Started the morning at The Hard in Portsmouth, waiting in the thick heat for the coach with my old blue rucksack and a few brittle women and shuffling mendicants. The tide was out. Trains rattled into Portsmouth Harbour station. A working-class gentleman with a tattoo of a star on his hand hollered for someone to help him work the ticket machine, but no one helped. He got on the phone and hollered to someone on the line about how no one would help him with the ticket machine. When he got off the phone, he asked us all again, so I went over and had a look at the machine with him, which for whatever reason never asked for a destination. I had to tell him that I couldn’t help him. He said it was all right and shook my hand. The coach arrived. We all got on, the gentleman as well; he must’ve spoken to the driver. He was maybe thirty five or forty but thin and weathered. He sat across from me and smiled at me; already he was back on the phone telling someone that he was on his way, on his way, to see the kids. He had many conversations on the telephone while we all rode on the coach. He drank kingsized Desperados and spoke about a lost set of keys, about the keys being left in a legless woman’s house. He presented the narrative of the lost keys like mystery novel: That was the last place I remember being, he told someone on the phone. Start there. Four or five times I heard the story of him getting blotto the night before, about the keys, about at some point falling out with his brother. He talked on the telephone about the life he was making on the south coast, that things were good and people were kind. He listed people who’d let him sleep on sofas. He wept, snuffling like a little boy, not seeming to mind who heard. He kept telling people on the telephone: If you see my brother, tell him I love him.
Getting to London took a little longer than I’d expected so I hustled to Victoria station and got lost in its shopping-mallesque labrynth and found the station and got lost again looking for a toilet and a place to buy a packet of gum and found those and then went underground. I waited in the queue to buy a ticket because I didn’t want to be the one shouting for help for the ticket machine. It was pretty clear about what happens when you ask for help at a ticket machine.
On my way to Picadilly I tried to imagine how the London Underground was constructed. I wonder if perhaps people in London forget that the underground is a marvel. How many miles of tube, how many trains. I tried to imagine just designing the placement of stairways and escalators to get to and from platforms. The underground is a momument to rival any of London’s statues or stadiums and a living testament of its people.
Waterstone’s Picadilly is a pretty large bookstore as far as bookstores go. I arrived only twenty minutes before my reading but a kind young woman who seemed wholly at ease in the largest bookstore in the heart of London and knew my face somehow showed me upstairs to a little place they’d set up for us. Around a small table were a few other authors talking about their writing and what they were reading and doing. They talked about how things have changed for writers. I didn’t have a lot to say. My stories are okay maybe but it’s tough to weigh in on the big stuff when most of your read-aloud experience comes from reading cantos from Dante to your old roomate’s dog Sam and one time when you read to a bunch of people who’d been told you were Irish and when you got up there your hands shook and your tongue turned to pulp and you knocked the mic off the mic stand. By you I mean me.
But this reading was okay. I read Goodbye Crocodile, (which is the title story of my collection and which Thresholds published on their site a while back). That story is rhythmic and has a heart and is good for reading aloud. It was also about the right word count. The people seemed to like it and I was able to meet a few of them afterward. I didn’t knock the mic off the stand because there wasn’t one. I’ll put that in the plus column. After the reading was over I was very lucky to meet Stuart Evers and AL Kennedy and Anita Sethi. I’m pretty sure at one point I got distracted by a huge collection of stories from McSweeny’s and might have snubbed AL a little. I don’t think she minded. She’s got herself pretty together, I thought, and was talking to people she knew already. I introduced myself to Stuart because I didn’t know who he was but everyone else did, so I figured it was a good idea to know him. I told him so and he was exceptionally kind and bought a copy of Goodbye Crocodile before we saw Anita read her piece. The authors were great, yes, and everyone was very nice, sure, but it must be stated that the fires were lit and bellowed and fed by the Spread the Word staff. I’d have thought they were being paid to smile because they were doing it so much.
What was best, though, were the attendees. Many notes being taken, questions asked. Writers all of them. Not would-be writers but writers because they are writing and finding their heart. Listening and thinking and writing and reading happened all over the place. So many words spilled on the floor you could slip in them. And readers. People who love stories and who honour them. Which inspired the hell right out of me, really. Writing is a pretty solitary act so it’s easy to forget about the real people out there. Stories get written and then they go out there and find people, and sometimes those people get a chance to come find each other and to come find you. Which is what London Short Story Festival was all about.
Thanks, LSSF. See you next year.
Oh, and PS.