The Memory Bank

This is the opening chapter of a children’s novel which I wrote for my Writing For Children class, and which is being ‘workshopped’ this Friday. I think the target audience would be around 10-12 years old. My favourite authors when I was that age were Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl, and I was thinking of both of them a lot as I was writing this piece, particularly in terms of character.

‘The Memory Bank’ is a working title and I’m open to suggestions for a better one (for the novel itself and for this particular kind of charity). Also, if you know anything about hospitals or neuroscience and are offended by the scene in the hospital, I’m sorry and please help me.

Emily x

Starfish on the beach, Ho Tram. 2014 (The tenuous link between picture and writing = star).
Starfish on the beach, Ho Tram. 2014 (The tenuous link between picture and writing = star).

The Memory Bank

I was eleven years old when they first came to steal my memories.

On the day that they took the first one, I’d just won first place in a national gymnastics competition, which was hosted at my school. I remember that my normally wild hair was tied tightly in a bun. I remember that my leotard was purple crushed velvet, edged with glittering diamante. I remember that I was given a medal, and that my grin was a mile wide as I stood on the winners’ podium to have my picture taken for the local newspaper. Except I don’t really remember any of this at all. The only reason I can describe these things is because of the framed photo that my mum hung up in the living room. Really, I don’t remember any of it, because as soon as I stepped down from the podium they found me and, for the first time, they took my memory away. And that part I remember very well.

“You did a great job there today, Esther. I’m very impressed!” Those were the first words ever spoken to me by Mr Silk. He had a voice to match the name: smooth and luxurious. Mum was helping me to put my coat on before we headed out to the bus stop. We both turned and looked at this peculiar man – long beige coat and big toady smile – who was staring at me expectantly. I said nothing. I’m not very good at talking to strangers and I was even worse at it when I was eleven. My mum normally did all the talking for us, but she was looking a bit confused too.

“I’ll bet it feels fantastic doesn’t it, standing up there having won that first place medal, everyone so impressed and wanting to take your photo? I’m very jealous, I was never any good at gymnastics. Here, I’ve brought you a hot chocolate, I thought you might need warming up. Stood out here in that leotard all morning!” Mum suddenly got a bit suspicious then and snatched the hot chocolate out of Mr Silk’s hand. She was a bit too hasty and some of it spilled out of the top and scalded her skin. She must have been worked up, because she didn’t even seem to notice.

“She’s fine, thank you very much!” Mum was holding my tracksuit bottoms out at me and glowering. “Come on Esther, or we’ll have to run for the bus.”

I shoved them on as quickly as I could and we turned to walk away. I could see that mum wanted to get out of there double quick – she only ever calls me Esther when she’s angry or wants to make someone think we’re posher than we are. To anyone that knows me, my name is Star.

“Mrs Stephenson! Perhaps before you go you could just take my card. I work for a children’s charity you see.” Mum stopped in her tracks as though she’d seen a lion. She turned around slowly and I could see in her face that Mr Silk was about to get one of her special dressing downs; one of the ones where her voice goes really low and you can tell you’re on your final warning before she pops.

“It’s Ms Stephenson. And I don’t know what exactly might make you think that we need your charity but my daughter and I are doing perfectly well on our own, thank you very much.” She held the hot chocolate out to him and, when he didn’t take it, placed it down by his feet. Then she whirled me back around and began to march me out of the gym, while I tried not to care about leaving the hot chocolate behind even though I was a little bit cold and hot chocolate is a really special treat in our house.

We were almost out of the door when he caught up with us.

“No Ms Stephenson, please! Please, I didn’t mean to offend you. You’ve misunderstood me. It’s your daughter that could help us. I mean we’d pay you both, of course, if you were to agree. We have funding for that. But the children at the charity could really benefit from the help of a little girl as – as well brought up as Esther.”

I’m not sure which part of what he said got to my mum, but the truth is we do always need more money. My mum is obsessed with me being brought up well too, so maybe it was that. Whatever it was, she turned around. She still had her ‘don’t mess with me’ face on but her voice was calmer now.

“What kind of charity is this, exactly?”

Mr Silk’s big toady grin got bigger and for a moment, I thought a huge tongue might come springing out of his mouth and swallow us up like flies. But instead he just laughed. “Why don’t we go and get that hot chocolate and we can sit down and have a chat about everything?”

So he explained it all. That his name was Mr Silk and that he was in charge of recruitment at a charity called the ‘Memory Bank’. His job was to find happy children with lots of great things going on in their lives and to pay them to donate some of their happy memories. The memories would be given to children who’d had difficult or unhappy childhoods, or were overcoming specific bad things that had happened to them. Mum didn’t seem to really believe him and was asking lots of questions about science and research and safety. I got a little bored and zoned out, trying to really savour every mouthful of the hot chocolate. I’d stopped listening completely and was pretending that my tongue was a big hot chocolate waterfall when I suddenly realised that both of them were staring at me and waiting for me to answer a question.

“Well Esther, what do you think? £500 to help someone less fortunate than you? And your mum says you like science – how do you fancy seeing some exciting lab equipment?”

The answer seemed obvious to me. Everyone was always saying how important it was to support charities and to help people less fortunate than you. And £500 was a lot of money.

“Yeah ok, I don’t mind.”

Mr Silk’s smile was getting so big that I thought it might climb off of his face and strangle me. Mum was smiling too, although hers was a little more anxious.

“Well come along then ladies,” Mr Silk was standing up and gesturing towards the door. “What are we waiting for?”

I know what you’re thinking. My mum sold me out for £500. But the thing is, we really did need the money. Since dad left, we’d really struggled. Mum was trying to get her qualifications sorted so that she could get a better job. She said if she worked hard enough, she could be a Geologist, and we’d never have to worry about cash anymore. She said we could get a car and go on a nice holiday every year and we could even redecorate my bedroom in any colour I liked. But in the meantime, she had to count every penny. I have to hand it to my mum, she was great at counting pennies. I never saw her buy clothes brand new, and she always knew which supermarket had the best deals on. She was always thinking about how to make our money go as far as possible. With all that in mind, I understood why she wanted to get us the £500. Plus, mum liked doing stuff for charity too. It seemed like a win-win situation.

When we got outside Mr Silk hailed us a black cab. I’d never got in a taxi before. I could tell mum was quite excited by it too, eyes darting around everywhere, taking everything in. She was trying to hide it from Mr Silk though, so I tried to hide it too. I just sat quietly and watched the meter tick up and up, counting the price in multiples of bus tickets. After five minutes we’d already spent £4.57, which would have been enough to get all three of us all the way back to Erdington on the 903 AND have 7p change. I went to tell mum that – she loves how good I am at Maths – but decided to keep it to myself because Mr Silk didn’t seem like the kind of man who ever got buses at all.

Instead I sat and thought about how I could redecorate my room maybe, once we’d got the £500. I’d already picked out the colours I wanted from the paint chart at the shop: ‘Moroccan Flame’ and ‘Volcanic Red’. I wanted it to feel like the room was on fire, like I was sleeping in the middle of a star. Not the silly pointy ones little kids draw on birthday cards and stuff, but real stars, like you see in the night sky. Close up, a star looks like a huge ball of flames, although really it’s made of gas. Hydrogen, mostly. The coolest thing about stars though is that they look tiny but really they’re enormous, even bigger than our planet, they’re just really far away. In fact, sometimes they’re so far away that  by the time the light reaches us and we can see them, they’ve already burned up and aren’t even there anymore. When we look at stars, we’re looking into the past. How cool is that?

“Don’t go letting your mind wander too much Esther, we want to keep that memory nice and fresh!” My mind had wandered and I hadn’t even realised that the taxi had stopped. Mr Silk was holding the car door open for me, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital looming behind him.

“Come on, Star!” My mum was forgetting to pretend we were posh. She looked anxious, digging her hands into her pockets and shifting her weight from one foot to the other. So as we walked towards the hospital I looped my arm through hers so that she know we were in this together. That’s what she always does for me when I’m nervous. It was hard trying to be the relaxed one, when I was feeling a bit frightened myself, and the hospital was HUGE. So I just stared at my feet and tried to ignore all the hurried nurses and the sad looking visitors with flowers and the shuffling patients in ugly blue nighties. We paced through corridors and up staircases, the sound of bleeping and whirring everywhere. Eventually, we stopped and Mr Silk’s voice went all sing-song cheerful. “Here we are!” He pressed an intercom button, flashed an ID badge and we walked in. Ward 411: Neurology.

After that, my memory gets a bit blurry. Everything was so new that it was hard to take it in. Mr Silk talked to a doctor who introduced herself as Dr Green, a cognitive neuroscientist, and told me she’d be performing the operation to extract my memory and not to worry, it wouldn’t even hurt. Then another doctor came in and didn’t even tell me his name, only that he was an anaesthetist, and that he’d be putting me to sleep for the whole procedure then waking me back up again. Mum panicked a bit then and asked lots of questions but I was actually excited to be anaesthetised. It happened to Poppy in my class and she said she couldn’t even count backwards from 10 before falling asleep. I wanted to see if I could beat her and that was all I could really think about until they lay me down and inserted the cannula, which hurt a tiny bit but not as much as Poppy had made out. Then the anaesthetist was smiling down at me and saying “count back from 10” and I was really concentrating, doing my best to not let go and saying: “10! 9! 8…”

And the next thing I remember is waking up.

“Welcome back, Esther.” Dr Green and the anaesthetist were still smiling down at me and it was like they’d not moved, but the clock on the wall behind them said 3:25pm which meant at least an hour had passed. Mum and Mr Silk were sat in chairs next to the bed and I suddenly realised that everyone was waiting for me to say something, but I felt so sleepy that all I wanted to do was close my eyes and go back to sleep. Dr Green said it was important that I answered a few questions, and she propped me up with some cushions and gave me a glass of water. The questions were easy enough to answer at first: yes I’m fine, yes I remember why I’m here, no, nothing hurts. But then things got strange.

“And what do you remember about this morning, Esther? Can you tell me about your day? Start from the beginning – what did you have for your breakfast?” I opened my mouth to answer but suddenly realised I had nothing to say. The whole day before me was a fuzzy blank. The first thing I could remember happening all day was meeting Mr Silk in the school gym, just as I’d climbed down from the podium. I told Dr Green, a little embarrassed, and she beamed as though I’d just recited my 72 times tables backwards. In French.

“Perfect!” Mr Silk was standing up and clapping his hands together enthusiastically. “Well done Ms Green, a perfectly clean cut again. Exactly what we wanted!”

“It’s Dr Green,” I heard myself saying, but Mr Silk wasn’t listening. “Show her” he said, gesturing at a glass bottle on a metal trolley behind Dr Green. With care, she picked it up and held it up to the light for me to see: a purple liquid which glinted pink and black as she turned it in her palm. “This is your memory from this morning.” Dr Green was staring at the liquid as she spoke, spellbound. “We can give this to another little girl or boy and all of the joy and excitement that you felt this morning, they’ll remember it as though it happened to them. We know it seems a little strange, but we think that giving” – she paused to choose her words carefully – “less fortunate boys and girls the chance to remember happy childhoods like yours… could really help them to build happier futures of their own.”

“Do you like it, Star?” My mum was stepping towards me, looking a little nervous. It was strange: it was exactly the voice that I used when she was cross at me, except I didn’t know what I was supposed to be cross about. “It looks a little bit like outer space, doesn’t it? I thought you’d like that.” She turned to Dr Green and smiled proudly. “Esther loves outer space. She’s brilliant at science. And maths.”

Dr Green smiled back. “Ah well, if that’s true Esther then I’m sure you’ll want to do some investigation of your own.” Carefully, she placed the glass jar in my hands for me to inspect. It really did look like outer space, dark and deep, a glittering universe of its own.

“Do they all look like this?” For a moment, I thought about asking to keep it. Suddenly, £500 didn’t seem so special. I couldn’t imagine what I could buy that could be as beautiful as the galaxy that was shimmering in my hands. But Dr Green was already lifting it away from me.

“No. They’re kind of like mood rings. They change from donor to donor, and depending on the kind of memory. We label them in detail of course, but the colours help us to categorise them, which makes them easier to assign later. Greens are happy family memories, for example. Pinks are to do with academic achievements. I’ve never seen one quite like this before. Whenever we get a new shade, we let the donor come up with a name for it. Just for fun, you know. Would you like to choose one, Esther?”

I only saw the jar for a second more, before Dr Green placed it carefully into a tray and locked it away for good.

“Yes,” I said, feeling confident for the first time that day. “Call it ‘Starlight’.”

How To Live Forever And Die Tomorrow: Post #9

P1010657
Has there ever been a better time and place to be than in sunny London in the summer of the Olympics? View from the Southbank, London, 2012.

In Which Erica Experiences Some Firsts

By 8pm Erica and Lee had been talking together in the bar for two hours. This was the longest Erica had spoken to anyone besides her mother for years. Talking was impractical and, although she often spent time socialising with friends and family, it was generally considered unwise to spend too long doing something so unproductive as to sit and talk for hours. Time with friends was, it was felt, better spent swimming lengths or practicing musical instruments together. As positive as The Team attempted to be about the collaboration process, there was no escaping the fact that it left one with a third of the time to pursue personal projects.

But Erica was enjoying sitting and talking without purpose. More importantly, Erica was what you and I might call shit faced. Erica had never been more than slightly tipsy before and was not yet aware of the warm, fuzzy feeling that red wine can give to a person. She attributed her new found sense that everything was alright entirely to Lee. Erica was shit faced and feeling romantically inclined. It was a night of firsts.

“This is a night of firsts.” Erica declared. “This is the first time that I have drunk more than 6 units of red wine. This is the first time I have talked to a man for 2 hours. I would like to ingest more alcohol please and to discuss novel and engaging ideas. We shall be like Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast At Tiffanys, in our dogged and irreverent pursuit of novel experiences.” Her mind was reaching for complex vocabulary to compensate for her compromised clarity of thought. The result was, she believed, most satisfactory. Lee smiled, seemingly endeared to her. He is probably seduced by my complex vocabulary, deduced Erica.

“A fine idea madam. However, as a regular consumer of double digit units of alcohol i must inform you that our purchases will be noted and may ring alarms bells if reviewed. Would you like to make this your first bar crawl, young Erica?” Lee rose from the cosyness of the alcove and led Erica by the hand towards the front door.  As he did so she noticed a small, plain white box tucked in his jacket pocket. The box was more distinctive from anti-smoking propaganda than real life but she recognised it nonetheless. As they stepped outside into the cool night Lee caught the line of her gaze. “I spun a good lie to my doctor. Physical addiction and the avoidance of anxiety attacks”, he explained. “Have you ever tried a cigarette Erica?”

The pair glanced around furtively before stepping into a quiet, cobbled side street. Lee shielded a cigarette from the fine mist of rain which had begun to fall and inhaled deeply. He passed it to Erica and she pressed the butt to her lips with affected confidence, the first flush of mischief she had felt since, at nine, she and a school friend had sampled the liqueurs in her parents drinks cabinet. Predictably, Erica coughed and spluttered. If anybody had been able to watch over two time periods at once, they might have noticed uncanny similarities between this action of Erica’s and the exact same action of Erica’s mother 35 years ago. Both had spluttered; both giggled as they returned the unwanted cigarette; both hoped to be kissed by the person who had supplied it.

“Perhaps it is my turn to suggest some firsts sir. Do you like to run?” Erica asked the question but didn’t wait for an answer. She tore past Lee and out of the alley, pelting at full speed along the pavement. The Thames streamed past a few metres below her as her inebriated mind elatedly converted the rythmic drumming of her heels on the cobbles into the hooves of galloping horses. She was a jousting knight plunging toward his opponent; she was Ghengis Khan storming into battle with the Turks; she was Erica the athlete and for once she was not, not, not Pretty Jenny.

 By the time Lee had caught up with her she was leaning against a wall outside the bar for which she had been headed; her hair was wild from the wind as she ran but her breath had returned to a steady rate. Lee’s had not.

“No, I do not like to run.” He panted. And then he kissed her. It was exactly what she had hoped would happen.

Erica let herself savour the moment for as long as a member of the frantic generation reasonably could. It was nearly nine o’clock after all, and little more than three hours until her evening would be over. She reviewed the line she’d been planning and spoke it, before doubt could creep in and intercept.

“Lee, this has been a night of firsts and I feel that this may be what is known as a hero’s call to adventure for me.”

“That may be the wine.”

“Possibly. But seeing as I have never been drunk or experienced a call to adventure before, how can I know?”

“A valid point madam.”

“In light of this I would like to propose that the adventure that I have been called to is sex with a human man, and that you may be that man.”

“Have you had sex with something or someone other than a human or a man?”

“No, I was just nervous and thought it would be funny to say human man. It is perhaps this social awkwardness that is at the root of my current virginal status. This would be my first experience of sex, full stop.”

Lee’s gaze remained fixed and suggested a combination of excitement and hesitance. Despite her lack of experience in the field, Erica felt confident that this was a sub-optimal reaction to the suggestion. She had been pleased with her assertive directness thus far: it was exactly the approach that she encouraged in her readers. So she decided to continue with it.

“I have gauged that your hesitant reaction is sub-optimal, comrade.”

“Erica… This is an excellent suggestion. I appreciate your directness and I can think of no better way to spend my Friday evening than by assisting you in your hero’s call to adventure. But it wouldn’t be right if, in light of your directness, I didn’t treat you with directness in return. I would also like to apologise for my overuse of the word ‘direct’ in this uncharacteristically long dialogue. I rarely put myself in situations where synonyms are required.”

Erica could not think of anything funny to say so she said nothing. Instead she compiled a quick mental list of all the awful things that may be wrong with her that may lead a plain, drunk man to reject her for sex on a Friday night.

“We… If… If we do… If I do come home with you… It won’t be the first time for me.” Lee was spouting various syntactically inaccurate sentences from which it was difficult to ascertain meaning. The experience was clearly uncomfortable for him.

“What I mean is… I mean it won’t be the first time for me with you. I… We… have had sex before. Only last time… When we last… Last time your name was Jennifer.”

How To Live Forever And Die Tomorrow: Post #8

This episode will probably come later in the story but I want to write it now and fuck it, MY BLOG, MY RULES.

Emily x

DSC00047
Maybe one day I’ll be famous and have Nepali fans and someone will look at this and be able to tell me what wisdom is coming out of this guy’s pipe. Pokhara, Nepal. 2015

In Which Erica Experiences Some Firsts

Erica – not unusually for an average earthling – had no first hand knowledge of the world before her own existence. If she had done, her perspective may have been much broader and one of the things that she perhaps would have noticed was that her ancestors were generally a lot more still than her contemporaries. Her parents generation believed their children had a far more frenzied demeanor, and were generally of the opinion that this habitual mania stemmed from a sense that time was short; that their poor offspring felt the pressure to achieve before their chips were subdued at midnight, and their lives jumped forward another two days. Erica’s parents could not fathom how it might feel to fall asleep on Monday night and wake up on Thursday, with half the week already done. Erica could not fathom anything else.

Something that Erica was slightly more aware of was that her generation was much more attractive than her parents generation. This was a natural consequence of culling the bottom two thirds of the population based primarily on physical traits. This phenomena did not present itself as an issue often since, for most of history, younger people have generally been perceived as more aesthetically pleasing than their older counterparts. The only time that the general handsomeness of her contemporaries was brought to her attention was when she saw a young person that was unattractive. As is the way with most rare and unusual things, being unattractive had taken on a ‘hip’ and exotic quality and had, of late, become a very attractive thing indeed.

Erica was sitting alone in a bar near Embankment station. The bar was famous for cheese and red wine and Erica was enjoying 80% of her daily fat recommendation and 25% of her weekly alcohol ration on her first Friday evening in three weeks. Her attention was caught by a man sat in an alcove a few metres away from her. He was extremely plain and this was, naturally, what had caught her attention. But he was also very still and this was what held it. Careful as she was, one glass of red wine was enough to embolden Erica. She had not drunk any since last Friday – three weeks past – and it took her approximately 140ml of table red to summon the courage to broach conversation.

Erica was, as has been previously stated, very attractive. She had blonde hair which communicated a sense of warmth and youthful innocence, her abs were visible on most days and her body fat had recently been measured with calipers at just over 18%. Erica took little pride in these statistics since they were, in her view, the statistics of Pretty Jenny. It had been a while since Erica had experienced resentment, angst or indeed any heightened state of emotion about this fact. Instead, her teenage sense of injustice had translated in early adulthood to a faint detachment; an anxiety to keep things tidy and not to use anything without permission, as though she were a guest at the home of an old, revered aunt.

But today had been a hard day, and the man in the alcove was looking at her. Erica was tired of playing the role of wallflower.

She rose and walked toward him. She knew that she was attractive and she knew that his looking at her was a subtle social code that it was acceptable for her to initiate conversation. She decided that she would take the plunge and trust that something intelligent and alluring would come to her as she sat down. It didn’t. She lowered herself onto the sofa next to the plain man, smiled politely and looked at the bottle of wine on the table in front of him. There were approximately ten seconds of silence, which her companion seemed to find far less alarming than Erica did. Eventually the chasm became too big and she had to fill it.

“You’ve got a whole 75cl bottle of red wine in front of you but you don’t look like you’re waiting for anybody.”

“Thanks for letting me know.”

Erica waited for him to add a question; a statement of his own; anything to move things forward. Instead he returned to silence. His nose was crooked in the middle and his eyes were sunken and lined beneath a heavy brow.

“It’s just, I happen to know that there are 9 units of alcohol in that bottle of wine. And so I was wondering how you were managing the 6 unit limit with… If you’re drinking it all to yourself.”

The man laughed. There was another uncomfortable silence and Erica was just reaching to fill it when he spoke.

“What’s your name?”

Erica smiled a smile of relief and told him.

“I’m Lee. Can I tell you a secret Erica?”

Erica confirmed that he could. Her role as agony aunt had taught her to respond to personal admissions with warm sincerity.

“This is… This is not my first bottle of wine this evening. It may not be my last. I am throwing caution to the proverbial wind with regards to units of alcohol consumption tonight. Would you like a glass of this finest table red, Erica?”

It was rare, in a society of easy promiscuity and frantic busyness, to meet someone with such a present manner and playful sense of humour.

“Yes but first I must tell you something. Anakin I – I’m your father.” Confusing Star Wars and real life had been her favourite joke as a child.

“Erica… I’m pretty sure Anakin is the father.”

Erica laughed and poured herself a glass of wine. She had never had a second glass of wine before, but tonight felt like a night of firsts.

How To Live Forever And Die Tomorrow: Post #7

fellatio
This (and the photo in the previous post) are taken from an art gallery in Le Touquet,France. I was there with my elderly grandparents and at least one of them cottoned on to what they were looking at.

Dear Erica,

My name’s Josie and I’m sixteen this May. I’ve been a collaborator for a third of my life now and nothing has worried me too much so far. But some of my friends have started talking about -and are maybe even having – sex. I  just  wondered what your opinion was on that, when do you know you are ready and is it better to be the first one to have had sex in a collaboration or not?

Thanks,

Josie x

Dear Josie,

Thanks so much for getting in touch with such an important question: this one is relevant to everyone who becomes a collaborator and so it’s really great that you’ve given me the opportunity to answer it.

First of all it’s brilliant to hear that – five years in – you’ve not had any complaints or issues with your collaboration. I know a lot of our younger readers are super worried about those first few years and settling into their body share so it’s so good for them to hear about real life examples of collaborators getting on just fine and proving that the system works!

Ok. You’ve asked to discuss something quite serious and adult so I hope you won’t mind me talking to you like an adult here, Josie.

Now: how do you know when you’re ready to have sex? For my grandparents’ generation the answer to your question was simple; it’s when you’ve got a wedding ring on your finger. For my parents generation the answer was similarly simple and similarly didactic: wait until you’re in love; that’s when you’ll know. You’ll feel ready. Sweet little epithets Josie, I’m sure you’ll agree, but I have some problems with the wisdom of our ancestors. It fails to take reality into account and, I feel, the problems that wisdom caused were twofold:

1) These rules are too idealistic and fail to factor in human nature. Therefore they made the majority of people (who wanted to have sex but hadn’t found a marriage partner or fallen in love) feel weird or like they’d failed.
AND
2) These rules are oversimplifications and were, weirdly, overcomplicating sex by making people question the quality of the sex they were having and whether they really had been in love or whether this was the person they should’ve married etc, etc, etc. Basically,for those guys, sex = worry.

Both of these problems resulted in the same thing: our parents and grandparents ended up feeling confused, uncomfortable and ashamed of the sex they were and weren’t having and the whole thing caused a lot of upset. Part of those feelings (and the advice itself) came from the notion that your body was yours to preserve and to protect and, by extension, sex wasn’t something you should give away. It was like giving away a part of your self. 

Things just aren’t like that anymore.

We are lucky enough, Josie, to live in an evolved version of our parents society which appreciates the value of the mind as the source of our selves. We understand now, through the success of collaboration, that the body is just a vessel for a mind. Our ancestors often talked about this notion (‘it’s what’s inside that counts’ etc) but didn’t really live by it. We are the generation that practices what they preach.

So what’s my attitude to sex? It’s don’t overthink it. You think you want to try sex but aren’t sure that you’re ready? Go for it! If it turns out you don’t enjoy it then just chalk it up to experience. What other damage is there, apart from the imaginary damage you’ve been warned about by your stuffy ancestors? You think you want to sleep with three different guys from your school rugby team in one week? Well why not! It’s your life, your choice and if you think it sounds like fun then who’s to tell you you’re wrong?! You want to sleep with a guy from your drama group or football team but worried you’ll be the first of your collaborators? Don’t worry about it. You share a body but the experience of sex is about more than a body (or two bodies)! When they decide to do it for the first time is their choice; what you do when it’s you that’s alive and kicking is your choice, so long as you don’t impact your collaborators negatively (which is all covered in the Ten Rules For Harmonious Collaboration). 

Speaking of negative impact, there’s just one important point that I really need to stress to you Josie, and to make sure you really hear it I’m turning to capitals and exclamation marks. YOU! MUST! ALWAYS! USE! PROTECTION! I can’t make this point enough… the only way that you can really make your sex life someones issue other than your own is to catch an STI or get pregnant without prior planning and authorisation. Using a combination of condoms and birth control pills is the only way to make sure that, once you do make that step, you are treating sex with the maturity and responsibility that it deserves.

This is the generation that values mind over matter. If you’ve made your mind up that you’re ready then trust me Josie, that’s all that matters! All that remains for me to say is: good luck and have fun!

Love,

Erica xoxo

*

This letter had been one Erica had been putting off replying to for a few days, despite her editor pestering her to respond to it. Encouraging promiscuity was one of The Team’s ‘Spring Initiatives’ and she’d been briefed so extensively as to how to ‘pitch’ it that her response had been little more than padding out their bullet points into full sentences.

She would have felt a lot less uncomfortable sending it if she had ever really experienced sex. Sex, so far to Erica, was nothing more than a dull ache that she sometimes felt in the mornings.

All Good Things Come To An End

This is my favourite thing that I have written. It is a short story which came from a discussion with Pete. He claimed that, if given the chance, he would become immortal. I argued that being immortal was a bad idea because, eventually, you would get buried alive; being buried alive as well as being immortal is about the most awful thing I can imagine. Pete said that actually, it wouldn’t be so bad because the human mind is a powerful thing and would find a way to deal with it.

Fun fact: I wrote this story while staying in an Alpine lodge in Slovenia and, half way through writing it, I looked up to find three goats had joined me in the living room and were looking at me expectantly. They were total jerks but we hung out for the rest of the week anyway.

Emily x

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All Good Things Come To An End
Only two things mattered in the life of Philip Masterson. The first was that – due to a miraculous and marvellous medical advancement of his own making three years earlier – he was entirely immortal. That is to say: his life could not be ended by any means. If an appendage or organ were to be removed, no matter how viciously, it would regrow in seconds. If he were to be obliterated by an explosion, collision with a large vehicle or careful dicing, he would fantastically reform. His ‘vital’ organs were impervious to ‘deadly’ gases, poisons and powders. Some critics postulated that this state of existence was not actually immortality; seeing as he did not require food, oxygen or water to survive he was, in their view, not alive at all. Philip Masterson graciously acknowledged these suggestions but asserted that, for all intents and purposes, he felt alive. And what was life but a chain of feelings?

The second important thing about Philip Masterson was that at some point in his past he had – following an ugly altercation with one of his more impassioned critics – been buried alive.

Philip did not know for how long he had been buried alive. He had no way of telling the time, since he had not been wearing a watch at the moment of his burial and there was no light inside his coffin.

For the first few hours of his incarceration, as you might expect, Philip had tried to escape. Having no tools with which to do this, and with the coffin being made of metal and residing under several feet of hardened concrete, his attempts did not last long.

For the next few days Philip battled with what psychologists refer to as the ‘Kübler-Ross model’ or, more commonly, ‘the five stages of grief’. Those same psychologists might say that he was grieving his lost existence. He started by flirting with anger at the perpetrators of his entrapment. Then he attempted denial and lay patiently waiting to wake up for a while. In the bargaining phase he optimistically appealed to Pan, Shiva and Jesus Christ in the vain hope that one of them might answer and rescue him. He felt terrible self-pity in the depression phase. He couldn’t really think of a fate more deserving of his pity than being both immortal and buried alive. It was a relief when he reached the acceptance phase and was able to lie still and feel a bit less. He had a nap and recuperated.

After the first fortnight, the stifling claustrophobia that accompanied the acceptance of his fate became too exhausting to sustain. Waiting to be rescued or discovered was not a stimulating enough hobby. On the first Monday of the third week, the shedding of sanity could happily begin.

The next day, Philip decided to move into a mansion in his mind. He wasted no time with estate agents, solicitors or surveyors. In the real world – even with all of the wealth that his scientific discovery had brought him – he had had to stay within a reasonable distance of his children’s secondary school. The mansion that Philip found in his mind had the advantage of not being near anything – and not needing to be. On the front lawn stood a rectangular pond. Among the water lilies on its surface sat six stone frogs which periodically and whimsically exchanged jets of water from their half open, smiling mouths. He had seen something similar at a theme park as a child. The water in the pond oscillated between rich cerise and a cool cerulean. He had always loved the fountains in Barcelona that at night-time were illuminated in Technicolor. It was a bonus that his fountains stayed lit during the day. When he wanted it to, the water tasted like Dandelion and Burdock.

Sometimes in the evenings he would take a long bath. His bath was made of glass. Within the glass, beautiful tropical fishes darted and danced. On other evenings he would recline in his back garden with a pint of homemade ale and play Scrabble with himself. He always used all of his letters and the words he found were always satisfying. Contrary to popular belief, constant success did not become boring.

Philip learned to knit, to play the sitar and to recite the entire works of Shakespeare in twenty languages. His next plan was to write his own language and to translate the great works himself. He would learn to recite that too. He had another idea to watch all of the Hitchcock films in a row and to compress each one into a haiku. Philip’s evenings stretched out in front of him like endless, rolling hilltops.

Back in the metal coffin, deep beneath the surface of the earth and weighed down by several feet of hardened cement remained the real, live Philip Masterson. His wife, his children, his captors and his dog were all long dead. If anyone was left above the surface and had the inclination to uncover him, they would see a man who looked as though he was in a deep and very peaceful sleep.

Sometime later – at the point that the sun expanded into a red giant and consumed the planet Earth where he had once resided – Philip believed himself to be sat in his garden, reading the newspaper and eating a Big Mac.

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‘PARTRIDGE’ and ‘LICHEN’ were the most satisfying words here.

How To Live Forever And Die Tomorrow: Post #6

I’m playing with the idea that the government has styled itself as The Team. I want them to have a name which is vague, anonymous and which insinuates friendliness.

Below, Erica begins to answer some of her postbag.

Happy Friday!

Emily xx

“The world’s problems shouldn’t be the human family’s heirloom” – Adora Svitak

If you tolerate this, then your children will be next

It was ten o’clock in the morning and so far Erica had achieved a great deal: she had made her bed, folder her pyjamas and brushed her teeth. She had switched on Classic FM and completed approximately fifteen minutes of light yoga while focusing on her breathing and internally stating her intentions for the day. She had set the coffee machine to brew while she showered and had switched to Radio 2 and had sung along to a song she liked from the Top Forty while she made toast and spread it with a precise sliver of Marmite which extended just so to the corners of her wholegrain toast. She had savoured the coffee and toast slowly, flicking through the news online, while still in her dressing gown.  She had completed the quick crossword and required a search engine for only two of the clues. She had dressed in black leggings and  an oversized shirt, had dabbed her temples and lips with some virgin coconut oil and applied a thin layer of natural brown mascara to her eyelashes. She had practiced her French for twenty minutes and replied to six personal emails. All this she had done, and yet a nagging part of her felt that she had done nothing. It was the part of her that sat down to write her diary at night – a healthy habit for a healthy and reflective mind – and that realised that none of this was worth writing in a diary. How many decisions did she make a day without anything changing?

She opened the folder in her inbox marked ‘letters awaiting reply’. For five days a week, her routine was the same. In the morning she picked letters, wrote replies and submitted them to her editor. In the afternoon she checked replies from the preceding day’s efforts, read through all of the underlines and annotations and edited her letters accordingly. The process in general took a week before her work was considered publishable: her editor was fond of reminding her that the ‘message’ she sent out should be ‘clean and peachy keen’. Sometimes Erica wanted to be mad at her editor for their insipid obsession with sanitising her writing, but this was difficult for two reasons. One: she had not really been truly mad for several years and couldn’t quite remember how to do it. Two: she had never met the editor and therefore wasn’t quite sure who to be mad at. She wasn’t even entirely sure her editor was always the same person.

She picked a letter at random.

Dear Erica, 

I am 9 years old and I am worreyd about my phisical tests next year. I am doing my best to be fit and ready for them but I a worryed about if I don’t get picked. Does it still feel the same? Also what if you want to carry on doing something for two days in a row do you have to stop? Sometimes I do a jigsaw and leave it out in my bedroom over night. Can you tell me what a normal day is like for you?

Thanks,

Joe xxx

The reply would be easy. Erica could at least admit that writing was easier with the interventions of the editor: paint by numbers instead of a blank canvas. It was exactly the kind of question that the editor enjoyed and she knew exactly the spin they’d like to put on it. She left in the spelling mistakes – the editor felt they were endearing.

 Dear Joe,

Thanks so much for getting in touch! It’s awful to feel worried about something, especially when you can’t control it. But hey, you did the right thing by writing in to me because, hopefully, you’ll believe me when I say that there’s really nothing to worry about at all!

First off, don’t worry about ‘getting fit’ for the physicals. While it’s always a great idea to be fit and healthy, there are all kinds of factors that can mean that your body isn’t placed in the top third of your age group, and lots of them don’t have anything to do with you! A family history of diabetes, not having had the measles yet… In fact, my case is the perfect example! There weren’t many nine year olds fitter or healthier than me, but my eczema meant that I just didn’t make the cut.

But hey: don’t feel sorry for me. Although I had all the concerns and doubts that you’re probably having now when I was told I’d be being moved to a new body, it was totally the best thing that could have happened to me. While it may seem scary to ‘lose’ your body, it’s important to remember that people’s bodies have always changed, often for the worse, and collaboration is an opportunity that our ancestors never had to change for the better and to increase our health and fitness. Remember: if you don’t get picked, you’ll be moving into a body that was tested as healthier and fitter than yours! The only way is up!

You asked me if it still feels the same. I ask you this: when you wake up in the morning and open your eyes, do you have to look in the mirror to remember who you are? Of course not. Who you are is what’s in your mind. When my collaboration began it felt as though I fell asleep and woke up just like any normal nights sleep. The only difference was the way I looked… and my skin didn’t itch any more!

That leads me on to your question about when you want things to run over from one day to the next. When your match is made, The Team will arrange things so that you always fall asleep and wake up in the same place. Although two days will have occurred in your body without you, it’ll be hard to tell. Plus – in collaborations it’s important that we take care of what we have: you’ll get used to tidying your jigsaws away and labeling them with ‘please do not touch’, just as much as you get used to putting yourself to bed ready for your collaborator!

Lastly you asked me about an average day. Well… I can’t imagine that’d be much different to the average day in anyone’s life… collaborator or otherwise. I wake up, practice some yoga, read a little world news and eat a healthy, balanced, breakfast. The Team has all kinds of great breakfast recipes online to help you with balancing your nutrition. I listen to some music to cheer up my mood and set to work answering great emails like this one! After a delicious lunch I will call my mum (she’s not a collaborator so she’ll often have a couple of days worth of gossip and news to fill me in on!) and complete a little more work. In the afternoon I’ll meet a friend for a stroll in the park or to hit an exercise class – spinning and Pilates are my current favourites – and we might treat ourselves to a frozen yoghurt or a trip to the cinema. Most evenings I prefer to come home and curl up with my cuddly old cat and a book. I make sure I leave myself in good condition for my collaborator (her name’s Jenny!) by removing my make up, drinking a pint of water and cleaning my teeth. Then it’s time to hit the hay and get some beauty sleep! When I wake up two days later I remember the day before as though it just happened. Not much different to any normal girl, I guess!

So Joe: your body changing is scary because it’s a new thing and I understand that. I mean think about it, it was even newer when it happened to me! But we humans have always been scared of the future… that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. So if you do end up upgrading, embrace it and get ready for a life of improved health and all the happiness that that will bring!

Hugs and kisses,

Erica xOxO

The words had flowed out of her so easily it was almost as though she meant them. She checked through to make sure the tone was as perky as her editor liked and clicked send. It was eleven o’clock. Erica had twelve hours of her day left.

How To Live Forever And Die Tomorrow: Post #5

Got a problem? Struggling to collaborate? Never fear, Erica's here!
Got a problem? Struggling to collaborate? Never fear, Erica’s here!

Erica is an agony aunt employed by the government. I like the idea that she developed an interest in writing at school in her angry poetry phase and went from diary writing to professional writing. It’s a funny fact that a disproportionately large percentage of the fictional world work in writing. Wishful thinking of their creators, I suppose…

The questions that Erica answers will be from the under-10s who are worried about their impending body swaps / physical tests as well as from teenagers struggling with the new challenges of collaboration. I’ve written a couple of answers below but am looking for more ideas. Please offer some suggestions in the comments section for the kind of thing that people might worry about in this area and I can turn them into letters in Erica’s inbox and write answers for them tomorrow!

Some things to bear in mind for Erica’s letters/responses: firstly, the government cultivates a friendly, conspiratorial character for itself which I want the reader to suspect but the characters to never outwardly suspect. Think Buzzfeed or indeed much of the marketing of contemporary brands (Innocent Smoothies, Tesco etc). Therefore Erica’s responses will need to be heavily sugar coated and sanitised. Furthermore, the government is faceless and, although they largely dictate the style of her writing, Erica has never actually met anyone that works for them. She gained her job online and her correspondence is always with the company, not with a specific member of the company. If anyone has any ideas for a fuzzy name for the government, please add that to the comment section too!

So below are some examples of the kind of letters I’m looking for and that I’ll be writing replies for tomorrow.

Emily x

Dear Erica, 

I am 9 years old and I am worreyd about my phisical tests next year. I am doing my best to be fit and ready for them but I a worryed about if I don’t get picked. Does it still feel the same? Also what if you want to carry on doing something for two days in a row do you have to stop? Sometimes I do a jigsaw and leave it out in my bedroom over night. Can you tell me what a normal day is like for you?

Thanks,

Joe xxx

*

Dear Erica,

My name’s Josie and I’m fifteen this May. I’ve been a collaborator for a third of my life now and nothing has worried me too much until now. But some of my friends have started talking about and maybe even having sex. I just wondered what your opinion was on that, when do you know you are ready and is it better to be the first one to have had sex in a collaboration or not?

Thanks,

Josie x

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Dear Erica,

I’m a collaborator in my early twenties and was fit and healthy enough at ten to be able to keep my original body. I have always been really proud of this and thought it made me one of the lucky ones. 

Recently though I have been feeling quite sluggish and a little heavier around the middle  despite eating healthily and working out as per the government recommended fitness schedule. 

I’m pretty sure that the way I’m feeling is due to the bad habits of one of my collaborators. The other day I woke up and I could swear I could smell smoke.

What can I do to make sure that my collaborators don’t damage my chances of a happy, healthy life?

Thanks in advance,

Alex