August 25, 2012
Please feel free to provide comments and criticisms! (The ending is a work in progress…)
“Mirela,” I said. “Mirela, Mirela, Mirela.” I must have told him a hundred times, no exaggeration.
“What the hell kind of name is that?”
I ignored him, lit a smoke and watched a group of teenage girls as they laughed their way to the high school across the street. They wore identical uniforms with dark green blazers and tartan scarves. They even wore the same type of pea coat. One of them turned and gave me the finger. I couldn’t figure out why and gave up trying. Dale approached me, wiping his hands on a filthy, half-frozen rag.
“So what’s she like?”
“You mean is she hot? I don’t know. I only talked to her for about ten minutes on the phone, but she sounded nice. Intelligent. Easy laugh. Albanian.”
“She’s from Albania.”
“A country. It’s near Italy. I looked it up on a map.”
“She speak good English?”
“Good enough. Heavy accent.”
Dale spat. “As long as she’s not like that lazy limey we got stuck with last summer.”
I tried to laugh, but the cold had frozen my face. “Billy? There will never be another Billy.”
“Did you know we’re still paying that jackass workman’s comp?”
“I know. You keep telling me all the different ways you’re going to kill him.” I’d been working with Dale for nearly five years. I studied for a year at Nick Norris College, but I dropped out. Everything they say about that place is true.
I was just about to gag when Dale finally threw the damn rag into the back of the truck. Window cleaning is a disgusting job. All kinds of crap gets stuck in the creases of your hands and there’s no way to scrub it off. You’d need to get in there with a chisel. It’s like being branded. One time I had to clean big blotches of puke off some windows down at the Nick Norris dorm. They really know how to party over there.
I lit another cigarette without realizing that I hadn’t finished the first one. Dale and I were both on edge. We’d never hired a girl before, and there was no doubt that things would have to change. For instance, we’d probably have to cut down on our profanity. I looked down the street to see if Mirela was coming, but there wasn’t a soul in sight.
“She’s late,” said Dale.
“She probably just got lost.”
“You sure know how to pick ’em.”
Dale started pacing irritably, which made me irritable, but instead of pacing I drove our sad old Dodge pickup out of the garage. It was about twenty years old, and looked like something you’d find abandoned in the middle of a Saskatchewan farmer’s wheat field. Rust had settled into its every pore, giving it a tubercular appearance. “Summit Window Cleaners – Look on the Bright Side” was barely legible on the door panels. You couldn’t ask for worse advertising. The garage itself was at least a hundred years old, and had been a horse stable once upon a time. Years after I quit window cleaning, I looked at a picture of the place and I swear I could still smell old horse manure. The walls inside had been plastered with Playboy centrefolds. Billy’s work. Once we knew that a girl would be working for us, Dale and I had spent most of one day tearing them all down. Now they were crumpled up in a big garbage bag in the back. I pulled one out at random. Her name was Tricia Lange. I guess she was good looking. She was naked, anyway. I flipped it over and read. Her turn-ons were eye contact, smiles, intelligent minds, warm water, rock ‘n’ roll music, and fast cars. Her turn-offs were cigarette smoke, traffic, smog, and insensitive and insecure people. For some reason, I folded it and stuffed it into my coat pocket, grabbed my coffee off the dash and went back to stand beside Dale. The wind was really ripping now.
“She’s late,” said Dale. He suddenly turned and hurled his squeegee against the back wall of the garage. He threw tantrums like that pretty often, but they still made me jump. “Fuck this,” he said. “Let’s go to the 7-11.”
“I’ll leave her a note,” I said. Dale handed me a pen. He always carried pens in a pocket protector, just like a real boss. I found an old coffee-stained invoice and wrote on the back of it: “Mirela. We’re at the 7-11. Just go up Stayner. It’s on the right hand side. Morris.” I stuck the note under the wiper, secretly hoping that it would blow away. I was twenty-six, but I was wary of girls, and not just because I still had braces on my teeth and pretty bad acne scars on my face. It’s like they all carried some secret knowledge in their hearts that they could use against you. Even the dopey ones.
We trudged up Stayner to the 7-11, not talking to each other. Stayner Avenue was in the seediest section of town. Not big city seedy, but it had plenty of drunks, hookers, and cheap and dirty rooming houses. It curved up toward an area near the new expressway, making the whole street seem to frown. You could tell by the old building facades, though, that it had once been a pretty up-scale business district. You could still make out the faded sign, “Ellie’s Fashions for Women”, painted on the brick wall on the side of Dickey’s, a bar so seedy that it made me want to quit drinking every time I passed it.
The wind was cutting, and it started to snow. We burst through the doors of the 7-11 like whipped dogs. Larry, the guy who worked behind the counter, looked hungover. He exuded this fetid, yeasty odour. We got extra-large coffees and I cashed a ten for quarters. And then Dale said he was hungry. He examined an array of muffins under a plastic dome.
He pointed to one of them. “Are there carrots in that muffin?” he asked Larry.
“Yes, Dale,” said Larry. “That’s why it’s called a carrot muffin.” He pointed at a label. “Can you read the little sign?”
“Sure, but are there actual pieces of carrot in it?”
“Probably. How the hell would I know?”
“I don’t want a crunchy muffin,” said Dale. “It’s okay if it’s all blended and mashed in with the batter, but that carrot muffin looks different.”
Larry sighed. “Do you want the muffin, Dale?”
“Order the fucking muffin,” I said.
“Please don’t swear in the store, Morris,” said Larry. As a franchise owner, Larry wanted to keep the place respectable.
I shrugged. Dale passed on the muffin and bought a bag of chips instead. We took turns playing Galaxian. When I was just starting to feel nice and warmed up, Dale sent me back to the garage to look for Mirela. No Mirela. My message hadn’t blown away, but it was buried under an inch of snow. I wrote another note and stuck it to the inside of the windshield. Mirela. I liked her name. I liked that she was from another country—a country that most people couldn’t find on a map. And not just Dale, either. It’s a very small country in a strange location. You really have to look for it. And I liked that I had withheld some information from Dale, because at the end of our brief phone conversation, Mirela had said, “I’m really looking forward to meeting you.” I had a secret.
I clambered into the cab of the truck, pulled the centrefold out of my pocket, and read more about Tricia Lange:
AMBITIONS: To accomplish what I set out to do. To make the most out of life.
IDEAL MAN: Sensitive, sincere, intelligent, stimulating, creative, successful and fun.
SECRET FANTASY: The power to turn fantasies into reality.
I wasn’t interested in her ambitions, and everyone wants to turn their fantasies into reality, so I focused on the part about her IDEAL MAN. In my opinion, Tricia Lange was setting herself up for heartbreak. At least if she lived in Raymond. Just using rough figures based on observation and the people in my own social circle, there were maybe two who you might call intelligent. And if by “sensitive” Tricia meant “people who don’t kick their dogs”, then you might be looking at 65%. We had one creative guy in town – a painter – but he offed himself when I was just a kid. I could see myself objectively, and I can tell you that I was no great catch, but I looked pretty good in comparison to the rest of the population. I read books and things of that nature.
When I got back to the store, I leaned against the game cabinet and watched Dale immersed in Galaxian. I studied his face. People in my town are uniformly homely. We have a muttish appearance. Dale was pretty representative. People in my town look half-baked. Like they’ve been taken out of the kiln too early.
Dale banged the side of the cabinet and something inside cracked.
“Hey!” yelled Larry. “Don’t hit the fucking game!”
We stepped outside so I could have a smoke. “Maybe I should call her,” I said. I rifled through my pants and coat pockets and checked my wallet. “Except I don’t have her number with me.”
A fresh gust blew away Dale’s obscenity.
“I guess I could go home and get it,” I said. I wanted to hear Mirela’s voice again. I missed her voice, you see.
Dale acknowledged my comment with brief eye contact and a raised eyebrow. “Forget it. We can’t work in this.”
The snow kept falling; pointlessly at this time, because everything had already been buried.
The school bell rang, and pretty soon a small mob of teenage girls, cursing the cold in colourful terms, started streaming into the 7-11. One of them tried to bum a smoke off me. “No chance,” I told her. “It’s for your own good.” That’s what my dad always told me when I first started smoking—before he started bumming smokes from me.
“Thanks for the sermon, handsome.” That was really a low blow. And then she followed it up by giving me the finger, which only made matters worse. She rejoined her little group, and this group turned to me. The schoolgirl squadron in full battle dress. There might have been five or six of them, but the blowing snow was making things opaque.
I tried to laugh like I was blowing her off, but it sounded fake, and I think she sensed it. “Maybe you think you’re some kind of dream girl now,” I said. I was getting pretty heated up, so I took a few steps toward her. “Maybe you think—” Before I could tell her what else she might be thinking, she lunged at me and planted a wicked left right in my solar plexus. I kind of buckled and tipped over. Suddenly Larry was yelling something about calling the cops and that he wanted everybody off his property now.
But I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. Dale stood over me and offered me his hand, but I didn’t take it. He nudged me with his foot.
“You just got floored by a girl,” he said.
“It’s been a bad day all around,” I said, sort of gasping out the words.
“It was a sucker punch,” said Dale, like this fact would allow me to keep my pride. He started to turn away, but took a step back. “Are you going to get up now?”
I shook my head.
He looked at me and bit his lip. “Well you can’t just lay here in the middle of the parking lot.”
“Is that where I am?” I really wasn’t sure where I was. It didn’t seem to matter. I was already finding interesting shapes in the clouds.
Larry came trotting over and the two of them stood looking at me like I was some really complicated chess problem.
Larry nudged me with his foot. “Stop being a dick, Morris. Get up.”
I shook my head. “No can do.”
Larry looked at Dale, and Dale shrugged and acted like he didn’t know me. “Okay,” said Larry. “Grab his legs, Dale.” I didn’t resist. Larry had me under the arms and the two of them carried me to the side of the store and flung me into a snowdrift. Then Larry got a broom and swept some of the snow off my coat and pants.
I thanked him. He shrugged. “It’s the least I can do, Morris. You’re a good customer.” He glared at Dale as he spoke to me. “You don’t bust my machines.”
I lay there for a long time, listening to the mild bustle that surrounded me, such as honking cars and barking dogs and a crying baby and two drunks arguing about who stole the other’s empties. A couple of people tossed spare change at me, which was very kind of them. One old guy in a wheelchair asked if I needed help. I took him up on the offer, and the look of charity sort of drained from his face. I gave him the Tricia Lange centrefold, which had gotten very soggy by now, and told him that I wanted him to put it somewhere for safekeeping. He transferred it to his coat pocket very discreetly, handed me a religious tract, and then wheeled his way up Stayner toward Dickey’s. There followed a period of time in which nothing happened. It was like sleep, but I could only compare it to sleep because I became conscious again. For a few minutes I wondered if I had died. I felt very vague, like whoever made me forgot to add important details. I had a dream that somebody stole my wallet, but when I checked I discovered that someone actually had stolen my wallet.
The sun now was somewhere off to the right, tucked behind and nearly eclipsed by a very dark and monstrous cloud. The snow had stopped falling. A girl was looking down at me. Her hair was cut short and tousled. Her front teeth were prominent but well-aligned, and she smiled like you’d think Joan of Arc might have smiled.
“Are you Morris?” She laughed.
“Are you Mirela?”
She extended a red-mittened hand and brought me to my feet. “Sure.”
We both laughed.
April 23, 2011
How do you make a reputable documentary film about a lurid criminal episode from eighteenth-century England? It ain’t easy. The following is a proposal that I wrote for a film called, “The London Monster: Terror On the Streets In 1790”. Instead of focusing solely on the crimes, I fit them into a greater social and historical context. Someone liked it, because the film is now in pre-production. Full disclosure: the film has actually been in pre-production for about two years. In my defense, however, two years in film making time is equivalent to about two months for any regular project. It’s kind of like counting in dog years.
The London Monster Proposal
The essence of an era is often best evoked by examining its society’s lowest social strata. In many cases—such as Henry Mayhew’s journalistic “London Labour and the London Poor”, and the Ripper-era tabloids—the criminal proves to be the true protagonist of much of the social history that we know. Additionally, society’s treatment of the criminal often reflects the moral and political tenor of the times. Contemporary accounts of various scandals and iniquities paint a picture of certain periods that are fresh, untainted by the need for a historical intermediary. This kind of “criminal social history” can link us more intimately to the past.
Jan Bondeson’s book, “The London Monster: Terror On the Streets In 1790”, is a refreshing reminder that this type of history—especially as it concerns little-known historical episodes—is very much alive. Dr. Bondeson, author and Clinical Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Rheumatology at Cardiff University, spent five years gathering contemporary accounts, cartoons and caricatures, and a wealth of related ephemera to piece together one of the most shocking and absurd crimes ever to grace a sensationalist broadsheet.
“Lively and gripping… this medley of violence and the macabre will appeal to all general readers who cannot help being intrigued as well as disgusted by such grisly matters.”
~ from The Daily Telegraph’s review of “The London Monster”
Between the years 1788 and 1790, a serial sexual psychopath stalked the streets of London, striking fear into the hearts of society ladies (his chosen targets) and enraging the men who were powerless to stop him. During his reign of terror, the Monster cut the clothing and sliced the buttocks of fifty-eight women, all the while unleashing a torrent of profanity so offensive that many victims, upon repeating the Monster’s words verbatim on the witness stand, had to be revived with smelling salts.
“The newspapers are full of him; the playwrights entertain audiences with his exploits from the stage; the ladies are afraid of him; the mob gives every pedestrian a keen look in case he is the Monster; all the walls are covered with posters advertising a reward for the apprehension of the Monster; a fund has been opened to finance the hunt; Mrs. Smith, a society lady, has shot him with a pistol behind the ear; he disguises himself, goes about in various different guises, wounding beautiful women with specially invented instruments…”
From the diary of German naturalist Georg Forster, 12 May, 1790
While the Monster’s crimes are intrinsically foul, they were especially repugnant at a time in which the maintenance of a strict morality was essential to maintaining social order. The Monster proved a grave threat to civic harmony. The result of the attacks was what has been aptly dubbed a “moral panic”. With only a rudimentary police force in place, and a justice system that was still in its formative stages, numerous men took to the streets in a heroic attempt to apprehend the elusive villain. This outrage must end. Order must be restored. While this noble vigilante effort resulted in the arrests of numerous innocents, it ultimately turned up a probable culprit. Fingers were pointed at Rhynwick Williams, a hapless Welshman who worked at an artificial flower factory. Since the Monster often approached his victims with an ersatz nosegay concealing a hidden knife, the public was convinced that they had their man. Williams, with the bloodcurdling threats of the mob pounding in his ears, was dragged in irons to the courts of the Old Bailey.
The first of Williams’s two trials resulted in a verdict of guilty. It was a farcical affair, as unreliable witnesses took the stand, conflicting testimonies revealed gross inconsistencies in the women’s stories, and Williams’s solid alibi, despite the independent attestation of seven witnesses, failed to impress. What was worse, Williams’s own barristers were not convinced of his innocence.
Williams withered in the infamous Newgate Prison, where he was at least safe from the lynch mobs who were still demanding their own cruel brand of justice. And there he likely would have languished as a historical footnote were it not for the sudden arrival of his unexpected champion, the passionate though comically inept Theophilus Swift. Swift, a poet and duelist, went on the attack, clearly convinced that the best defense is a good offense. His boisterous battle to prove his defendant’s innocence involved pamphleteering, assailing the integrity of his upper-class victims, and launching into theatrical tirades that convinced more than a few notable citizens of his client’s innocence.
“When the Bloodhound REVENGE snuffs his prey, and FALSEHOOD fastens on the Game which PREJUDICE has started, the Law becomes the snare of Innocence, and Justice is but a gin in the hands of the unlicensed Poacher!”
~ from Theophilus Swift’s summary trial remarks
But facts—and there were many to support Williams’s innocence—proved no match for the public’s desire to convict a man at any cost. Williams was found guilty and returned to Newgate Prison, where he was to serve a six year sentence. Here, the London Monster received a more humble moniker: Prisoner No. 31.
Dr. Jan Bondeson, who also serves as the film’s Consulting Producer, is our guide and narrator. He walks us through the story as he himself discovered it, sharing contemporary news accounts, illustrations, satirical cartoons, and a wealth of miscellaneous ephemera from his personal collection to detail the crimes and their aftermath, and to provide a clear picture of how tabloid justice both reflected and fuelled the moral climate of late eighteenth-century London. In an age teeming with now-infamous rogues and murderers, we learn why Rhynwick Williams was “the most hated man in London.”
As the tale unfolds, we visit the many extant (and historically intact) locations where the drama played out. From the taverns where the vigilantes plotted their next bumbling move, to the parks and shops of St. James’s Street—the scene of some of the more egregious attacks—our expert guide unveils key plot points in the very footsteps of his subjects.
Interviews with retired judges and experts in jurisprudence offer further insight into the times and crimes, and serve as a jumping off point for colourful re-enactments, dramatic voice-over readings from actual trial transcripts, animated sequences using caricatures and other artwork from the time, and more casual interviews with members of the London public. Against the backdrop of a charity ball, modern society ladies react to the Monster’s moral misconduct. With all the crime that London has borne witness to in the intervening years, could the Monster still shock the public? Would his presence lead to yet another “moral panic”? How would today’s more organized police force react? Knowledgeable senior constables as well as bobbies on the beat offer their unique take on the matter.
Period music will be selected based on its capacity to capture the tensions of the times, particularly as that tension relates to the harrowing life of Rhynwick Williams. Shoppers stroll along modern-day St. James’s Street to the strains of Maria Hester Park’s delicate allegros, while the more somber works of composers such as John Stanley provide a striking, more ominous counterpoint. Voice-acted recitations of contemporary doggerel verse both advance the plot and lend a more immediate historical authenticity to the story:
It is of a Monster I mean to write,
Who in stabing of Ladies took great delight;
If he caught them alone in the street after dark,
In their Hips, or their Thighs, he’d be sure cut a mark.
~ from “The Monster Represented”, 1790
From the time that Rhynwick Williams was first wrestled ignominiously to the ground, he has had his defenders in what we now call “the mainstream media”. Respectable newspapers published strongly-worded editorials calling for calm, and demanding that reason win out. In the nine years since Dr. Bondeson’s book was first published, he has uncovered a wealth of hitherto unknown information about the case and presents it here for the first time: late eighteenth-century newspaper accounts, magazine articles, letters, and poems, all of which may tip the scales of justice.
The late eighteenth-century was an age teetering on the verge of modernity. It has been handed down to us as a burlesque. “The London Monster” does not argue that this is an unfair appraisal. The cast of characters alone proves the stereotype. The film does, however, provide a unique perspective on Georgian London by viewing it through the eyes of the film’s uniquely preposterous anti-hero. Whether guilty or innocent, there can be little doubt that Rhynwick Williams was a character deserving of some sympathy. From the gloomy predictability of life as a penniless pauper, he was dispatched by Fate into a world that he could not comprehend. He was in over his head to a tragic degree, perhaps through no fault of his own. And that is a theme that never grows old.
February 5, 2011
A while ago, I was sitting, spaced out, in a Second Cup coffee shop. Not the best set up for a story, and works even worse as a pick-up line. But hear me out. As I say, I was spaced out, and when you’re spaced out, you’re not exactly 100% on the ball. It’s like part of the sensory system goes numb. You don’t even know what you’re spaced out about. But as I emerged slowly from my reverie, I realized what it was that was keeping me so rapt. It was a phone booth. A clean, fully-functional phone booth. This gave me an idea.“What things that we now take for granted will be obsolete in, say, twenty years?” It might be a worthy project to collect pictures of these things so that we won’t miss them so much when they’re gone. So I took a picture of the phone booth (the name already sounds quaint) to immortalize it. I also took pictures of newspaper boxes and the local Blockbuster. And the Yellow Pages of course.I’m going to continue adding photos of these places and things, and I’d like to ask you to contribute your own pictures of what you think might soon be extinct. It could be fun in a grim sort of way.
Thanks for reading!
January 31, 2011
I have two young children, and I’m always impressed by their fearless approach to creativity. Maybe even a bit envious. As a writer, there have been far too many times when I’ve stared at a notebook or computer screen waiting for the words to come; sometimes thinking that I’d sell my soul if only the damn words would come. But my children, like all children, have not yet felt the sometimes paralyzing press of self-consciousness. They lack a self-censoring mechanism. They’re still in Eden. While I agonize over characterization and converging plot-lines, my eldest daughter has already written two books, each with a beginning, middle, and end. They’re even illustrated.
Of course, children are also notorious for playing obsessively with something, then dropping it and moving on to something else. This approach doesn’t work very well in the adult world, but I’d like it to work on this blog. I don’t want to say that this blog is a “playground for ideas”, but I suppose that’s what I really want it to be. If you have a crazy idea for a novel that you never intend to write, post it. Half-finished and half-baked ideas have a home here.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back. If you find yourself scratching your head and wondering what I’m rambling on about, this might just be the place for you.
“I was happy, but happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy largely because they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind.”
Jeanette Winterson, “The Passion”