ROULETTE: TEASER #1

ROULETTE cover

Bill Tanner, M’s Chief of Staff, stood sentinel outside the portico. As M alighted, Tanner rushed forward, an umbrella braced against the unforgiving November rains.

“PM just got here, sir,” muttered Tanner. “He’s in a frightful state.”

“That’s his usual mode, I’m afraid.” M sighed, straightened his cravat and followed Tanner into the vestibule. He left his hat and coat at the cloakroom and went upstairs. On the second landing stood the PM.

“Good evening, M.” The Prime Minister, back and bleached mustache equally straight, eyed M fiercely. “I appreciate your and Mr. Tanner’s coming.”

“Of course, Prime Minister.” M bit back a sarcastic rejoinder. He didn’t much care for this new boy in Downing Street, considering him peremptory and impertinent. M, who far preferred the old wartime PM, took solace knowing that the peculiarities of elected office meant the new boy’s time would end before his own.

They were conducted down the hall by a footman to the tall doors. Rapping smartly twice, he opened one, stepped through and announced:

“The Prime Minister and head of Secret Service, Your Majesty.”

ROULETTE, a James Bond adventure by Jamie Mason. Coming November 2018.

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The Man Who Would Write Bond

ROULETTE coverI wanted to answer some of the questions I have been getting about Roulette, the James Bond novel I will be releasing in November.

In 2014 I placed a short story with David Nickle, who was then editing Licence Expired, an anthology project from ChiZine publishing. As it turned out, 2014 was the fiftieth anniversary of Ian Fleming‘s death. Under the current structure of Canadian copyright law, that places Fleming’s work in the public domain. ChiZine, seeing the need, catered to it ably. David and Madeline Ashby edited a very fine anthology of short fiction and Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi published a handsome paperback, which is available in most major Canadian book retailers. The rest of the world may do things differently, but here in Canada one can use Fleming’s creation insofar as the book incarnation of 007 is concerned. But only the book version. Film, merchandising and comic book adaptations are handled under a different set of laws. But the clipped, cruel, sardonic, black-and-white Bond of pulp-fic fame is fair game. Which turned out to be very good news for me.

You see, I grew up reading the Bond novels. My father had a complete set of the Pan paperback originals and I started young. The movies were the international blockbusters of their day so of course I saw them. But I was surprised whenever I returned to the paperbacks to find that I actually preferred the literary Bond to his flashier onscreen persona. He has more in common with the hard-boiled protagonists of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. His world is drearier yet strangely more horrifying and dangerous. And Bond himself is more calculating and brutal. We get something of the sense of the man behind the Double-oh. And something about that always made the stakes higher for me.

Roulette is a novel-length Bond adventure in the Fleming mold. As I explained to David when I presented him with the manuscript of “Daedalus,” my offering in Licence Expired, I was deliberately trying to mimic Fleming’s style – the clunky “typewriter prose” of pre-internet journalism. The same is true of Roulette. In tone, style and theme it is intentionally similar to the early Bond novels, which I re-read closely before sitting down to write. My intention is to offer a work in homage to a past master for the enjoyment of all those who miss him. It is a caper, an entertainment, a light-hearted enjoyment. Above all, it is a labor of pure love.

A word regarding publication. I maintain a small micro-publishing enterprise called Storm Rhino Press which produces men’s adventure fiction in Kindle format. Those titles are subjected to a thorough publishing process in miniature, which employs professional editors, artists and IT personnel. Sadly, due to lack of funds, Storm Rhino must remain on the back burner for now (although it will return). All this to say that Roulette is not a Storm Rhino book. It is published by a shadowy entity that does business in cash only, prefers to hold meetings in back alleyways and punishes under-performing employees with death. I’m still not quite sure who’s behind SMERSH Books, but they assure me Roulette will be available only in Canada via Amazon this November.

This is an opportune time to mention that I am far from the only Canadian author to have availed himself of this unusual copyright windfall. In addition to the many fine writers who appear in Licence Expired, two others that I know of have produced Bond tales. Bond on the Rocks by Curtis Cook is a satirical take on a washed-up Bond forced to work in the private sector. Angel’s End by Ed Kurtz is a novelette set in Kennedy-era Texas. Both are now available through Amazon Canada.

The action in Roulette occurs in the original Bond timeline some time between Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever. It is a Cold War spy thriller set in 1950s Canada. Further details will be forthcoming as we approach publication.

Splitters

[reprinted from Great Jones Street, Winter 2017]

Dutch city wants to grow cannabis in a cooperative

Dylan knows the creatures are back. He senses them in the electrical hum following Cassandra’s voicemail. Cassandra called to wish Dylan a Happy Birthday and to break up with him. She is leaving on the last ferry to Port Angeles. This lends the electrical hum a sinister tone. The creatures inhabit such places: vacant lots and buildings, awkward pauses in conversation, the dead weeks between seasons – places where things (weather, friendships, hearts) break. That’s why Dylan calls them Splitters.

The creatures have been nesting on Wren Island ever since Dylan quit school to deal dope full time. And on Wren Island business is good. But Dylan must sell his final few bags before the last ferry leaves and the schedules change and the ferry starts coming once every two days as opposed to every three hours. Like the Island itself, Dylan earns his yearly keep in a frantic eighteen-week scramble between spring and summer, after which Wren Island reverts to being a sleepy rock in the Pacific. Timing is everything. Everyone knows that. Including the Splitters.

Cursing, Dylan slams down the receiver, jams a half-dozen baggies of weed into his jacket and begins his mad sprint for the harbor.

Happy birthday Dylan. The Splitters have come for you.

*

rain

Dylan first met the Splitters in high school. His guidance counselor was explaining that school “was not an appropriate setting” for Dylan. Dylan remembers the shadowed calm of Mr. Sutton’s office with its battered sofa and framed Beatles poster on the wall above the desk. John Lennon’s image undulated in the shadows of rain crawling down the window outside as Sutton read aloud the details of the discharge paperwork. Dylan barely heard him. Truth be told, he was a little stoned.

“So Dylan you’re emancipated from your family so when we file this paperwork you’ll effectively be an adult. Do you have a plan to support yourself?”

Time seemed to slow down for Dylan when he got stoned, the contours of the present moment broadening into a great house with many undiscovered rooms. Dylan had recently discovered the fascination of exploring those rooms, although the act of doing so drew his attention away from whatever was happening in front of him at the time.

emancipated … family … file this paperwork and become an adult … Dylan caught the edges of Sutton’s rap and was dimly aware that a question had been posed. Support yourself?

“Yeah I’ve been doing that for a while now,” he muttered.

He noticed something stirring in one of the shadowed corners he was exploring. He blinked and tried to continue tracking the movement …

“I know.”  Sutton’s mouth was a tight line amidst his beard. His pony tail swished as he turned to pick up the paperwork and hand it across to Dylan. Dylan’s attention flashed back to the shadowed corner in his mind. The moment had expanded to become a long windowless chamber with the ruins of a colored fresco adorning its walls. A four-poster bed, its sheets rotting and its ticking exposed like the decaying tongues of bundled corpses, filled the middle of the room. Dylan gazed past it to a bay window enclosed by dark draperies. He could just make out the shape of a narrow, lobster-like claw the length of a baseball bat shifting in the darkness. He blinked. A square of light glimmered on the black enamel of the claw as it …

Dylan snapped out of it. Signed the papers.

“Wanna buy a bag?” he asked casually.

Sutton opened a drawer of his desk and produced some cash. Dylan passed over a baggie of weed, shook hands and walked out of school for the last time, reflecting on his final lesson. That time was a house. With termites.

*

He cuts across the playground of the abandoned school.  The oak front doors remain padlocked with a rusting chain dating from the Clinton Administration. He notes that Mr. Sutton’s office window has become splintered. As Dylan hurtles past the jungle gym he spies the dim outlines of a footprint in the sand – a triangular foot edged with hair-line impressions like a bug’s tactile whiskers. His sneaker obliterates it as he sprints onward.

Dylan skids to a stop outside the art gallery Cassandra manages in exchange for lodging upstairs.  He peers through the old-timey shop window at Kermit the proprietor resting on a piano bench. A half-dozen paintings line the base of the walls awaiting storage. Dylan forces his breath under control then steps inside.

“Cassie’s gone, Dylan. Packed up and left.” Kermit waggles his cane at the ladder. “Take a peek if you like.”

chesapeake-oxford-white-brick-texture-wallpaper-the-expensive-walls-black-metallic-map-fabric-french-provincial-dresser-bedroom-textured-living-room-accessories-retailers-wall-970x970Dylan scrambles up to the open trap door and pokes his head through to the loft where they spent so many nights. The mattress is stripped bare. The dresser drawers are pulled open, a ripped t-shirt dangling from the top one. (Dylan recognizes it as her bedtime tie-dye, the one Cassandra kept threatening to throw away but never did.) A discolored square hovers where Cassandra’s Led Zeppelin poster hung – the classic print with the hermit holding the lantern up to the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven”. There is no envelope left behind for him, no folded square of paper bearing wistful suggestions of a second chance. And, worst of all, no Cassandra.

He drops back to the gallery floor. “How long has she been -?”

“About half an hour,” Kermit wipes his flabby face with a handkerchief. He has already switched off the air conditioning for the year. “Never thought in a million years I’d ever see her leave. She loved this island.”

And me too, Dylan thinks, smarting at the past tense.  He is about to leave when Kermit clears his throat.

Dylan knows that sound, recognizes the furtive way the gallery owner slips a wad of twenties from his pocket. Dylan sighs and lays a baggie on the counter by the piano stool. Kermit’s fat fingers flash out to snatch it up.

“Might try Adele.” Kermit moves ponderously toward the last few paintings to be crated. “Cassandra had some books of hers she needed to return … Over at the Breadloaf Cafe.”

*

The streets are empty as Dylan jogs Main toward the Breadloaf. The small cafe, owned by a Wren Island native, is one of the few businesses that remains open year-round. Dylan anticipates its welcoming light, its warm bakery and coffee bean smells.

He passes row upon row of closed businesses, their corrugated metal shutters gaping like the eyes of blind men. Seasonal vertigo assails him. The mouths of alleys distend into weird diagonals and the air crackles with the same electrical hum that followed Cassandra’s voicemail. In the stillness before the last ferry of summer, the Splitters are beginning to stir.

The sign swings on its cross-bar over the empty sidewalk: BREADLOAF CAFE. Dylan thumps up the steps to the entrance, shoulders his way inside and hears the bell chime as it closes against its trip-bar. The place, resembling a museum exhibit of hippie culture, is perfectly still, its frumpy, über-casual dining area accented in wood and earth tones. Steam rises from a coffee pot on a hot-plate. A radio plays softly by the cash register. Crosby, Stills and Nash: “Helplessly Hoping.”

the-relaxing-areaA stack of books sits on an empty table. Dylan approaches and read the titles: The Tao of Pooh, The Spiral Dance, A Woman’s Guide to Backyard Farming. There is also a scrawled note anchored down with a spoon.

 Adele: thanks for the loan. I’m off to new adventures. Wish me luck. Namaste, C.

 His breath leaves him in a plosive hush and he steadies himself. The bell chimes as the door closes against its trip bar.

“Hello, Dylan.” Adele sweeps past him, all raven hair and silver jewelry. Her gypsy ear-rings jangle as she smiles down at the books. “How thoughtful of Cassandra …”

“I’m trying to find her.”

Adele hesitates behind a logjam of hesitant sympathy. “If she’s not already at the ferry she might have stopped to see Tom and June. They’ve got a place at the Horizon Towers now.”

Dylan shudders at the mention of the island’s only apartment complex.

“Dylan … got any weed?”

Dylan rummages in his jacket pocket for a bag. As he reaches one out to Adele, he notices a mural someone has painted since his last visit.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Adele steps behind the counter. “Billy’s son Connor did it.”

As Adele opens the register, Dylan examines the bizarre painting. Connor has created the illusion of an extra table in the cafe using forced perspective, going so far as to mimic the exact type of cutlery and place-settings Adele uses. The man-sized insect even sits in the same kind of round-bottom, wire-backed chair as those scattered around the main room. Its antennae dangle as it hunches forward over a cup of steaming coffee, light gleaming off the black enamel of its carapace.

“Strange, I know.” Adele holds out a wad of bills. “But kind of appropriate. In a way.” She chuckles.

The insect glares back at Dylan, its flat black eyes utterly devoid of human emotion. Dylan accepts Adele’s money and flees into the street.

*

CIMG0163[1]Dylan spent the darkest years of his life at the Horizon Towers.

Bewitched by his investigations of the edges and corners of time, he became incapable of finishing conversations – or even articulating complete thoughts. Because seconds were vast things now – not just great houses filled with shadowed corridors but sprawling cities packed with narrow, labyrinthine streets. Dylan persevered in exploring them, convinced there was merit in this odyssey. Lost seconds became lost minutes became lost opportunities, the disappearance of which fractured Dylan’s ties to everyone around him. And it wasn’t just the dope (although the dope made it easier). It had more to do with the architecture of time surrounding Wren Island, something that made losing track of the minutes and hours so easy.

The Splitters inhabit such spaces: vacant lots, awkward pauses, the dead seasons of a life outside the mainstream of human existence. Dylan’s became a repetitious round of smoking, scoring and selling weed.  He filled the time between with sleep and TV. His corner apartment on the ground floor of the Horizon Towers had a window that gave out onto a back alley. He spent many nights studying the play of fluorescent light on the brick wall opposite his kitchen, trying to remember what he had been thinking just seconds before …

They infested his apartment.

*

It isn’t until June opens the door to his knock that Dylan recognizes his old place. The same corridors he walked daily are unrecognizable to him because he is more or less sober these days. Dylan catches a whiff of chamomile tea.

“Cassandra here?” His tone is breathless, impatient.

s-l300“You JUST missed her.” June steps back to admit him, bare feet swishing below the hem of her Grannie dress. Dylan limps indoors. The living room is decorated in hippie chic: a threadbare sofa, a wooden cable spool for a coffee table, a turntable on the floor beside milk crates packed with records. Tacked on the wall above them: Cassandra’s Led Zep poster.

“She left that for us.” June pads into the kitchen. “Tea?”

“Water, thanks.” Dylan closes his eyes and leans against the wall suddenly exhausted.

“Hey, got any weed? Oh – and. Tom wants a bag too, so …”

Dylan hands across two baggies and takes June’s money. Tea cup in hand she moves quietly through the apartment, switching off lights only the glow of a single reading lamp remains. She sinks into a patched leather recliner and begins rolling a joint.

“Island’s emptying out.” She sighs. “Always nice after a hot summer of tourists. But it’s a sad time, too …”

A sad time. Like the period of Dylan’s incarceration in this apartment. He knows Tom isn’t around but wants to ask. Because of the movement he detects a stirring in the shadows. The bathroom door begins moving slowly …

“Well.” June rolls the finished joint over the flame of a Bic lighter to dry the seam. “Another summer gone. Another endless autumn begins.”

Endless autumn. YES … Dylan’s world in the Horizon Towers languished in such an autumn, as though the building were a prison constructed in a null spot in time. Below a vault of grey clouds that never moved, never changed, never loosed their payload of rain, the Splitters crowded every spare inch of Dylan’s apartment, filling the spaces that should have been occupied by human energy, real relationships. Nature abhors a vacuum. But so does the Unnatural. A warren of Splitters emits an electrical hum when it clusters together, a vibrating tone that shivers and undermines connection. Dylan remembers trembling at the sound of that tone (“… leave a message at the sound of the …”), eyes clutched against the horror of actually seeing the large mantis-like forms crowding around, swaying ever closer, threatening to touch him …

” … will probably score a job on the docks. He needs to get off welfare.” June’s voice is pinched around in-held smoke. She extends the burning joint to Dylan, who waves it away. Already he can feel the weight of a contact high pressing against his mind. He glances toward the bathroom door. It is just my imagination … But no. The door is opening further.

“Oh! I forgot to get you your water …”

June sticks the joint between her lips like a cigarette and moves back into the kitchen. The boarding siren of the last ferry shrieks as she shakes a plastic tumbler empty of soda and bends over the sink. Dylan sees a shadow shift across the linoleum of the bathroom floor. Grits his teeth and …

When June emerges with his water, Dylan is gone.

She makes a frustrated noise. Then, noticing the bathroom door has drifted open, she closes it before settling down to smoke her joint in peace.

*

The hum of the Splitters has risen to a deafening roar. Dylan sprints full-tilt toward the harbor through its rising din. His skin crawls with that electric blend of panic unique to those who sense approaching danger but who know the futility of raising the alarm. Giant time-devouring bugs are infesting the island. Dylan shudders to imagine how such news would be greeted.

I wish Jerry was still alive, he thinks.

JerryJerry. Squat and compact. Hard-voiced and forthright to the point of routinely alienating everyone around him. Yet fiercely loyal and surprisingly sensitive. The pulp sci-fi writer had moved to Wren Island to retire and was diagnosed with terminal cancer three months later. He was Dylan’s neighbor in the Horizon Towers. A chance encounter in the hallway was the start of Dylan’s emergence from his shell. Jerry extended an invitation to come play chess, which became a nightly ritual. When the writer fell sick, Dylan took to visiting him in the hospital.

“Goddamned drugs.” Jerry’s face was white against the wine-colored pillow case. “Can’t feel anything except my stomach and that feels like shit …”

Dylan understood. At the depths of his immersion, when the Splitter nest in his apartment had grown into an intricate hive of shell-like passages that curled away into nothingness and all trace of furniture and fixtures was lost beneath the sediment the creatures exuded, Dylan himself occasionally became immobilized beneath a drift of the stuff. It prompted the same kind of nausea. He might have become buried alive in the time sink, but he had the dying man to thank for his deliverance.

“Funny thing … can’t focus enough to write cause of this morphine. But I got a great idea for a story. Inspired by this damned island. Ever notice how time goes all funny and sideways when the weather gets rainy?”

Dylan hunched forward.

“Ever notice? The fashions, the music on this island … all stuck in the Seventies. As if time stopped there. It’s as if some disease were at work, stunting progress …”

The wind kicked the bare branches of the trees outside the hospital room window into a tangled fury beneath the steel grey sky.

physarum-polycephalum-dit-le-blob-audrey-dussutour-cnrs_2843b9f00ec6e8351bd03792fef100c36a149a01

“Imagine time as an organism.” Jerry laughed weakly. “Like a complex invertebrate. Perhaps a primitive mollusk of some kind. An organism that moves through the routines of its existence – waking, sleeping, eating, eliminating. Subject to the effects of stress, environment, illness. Now imagine a pathogen – a virus. Infecting time. A kind of temporal parasite …”

Or a bug, thought Dylan.

“Infecting. Undermining the health … of the …”

Jerry’s voice faded as the combined effects of the painkillers took hold and he lapsed into unconsciousness.

“Is he asleep?”

Dylan turned.

Standing in the doorway – blonde, willowy – was the most beautiful woman Dylan had ever seen. He felt an ache just meeting her gaze. She was pure-bred hippie of the finest stock – an unlikely friend of Jerry’s. How come I’ve never noticed her before? Dylan smiled uncertainly …

Cassandra.

*

The ferry siren howls again and Dylan wonders why no else has noticed the rising tone of the electrical hum. Perhaps they assume it is a by-product of the ferry’s boarding siren. It is this way every year. As the town empties, the hum grows and a deep silence settles over Wren Island as change slows to a trickle and everything … stops. Again Dylan thinks of Jerry in his hospital bed elucidating ideas for the story he would never write.

The pier lies just ahead. The barrier to the boarding station has been lowered and the ticket kiosk is closed. Herbert stands counting money behind the window. Dylan skids to a stop and bangs on the glass.

“Full.” Herbert waves a stack of bills without looking up.

Herbert!”

The ticket master looks up and blinks behind his little round glasses. He knows Dylan – has scored dope from him before – and so accepts the proffered bag as bribe enough to radio the ferry to wait a minute longer. And a minute, Dylan knows, is all he will need.

He turns toward the boarding ramp.

A mountain of dark clouds is massing over the harbor. In the weather’s colorless fury Dylan spots a lone figure standing on the top deck staring down at him, blonde hair blown into a cloud around her face by the approaching storm.

Dylan knows exactly what he will do. He will sprint to the edge of the boarding ramp and drop his last baggie into the drink. He will leap onboard the ferry then press through the crowd of bodies standing topside until he reaches Cassandra and fold her into his arms, whispering apologies for whatever it is he had done. Then he will stand beside her and watch Wren Island recede as autumn comes and the Splitters descend and he and Cassandra escape to begin a new life together on the mainland.

He takes the first step.

The contours of the moment expand, broadening into a great house with many undiscovered rooms.

Dylan’s skin horripilates at the familiar sensation. Cassandra recedes until she is like the figure of a woman spied through the wrong end of a telescope: far, far away. Dylan stumbles. He must adjust his vision or risk falling. He does so and abruptly finds himself lost within a vast structure of dark chambers and labyrinthine corridors. He attempts to keep hold of the seconds he needs to board the ferry but these too become lost. And before long so does Dylan.

He plummets into the descending architecture of shadows.

missing-the-boat

 

 

 

 

A Sojourn Among Jesuits

A Journey with Jesuits

I live near a highway. I have been watching the ebb and flow of traffic while struggling to put into words my experience of the past months. Traffic, for all its technology and pollution, mirrors the natural progression of seasons here in the small tourist community where I live. The arrival of a carnival or vacationers over a holiday weekend affects us, disrupting the sleepy norm, leaving the town rattled, transformed and richer when the tourist tide recedes. My life was once like this.

Like any person with a lively intellect, my worldview is informed both by everyday events and the broader perspective on culture afforded by an internet connection. The tide rises and the news is absorbed, disrupting my sleepy norm. But lately, this tide has left me rattled and transformed but no richer.

The struggle for civilization is, like the struggle for self-actualization, an effort to tame the animal within. In this, our society increasingly resembles a zoo with its cages left open. The rush to assign blame for this state of affairs leads us into a wilderness of pointing fingers. Discussion of political differences, always passionate, has transformed into an ugly debate appropriating moral language. In an environment where political differences are shaded with religious overtones of good and evil, I felt the need to withdraw and reconsider some fundamental questions. And so on July 1st I undertook a thirty-one day period of spiritual reflection.

The 31 Days of St. Ignatius is a month-long course of prayer and contemplation during which participants are invited to consider a series of topics related to the Gospel and Jesuit spirituality. Classes are provided online and supplemented with additional material by e-mail. There was also an online forum and priestly counsel made available. Also, my ex-wife and neighbor Becky was also taking the course and she provided hours of lively conversation and reflection. I have always appreciated the intellectual symmetry of Jesuitical thought, taking solace in their scholarship and commentaries, their disciplined approach to faith and later, through personal acquaintance with Daniel Berrigan and John Dear, their activism. The Jesuits always seem able to strike a meaningful balance between engagement with the inner and outer worlds. With this goal in mind, I undertook the discipline. It proved a rigorous journey of self-examination, prayerful reflection and discussion.

I distilled many of my thoughts into journal form, offered for any lost in that wilderness of pointing fingers, perhaps overwhelmed by those beasts prowling once-civilized precincts.

REFLECTION ON EVIL

One of the most pervasive and commonplace evils of our time is the ease with which we attribute evil to others. Extreme demonstrations of human evil, driven by forces as disparate as greed, nationalism, egotism, ideological fervor should prompt a passionate response. But when we mistake passion for the response – where we are too swift to alarm, we will be swift to ascribe evil to others and dehumanize them. Much of the extremism I have experienced within myself occurred when I demonized those with whom I disagreed while remaining reluctant to examine my own ideological and activist excesses. The violent arguments convulsing society are informed at least partially by this truth: you cannot confront the evil in the world effectively until you confront the evil within oneself. My own failure to do so has invariably led to a lack of reflection and humility. With much cultural commentary larded with blame, there is very little left over to encourage self-reflection about personal shortcomings. Sadly, established religion often serves to cloud the waters and muddle discourse. Those who invoke religion as cover for inexcusable and inhumane policies would do well to consult their faith’s scriptures and look within. Some others of us might do well to check our righteous anger while also checking our privilege. Acknowledging one’s own flaws brings humility. Reflexively attributing evil to others can be a way to avoid that acknowledgement.

REFLECTION ON TRUTH

An honest examination of truth leads to an awareness that the truth can wound people. Indeed, it can kill. This might explain the human reluctance to face truth and a demonstrated preference to traffic in its direct opposite. Of course, we all know the sensation of being asked for our honest opinion when we know that obliging will inflict injury. We avoid speaking the truth to spare others pain. Perhaps this explains the visible absence of the Divine in our lives. To those who cry, “Where is God?” the answer: Be careful what you ask for. We can get a scale of the potential discomfort when we apply the standards of truth we have for others to ourselves. Try it sometime. Hold yourself to the same standard of truth and fairness to which you hold someone you don’t particularly like and see how you stack up. We not only spare others the truth – we often spare ourselves. This is an act of charity because to learn too much about ourselves too quickly can be a shattering experience. To be in the presence of God is to be exposed to the absolute truth about ourselves. His absence is an act of charity. Because being in the presence of absolute truth will shatter anyone.

“WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?”

Labeling others, rightly or wrongly, according to their merit or dismissing people based on popular opinion or the say-so of others is common in human society. My own reluctance to embrace the traditional faith of my culture rests mostly in the evils done in its name. But working within the Jesuit tradition required me to approach the eminence of God-in-Christ, one outside my accustomed spiritual framework. I determined to try. We are enjoined to see the God within people, I told myself, so why not God as person? What began as an acceptance of Jesus as an subject of contemplation grew, given the norms of the faith, into a relationship with the idea of Christ. This proved an object lesson for me about things said about or done in others’ name. When asked if he is the King of the Jews, Christ responds: “You say that I am.” The statement refracts perfectly into the very problems of identity, culture and truth present in that moment. It also forces a distinction between the individual and what others say of him in a time and place of legal judgment. What I bring from this aspect of the retreat into my own life is a determination to spend more time sojourning and counseling with others and less time considering what is said or done in their name. I would like to think I would answer Christ’s words: “No, you tell me.” So I owe at least that much to others.

FINISHING THE JOURNEY/TELLING THE STORY

Many is the time I felt tempted to share some new thought or insight prompted by the course, but the 31 Days format discouraged it, and for this I am glad. My early thoughts were refined in contemplation and my understanding broadened as a result. This in a contrast with our culture of “hot takes” and opinion pieces crafted within an hour of a major news event. During the period of contemplation, it struck me how impoverished this new norm has left the marketplace of ideas. The pressures of a 24-hour news cycle, a global marketplace and instant global communication have combined to create a militantly non-reflective culture in which commentators do not so much think as react. The fastest to file the story owns that day’s news cycle. But how many individual mental journeys, I wondered, have been cut short by this phenomenon? My 31 Days reinforced for me the importance of contemplation and reflection. One need not necessarily unplug – just be a little quicker to reflect and slower to respond. Finish the journey before telling the story.

Cigarettes & Spotter Cards (Dad’s war, 2)

When the Nazi air attacks began in earnest, every aspect of life in Britain became channeled into the war effort. Theirs was a small island nation with limited resources facing a military/industrial colossus with the entire provender of conquered Europe at its disposal. Desperate measures would be called for in order to survive. Brits were encouraged to grow their own food, re-use everything and build bomb shelters in their backyards. The government sponsored a war bond drive, collected scrap metal for use in fabricating weapons and carefully rationed consumer goods. The talents of the advertising industry turned to creating posters reminding people that loose lips sink ships and even the space on cigarette packages that normally advertised tea, tinned cakes and beer was used to reinforce the information everyday Brits needed to survive.

I remember one thing about my father that always struck me: his uncanny ability to identify aircraft. We would be sitting on the couch watching a TV show set during the war and he would immediately identify any plane that appeared onscreen: Corsair, Mustang P-4, Spitfire. These were fairly common allied planes known to most people, but dad could name them at the briefest glance. This was impressive enough, but it was the German aircraft he knew best: the Heinkel, the Junker-88, the Stuka, the Messerschmitt 109. He could identify these by silhouette, tell you each one’s effective operational range, crew complement, armament and the kind of engine it used. I assumed he knew these things because he liked aircraft and had studied them for fun as a boy. But I later realized that, as a Blitz kid, my father’s motives for learning about German planes had nothing to do with enjoyment. It was a matter of survival.

My Grandpa Joe, who worked in the shipyards, smoked. A lot of men did back then, but the war took a toll on the tobacco supply so Grandpa took to storing tobacco and old butts in the pocket of the coat he would wear to work each day then hang on a coat tree by the door upon his return home. My father confessed to me that he would occasionally raid that pocket for half-smoked cigarettes and scraps of tobacco that he and his friends could roll and share. Like a lot of Blitz kids, dad started smoking early.

The cigarettes my grandfather could buy when they were available included cards, similar to modern-day baseball and hockey cards. In pre-war days, these contained images of sailing ships, sports personalities or historical figures. But with the war, cards were repurposed to convey reminders and tips about the skills necessary to survive bombardments and gas attacks. Cigarette cards showed the average Brit how to turn his living room into a bomb shelter, help a child put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb with a garden hose. These cards were intended to convey as much information as could possibly be fitted into a tiny space. They also contained images of planes.

Airplane cards often featured an attractive illustration of the airship in question on one side and a list of specs on the reverse: engine make, top speed, crew complement, ordnance – the works. Men who smoked would sometimes keep these cards. Grandpa Joe gave his to my dad. Too bad we lost track of them, because they’re worth a fortune today on e-Bay.

I imagine my father collecting and studying these cards, trading them with friends, one-upping each other on how well they knew their facts. In such times, a boy’s natural fascination with machinery and war would have been tempered with the knowledge that some of those beautiful machines he admired were being sent to kill him. Some ‘spotter cards’ (for so were cigarette cards of airplanes called) featured silhouette charts, enabling an observer to tell whether the plane above was a fighter or a bomber. Deciding what to do with such knowledge meant the difference between life and death in an air raid. Such was the brutal calculus of war and the basis of my father’s impressive knowledge of Nazi airplanes.

Unfortunately, my father’s career as a big-time tobacco thief had one built-in problem: getting a light. Grandpa used a lighter, which my dad could not very well pinch. “And your grandmother watched every wooden match in the place,” he complained to me once.

“So how did you get a light?”

Dad smirked. “Gas street-lamps. We’d roll a smoke and then send one of the kids up to light it from the gas jet.”

I had to laugh. Life during war-time. Kids always find a way.

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My Father’s War

My father never spoke much about the war. He was born and grew up in Leith, an exurb of northern Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. When the Battle of Britain began, a great many middle- and upper-class children were evacuated from the cities and sent to live in places in the country. But my father’s family was solidly working class and poor. Grandpa Joe labored in the shipyards on the Firth of Forth as a blacksmith. When war came, the family stayed because that’s where work could be found.

Grandpa balanced with his forge and tongs on the great scaffolding that rose around the ships, pouring and cooling bolts that would be used to tighten the hull-plating, screwed in by riveters while still slightly warm so they would contract as they cooled and so tighten the seal. The men at the dockyards worked incredibly hard. Over the course of the war, the shipyards on the Firth built 42 vessels for the Royal Navy, 14 merchant ships and repaired or refit nearly 3,000 war and merchant vessels. On average, a ship was repaired every day and a new ship launched every six weeks.

Leith’s importance to the war effort is best illustrated in the fact that it was the target of the first Luftwaffe airstrike on Britain. On the 16 October 1939, British fighters engaged a bomber squadron in an action now known as the Battle of the River Forth. The Battle of Britain would officially began the following summer, but it came early for my father and the residents of Leith. From that point forward, bomb shelters and night air raids became an everyday fact of life. Leith was critical to the British war effort and so the Luftwaffe showed it no mercy.

As my father got older, he waxed nostalgic. Not for the war, but for the memories of his boyhood. I suppose that was when I first began to catch glimpses of the world he knew growing up. There were two films in particular that he loved. One was Empire of the Sun, which recounts the experiences of a young Brit held prisoner along with his family in a Japanese internment camp in the Far East. I could see my father’s absolute veneration of all things American mirrored in the young protagonist’s worship of the Americans in the film. But it was Hope and Glory, the story of an urban child, that perhaps gave me the clearest view of what life was like for Blitz kids.

My father would sometimes mention the fires, the ruined buildings. The Luftwaffe were fond of dropping these incendiary devices that would simmer fitfully for a while before exploding and blasting a fiery, napalm-like substance in all directions. Incendiaries were devilishly hard to extinguish, requiring use of a specialized hand-pump and an air warden like Grandpa Joe who was willing to stand out and brave the bombing to water the ordnance with the necessary patience extinguish it. The bullet-shaped nacelles were set atop a brass base embossed with a swastika. My father and his friends used to collect and trade these like hockey cards. Gutted buildings, freshly pummeled by air raids, afforded a playground containing a wonderland of things to smash and shatter (always an intoxicating prospect for young boys). I’m sure that my father and his friends, like the protagonists of Hope and Glory, busted up their share of wardrobe mirrors, crockery, porcelain sinks and toilets in the wreckage of displaced peoples’ homes.

But aside from the occasional allusion or reference to a scene in one of those two films, my father said very little about those years. Until one day aboard an airplane we were taking somewhere. I forget where or when or on which airline, but I remember you could still smoke. My father asked me for a cigarette and I lit one for him, then waved out the match before lighting my own.

“Not two on one match,” he said. “You remembered.”

“Yeah. You taught me that. A World War II thing, wasn’t it?”

He nodded, smoked and said nothing for a minute. Then:

“You know they used to make us sing?”

“Who?”

“The grown-ups. In the bomb shelter.” He turned and looked me directly in the face, something he rarely did. “When the air raid sirens would sound, we’d break like hell for the shelters. You had to get in there right away before they filled up. We’d close the door and then we’d sit and wait. You could hear the bombers approach. A low drone. It was horrible. The bombers cave in waves. So when we heard the drone, the adults would make us start singing.”

“Singing what?”

“Oh, anything. Football songs. Christmas Carols. ‘God Save the Queen.’ Anything. They did it to keep us from getting scared.”

“Oh, sure!” My mind went back to every World War II movie I’d ever seen. “You mean the sound of the bombs, right? They whistle as they drop.”

“No. Not the whistling. The silence. The whistling meant the bomb was going wide and wasn’t going to hit you. It was the sound of the air against its spoilers. But if it was coming straight down right on top of you, there’d be complete silence. Silence was frightening. We never knew if it was the end of the raid, a pause between waves or curtains. So they made us sing.”

“So you couldn’t tell if a bomb was ever coming on top of you.”

“Sure. What difference would knowing make anyway?”

It was the first unique memory he ever shared with me about the war.

I have been thinking about World War II a lot lately. The nationalist upheaval in the United States bears a frightening resemblance to the growth of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. Much is being written in periodicals and discussed on social media regarding this unexpected development. A great many concerned, politically-active people from across the social spectrum are uniting to oppose it and I, for one, thank them – particularly the young people. For as the son of a Blitz survivor and all that entails, I can never hear the word Nazi without picturing shattered buildings and fires, and imagining my father wandering the wreckage. For me, there is no separation between the idea of Nazism and the inevitable destruction it wreaks. In the absence of any coherent ideology or logical goals, fascism inevitably leads to social violence which, in turn, leads to war. Those opposing the Nazi movement in America today are involved in taking the necessary preventative steps to deflect that possible future for us all.

I have written elsewhere about the thread of history connecting us to World War II. The Holocaust Survivors were crucial in reminding us all of the importance of continuity and memory. As their generation passes, along with that of the veterans of the war, I find myself in the unaccustomed position of being a custodian of our family’s connective thread to World War II. Since my father’s death, I am the only one left with these memories. So I will share them as time and opportunity allow. Please know that I am only a steward of these tales; they are not my own, but rather come down to me through my family. I think there is value in sharing them here. Because I think it’s important to underline that, no matter how desperate things got during the Blitz and no matter how invincible they seemed, the Nazis lost in the end. If you had told my father that as he played in the wreckage he would not have believed you, just as there are those today who are convinced that white nationalism’s emergence as an enduring political force in America is assured. But we know from history that wherever such movements emerge, good men and women inevitably rise to oppose it. It’s never easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. Because somewhere, children are singing in the bomb shelter.

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Elegy

My mother died two days ago. Possibly three. We were estranged for twenty years, so I’m getting conflicting stories from different relatives. What is certain is that she is gone and, regardless of how our relationship as mother and son played out, the pain I now feel is keen and deep. Having some sense of the how, when and where of her passing would provide some comfort, but it seemed more important to my relatives to immediately send me a form to sign relinquishing all claims to her estate and personal property before telling me anything. Additional info would presumably be furnished upon compliance. This should tell you a great deal about my family.

Each life is like a small voice. Even before it begins to speak, this voice contains within it a story all its own: a story complete with its own unique nature, desires and impulses. Childhood is like that voice whispering, testing out its story on the world. Parents are always quick to demonstrate how their child is like them. But most I’ve encountered are just as quick to harken to that voice and celebrate its uniqueness. In my ten years as a teacher, I saw countless parents labor to nurture their child’s identity, listening to and encouraging that voice to find its adult volume. It’s an amazing process to witness. In my experience, as a child grows and assumes his own sure identity, his voice invariably falls into harmony with the world’s.

Or not.

My mother took a different view. My voice was less important, she was convinced, than the song she would train it to sing. It did not matter that that voice had no interest in singing, any more than I had an interest in attending an all boy’s school. At every turn, my mother sought to shape, influence and direct that voice into a tone and timbre of her choosing. Much of this had to do with her own class ambitions. Seeking to discover my story was less important than my learning to ape the manners and cultural forms of the upper classes to whose ranks she aspired. My being subjected – unprepared and unsupported – to the whimsical cruelties of their education and training practices was more important than remaining true to my own nature and becoming who I was meant to be.

At every turn, my voice was shouted down. It would be decades before I understood what was happening to me. By the time I reached adolescence – that period of preparing to launch into adult life – my voice, barely above a whisper, was spewing word salad. I had been taught to so thoroughly distrust my own intuition and impulses that my voice no longer even recognized its own story.

I eventually rebelled, but only at great cost. When I resisted the path laid out for me as completely incongruous with my own shattered nature (what was left of it that I could recognize, anyway) I was met with screams, threats, violence. When those failed, they were replaced with coercion and manipulation. I refused to go into the family business (the one that resulted in my parents’ arrest and indictment by a Federal grand jury). No matter what violence I encountered, I resisted. The need to discover my own voice had grown impossible to ignore.

I left.

In the years that followed, much happened. The aforementioned indictment and arrest, my father’s death, the dissolution of everything they had built: all this I watched from afar. Sadly, I missed whatever people do in their twenties to  individuate as circumstances forced me to struggle for survival. But, when the smoke had cleared, I picked my way through the wreckage back toward my mother. She was all I had left, and I hoped to re-establish a relationship within a framework more solidly grounded in reality. Yet it soon became obvious that she had learned nothing. She quickly fell into old patterns. When she was confident that I wasn’t going anywhere, the efforts to shape, manipulate and mould my life, to steal my voice – one that had just begun telling its unique story, and at great cost – returned. It infiltrated my private and professional life. I tried very hard, for many years, to maintain contact despite the negative effect it was having on my well-being. But only after she chased away the second very serious girlfriend of my thirties did I realize that as long as I was in her orbit, it would be impossible for me to self-actualize. That voice I was struggling to find and project would always be shouted down, by any means available.

I wanted love. I wanted a family of my own.

So I left again.

Two decades passed.

No one who lives as my mother did develops in a vacuum. Throughout my life I had been treated to the her birth family’s follies: the endless interpersonal squabbles, the constantly shifting alliances, the long-held grudges and scenes of dramatic confrontation. Long-stored resentments could be whipped out at a moment’s notice to refute an argument with its roots in the deep past. The only way to survive, it seemed, was for family members to gang up on each other and (you guessed it) shout each other down. Whoever lost was expected to calmly sit and accept the family narrative as imposed, regardless of how poorly they fared within its storyline. Theirs is a remarkable fantasy world, as richly-imagined as Tolkien, and every bit as untethered from reality.

I received news of mom’s cancer bare weeks before she died. Poverty spared me the task of wrestling with my conscience. A passport? A plane ticket? Out of the question. And anyway, by then the family was beginning to circle …

I’m doing my best right now to cope with the abusive e-mails I am receiving. Despite my bereavement, apparently I live in a family where it’s acceptable to send missives containing words like “despicable” and “sickening” and heartfelt wishes for destruction upon someone whose mother has just died. Apparently the stories are circulating that I am seeking to “cash in” (presumably because I refused to immediately sign over my rights to anything of hers). The speed with which their long-held contempt for me has become unleashed has been chilling. The process of shouting Jamie down – again – has begun.

But these constant attacks on my voice and my story have had an unintended result: namely, that my need to assume control of the narrative of my own life and tell my own story assumed an importance as overriding as that of three meals a day or sleep.

I became a writer.

Not a big-shot by any means. But I have achieved a certain level of visibility. I have a small but dedicated readership, a number of whom have become close friends. And a welcome circle of people who know me through my work – editors, publishers, supportive colleagues. People capable of understanding the importance of my writing to me, who understand that it is, literally, a matter of psychic survival.

At long last (and I am not convinced the process is entirely complete) I have found my voice.

And as I watch the flaming denouement of my mother’s family, as I see them age and disintegrate, I realize how many decades I wasted believing they were anything but an impediment to my becoming who I am. Even now they continue to rehearse decades-old dramas. People who live artificial lives must always dwell in the past because, having constructed their identities on a lie, they must be endlessly self-referential, shouting down any voice that disagrees. As they are doing now. The same family that was only too happy to belly up to the hog trough and snuffle down their share of the wealth while my parents were riding high (pre-grand jury) now accuse me of greed. They’re busily fabricating new patches for the family quilt – ones in which, no doubt, I will feature as a timeless villain. But it doesn’t matter.

Because I won.

My voice is stronger.

And I’m telling the story now.

Rest in peace, mom. In spite of everything, I love you. May you find peace in the Nightland.

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