Warm Leather

Before you start speculating, I feel like I should clarify that this is a work of fiction – it’s from a young woman’s perspective rather than mine, so don’t be fooled by the use of the first person!

I know his room much better than most people. I could walk into it blindfolded and still tell you exactly where everything is, down to the tiniest detail. Whenever I feel my chest tightening, or my head spinning, all I need to do is close my eyes and I’m there. I see the droopy pot plant on the shelf, fading more with every passing visit, and the feeble attempt at a motivational poster on the wall. It says “laugh like there’s no tomorrow”, but I always say that it’s not such a good thing to have in there – after all, it’s not so easy for everyone who comes in to do as it says. Whatever its shortcomings are, though, this is the only place I’ve felt safe in for some considerable time. To enter it is to be engulfed in an embrace, not just from the room but also from Noel, my counsellor.

We’ve been talking for a couple of months now. When I’m in with him, I feel like he and I are the last two living souls on Earth. In only one hour, he’ll give me more undivided attention than I can expect in twenty four at home, and he endures meltdown after meltdown without even batting an eyelid. This place only knows love, care and respect within its walls. I don’t blame Noel for choosing to follow this path, because who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?

I’m walking along the street now, towards the office where I meet him. With every step, the anticipation builds and I struggle to stop myself from beaming like a lunatic. I try my best to keep a stiff upper lip, but it proves to be easier said than done and I find myself fidgeting with my hands as I wait for his door to open. After what seems like an eternity, it swings aside and I am warmly met with a gesture inviting me in.

“Would you like to come through?”

I see Noel standing there, stereotypically dark and handsome, and as is often the case I find myself lost in the empathy within his hazel eyes. At this point I lose control, and stepping over the threshold into the sanctuary of the office is almost like an out of body experience. It’s the safest hour of my week – and it begins now…

In front of Noel’s desk there are two black leather armchairs, directly facing each other. This is the arena in which all of my emotional battles manifest themselves before his very eyes. As always, I take a deep breath before sinking into the right-hand seat, and I exhale calmly as I feel the chair caress my body. Noel sits down opposite me, and he fixes me with his gaze. It isn’t that he’s being cold or distant, it’s just that as of now, he means business and he wants to listen.

“How have you been since I saw you last?” he asks.

I can already feel a rising lump in my throat. This is the truth frantically scrabbling for the surface, reaching for a release.

“I only wish I had good news,” I reply, “but the atmosphere at home is still pretty toxic. Even when it seems like the day is going well, there’s still things that are left unsaid. We just can’t seem to ever clear the air.”

As I say this, I notice that Noel’s hands – which had been clasped together – are now separated and open, and his palms are facing upwards. I glance at them for a second, but am quickly interrupted by his line of questioning.

“Is there no trust left at all?”

I think to myself that after so many sessions, he must know the answer to that by now. The only trust I can really rely on is between me and him, and as I see his hands before me I have to fight the instinctive urge to hold them. This is a strictly professional relationship, and I need to respect the boundaries within.

“No”, I say. “That’s why I’m so grateful for these sessions, as you well know.”

Noel allows a slight smile to cross his lips, the kind that is probably much smaller than what he reserves for his wife and his kids. I am hit with a hot flush of envy. “All part of the service.”

“The service”. Another reminder that he just sees me as a means to an end. Someone who puts food on the table and clothes on his back. Not unlike Charles, my boyfriend. He’s the one I come here to talk about, because I can’t communicate with him at home anymore. The dinner table used to be a hive of animated discussion, but now we sit slumped over our food in silence. We used to snuggle together on the sofa watching television, but now we choose separate chairs on either side of the room. I don’t know what started it, but it’s the elephant in the room and if he won’t talk to me about it, at least I know Noel will.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” I tell him. “Charles doesn’t trust me, I don’t trust him, and because of that, we can’t talk about whatever it is that’s ruining our relationship. It’s like a pressure cooker. The more things we leave unsaid, the more the stress builds, and in the end it all boils over and leads to a blazing row. There’s blame on both sides, I wouldn’t want you to think the worst of him.”

“Of course not,” Noel replies. “You don’t need to worry about that. It isn’t my job to judge.”

No, Noel. No, it isn’t. And I love you for it. We talk more that day, and I emerge from the office feeling once again like the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders. Later that night, as Charles and I lie in bed with our backs to one another, I manage to find Noel on Facebook. His account is private – evidently his professionalism has a much further reach than I had expected. I might not be able to see his photos, but my imagination runs wild when I think about what they must be like. I can see him beaming away with the family during summer barbecues in the garden, walks with the dog, or idyllic holidays abroad. And then I imagine myself in his wife’s place. Someone like Noel could bring me so much happiness. In a different world, maybe he has. But I need to pull myself together.

That vow doesn’t last long, and I soon find myself crossing the biggest line yet, peeking out from behind a brick wall as he picks them up from school. I know this is bad, but it gives me the hit I’m looking for, however brief it may be. Instead of Noel the counsellor, I see Noel the family man – the man I want him to be. I notice that he exudes an even greater level of warmth that he could simply never show in our meetings. He embraces his children as they run out to meet him, and he absorbs everything going on around him with clear interest and optimism. I might be watching Noel from afar, ducking further behind the wall whenever he turns in my direction, but I feel I know him just a little bit better. I’ll get through to him, sooner or later. I can’t wait to make him squirm in his seat.

Sure enough, next time I see him, there he is, shuffling awkwardly like a schoolboy as I sit opposite him. I say nothing – I just can’t believe it’s worked. It can only mean one thing.

“Look, I saw you at the school yesterday, and it looked to me like you were watching us. I need to know that you won’t do anything like that again. You scared us,” he stutters.

I nod, and I tell him what he wants to hear. When we next talk about Charles, I see another opening and I go for it.

“It’s escalated now,” I say. “I could just about cope with the silence between us, but now he’s on his phone at all hours of the day. When I try to ask who he’s talking to, he makes excuses and puts it away. Silence is one thing, feeling like you’re talking to a brick wall is another. Do you ever get that?”

Noel bristles. He tries his best to gloss over my question with a smile. “I’m supposed to ask you the questions.”

“Just humour me.”

He evidently wasn’t expecting me to come back like that – there is a silence unlike any other. You could hear a pin drop. I imagine the cogs whirring in his head.

He begins to respond. “I…” Then he stops, reconsiders. “We all do, sometimes.”

Clever Noel – answering and avoiding the question at the same time. Note to self: must try harder.

Over the next few weeks, I make a mental list. I think about every time I see his cheeks go pink, and every time he clasps his hands together in his lap, twiddling his thumbs. These are signs of chinks in his armour and I train myself to spot them, just as he would spot a client’s cries for help. As the weeks go by, he latches on to this – but by now there is no escape, and human nature is beginning to get the better of him. One day I decide to catch him off-guard. He comes in, flustered, absent-mindedly apologising for his lateness. He hurriedly slams a pile of papers on a table and sits down opposite me, as usual. We begin, and I notice there is an oily sheen on his skin today – and then, like a coiled viper, I decide to strike while the prey is ripe for the killing. I’m going to make him sweat a little bit more.

“Tough day?” I ask, as innocently as I can.

Noel chuckles. “It’s a counsellor’s life. If I’m not seeing clients, I’m seeing paper – lots of it.”

He won’t suspect a thing now. I spring forward in my seat, and fix him with my widest smile as I softly rest my hand on his knee. “Never mind. You can get off after this.” I could withdraw at this moment, but I’m intrigued to see how long I can keep it there. Only a few seconds pass, but it seems like an eternity, and in that time he does to little to resist. Without looking, I wonder if the blood’s rushed down from his head yet. I’d like to see him try to hide that.

After this, Noel makes a point of asking me about Charles, so as to draw attention away from himself. When I tell him we’re looking at a fresh start – finding a new place, starting with a clean slate – he jumps at the chance to know more. He seems even more interested in my life than before. He wants to know how many bedrooms there’ll be, how much garden we’re going to have, thinking it’s going to take my mind off him. But it’s only a temporary distraction for me. As long as Noel is sat in front of me, I can only restrain myself for so long.

I spend so long fantasising about it coming to a head, but even I don’t expect it when it does. I’ve spent so many weeks sneaking in whenever I can. A touch here, a fond brush there. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve seen emotion in his eyes. Appreciation, acceptance, expectation, and what is surely lust. He tries his best to maintain the counsellor façade, but it is no use. He knows he is at my mercy, and I will soon be at his.

He is perfecting his well-honed routine, feigning interest in Charles and me. Our move has been put on hold; I think we knew in our heart of hearts that neither of us really think it will solve anything. I tell Noel that, obviously, but he is clutching at straws, trying desperately not to show me he is faltering. When he breaks off, and there is silence, I make it last. Then I mutter something.

“Never mind. I can focus on what I really want now.”

It takes the locking of our lips to find out that isn’t what I had expected. I anticipate Noel recoiling in disgust; instead, his tongue coils its way around mine, invading and violating me in a way I never thought possible. Counsellors aren’t supposed to do that.

At that moment, I realise I’ve been wrong all along. Noel is first and foremost my confidant, and thinking about that suddenly puts me in his shoes. I feel uncomfortable. Nervous. Used. So I do what I’d expected him to do all along. I pull away, get up and leave without another word. I don’t look at him; I don’t want to see his reaction. I want him to see my disappointment. The one thing I need is a warm listening ear. Noel is anything but.

Mason

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Me And My Microphone

I am now on the brink of Week 10 of my first university semester, and the first nine weeks alone have taught me many things about how to write and what I can do to improve my writing. Two of the more recent lessons have come in Publishing and Social Media, which I had as usual yesterday morning. As a blogger, the first was one that I found particularly useful. Even as someone who is a stickler for good spelling, punctuation and grammar, it wasn’t something that had occurred to me before. We were taught that before a post is published on any given blog, it should always be written up on Word first, so that any mistakes can be exposed by the processor. Once it has been tidied up as necessary, it can be freely copied and pasted across. This method is – as of this post – one I am officially adopting for Third Time Enabled, as it’s more than likely that one or two keyboard slips have occurred over the last three years, in spite of all my best efforts to avoid them.

We have also learned that as this is a creative degree, we are free to explore new artistic horizons that stretch beyond writing alone. This is especially true in the Publishing module, since I will soon have to submit a piece that can take almost any form I want it to. As I have a microphone sitting idle in my bag (which hasn’t had to record any lectures recently), I have decided to try something totally new – a podcast. I am neither an entirely confident speaker nor an expert on technology, but doing this will add to my skill set and – at the very least – I will be able to write what I need to say. Thankfully, I will be graded based on the actual content of the podcast, and not on its sound quality!

When I made the decision to do this, I obviously had to consider what I would talk about, and the inspiration behind what I eventually chose came at the most unlikely time. Heading towards Winchester High Street last week, I passed a rather nice hotel, which looked it must cost an arm and a leg to eat in. Leaning against the railings outside was a pizza delivery bicycle, and sure enough, I saw that a pizza was on its way in through the front door. I immediately took out my phone and made a note of what I’d seen. Call it a writer’s curiosity – I couldn’t help but wonder who would order pizza to a place like that, and why. My mind was full of stories and explanations, so there was no way I was going to ignore something that was apparently so out of place. I may have spoken before about how I am often inspired by the smallest words, phrases and observations, since I believe even the most insignificant things can bear fruit. This was no exception, and it led me to base my planned podcast on what can result from such things. My current intentions therefore look something like this – I’ll talk about the latest little source of inspiration at the start, before I read a story or other piece of writing that I have managed to develop from it. It’s a simple concept, but if it is executed well, I am confident that its unpredictability could make for an entertaining listen – and yes, we do have to publish the podcast when it’s complete! Now that I have the basic idea established, all that’s left to do is write my script and do my best to record, and I have a feeling that could involve some trial and error at first. Uncharted territory can be daunting, but also very intriguing…

Mason

For Stan

I knew this post was coming for a while. In fact, different versions of this post remain unwritten or in the recycle bin on my laptop. When Steve Ditko died a few months ago, I tried to write a post to commemorate his incredible impact on my life and the comic book industry. How his drawings and embrace of the weird left my imagination on fire and paper cuts on my fingers from flicking through comic book pages. But I didn’t know how to find the right words to do him justice. So I left it.

And now Stan Lee has died at the age of 95, and I’m sat in front of my screen again. And trying to think of the words to surmise his impact on comic books, entertainment, pop culture, me, thousands of other avid fans. No one has done so much for comics, and no one ever will. And this time, I don’t think I can delete this post. It has to be written, even if the words don’t quite fit.

Stan was the co-creator of the Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and so many more that if I kept going this page would stretch into oblivion. He was part of Marvel before it even took that name, before it was Atlas and when it was just Timely. He was installed as interim editor at 19 in 1941. And from there, particularly in the 1960s, he began to create terrific characters. Characters that would transcend time and space.

One of my favourite stories surrounding Stan centred around the Comics Code of America. In the 1950s, a belief started to form that comic books influence juvenile delinquency (sound familiar?), and thus the Comics Code was amended to ban excessive violence, nudity and all other sorts of naughty activity. Horror comics were effectively neutered with the prohibition of blood and gore, and books were not permitted to have “terror” and “horror” in their titles.

These rulings strangled the comics industry.  Marvel, then Atlas, came under extreme pressure due to their own emphasis on westerns and horror books. This new clamp on creativity was leading Stan to consider packing up the typewriter and leaving the industry.

It was his late wife, Jo, who convinced him to stay. She told him to write whatever he liked. I didn’t matter, they’d only fire him from the place he didn’t want to be at anymore. With this advice, Stan created a book, Fantastic Four #1. And from there came a renaissance of super heroes created by Stan and his fabulous artistic partners, from Jack Kirby to Larry Lieber and Steve Ditko.

I once saw a great video featurin Stan and the filmmaker Kevin Smith. They’re improvising a scene during an interview at San Diego Comic Con, and Stan just keeps giggling and cracking up. He seemed to have an incredibly youthful mind and voice, even in his later years. When he spoke in that famous voice, the words flowed out of his mouth with exuberance.

His characters were all flawed. Spider-Man was just human. Iron Man was a genius, but arrogant. Thor was hidden inside the body of the cane-bound Donald Blake. Bruce Banner couldn’t let his anger envelop him otherwise he would become the destructive Hulk. These flaws made the characters endearing and made us think that these brave heroes might not be able to make it through to the next issue. It also told us that despite our flaws, we had the power to become heroes ourselves. Why do you think that meant so much to the kid whose hands shook and who couldn’t ride a bike?

When I was a child, I would end up spending a lot of time on my own, and I loved to read. One day, I discovered Marvel comics. I saw epic stories featuring colourful heroes defying evil, and that sent me on a journey of discovery that I still follow at the age of 21. When I look around my bedroom, I see comics. Hundreds of them. A few of them were written by Stan himself, but my point is that every single one of them originated from one man’s mind, and the influence that those books have had on my imagination and my life is immeasurable. Without Stan, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I wouldn’t have gone to university and met some of the closest friends I’ve ever had. And I wouldn’t be sat here, struggling to see this computer screen because my eyes are welling up, trying to write something poignant enough to do this man justice. I know I’m not doing enough.

Stan gave a lonely little boy a whole universe to play with – and the thing is, I know it’s not just me feeling like this. His work has created a sense of giddiness and excitement in people for generations, since 1941, and I love the idea that thanks to the profits from the Marvel films (in excess of US$10 billion), it can do the same for generations to come.

Stan gave thousands – possibly millions – of boys and girls that very same universe, and it is up to us creators to keep expanding it without forgetting the original big bang that put us on this path.

I started this piece saying that I didn’t know if I could find the right words to honour Stan Lee. And to be honest, I still don’t think I have. Because the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible. I’m not good enough to do that. What words are there that can truly encapsulate the man? Seismic? Momentous? Mind-blowing?

Actually, I think there is a word. One glorious, magical word.

Excelsior!

Rest in Peace, Stan.

Will

Five Flights Of Stairs

When the security guard told me I’d have no choice but to stay where I was last Monday night, I knew what ensued could be both interesting and amusing. The lift in Lara’s block of flats had broken, and because she lives at the very top of it, I was obviously unable to get to the ground floor in order to reach my own flat. I instantly considered myself lucky that I wasn’t stuck with a group of people I didn’t know so well, and even more luckily for me, Lara and her flatmates were all too happy to have me. Once security had confirmed that the lift would not be fixed until the morning at the earliest, I retreated back into the kitchen – where we all usually socialise – to hatch a plan, while Lara and Ben went to my flat with my ID card to collect some of my things. They swiftly returned with a change of clothes, the leads for my laptop and phone, and my pyjamas, among other things – and they were all in a bag Deacon had lent them, which I still need to give back! My orange manual wheelchair was also summoned, and it waited patiently in the corner of the room for its call to action. Lara then very kindly said I was welcome to sleep in her bed, and that she would take the floor (insisting that the cushions from the sofa in the kitchen can be very comfortable when laid out correctly). We therefore had the sleeping arrangements covered rather quickly, and showering was a doddle too, even in a shower not designed for a disabled person like my own. I just had to keep my balance on my knees as best I could, without a seat to use!

The real challenge came the next morning, after Lara and I had giggled our heads off in the middle of the night thinking of names for disability dating sites (don’t ask). I would have to get downstairs somehow in order to reach my 9am lecture, and we had initially agreed that I would be carried downstairs in my manual chair with everyone in the flat bearing some of the weight. When we got to the top of the long staircase, however, we discovered that a Plan B would be needed, and fast. Ben had been confident that he would be able to lift the front of the chair all on his own, but it transpired that he had severely underestimated its weight with me sitting in it, as he immediately hurt his back upon trying to lift it. I joked with him beforehand about the risk of injury to anyone who tried hauling me around, but I was not actually expecting it to happen – thankfully, after apologising profusely multiple times, I think the risk of a lawsuit has now subsided. With Ben out of action, I then tried crawling down the stairs myself so that I wouldn’t hurt any more of my friends, but these stairs had sharp metal edges that dug into my legs and impeded my progress. Our third attempt finally got us to the ground, and it was one that I took part in on my own two feet, with Lara and Ryan each supporting one arm as Nora carried my wheelchair down behind us. Fortunately for her, it was a whole lot lighter without a passenger, and her back would emerge from this unscathed.

Our little trip meant – as the title of this post suggests – that we had to traverse the entirety of A Block and descend five whole flights of stairs. The support I had was sturdy enough to mean that falling over wasn’t really a concern for me, but it was for the other two – since I, the only non-walker of the trio, was going quicker than they could! Lara feared that I might end up pulling her over, and Ryan was losing the circulation in his  arm holding mine, so we stopped and started again wherever we needed to. Eventually, after many a hop, skip and jump (since I couldn’t get an entirely firm foothold on any of the stairs), we got to the bottom and I was able to transfer to my chair, much to Lara and Ryan’s shared relief. Once Lara had gotten to grips with pushing me along on the slopes of the steepest city in Hampshire, it was a straightforward downhill run to the lecture theatre – but going back up was a different story. When it was time to do that, Lara had to bend over in order to push properly and avoid slipping, so her inability to stand up straight – and my considerable weight – caused her more than a little bit of discomfort. Before long, the lift had been fixed, so she didn’t have to endure this for very long, but after all of her help and kind hospitality, buying her mac and cheese for lunch was the very least I could do. I am tremendously grateful for the assistance that everyone in her flat gave during the ordeal – above all, I think it served as a strong reminder of the importance and value of friendship. I just hope the lift stays reliable for a while…

Mason

The Man In The Melee

Another Thursday means another Publishing and Social Media class, and that means another short story! Anyone who read my last post will know that I shared three examples of Twitter fiction I was particularly proud of, and after a favourable response to those – particularly in this post from Penstricken – I have decided to show you something else that I wrote this morning. Its genesis was the photo you can see above, which I took when we were asked to take a picture that we could use as the basis for a story. We could do whatever we liked with it, provided that it did not exceed 2,200 characters, the maximum number permitted in an Instagram caption. When I returned from the university library to start my piece, I did so intending to write more fiction, but I quickly found myself drawing more and more from my experience, so what you are about to read is closer to a true account. That might have something to do with the fact that I have actually been trapped in that very same aisle once or twice before! As always, I hope you enjoy what is below, and do feel free to get back to me with feedback. You are also more than welcome to formulate your own endings if you wish – I intentionally left it open for you…

The library is very busy today, and that means congestion. It’s like Black Friday for bookworms. Everyone needs this for their essay, or that for their assignment, and they all want the same thing at the same time. I have what I need – now I just want to get out of the aisle. I see a girl at the other end, avoiding the melee at a computer, and I envy her. If she finds herself having a Clint Eastwood-esque face off with a fellow student, all she needs is a gap the size of a cigarette paper to slip on by. Letting me past, on the other hand, is like meeting an articulated lorry in a narrow country lane. If you and I are facing each other in an aisle, we cannot go any further – one of us will have no choice but to retreat. Occasionally, this means that I instantly become both highly conspicuous and highly embarrassed. All I want is to go through life without being too much of an inconvenience, and here I am exactly that. I am the road block in this aisle, and people are getting impatient on either side. I am gripped by panic and my heart beats like a machine gun in my chest. I find myself unable to take action – the world becomes a blur and I have no idea what my next step will be. I shut my eyes. If I ever doubted the world was still inaccessible to the disabled, I know it is now. I am a square peg stuck in a round hole, and I have to find some way to wriggle free.

Mason

Fast Fiction

Allow me to share this with you. This morning, during one of my Publishing and Social Media classes, we were challenged to write a short story that was a maximum of 280 characters long (as that is the maximum length allowed on Twitter, where they would be published). I duly tweeted three after pondering them for a while, but just in case you don’t follow me on Twitter (where I’m @HawkerMason), I thought I’d publish them here – this is a hub of creativity, after all! I hope you like them – if you do, why not leave a comment below and let me know?

  1. “I don’t know where else to turn. I haven’t heard from him in weeks,” she sobbed. She didn’t see his face as he sat beside her – he knew full well that his consoling hand was a guilty one.
  2. He felt the sweat on his brow and the trembling in his hands as the crowds gathered, waiting for his next move. They gazed at him like he was a zoo animal. He wondered how he would get to his lecture now the lift was broken.
  3. He’d been stuck upstairs during fire drills plenty of times before – but he hadn’t ever expected it to happen when his life was at risk. He’d told his friend to save herself. Now he would have to get out alone, by any means necessary.

The lift I needed to take before that class was actually broken – it made getting there mildly inconvenient, but it provided some useful inspiration, so I can forgive it on this occasion!

Mason

All Is Immersion

It has been exactly a month since my last post here, which was my first as a university student. What followed its publication was four weeks of total immersion – both socially and academically – in my new life, so I really ought to apologise for my silence here (and any silence that might be forthcoming). I am writing this sitting at the kitchen table in Lara’s flat, having successfully escaped a cloud of hysteria regarding how to discuss The Night of the Hunter in my Scriptwriting essay. I should be writing more of that now instead, since it is due in exactly a week’s time, but old habits die hard and I am here doing this instead.

You should know by now how thrilled I am to be at Winchester. It has given me several new friends, a fascinating degree to study, a beautiful and vibrant new city to explore and some much-cherished total independence. What I still have to work on, however, is a solution to my status as a chronic procrastinator. No matter what I try, the infamous thief of time is never far away. I have taken to working within the tranquillity of the library, since going there offers fewer potential distractions than my own room, but even then very little is needed to divert me from the task at hand. In that case, I will usually clock myself staring randomly into space, or making an excuse in my head for a visit to the coffee machine or the toilet. Even though I know the work is important, getting on with it is sometimes easier said than done. That means that I’ve now had to step the precautions up a notch.

If I am going to the library, for example, I might not take my phone with me. This would put me at a disadvantage in the event of an emergency, but at least it stops me sneakily scrolling through Twitter or Facebook. I tried this approach the other day and it worked like a dream – I got almost two hours of solid work done, so it’s definitely a tactic I will be employing again. Unfortunately, though, my tendency to procrastinate doesn’t just affect my university work. It also affects this blog – I am finishing this post now several hours after actually sitting at Lara’s kitchen table. It looks like I am going to have to go back to the drawing board to think about how to tackle this, and fast. Firstly, though, I really am going to write some more of my essay – I’ve promised that to my audience now, so there’s no going back. Maybe I will order a pizza afterwards as a reward.

I will be back when my hectic studying/socialising schedule allows!

Mason