Blair Witch

Part of Microsoft’s ongoing Game Pass experiment, Blair Witch released on PC and Xbox One a couple of days ago to the delight and surprise of many. The Blair Witch franchise is hardly the snuggest fit for a videogame, with a heavy emphasis on fruitless woodland-stomping and the power of suggestion. You have your setting – the woods of Burkettsville, Maryland – and you have your evil wood-dwelling antagonist, the eponymous witch (or is it a serial killer? Or is it both? (Or neither?))

This hasn’t stopped studios from trying to capitalize on the Blair Witch zeitgeist, and in the early noughties a trilogy of short survival-horror experiences came out of three different studios. Janky third person experiences, these games were very much a product of their time, and inserted some non-canon zombies – and zombie dogs – to give the gameplay more substance.

So it goes in keeping with the current milieu – a couple of movie sequels and a couple of decades later – that Bloober Team (Layers of Fear, Observer) are cashing in on our nostalgia by resurrecting a fondly remembered franchise while we cross ourselves repeatedly and hope they don’t ruin it.

You play Ellis, a man assisting the county sheriff in trying to find a child who has gone missing in the famous woods. You are accompanied by your loyal canine, Bullet. Over the roughly 4-5 hour playtime this premise will evolve into a Blair Witch highlight reel including twig figures hanging from trees, muddy camcorders, people standing facing corners, impossible geometry and the inevitable spooky denouement.   

With the power of the Unreal Engine behind it, Blair Witch 2019 presents a vivid, breathing portrayal of the Burkettsville woods, so that you come to appreciate how much characters can be squeezed out of what amounts to a lot of trees. Tweaks to lighting and shaders can turn a sun-drenched glade into a foggy wasteland. In the twisting of the mundane Blooper have conjured a world that is at times decrepit and at others hauntingly beautiful. The moonlit approach to a derelict riverside sawmill is a particular highlight. The woods are the main antagonist – and the woods are omnipresent.

Despite the scope of the forest (and various nifty tricks the engine uses to loop you back on yourself or obfuscate your location) the game does have linear paths and beating your own way through the brush will often end in an invisible wall. Not that you’d want to wander, as the sheer amount of woods is daunting. It’s to the game’s credit that it can thoroughly turn you around, but will always find a way to get you back on track once it’s finished toying with you.

One of the ways it does this is with Bullet, your furry companion. When all other options appear exhausted, using Bullet’s ‘seek’ command from a radial menu will often have him lead you to the most relevant area. From the outset the game is keen to emphasize that the way you interact with Bullet will impact the story later. While interesting in theory, this seems to be a binary choice between either petting the dog often and keeping him close, or abandoning the dog with the ‘stay’ command and needlessly rebuking him, despite the game never giving you any cause for this. That said, it’s amazing how valuable the dog’s loyal presence feels during some of the bleaker portions of the game. You could argue that having Man’s Best Friend at your side detracts from the oppressive atmosphere, but his absence resonates in what is usually an already unsettling situation.

There is also your handy Nokia 3310 analogue, with a fully fleshed out interface that you can use to contact your partner, Jess, as well as a couple of other characters including the local pizzeria. Yes, you can play snake on it. Throughout the game cell signal ebs and flows and – similarly to Bullet – coming out of a dead spot and being able to contact Jess again is a blessed relief. There’s also a walkie-talkie with which you can speak to the sheriff. Responding to phone calls and prompts on the talkie are optional, and radio silence is a valid choice which can alter the endgame.  

Your arsenal also includes a torch with a (thankfully) limitless battery, and in keeping with the Blair Witch Project VHS aesthetic, a camcorder. At various points you will collect tapes which will reveal some plot point or clue, but will also double up as a mechanic to alter reality in small ways by winding to a specific spot.

Through communication with Jess and the sheriff you will come to understand the motivations of Ellis. As you proceed further into the witch’s verdant lair it becomes clear that the real demons came into the woods with you. Unfortunately, those demons are the same tired PTSD tropes you’ve encountered before, and after putting the pieces together halfway through the game the same plot beats will continue to be hammered home. The last chapter suffers some pacing issues and what should be a thrilling climax outstays its welcome quickly. Blooper reaches into their established repertoire of tricks once too often, it seems.

There is enough variety in gameplay – including some light puzzle elements and ‘dangers’ to keep the game interesting – while not compromising the core tenants of the franchise by allowing the atmosphere to stagnate or resorting to standard ‘hide and seek’ survival horror mechanics.

In some ways Blair Witch is a lacking, or at least pedestrian experience. Xbox users can also expect some performance issues, which have historically plagued Blooper’s console releases. Where it does stand out is in it’s day-one release on Microsoft’s subscription service – offering a new game by a well established studio, and adding value to an already burgeoning service. The Netflix of video games has arrived, and if you’re a horror fan then there’s no reason not to give Blair Witch a try.

Blair Witch is available on PC via Steam (£24.99) and on Xbox One (£24.99 / Game Pass)

The Slights

We landed in Marrakesh on Thursday evening, and after a brief stop at customs and a knuckle-whitening taxi ride found ourselves at the hotel: a four-star riad in the center of the old city.

The room was overly spacious. All mosaic, arched doorways and blackout curtains. On the bed a single rose had been placed, the petals already beginning to wilt around the edges. A small card was propped on one of the nightstands. It read ‘Malika is your maid!’ in tidy scrawl.

Lexi slept late. We spent the next afternoon in the medina, dodging panhandlers and hopping between the souk stalls to escape the heat. When we returned to the hotel we relaxed by the almost vacant pool until the sun decided to dip, and then retired to the room to get ready for the evening. 

There’s a certain Christmassy excitement to re-discovering a room after maid service has been: Hand towels folded into abstractions, or contorted into animals and perched on the immaculately made up bed sheets. Discarded garments collected and folded. Complimentary items replenished. As we re-acclimated to the air conditioned room I discovered a torn fragment of letterhead sat on top of my copy of ‘The Corrections’, which sat askance on the mahogany coffee table. 

Great book!’ the note read, in the same curvy flourishes as the card on the nightstand.

Grabbing some hotel stationary from the armoire I added ‘It’s really good!’ beneath.

The next afternoon we returned to the room to find other tears of paper. A lightly curled scrap on the bed read ‘I will make the bed, you don’t have to!‘; surely a response to Lexi’s insistence that we attempt to leave the sheets in some semblance of order before we head out each morning.

Later that night I found a note resting inside our travel wallet full of Lexi’s neatly printed itinerary. ‘Busy week!!’, it said, to which I left no reply.

As the week progressed we continued to observe the unwritten holidaymakers law to be out of the room by late morning so as to keep out of housekeeping’s way, returning hours later to find another note or some other bemusing adjustment has been made to our apartment. Invariably it was my possessions that attracted comment.

‘Nice shirt!’ read a scrap, stolen into one of my shirt pockets at some indeterminate point. A fat red heart was drawn in biro beside the familiar penmanship, rendered in firm and artful strokes.

“Another funny message from Malika, or whoever,” I said, passing the note to my partner who evidently took the flirtations in middling-to-bad humour. Over the next few days her exasperation mounted at a growing collection of messages and perceived slights from Malika.

“The maid only replaced your bathrobe!” she announced, holding the his and hers garments separately in outstretched hands like a human Scale of Justice; a scuff of dirt on the hem of the smaller robe was her smoking gun. On another occasion we returned to the room to find rose petals scattered liberally over the bed, predominantly on my side. I argued that it was probably a coincidence – the careless result of a flourish practised in room after room, day after day –  and rebuffed her as I identified a litany of errant petals that had landed on her side of the sheets. The maroon lipstick left on the bathroom mirror was probably a cultural display of hospitality, I tried to assure Lexi, rather than a calculated attempt to steal her lover. 

On the way down to the pool in a baggy tee and flip-flops I passed a maid, offering her a smile which she returned. I wondered if this was Malika.

On our penultimate day in the city Lexi suggested we order breakfast to our room before taking a slow amble through the square one last time. When the breakfast of grapefruit and bagels arrived she nursed each bite and spent long periods gazing out over the pool from the ample balcony. It became apparent that she was reluctant to leave the room before getting the measure of Malika, this being her last chance to do so. How embarrassing for her then, as an hour passed, followed by another, with no arrival from housekeeping. 

“Maybe they don’t clean the room on the last day”, I reiterated, sensing the emotional paper-cuts that even by her inaction Malika was now capable of inflicting.

When it was eventually time to leave the hotel Lexi insisted we didn’t leave a tip for housekeeping. She slouched against the retractable suitcase handle and motioned absently to the recently neglected room. I was caught off-guard by her pettiness. As we left the room I siphoned off a note and a handful of change from my pocket and left it on the nightstand.

Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds. Its been out for about a month. No, you’re thinking of that other game, Outer Worlds, which isn’t out yet.

From screenshots and video you’d be inclined to think this is something in the vein of a No Man’s Sky. Massive, craft-y, procedural. The sort of game where you accumulate x of this and y of that to eventually unlock a gun or a few more lines of flavor text. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case. Outer Wilds is set in a lovingly crafted, cohesive solar system that consists of a handful of planetoids. Despite a boxy, sparse aesthetic the game is beautiful, and terrifying and it does have an ending. In fact it has many endings, spaced approximately 22 minutes apart.

Awakening on the surface of Timber Hearth (the Earth analogue), you (blue alien with many eyes) prepare for your first foray into the screaming black void of space in your rinky-dink wooden spaceship. But first, you’ll be needing the launch codes from the local observatory. The observatory which is also a museum and shrine to the Nomai: an advanced super-race who inhabited the star system long ago, but aren’t here any longer. On your way out of the observatory a chance encounter with an enigmatic Nomai statue causes you to slip into a time loop from which there is no escape — even death. From this point the game becomes a Groundhog Day-ish adventure in which you have to solve the mystery of the Nomai’s disappearance and save the universe before the sun supernovas, which occurs every 22 minutes or so.

And it’s not just the obliteration of the solar system you need to contend with. Over the ~20 hours you’ll spend in the Outer Wilds your haphazard forays into the star system will see you crushed, eaten, smashed into rocks, sucked into voids and asphyxiating in the cold vacuum of space. Mistakes will be made. You will forget at least once to put your spacesuit on before leaving the ship. That’s not to mention your remedial piloting of a junky spaceship that will cause you to misjudge landing trajectories and autopilot into the sun on the reg. You’ll think you’re getting a handle on navigation and how the various jets and thrusters work, but then you’ll miscalculate stopping distance one time and take a physics lesson to the face. But each time, you reawaken with a gasp next to the crackling campfire on Timber Hearth, and everything is fine.

Death is just another tool in your limited inventory, and initial trepidation at stepping into the unknown will give way to “let’s see what happens” after the first few cringe-inducing misadventures.

Speaking of that limited inventory: save for your ship, a signalscope (for tracking space sounds) a translator and a remote scouting orb, there is no persistent item or key collection. The only item you need is this, he says, tapping his head. There is a ship log that will update over time, leaving you with a chart full of information nodes and rumours webbed together by color-coded lines, like the work of some interstellar conspiracy nut. The log populates automatically as you find notes left by the Nomai in their fractal, non-linear scribblings all over the star system, and slowly the Bigger Picture starts to come together.

And what a big picture it is, for a relatively sparse collection of worlds.

For the duration of each 22 minute cycle, the planets go through violent metamorphosis. See the Hourglass Twins: two planets that orbit the sun in such close proximity to each other that gravitational pull slowly displaces an ocean of sand between the planets, revealing secrets on one twin, and burying them on the other. Or there’s Brittle Hollow, a planet with a fragile crust that is slowly crumbling and being sucked into the black hole at the planet’s core. Observe the typhoons that litter the surface of Giant’s Deep — a water planet — occasionally thrusting a handful of nomadic islands up into the lower atmosphere. Indeed, much like Giant’s Deep, the clockwork diorama that is Outer Wilds often gives way to some unfathomable, spooky, depths.

At times Outer Wilds is lonely, and terrifying. Existentially, cosmically terrifying. Looking down (up?) into a black hole — or worse, falling into the yawning void of darkness — gave me the willies the way no other game has. Plunging through the cold darkness of Giant’s Deep past giant phosphorescent jellyfish set my hair on end. Panic set in as the rising sands of Ash Twin threatened to crush me within the derelict superstructures of an underground city. And what to say about Dark Bramble, a nightmarish void of space-dilation full of impenetrable mist, and thorns, and…

We don’t go to Dark Bramble.

But for all this trauma, there is also the unbridled joy of organic discovery. Short of a tip from a fellow Hearthian at the outset (one of only a handful of characters in the universe), the game is bereft of markers or waypoints or anything to interfere as you follow tidbits of information from one mystery to another. What is the Interloper? What is the Quantum Moon, and where does it go when it disappears? Why does my signalscope pick up banjo music deep within Brittle Hollow?

It’s basically Myst in space, but the reiteration of some info across different planets and locations ensures that you won’t hit a frustrating dead end for overlooking a single vital codex somewhere. In this way, it’s less obtuse than Myst could sometimes be. As restrictive as a 22 minute loop sounds, it’s a generous amount of time to pull at an investigative thread or two, and keeps the tempo of the game bouncing between laid-back exploration and last-minute struggles to wrap up your findings before the sun begins its implosion (foreshadowed by a melancholic synth track).

My one lament is that short of a concussion there is no incentive to revisit this game. Cursed with the knowledge of a hundred previous loops you can find your way from the start of the game to the end in about 20 minutes. It’s not even good for speedrunning thanks to some arbitrary waiting you need to do at certain points. Once the game is over you may reload and eke out a few extra nuggets of lore from a few more liftoffs, but the possibilities are (unlike the vast expanses of space) unfortunately finite.

If you do find yourself in the Outer Wilds, savour it. As the adage goes, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

But also, the ending is pretty good.

Outer Wilds is available on PC via the Epic Store (£19.99) and on Xbox (£20.99 / Game Pass)

The Problematic Boy Who Saved The World

In March of the year 2019 humanity came inches from extinction when an extraterrestrial threat (that looked something like the grey humanoids from science fiction) came to Earth with hostile intent. Cities were levelled and many killed in the short conflagration that followed the invasion, against which the combined might of the world’s superpowers paled.

Huddled, and shivering among the wreckage of gutted cities, humanity prepared to meet an untimely end.

However, unbeknownst to humanity or the alien insurgents a scrappy group of teenagers had slipped aboard the mothership. Utilizing deception, firearms and friendship, the group made their way through the aircraft carrier-sized vessel which hovered over Manhattan until they reached the Core.

The Core, to which all alien sentience was tethered, was protected by the most elite of the invaders’ forces, and even with the element of surprise most of the teenagers met powerfully violent ends. In the final moments of the invasion only one boy, Marcus, stood between survival and the complete decimation of our species. As his last remaining grenade came into contact with the Core and combusted, armies of intergalactic lifeforms all over Earth dropped to the ground — lifeless husks. Using the wireless transmission station with which the aliens had hijacked earthen TV frequencies, Marcus appeared to the world — weary and bruised.

“It’s over, everybody.” He said, a sheepish smile on his face, “They’re gone. We’re safe.”

Victorious and rejuvenated, humanity pulled together to rebuild. Within a couple of months most modern infrastructure was working again. With communication links still being salvaged and most over-air transmission reserved for armed forces and critical services, not a lot was known about the Saviour of Humanity, or what happened to him following the defeat of the aliens. Over the coming days there where whispers on the wind; hearsay from passing supply caravans or travellers that Marcus had been recovered from the mothership, and was reunited with his family somewhere in what remained of upstate New York.

By the end of August, life was coming to resemble pre-invasion times and world-wide interconnectivity was restored. With renewed digital freedom, stories of loss, survival and valor poured over the internet and humanity began searching for the boy who had saved the world.

They didn’t have to look far, and on the 16th of September the first post-war tweet from the (now verified) account @That420Marcus read, simply:

The responses criticising grammar were overwhelmed by an outpouring of thanks and appreciation for the boy who gave everything for his planet. In the following hours further details emerged about the mothership incursion, and Marcus’s firsthand survival account.

With the government being so quick to contain as much of the alien technology as possible, Marcus became the unofficial spokesperson for the invasion, and armchair strategists solicited him for his thoughts on the alien campaign — which Marcus gave freely:

To which, inevitably, came the responses asking if Marcus could clarify what he meant when he said ‘less important places like africa’. Marcus was quick to clarify that he had meant nothing by this remark, and that perhaps he hadn’t phrased it as well as he could have. Other Twitter users jumped to his defense and accused others of intentionally misinterpreting the tweet.

A few minutes later he appended this with a follow up tweet:

A handful of people began a forensic investigation into Marcus’s Twitter post history, which was still publicly available thanks to a robust decentralized network of backup servers. As well as identifying his hobbies (sports) and remaining family (father, two sisters, a dog), this deep-dive also unearthed a thread in which Marcus had referred to a forum moderator using a homophobic slur when his thread titled “sjw genderswapping in movie remakes” was locked.

In one of his many TV interviews Marcus sat small and nervous opposite a presenter who probed him specifically on this digital rant. Between the two figures a large digital screen showed the offending Tweet in triple-XL, and under the interviewer’s stern-but-not-unsympathetic gaze Marcus admitted that it was “a bad look”. What he didn’t do, as many online were quick to point out, was apologize.

Think-pieces sprung up with titles like “Why We Don’t Owe Anything To Marcus” and “Marcus: Pariah or Messiah?”. Certain parties were sympathetic, reminding the more vocal detractors that this was a seventeen year old boy who had watched all of his friends die and done humanity a great service.

On one side you’d hear:

To which:

As a media trail led Marcus to the west coast, he was insulated by high-profile survivors who praised his contribution to humanity; sharing rapport with him on late-night TV slots and tailing his growing entourage as he moved from state to state.

He spoke at motivational conferences where he was (repeatedly) heard to say “I was once a normal guy, like all of you”, and from there attended appearances at movie premieres and celebrity birthday parties. He was invited as a guest speaker at high school graduations, store openings, flat earth conferences and anti-vaccination sit-ins. The latter were met with a forceful online/offline response, but Marcus was quick to address the issue:

Unfortunately, the story of the boy who saved the world only got more concerning from here. In the absence of time, the following thoughts from Twitter user @_smiler232 will have to suffice:

From Now On – Hugh Jackman Kills a Dream

Author’s note: Some creative license has been taken in the following article.

There’s a video that did the rounds in the wake of The Greatest Showman’s release (“The Greatest Showman | “From Now On” with Hugh Jackman | 20th Century FOX”. 25 million views as of time of writing.)

The video — prefaced with a introduction by Hugh Jackman and TGS director Michael Gracey — takes place at a full cast table reading (singing?) where the assembled cast have come together to belt out the movie’s tunes in a dry run; an event eight months in the making due to scheduling conflicts.

Setting the scene in the preamble with Gracey, Hugh explains how he had recently undergone surgery to remove a cancerous cyst from his nose, which will justify:

1. Why his nose is bandaged during the upcoming scene.
2. Why he abstains from singing ‘From Now On’, a powerful number that kicks in during the redemptive third act of the movie. Doctors orders prohibit him from any strenuous vocal activity while the wound heals.

The scene begins with Hugh standing up front surrounded by the ensemble, hands on his hips as the opening notes of ‘From Now On’ begin and a young lad a fair bit shorter than Hugh with a pocket full of dreams serenades the opening bars:

“From now on/These eyes will not be blinded by the lights.”

Hugh nods, silent, and sways his head in passionate affirmation of the lyrics. He grows more restless with each sung line. He’s feeling it, by god, he’s FEELING it, and the cyst-imposed muteness is take its toll on this artist — his powers of expression reduced to nodding and some skyward finger-pointing. The bright-eyed Hugh-surrogate meanders towards the chorus, ecstatic in the approving presence of his idol. This is the kid’s Big Break. This is his golden opportunity to prove his melodic worth.

But wait, because here something miraculous happens. The youtube video cuts to a close-up of Hugh, presumably so we can watch his internal-struggle-cum-outpouring-of-passion unfold in algorithm-muddied HD. With flagrant disregard for doctors orders, Hugh begins crooning along to the piano strains. Quietly muttering at first, then with growing volume and conviction until by the time he hits the on-ramp of the next chorus, Hugh is in full headshaking, finger wagging, chest beating form. What an artist, what a talent.

“From now on!”, he expounds, suppressing (we imagine) the agony of eighty rupturing stitches. Whoops issue from cast and crew and the thing hits a fervor as everybody gets caught in the moment. The chorus of backup singers bob in harmony, and someone climbs on a table, I think.

Amid the raucous clapping and furor our cameraman pans out to reveal the kid, now absorbed into the chorus, all toe-tapping and teeth. Another voice in the din.

And one can’t help but feel for the boy: The Hugh-surrogate. From his scrappy opening bars to the ebbing and eventual silence that follows when Hugh decides to forego a medical expert’s advice, and all of a sudden the Opportunity Of A Lifetime is over for this diminutive lad who kind of stands there with a pained half-smile on his face, probably dying inside and willing Hugh’s exertions to do some lasting nasal damage.

He points repeatedly and energetically at Hugh, whether in mock imitation of Hugh’s own finger-pointing or in an accusing way as though indicting him among a police line-up of dream-destroyers it is unclear. They exchange a sloppy (Hugh-initiated) high-five as the music swells again.

The song ends and the kid takes up his music binder and exits stage right to take his unremarkable place in the ensemble, patting Hugh’s substantial shoulder as he passes. A gesture to which — to his credit — Hugh reciprocates with a conciliatory pat of his own.

Hugh’s back, and he’s ready for the next song.

Pox Party

I arrive at the house with Sarah and after a few moments the door opens. Patient Zero stands there with her face – a polka dot mask – buried in her mother’s thigh. The mother tried to extricate her and beckons us into a house thrumming with bassy music, punctuated by the occasional shriek of overstimulated children.

Next to the front door is an erected pasting table draped in a red cloth, covered in presents. The wrapping paper is nondescript, occasion-neutral. It doesn’t escape me that the paper on one of the presents, replete with bow, is polka in design. Nobody mentioned gift-giving.

Except, of course, the gift of exposure to a contagious disease.

I try to make my excuses but the mother insists and pushes a drink into my hand. I take a seat with the other hangers-on and get into discussion with a father. He gestures towards his son, a boy of about six years old, and tells me the boy has only recently stopped wetting the bed. I explain that because of a clashing hairdressing arrangement I’m here in my wife’s stead. He asks about my work. I keep an eye on Sarah through the patio door. She is now buried to the waist in the outdoor ball pool. Light glints off the dewey balls as they’re tossed around in frenzied armfuls.

The Pox Princess is sat in the middle of an armchair, her mottled legs out horizontal, teetering over the lip of the cushion. Her arms outstretched would be unable to reach those of the chair; she appears lost in it. In her lap a cat submits to long, languishing strokes from the girl, who – it has not gone unnoticed, by me or my conversation partner – is not interacting with anyone.

“And if she’s not interacting with the other kids,” my partner philosophises, “what, even, is the point?

The mother, wrestling her attention away from a buffet of breadsticks, celery, brainfood, notices this inaction and grasps the Princess by the wrist, navigating across the lounge-cum-dining room and releasing the girl into the epicentre of kids gathered around a Playmobil set. In hushed tones she reprimands the girl, who nods and squats down next to the Bedwetter to play.

I lapse back to the previous day, in the car park, picking up Sarah from school. A group of moms hold forth on the imminent party. One parent eschews on the morals of intentionally exposing a child to discomforting, infectious strains of chicken pox; to which another makes an argument for the Greater Good. A third contributes that it’s grossly selfish and pulls her vacant-looking son towards their car.

“I feel sorry for the kid,” Greater Good continues, “Being trotted out by her mother like that. Such a timid girl, too. Makes you wonder, if it wasn’t for the pox would anyone even go?

I’m snapped out of my reverie and find Sarah stood in front of me, an arm extended outwards, clutching a blue plastic ball. I take the ball with a smile, and my thumb glides in lazy circles over the glossy surface. I lean in, beckon Sarah closer with a conspiratorial smile.

“Why don’t you go and play with the girl over there?” I motion to the Princess, who has re-established herself in the armchair, sans cat. “I bet she’d like that.”

Sarah smiles as she skips off and I finish my drink.

I exchange final pleasantries with the mother at the door and turn to leave, confirming the pickup time over my shoulder as I make strides towards the car. Sat behind the wheel I look back to the house. Sarah and the Pox Princess are sat in the bay window at the front of the house, passing a sausage roll between them – alternating bites.

The Writer

The man thought he would like to become a writer, but didn’t think he was well read enough. He ordered some books. Some were from the Amazon best-seller list, others he picked from a forum post: 100 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE. He cherrypicked the shorter books with a page count of less than or around two hundred pages. This, he theorized, was the best way to get through as many books as possible in the shortest amount of time. He picked books from a variety of genres, but none too old.

He would read these books two at a time. He would balance a novel and a book of short stories, or a book of essays. He would read the biographies of great men. When a book was done he would tick it off on his GoodReads profile (which he would set up) and pick up another. He would use various items for bookmarks – receipts, playing cards, dollar bills – but never an actual bookmark. He would go to great pains to never fold a corner or crease a spine. He would line the completed books on a shelf and occasionally make a mental note of how many there were. Previously abandoned books, including a fat Wordworth Classics edition of The Brothers Karamazov sat in a stack on the coffee table.

After a time he would be ready to write, but what to write on? He had a laptop he used in his old job, but the screen was a whopping seventeen inches and when the graphics card was under duress the large fans would produce a steady drone. The laptop was full of messaging apps and games and other distractions. The weight hurt his knees after prolonged use. Not to mention the association with work. He didn’t want writing to be ‘work’. Best to find something smaller, less distracting. Something with no internet and a better battery (for long sessions in the coffee shop). He Googled for the most spartan notepad app, recalling an article he read about George R. R. Martin and how he used a DOS processor for all his work. The man made a mental note to keep a constant supply of backups, versions.

Then there was the problem of where to write. He cleared the miscellany of the study into the spare bedroom, armfuls at a time. He rotated the trinkets on the sills and shelves, dusting beneath each in turn. Lint listed lazily in the daylight as the man vigorously vacuum-cleaned right into the corners, sweat shimmering on his red neck. He filled garbage bags until there was no more room in the can outside. He wiped down the old school desk and arranged a lamp, an ipad dock, a coaster with ‘COFFEE IS THE GASOLINE OF LIFE’ recessed across it.

Then the problem of what to write. He bought a moleskin notebook with the intention of writing down minutia and trivia. Observations. He picked one that slipped easily into his jacket pocket, for rapid retrieval. He considered buying a hip-flask for the other pocket; after all, the best writers were also irresponsible drinkers. Maybe he could develop a habit and fast-track himself to Hemmingway status?

Or perhaps he should be more mindful of his intake? Healthy body, healthy mind. He stocked his fridge with vegetables and bought flax and chia seed from a health food store. He made a couple of smoothies but struggled getting the ratios right. Instead, blended apple and kale congealed over a lake of coconut water. He grimaced as he drank, and spent the afternoon sucking kale flecks out of his gums.

His wife comes home at around 5pm and he is already preparing dinner. She asks how his day was and he replies ‘productive’. An hour later, with the plates soaking in the sink, they collapse onto the sofa and watch TV. The show ends, and the great Netflix algorithm recommends another, then another. He dozes to the gentle tones of Bob Ross. As 11pm approaches they proceed up to bed, single file, turning the study light off as they pass.

As he slips into unconsciousness, the man thinks that maybe he would like to become a painter.