Living with My Sister in Anaheim (1996)

I wrote this story in 1996, one of a series of “American” stories I wrote after visiting the West Coast the previous summer. I’d just started to try and write a number of short stories, partly to share with friends via a photocopied magazine (“Frisky”) I started in March that year, and partly as I was looking to get on a creative writing course. I was reminded of this story, talking to a friend who’d recently taken his (adult) daughters to Disneyland. I’ve always been puzzled by the veneration given to Disney, and something of that puzzlement came out in this story. Its not been published before, other than on my various blogs and in #2 of Frisky. 

Living with my Sister in Anaheim

This room is sufficient for my needs. It is at the back of my sister’s house and previously had been where her two children had been nursed; then more recently it had been used by her husband whenever he wanted to watch the game or have some of his friends round for smokes and beers. Thus, I am blessed with a small colour television, a refrigerator and sink; and remarkably, a Betamax Video recorder with a dozen or so tapes still in working order. Naturally they’ve also set me up with a small bed, a child’s bed, with a painfully thin mattress over a sagging wire trellis. I have constant reminders of pain, so minor discomfort is just that, minor. The one window is high up, wider than it is high.

It is not the very least they could do for me, I know that. And furthermore it is eminently the most practical place for me. We are at Earth level, at sidewalk level, at ground and garden level and that is what I now need. I wheel myself around the ample space, easily able to get to the downstairs wash-room or the family kitchen, where we mostly eat when I feel up to the company. I have an old armchair that is for any visitor I might have; just the one, for I move in my own chair now, my life reduced to ground level. The height of that one window sneers at me. I can reach up, stretching to my limit, to open the casement but need help to close it again. I had promised to keep as much out of their way as possible, and it has been easy to do. Their days are almost controlled by a remote, tied in to an atomic clock. Six o’clock in the morning is not my time, but it is theirs. I almost wonder what they do with the children, so quiet is the house for so long; but I know the answer: there is a creche for the younger one where my sister’s husband works and the eldest’s school is on my sister’s route to work. He gets their early, no doubt, but isn’t alone in this. My sister and her family have a lifestyle that is eminently copied and copyable. She and her husband both work in ultra modern occupations: analysing, securing, selling, assisting, directing. This is Los Angeles after all, and work titles are as fashionable and as fashion-derived as health kicks or film names. So today he’s one thing, tomorrow another. The nuts and bolts of their work is irrelevant; enough that they are seen to spend such large swathes of time at the office, on the ‘phone, in front of a screen, carrying papers.

This is Los Angeles after all, but frustratingly not my take on the city, not my definition of the L plus A. There is but one reason why they live here; happy and prosperous, here on Jefferson Street, Anaheim. That reason is a cartoon mouse. Without Disney then Anaheim and Orange County might still have seen the population overspill as all America rushes towards the Pacific and the San Andreas; but without Disney the real estate wouldn’t have been so hermetically sealed around the blueprint of families and lawns and patios and tree-lined avenues. And if neither my sister or her husband work for Disney directly, well it is still the nape at the neck of the area’s consumption; the engine that drives the local economy. When I speak to you of the extent of my horizons, of the areas I now bestride it is different than a year ago. For downtown I now speak of the Santa Rosa shopping mall. When I talk of a day-out I mean going-to-Disney. We have a family pass. And I am, it seems, family. The threat of a visit immediately quells any more mischievous impulses on my part. I remain, you see, a Disney virgin; therefore the equivalent of a celibate in Sodom or a typewriter salesman in Silicon Valley, whichever juxtaposition shocks you the most. Oh, and I am English, as my sister once was too. Only, I’ve not yet lost the habit.

I fear that I have the opposite of vertigo. A fear of the ground felt only by birds, trapeze artists, Superman and high-rise megalomaniacs – oh, and the recently grounded, like myself. I would be described that way by my American friends. That’s far more appealing a description for my crippled condition. No American has called me a cripple; I doubt that any has even thought it, such notions having purged from the everyday vocabulary. Such guilt at mere words. I had to ring my mother to hear the truth, rather than the euphemism.

‘I fell.’ I told her.

‘Is it bad?’ She asked.

‘It’s bad.’

‘Are you crippled?’

‘Yes.’

‘Crippled for life?’

‘Yes.’

I could have told her all the things that the concerned doctor had told me, in an ill-advised attempt to put a positive spin on my condition. He informed me how I would now be differently-abled, specially-mobiled; but my mother would have problems relaying the reality of such phrases at her club; every Tuesday, sitting in the regular seats for Bingo; walled in by frames and wheelchairs, sticks and callipers. They were old women mainly, having mostly out-lived their unhealthy husbands. They were almost all differently-abled themselves, hip replacements and varicose veins, restructured knees, gout and amputations. Crocked or lame, then; whilst I, such a young man, crippled for life.

Recently grounded by my circumstance; I’m now more than ever down-to-Earth, far and away from the high-rises and the glistening super-structures of the real downtown. My L plus A is elsewhere, too high for me. Here, in the suburbs, they like to be able to see the sky without craning the neck, whereas where I was you don’t care to see the sky at all, except as a backdrop, except as a framing for the highest structures, those glass and steel Cathedrals. I’ve always thought about the reason why we started minding the smog. It was losing the reflection of the sun on all these high rises that rankled with us, rather than the chemical polluting of our children. Towers had to be built even higher, just so the executive’s could get above the grey clouds that their own insatiable consumption and combustion had produced.

So I began my therapy with an empty shampoo bottle. It was a pale blue plastic, so I covered it in silver foil, then covered it again in cellophane. I remembered the contours of a similar building, and etched windows in it’s side. I tried various materials to make them darken in the light and shine in the darkness, then the other way around. Pleased with my handiwork, aware of my empathy, I placed the completed replica down on the floor, in an appropriate place. Then I grubbed around for toilet cleaner, detergent, disinfectant, any bottle with a neck. Moved onto the recycling of empty Gallo bottles and aluminium beer cans. I’d tape three or four of these together to get some height to a structure. At first, my sister hardly noticed. These old bottles stacked up against the far wall, still below the window. I connived at better, higher structures using half a dozen plastic bottles so that then I could add another layer and then another. The silver and cellophane monoliths spiralled upwards, grew higher than the window-sill. My sister noticed now, but didn’t say anything. I even asked her if she minded me using her cellophane and foil. She simply smiled and bought me more. She began to come in to admire how it was going. It became impossible to use household materials as quick as I wanted to use the bottles. I emptied bottles and bottles away. We had the cleanest toilets and drains in Anaheim, some achievement. A new batch from the store would set me planning and I would find I had to demolish some of the older towers; for they were pitifully small now the extent of my vision was more obvious. The first shampoo bottle remained, nostalgically, but I wasn’t sure for how long. After all, the march of progress would always have it’s casualties. Of more concern was the limits that my condition put on my building ability. To facilitate my development I developed a crane system using the curtain hooks, a length of wire and some rollers made from the plastic tops of the detergent bottles. I had to develop complex strategies in order to add a new layer to what was already there – for I was limited to how far I could place my hands above my head. My sister offered, on the one occasion, to do something for me, but I resisted the temptation to accept. She looked amused or saddened, I hardly know which, and afterwards, came in less often to check the rate of growth of my plastic city.

For my birthday I asked for and got given a free-standing anglepoise, and the first night, I sized up the best position for it and switched the normal lighting off. The single bulb dazzled the walls of my city. I slowly turned the podium and watched the lights reflecting off of each rounded wall of each building. Things were coming to a head and politely I asked to be left alone, riding out into the light of the family rooms for forays of food and medication. I realised how close my obsession was to completion and invited the family in one evening.

A slight knock on my door and my sister and her husband, and their two young children, came in. They were obviously staggered by my final days of building. The whole room was now full of my bottle towers, some as high as the ceiling, cramped together like the real city. The pace of development indicated chaos and megalomania rather than careful planning; but despite this the whole was much, much greater than the sum of the parts. My sister and her family could only just inch into the room and at first they couldn’t see me. For there I was, pulled up by my own pulley mechanism, as if I was fully grown, fully able to walk again. The city had grown to new levels of sophistication, so even restored to my full, pre-accident height, I had to look up to crane my neck towards the glorious shimmering skyline. My pulleys and wires moved me like a tram through the streets of this new Los Angeles, now in Lilliput after a lifetime spent in Brobdingnag. Unable to use my legs, they hang limp and ragged, dragging just above the floor as I walked tall through the streets of my creation.

‘So you won’t want to be going to Disneyland with us?’ Said the youngest, at last.

‘No.’ I said smiling. I beckoned the children forward and they walked these streets as I now could, careful to avoid the wires. I showed them where I had used to live, I showed them where I had worked, and looked out at the skyline, thousands of feet above the city. Finally I showed them that first shampoo bottle. Squat and miniature, the time had come for it’s demolition. I scooped my hands down and plucked it from the ground.

‘And this was the window I fell from.’ I told them, pointing at a small second storey indentation. ‘That was the last time I walked.’ The bottle fell from my hands and I started to spontaneously cry. My sister and her husband came over to me, unplucked me from my harness and placed me back in my wheelchair. They wheeled me out of the bottle city, out through the front of the house, carrying me into the back of the family car. They chatted amongst themselves, and I kept my own counsel as we drove carefully the few short miles to Disneyland.

I can’t complain. Some damn mouse came by and shook my hand.

My Life According to the Albums of David Bowie 1968-1983(A story for National Short Story Day)

Its the shortest day, which means its National Short Story Day, and here’s one I wrote a few years ago, which maps the characters life against the albums of David Bowie, I hope you enjoy.

1. The World of David Bowie (Collected early recordings) (1968)

My name is David Jones. I read the Daily Express because my father has had it delivered since before the beginning of time and reading between the lines of all the stuff that he reads, I can tell there’s a revolution going on. My father mutters about Hippies the way he used to about Socialists. I can see the pictures and if I balance my portable radio at a certain angle I can catch Radio Luxembourg which is still better than Radio One, though I like John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, and hear the songs that make here, where I live, seem another planet. I have to get out. My mother makes us all eat dinner at the same time every night. There is nowhere to go. My father wants to set me up with an apprenticeship. He thinks I might make a passable draughtsman if I “get a proper haircut” and stop drawing from “that dangerous imagination of yours.” Something makes me want to go and study an art foundation course in Birmingham but I might as well ask to be put forward for the next Apollo mission. My father and I have one bridge between us: for an hour a week we are sat down watching “Civilisation” together. Neither of us say a word, but Kenneth Clarke is as close as we have to a mutual friend. But this isn’t civilisation; this is the suburbs.

2. Space Oddity (1969)

There’s a man on the moon and I’m watching it happen over egg and chips. My egg is the sun, the chips are the stars, a piece of white bread is the Apollo mission pod and this dollop of ketchup means Blast! something has gone terribly wrong and Buzz and Neil and the rest are all turned technicolor. On the television though everything is going to plan. “They’re probably filming it on a movie set in Hollywood,” my father grumpily suggests. I keep schtum. Until it’s in the Daily Express he won’t believe a word of it, certainly not something he’s seen on the Gogglebox. My mother is saying “stop playing with your food,” and “tug your tie in to your shirt if you want to keep it out of the egg.” She likes it now I’m at work. There’s a whole new list of rules and regulations that she can insist that I follow. The kitchen door doesn’t do much to hold out the smell and the sweat and the steam of the cooking; and I can almost taste the sickly smell of boiled over milk. My mother is looking at my hands. “What?” I say. “You can go wash them,” she says, “I’m not having you at the table looking like that.” I expect to see them covered in blood, but no, its the inky imprint of a day lurched over the draughtboard. Each step up the stairs to the bathroom makes Neil Armstrong’s small step seem small and insignificant. I wonder. Is this it? Is. This. It.
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DAYS OF REVELATIONS (a story for the Rapture)

The “news” that an American preacher had predicted the end of the world last weekend reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago, presumably after reading a previous “end of days” prediction. Luckily we survived Saturday’s “rapture” so I thought I’d share it with you

Decca reckons that we are living in the days of Revelations and even if I don’t see it or don’t want to see or think it’s not going to happen, not now, not ever, then that don’t matter any, because plenty of others do. That just because the roads to the hills aren’t yet full with pack-wagons and pick-ups don’t mean a thing, for the coming of the beast and the living in the days of Revelations begin not on the roads or in a return to some backwoods pastorale, but here, in the minds of the people remaining in the cities and the suburbs and the towns, and in the many things they are doing in preparation for what comes after.
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BACKWARDS (a story for National Short Story Day)

When I was 10 I was 70. I expected everyone to do things for me. I was naughty. I changed my mind all the time, forgot what I’d just done, and was always hurting myself, falling down, getting caught on the furniture, starting fire. I wouldn’t change my clothes. I wouldn’t eat. And then I’d get a sudden craving for sweets or chocolate and complain and complain until I got what I wanted. But I was clever, as well. I was sly. When somebody came to the door offering something, I let them in, or told them to come back tomorrow, or if I received a message, I didn’t pass it on.

By the time I was 20, I was 60. I knew EVERYTHING. Life had taught me so much. I had a peculiar nostalgia, that allowed me to furrow my brow, pause portentiously, and suck on the air, whilst I tried to recall something that only I, with all my experience, could know. But I was also lazy. I didn’t want to do boring tasks or mundane jobs. I would find any excuse not to. I’d rather read my favourite books, or watch television. You wouldn’t believe how tired I’d get! A trip to the shops would see me going straight to bed on my return. I had an interest in girls – but pretended it was not worth my trouble. I was beyond all of that. I didn’t have many thoughts about the future. After all, what could it possibly teach me?

At 30, I was 50. I’d been through a bad few years, but was out of it now. I really wanted to start afresh. My diet had been terrible – I’d always a hundred-and-one calls on my time. Everyone wanted a piece of me, but mostly, this was fine, I could deal with it. I had abundant energies, but was sick of having to sort out everyone else’s problems. I was successful at my career – I’d worked hard – very hard, and deserved my position. Yet, there had to be more to life than this, I felt. I was ready to downsize – but was too responsible to do so. Family commitments weren’t ones I could give up lightly. But the woman I’d once loved…well, neither of us felt that way anymore. I was too young to be giving everything up. The next decade I’d be more selfish, get what I wanted from life.

At 40 there seemed some kind of equilibrium to my life. Others that I knew had long gone to seed, or were past caring anyway. Yet I felt top of my game. I’d made some difficult choices, and got myself in such a place, that I could turn my hand to anything. I had friends, but deliberately chose time on my own. Sex was great, but I could equally do without it. From being a virtual slave to the office, I could now pick and choose my projects. I still liked a drink, who didn’t? But it was in moderation. Older people admired my verve and energy, and younger people respected my experience and my confidence.

At 50, I was 30. I’d had a good few years, but things needed to change. A new girlfriend for a start – there were plenty of fish in the sea, and I reckoned I’d not got long left being a good catch. I felt my libido like I’d not done for a dozen years. It was encouraging me to take risks, give up my regulation haircut, grow it long; forget about my pension fund, buy a sports car. I hung around with people half my age. You’re only as young as the people you go drinking with. I tore up the M&S storecard and started splashing the cash. Life was suddenly a whole lot of fun again.

By the time I was 60, I was 20. There was a sense of liberation, all life to play for, but also a worry, that somehow I’d missed something, and made the wrong turning. You look backwards, you look forwards, it’s all the same really. I’d not got much – no money, no commitments, and my desires were vague and unformed. What kind of man had I been? I’d a certain inbuilt pessimism that came more and more to the fore. I guess friends warned me about it, but I was deaf to their entreaties. I locked myself away, or went on holidays by myself. Life doesn’t always come to you – sometimes you have to run to it. I didn’t feel I knew a thing, yet I gave the impression I knew everything.

When I was 70, I was 10. Nobody could tell me what to do. I wouldn’t listen to a thing! I had my own agenda. I heard them speaking behind my back. My family were at their wits end, but I was having the time of my life. Not a care or a worry in the world, and able to indulge myself, knowing nobody could do a thing about it. I was reckless – locking myself out of the house, disappearing for hours on end, worrying them sick. What did I care, after all? At my age – what else was there to be, but irresponsible? Everything would go backwards from now on, anyway. Until there was nothing of me left.

(c) Adrian Slatcher 2010. Previously unpublished.