Beneath the Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin is a searing tragicomic novel that shows the reality of what happens when someone dies. (more…)
I haven’t posted since my review of Force of Nature on the 15th of January, which was a cheat post anyway because I wrote it last June. Before that I did my End of Year Reflections, plus a few other posts thinking about the year that had just happened and the one that was coming up.
Well, suffice it to say 2017 wasn’t exactly excellent. For the past few years I’ve adopted a Russian tradition of writing a wish for the upcoming year on a piece of paper, burning it, then tipping the ash into a glass of champagne and drinking it as I welcome in the new year. This year I didn’t get a chance to do that, but if I had then my wish would have been for the year to be better than 2017.
calling a dead man’s phone
for the past few days
that’s what i’ve been doing
trying to find out what was wrong
Scott, your new book Eight Days comes out in March 2016. Tell us a bit about the story and what inspired you to write it.
I can’t remember the exact moment when the idea for Eight Days came about. Usually new story ideas come fast, through a dream or event, but this one came slowly. I do know that several people who I cared for had died within a year or so. Two of them died within a couple of weeks of each other. I was sad about their loss, but I also knew that I would see them again. Not here, but somewhere. I wanted to explore this and began researching Heaven and the most believed ideas on the afterlife.
Last night I dreamed that my daughter died.
I went back to the school I used to work at, and my manager from the advertising agency I worked at later was also there. I’d apparently been looking after the team for him while he’d been on holiday and he wanted to catch up about what had happened while he’d been away.
Before our meeting I decided to go for a walk and say hi to everyone. I walked through the door of our office and ended up in the school corridor. I made my way to the library (where I used to work) and found my colleagues there. Elizabeth was cataloguing books and Vivien had brought in a small plant pot filled with mud, which she was playing with absent-mindedly, making a bit of a mess.
We chatted for a while, caught up on what was going on, and Elizabeth told me there was a pile of mail in the main office. I went and picked it up; it was a load of university prospectuses. We used to have a lot of them in the Careers room, which was one of the small rooms off the library (along with the Media room, the Prayer room, the Computer room and the Archives room).
I brought them back to the library and put them in the Careers room, sorting out mail that was addressed to me and holding it back. I said goodbye to Elizabeth and Vivien, and went back down the corridor to the advertising agency. Opening the door, I suddenly realised that my manager and I were supposed to catch up over an hour ago. I rushed to his desk and apologised. He said it was fine, looked at the clock, realised he still had some spare time, and we went into a meeting room to talk. My manager ordered pizza; the girl who delivered it was French, studying history at university. She had long black hair and was very friendly, nattering on at me about how interesting her subject was.
We switched to speaking French and I told her I’d always been interested in history but had never managed to make a career from it. I wished her luck and switched back to speaking English, for my manager’s sake. She looked a bit offended, stood up and left quickly.
My manager and I chatted for a while, mainly about how his family was doing, and then he asked whether there was anything that he should know about what had happened when he’d been away. I said it’d been pretty quiet, and then he realised it was time for him to be in another meeting anyway. “Good to catch up, Scar” he said, standing up and moving toward the door.
I picked up my mail from where I’d left it on the desk and prepared to leave with him. I noticed two things at the top that didn’t look like normal mail: a folded-over piece of notepaper, and an envelope that looked like it’d been addressed by our overall boss. I picked it up and lifted the flap of the envelope. On the inside of the flap, pencilled in capital letters, were the words “[Daughter’s Name] died this morning” followed by a date. I closed the flap and leaned on the desk. My manager looked at me worriedly. “Shouldn’t have opened that one” I said, trying to laugh.
I fled the room as inconspicuously as I could and made my way down the corridor, looking for somewhere I could sit and read the letter undisturbed. I bumped into Vivien, who’d been told that she had to go and help the coal man bring coal to the fireplaces along Corridor A. “Surely that’s the whole reason we have a coal man, though, so that we don’t have to do that?” I asked, linking arms with her as we walked in the same direction. Internally I was marvelling at my ability to seem normal.
We came to a part of the building where a couple of steep stone staircases led down to a well. In the well were entrances to the building’s basement, one of which was a ladies’ toilet. I left Vivien on the higher level and climbed down the stairs.
Someone vacated one of the stalls as I walked in, so I went in after her and sat down on the toilet. The door was a bit flimsy, but I thought it’d do. I unfolded the other sheet of paper first. It was from a guy I hadn’t thought about in ages. He’d had a bit of a thing for me while we were at university; I’d never noticed it, but a couple of friends had pointed it out.
‘I heard the news’, it said. ‘If you need me, I’ll be on a train by the time you read this, but then staying at this address.’ An address in the north of the country was written below, along with a phone number.
I opened the other envelope again and reread the words on the flap. Suddenly the door to the stall burst open and a student who had been walking past looked in in confusion. I asked her to pull the more substantial sliding door across. She looked confused again. Sighing, I pulled up my pants and walked over to the door, noticing when I did that the sliding door wasn’t working. “No problem,” I told her, “Not your fault.”
I picked up my things and went into the next stall, pulling the door across and securing it properly. I sat back down on the toilet lid and pulled the piece of paper out of the envelope again. I began to read it. Suddenly a group of people burst through the wall of the cubicle I was in. There was a large hole I hadn’t noticed when I’d sat down. One of them – a girl I’d been at school with many years ago – grabbed the envelope and paper out of my hand before I could stop her. “This looks interesting,” she said with her characteristic inquisitiveness, “I wonder what it says?” I clutched at it wildly; thinking it was a game, she held it away from me. I grabbed her arm “No, stop, you don’t understand,” I said, and started crying desperately, holding onto her arm with both hands, “It’s bad news. It’s really, really bad news.” She looked apologetic and handed the envelope back. I held onto her and cried. Then I woke up.
Now I know I shouldn’t call Daughter to check she’s alive. It would be irrational. But dreams are strange things and I might have to do it anyway.
in order to properly comprehend this review, you must understand something about me: i do not cry. i don’t know how. i even wrote a song about it (which will eventually be available online, but isn’t yet). sometimes this lack of open emotion bothers me, especially at funerals and other social situations where you’re just supposed to cry.
i absolutely don’t cry when watching films. i’ll sit through any amount of chick flicks without shedding a tear, passing kleenexes to my girlfriends and wishing i could feel whatever it is they’re feeling.
i’ve also never been a particularly huge fan of classical music. i’ve always really wanted to like it, but never really got it, you know? if it doesn’t have lyrics, i don’t tend to understand it. i’ve always felt like it belonged to the preserves of the kind of people who drape themselves elegantly in cashmere pashminas, and other items of clothing that make an ahhhsh sound. the only classical composer i generally enjoy is mahler, and to be honest that’s less to do with the music itself and more to do with a particularly badass story about his 9th symphony that one of my teachers told me when i was about 15 and obsessed with death.
so, i got a last-minute invitation to see the late quartet, and nearly didn’t go, but then decided it’d be a good excuse to go and busk in soho afterwards, so i trundled along.
it made me ache.
this is the difficult bit: i can’t really do it justice by describing the story, because it’s not the storyline that makes it amazing. it’s just… the way it’s told.
basic plot: quartet have been playing together for 25 years, two of the members are married. one of them is getting sick of playing second fiddle (literally and metaphorically) to the grumpy first violinist. the oldest member of the group discovers that he has a medical condition which means he needs to quit playing. this causes fractures within the quartet and the married couple discover newfound complications in their relationship.
see? not that inspiring. fairly straightforward.
i cried for pretty much the entire second half. when the credits started rolling at the end, i stayed in my seat until everyone else had left the screening room, because i wasn’t composed enough to even stand up. i then went and hid in the toilets for twenty minutes, redoing my make-up and giving myself pep talks: “scar! for fuck’s sake! you call yourself a badass?! what the hell is wrong with you?!”
no use. i left the cinema feeling raw. walked down the street, tried to start busking, couldn’t sing because i was too emotional. had to pack up and go home.
what was it that made it so moving? i really can’t say.
the acting was incredible. christopher walken was his predictably amazing self. the camerawork was also fantastic. close-ups of the actors’ faces showed every wrinkle, every curve. drew the audience into the players’ world; inside the characters themselves, to an extent. the fact that all the actors were so mature lent an element of seriousness as well, i think. it wasn’t like watching two people in their twenties bawling on their respective beds about the end of a short-lived affair; it was the deep and visceral pain of watching something disintegrate when they’d spent half of their lives – a quarter of a century – building it. trying to imagine something on that level did something to the emotion centres in my brain. they opened and tears poured out down my face.
the soundtrack is entirely classical, and i came out loving classical music. i understood, all of a sudden, why people like it, and why it’s not “just for posh people” (yeah, i know, i’m a chav with terrible taste. bite me.)
at one point, a close-up on christopher walken’s face happens at the same time as beethoven’s music rises and swells up in the background. this was almost too much for me to bear. i felt like my heart was getting redder, somehow; trying to escape my chest.
it made me raw. it hurt me. in a good way.
still kinda disturbed that music makes me cry in a way that funerals don’t, though. but oh well.
10/10 – fucking indescribable. go see it.