Coals of Fire: The Golem (VI)

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Coals of Fire: Kindling

The Golem: Part VI

 

I begin to keep count of the days. Well, the space between sleeps, anyway. I’m no longer aimless, lost in the dark. I have something to keep me going, something to motivate me to more than just animal existence. I spend as much time as I can against the wall, listening for any faint sound, any proof that she is still there. Sometimes I knock on the plaster, or call for her, and because I don’t know her name I call her ‘Woman’. I don’t know if she minds: she doesn’t reply.

After a week I begin to think that maybe I was imagining things. Maybe she was just in my head, a way my mind came up with to cope with its slow collapse. Maybe I’m finally going mad. I wonder if a madman knows he’s mad. If he knows, how can he be mad? Would only a madman think the things I’m thinking now? Do the insane have enough presence of mind to be aware of the state they’re in, what they’re doing and saying? Are they just unable to communicate it? I think how terrible it would be to be aware of your own madness, and unable to do anything about it. I dream that I am a puppet, and someone is making me dance and caper in front of a roomful of children, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I resort to the CD player again, desperate to hear the sound of a voice, even if it is just a recording. I put on an audiobook: The White Ship by H.P. Lovecraft — but it’s a depressing story, so I turn it off and choose something from the music section instead. They have become very good at anticipating my tastes, and I generally find something that I like: the ballads of the 70s and 80s in particular, or anything by Simon and Garfunkel. Listening to the opening lines of The Sound of Silence always makes me laugh.

But this time the music is unfamiliar: a tinny piano playing a couple of opening chords, then a disjointed mass of children’s voices cascading over each other, eventually forming something like lyrics. … all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all …

I skip to the next track. Another piano intro, then the children’s choir again: … to Calvary he went for me, he went for me, he went for me; all the way to Calvary he went for me, and now he sets me free …

This time I listen to the whole thing. It’s the kind of song I remember from school assemblies, and it brings back the memories vividly: the squeak of rubber soles on the school hall floor; the smell of pee from the dirty boy in the row behind; the ribbon in Sally Jessop’s hair; the booming voice of Mr. Dunstable exhorting us in the Christian virtues of Honesty, Charity, and Mercy. It’s that kind of song, but it’s not the same — those songs were pathetic, milk-white imitations of religion, more concerned with morality than with the fate of a never-dying soul. I remember wondering once what an infinitely powerful, never-dying being whose intellect was as high above ours as the heaven is above the earth would find to interest him in the tuneless squawkings of a hall full of ten-year-olds. When I put the question to the parish vicar, Reverend Littleworth, he referred me to Mr. Dunstable for a beating.

But this song, the song that’s playing now, is different. As far as the heaven is above the earth, so far is the conviction in this song above those we used to sing. It is a song, primarily, about death; and that’s really what all of religion boils down to, isn’t it? What to do about death; how to face it; how to survive it. Because if there’s one thing scientists will never be able to explain, it’s what happens after we die. What happens to that part behind the eyes that fears death more than disability or pain. What happens when the neurons stop transmitting and the electrical charge in our brains registers as zero, and the process of cellular degeneration accelerates into certain decay. Do we linger? Does the soul pass over into another life? Are we judged by a supreme being, or are we reborn to live again?

Another quote comes to me, another of the songs from my youth: Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.

Will that happen to me, I wonder? Will time bear me away, through death and into eternity, to be forgotten by the people I knew? At a certain point it stops being about religion and just comes down to the primal dichotomy: life and death, and what we do about it.

Because the short, brutal answer is: there’s nothing we can do.

The song comes to an end, and in the few seconds of silence between tracks I hear the echo of her voice, trailing the last few notes away into darkness.

At least I am not alone.

*

After a week, we begin to talk.

Going is slow at first — she is scared, and suspicious, and she still believes I am one of them. But, like me, she is starved of human contact, and the prospect of a voice — any voice — is something she cannot ignore.

We make a bargain: I will play her religious songs, if she agrees to talk to me. I promise I will not ask about who she is, or where she is from; our conversation will be light, meaningless, vapid. We will talk of the weather, of old acquaintances, of places we have been and meals we have eaten, of sights and smells and sounds long since withered into the withered husk of a memory. We will remind each other of such things as what it is like to walk in the sun, to drink coffee in a café, to watch birds in the park, to sit by the sea, to eat popcorn in a darkened cinema, to work in an office with colleagues and computers and the all-important water cooler. I can no longer picture any of these things, but her words are soothing to me, and they stir within me some ghost of a memory, so that I know that they are familiar even if they are not remembered.

I tell her my name, and she tells me hers: Mary. It is a good name, I say, though I have no idea whether it is or not. It is the only name beside my own that I remember now — for this reason alone, it is good.

We talk — or rather, she talks, and I listen, straining my imagination to visualise the scenes she describes; but my colours have all faded, and the world of my past is a hazy fog of grey. I remember the fact of the matter, rather than the thing itself. I know, for example, that I had a job before this place, and that it was as a guard in an office. But which office, and where, and who my colleagues were, and what I did day to day — these things are gone forever.

I remember that I went to school, and the kinds of song we used to sing — but not the words, nor the faces of my classmates. If I try to visualise them they emerge amorphous from the haze, and I flinch away from the memory.

So we talk, and I play her religious songs, and we form a kind of bond. But still she keeps her distance. There are some things she will not speak of: family, for one, or her home. She will not speak of the specifics of her job. She remembers far more than me, but she is holding it back. She is guarding herself from me, and I suppose she still suspects me of being one of them.

Our conversations begin to stir something deep within me, something I thought had been lost forever. I begin to yearn to feel the sun again, to hear the sound of traffic and smell the smog of the city. When I fall asleep at night I strain to dream myself into that bright waking world, and when I wake my heart twists with the bitterness of my reality.

Slowly, but surely and steadily, I begin to think of escape.

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Coals of Fire: The Golem (V)

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Coals of Fire: Kindling

The Golem: Part V

“Drink this.”

The neck of a bottle was pressed between his lips, and tepid water spilled out over his chin and his neck. Some of it found its way into his mouth and down his throat, but it stuck there and he coughed it up again.

The bottle was taken away. Someone sighed.

“Try again. And this time, drink it. I can’t waste water on you, my friend. Are we agreed?”

There was a pause. Waiting for an acknowledgement. He nodded.

This time most of the water went into his belly. It was not nearly enough to slake his choking thirst, but when he opened cracked lips to ask for more it did not come.

“Not now, my friend. We must be wise. There’s no telling how long we’ll be stuck here.”

Where is here? It took a minute or two to communicate the question, so dry and cracked was he, and so weak from blood loss. Whoever was caring for him, they were patient.

“I can’t tell you that, I’m afraid. Some desert. But I don’t know where. Africa, Asia, South America, North America: one of those. Not that it matters. What matters is getting more water, and food if we can. And staying alive.”

How long have we been here?

“No more than two days. I think they dropped us in stages. You must have been one of the last.”

And what are we doing here?

He was answered by a laugh. “Staying alive, my friend. As the Beegees taught us. Staying alive.”

*

When night came he was strong enough to rise, and there was no sunlight to hurt his eyes and blind him. At first he found walking difficult: every step sent throbbing waves of pain radiating from his shoulder and his side. But when he inspected the wounds he found them clean, and dressed with patches of white gauze.

He staggered to the mouth of the cave and looked out on darkness. It was large darkness, with none of the cramped claustrophobia of his cell. A canyon was there, he was told, an ancient riverbed perhaps, and their shelter somewhere up one of the walls that enclosed it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the clean desert air. Already the heat was fading. Night in the desert was cold, he had heard. He hoped they had blankets.

He looked up, his eyes adjusting to their new-found sight. Orion winked at him. He tried to remember what he knew of astronomy. Did that mean they were in the northern hemisphere? Could he tell how close to the equator they were? But it was useless. He had never been taught those things, and he had never taught himself. He lived in a world of GPS and mobile phones and the internet. What need did he have of such archaic knowledge?

He turned. The fire at the back of the cave was a bright spot in his vision, and still it hurt to look directly at it. He closed his eyes almost all the way and squinted through the lashes. It was better, but far from satisfactory.

“Here.” His saviour beckoned from near the fire. He stumbled over and received a length of silk, folded double. “Tie it around your eyes,” his saviour told him. “It will help with the firelight.”

The silk dimmed and blurred the world, but he no longer had to squint.

“What about your eyes?” he asked. “Don’t they hurt you?”

“Whatever they did to you, they did not do to me.”

“They kept me in darkness. I don’t know how long I stayed there. I think I went mad. I don’t know anything apart from my name.”

“And what is your name?”

“Colin. Colin Ashwood.”

“Anything else?”

“No.” He had tried that afternoon, mentally wrestling with the void in his memory; but you cannot wrestle with nothing, and he had given up, exhausted. “What about you?”

“My name is Mohammed,” his saviour replied. “I am from Somalia. I was a soldier, fighting for the liberation of my people.” There was no mistaking the note of pride in his voice.

“Your English is excellent.”

“I was educated at an English school. My parents were very wealthy. My father owned oil interests, and was a shrewd businessman.”

“How did you get here?”

“Much the same as you, I imagine. I was taken, and imprisoned for a long time — I suspect it was months. They took away your sight; they took away my hearing. When I woke in my cell I was deaf — I could not even hear the sound of my own voice, or the blood beating around my body. Maybe it was a test; maybe it was torture.” Mohammed chuckled softly. “I have been tortured before, and endured much worse. I accepted the silence, and spent much of my time praying and recalling passages of the Q’uran. I reasoned that Allah was testing me somehow, and that to fight my test was to doubt Him. It was not easy — the physical confinement took its toll, and there were times when I despaired of ever leaving that cell — but my faith upheld me.

“My imprisonment ended when I awoke in mid-fall over this desert. My hearing had returned, and with it a measure of strength and determination. When my parachute opened I was prepared. I scanned my surroundings and pinpointed landmarks, such as this ravine and the hills around it, and when I landed I gathered everything they had given me and made my way towards this place.”

Colin glanced down at the tiny heap beside the fire. “Is that all you have?”

“Yes. Everything. And yours, as well.”

Colin reached down for the aluminium water canteen. He lifted the silk scarf and squinted at it in the flickering firelight. On the base of the bottle, etched into the metal, was a symbol: two circles, one within the other, bisected by a line.

He held it out. “What’s this?”

Mohammed leaned forward, a shadow amongst shadows, and peered at the symbol. “You do not remember this?” he asked.

“Should I?”

“It is the mark of a powerful organisation. Very powerful.”

“Powerful enough to kidnap us and drop us out of a plane into the desert?”

Mohammed took the canteen and gently replaced it with the rest of his things. “Perhaps we should not be concerning ourselves with such questions,” he said. “Perhaps we should be concerning ourselves with the business of survival.”

“Aren’t you curious about why we’re here? Don’t you want to know why they’ve done this?”

“Yes, and yes. But now is not the time. Now is the time for eating, and drinking, and the finding of food and water. Without these we will die, and there will be no more use for questions. First we must live.”

Mohammed rose and stretched himself, and for the first time Colin saw how tall he was: tall and lithe and lean, like a whip. Still his face was shadowed, cast in darkness by the low firelight and the shifting silk. He bent and gathered up a roll of the parachute.

“I go to pray,” he said. “Will you join me?”

“I’m not a religious man.”

“No man is truly religious, Colin Ashwood. But we all worship something. I worship Allah, and I render Him my prayers as a sign of fealty. Tell me, to what do you pray in time of trouble?”

“Nothing.”

He could sense rather than see the other man’s smile.

“Maybe you pray to nothing, my friend; but I guarantee that you pray.”

He strode away towards the mouth of the cave, leaving Colin alone.

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A change of name

Some of you may have noticed that the name on my books does not match the name on my blog. Who is this Wainwright fellow masquerading as the loveable Hughes we all know so well?

Well, it’s me. E. A. Hughes is (was) my pen-name. I may still use it, but for now I’m going to start going by my real name.

I chose to use a pen name when I first started writing, for three reasons:

  1. I hated the way my name looked.
  2. I didn’t want to be stuck on the bottom right-hand corner of every bookshelf in every bookshop and library in the world.
  3. I had a fond metafictional notion of including Edwin Allison Hughes into the story, in a Lemony Snicket sort of way.

In the end, however, I’ve decided that I’d rather have my real name on my work, especially now I’m getting more popular around the school. It just makes sense not to confuse the kids, and it’s too much work to design two covers for every single book I print.

So what do you reckon? Is E. A. Hughes better than Matthew Wainwright? Does one have more cachet than the other? Any favourite pen-names from history? Any views on using a pen name? Anyone feel betrayed and violated (anyone?)?

Rest assured I am still the same person.

Oh, and Coals of Fire II: The Golem is gathering pace. More news soon.

Thanks all.


Steel & Stone — Available FREE on Amazon Kindle

SteelandStoneCover

Don’t forget to download your free copy of The Endless Circle I: Steel & Stone from Amazon. It’s free, folks — there’s no point in not giving it a go. If you don’t have a Kindle you can always download the Kindle app (available for most mobile devices).

Go on. Try it. I promise you’ll like it.

Download Here


Special Offer on The Endless Circle: Steel & Stone

Hi all,

To celebrate the release of the updated edition of Steel & Stone, the Kindle edition will be available for free from Wednesday until Sunday. If you haven’t already, please do get over to Amazon and give it a go. I know it’s sometimes a risk getting on board with a new series, so here’s a risk-free way to have a taste of the book.

I’m currently formatting Coals of Fire I: Emberlight for eBook publication, and am in the middle of writing the second book in the series, The Golem. I’m hoping that I’ll have a few more minutes here and there at work to bash out a paragraph or two, so I should have some more news for you soon.

As always, thanks for reading.

Oh, and enjoy.


Time Will Tell

Matt Wainwright:

A great post about diversity in fantasy. We need more people thinking like this within the genre – or any genre.

I know I’m guilty of not including enough proper female characters, and this is something I’m trying to put right.

How do you feel about diversity in fantasy, especially about disability? Do you feel all different groups could be represented better?

Originally posted on Guild Of Dreams:

by Chantal Boudreau

I had a reader thank me the other day for including my gnomish character Cerissa June, or “Reeree” as she is better known, as a heroine in my Masters & Renegade fantasy series. “Finally, someone like me,” she said. “Someone my age – someone who thinks like I do.”

Cerissa June, you see, is a plump, middle-aged woman who prefers to think things through rather than act on impulse. She is intelligent and educated, having spent the better part of her life working as a schoolteacher, but she also has the experience and wisdom as a result of her advanced years, an advantage not shared by her younger wizard cohorts.

While you may see a grizzled veteran sidekick or mentor on occasion, the main characters in speculative fiction are rarely the very young, unless a story is intended for children, or older people. Perhaps because of a…

View original 482 more words


Things that get in the way

I’ll say this for working at a school: the holidays are well-earned.

It’s quite popular these days to bash teachers and teaching staff for the amount of time they get off, but believe me: they deserve it. Imagine trying to do your job (whatever you do), with all of its paperwork, admin, on-line and off-line tasks, meetings, demands and requirements — but instead of being left in peace (or disturbed by the occasional adult presence) you’re interrupted every two minutes by a tearful / bemused / angry teenager who believes they are the only one on the face of the planet who is entitled to your time. And they need you right now, or the world will most probably end.

Then you realise that, in fact, you’re only allowed to be in your office for three hours a week (not counting lunch and breaks, amounting to an hour and ten minutes every day), unless you decide to stay late or come in early — and even then, nine times out of ten you will still be disturbed by the hormonally unbalanced adolescents because they are in detention / need help with homework / need help with bullies / are so far behind on their coursework that the finish line is a dot on the horizon.

Oh, and they’re deaf.

So, that’s my life now. When I was updating this blog on a regular basis, about a year and a half ago, I was working as an agency / freelance interpreter, and I had regular three hour breaks in the middle of the day that were mine to fill as I saw fit. So I wrote my books.

Now I have no time. None. Unless you count the holidays, which I spend with my pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter. Right now my daughter is holding a running conversation with me about what things in the room are (“Is this a ticket?” “Is this a star?”). Oh, and she’s singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and trying to give me presents.

Sorry, this is turning into a bit of a whine. Let’s move on to the good news.

Last week was World Book Day, and I was invited as ‘resident author’ of the school to deliver a reading of my latest book, ‘Emberlight’, to any students who might care to come, followed by a Q&A. To my surprise and gratification the library space I had been assigned quickly filled up — not just with students, but staff as well. They all listened intently as I read, and by the end of the session the room was full to capacity and then some.

The questions they asked were excellent, mostly along the lines of ‘how hard is it to be an author’ and ‘where do you get your ideas from’, but with some real zingers thrown in about the dedication required to commit to writing as a career choice.

Following the reading event I was approached by several members of staff wanting to know where they could get their hands on the books — and so I have had a pretty profitable week of sales around the school. I was even spoken to by one of the Heads of Year hinting about the possibility of placing a big order so they could get the books into classrooms (the thinking being that if the students know the person who wrote the book they are more likely to read it).

This has pushed me to re-release my first two books on Kindle, after realising that, yes, people really do want to read my books. (Shameless plug: the first can be found here and the second here.)

Which brings me on to my third and final point: why do I write? This is a question that comes up time and again on blogs and sites all over the internet, and this is my turn to pose it.

Firstly, I write because I love to. I am one of those people who derives incredible satisfaction from a well-turned phrase or an elegantly plotted story, more so if I am the person who has turned or plotted the phrase or tale in question. Writing for me is a form of catharsis, a way of pouring out stress and anxiety. The worlds I create are places where no demands are placed upon me, and I am in ultimate control.

Secondly, I write in the hope of personal gain. Never more has this been evident than now. Looking back over the past year and a half, I have written perhaps ten to twenty pages of various different stories, but I have been unable to commit myself fully to any of them. Family and work pressures have come between me and my writing, and I have been compelled to put it aside for a time.

The thing that has enabled me to pick it up again is the promise of money. This is it, pure and simple. People have been buying my books, and so I have seen the possibility of being able to carry on writing and actually get something from it other than personal satisfaction.

It is my belief that, for me, personal satisfaction alone will never be enough to encourage me to write other than in stunted drips and drabs. Giving up time with my family, or putting off work tasks, simply to enjoy myself — well, this just feels selfish. But if there is the promise of profiting from it in a tangible fashion, this is an entirely different story.

Many of the authors I have interacted with on WordPress and other sites have been young people in their early twenties with few earthly ties or responsibilities. Invariably, when someone posts apologising for or complaining of their lack of output, it comes down to pressures of family, work or study.

I remember writing my way through my GCSEs and A-Levels (high school and college, US readers?), to the detriment of my studies. I remember being utterly consumed with stories that never made it into the public arena, and which have now (mercifully) been lost to posterity. But as soon as I got married and started a family, there were always a thousand and one reasons why I could not write — and legitimate reasons, at that.

So here is my question: why do you write? Is it purely for the satisfaction? Is it for therapy? Is it because you feel you ‘have to’? Those with families and full-time jobs — how do you manage? How do you deal with any guilt that may arise when you sit down at that keyboard / notepad / iPad in the evening / morning, knowing full well that there is washing to be done, skirting boards to be fixed, children to be played with, accounts to be set in order?

Thanks to all my wonderful readers for reading, and kudos to you writers for continuing to write. Let me know what you think in the comments below.


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