Monday, 31 March 2014

Intermission

When you're trying to make sense of life, you begin to realise how much of living involves just staring into space. Trying to latch onto something, you stretch your concentration to try to drag yourself out of the slump. As you try to count how many times they say the word 'murder' on the news, you lose count and slip back into a coma.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Heroes and Villains II - Deep Among The Dead

Deep Among The Dead

The Death Kingdom was no less intimidating, though the welcome was warmer. Admittedly, it was rather unsettling for me passing through gates of bone as ghosts waved me through. Muzzled zombies smiled weakly at me, one going so far as to wave gently, perhaps afraid his feeble arm would fall off. A vampire or two passed, looking distinctly unimpressed at my presence.

It turns out the vampires were on guard duty and had been awake for seventeen hours. Synthetic blood stopped them from swooping on me, and Death Kingdom's permanent darkness kept them alive. They pointed me towards DeathWorld.

I'd never met the Skeleton Master before, but I'd heard of DeathWorld. A death themed amusement park, it had been a crippling commercial failure. The resulting period of economic depression had almost ruined the Death Kingdom. Fortunately for the Skeleton Master, most of the undead required no sustenance.

I found the Skeleton Master just outside the Hall of Uglies. Inside, a series of distorted mirrors added horrific features to those brave enough to peer inside. Extending a slender boned hand, he smiled, a welcome relief after the misery of the King of Stone.

"You know, human, I really wish I could have a cup of tea..."

We sat inside one of the Waltzer units, which had been redesigned as "The Corpser".

Skeleton Master: Not been used in years. We don't get many visitors these days.

Mindsweeper: Misunderstood?

SM: Oh, absolutely. I've tried to raise our profile, you know, let people know we're not as evil as they think we are.

M: Like last year's "Skeleton Master Will Rule The Entire Planet" campaign?

SM: That was intended as a joke. The press got hold of it, and well...

M: Blown out of all proportion?

SM: Exactly.

M: I do admire your sense of humour though. I thought the dead horses were a nice touch.

SM: Dead horses?

M: On the carousel.

SM: Oh yes, I couldn't help myself. It just seemed to work. A kind of kitschy approach to death, take a little of the sting out of it.

M: But you get so few visitors...

SM: Yes, but the initial problem was that they weren't customers. They didn't want death rides. Said we were making a mockery out of something intended to be taken far more seriously.

M: They weren't fans of DeathWorld?

SM: No. Couldn't see the humour in it. I suppose it is easier to see the funny side of death after you're dead. Well, undead. You know what I mean.

M: So how did you go about ending the financial troubles?

SM: Well, after we powered down DeathWorld, our electricity bills… died a death, you might say. As everything remained stationary, it became easier to get photographs. Of course, our rates for photography permits here in Death Kingdom are, to be quite frank, extortionate.

M: People pay though?

SM: Yes. Very reliable source of income. Our economy has improved significantly. We can afford synthetic blood, so the vampire attacks on visitors have been cut by around ninety three percent. That's cut down on the negative press we've been getting. You might say that we're no longer dying on our arse.

M: What about those jealous of your expansion?

SM: Oh, like the religious types who initially opposed us? Our fire pits are full of them. That alone cut what was left of our energy bill in half. We have energy stockpiles and our wizards can animate the bones should we need more guards.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Coping

Some events have a long gestation period in your life. Things stay with you. It might be a riff, it might be an album, it might be the best god-damned performance of your life. It might be a blessing, it might be a church, it might be a funeral. It might be the first moment in your life you realise a family member is going to die.

A lot of people talk about the creative arts being outlets for people who are depressed. I don't want to jump on the bandwagon, claiming depression if I am not clinically depressed. However, I do genuinely believe that poetry and music are a valid outlet for dealing with sadness, and that rather than taking a newspaper's claim that creativity stems from depression or similar at face value, we should attempt to understand the coping mechanism. Perhaps then we can have greater understanding for those with depression and related conditions and can help them and be helped by them.

A couple of years ago, I was in a metal band called Unnatural Selection. We performed at a benefit gig for Macmillan Cancer Relief. In between songs I made jokes and bantered with the guitarist and tried to make the audience laugh. When I attempted to speak about Macmillan Cancer Relief however, I hit a nerve. I mentioned the time my grandfather was dying. I mentioned seeing the words "Needs: TLC" next to my grandfather's name on a board outside the ward. When I asked my mother what it meant, she said "Tender loving care", and I knew my grandfather's death was inevitable. It hurt. Relating the story, I almost burst into tears. I wasn't particularly close to him, but it still hurt. I fought the urge to cry. I managed not to. I went into a short comedy routine about my career as an analytical chemist (a career path initially defined by a desire to fight cancer) and we managed to finish the show.

Recently I wrote a short story about the hospital visit. Trying to make sense of the situation and reframe it. I almost cried writing that too. I didn't. I'm not sure how I managed this time either, but I feel that these creative endeavours have helped me to deal with such an awful situation. Comedy, music, fiction. It all helps. Every word, every note, every laugh like a plaster covering an old wound, keeping you safe while it heals. Maybe it never heals completely, but in that moment, while you're on stage, after all the shaking and the nerves. When that panic fades and you're under the lights? It might go well, it might not, but you went for it. You got up and did it. You faced the fear of the event, and you won. The more I hear of other people winning like this, the more I want to be a part of it. If I can help, if I can make one person smile, then that's enough.


*

Heroes and Villains to return in next post.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Dream Sequence

"Yeah, I had that dream again. Yeah. The hospital. No, I don't get why. I tried to tell you before, I didn't get what he said, he was just a stranger in the waiting room. Then I was a child again, reading a comic book or something."

Every time it was like this, he'd break off then wait for the reply to come. No exhortation to continue. No suggestion of an explanation. Shit. Still dreaming.

"What do you think it means?"

Anger, then silence. No, not anger. Frustration.

"We've been here before. I've been here before, I...

It was the jokes page of Reader's Digest magazine. I've tried to listen to what the man was saying to me, it's like he's mumbling. I want him to shut up so I can concentrate on the jokes. I don't know who he is. I can't see his face. Not properly. I can't hear what he's saying, but he doesn't give up. It's a dream. Faces get blurred, sounds don't come out right. Half remembered maybe, I don't know. He's definitely saying something. Speaking to me. I'm not listening. He's a stranger, I'm not going to...

He asks what I'm reading. No, not what I'm reading, but something similar. Why am I laughing? I point down at the page and the words stop making sense. It's like they're all floating around. The page is wet. His face is clearer now, but the word is blocked out. The man is now my father. He says it's ok.

No. I'm ok, but something is wrong. We have to go, and the water comes again. It might be rain. Do I really have to carry on? I don't want to talk about this anymore. It's dark. We're in the car and it's dark and we're driving away and I don't know what's going on so I close my eyes. Only problem is, when I wake up I'm back in that stupid fucking hospital.

I try to be quiet and listen. I can't hear what the adults are saying but they all look sad and nobody will tell me anything. I read the jokes again and something happens. There's light and I feel safe. I'm scared but safe. Dad's back and we're walking to the car. I can't stop it from happening. Over and over. The same elements again. I try to make sense of it, but something is stopping me."

Across from the couch he's lying on, he sees a nod.

"Please continue."

Hesitating for a moment, he remembers where he is.

"It's the man in the waiting room again. He mumbles something and my page forms the words "tender loving care" and now I'm shaking and crying. Everyone else is sad and I hear the word "disappointed". I try to say something but as I speak the words get washed away by the rain and the rain gets brushed away by the windscreen wipers on the way home. I failed again.

The words echo in my head like a baby playing with a rattle. I can't sleep. I can't focus. I have to know what it means, but there's nothing. Every time relived, there's no end to the mystery, only a child crying, and sad faces crowding around him while he tries to decipher those three words that suddenly have no meaning. I can't see what they are all so sad about. I lean over to peer in between them, then I fall to my knees, clutching my stomach. That's when it happens.

My grandfather's face. The man in the waiting room. Eyes closed. The pain gets worse and I try to scream but nothing comes. I close my own eyes and see the jokes page from the magazine again. It stops hurting for a moment until the words rearrange again before my eyes. The pain sharpens to a knife point as I see them. Tender loving care. He died of stomach cancer in 1993. There was nothing any of us were able to do. My dad stopped the car."

**

This is based on my experience of my grandfather dying when I was about 9 years old. We weren't especially close, but it's an experience which has shaped much of my life since. It influenced my choice of career as well as seeping into various other parts of my life. I've tried to make sense of it, to rationalise it, and I don't know if I can. It was also a catalyst in me leaving the Catholic church. I was raised a Catholic (not in a very strict manner, I thank my parents for that), but after this, I just couldn't believe in that version of God any more.

http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/support-us/donate/donate-money

Thank you for reading.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Vegan Brownies recipe

I was recently asked to adapt my chocolate brownie recipe to a vegan version. Here goes:

Vegan Brownies

1 bar vegan chocolate, approx 85-100g (use your preferred brand), broken into small pieces
1 tablespoon golden syrup
100g vegan butter equivalent (plus extra for greasing)
~75g caster sugar
~25g molasses sugar

1 sachet vegetarian gelatin
2 teaspoons vanilla essence (possibly 2 tablespoons, can’t quite remember - this can be substituted for alcohol of choice)

110g strong flour (you can use white, but spelt or wholemeal also work well)
2 tablespoons good quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder (this is pretty much bicarbonate of soda, they’re more or less interchangeable)

1. Preheat oven to gas mark 5 (190°C, 375°F).

2. Grease a cake tin (20cm diameter, 3-5cm deep should be fine, though I like using a square tin as it allows easier portioning. Silicone ones allow easier removal. If metal, springform tins are the best, as they leave the brownies easier to remove.

2. Prepare gelatin as per instructions on packet (~200mL water should be enough). You don’t need it to set completely, as this leaves it in roughly the same physical state as eggs would be, and leaves you with gooey brownies.

3. Stir in vanilla essence or alcohol.

4. In a saucepan, add chocolate, sugars, butter and golden syrup. Melt, with stirring over the lowest heat possible. When smooth, remove from heat and allow to cool.

5. Add chocolate mixture to gelatin, and whisk until combined.

6. Sift flour, cocoa powder and baking powder into the mixture and fold in with a metal spoon.

7. Pour mixture into the greased tin, and bake for ~25 minutes until the cake starts to come away from the sides of the tin.

8. Remove from oven and allow to cool in tin for about 10-15 minutes.

9. Turn brownies out of tin and allow to cool on a wire rack.

10. Cut into segments and enjoy with a cup of good coffee.

11. Wash up. (Shit, do I have to?)







HEROES AND VILLAINS - Part One - The King of Stone

This is the start of a new series called Heroes and Villains that I've started working on.

Wrote the first part after seeing Frozen at the cinema. Been sporadically doing new bits. So I guess Mindsweeper isn't dead.

HEROES AND VILLAINS
I - THE KING OF STONE

To the casual observer, the Stone Kingdom can be a bleak and frightening place. Ancient edifices tower above any visiting human, while golems shuffle around to their daily work in silence. Emotion is not unwelcome, but it is largely ignored. The citizens of this kingdom are just too busy. It is for this reason that I entered the Obsidian Castle with some trepidation.

Worker golems are intimidating enough, but the castle guards are enormous. Eyeless beings capable of freezing men in terror, their razor axes always ready to split skin from bone. I was waved through to my audience with the King of Stone. I am sure I saw one of them smile.

MINDSWEEPER: Thank you, Stone King, for granting us this audience with you.

Stone King: Where is the rest of the audience? Sorry, that was a joke. I am not used to people.

M: It is fine. With all due respect, your Highness, why have we been granted audience with you?

SK: We feel that the Stone Kingdom is unfairly represented in your… I don't know your words very well… literature?

M: That's correct.

SK: Your journal men have been unkind to us. We have been called cold, unfeeling, but we are not monsters. I have even been called a psychosis.

M: A psychopath?

SK: Yes. That word. We are not entirely without emotion, but our focus is absolute.

M: The humans will be interested to hear of this.

SK: I have loved, once.

M: Once?

SK: An ill fated romance with the one called The Hammer Queen. It is a sad story, familiar to my people. It is the origin of the gloom of the Kingdom of Stone.

M: And you wish to tell us more?

SK: In the hope it will bring understanding and harmony between our tribes. Understanding and harmony such as I sought once, long ago, from the Hammer People. The Hammer Queen is a great and powerful ruler, though she is lonely. It was said that no man would be able to withstand her embrace. When visiting me with her Trade Minister, she spoke to me, and told me that she found me intriguing. She spoke highly of your people, and your industries, and pleaded with me to reconsider our mistrust of humans. After the welcoming feast that evening, we danced, and she embraced me. My court fell silent as my stone skin withstood the blows of her hammers, which wrapped around me as we danced. A trade pact was signed and we agreed further talks regarding uniting our territories. Before we were able to complete the matter, I became gravely ill.

Close to death, suspicion fell upon our new friends. Even as she vowed to nurse my shattered heart back to health, I was forced to banish her from my Kingdom.

-A tear fell from the Stone King's face. A single tear, alone, slowly dripped down his cheek, as though reluctant to leave him-

SK: Our wizards were able to keep me alive, though my heart remains in pieces. They charmed me so that I may only cry one tear per year, to limit the damage I would otherwise do to my face. How I wish I could cry out the pain! I have been forbidden access to the Hammer Kingdom. The people fear retribution, yet I seek none. I merely wish to undo the damage done. Please, please tell her I'm sorry.

-The stone King appeared to be in pain, his facial contortion suggesting he was attempting to squeeze out a tear that he knew could not come. Shortly after, I was asked to leave the Castle.