by Sam Heslop-George
The scene was thus: a hot sun upon a Porsche as it raced down a road. At the helm, a man, wearing black jeans and black shirt. On his wrist, a leather band; across his face, sunglasses. This man was a writer of acclaim, and in his past few days of writing, he had drunk enough whisky to stun a horse. He intended to do so again that night.
He had been like this for two decades, or more. He was a hedonist, and thus believed life’s questions and troubles could be ignored, hidden beneath revelry; naturally, one did not have to confront harshness if one was drunk, or stoned, or in the front seat of a Porsche.
Ingrained in the psyche of most men and women was an image: a male; independent, impulsive; sleek of looks, powerful of build… A God. A God amongst mortals. With one hand holding the wheel and the other resting outside nonchalantly, here was a man becoming of such an image.
To be such a man! As he drove, he reached his hand from outside the car to his breast pocket, for his smokes. He took out the packet, slipped out a single cigarette, and placed the packet back into his pocket.
This small feat… legendary. In his mouth he put the cigarette, lit, and blew out a cloud – quickly whipped by the wind, aside and away. All this he did with single hand on the wheel and firm eyes on the distance. The distance was hot and concrete, and the God pushed toward it.
That was the scene as most would see it… A man – a God – astride his chariot, blowing smoke and wearing sunglasses. To most it would not even register that, beside the main character sat his son, a young man barely past puberty, face so strewn with spots as to make him appear permanently red with anger… George Moody.
Here was a young man with a number of afflictions, foremost of which a greyness that steeped his days. Many lives are pushed on by eagerness, an excitement for the upcoming. His, not. Nothing enthused him. His days were shadowed in grey, and all else was lost among it.
For a long time, he had found a release in writing. He wrote thinking through other’s minds, liberating him from his own. He wrote in a furious passion, a passion so often absent, stifled by grey.
He had wished for his father to lend his celestial support, yet when he’d told his dad of his ambitions, he had seemed unimpressed. His planned university study was greeted by grumbles of how writing was becoming “intellectualised” and “unnatural”.
It was clear why he felt this way – for a man so intelligent and seemingly complex, he was very easy to analyse. He was conceited. Here was a man who had built an entire universe for himself, and at the very centre was him, and his genius; thus the notion of others having egos, or at least a little artistry filled him with unease. That the universe in his mind coloured him to his own son was testament to its strength.
Knowing the petty motives behind his father’s cynicism, one could question why it affected the young man so. Although as many women and sons have found to their peril, it was one thing to understand a man and his flaws, and quite another to remain unaffected by him.
His father’s lack of belief had laid heavy on him; but on first getting to university, he had managed to put such negativities aside. The first few weeks, he had found the new pace of life agreeable. He kept himself busy, and the greyness was forgotten.
It had been almost five weeks into his new life when he again felt the greyness.
He was, having lived his entire life with a mother of fussy disposition, a boy uncomfortable with solitude. At night he struggled, when his thoughts were at the forefront and he could do nothing else but wait for sleep. He was impatient for a companion; not to fill any sexual desire but to ease him in such moments, when the sky had darkened and a body was needed to hold against his own.
He had decided to love a woman before finding a woman to love – a common and stupid mistake. He had thrown himself through drinks and nights without relent. In the space of two weeks, he had thrice fallen in love of a desperate, crazy kind. On each occasion he had failed.
The third rejection, by a girl with whom he shared fair rapport, but who told him that she saw him only as a friend, left him with a feeling of not anger, but emptiness. Empty and passionless; there would be no happiness now and none to come. An empty man such as this needs reigniting, be it through fury or melancholy. For George Moody, nothing but writing could bring such out in him.
And so he had locked the door to his room and sat down before his computer screen. He had pondered what or who to write on. This was to be his second written assignment; his first preceding the crushing rejections of the past days. It had had verve and soul, and had received favourable reviews. His second piece would not be so lucky.
All good writers would tell you that to write well, you must feel something for what you write. Your heart must compel you – George Moody knew this. Yet as he had sat, nothing compelled him.
He was restless, and alighted from his chair. He had taken off his shirt and strode to the mirror. Like so many young men and women before him, in a society so based upon imagery, he had blamed the reflection for his poor luck with the opposite sex. The reflection: a boy, on the cusp of manhood. Abdominal muscles untightened and limp, biceps non-existent. Limbs exceedingly bony and spine’s curvature prominent; indeed, the spine was so curved it made him look a little fat, stomach plumped past chest.
Fat! He had not an ounce of fat upon his self!
He had two redeemable features: shoulders, of impressive width, and his eyes, intense and blue. But George Moody only saw his spots, and the sad curve at the base of his spine. His redeeming features were neglected – his shoulders rolled in and his eyes looking anywhere but into those of others.
So unlike his father! He thought as he sat back down before the laptop. At George’s age, he had perhaps already had sex with three or four women – anyone supposing men do not care about this are delusional. At twenty, George had not yet had sex, and it must be noted that a man without sex at twenty is liable to lose his composure.
And George was certainly losing composure. You may, as a reader, question this. You might label him weak, or emotional. He got rejected by a few girls, you say, now he must pick himself up and continue with life. Yet note this: be it in hope or surety, in every son’s eyes his father is a God. And this was particularly pertinent to George Moody. For so long he had felt inadequate; he had seen his father’s godliness and wanted it for himself. But it was then that he accepted that he would never write like his father. He was not despairing but resigned: his father was a God amongst mortals, and he, a mortal amongst grey.
The deadline had to be met, and the piece he submitted reflected his next, and last, month of university. Whilst having respectable prose, the impression got from reading was one of joyless grey. No clever prose could save such a piece, and judging by the lukewarm responses received, many saw this too.
His last month was tokenistic, a limp effort to regain former passion. He would smile through sadness; laugh through grey; but it was all an act, and he was tired. As the term closed, he told his parents and colleagues of his decision. He blamed no one: not himself, for not trying; not his father for doubting him so; nor the grey that shrouded his days. He plainly accepted what had happened, and accepted his father’s offer of a lift home.
And it is there we join the story; the day hot but cooling, the road long but shortening. George was sat next to his father in the Porsche; waiting for home, shrouded in grey.
The father pulled up to his drive. He helped his son unload his belongings from the boot of the car to the hall of the house. His son, living as he did at his mother’s, was only staying the night.
George went to bed, complaining of tiredness. The father went to his kitchen, a room large and expensive, but in apologetic state. He was not a man preoccupied with tidiness. It was late, and he was weary; yet he yearned not for sleep but stimulation: he brought to the table his laptop, and took down from the cupboard a bottle of scotch, which he opened and poured. He put on his favourite album from his favourite band. Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones. To write to such music!
He swiftly wrote two hundred words before stopping. He was not writing well. It bored him. A fundamental rule of literature: if it bores the writer it bores the reader. No tears from the writer, no tears from the reader…
He deleted the words he had written. He felt unsettled; something nagged at him. He took up his glass of whisky, sipped, and winced with satisfaction. Half a bottle remained… It wouldn’t by the night’s end.
He sighed deeply. He – like all those who persist on putting poison in their livers – was a man with poison in his heart.
A person seeing him that bright morning would have seen a contented, if arrogant, man. A successful writer. Sun, sunglasses, Porsche.
No. He no longer loved himself. He took no pleasure from the profane. A bad odour cannot be hidden with a sweet scent: the odour will remain. The odour remained about the father, and the odour was grey.
The grey. When it hit, it made movement unfeasible and feeling harder still. Whole days of unfeeling. Stifled. Deadened. His agent and publishers called. They wanted material. But he had nothing for them. He could not write without feelings.
Yet no matter how thick the grey, one feeling remained with him always, a feeling dark and frightening. Had he the courage to write of it, he would have written well, but it is rare that a man can bring himself to write of what scares him most. The feeling? Regret.
He had found the right girl too early, and had got her pregnant. Terrified of missing life, he left her. It was at the birth of his child that he realised his mistake.
He loved her. From that moment to this, so much had changed, but this had remained constant. But he had no hope. A man could not hope through grey.
It was thought by most that such helpless greyness only affected the mediocre. Yet it was with him… This apparent God amongst men, as he received literary accolades and drank and dined with the nation’s finest minds. The perfect irony: the man assumed to have all had nothing.
An unfulfilled man is a bitter one; a bitter one is a coward. And as a coward, he had not avenged his past mistakes. He had not lived, because he hadn’t blamed himself for losing the woman of his life; instead he’d blamed his son.
His son! He was brought from his reflection by the sound of George’s feet in the hallway.
George came in, stopped, praised the song, then put the kettle on to boil.
The father listened.
“You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need”
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: it was indeed a good song. His favourite on the album. A good song is like a good friend: you could spend months or years without it, yet when reunited, it is as if it were never away.
“You like this song?”
The son looked up as if his father was testing him: “Yeah… I mean, it’s got soul; I love the Stones”. Then he added, “They’re a great band to write to.”
His sentiments exactly! The kettle had finished boiling. George filled his mug and went back upstairs.
As he listened to the song, the father lit a cigarette. With the swiftness of a writer’s mind, it was July 16th, ‘95. He was at Wembley stadium – the old Wembley. He was living his dream – watching the Stones live in concert, and they were playing the opening chords of his favourite song; the song now playing in the kitchen. He had queued for hours, and got himself by the stage; he had held his arms aloft and felt euphoria. He knew this moment far better than almost any since.
He remembered himself then, before his failings and the onset of greyness. Gel in his hair and hope in his heart. He had hoped through his youth. So much so that he was willing to discard comfort to pursue a dream of writing. It was a fanciful dream with almost no hope of success. Yet without dreams, a person had nothing.
Others thought him foolish, but his parents were brave and wise and they supported him. They saw that a young man must follow his dreams. My son has dreams, the father thought. And as he listened to the music, he realised he had made a mistake.
He was seized suddenly by a need to read his son’s work. He stubbed out his cigarette and ran to the hall, taking out the first pages he could find.
The father read. Inside the stapled sheets was the story of a journeying traveller. The traveller had been searching for fame and riches when he had been diverted from the path. The path seemed lost, but he was a vain man, and vain men were not defeated easily. For years and years he searched to regain his sense of way.
As his exhaustion overwhelmed him and his hope died, the traveller truly accepted that the temporal riches he had set out for were not to be found. For the first time in years, the traveller was able to look about him with a clear, unburdened mind. He was no longer consumed by the quest, and was able to see the birds, and trees; the impose of the mountain, and setting of the sun. To the right of his rump was a colony of ants. They seemed to be congregating, not at an ant’s nest, but a bare spot in the earth. Something in the traveller’s now clear mind told him to dig, and it was there, beneath that earth, that the traveller found his treasure.
In that impulsive moment of trust in the signs of the world, the traveller had found so much more than the splendour he set out for. He had found himself.
The father finished the story, and read it a second time. He put down the pages and lifted whisky to his lips. Little words and simple prose, yet his son had taught so much: that a man is often closest to success when closest to giving up; that while dreams are important, a man must not let them overwhelm him; and that though at times life seems designed, or mistakes fatal, only a moment is needed for everything to change.
The most important thing the father learnt: that his son could do what he dreamed, and a father who does not believe this is a fool.
He took another glug of whisky, and ascended the stairs to talk to his son.
“Are you awake?”
“Yes. Why?” George replied, opening his door to his father’s knock.
Why indeed! The father did not know how to begin. So much to explain, and the father could not speak nearly as well as he could write.
“Look.” he began. Words were coming to him instinctively, yet he looked about the room, as if considering what to say next. It was not direction he needed, it was courage. “I’ve fucked up; I’ve been a bad parent… and I know that. I never believed in you – when you said you wanted to be a writer.”
“No,” George assured him. “I’m not a writer, and you knew that; you helped me see that. You helped me stop wasting my time…”
The father held up the story his son had written so brilliantly.
“No!” he said, with conviction. “A man doing what he loves is not a waste of time! You may go through months where you cannot write a thing of merit; you may find it hard, and you may grow to hate the idea of a chair and a laptop, and the white of the page. But a man who can produce this-” he flourished the story before his son, “-must love writing!”
“You read my story?” asked the son, taking the pages off his father and thumbing through them. “Yes, I suppose this one’s quite good,” he mused. “But the rest I’ve written is crap. I struggle to write with feeling, because I have none.”
The father leaned in and grabbed his son by the shoulders. It had occurred to him that his son may be more similar to him than he realised. “What do you feel; you feel grey?” When his son nodded, he let go and strode about the room.
“I feel it as well. So much in my life is grey, and fake. Fiction, as opposed to what you may think, is not fake. It is genuine, and it comes from here-” he patted his heart with his fist “-it comes from the people you love. In my case, you and your mother. That’s me, and that’s ironic: the only genuine thing in my life – you two, and I push you away! You deserve more than me, and I’m sorry.”
George looked at his father as he spoke, and as every son experiences at some point in his life, he saw that his father was not a God.
Most sons don’t truly believe their father’s to be Gods. Instead, with feverish passion, they hope; they hope to be proved wrong; for their father to be above mediocrity, to talk and see from a different frequency, a higher place. When they see their father for what he is – a boy who grew old and is trying to do the best he can – they can hope no more. It is crushing.
But for George, the opposite. All his life, he had truly believed his father to be a God. The burden, to compete with this…
He saw him now, in his bedroom… broken and pleading… He saw his father as a mortal, an overgrown boy… He found himself comprehending something many don’t fully understand – that no one is of Godly status; we are all one and the same, each man succumbing to the same trivial concerns and petty insecurities as the next…
Relief. For the first time in years, he felt unjealous of his father and secure of himself. It was then that he felt the greyness truly recede.
“I mean what I said you know.” his father said, with feeling in his eyes. “About your story. It’s great.” He opened up the pages. “I thought I could offer you some notes. Like, from father to son.”
George saw the sheets of paper in his father’s hands, with red pen scrawled across them, and knew his dream of writing was still there; it had only just begun. In his father was a boy who had followed his dreams, and in his father was a man who knew the way.
The boy smiled, and said to get started. The father sat himself by his son’s desk, and the boy joined him. The father gave advice and explained technicalities, and the boy nodded, enthused. When the father enquired on examples from the text, George clarified enthusiastically. Both were contented; the father and son, for they were no longer alone.
They finished their reading. The father got up to leave. He opened the door and stepped out, back to the kitchen, with its scotch, and work that needed drafting. Yet he still felt a restlessness; a feeling that he had not done all he could for his son. Hand gripping the door, and acting on impulse, he turned to his son.
“George?” His son looked up curiously. “Let’s go back to the Uni; tomorrow! You need your place back.”
The son agreed, and they left early the next morning. The father would argue his son’s case at the university; he knew he was doing the right thing and was proud of himself for that. With this pride came the courage to talk to the boy’s mother and tell her how he felt – after getting his son his place back, he would go to speak with her.
They were living. It was astonishing how little people live, how much of their days pass them by.
The Porsche went on, and on. The roads were quiet and still, as were the pair. The Porsche’s headlights and roof were on and up. The father drove with haste. The morning was foggy, but the figures had such clarity of mind as the Porsche re-joined the motorway.
It was ironic then, given the new awareness of the two men, that neither saw the car on their right as the Porsche switched lanes quickly. The cars collided, the Porsche was flipped, and both men were killed. The two men had spent so long smothered beneath grey, not living. Now, they never would.