Electricity is a Podcasted Novel by Myke Bartlett, author of "How to Disappear Completely." A new chapter appears every Tuesday.
Myke Bartlett is an author who has lived in a variety of places but calls Melbourne home for now.
April 2007 May 2007 June 2007 July 2007 August 2007 October 2007 December 2007 September 2008 June 2009
Electricity: a podcasted novel by myke bartlett
Aston Somerfield, casual smoker and part-time alcoholic, has come to London to find himself. He knows who he's looking for, he's seen him on the cover of the NME. Drawn across oceans by fame and fate, Aston is keeping his diary empty to make sure he's available. Won't commit to anything until it's everything.
London, however, has other ideas.
When a virtual stranger calls Aston a few hours before his death, fate catches up with him, derailing his barely-made plans. Amid a hundred boozy evenings and romantic deadends, a mystery unfurls.
Equally assisted and hindered by tremulous accountant Tom Hensley and dedicated loafer Steven Black, Aston uncovers a different London, one of murder, ghosts, dangerous emails and the second big bang.
As chaotic and random as the city it inhabits, Electricity gradually evolves into a mystery bigger than the universe itself. Being of a somewhat useless persuasion, Aston does his best to ignore it.
E N T R I E S
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Missing Chapter 1: A Holiday Romance
Due to general end-of-school-term panic and a visiting sibling, Episode 4 might be delayed a few days. I've actually recorded about half of it but had to stop yesterday due to these record breaking rains we've had. They should, regrettably, be audible in the finished product. Think of it as extra atmosphere.
As compensation to you, my faithful listener, find a little bonus snippet below.
The following is a chapter cut from Episode 2 of Electricity. It was trimmed for a couple of reasons, mainly because I felt it didn't progress the story at all but also because the tone of it is a little harsher than the finished product. I think when I started writing Electricity, I had a vision of it as a darker, grittier text. It was going to be a little drunker and little more sexually corrupt. This chapter was deliberately written to be uncomfortable and a little confronting but shortly afterwards I lightened up. Maybe it had just been a bad week. As it is now, I don't think it really fits with the rest of the novel and easily became a throwaway line. All the same, it's hopefully an interesting read nonetheless.
We begin this lost fragment of the novel just after Tom and Aston have been for their first drunken night.
I had my reasons for wanting to be out of the hostel with somewhere to be. Tourist attractions were out, primarily for reasons of expense – I had quickly lost all notion of expensive in London; prices only ranged from ridiculous to absurd – but there were other reasons too. Her name was Ann and she came originally from Texas and latterly from next door. She had short-cropped red hair, blinking contact-lensed eyes and pale skin that was smooth enough to glisten in a certain light. We didn’t meet in that light. We met while I was ignoring everyone else over the two triangles of toast that constituted Breakfast Provided.
The television was on, exposing the room to some Good Morning obscenity and a clip played from a forthcoming album. Being of the type to obsess over the haircut of a frontman – music having lured me towards London long before I found reason to come – I put down my journal and watched the screen with some interest. This interested Ann, who had been watching me across the table for some minutes, awaiting signals of conversation. I had worked at keeping my signals to myself, preferring my own company at breakfast.
——You like this band, huh?
I blinked as if only just noticing her.
——They’re okay, I said, in a disinterested fashion, hoping to dissuade further enquiry.
Ann picked up her chair and carried it around the table, sitting down heavily beside me as if this changed view might allow her to see whatever it was I saw in the band. The chorus started and she nodded along in a cautious, studious fashion, trying to decode the appeal. This keenness to understand, this effort, embarrassed me. I found it crass, unsophisticated. Maybe I felt I understood people too well to make an effort, maybe my spirit was just a good deal meaner than hers.
——I’m from Texas, she said, still watching the screen. ——You ever been?
I shook my head, finishing the last of my toast.
——Hey, you should. You know in Texas, there’s no law against women walking around bare-chested in the summer.
Now I looked at her, kissing jam from my thumb.
——I never heard that.
——Sure. My mom walks around like that all day from springtime to fall.
——You’re lying, I decided.
——Well, hey, it got you interested didn’t it? You don’t smile much, you know that?
I mumbled that she wasn’t the first to say so, realising I was already too deeply trapped in conversation.
——You doing anything today? We could maybe make a team, you know? Go see the sights.
I pleaded poverty. Said all I had planned was a supermarket sandwich and a warm beer down the road in Hyde Park. A few chapters of a book and some writing in my journal. Painted the dullest picture. An hour later I was buying two sandwiches, Ann was buying a bottle of red and I was wondering what happened. She had a knack of reading me literally when I rarely was; I found my polite signals of disinterest evaporating between us.
Being from Texas, Ann might have jumped galaxies and I wouldn’t have known the difference. My collection of insights and character cues, such as they were, seemed meaningless in regards to her. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Having travelled more or less alone for three months I was accustomed to selfishness and my concerns were limited to accommodation, employment, cigarettes and alcohol. It’s possible I was also protective of my clean slate. I had no history here, I didn’t want any yet. I was unbound, obliged to no-one, and was hoping this state of affairs would remain unchanged for some time. I wanted to slide across the surface of things awhile.
When we returned to the hotel after two bottles of wine and a pint for good luck, I was brushing my teeth as Ann locked the door behind her and pulled out my cock. The deft unzipping from behind was sudden enough to project toothpaste spittle across the square inch of mirror. The bathroom was barely a cupboard: a miniature toilet and coffee cup sink, three feet by four feet of brown lino. Still Ann undressed while never closing her mouth and, her hand moving to her crotch, wouldn’t stop until I was done. Then her backside squeezed onto the basin, her knees moved away from each other and she drove my head down between them. I was still too startled, too breathless to protest. The plumbing rattled insecurely beneath her. After that we returned to our separate rooms and nothing was said about it at breakfast.
As I ate my toast for the second morning with Ann beside me, I tried to decide where last night had come from. Tried to remember a transitionary stage that would have led from egg sandwiches in Hyde Park to cramped sex in the lavatory. There was a link missing. In the morning we were back to being two loose wires. Had anything been said in the park, as teenagers fell off their skateboards to R and B from a ghetto blaster? As I let her buy me a pint in the Blackbird? I remembered a limited conversation about families and films, with little common ground. There was some talk of a boyfriend in Texas, Hud or Bif – that sort of moniker that promised violence if an indiscretion was uncovered. I probably shared the kind of insignificant history I offered to those I had no real interest in getting to know. A careful balance of intrigue, charm and sensitivity to let me off the hook. Enough to sustain interest, my share of conversational debt, without requiring anything of me. Except Ann kept asking the wrong questions, kept finding the wrong things interesting, kept demanding my attention. Today, nursing a sore undertongue over breakfast, I didn’t have the energy to be interesting to anyone.
She elbowed my right shoulder, blinking watery, hopeful eyes at me.
——-So what should we do today then, hey?
I had excuses, some of them legitimate. I mentioned the pressing need to find employment when I was mostly thinking of a day perusing second hand record stores for rare singles from defunct British bands. I considered combining these pursuits, which meant a trip to the internet café to invent a resumé. I was meeting Tom at eight, which only left eleven hours to kill. There had to be enough record stores in London to keep me busy until then.
I made my excuses to Ann and I made them well. I even allowed her to accompany me to the internet café at Victoria, where I abandoned her twenty minutes later over a hotly bitter cup of Nescafé. She leaned across the table, watching or waiting for an extended invite, clasping the cup as if it were my hands. I recognised an affection behind her lenses that was undeserved enough to make me awkward. She wanted to know me, to understand me, to like me. I hovered by the back of my chair and then ran for the tube, relieved to be alone again.
Around midnight, having left Tom by the Police Box outside Earls Court tube, I wobbled back up three flights of stairs and was swaying before the low toilet, concentrating only on a steady stream of piss when there was a knock at the door. Putting a palm forwards to hold myself, I swore loudly, wanting to fall through the wall into bed. Reluctantly, I slid back the bolt on the door. Ann slipped in, wearing only a long t-shirt, and slid it back. There was a condom in foil between her teeth. She didn’t say anything, just smiled as she unzipped me. I stifled a yawn. When the timing was right, she pulled up her t-shirt, rolled on the condom and sat down again on the sink. Holding her legs up, I waited for the sink to tear from the wall and flood the landing. I don’t remember much else.
On my fourth evening in London, I took the District Line down to Putney to meet Tom and we drank several pints from plastic cups on the putrid banks of the Thames. During the day Ann had gone sight-seeing and I had hunted again for employment. I had applied for work in the same internet café I manufactured my references; had arranged interviews with a couple of modelling agencies but couldn’t then bring myself to show up; and had made an appointment for the following morning to meet with the manager of a second-hand record store in Notting Hill. The initial phone interview hadn’t been promising. When asked about musical taste, I had exaggerated the boundaries into glam rock. The woman wasn’t impressed. I could hear her smoking on the other end of the line.
——Name a couple of your favourite glam bands?
Instantly, I wondered what the hell I’d been thinking, but tried to keep things casual.
——Oh, you know. T-Rex. Roxy Music.
——Name the members of Roxy Music.
I only had one Roxy album, the first, and tried to put names to the appallingly dressed figures on the sleeve.
——Oh, well. Bryan Ferry. Eno, obviously. Ray Manzarek.
——I think you mean Phil Manzanera. Ray Manzarek was in The Doors.
I did. She sniffed.
——Guess you can come in. See you in an hour.
In an hour, I found the store, narrow, smoky and staffed by a stoned teenager with anaemia and a savage black fringe. He resisted my attempts at conversation and humour as I waited for the manager – a doughy woman in mid-middleage – to set my entrance exam. I skinned a pass on the general knowledge but whole-heartedly flunked the five page section on obscure dance labels and didn’t even look at the surprising section on computer programming. As I was leaving the manager asked if I had any experience as an electrician or brick labourer.
——We like our employees to be versatile, she said
Through the dirty window behind her I could see a dirtier yard, crammed with door frames, old washing machines, toilet bowls, a rusting car underneath an orange tarpaulin and shopping mannequins in various states of mutilation. An acne-ridden youth with a good haircut worked a cigarette with one hand and a cement mixer with the other. I suddenly felt very protective of my unemployment. Manual labour was for those who didn’t know better and the half-hearted expansionist nature of the company was less than enticing.
——Any experience as a plumber?
——I work in record stores, I said, already leaving. As I said it, I wished it had been true. I took back my CV and, having spent enough time on footwork for one morning and already thinking about alcohol, stopped by the nearest Post Office to send it off to one of the major stores in the city. I wasn’t sure of the address or postcode, so merely wrote Piccadilly Circus beneath the shop title and wished the letter luck. As I went to post it, I had a better idea and re-opened the envelope. I took a brochure on Television Licences from a stand by the door and tore a square of mostly blank paper from its corner. Using the pen I had borrowed from the pensioner behind the counter – who watched me anxiously as I made for the door – I scribbled Please Find CV Attached, And then Looking For Full-Time Work. I considered expanding on this but there was print on the reverse side and the biro struggled across the glossy paper. I slipped this preface into the envelope, lumpily resealed it, trying to flatten its wounds, and left with the borrowed pen.
Stealing pens was a habit, only vaguely intentional. I felt on some level they were exempt from general legal and karmic guidelines regarding property. I often convinced myself of this, although others remained wary.
I was reassured by these half-hearted attempts at job-hunting, I felt I had done everything possible in order to find work and that the pieces would now fall into place. I stopped by the supermarket for a beer and a sandwich, which I took alone in Hyde Park.
I hadn’t intended to bring Ann with me to Putney, but she had returned early from sight-seeing and was waiting on my mattress when I returned in the early evening. I could say I was trapped by compassion – if she wanted to spend time with me, who was I to say no? – but it seemed more likely I was trapped by guilt, guilt brought on by the previous evening’s ill-advised drunken clinch in the hostel’s toilet. I wondered again, marvelled, how had that happened. How any of this had happened. I was sliding down the surface of things and I was accepting no responsibility even as I slid down her. Events dragged me on and I did nothing to resist. Fate had me by the ankles.
Ann and Tom seemed to get on well, but I was aware that she was being increasingly sidelined as the evening progressed and Tom and I boozed our way into friendship. Little shared jokes, catch-phrases, quoted films, funny voices: the symptoms of a developing affection, a bond. We were both gifted at invention, exaggerated truths and blatant lies of both colours. When Ann asked where Tom and I had met, I told her we had met in Australia, when Tom had come door-knocking as a Mormon. Tom confirmed the story and elaborated. We weren’t being cruel, thinking the joke mutual. The story inflated into absurdity as we tried to reconcile Tom’s godliness with his booze-drenched chain smoking.
I don’t remember the details of the story but the gist was that two years’ missionary service was enough to squeeze the soul into heaven. For fifteen minutes Tom told the story like an accountant making a pitch, balancing the credit of his good works against the debit of his sins and arriving in the black. He was more convincing than I; he had a gift for sounding like he knew what he was talking about that often deserted me. Four pints in, I was grinning around the edge of my cup. Tom never cracked, no matter how ridiculous a line I fed him. We both bluffed at being friends when we barely knew each other. By the end of the night neither could be sure if we were still bluffing or if we needed to. And Ann watched enthused and astonished, until I pushed the joke from doubtful to impossible and she suddenly narrowed her eyes, sitting back from us.
——Are you sure you’re not just bullshitting me? she asked.
I stopped grinning. The lie had been performance, a bluff at friendship, and one I thought had been taken in the spirit it was given. Now Ann, her cheeks flushed with Stella Artois, blinked in a worried fashion and the joke turned cruel. I swallowed uncomfortably, brought to account for this cruelty. I considered explanations but none of them were kind.
Tom lifted his empty cup and squinted through the bottom of it.
——It’s time, he said sternly, on his feet. ——Same again?
——Oh, hey, wait.
Ann fumbled with her wallet, remembering her round and forgetting the conversation.
——My turn, right?
She checked our respective drinks and hurried inside to the bar. Tom retook his seat and watched her disappear into the crowd. Spoke quickly, with business to conduct before she returned.
——Not too bright.
——Just sex then.
——Think she’s getting attached?
——What you going to do?
——Don’t know. Do you want her?
——I’ll think about it.
——Might be complicated.
——I’m thinking of changing hostels.
——And maybe faking a trip to France.
——Sounds on the money.
Ann returned and we talked about something else. Tom listed boroughs to inhabit and avoid. I suspected most of them would be out of my price range but listened anyway. He drew a collapsed lasso around Soho, barely encompassing Camden to Battersea, Fulham to Southwark.
——That way we’ll save on cab fares.
I’d never considered taking a cab anywhere and didn’t consider it for long now. I had no delusions that employment would bring me anything but the most perfunctory wealth. If I could afford a weekly bus pass I’d be doing well. Ann offered opinions on where she’d prefer to stay while Tom and I exchanged pained glances across the lips of our plastic pints.
Ann was in drunken good spirits as she sat beside me on the tube back to Earls Court. Joked behind her palm at the expense of our fellow passengers. I worried about the football shirt across the aisle – his head like a fist – but worried more about her happiness. Her smiles reflected in the dark glass depressed me. She tapped my shoulder in a familiar manner, tugged at my elbow and I remonstrated with myself for letting her attach herself to me. Despised myself for allowing any emotional investment. Hoped to quickly encourage a withdrawal.
The soles of my boots dragged up three flights of carpeted stairs behind her and on the landing outside our separate rooms – mine with the hirsute snoring belly, hers with the Japanese tourist and her strange vocal dreaming – I said an abrupt goodnight, intending to quickly subside into a deep, boozy sleep. I was foiled in this attempt scant minutes later by a persistently lively bladder.
Slanted from floor to wall, I ignored the first rap at the door. Washed my face and despised myself in the mirror. This had to stop. I could no longer entertain her affection for me, had to land a few emotional bruises earlier than later. Keep the damage superficial. I washed my face again and started working up a fury, resenting her rapid attachment to me, detesting my assigned position as heartbreaker. The second rap segued into the third and I tore the door open. If my countenance was fierce, Ann didn’t notice. There was another foil between her teeth and a keenness in her fingers. She hurried me backwards against the wall and I put my palms up as she tugged at my belt.
——Wait, Jesus, wait.
Ann blinked. Spat the foil to the floor.
——What am I waiting for?
I looked into her expectancy, saw hurt lurking behind her lenses.
——Let’s try something different, I said.
She seemed to understand this.
——Oh right, you want to bum me?
——What? Christ, no.
——What is it with you guys and bumming? I don’t get it. It always ends up in bumming.
She turned and placed her palms against the plaster wall. The curves of her pale buttocks peeked beneath the hem of her t-shirt. I couldn’t look.
——I don’t want to bum you, okay? I’ve never bummed anything more than a cigarette in my life. I just don’t think this is a good idea. You’re a great girl but I’m really not any good when it comes to relationships.
Ann looked away from the wall. Blinked again. Laughed.
——Who’s talking about a relationship? It’s just screwing Aston, just a bit of fun. I didn’t realise you were getting so hung up about it.
——I’m not hung up, I protested but it landed weakly. I was ready to break a heart, not defend my own. Was expecting a position of strength.
——I thought we could just fool about, she said, I didn’t know you’d go all heavy on me.
Her top lip curled in disbelief.
——Man, I’ve got a fiancée, y’know? You think I’d want a relationship with – and, hey, no offence or anything – a grumpy Aussie tourist with a drinking problem? Bif’s an Architect, he’s got prospects. You think we’ve got prospects? You’ve got a nice dick Aston, but it’s what I like most about you.
It was the most eloquent I’d heard her. For a few moments I liked her, wanted to know her. For the rest of those moments I was filled with drunken fury. Some of it was for her, most of it for myself. That wasn’t hurt lurking behind her lenses, it was confusion. Where I saw affection there was only astigmatism. She was reading me as badly as I read her, looking for nothing and worrying I was seeing more. In her sight I was an amorous amateur, unable to keep emotion from the physical, to keep it professional.
I snatched the foil from the tiles and ripped it open.
I didn’t say anything else. Ann seemed to understand, backing up onto the basin.
I was drunk and brutal. Bit her lips and shoved her knees apart. Cared about nothing. Detached and emotionless. When it was done I hated myself. For a few moments, I hated her too.
The next morning I allowed myself to forget to rebook my room.
:: posted by Myke Bartlett, 6:20 PM
"...harsher than the finished product... an interesting read nonetheless..."
'Electricity' is Copyright © Myke Bartlett 2004/2007