THE POTION PEDDLER’S ALMANAC
IS COMPLETED AND IS AVAILABLE AT AMAZON.COM
The curtains at the window wafted in the draft as the man with the rifle looked through dirty glass. It was an easy enough shot, he just didn’t know if he wanted to take it. Course he’d been contracted and so was bound to – in truth he’d little say in the matter.
Terrace houses lined either side of the street. Dads washed cars whilst children ran around playing cowboys and Indians and mothers chatted over clipped hedges. A typical suburban scene where traditional London mixed with the new arrivals. Everyone had been through here – from the Romans and Huguenots to the Pakistanis, Greeks and Polish. A regular melting pot the Yanks would call it, only problem was this was one was boiling over. He wasn’t a racist himself although his father who he’d despised had been. He’d grown up in mixed schools, dated colored girls and come to realize long ago that color was truly only skin deep. It’s what was on the inside that mattered – the book not the cover. This was different though – this cloth-wrapped-muppet apparently had it coming to him. He glanced at his watch, it was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. The sooner he got the job done, the sooner he could go home to the wife.
He’d been in the upstairs room since yesterday evening, had broken the window at the back of the house and forced his way through the kitchen door. A sleeping bag lay on the floor with some magazines he’d brought to kill the time – a Walkman and a couple of cassettes. He liked to listen to books on cassette, saved him from turning the pages. Quicker access to the theater of the mind, the stories and characters absorbing quickly into his brain – the willing suspension of disbelief rapidly becoming reality. It wasn’t that he didn’t like books, it was just that the presentation of a story through the vocal chords of a stranger was so much better. Got you there that little bit quicker, made the story that much more real. The way people will sit around a camp fire and listen to a guitarist play a couple of familiar tunes or a story teller, flashed by firelight, relating a story from way back when. He’d always been a sucker for an exciting tale. Probably why he was in this line of work.
It had started in the boy scouts with weekends in the woods , the field craft and survival skills he’d learned from the troop leaders. He could recognize all the animal tracks – jaguar, lion, tiger, however in Epping Forest there were so few of them to hunt. The big game around the city was all rabbit and squirrel sized!
Caught and cleaned and served up of an evening, the whole troop sitting around the camp fire. Happy ruddy faces of boys subjected to fresh air and exercise. He’d never slept so well as under the stars and no five star restaurant had ever come close to replicating the rabbit stew. A sense of adventure is what he’d yearned for, something more than the regular nine to five. It wasn’t about pensions and medical coverage; it was more than that. It was the white-hot flash of knowing you were alive, if only for the briefest of seconds, the nervous rush as the adrenalin dam burst and flooded the system – the euphoria of battle.
As with most good stories, his started in a pub. A chance encounter with a man who’d kick-started fate and forever changed the course of his life. When the path less travelled suddenly became more familiar than the road already followed.
The job was easy enough. They were looking for a couple of likely-lads to do a bit of business. Apparently somebody was encroaching on what wasn’t theirs and needed to be taught a lesson. Fisty-cuffs and a possible torching. Nothing too heavy, and there was five hundred quid up front.
He’d taken to it very naturally, the violence coming easily, his conscience not affecting him in the least. In the beginning nobody really got hurt. Sure there were the broken limbs, smashed faces and smoldering properties, but nobody actually got killed. It was like raising puppies. If a dog shits on the carpet then it needs to have its nose rubbed in it. Same thing with people – if they got out of hand then they needed a quick reminder not to be so bloody cheeky!
The guns had been a turning point, a bit of a thrill. Never handled one until a few years ago, but with the attention and instruction of one of the senior faces he could handle a weapon the way most people handle a tooth brush – with ease and dexterity. He was a master. If he’d been a painter his work would hang in the Victoria and Albert, a sculptor the British. He was a surgeon removing that which hindered life. An arborist, chopping back dead wood to allow for new growth. Amputation to the benfit of the forest, surgery to the benefit of the body. A little detriment for the greater good.
He saw the man walk out of his front door, down the garden path and open the front gate. The man mouthed something to one of his neighbors,waved, smiled and turned into the road. It was an easy shot. He’d had harder. It was a hundred yards tops; back in the day he’d killed a man at nearly a mile.
He was prepared to take the rough with the smooth. The money was the same and why should it always be difficult? Although he’d studied his photograph and cased the place he lived, there were no hard feelings – he didn’t know the man. The last couple of weeks he’d become very familiar with the man’s comings and goings and to be honest had seen nothing that gave him cause for alarm. But that wasn’t really the point. The job was the job. The man now walking towards the corner shop wouldn’t know what hit him.
He was looking forward to the break. The money from this job, along with the money he’d already put aside, would allow him a couple of weeks in Italy with the wife.
Loved Italy – the weather, the food, the history. He prided himself on being a bit of a history buff – watched all the TV shows. In fact the book he was currently listening to was CALIGULA.
Now there was a randy Italian!
He raised the weapon to his shoulder, and squinted through the scope. The target was so close he could have thrown the bullets and probably hit him. He squeezed the trigger, saw the red mist spray through the air, and watched as the man fell to the ground between two parked cars. Nothing changed. Dads continued washing cars, mothers carried on chatting and the kids went on with ritual genocide.
He quickly disassembled the rifle and gathered up his things. It was time to go, the job was done. No point in hanging around. As he turned the latch on the back door he heard the first scream. It wouldn’t be long now before The Old Bill was poking their nose in, and he wanted to be long gone by the time they got there. He walked quickly down the garden and turned into the back lane running between the houses to where he’d parked the car. No point in rushing, no need to attract any attention. Clean precise and surgical, just the way he liked it. No fuss, no mess, and one fresh corpse to guarantee his wage packet.
His gear stowed, he turned the key in the ignition and turned up the radio.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
He loved this song.
“Late September 1963”
He waited for a couple of seconds, enjoying the tune, singing along to the lyrics.
“What a lady, what a night.”
Amazing how a familiar tune could turn your day right around. He looked in his mirror, indicated and pulled out. They could probably leave for their holidays next week.
That should put a smile on the wife’s face.
“But be quick this offers expires on Friday…The latest and greatest from Britney Spears …The problem with this country…dearly beloved we are gathered.”
My finger skips from silver button to silver button as I seek audible satisfaction – browsing through the channels, ever optimistic of discovering a blast from the past. A three-chord-masterpiece with a drum beat that will make me shake my head till my fillings drop out. Sick of commercialism and the abject penury of talent I peruse the airwaves in the hope that I will be proven wrong – that something out there in the ether is worth the effort.
It’s not just about driving – commuting is a multi-tasking exercise that’s demands split second timing, coupled with an ambidextrous ability worthy of a Chinese circus performer. The subtleties of texting, calling, station hopping whilst eating, drinking, and excavating ones nose all add to its inherent complexities.
I curse the car in front of me, carefully considering the three hundred dollar H.O.V. encroachment fine as a viable option, rather than remaining behind the dawdling aged-wanderer whose only object in life is to make mine miserable. Fortunately the driver is telepathic or has the hearing of the bat, and slowly moves out of my lane. I’m free to go, the highway is mine. There’s nothing between me and the horizon, thirty more minutes of commuter hell and I’ll be home.
My tormentor slowly switches lanes, regardless of oncoming traffic, and heads for the far side of the highway. What is he smoking? Given the recent change in Arizona law it could be anything. Mary-Jane may dull the pain but it does nothing to enhance addled and impaired octogenarian driving skills. Horns blow, lights flash and fingers are waved, yet the manic-motorist-on-a-mission still heads for the hard-shoulder. His vehicle mounts the banked escarpment, smashes through the A.D.O.T. greenery, carefully planted by one of Sherriff Joe’s chain-gangs, and disappears in a cloud of dust. Onwards and upwards he emerges on the other side of the nebulous dirt. The gradient is steep and sooner or later Newton’s second law has to kick in. The car tips, rolls over and comes to a dirt shoveling stop.
Bloody hell! What just happened?
One minute I’m cursing the man, the next he’s involved in a possibly fatal accident. Was it me? Do I have the power or was it really natural selection? Now I’m concerned – much as I refuse to believe in the bearded man in the clouds he has an odd way of showing his hand every now and then. I return to flicking through the channels, finally opting for Britney. What the hell, after you’ve heard it twenty times it sort of grows on you!
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, discounted the obvious and ignored the rediculum life throws you a curve ball. I’m prepared to believe in the Loch Ness Monster, it’s been reported since the 14th century, and UFO’s are so well documented that they built a special area to house them. Mayan pyramid builders and Antikytheraian watch makers don’t hold a candle to the super natural ability of the modern driver to prove the unbelievable is not only probable but also very possible. What scientists and physicists have proved beyond a shadow of doubt, and Einstein verified while skipping shoe-lace tying lessons, clearly doesn’t count and can be disregarded. When it seems beyond imagination and nobody can surmount the impossible the errant motorist usually does. Usually of course there’s a price to pay. Although achieving notoriety on the evening news there momentary brilliance is often buried with them.
A week later finds me parked under a bridge – same road, different traffic jam. By now I know all the words to Britney’s song and indulge myself by turning up the volume and belting out the lyrics – poorly written, badly executed, but unfortunately now ingrained.
We are helpless against the assault of mediocrity its insidious tentacles entwining and seeping into all that is wholesome and good. To be honest there really isn’t that much choice it’s either her or her clone or the country channel. I decide to stick with Britney.
As my voice cracks and I contemplate swallowing the plastic Jesus on my dashboard imagining suicide preferable to the interminable wait while A.D.O.T. removes a chest of drawers from the highway, the world once again turns upside down and inside out. Back in the illusory world ofAlice mayhem takes hold and chaos gains control.
A vehicle on the fly-over above us decides to plummet over the railing and crash to the ground. Turned turtle and surrounded by a sea of glass the automotive cockroach just lies there and bleeds oil. I thankfully turn my attention from Britney disbelieving what I’ve just seen. Fellow motorists are already climbing out of stranded cars to investigate. I’ve heard of pennies from heaven but never geo-metros!
The object formally known as automobile has cratered itself into the asphalt and judging from the burst paint and creased body-panels will never walk again. The car is surrounded by onlookers and would-be Samaritans. Just before they can lend assistance a man crawls through the space where the windscreen used to be his arm in the air. I imagine he’s telling everybody that it’s just a scratch, a mere flesh wound, or some other python-esque supplication.
Suddenly the traffic starts to move and helpers rush back to their vehicles – the pilot and his un-flying machine left forgotten and abandoned to fend for himself. If its isn’t strange enough that a chest of drawers complete with a full set of clothing is strewn all over the highway, a crushed car laying on its roof in the opposite lane is now just a mere distraction.
The brake lights flicker on the car in front. I re-engage the gear stick and disengage brain.
Back to the joys of commuter steerage and the fact that nothing ever happens on the way to work. If I came through the tunnel to see an iceberg with a full complement of uniformed penguins I’m sure I would find it equally mundane.
Rejection comes in all shapes and guises, and as writers we’ve been told to expect rejection from Day One. Great literary names have suffered the wrath of the poisoned-penned standard letter, their work resigned to file thirteen – endured threats of police retaliation should they darken the agent’s doorstep or set foot in the publishing house ever again. It’s a tough business and trying to get your manuscript to the top of the pile isn’t easy. I’ve read the hints and tips from the bona-fide writers who ghost the columns of scribbler’s magazines, insisting that theirs is the only way to do it. Parading their worthy portfolio for the rest of us to admire and envy, in the hope we’ll hang on their every word and take the commercial bait. Countless books and DVD’s are sold on the subject – reclusive getaway workshops where the writer can be at one with their craft, uninterrupted in a virtual paradise for the price of a small utility vehicle or a week in the Bahamas.
Seems to me that writing about writing is a money-making business.
Enter our competition and win thousands. Receive the accolade and admiration of millions who hate you for winning. Flaunt your newfound notoriety across blog sites and book covers. Colin James, winner of the Kettlerville Writer’s Competition in 2010, and Honorable Mention in the Boise Writer’s Competition in 2011. Possible future winner of multi-various competitions – but then again depending upon the current economic climate maybe not!
Each competition costs money to enter and I’m sure you’ve noticed the prize being boldly advertised doesn’t come close to the entry subscriptions collected from the thousands of wanna-bes like myself. People who just can’t resist paying another ten bucks to receive a sealed envelope in the post with a thank you very much, but no thank you very much.
Thanks for your submission. Please dig deeper in your wallet and try again.
It’s apparent that the winners of the competitions are the organizers themselves – drug dealers and peddlers of prose, godfathers and usuries of verse. The first taste of nail-biting anticipation is free, but ever after you’ll pay through the nose.
Licked and posted to the vaunted heights of ivory towers in little towns such as London, Paris, New York, and Munich, where the very name of the place gives the agent enough cache to lure us with siren song. Ever sent your inquiry letter to Kettlerville in Wisconsin, or Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, or perhaps Litchfield Park in Arizona? I thought not.
We’re all hoping on hope, praying for the miracle that somewhere beyond the reach of mortal man is a darkened room with a bespectacled figure pouring over our manuscript.
…A clock ticks on the wall, breeze-blown dust floats in city sunshine and the sound of metropolitan traffic ebbs through an open window…
We can see it in our mind’s eye – willing the moment as we stick our stamps and post our very best. We imagine the agent picking up our first born, our cherished child – smiling as he reads the first few lines – chuckling as he turns the page. He doesn’t reach for the waste paper basket – just maybe we’ve got it made!
We’ve studied and corrected, pared and shortened, fussed and bothered over word-perfect inquiry letters. Determined not to fall at the first hurdle we’ve researched names and addresses hoping they’ll notice we’ve titled them correctly as sir or madam, or even your most regal highness. Doffed cap and bended knee are metaphorically offered in the hope of literary patronage.
It’s a money-making business, and they’re making the money.
How many times have you perused the New York Times best seller list and seen the same tired names, or picked up the books of well-reviewed authors and wondered why they’re at number one? With no thought to direction, description, plot or language, we muddle through unacceptably poor editing. Yet here it is in black and white, as real as life, as sure as a heart attack and at a Madison Avenue price. Bumbling, unexciting prose that once again proves the mediocrity of a for-profit driven industry. The author in question has written thirty seven best-sellers, but clearly hasn’t had an original idea since book number three.
Sure, all it takes is one good book. All you have to do is excel at your craft, and of course be marketable. Perhaps a necessary fitness regime – a couple of weeks in the gym, or even an appointment at the dentist for a teeth whitening experience will enhance your golden opportunity? In an imperfect society that dotes on perfect people, what sort of chance do you really think you have? Don’t kid yourself – just because you have spent four years on the manuscript doesn’t mean that you’ve got it in the bag. Your personal cost, measured in gallons of blood sweat and tears, means absolutely nothing.
Consider the nobody celebrity or the so-called reality stars that push out untold cookbooks, work-out videos, or even god forbid another kiss-and-tell-all biography ghost written by an otherwise unpublished author. Given public apathy, and the fact most of us have the attention span of a weasel, we the muddling masses are doomed to feast and gorge on any tripe they deign to dish. Do we really want to hear about celebrity number one doing it on the down low with leather-clad celebrity number two?
It seems we do!
It’s a matter of getting your foot in the door, networking till you’re blue in the face and hoping that you get lucky. What happened to an appreciation of good writing, a honed, crafted literary masterpiece capable of blowing the socks off anybody who reads it? Maybe I’m being difficult, a little cynical perhaps? Maybe I should just accept that writing isn’t my thing and choose another ‘hobby’ like water coloring or train spotting?
The problem is I can’t, it’s in my blood – I feel the need to exceed. I have already written the book that’s going to sell a million copies, so I’m prepared to wait for the balding bespectacled apparition of my dreams to push his specs up his nose and observe as my work illuminates his face and sizzles his brain. Prepared to watch the gears grind, the cogs turn, as realization grips him by the short-and-curlies and boots him up the arse.
Rejection – I spit in the general direction of rejection!
Who gives a damn? Send me your tired weather-worn standard letters complete with coffee stains, penned telephone numbers and erotic doodling. I can take it – bring it on. You can only refuse me some many times – it’s a numbers game! As I prepare to hit the send button and launch another masterpiece into cyberspace I finger the rabbit’s foot hanging around my neck and invoke the idols. I’ve decided that polytheism is the way to go. The more gods, the more chances. Right?
Just one more competition, with one more self addressed envelope; please don’t forget the ten dollar check – don’t call us, we’ll call you.
I get it, but I don’t care. I’m a writer and I will be read. One day – maybe not this week or the next, but somewhere in the future, there’s a desktop with a pile of query letters, and mine’s on the top.
I believe. Failure is not an option.
Times are hard, moneys tight, and like the rest of America I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth. The bank accounts once filled with money now red line their disdain with gaping cavernous mouths; the familial belt holding up my financial embarrassment, drawn and notched for the last time. It isn’t for want of work, as although my material wealth has decreased my work load has not. Still fulfilling my obligatory forty hours of indentured servitude whilst running the window cleaning business on my days off, I support a household, a couple of kids and a full time spousal student. Only the rewards have changed.
Financially we’ve never had it quite this bad and jobs and D.I.Y projects which should be getting done around the house are falling by the wayside as limited funds go to purchase that which is really necessary and not that which would be a delight. A tin of paint perhaps or an unnecessary household accessory to brighten and furnish a house in need of a little attention. A new set of clothes to banish the long acquaintance of dreary rags once deemed couture, now reclassified as impossible purchases.
Austerity thankfully, at least for the James family, isn’t a permanent state of being. Graduation is keenly awaited and once the wife rejoins the workforce things should go back to normal. Flush with cash we’ll pay off the credit cards, dump the debt and put our new found wealth to good use.
Back in the good old, bad old days when cash was lush and plucked like low hanging fruit. we traveled and dined, enjoying our largesse on foreign shores and snow bound slopes. Breathing in the rarified air of the eternal tourist, sampling local delicacies and enjoying the miscomprehension of native tongues. Vacation correspondence carried out with the flick of a pen and the lick of a stamp – picture postcard remembrances sent to all and sundry. Proud boasts of look where we are, at what we’re doing; weather is here, wish you were beautiful!
Days seemed longer, the taste of food more exotic, the shouldered burden not as oppressive as it weighs today. The only encumbrance an overstuffed suitcase and a bag full of souvenirs rather than the crushing wait of negative equity and final demands.
But those days are scheduled to return; already the little I am able to put aside is slowly building, the cents cosseting the dollars. I am determined to go away this summer with the wife even if it is a domestic jaunt, but then only for a couple of days.
Maybe New York or Washington – perhaps Chicago or Portland?
Somewhere my dollars will translate into good times, happy smiles and satisfied stomachs. A classic case of counting ones blessings; forced remembrance that we’ve never had it so good whilst trying hard to imagine the plight of others. There are undoubtedly families that have to endure far worse than us and yet I don’t see their blog posts decrying their situation and broadcasting to the world the fate of their leisure time. Luckily I can put into words that which they can only mumble into half-filled glasses of overpriced spilt milk.
The one good thing that has come out of austerity is the return to familial 1960’s values – home cooking with evenings spent around the dinner table; a bottle of wine, a piece of cheese and the forgotten art of good conversation. Happy smiles induced by the smallest luxury rather than the digitally enhanced largesse of television. Cherished moments where we truly open ourselves up to each other and discover through social intercourse the child ensconced behind cartoon time broadcasts and god awful talentless talent shows. Cooking has once again become fine dining and the meals served up in our own kitchen far exceed the quality expected in designer restaurants and gauche wine bars. No longer the tapas and micro-bites of designer jean possibility but instead the wholesome southern style of my wife’s heritage that graces our plates and tingles our tongues. Now instead of tuning into the latest episode of corporate served crap we open the games cupboard and select the evening’s entertainment. Whether it’s world domination via the RISK board and the advance of the yellow army at the expense of everybody I hold dear or the monopolizing grip of faux dollars as we pass GO, there’s always something to amuse. We beat our community chests in unison as we celebrate that which has become more important than anything else; time spent together as a family.
We’ve been told time and again that money is the root of all evil, that it doesn’t buy happiness – a truism that in the past was generally uttered between courses in some big fancy restaurant or whilst lounging in a deck chair on some foreign shore; loose meaningless words slipping out between Chardonnay or perhaps yet another tongue-charmed delicacy. When you’ve reached the point of here-and-no-further, entrenched and bolstered one’s line in the sand and when there’s no more to be had from empty savings accounts and plastic backed excess, there’s only one place to go. With our backs to the Wallstreet and financial attribution at its lowest in a generation, it’s time to move forward.
Like a cracked toppling colossus standing in the tunnel I have dug for myself, with my feet astride the rails of the gravy train, I look towards the light and hope upon hope that it isn’t a steam engine! It was free fall on the way down, however it’s going to be a mad scramble to reach the top. Once the summit has been reached and I firmly re-stake my claim on commercialism I tell myself I have to remember what it was we endured and remember the lessons learned. The simple joys of a TV-less world, the hours sat chatting around the dinner table, the luxury of having a roof above our heads, even if it is unpainted and D.I.Y. neglected.
Our blessings are manifold and until one achieves the nirvana of realization that there’s more to life than a bulging wallet and the very latest in designer footwear, then one has not enjoyed the dubious pleasure of walking a mile in leather patched shoes. The intention is not to forget how it was, nor to splurge now that plenty is returning, but to maintain current budgetary practices and preserve the feeling of unity that impecuniousity bought in its wake. We’ve weathered the hard times, and although not always easy, have come through stronger on the other side. Just a couple more months and the light which is now just a pin prick to my mind’s eye will be a glare worthy of sun-glassed attention. Not necessarily designer sunglasses but something appropriate with a sensible supermarket price!
‘LEST WE FORGET!