on the tattered end of a Bic.  “But you’re just too damn famous Hope.  I’m going to have to let you go.  It’s not you – it’s those damn bloodsucking reporters – they’re following you everywhere, prying into this and that and I’d err…rather people weren’t probing our affairs here at the company.  You understand, don’t you Hope?”

Jack Snr nodded. “Yes sir. I understand.”

Meanwhile, Hattie Hope had taken maternity leave from her part-time job as a veterinary nurse.  The vet who she worked for, a lazy old man called Mr Rabey, had replaced Hattie with a younger girl while she’d been detained in the hospital.  This girl, who just happened to be a part-time catalogue model, was also an outstanding nurse too.  When Hattie found out what was going on, she was concerned that her maternity arrangement would end up becoming more than just temporary.  And she was right to be worried.  Not long after the Hopes returned to their house from the hospital, a letter came for Hattie, informing her that due to the extreme publicity surrounding the Bearded Baby, her presence would be seen as a disruptive force in the clinic.

She was dismissed, and now both the Hopes were left jobless in the aftermath of little Jack’s birth.

As these things were happening, Jack Jnr was growing up fast.  He was by now nearly three months old and his beard had thickened with age.  The fact that his parents had resisted all media attention only increased the demand for news about him from the outside world.  There were many other things going on at that time, such as war, poverty and climate change.  But it didn’t matter.  The Bearded Baby was hogging the headlines and that meant he mattered more than all those other things.  At least that’s how it seemed, judging by the way people were always talking about him and not those other things.

Meanwhile, the Hopes felt the financial strain of no longer working.  There was a mortgage to pay, on top of countless other bills and they also had a growing boy to feed and clothe.   It didn’t take long for them to work their way through their savings and every day they looked on in horror as their bank balance made the slow and painful descent down to zero.

Jack and Hattie began to panic about the future.  About Jack Jnr’s future.  And still the bills kept on coming, as did the warning letters that reminded them they hadn’t paid the bills.  It wouldn’t be long now until somebody was knocking at their door.  Until the electricity was cut off.  And God knows what else would go wrong?

It didn’t take long for the media to find out about the Hopes’ problems and in particular, their piling debts.  The old offers came flooding in once again – thicker, faster and fatter than before.  They came in from all over the world.  It was a thousand golden carrots dangling on a stick and the Hopes no longer had the luxury of choosing to ignore them for the sake of their principles.

The family were backed into a corner.  They didn’t want to give in and sell their son’s privacy, but what choice did they have?  None, not if they wanted to put food on the table for the baby and themselves.

“What harm can it do?’ Jack Snr said to Hattie, one night as they were sitting at the kitchen table, picking away at a dinner of one slice of toast each and a half a tin of baked beans.

“Let’s do the book deal then,” Hattie said.  “What do you think?  I’ve always wanted to write a book.  Look here Jack.  It says a quarter of a million dollars in advance.  We could push them for half a mil, right?”

“Right you are,” Jack Snr said.   Both his face and heart lit up in unison.  He realised that he was enjoying talking about these things – about money and negotiating deals and even the thought of fame didn’t seem too bad anymore, not if they could keep it under control.   Hattie was just as thrilled as her husband.  And with the thought of a bright future ahead of them, they tucked eagerly into their toast and beans that night.

Hattie and Jack Snr agreed to the book deal.  After cashing that first cheque for half a million dollars they quickly became open to other deals too.

Suddenly, saying yes seemed like the smartest thing in the world.

“Whatever we do, “ Hattie said to a gang of reporters as they were moving from their little house into an exclusive West End property, “we’re doing it for Jack Jnr.  The money we earn will keep him secure in later life when you know, he’s just a normal guy with a big beard.  He’ll thank us for doing all this stuff now.”

“For Jack Jnr,” said Jack Snr, standing beside his wife.  “We’re doing it for Jack.”

The Hopes made regular TV appearances from then on.  Baby Jack had come out of hiding at last and the world was thrilled to say the least.  The Hopes did it all – talk shows, panel shows, cameo appearances and a particularly nice little earner was the commercials for beard grooming products and shampoos.  This went on for several months and the money kept pouring in.  So much money that the Hopes eventually had to hire people to keep track of it for them.

Their most significant TV appearance was on the hugely popular, ‘Jimmy Ferguson Live Tonight’.  For this, the Hopes were flown to Los Angeles in the United States and put up in a luxury hotel of their choice (they chose the Four Seasons).  As well as talking to the Hopes on air, Jimmy had devised a little segment for Jack Jnr called ‘Who is the Hairiest?’  For this, the Bearded Baby was placed on a table next to a young Bonobo monkey and an Old English Sheepdog puppy.  An audience member was selected to come down and while blindfolded, she had to feel the face of the three living stage props and say which one was the hairiest.

Jack Jnr won.

It was a glorious night for the Hopes and after this, they were easily the most famous family in the world.  On the morning after their appearance on ‘Jimmy Ferguson Live Tonight’, Jack and Hattie were flooded with more lucrative offers and they became dizzy with the amount of dollar signs flashing before their eyes.  They discussed their future plans over a luxury breakfast in the hotel’s dining room.

“We should have done this ages ago,” Hattie said.  “We’re millionaires Jack!  Or are we billionaires yet?”

“Not quite darling,” Jack said. “But it’s only a matter of time the way things are going.  Let’s see what’s on the table this afternoon and how long it will take us to get to what do they call it?  Billionaire status!”

At 1pm that afternoon, the Hopes received the offer of a lifetime. They would indeed be set for life and then some, but getting the money came down to one condition.

They had to give up their baby.

Maxine Isserley, the world’s biggest pop star had seen Jack Jnr on ‘Jimmy Ferguson Live Tonight’.  She’d fallen head over heels in love with him at first sight.  Now she wanted to buy the Bearded Baby and bring him up as her adopted son.  To get what she wanted, she was prepared to offer the Hopes a whopping $100 million dollars to adopt him.

“He’ll want for nothing,” said Maxine’s representative, a slick clean-cut young man dressed in a designer black suit.  Maxine had sent her best man to LA to seal the deal.  Now he was sitting on the other side of a table in the Four Seasons’ restaurant, looking back at the two chalk white faces belonging to Jack Snr and Hattie.

“Maxine will give him the best life that anyone has ever given a child,” said the rep.  “He’s the luckiest boy in the world.  Before she saw Jack, she was going to adopt at least five African babies.  Not anymore.  Now she’s smitten by that cute little ginger teddy bear.”

“But he’s our son!” Hattie said. “You can’t seriously be asking us to give him up.”

“He’ll travel the world,” the rep said.  “He’ll be exposed to all kinds of cultures.  He’ll grow up surrounded by music, not to mention great artists and cutting-edge ideas.  Smothered in greatness and innovation – how does that sound?  Oh my!  What a human being he’ll become.  So wise and worldly. What an opportunity this is, wouldn’t you agree?”

“We’ll never give him up,” Jack Snr said.  “And that’s final.  Go tell that to Maxine Thissserley or whatever her name is.”

The rep sighed.  “Very well Mr and Mrs Hope,” he said.  With a delicate sigh, he got to his feet.  He reached down for his briefcase sitting beside the table and then stopped suddenly.  It was as if his entire body had just been turned into stone.

“Oh yes,” he said.

The rep straightened himself up and seemed to get bigger, like one of those inflatable wacky waving tube men that somebody had just blown air into.  “There was something else.”

“What else?” Hattie said.

“Oh it’s nothing really,” the rep said, sitting back down.  “I forgot to say that on top of the initial $100 million that Maxine is willing to pay you for Jack, she’s also offering $2 million dollars per year for the rest of your lives.  That’s guaranteed.  So even if a terrible accident was to befall Jack two months from now – and I’m sure it won’t – you’d still get the money.  $2million a year till you are both deceased, which I sincerely hope is a very long time from now.”

Jack and Hattie looked at one another.  Clearly this additional offer, combined with the original one had taken a grip on them.  A long moment passed in which they seemed to communicate without words.  They turned back to the rep at exactly the same moment and smiled at him.

“Supposing we say yes,” Hattie said. “Just supposing that is.  If we agree to this whole adoption thing and allow him to become this great human being – can we still see him?”

“As much as you want.” said the rep. “Please believe me.  Maxine does not want to take your son away from you.  She just wants to buy him and relocate him.”

And so it happened.  Jack Hope Jnr, aka the Bearded Bay was sold for $100 million dollars and an additional guarantee of $2 million dollars a year for as long as Jack Snr and Hattie were alive.

The press wasted no time in vilifying Jack and Hattie.  But the controversy soon disappeared as these things always do because something else always happens to distract people.  The Hopes disappeared from public life too.  Not long after the sale of their son to Maxine Isserley, they retreated to their own private island in the South Pacific.  They made no plans to see Jack Jnr again, such was the depth of their descent into selfish gain.

It was official.  Maxine Isserley, a twenty-three year old pop singer superstar with more social media followers than anyone else in the world, was now the adoptive mother of Jack Jnr.

Unfortunately, little Jack was terrified of his new mother.  For the first few weeks of his new parental arrangement, he cried every time the six-foot tall woman, who was covered in tattoos and sporting an electric blue Mohawk, came anywhere near him.  She was always singing too, and she sang as loudly as she spoke.

“You call me mommy now,” she said, cradling the screaming child in her arms.  “MOMMY, MOMMY!” With that she burst into a verse from her latest hit, ‘You’re the Reason I’m Crazy’.

“Ok sweetheart?  Me Mommy!  You’re going to be something special baby.  Something special!  You are.  Yes you are!”

Thanks to Maxine and her PR staff, the Bearded Baby brand went through the roof.  His new mother quickly set him up with his own Facebook page and not long after that, he was also on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, and all the other social media platforms of influence.  He gained hundreds of thousands of followers on each platform in a matter of hours.  In a day or two, he was into the millions and catching up fast on his mother.

When Maxine took him with her to the Grammys as her date, she dressed him in a diamond laced baby sling.  Jack (Now Jack Isserley) was front-page news all over the world and other more pressing concerns, such as rising tensions in the Middle East and the nuclear weapons debate, were pushed back to the middle pages.

The only thing that mattered – or so it seemed – was Jack and Maxine, or Jaxine as the press labelled the celebrity mother and son pair.

In the following days, weeks, and months, an entire industry arose around Jack Isserley.  False beards became the number one big seller on Amazon.  Some adults even tried to pass their infants off as being bearded by shaving what little hair they had on their heads and then gluing it onto their baby’s face in a shameless profit-seeking enterprise.  Many a poor child was hospitalised in the wake of the Grammys with facial injuries but it didn’t stop parents torturing their children in a bid for instant fame.  Bearded baby merchandise sprung up everywhere – t-shirts, hats, and guidebooks on how to increase your chances of conceiving a baby with facial hair – all were big sellers.

The initial medical concerns about Jack’s facial hair were no longer considered important.  Although a few noble workers still desperately sought answers as to why a newborn child had popped out of the womb with a fully grown beard on its face, most other scientists had given him up as a rare freak and moved on.

Time passed.

Jack Isserley continued to grow up in the spotlight.  Throughout his childhood, the boy’s beard became an even more magnificent thing – its original reddish colour had now dulled to a most regal shade of autumn brown.  Those who got close enough to Jack’s beard would wax lyrical and compare its power to objects such as the mythical Golden Fleece.  All across the world, artists painted it.  Sculptors sculpted it.  Writers wrote stories about it, and singers sang songs.  Sick children were brought along to touch it in the hope of getting better.  People confined to wheelchairs were convinced that a simple lock of Jack’s beard attached to their legs would make them able to get up and walk as if it were a miracle.

Bearded Baby mania was a legitimate phenomenon.  Not surprisingly, Maxine and her staff made sure to capitalise on everything, ensuring not only the continuation of Jack Jnr’s popularity but also her own.

By the time he was eleven, grown women were chasing after Jack Isserley.  He had become the most sought after bachelor in the world and they came from everywhere just to flirt with him – they came from the wealthiest families and even royal princesses from Europe made the trip to meet him.  They were all desperately hoping for a marriage proposal but for the time being at least, it never came.

When he was twelve, Jack Isserley was voted the world’s most eligible bachelor.  He came top in People magazine’s list of sexiest men alive, pipping George Clooney and Chris Hemsworth to the number one spot.

His life was indeed a magnificent thing.  It was just like Maxine’s rep had promised Jack Snr and Hattie that it would be all those years ago in the Four Seasons Hotel.

But then, that same year, something terrible happened.  It was truly catastrophic.  It was something destined to change everything.

Jack’s beard began to fall out.

It happened on the morning of his thirteenth birthday.  Jack was sitting in front of the mirror as two of his personal assistants were grooming his magnificent beard.

“Is it just me?” Jack said to one of his attendants. “Or can I see a lot more of my face today?”

The two world-class beauticians charged with grooming the beard became immediately flustered by the question. Of course they’d noticed the increasing sparseness of Jack’s beard over the past few days, but they had been too frightened to even consider the possibility.  Let alone say it out loud.

“Oh no,” said one of them, finally breaking down under the pressure.  “The hair is coming out! Mr Jack sir. Your beard is falling out.”

The other beautician screamed.  The one who spoke fainted at Jack’s feet.

Meanwhile Jack looked closely at his face in the mirror.  A trembling hand went to his beard and tugged gently.  His fingers came away with a massive clump of brown hair.   The hair itself seemed to have lost its shine and now it lay there in his hand like a wilting flower.

“This can’t be happening,” he said.  He felt sick to his stomach.  “What am I going to do?  What will Mommy say when she sees this? OMG, OMG, OMG! Hashtag Scared! Hashtag Despair!”

It happened so fast.  In just over a fortnight, Jack Isserley’s face went completely bald.  As this unfolded, he spent hours hiding away in front of the mirror, avoiding all company and having the most desperate Gollum-like conversations with his face.  With all his might, he willed the hair to grow back.  But the beard looked back at him and said no.  He prayed to God, but God apparently had better things to do than worry about the fate of an ex-beard.

Maxine Isserley was of course, horrified at the transformation in her adopted son.  The increasingly normal looking teenage boy who had taken the place of her unique and social media friendly Jack was disgusting.  By this point in her career, Maxine had moved away from music and had been concentrating on becoming an action movie star.  Her trademark Mohawk had long since been replaced with a more conventional platinum blonde crop with a side-swept bang.  But she still took her image more seriously than ever.  Maxine had also become obsessed with bodybuilding in her quest to look like an authentic female action star – and one who could genuinely kick male ass.

As Maxine had transitioned from music to movies, Jack had travelled with her occasionally, but the truth was that as he’d gotten older, the less of a novelty he’d become to her.  There were many distractions in Maxine Isserley’s life, boyfriends mostly, and Jack was just another thing that got in the way.  Maxine never anticipated that motherhood would be this demanding and that the child would change so quickly.

And now he was downright hideous.

“He’s soooooo normal,” Maxine said to her PA one morning, while she was working out on the heavy bag in preparation for a new movie called 88 Explosions. “The beard is gone.  He’s just a regular spotty Joe teenager now.  Tell me Ricardo – am I still paying two million dollars a year for that thing?”

“Yes you are,” Ricardo said. Ricardo, like many of her members of staff and regardless of gender, resembled whatever look Maxine was sporting at that moment.  The wannabe action movie star liked her assistants and staff to mimic her style in clothes and hair.  It made her feel important.

“The contract is watertight,” Ricardo said.  “There’s no way out of it.  You were willing to do anything to get him back then.  Remember?  Oh and for heaven’s sake Maxine – you’ve stopped punching the bag.  Throw some jabs!  You think Jason Statham is out there taking a break right now?  The Rock?  Huh?  Do you want to be in the next Expendables movie or not? Punch, punch, punch!”

“Fine,” Maxine said, getting back to the jab.  “But try and get word out to his parents that if they want him back, they can have him.  Will you?  I’ll even keep paying the money – I just want him to stop following me around like a demented puppy.  If that fails, then stop all his privileges, his income, the tutors, and the gifts.  Maybe he’ll get bored without all that stuff and just walk away by himself.  That would be awesome! Until then, keep him out of my sight.  I can’t be seen with him anymore – he’s just hideous Ricardo.  And suspend all his social media accounts.  People won’t notice anyway – not now the beard’s gone, right?”

Maxine’s people tried to make contact with Jack’s parents in the South Pacific.  But the Hopes were gone.  Messages were sent to anyone in the region who might have seen them, but nobody had heard anything from Jack’s parents in years.  The main problem was trying to locate which island in the South Pacific they were on as Jack Snr and Hattie had made a determined effort to disappear off the map.  The $2million dollars Maxine was paying them every year went into a Swiss bank account.  All Maxine’s people knew about the location of the Hopes themselves was that they were somewhere near the Cook Islands or French Polynesia, where amongst other things, it’s rumoured that cannibalism still takes place.

Jack stayed with Maxine for several more years.  The gifts and privileges did stop, and eventually his adopted mother and all of her staff largely ignored him.  He became like a forgotten toy that had been shoved to the back of the wardrobe.

By the time he was sixteen years old, Jack Isserley was neither tall nor short.  He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t particularly handsome either.  When Maxine stopped providing him with personal groomers, he took care of his own appearance, sculpting himself into a perfectly average specimen.  His reddish brown hair was cut short and he no longer wore Armani suits – he wore jeans and t-shirts.  He looked like a lot of other people.  In fact, the only unusual thing about Jack Isserley was that he couldn’t grow a beard.  Not one single hair would sprout on his face.

Eventually Maxine got so sick of him hanging around that she decided to pay him off.  It seemed like the only way for sure of getting rid of him without committing a criminal act.  One morning, a household lackey gave Jack a blank cheque with Maxine’s signature at the bottom.  The lackey told him to take whatever he wanted – but on two conditions.  The first condition was that he left the house and never came back into her life.  Never.  The second was that he stopped using the surname Isserley.

Jack was heartbroken.  Still he took the blank cheque as instructed, packed a few things into a rucksack and left the house.  He didn’t know where he was going to go next.  He could remember little of his life that didn’t involve living with Maxine, although there were some vague memories of two other people who must have been his real parents.  But nobody knew where they had gone.

He wandered the streets of Los Angeles in a daze.  No one gave Jack a second glance these days.  It was such an unusual experience for someone who had grown up in the limelight.  Nobody looked at him, nobody at all.  He had been celebrated his entire life, from the precise moment he was born to be exact.  He had been so many things all at once – a sign, a sensation, and extraordinary.  Even divine.

But now at sixteen years old, he was ordinary.  And every face that passed him by without as much as a glance in his direction felt like someone sharpening a dagger on his heart.

He decided to leave Los Angeles.  He would go somewhere far away from all the things he knew.  He had to leave the city behind – he had to go north and find himself, and the best way to do that was to lose himself in the natural world.

Jack Hope Jnr, formerly known as Jack Isserley, formerly known as the Bearded Baby, disappeared.  He went completely off the map and not long after he made the decision to travel to the icy northlands, he shut down his neglected Facebook page, as well as his Twitter account, Tumblr, You Tube, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Periscope, and all the others.

Soon afterwards, a cheque arrived at the headquarters of a large charity for orphaned children.  The cheque was made out for one hundred million dollars and it was quickly reported in the news as being a gift from Maxine Isserley.  Confronted with the news about her donations, Maxine had looked very shocked indeed.  So much so that she’d fainted in front of the cameras.

Not long after the news broke, Maxine Isserley was reported to be in dire financial circumstances – her generosity it seemed had gotten her into a bit of trouble.  To survive the crisis, she made a rapid series of well paid but terrible action films.  Her credibility as an actress plummeted and when she tried to get back into music again to reenergise her bank account, there was surprisingly little interest from record companies.  Her stock was ruined.  Still, she was in good stead with the public who believed that she’d given all her wealth away for the sake of helping children.  That was of little comfort to Maxine.

Meanwhile Jack travelled into the frozen wastelands that stretched way past the reach of the big cities and the concrete towns.  He hitchhiked for the most part and was fascinated as he sat in the passenger seat of many a car, watching the landscape change from industrial grey to a rich, mysterious green and white wilderness.  The further north he travelled, the colder it got and although these kinds of temperatures were unusual to him, he seemed to like it.  It felt almost welcoming.  Clean.  Soon he could see snow on the tips of the mountains in the distance.  It felt as if he’d left the world behind, or at least the world that he knew – that of noise, instant communication, and everything in a hurry.

Following his last ride, Jack got dropped off at the side of a long and narrow road.  All around him was the icy wilderness of the north.  It was at once majestic and humbling.  His intention was to walk and to keep walking.   There was no plan.  He would keep going until his life started to make sense again.  He carried a one-man tent on his back and some meagre supplies that would keep him going only for a short length of time.  He held no fear however, despite the lack of practicalities and preparation.  It was as if something bigger was calling him there.  Into that place.  He could hear it – almost as if it were a real voice speaking in his head.

Jack. You are closer now Jack. Closer than you have ever been.

He walked further into the wilderness.  Black spruce trees offered him protection from the biting cold air.  There were icicles hanging from the branches, like white crystal glittering in the sun.

For the first time in his life, Jack was truly alone.  Things had never been quieter and yet he’d never been happier.  He’d been in and around cities and large crowds of people all of his life.  He hadn’t had the opportunity to see how beautiful the simple things were, like the sound of the birds singing.  Now at last he was beginning to see the something that existed in the nothingness.

There is gold in this silence, thought Jack.

Winter closed in around him.  At night, the temperatures dropped well below zero but Jack didn’t seem to mind and in fact didn’t seem to notice at all.  He spent his days sitting atop a particularly steep hill in quiet contemplation.  He discovered meditation and began to spend hours exploring the inner workings of his mind.  Soon he had forgotten all about the magnificent beard that he had lost.  The people who had abandoned him slipped further back into his unconscious mind.  It didn’t seem important anymore.  It had never been important.

He ate and slept little, surviving on water and berries for the most part.  Soon he was nothing but skin and bones.  But Jack wasn’t hungry – in fact, he had never felt more full in his entire life than he did sitting atop his hill and exploring the inner world.

He returned to the hill every morning and stayed there all day.

And that’s where the old man found him.

Jack slowly became aware of somebody standing behind him.  He turned his head, surprised to find somebody else wandering around in such a remote location.  He had only seen a few other people since he’d gotten lost in the wilderness and that was back in the early days, not too far from the road.  But he was deep into this place now and not another living soul had been since then.

Until now.

The old man looked strange.  Not quite human.  He was dressed in sort of dark, monkish robe and stood tall, his face a bizarre combination of sharp angular features, with green piercing eyes and jagged ears that pointed to the sky. He also had a long white beard that flowed down to the waist. If he had to pin it down, Jack would have said the newcomer looked like a cross between a man and a cat.  A Cat Man.

catmonkcolored

 

“May I sit down?” Cat Man said in a silky voice.  He sat down without waiting for an answer.  “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you Jack.”

“Do you know me?” Jack asked.  Was the Cat Man one of his old stalkers who’d tracked him down at last?  In which case he deserved an award for finding him in such a desolate place.  “Nobody knows I’m here.”

Cat Man pressed his finger against his lips.

“And yet here I am,” he said.

“And yet here who is?” Jack said.

“Someone who has been watching,” Cat Man said.

“Watching what?” Jack asked. “Watching me?”

“Mankind.  Watching all of mankind.”

Jack screwed up his face. “Why? Are you with WikiLeaks or something?”

Cat Man smiled.  As he did so, he revealed a pair of upper canines that looked like two long ivory needles.

“We are deciding whether or not to invade this world,” Cat Man said.  He looked up towards the sky. “My people are up there, watching and waiting. Always watching. Always waiting.  That’s what we do.”

Jack looked up at the sky, half-expecting to see someone looking back at him.

“You see,” said Cat Man. “Our own world was lost to us.  We’ve travelled across several galaxies searching for a suitable alternative upon which to establish a homeland.  We’ve found some wonderful planets, but all of them were already inhabited by good people. We wouldn’t dream of pushing them aside for us.  No, if we cannot find a beautiful planet that is vacant, what we need to find is one inhabited by a race of complete and utter fucking idiots. The sort of people that we’d have no qualms about evicting.  It’s rather like finding a nice house, but one full of flies you see.  One must dispose of the flies before moving in.”

“Are you an alien?” Jack said.

“On this planet?  Yes I am. At least for the time being.”

“You said you were looking for me,” Jack said.  “Why?”

The Cat Man sighed.

“We are not an evil people Jack.  Like I said, we will not steal a planet from another species if we think it’s wrong.  If the people are worthy of their world – if they are good people, then we will depart.  We have done this many times before.  It is not our mission to invade, but rather to improve.  In order to do that, we need to find an inferior species – the fucking idiots as I called them.  We may just have found them too but we need to test them first.”

Jack scratched at his naked chin.  Even after all this time, it still felt strange without the beard.

“You think humans are bad?”

“Humans are a pest,” Cat Man said.  “Even some of their own kind label them as a cancer on this planet.  Rapid overpopulation in most areas is destroying much of the ecosystem and natural habitats of local wildlife.  There is a strong argument that in order to save the planet, human beings must be exterminated.”

Jack shook his head furiously.  “No,” he said. “There are good people out there.  I think my parents were good people, even though I never knew them for long.”

The Cat Man laughed.  It was an unpleasant rasping laugh, dripping with scorn.

“Your parents sold you for money as a child,” Cat Man said.  “Your second mother used you as a fashion accessory to make herself more famous.  And isn’t it true that she and the rest of the world have since disowned you because of nothing more than a lack of of facial hair?  Because you grew up?”

Jack shrugged.  “I suppose.”

The Cat Man nodded.  “We are the ones who watch,” he said, pointing to the sky.  “You are the last chance for the residents of Planet Earth.  You will go back and tell them what I told you.  If they listen to you and treat you with kindness and dignity – if they give us some assurance that this world is in good hands, then we will leave.  And we’ll take you with us.”

Jack had been staring at the horizon.  Upon hearing this last sentence, he turned to the Cat Man, his eyebrows standing up and his mouth hanging open.

“Me?” he said. “You’d take me with you? Why me?”

“Because you’re one of us of course.”

Jack gasped.  For a moment he thought he’d imagined that last sentence.

Cat Man looked up at the sky once again, his eyes softening as if he were gazing upon something dear to him.

“You were created up there,” he said.  “Once you were but a little egg in our laboratory with all the right ingredients to make you what you are.  We inserted that egg into your mother…”

“How?” Jack was horrified.

“One day when she was alone, we drugged her.  She passed out and we underwent the procedure.  When she woke up, she must have thought she’d fainted.  Nine months later you were born.  And because of the beard that we implanted in your genetic code, you became the sensation that we knew you would.  But the real test – the reason you were born Jack, was to see how they would react to you when it was gone.”

“You knew it would fall out?”

“Yes,” the Cat-man said.  “It was all arranged.”

Jack put a hand to his empty face.  It was the weirdest thing – he felt like he was touching someone else.

“I’m an alien?” he said. “No wonder I’ve always felt so different.”

Cat Man nodded.

“But I don’t have sharp teeth like you,” Jack said.

“In everything else, you resemble a human,” Cat Man said.  “That way you would pass all their tests when you were a baby.”

The Cat Man leaned in closer to Jack’s ear.

“You are of tremendous importance,” he said. “What happens now – it all depends on how they treat you when you go back.  If they behave like a bunch of dick weeds then how can I say it?  They’re fucked. ”

“Dick weeds?” Jack said.

The Cat Man shook his head. “Sorry,” he said.  “My swearing is getting worse.  We get their TV channels up there on our ship.  We’re watching The Wire at the moment and although it’s brilliant, the language is atrocious.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Jack said.  “You said go back. I don’t want to go back there to Los Angeles. I’m happy here.”

“Go back Jack,” the Cat Man said.  His voice was stern now, the silk being replaced by iron.  “Tell them what will happen.   Once they hung onto everything you said and your words made headlines.  If you are no longer considered worthy because you lost a bit of hair on your face, then we will make our move.  Such a shallow breed of people – they are not worthy of this wonderful fucking world.”

Jack shook his head.  “They’ll reject me,” he said.  “Again.”

The Cat Man blinked slowly.  He cast his eyes upon the wilderness below.

“Do you still not understand Jack?” he said. “This is your destiny. Your beard was only ever there to fall out.  To make you suffer and to bring you here to me in this lonely place.  And now that I’ve found you, I must send you back to the world with our message.”

“The beard was my gift,” Jack said, talking to himself for the most part.  He hated the Cat Man at that moment – he hated him for speaking about Jack’s beard as if it were an afterthought.  And he hated himself for being unable to let go of that younger version of Jack – the Bearded Baby that everyone had loved for so many years.  Was growing up always this terrible, or was it just like that for him?

“No,” the Cat Man said.  “This conversation. The message.  This is your real gift.”

Jack felt physically sick at the thought of going back to Los Angeles.

“They loved you when you were young,” Cat Man said. “You must try to make them love you again.  Or at the very least – make them listen.”

***

Jack left the wilderness and returned to Los Angeles.

His first stop was at the home of Maxine Isserley – his former stepmother.  Despite everything that had happened, some part of Jack still regarded that place as home.  Unsurprisingly however, whenever he came near the mansion in Beverley Hills, he couldn’t get anywhere near her.   But he soon found out the reason for this was that Maxine wasn’t living there anymore.  The house had recently been sold to an up and coming Hollywood movie star – a necessary sale that was triggered by Maxine’s ongoing financial difficulties, which could be traced back to that charitable donation that had shocked the world.

From there, Jack managed to track her down to a rundown hotel elsewhere in Los Angeles.  He sat in the lobby, waiting for her to make an appearance on the stairs.  When she finally showed up, he was horrified at her appearance.

Maxine was now morbidly obese.  Not fat, but obese.  It hadn’t been so long ago she’d had the body of an action movie goddess.  But all the muscle that she had worked so hard to gain had turned to fat.  Now she waddled down the stairs like a hot-air balloon with legs.  She was out of breath by the time she’d reached the bottom step and had to cling onto the bannister, wheezing for dear life as she fought to keep herself upright.

It seemed the rumours that Jack had been hearing about his adopted mother were true.  That Maxine’s career had suffered a serious nosedive, that she’d taken some questionable roles, hit a career slump and that she wasn’t taking it too well.

Seeing Jack tipped her over the edge.

She saw him standing in the lobby.  Her eyes, two little peepholes buried deep beneath a seething mass of pink flesh, turned red at the sight of him.  For a moment, those red eyes reminded Jack of something – it was the two Terror Dogs from the original Ghostbusters.

There was a man standing beside her – a thick lump of a brute who might have been her boyfriend or even her bodyguard (she used to have six of those).

“Tony,” Maxine said.  Her voice was shaking with rage.  “It’s him.  It’s HIM!  Take him outside and do a number on his baldy little thieving face!  I’ll be outside to watch, just as soon as I catch my breath.”

 Tony, who looked a lot like the fictional Tony Soprano, started walking slowly towards Jack.  There was an evil grin of anticipation on his face and as he approached the young beardless man, he cracked the knuckles on both hands and let out a primordial grunt.

Jack didn’t hang around to find out what was going to happen next.  He turned tail and ran straight out the hotel and onto the hot streets of Los Angeles.  He didn’t stop there – he kept running, his eyes streaming with tears, not only at the sight of his mother, but that she’d ordered someone to hurt him.  Why would she do that?  As he ran, he heard Maxine’s voice screaming down the street after him.

“GET BACK HERE!” she yelled.  “I’m going to kill you you little creep!  You ruined my life!”

Jack gave up on Maxine right there and then.  He’d have to find some other way of getting the Cat Man’s message out there that didn’t involve the help of his former mother.  So he reactivated his social media accounts.  Maybe people were still interested in him enough to listen.   He started again from scratch as Jack Hope and in the biography section he wrote – ‘I Used to be the Bearded Baby’.  He began to send out a flood of tweets and Facebook posts with such eye-catching headlines as ‘The World Has To Change!’, ‘The Cat People are Watching Us’, and ‘Aliens Will Invade If We Don’t Fix Things!’

But for some reason, he found that people were no longer interested in what he had to say.

By the end of that first week he had amassed a grand total of seven followers on Twitter.

He gave up on social media and decided to try and get himself on TV.

After much hustling, he landed an appearance on a TV show called What Happened To Them?  In this episode, Jack would appear alongside some other child stars, mostly kids who’d appeared in classic 1980s movies – the type of kids who’d gone weird, turned into Goths, fell into drug abuse, or become porn stars ever since the disintegration of their cute looks had sent them off the mainstream entertainment radar.

The host was a smarmy and moustachioed middle-aged man called Chad Ronson.  Ronson was a veteran news anchorman who’d been big in the seventies and eighties and who now hosted crummy TV shows that hardly anyone ever watched.  Despite his smooth exterior however, Ronson was a seasoned interrogator and he gave Jack a hard time from the start.

“Jack,” Ronson said.  “Let’s not beat about the bush.  According to news reports and based on the sort of content you’re posting on Twitter these days, it appears that you’re now a crackpot.  Am I right Jack?”

“No,” Jack said.  He sat up straight in his seat and looked Ronson dead in the eye.   He was wearing a suit and tie, trying desperately to look like a respectable young man.  His hair was combed neatly and he’d scrubbed himself clean for hours in the bath of the hostel that he was staying in.

Of course he didn’t need to shave anymore.

“I have an important message to share with the world,” Jack said.  “That’s the reason I’m here today.”

“Oh yes,” said the host with a smirk. “I noticed that you’re trying to tell people on your flagging social media accounts that the – and I quote – ‘Cat People’ are on the brink of invading the world.  That’s absolutely fascinating Jack.”

The studio audience howled with laughter.  Jack tried to ignore them and to make himself heard.  He repeated everything that the Cat Man had told him in the wilderness.  But it was no use.  Nobody was listening or maybe the ones who wanted to listen just couldn’t hear him over the constant sniggering and giggling in the audience.

He kept trying though.  Not long after his first TV spot, he landed a guest slot on another show.  It was a pathetic excuse for entertainment – something that was broadcast in the twilight hours and that only drug addicts and insomniacs watched.  The studio wasn’t really a studio either – it was a crusty little man cave in somebody’s mother’s basement.  But Jack knew there had to be somebody watching.  After all, every little bit counts when you’re trying to save the world.

“But Jack,” the dishevelled presenter said, wiping the back of his hand over his nose.  “Isn’t all this just a cry for attention ever since you lost your beautiful beard?  The rumour mill’s been saying that you’ve been strung out pretty bad on crack cocaine lately.  Is that true?”

“No that’s not true,” Jack said.  He looked at the tubby, forty-something presenter who was dressed in a dirty white vest with something that looked like dried snot stains on the front.  “If all these bad things – these terrorist acts, the mass shootings, the hate, the ignorance – if we don’t at least try to get better then the Cat People will take over.  They will evict us from Planet Earth.  Trust me, this is real.”

The presenter nodded.  He appeared to be studying Jack’s face closely.

 So what did happen to the beard Jack?”

Jack screamed.  Literally.  Then he got to his feet and stormed out of the studio/basement, muttering something incomprehensible to himself under his breath.  As Jack walked, the presenter pushed a button on a console at his feet setting off a loud chorus of fake studio applause.

“So sad to see,” the television presenter said, cutting the applause to a sudden stop.  “Now let’s move onto our next guest.  You might remember Amy Dempsey – she was the cute blonde kid from Midwest Junior High and boy oh boy, does she have a serious crystal meth habit these days.”

Jack was at his wits end.  Nobody in the world was willing to listen to him anymore.  All they wanted to do was talk about the beard and past glory days.  The present was about to catch up with them in a big and terrible way – the Cat People were coming, but it seemed there were more important things to worry about.

But there was one final glimmer of hope.

Word reached Jack that his parents were in Los Angeles.  It had all been arranged by a tacky daytime television show called Rivera, which specialised in reuniting estranged family members.  Truthfully however, Rivera was nothing more than a circus style freak show that revelled in setting up confrontational encounters between people to attract ratings.

The producers of Rivera had seen Jack on the TV circuit second time around and had concluded that a reunion between the ex-Bearded Baby and the parents who ran out on him would make for good TV. Explosive TV – that was the term they used.

They weren’t wrong.

The producers spent a lot of time and money tracking down Jack’s parents in the South Pacific.  It certainly wasn’t an easy task but that’s how committed they were to putting this episode together.  They were almost on the brink of giving up when at last they found Jack and Hattie Hope residing on a small island in the South Pacific.  Unable to persuade the Hopes to return to Los Angeles, they settled for Plan B.  Plan B was kidnap.  They organised for the Hopes to be abducted and from there, a ship took them far away from their idyllic surroundings and back to the west coast of the United States.

It was all set.

For the first half-an-hour of the Rivera episode entitled – He Used To Be The Bearded Baby, Now He’s Crazy, Jack Jnr sat on the stage and was interviewed by host John Rivera about his past life as the Bearded Baby.  Rivera was a seemingly genial, middle-aged man with round spectacles, who gently probed Jack about his past life as the Bearded Baby.  He asked about Jack’s relationship with his parents and with Maxine Isserley.  Everything seemed to be going well but when Jack tried to bring it up to date and talk about the Cat People and the threat of invasion, the topic was brushed aside amidst yet another barrage of sniggers.

Finally the moment that everybody was waiting for arrived.

“Jack,” Rivera said. “Your parents are backstage.  I bet you’re dying to meet them, aren’t you?”

“I am,” Jack said.  The smile on his face was genuine.  It was perhaps the first time that he’d truly smiled since walking out of the northern wilderness.

Looking down, Jack saw that his hands were shaking.  He could remember so little about his real parents and he’d never dared to hope that he’d ever see them again in this lifetime.  “If anyone will believe me about the Cat People,” he said, talking to himself more than anyone else, “then it’s Mum and Dad.”

“Then what are waiting for?” Rivera said. “Let’s get them out of here.  Mr and Mrs Hope – come on out here and meet your son.  Again!”

A deep booming sound came pouring out through the studio speakers.  Drums.  The rhythm was primitive with an underlying hint of danger.  It was the kind of thing you’d have expected to hear the grass-skirted natives playing on a Pacific island in the eighteenth century as they welcomed the European explorers arriving in their giant and outlandish ships.

Jack also noticed that John Rivera was discreetly making himself scarce from the main stage area.  The television presenter shuffled along the floor, moving with haste towards the studio audience and positioning himself behind a large wall of security.

Jack tilted his head.  There was a lot of security on duty.  Who was coming out to greet him?  His parents?  Or the President of the United States.

A screen door slid open at the edge of the stage.

There was a loud gasp from the audience.

Jack Jnr nearly fell off his seat in fright.  He couldn’t remember what his parents had looked like, but their appearance was shocking to him nonetheless.  Jack Snr’s long grey hair ran all the way down to his back – he looked like a middle-aged Tarzan who’d acquired a beer belly with age.  He was deeply tanned and wearing only a dark loincloth to cover his modesty. Hattie also had long flowing grey hair, brown skin and she was wearing a short skirt made of withered grass and flowers.  Her large breasts were exposed for all the world to see.

But that wasn’t the most shocking thing about the Hopes.

Jack Snr and Hattie were carrying long wooden spears.  Not only that, they were wielding these sharp looking objects over their heads and running at full pelt towards Jack.  They were screaming some strange gibberish in a foreign tongue, something tribal that fell perfectly in line with the fierce rhythm of the drums, and much to Jack’s horror – their mouths were watering.

The audience screamed with delight and chanted along with the spectacle.

“RIVERA! RIVERA! RIVERA!”

Jack Jnr leapt off his seat.  His mother aimed her spear directly at her son’s heart but his father was quicker and got in there first.  Jack Snr’s spear came whizzing past Jack Jnr’s head.  It made a terrible whooshing sound as it travelled through the air at a hundred miles per hour.  Had Jack Jnr been standing a couple of inches to his left, then it would have been the end of him.

Jack was horrified.  He was trying to come to terms with the fact that his parents wanted to kill him.  Not only that, they wanted to eat him too judging by the way that their mouths were leaking drool like waterfalls.  Jack understood now that this whole thing had been a big set up from the start.  The producers of Rivera, not to mention the genteel and smooth talking John Rivera himself, knew exactly what was going to happen.  They were the ones who’d found Jack’s parents living on some godforsaken cannibal island.

“RIVERA! RIVERA! RIVERA!”

It was at that precise moment that Jack Hope Jnr gave up on the people of Planet Earth.  There was nothing he could do for them. They were doomed.  Let the Cat People come down in their spaceships and fire their rockets and blast them off the face of the earth.

But first, Jack had to get out of the television studio alive.  He ran full circle around his parents and made towards the screen door at the edge of the stage.  His parents were hot on his heels.  Hattie still had her spear raised over her head, waiting for the perfect moment to throw it at Jack.  But Jack was quick – he ran behind the sliding door and into a backstage area, sobbing and searching frantically until he found a spiralling staircase that led downstairs.  He threw himself down the stairs until he reached a fire exit.  He pushed the door open and ran outside into the fine California sunshine and for a moment it felt like waking up from a terrible nightmare.

But he couldn’t shake it off – the sight of his parents’ drooling mouths and the sound of the crowd chanting like it was all a game.  Jack had little doubt they would have sat there and watched his parents tear him to pieces and gorge on his raw and bloody innards on live television.

The young man formerly known as the Bearded Baby dropped to his knees.  All the buried emotion – the resentment of a lifetime’s worth of exploitation came bubbling up to the surface.  He screamed and hollered and cursed.  He looked up towards the sky, calling to the Cat Man and the Cat People, telling him that he’d tried his best to save these people but that the world had gone deaf, dumb and blind.

“They won’t listen!” he yelled.  “They don’t want to listen!”

His eyes searched the skyline of the City of Angels, waiting for the first signs of the incoming apocalypse.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Cat People. Do it now!  Bring down the ships.  Attack! Kill them all!”

He remained there on his knees in the middle of the streets.  A large crowd gathered around him and many of them pulled out their phones and began to film the young man who appeared to be having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the street in broad daylight.  It was almost a certainty that this footage would go viral before the end of the day.

Jack didn’t notice – he didn’t see any of them because he was too busy waiting for the Cat People.

He looked towards the sky.  But no one came.

 

***

 

Three years later.

 Jose-Luis Rodriguez worked as a night-shift guard in one of California’s most notorious lunatic asylums.  It wasn’t the greatest job in the world but it paid the bills, put food on the table and all that important crap.  On top of that however, the gig had some great perks and like on so many other nights, he was making the most of its greatest asset tonight.

He led the young couple down the long and white-walled corridors of the asylum.  Jose-Luis could sense that they were nervous and excited all at once.  All the people he brought here for his special after-hours tour were nervous.  It was all fun and games until they heard the crunch of that steel door slamming shut behind them and realising that were locked inside a lunatic asylum.

Sometimes they could hear screams coming from deep inside the building.  High-pitched, terrible screams – like the wailing of the damned.  When this happened, Jose-Luis’s clients would gasp and move ever so slightly closer to him.  This always made him smile.

Still, the fact that this young couple – like so many others – were uneasy alway reminded him that he wasn’t supposed to be doing this kind of thing.  But it was such a profitable side gig – the money that these people were willing to pay was ridiculous.  The income that he’d acquired from these twilight tours had brought him several steps closer to that dream Lincoln MKS.

He’d keep doing it just a little while longer.  Get enough money for the car and a little extra, and then knock it on the head before his supervisors found out.

He turned back to the young couple, keeping his index finger pressed against his lips, a sign to the young honeymooners that they weren’t to speak.

Not yet.

Eventually, at the end of a narrow passageway that cut off from the main corridor, they reached a door. Jose-Luis dropped his finger from his pursed lips and reached to the set of keys dangling at his side.

“Not a word until we’re inside guys,” he whispered. “Okay.”

The young couple nodded.  Blond and blonder, thought JoseLuis.  Rich and dumb, just how he liked them.  Their eyes were wide open with excitement, not quite believing that all this was happening.  That they were here.

Jose-Luis opened the door and led them inside.  He turned on his flashlight and the young couple entered the room behind him.  They found themselves standing in a padded room.  It wasn’t very big – about ten feet long and eight feet wide and it looked like something out of a bad horror movie.  The walls and floors were covered with thick chunks of white padding.

Jose-Luis pointed his flashlight to the corner of the room.  A young man was sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth in a steady motion, his hands wrapped around his knees. His eyes looked straight ahead, straight through them – two black flying saucers that saw nothing.  There had been no response to the arrival of the others – it was as if he hadn’t seen them enter at all.

“That’s him,” said Jose-Luis.  “That’s the Bearded Baby.  Now here’s the deal folks.  You got five minutes to look at him, but don’t touch.  If you want to touch his face that’s another ten dollars. Each.”

The young woman put a hand over her mouth.

“Oh my God,” she said.  “This is so sad.  I used to follow him on Instagram.  Look at him now!”

“I heard they found him in the middle of the street,” said the husband.  “Said he was trying to communicate with aliens or something like that.  Can you believe it?  How the mighty fall huh?”

The young man in the corner of the room continued to rock back and forth.  Occasionally he’d stop suddenly and look up at the ceiling.  It was as if he’d seen something up there.  Then he’d go back to rocking again, oblivious to the conversation that was going on around him.

“Can you blame him for going crazy?” Jose-Luis said.  “What a shit life, huh?  Maxine Isserley kicked him out when he was just a kid.  His parents sold him and when they came back they tried to eat him.  Sweet Jesus.  No wonder he’s crazier than a zebra in a horse race.  Poor son of a bitch.”

“I feel sorry for him,” said the man.

“So do I,” said the woman.

“Can we touch his face then?” the man asked.

“That’s an extra $10 dollars each,” Jose-Luis said. “Like I told you.”

The couple were happy to pay Jose-Luis the extra money.  As they touched what had once been the most famous face in the world, Jack Hope Jnr didn’t respond.  He just sat there, locked in that eternal rhythm of back and forth, while the three onlookers stood gawping at him.

Jack stopped moving for a second.  He glanced up towards the ceiling and the faint hint of a smile appeared on his lips.

Perhaps the Cat Man will come back tonight, he thought.

Maybe tonight.

 

 

The 5 Best Non-Fiction Books I Ever Read

 

Here we go again.

I recently put together a list of fiction titles – The 5 Best Fiction books I Ever Read.  Apart from being fun to write, I thought that list would be a good way to introduce some excellent books to people who perhaps hadn’t heard of them before.  Sharing the love and all that.  I think most of the books on the fiction list were pretty recognisable.  Or at least the authors were.

Less so with this one perhaps.  Still, I hope the list below might be of interest, particularly if you’re into the whole history/biography/philosophy/spiritual section of the bookstore.  If so, dive in.  Everything below comes highly recommended.

 

Think On These Things (Krishnamurti – 1964)

think-on

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

I read a lot of Bruce Lee biographies back in the day.  And one name that kept cropping up in these books was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was a big influence on Bruce Lee’s philosophical outlook.  Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was an Indian philosopher and speaker, and he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.

This is a very practical book.  It’s not airy-fairy in the slightest bit.  It contains the results of question and answer sessions that Krishnamurti participated in with Indian school students.  In his answers, he tries to teach the children how to live their lives simply and freely, and to impart upon them the true value of education which is about more than just getting the right qualifications to get a job.

Krishnamurti was the guy who told people to follow their passion long before modern self-help gurus found out it was cool to do so.  He was also an astute observer of people – he saw through the emptiness of celebrity culture,  namely the desire that so many of us have to escape ourselves and be someone else.

Think on These Things is a wonderful read.  It’s a practical book about awakening.  And if you’re willing to ask yourself some hard questions about your life, it’ll blow your mind.

 

Crazy Horse – The Strange Man of the Oglalas (Mari Sandoz – 1942)

crazy-horse

‘Now more than ever the Oglalas spoke of Crazy Horse as their Strange Man.’

A unique biography of one of my favourite historical figures.  Crazy Horse was a warrior of the Oglala Sioux tribe in the late nineteenth century.  He was indeed the ‘Strange Man’ of the title.  He was different to other people in his tribe – an introvert living within an extrovert culture, light-skinned, someone who was quiet and considered a little odd by his peers.  “He was a very quiet man except when there was fighting,” his close friend He Dog said of Crazy Horse.  Indeed, Crazy Horse was revered as a warrior and he played a decisive role in defeating Custer at the infamous Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

This book uses an interesting rhythmical style of prose, which is reminiscent of Native American speech patterns.  Reading it gives you a sense of hearing first-hand accounts of Crazy Horse from the people who knew him.  In fact, it reads more like a biographical novel than a traditional work of non-fiction.  But it’s not a fabrication by any means.  Sandoz spent a lot of time researching this book and camped near the reservations in the 1930s, so that she could conduct meticulous interviews with those who had known Crazy Horse, who died in controversial circumstances in 1877.

It’s both a fascinating and tragic story that, as well as looking at Crazy Horse, traces the heartbreaking decline of the Native American people at the hands of the whites.  Well worth a look.

 

An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor (Michael Smith – 2000)

crean

‘Each successive frostbite on a finger was marked by a ring where the skin had peeled off, so that we could count our frostbites by the rings of the skin – something after the woodman telling the age of a tree by counting concentric rings.’

I love reading about the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.  

This period began in the late nineteenth century with the idea that the South Pole was the world’s last great wilderness waiting to be conquered by the civilised world.  Scott and Shackleton are probably the two most recognisable names associated with this historical era, but what about Tom Crean?  The big Irishman travelled to the South Pole with both Scott and Shackleton on their most famous expeditions (he was one of the last men to see Scott alive on the fateful 1910-1912 expedition and he was also one of the standouts on Shackleton’s famous Endurance voyage.)

In fact, Crean spent more time in the Antarctic than either of his famous bosses.  But he was a quiet man who didn’t keep a diary and thus his heroic exploits were mostly forgotten when he settled back down in Ireland to run a pub.

Fortunately Michael Smith wrote this book at the turn of the twenty-first century and it brought Crean into the limelight sixty-two years after his death in 1938.  And the world has certainly embraced the Irish hero over the last sixteen years.  Since the book’s publication, a statue has been erected outside his pub, The South Pole Inn, in Anascaul, Ireland.  Songs have been written about him and stage plays and documentaries have been produced.   

This guy was incredible – a proper old-school hero and a born survivor.  He also lived a fascinating life of adventure in the most inhospitable place on the planet.  Enough said.  You should read this.

 

Awareness – (Anthony De Mello – 1990)

awareness

‘Don’t ask the world to change….you change first.’

Anthony De Mello (1931-1987) was a Jesuit priest and a psychotherapist from India.  This book is a collection of personal stories, parables and anecdotes which are designed to help the reader better understand issues of perception and awareness.  

Although he was a Jesuit, there are many Christians who’ll tell you to stay away from Anthony De Mello and Awareness.  The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith even censured De Mello and his teachings after his sudden death in 1987.  Their line is that De Mello’s philosophy dabbles too much with the likes of Taoism and Buddhism, and that it strays too far from traditional Christian teachings.

This book is not intended as a Christian manual.  It is religious in the truest sense, but it’s free of traditional religious agenda.  It’s a book for everyone, but only if you think you’re ready to go head to head with some challenging ideas that might twist your melon.  Awareness will make you think hard.  The first time I read this, I couldn’t just put the book down and get it out of my head and move onto something else.  It made me a little bit dizzy in terms of how I perceived both myself and the world around me.

Some people hate this book with a passion.  Others, like me, love it.  Depending on who you ask, it’s either a pile of crap or a life-changer.  It is of course, entirely dependent upon the reader but if you’re interested in philosophical/spiritual literature and you’re willing to slip outside your comfort zone and read something provocative, then I highly recommend Awareness.

 

Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto (Anneli Rufus – 2008)

party-of-one

‘People say the desert is desolate. Yet for me it’s very much alive, full of surprises. As soon as I see those wide-open spaces, I can breathe’.

I’m a loner.  I have no problems socialising and I’ll even go out of my way to say hello to strangers in the street.  There are friends and relationships, but in all honesty I prefer to be alone.  Almost forty years of life has taught me that there’s nothing wrong with me – it’s just my nature to be like that.  But still, people in our society feel the need to correct people like me, or to force us into a more group-orientated mindset because they think it’s what I need to be a healthy and well-balanced individual.  As I like to say, that’s the equivalent of taking the goldfish out of the aquarium and chucking it into the hamster cage.

If you’re a loner, this book is a nice companion in a world where the mantra is that ‘humans are social animals’.  Anneli Rufus’s book disputes this particular mantra and is quick to remind us that it’s okay to be a loner.

One of the things covered in the book is the unfortunate misuse of the word ‘loner’ by the media.  It has become the stock term for lazy reporters to use when gun-wielding psychopaths go on mass killing rampages.  I got so pissed off with this that following the murder of twelve people in a Colorado cinema in 2012, in which the gunman was repeatedly described as ‘a loner’ by the media,  I wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Independent called ‘The Loner Myth’.  The gist of this piece (which Anneli Rufus read for me before I published it) was that there’s a difference between loners and outcasts.  Real loners choose to be alone and are at their happiest in this state of being.  Outcasts, on the other hand, crave acceptance and when they get rejected, they retreat into a forced isolation and subsequently fester and boil over with resentment.  But hey, why let the truth get in the way of lazy reporting, right?

The book is a great read, but it’s not perfect.  It can be a little too defensive sometimes, and it’s often written in an ‘Us vs Them’ way.  I say we shouldn’t try to be too competitive about these things – live and let live and all that.  Still it’s a gem nonetheless and if you’re a loner struggling to be yourself in a pack-minded society, then this is a great addition to your bookshelf.

***

Honourable mentions (lots so I’ll keep it to a minimum!)

Stephen King: On Writing (Stephen King)

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi (William Scott Wilson)

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life  (Jon Lee Anderson)

The Fearless Harry Greb (Bill Paxton)

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Vincent Van Gogh)

Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (Rupert Sheldrake)

Mindfulness: (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion (Clay Moyle)

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)

 

A Few Thoughts on The Beatles: Eight Days A Week

 

I’m a big Beatles fan.  I’ve probably been a fan for about twenty-five years of my life.  That’s a lot of reading Beatle books, learning the songs, watching countless documentaries and more recently, finding rare interviews and other little titbits on YouTube.  So as I was walking into the cinema to see Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week yesterday I was thinking – will anything about this film surprise me?

The answer is no.  And a little bit of yes.

In terms of big picture Beatle story, there’s little that the average die-hard won’t already know.  If you’re a newbie to the touring years like my wife was then there’s lots of things to discover.  That’s not to say there’s nothing new for the likes of me.  There were occasional pieces of footage that I hadn’t seen before – little clips here and there and it was the first time I’d seen their initial American press conference in colour.  There is fresh material in the film (as well as new interviews with McCartney and Starr), it’s just that it doesn’t add anything new to The Beatles story.  If anything, it just enhances it a little.

The tone is hagiographical.  It’s one of those non-confrontational documentaries that was made with the cooperation of the two surviving Beatles and the Beatle widows – Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison.  So yeah it skims over the seedier stuff.  The drugs are largely ignored (marijuana gets a brief mention) and there’s always very little in these Beatles documentaries about the groupies and in particular, Paul McCartney’s status as a legendary shagger.  Or as John Lennon apparently called him – a ‘sex gladiator’.

But despite these tittle-tattle omissions, I enjoyed the film immensely.  It does a great job of capturing the initial excitement of Beatlemania right up until 1966 by which time the band had become jaded with the whole touring thing and the accompanying madness.  Little wonder too – they must have felt like cattle at times the way they were herded back and forth between events and as a Lennon voiceover says: ‘Everyone wanted a piece of you.’

The film contains some great live footage from a variety of gigs and TV shows.  And occasionally we even get to watch the full performance instead of being interrupted by a talking head after the first verse.  This was a nice touch.  I’m also glad I got to see this in the cinema as along with the documentary, it featured 30 minutes of freshly restored Shea Stadium footage which I don’t think will be shown on Hulu or on the DVD release.

Result.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week is not groundbreaking stuff, but it is a bloody good watch.  That applies to Beatles fans who think they’ve seen everything and to those who know nothing about them.  There’s a brief mention of Pepper and the later years, but this is primarily a film about the first half of The Beatles.  It’s nice that late in the film, there’s a little mention on the recording of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (off the Revolver album) which for me is the song that most represents the borderland between black and white Beatles and colour Beatles.

One last thing.  Watching the facial expressions of the audience during Beatle gigs is a joy in itself.  Has there ever been a band with more expressive/deranged fans than the fab four?  I doubt it.  God bless them all – I hope they watch this film with their kids and grandkids and show the young ‘uns that there’s more to watching a gig than just filming it on your iPhone.

The 5 best Fiction Books I Ever Read

 

I’m not saying the five best fiction books ever.  All that ‘the best’ stuff is subjective anyway.  I’m not saying these are the greatest pieces of literature either – whatever that’s supposed to mean.  These are just my personal favourites and so to me, they’re all of the above and more.

There are no major spoiler alerts in the description.  You’ve probably heard of most of these books, but that’s not the same as having read them.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to check them out.  I hope so.

In no particular order:

 

1/ The Razor’s Edge (W. Somerset Maugham – 1944)

razor.paperback

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.”

An old fashioned book with a timeless meaning.

Larry Darrell returns to the United States after witnessing the carnage of the First World War in Europe.  He has no interest in getting a job and wallowing in American postwar prosperity like everyone expects him to do.  Larry is now only interested in pursuing the ultimate questions – about life, meaning and the existence of evil in the world.  It’s a journey that brings him into conflict with the materialism of modern society and importantly, with the people around him who know him, but no longer understand his choices.

I love how Larry’s spiritual path contrasts with the people around him.  He’s a laughing stock to some, a bum to others, but time proves which – of all the characters in the novel – has made the wisest choices in life.  While the majority of the other characters have spent their life pursuing material wealth and social prestige,  Larry the loafer has been searching for something much more valuable.

Today there are many self-help/spiritual books, as well as other novels that espouse a similar message to the one in The Razor’s Edge.  But this book was published back in 1944 and it was promoting the tenets of Eastern Philosophy about ten years before The Beat Generation came along.  And long before the hippies arrived on the scene in the 1960s.

If that isn’t a good enough reason to check out the book then consider this – Bill Murray loves The Razor’s Edge.  You may or may not know that he stars in the 1984 film version of the novel and that he only agreed to make Ghostbusters for Columbia in return for them financing this – his passion project.  Ultimately the 1984 movie is flawed and I think Murray is a little miscast as Larry, but it’s still an interesting watch and worth checking out.  But as always, read the book first.

 

2/ I Am Legend (Richard Matheson – 1954)

i-am-legend

“He stood there for a moment looking around the silent room, shaking his head slowly. All these books, he thought, the residue of a planet’s intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the potpourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing.”

Robert Neville is the last man.  The rest of humankind has been wiped out by an unknown plague and yet Neville is not alone.  The post-apocalyptic world that he lives in is now full of vampires who have emerged in large numbers in the aftermath of the plague.  It’s a tough break and Neville is doomed to live out his days in a terrible routine of necessary survival chores by day (safeguarding the house/vampire slaying), while at night he listens to classical music as the vampires surround his house, demanding that he come outside.

This is a great horror/post-apocalyptic story that captures the psychological struggle of day-to-day life as the last person in the world.  And going by this, it’s not a lot of fun.

I love that I Am Legend is a short book.  It clocks in at about 25,000 words, which makes it a pretty slim novella by most standards.  That means it can easily be read in a sitting or two and so no excuses about not having the time to read it.

I Am Legend would make a great movie but so far (over three attempts) no filmmaker has really captured the essence of the book.  The Last Man On Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price is the most faithful adaptation.  The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston has some interesting moments, but it strays a little from the book.  Okay it strays a lot!  The vampires in that movie are weird albino mutants of some sort.  It’s got a pretty good soundtrack though, I will say that.

Less said about the Will Smith movie the better.

This one’s all about the book.  It’s a classic.  Read it if you haven’t already.

 

3/ The Body (Stephen King – 1982)

the body

“I’ll see you.”
He grinned. ‘Not if i see you first.”

I have to do a separate Stephen King list sometime.  He’s my favourite author and this list might easily have been a list of SK books.  But for now I’ll only pick one and so I’m going to go with The Body.  Pennywise, Kurt Barlow and Roland Deschain will all have to wait.

What struck me about The Body when I first read it is how faithful the film adaptation – Stand By Me – is to the source material.  Yep, like many people in this instance – and of my generation – I saw the film before I read the book.  And I can definitely say that the book and film are in sync with one another, unlike say Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining – great film but it goes in its own direction and King didn’t like it.  Therefore it’s not surprising that it’s Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s faithful adaptation of The Body, that is Stephen King’s favourite film version of all his books. 

The Body is the story of four young boys who go looking for the fresh corpse of Ray Brower – a boy their own age who’s apparently been struck and killed by a train.  It sounds like a horror story, but it’s not.  It’s a coming of age tale and in my opinion, a perfect one at that.  The novella is contained within a collection called Different Seasons.  Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and The Breathing Method are also featured in this outstanding collection.

You’ll love this beautifully written story.  Especially if you were ever twelve.

 

4/ The Count of Monte Cristo   (Alexandre Dumas – 1844)

“All human wisdom is contained in these two words -“Wait and Hope.”

monte-cristo

It’s big, old and richly detailed.  But don’t let that put you off.  

The novel begins in 1815.  Edmond Dantès is a young merchant sailor who has everything going for him in life.  He’s handsome, intelligent, and on the brink of being made captain of his ship.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, he’s engaged to the beautiful Mercédès.  So what could go wrong?  Well, everything as it happens.  Shortly after arriving back in port in Marseilles, Dantès is framed by his jealous rivals as a Bonapartist traitor.  He is arrested and subsequently imprisoned in the Château d’If, where he spends the next fourteen years of his life.  There he meets and befriends the mysterious Abbé Faria, who educates the young sailor in the sciences, philosophy and languages.  Faria informs Dantès about a vast treasure which is located on the barren island of Monte Cristo.  When Dantès finally escapes from prison, he goes after the loot and becomes filthy rich.  Immediately afterwards, he starts plotting revenge on those who betrayed him.

The Count of Monte Cristo was originally serialised in Journal des Débats in eighteen parts between 1844 to 1846.  It’s interesting to note that Dumas based his story on a true revenge tale, which was taken from the Parisian police archives.  I think everyone should read this book.  It’s fun and it’s BIG!  But if you don’t like lugging a doorstop sized book around with you then get the digital version.  I have a beautiful big hardcover version of this, but it’s on my Kindle too as the digital copy is super cheap.  See here for the e-book.  But whatever – whether it’s digital, paperback or hardback, this is still a classic.    

 

5/ The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (Neil Gaiman – 2010)

the-truth-is-a-cave-in-the-black-mountains

“The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one way only, and that way is treacherous and hard. And if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside.”

This is a wonderful little novelette by Neil Gaiman.  It’s an atmospheric, dark and often claustrophobic story in which a Scottish dwarf (yes, a Scottish dwarf) hires a guide to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle, a cave which is reputedly filled with gold.  

The story is set in Scotland and Gaiman was apparently inspired to write it by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the old Hebridean legends that he most likely heard whilst there.  It’s a story that (for me anyway) isn’t so much about the external landscape (which is beautifully written) but the internal landscape of the two men journeying to the Misty Isle.  There’s so much going on underneath the surface – credit to the author for such excellent characterisation .  It’s riveting stuff and it lingered long in my mind after reading – this for me is the sign of a special story.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is also one of the most evocative stories that I have ever read.  I could literally see every scene in my head playing out like a movie.  Neil Gaiman has done incredible things in this little story.  If you only read one novelette about a Scottish dwarf in your lifetime, make it this one.

***

Reducing it to five books was always going to be tough.  So although I regret nothing, I’m doing the honourable mentions things.

These go to:

Tenth of December (George Saunders)

Watchmen (Alan Moore)

Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk),

Under the Skin (Michel Faber),

Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville)

And just about anything by Roald Dahl.  

‘Here We Go Again’ (‘FAB: The Fifth Angel’) – Sample Chapter

 

December 7th (1995)

When Vogel woke up in his apartment later that morning, he was fully dressed and lying face down on the couch.

The telephone was ringing.

Considering how far his hangover had progressed since he’d passed out in the early hours of the morning, the sound of a phone might as well have been the rumblings of a major earthquake.

He glanced over at the digital clock on the window ledge. 7:34 am.

Vogel put a hand to his head. It felt like there was a berserker up there wielding a pneumatic drill and doing bad things to his cranium. He sat up slowly on the couch, almost gagging on the scent of his own breath, which consisted of a dense cloud of stale tobacco and alcohol.

Dear God, said the old Vogel.

He got to his feet and staggered over to the small desk on the other side of the room.

The large wooden desk was buried beneath a pile of papers and unopened mail, as well as empty takeaway boxes, coffee cups, and beer bottles. Just one glance at the takeaway boxes, with little bits of stale food clinging to the cardboard, was enough to make Vogel’s guts heave.

He picked up the phone, glancing around for a source of water. No such luck. He noticed however, that there was a little liquid left inside one of the beer bottles. Christ knew how long it had been there, but it was wet and at that moment, Vogel’s throat felt like the surface of the Atacama Desert.

He put the bottle to his lips and drained what was left. His body convulsed mildly at the impact, but nonetheless Vogel looked at the other bottles on the table, shaking them and checking for any leftovers.

“Frank Vogel,” he said in a croaky voice, bringing the receiver to his ear.

“Frank,” said a man’s voice. “How are you old chap?”

Vogel recognised the chirpy, upper-class English accent immediately. It was an old colleague of his from the UK, but damn it, he’d only gone and forgotten the guy’s name.

“Oh couldn’t be better,” Vogel said. “How about you? How’s, uhh…”

The other man was laughing down the phone.

“You’ve forgotten my name, haven’t you?” the caller said. “Has it really been that long Frank?”

“No,” Vogel said. “Yes, I guess it has. I’m sorry, I had kind of a rough night. You’re my London friend, aren’t you?”

“It has been a long time Frank.”

Finally it clicked.

“Owen!” Vogel said. “Owen Baird. MI5. Shit, I’m so sorry man.”

Owen Baird laughed again. “It’s so wonderful to be remembered.”

Frank Vogel and Owen Baird had known each other since the early eighties. In his FBI days, Vogel had had several European contacts during the Cold War era – a handy thing to have when dealing with the threat of foreign spies sneaking into the United States on a constant basis. Likewise, Vogel had proved to be a reliable source of information for Baird regarding American defectors making their way into the UK and Europe.

The two men were about the same age. Baird was an old hand at the security game, having been involved in specialist intelligence roles, concerning Northern Ireland and other internal threats to the UK. The Brit was old school: efficient, disciplined and above all, effective. In short, he was the British equivalent of everything that Vogel used to be.

Despite their years of mutual cooperation, Vogel and Baird had met only once – in London back in 1986. And that had been a personal occasion, as Vogel and Angie had been holidaying in the UK at the time. Vogel had mentioned the trip in advance to Baird, and the Englishman had suggested they meet up with their spouses. It had been a pleasant night all round, spent in a charming West End restaurant, before the two couples had taken in a few local bars.

Had they lived closer to one another, the Vogels and the Bairds would have undoubtedly been best friends.

But what mattered most of all, was that since Vogel’s fall from grace in 1988, Owen Baird – who Vogel recalled as a dead ringer for the old English actor, James Mason – had been the only one of his international contacts not to slam the door in his face. On the contrary, Baird had helped Vogel in his ongoing search for John Lennon, sending occasional tips his way. But it had been a long time since the last one. Not surprising, as sightings of Lennon had dipped with the passing of the years.

“You do sound rough Frank,” Baird said. “Is everything alright? Are you and Angie still…?”

“Separated?” Vogel said, sitting down behind the desk. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry to hear that Frank.”

“Yeah,” Vogel said. “Me too. How’s Cecilia?”

“Smashing,” Baird said. “She’s taken up a new hobby lately – lawn bowls. I’ve even had to join in with her on Sunday afternoons. God help us Frank, we’ve turned into a right pair of stodgy old gits.”

Vogel smiled. “Sounds great. Is she any good?”

“At bowls?” Baird said. “Good lord, no. There’s more chance of England winning another World Cup than there is of Cecilia hitting the jack. She’s bloody hopeless.”

“Yeah,” Vogel said. “Still, it sounds nice.”

“Anyway,” Baird said, moving on. “Enough with the pleasantries. I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling well Frank. It’s not surprising of course, considering what you’ve been through these past few years. Ghastly business.”

“It sure is,” Vogel said, wincing at the morning light outside. He reached over and pulled the blinds, plunging the room into a pleasant grey-darkness.

“Well,” Baird said. “I might have just the thing to make you feel better.”

Vogel raised his eyebrows. “Oh yeah?”

“Of course it might be nothing,” Baird said. “And I most certainly don’t want to get your hopes up. But would I be right to assume that you’re still interested in any news regarding our absent Liverpudlian friend?”

“”That depends Owen,” Vogel said. “Is it as good as Paris?”

“Ahh,” Baird said. “Paris. We came so close, didn’t we? I had a good feeling about Paris. And I’ve got a good feeling about this one too. Oh and by the way, did you get the package I sent over?”

Vogel glanced at a small mountain of unopened mail on his desk. “Package?”

“Yes,” Baird said. “Well, not much of a package really – just a magazine. I sent it over a couple of weeks ago. Should be there by now.”

“Give me a second Owen, will you?” Vogel said.

“Of course.”

Vogel put the phone on the desk and began rummaging through a pile of letters. Bills and more bills – how could such a small apartment gather so many bills? He’d really have to start opening his mail. It was either that or come home one night and find the electricity cut off. There was something else on the desk that looked like a birthday card – was it his birthday soon? There were at least a dozen letters from the bank too, which he pushed aside to reveal an A4 sized manila envelope. Vogel pulled it free and looked at the postmark in the corner – London.

He picked up the phone. “Got it Owen,” he said. “Sorry, I must have put it down and lost track.”

“Open it now,” Baird said.

“Sure thing.”

Vogel tucked the receiver in between his ear and shoulder, and then ran his finger over the top of the envelope, tearing it open. From inside, he pulled out a magazine – a pop music magazine called Sounds and Beats. On the front cover were four scruffy looking lads in their early twenties wearing sweaters and jeans. All four of them were holding a corner of a large Union Jack flag and looking at the camera. None of them were smiling.

The headline read:

THE ANGELICAS: BRITPOP’S LATEST SENSATION!

In particular, Vogel noticed the style of haircuts on the young men – Beatle haircuts.

“What’s this Owen?” he said.

“Are you looking at the magazine?” Baird asked.

“Yeah I am,” Vogel said. “I’m looking. Does Cecilia know you’ve got a thing for these guys?”

Owen Baird laughed. “Have you ever heard of The Angelicas?” he asked. “Come to think of it, have you ever heard of this ‘Britpop’ music phenomenon? It’s going down a storm over here in the UK.”

“Britpop?” Vogel said. “What the hell is Britpop? Is that some sort of limey soda?”

“Not quite,” Baird said. His tone was all business now. “I didn’t think it would be big news in the States. Not yet anyway, hence why I’m getting in touch to give you a nudge. And that’s why I sent that Angelicas article over for you to read.”

“What’s Britpop Owen?”

“Oh it’s a name they’ve given to this sound – this movement – an explosion of guitar bands that’s taken off with all the kids over here. Oasis, Blur – you’ve heard of them, haven’t you?”

“No,” Vogel said.

“Then you’ve absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“No,” Vogel said. “C’mon spit it out Owen. I’m feeling a little delicate here.”

“Listen Frank,” Baird said. “One of the most striking things about Britpop and all these bands is the huge Beatles influence upon them. I mean, look at the haircuts on those lads. They’re all like that, all these bands – they’re all obsessed with ripping off The Beatles apparently.”

Vogel looked at the cover. “Yeah I see the hair,” he said. “But I’m still not sure where you’re going with this.”

“Just read the article,” Baird said. “You’ll understand everything after you’ve read it. Remember, it might be nothing Frank. But you always said you wanted to know about any leads about Lennon.”

Vogel sat up straight. “What’s the lead?”

“The Fifth Angel,” Baird said.

“The what?”

“The Fifth Angel,” Baird said again. “The Angelicas are affectionately known by their fans as ‘the Angels’. It’s like a nickname. You understand?”

“Yeah,” Vogel said.

“The article in that magazine is called ‘The Fifth Angel’. And as you can see from the cover, there are only four members of The Angelicas. Look Frank, it’ll all make sense once you’ve read the article.”

Vogel sighed. It sounded confusing. “You’re saying this is as good as Paris?”

“I am,” Baird said.

Paris had been Owen Baird’s best tip about the whereabouts of John Lennon. It had come six years ago in 1989, before Vogel had left the FBI and before his wife had thrown him out of the family home in Manhattan. Baird had contacted Vogel about an Englishman named Jon Leyden, who was found to be living in Paris at that time. Baird had received word from an MI6 contact based in Paris that Leyden, a British citizen, bore a remarkable resemblance to John Lennon. The MI6 agent had undertaken a short period of part-time surveillance, and after watching Leyden for a few days, was convinced that it was indeed John Lennon.

The agent sent a report to Baird about Leyden’s daily routine. Leyden laid low by day, working as a caretaker in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. He was also discovered to be playing rhythm guitar in a local rock band and occasionally performed in a small club on the outskirts of the city. After finding this out, Baird had subsequently reported the findings to Vogel, who was in Buenos Aires following up on another Lennon lead.

After hearing this, Vogel had abandoned his lead in Argentina. He’d already neglected his immediate duties with the FBI to travel to Buenos Aires, so a few more days in Paris wouldn’t make much difference. He flew to France the next day. The plan was that he would take over from the MI6 agent on surveillance at the Pere Lachaise. Then, if fully convinced that Leyden was Lennon, he would swoop in and take him down.

Vogel had arrived in Paris at about five o’clock in the morning. After freshening up in the airport restroom, he took a taxi straight to Pere Lachaise. In hindsight, he should have gone to the hotel and got some rest, but he was far too excited about the possibility of encountering Lennon again to think about sleep.

The cemetery opened at 8:00 am. Vogel arrived outside the gates almost an hour early, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the caretaker, the man called Jon Leyden.

Time passed slowly. Vogel had positioned himself near the wall at the main gate and sat down for a few minutes. Then his eyelids began to grow heavy. He felt his brain shutting down and everything inside him was crying out for a proper sleep. A few minutes later, he closed his eyes, intending to shut them only for a few minutes. To rest them, as they say.

When Vogel awoke, it was 8.27am.

In a state of panic, he covered every inch of the cemetery – passing the graves of famous and long-dead people such as Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, and Jim Morrison. But no matter how much ground he covered – and he covered a lot – there was no sign of the caretaker. There was no sign of Jon Leyden.

Vogel had returned to the cemetery the following three mornings. But Jon Leyden was never seen or heard of again in Paris. Vogel talked to his employers in the cemetery and with people at the club where Leydon had been known to play occasionally. Nobody had seen him for a few days, they’d said. It was as if he’d just upped and disappeared without a trace.

Vogel had taken this near miss particularly hard. His self-loathing had only increased due to the fact that he’d blown it by falling asleep outside Pere Lachaise. He was convinced that Lennon must have seen him sleeping outside the gates and recognised him as that FBI agent from New York. It was the only explanation for Leyden’s sudden disappearance that made sense.

Vogel had fucked up.

Paris was the best tip he’d ever had in his search for Lennon. And as Baird said, they’d come so close – so close to catching Lennon and ending it. If only Vogel had been able to hold his shit together, it would have happened. Baird’s information had been good then, and Vogel had no reason to believe that this Fifth Angel thing – whatever it was – wasn’t worth looking into further.

“Thanks for this Owen,” Vogel said. “I’ll read the article, but I’m not sure I can just hop on a plane and jet around the world anymore.”

“Do whatever you think best Frank,” Baird said. “Let it go if you have to. God knows, you’ve tried enough as it is.”

“Yeah,” Vogel said. “I’ve tried.”

“Read the article and take it from there,” Baird said. “Okay? And if you think there’s something interesting in all this and you do decide to come over, let me know – we’ll do dinner in the West End. You, me and Cecilia. Our treat.”

“Sure will Owen. Thanks.”

“Let me give you my private number,” Baird said. “If you need to contact me – it’ll save you faffing about trying to get a hold of me at the office. This one comes direct to me.”

Vogel scribbled down the number on the back of a discarded envelope.

“Thanks Owen,” he said. “Appreciate it.”

“Goodbye Frank,” Baird said. “Look after yourself.”

Vogel hung up the phone. He stole another glance at the magazine lying on the desk and before he knew what he was doing, he was reaching across the table, his fingers eagerly turning the pages.

***

FAB: The Fifth Angel is available here.

The first book in the series ‘FAB’ is free to purchase at most retailers – Click here.