SS: There Will Be Fire

[Warning: this story contains scenes which some may find distressing]

They say writing a novel is a form of suicide, and by that definition suicide is an attempt at fiction.

The 8:28 from Euston to Brixton was stifling, and I suffered under the extra one-hundred-and-ten pounds not leaving my apartment for three months had accumulated.

It was standing room only, but that suited me fine. See, I have this habit: I need to touch the door of any vehicle I’m travelling in five times between stops. It’s been that way ever since I was a child. Honestly, pick any car journey between the ages of three and twenty-five and you’ll find me with my legs jammed up against the handle, tapping out my little rhythm between pairs of red traffic-lights.

One, two – rest – three, four five.

My mother used to call it a mark of indecision, because she could never tell whether I was strapped in for the ride, or ready to bolt at the next give-way sign. As I got older she stopped speaking metaphors and just told me outright that my life lacked ambition, direction.

My life doesn’t lack direction; its direction just points North instead of South.

And as for ambition …

The second reason I preferred standing was that I liked to imagine the look of ignominy on my fellow passengers’ faces when they realized they had kept a writer on his feet. That’s right, I’m a writer. I move like a God among ants, and one day you won’t be able to breathe for being confronted by my name.

I’m working on something right now. Let’s call it an autobiographical account.

And that’s a question I get asked a lot: how much of yourself do you put into what you write?

I filled a page with the word ‘me’ printed three-hundred-and-fifty times. Multiple of five.

That’s how much I’m putting in.

Outside it’s mid-July and ground temperatures exceed ninety-five Fahrenheit – hot enough to melt through the soles of your shoe. Actually I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I like the image of rubber blotting the sidewalk like ink on acid paper. And if you’ve ever travelled on days like today, you’ll know the distinctive smell which comes from packing too many bodies together in an unventilated carriage. Moist, earthy and yet somehow viscous, it sticks to your clothes, making you feel dirty by proximity.

And, predictably, someone always gets the taste of human body odour stuck square at the back of their throat, begins to cough like it’s something they think they can disgorge. Then, within seconds, the sound ricochets from all angles like a misfire in an empty room.

Did I mention I hated public transport?

Between the first and second stations I tap out my rhythm: one, two – rest – three, four, five, interrogate my reflection against the underground and decide that I am nominal. Five-eleven, dark-haired, clean-shaven, I blend seamlessly into the crowd; all at once anybody and nobody. The bulge beneath my grey Pea Coat could easily be muscle, except that it ticks along to an external heart-beat. Tick-tick. Tick-tick.

I don’t know why anyone else writes, but me, I do it because I’m bored. I don’t mean that I’m dissatisfied or disillusioned with life, just that I’m bored of being me and I want to try on someone else for a while. Maybe you know what I mean?

Do you ever just get bored of being you? Listen to yourself speak and think, my God, I wish someone would put a bullet through my brain?

No? Well then you’re probably not a writer.

And when I’m writing this is the part I always seem to struggle with most, because I know we’ve ended up somewhere different from where we began. That was the one consistent criticism I used to get: ‘If you’re describing a train then describe the train. Detail. Concrete detail. What’s going on outside your head?’

But personally I’ve just always preferred digression. I’m a regular Holden Caulfeild in that sense. People don’t want to know what you did, they want to know how you felt about it. They want to know what makes you tick. Tick-tick. Tick-tick.

So I could tell you that someone had spilt a bottle of diet Coke, which was slowly etching the tree of life beneath our feet; that the red-headed woman in seat nine had an infant daughter who got frequently anxious on the underground; that someone had immortalized their love for Callum, circa 2005, on my door with a compass point; or that the train was late to every station where it vomited out passengers like they left a bad taste.

I could tell you all of that, but it would be a waste of both our times. See, you want to know what I’m doing here. You want to know what I’m planning to do with what you assume I have strapped to my chest. Everything else is just stalling. Irrelevant. Digression.               

There’s this game I like to play, actually it’s what first convinced me to become a writer. You take your setting and imagine the worst possible situation, then drop yourself in the centre of it and watch how you react. Ant under a magnifying glass.

So, for example, if you’re driving down the motorway, maybe the HGV in the outer lane hits a bump and tips. Right on top of your little Ford KA, wiping it off the road like a bug.

That sort of thing, you know?

And maybe you’re asking how that transfigures into becoming a writer? The ability to turn banal reality into something tragic is precisely what fiction is.

Right now, with the carriage exceeding maximum capacity, and that intimate bodily smell creeping so far up my nose I can taste it, the worst thing I can possibly imagine is The Final Solution. The freights which carried so many non-Aryans to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau.

But because I’m already on the train and no-where near the centre of the situation, I instead imagine myself as being responsible for the sheer fastidious precision necessary to transport so much live cargo. The last three months have taught me the substance of that condition, after all.

And did you know, when they asked Eichmann – who was writing his memoirs in a Jerusalem prison at the time no less – what he thought about his actions, he said: ‘I was only following orders.’

Only following orders. Jesus Christ.

There’s a scrap of paper pinned to my wall at home. The writing’s all but illegible now but I can tell you that it reads: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Ernest Hemingway.

Personally I thought Ernest Hemingway was shit, but I admired him for saying that. Writers, for the most part, are pathological liars. You say something intelligent about our work and we’ll tell you we intended it all along. We didn’t intend shit. The acorn wasn’t a symbol for kinetic potential, it was an acorn.

You gave it meaning.

But I don’t necessarily agree that all first drafts are bad. Do anything for the first time and you do it with so much heart and vision that it’s practically a masterpiece in its own right. Beyond that all writing becomes too conscious of itself.

My own account – which I’ve already told you I’m working on now – will only ever have one official draft. The rest of the world will take care of the re-writes.

I’m really sweating under my coat now, so much so that the red-head from seat nine offers me a sympathetic smile. She assumes I’m wearing it for work: nominal. I smile back in a way that says, ‘needs must’ and, ‘what can you do, right?’ Then peel the collar away from my neck, just long enough for her to glimpse the vest I’m wearing underneath.

And quick enough for her to doubt if she sees what she really sees.

She grips her infant daughter like a vice.

Two stations left before the big reveal.

One, two – rest – three, four, five.

You’re desperately trying to figure out my motive. Who I’m working for. What I believe. Maybe you’ve already got some ideas, though I haven’t consciously given you anything to play with. But that’s what it means to be a reader, doesn’t it? This may be my work, but ultimately it’s your opinion which counts.

And every writer eventually gets asked to provide an analogy of writing. What is writing like? What does it mean to be a writer? By this point all the best analogies have run dry, been peddled and peddled so many times that even their perfect simplicity sounds hackneyed. Do you know how hard it is to be original when everything has been said and seen before?

Well, I never said I was without ambition …

Writers are like suicide bombers.

They arm their little home-made projects with enough destructive potential to hit half the population at minimum, then they smuggle them out into the world, with no thought of who they might injure, or who might get caught in the cross-fire. And writing, at its heart, is nothing more or less than a suicide of self: a grandiose and theatrical desire to be someone else.

You don’t agree with me?

That’s okay, I don’t agree with many things either. Maybe we’re a lot alike?

No, maybe not.

It doesn’t matter either way, Brixton’s the next stop.

One, two – rest – three, four, five.

I slowly push away from the door, make a show of swiping the back of my hand across my forehead and grin:

‘Boy it’s hot in here, isn’t it? Aren’t you hot?’

Fifty pairs of eyes pin me like and insect to a minuten. Like they’ve already guessed my secret.

Who wears a Pea Coat in July who isn’t hiding something?

Well, I’m nothing if not obliging.

I begin to peel back my collar by inches, allowing them to appreciate the full effect of what I’m about to unveil. I’m grinning like a maniac, so much so that even I find my smile unnerving and I don’t have to look at it. For once the bite is so much better than the anticipation.

A pre-emptive scream breaks the spell of disbelief, followed hot-foot by a rush of horrified realization, hissing like a viper’s whisper:

This is real – –

This is happening.

Suddenly people are running. Hysterically, desperately, selfishly running; fighting each other to fit through the door and into one of the previous carriages. My girl from seat nine is crying silently, isolated on the edge of panic. She alone does not attempt to run. Instead she calmly folds her body around her baby’s, as if the will of a mother could supersede anything.

Even this.

The warning shout filters down the train:

‘Bomb! There’s a bomb! Some lunatic’s wearing a vest!’

I throw off my coat with all the glory of Hamlet casting aside his cloak of madness. The little red eye in the centre of my chest blinks like a searchlight in the confusion – fast as any heartbeat.

Then the train shudders and shunts as it screeches to a halt, threatening to part company with the distended tracks. People who thought they were safe are thrown back into my carriage, where they lie like dogs scrabbling to gain a footing; trying to claw their way back to the door which they believe might just save them, if only they can put it between us.

I grin and grin because all of this is hilarious: the first draft and it’s already sensational.

Now for the grand crescendo.

I poise my finger a half-inch above the detonator, drinking in the final, fatal moment –

– Then someone tackles me from behind. An all-American classic quarterback takedown.

My chin smashes against the floor and I’m choking on blood before I can breathe. For a moment, the carriage contracts to a legato of pain. Then, slowly, I become aware of someone lying with their whole weight across my back, pinning me so I can’t move. So my fingers can’t dial their closing curtain call.

I’ve travelled this far in the first carriage. The only person capable of taking me from behind is the driver; setting himself up as the hero opposite my villain.

How deliciously dramatic.

It’s agony to laugh through my broken jaw, but somehow I just can’t seem to stop. I cough out strings of blood like rosary garlands to decorate the tree of life, whose sticky, sucralose trunk lies directly under me.

We’ll all be laughing down at Brixton station later, too. When the police discover that the explosive vest I have taken such careful pains to strap to my chest is completely and unequivocally inert. No more dangerous than a replica.

A replica to which everybody else assigned meaning.

And why? Why anything?

They say writing a novel is a form of suicide, and by that definition suicide is an attempt at fiction.

I wouldn’t know either way.

I never wanted to be a writer.

[This story does not condone extremist behaviour. Neither is it intended to cause offence]


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