The Matrix – 20 Years On

The Matrix – Twenty Years On.

By Andrew McKissock

Upon discovering that The Matrix is twenty years old in 2019, I was reminiscent of protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he learns he’s been living inside a computer simulation. He panics, shouting “I don’t believe it. I want out!” before eventually vomiting. As Neo’s world unravels, so do my attempts to cling to my youth.

So what’s behind the longevity of The Matrix? The story can be read allegorically in ways which remain relevant today. You could interpret the machines turning humanity into batteries as a metaphor for mankind being enslaved by capitalism. There’s also the notion that Neo’s awakening is an analogy for transitioning – Lana and Lilly Wachowski both came out as trans after the trilogy released.

The opening five minutes of the film set the scene perfectly; Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) runs along walls, jumps impossible distances and swats two police units aside before fleeing in terror from Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his cohorts. She’s demonstrably capable of remarkable actions and yet she doesn’t entertain the thought of attempting to battle the Agents, which establishes their threat. She escapes by answering a ringing phone before Smith smashes a truck into it. The action is jaw dropping – whilst hinting at a greater, more complex threat.

That threat is the Matrix itself. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) and Trinity attempt to free Neo, the man they believe to be the saviour of humanity, Smith and the system race to prevent them. When Smith arrests and interrogates Neo, the allegory for transitioning starts to take shape. He denies any future for Neo if he refuses to return to his life as Thomas Anderson, a part of the status quo. This evokes parallels of refusing to acknowledge trans identity, instead choosing to identity them by their deadname – a theme which continues through to Neo’s final confrontation with Smith.

We later learn that the Agents can manifest themselves in anybody plugged into the Matrix. If we continue to apply a trans reading and the Agents represent transphobia, it suggests that anyone plugged into the system is a potential threat to Neo and his comrades’ existence – that fear and hatred can appear when you least expect it.

As Morpheus teaches Neo about the simulations origins, he reveals that humans are now grown – serving as a power source for the Matrix. Humans are born into bondage with the system, propping it up with little reward and are easily replaceable. Oxfam recently revealed that the 26 richest people in the world own as much as 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population. It’s easy to see the similarities between populations sustaining two systems, capitalism and the Matrix, with scant reward for their enormous contribution.

Whilst strands of religious symbolism, morality and philosophical questions are woven seamlessly into the film, it’s possible that The Matrix still resonates because it’s a kick ass movie bursting with slick fight scenes that ooze style rarely matches in the modern films it helped inspire. As Neo and Trinity attempt to save Morpheus, Neo reveals to security guards that he’s armed to the teeth under his leather overcoat. It’s as iconic a moment as the slow motion ‘bullet time’ battle which follows.

The film’s climax is a masterclass in tension. Everything the film sets up in the first two acts are paid off in the final as Neo faces off against Agent Smith in the Matrix, whilst Morpheus and Trinity battle machines in the real world. The Wachowskis consistently blend moments of levity with outrageous action and high concept philosophy. They manage to package them into something easily digestible for the audience; something which, twenty years later, few sci-fi movies readily achieve.

In celebration of its twentieth anniversary The Matrix is being screened at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival on February 22nd. Tickets are still available, offering moviegoers the chance to free their mind at the Argyll Street Arches, with the promise of an after party to unplug – hopefully without the threat of Agents crashing by.

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‘Fragments of Memories’

Christmas traditions. Every family has them, good and bad. Mostly bad. I still remember rare moments of unity with my sister, bemoaning our mum’s compulsory photoshoot at the top of the stairs with the two of us holding our stockings.

I check my watch, 21.43. My pace quickens, the train within reach. Santa and Rudolph lurch toward the carriage ahead of me with arms linked and cases of dark fruits lodged between their free arms. I opt to avoid their particular brand of festivity and nip into the next carriage.

The train doors bleep and a whistle tears through the jovial atmosphere the carriage is wrapped in. The Just before the doors close a mother and son bounce inside. They celebrate their victory with high fives, each sharp inhale followed by a giggle. The train jolts to a start. As they collect themselves they approach me.

“Is it alright if we sit here?”

“Of course!” I answer, moving my briefcase from the table. Unlike any the rest of the year, I don’t grudge them.

I look out the window, catching their reflection against the darkened backdrop, Christmas lights dwindling as we depart the city. My eyes are drawn to the Christmas tree lodged in the boy’s jumper as he tries to rid himself of it, half revealing a Stormtrooper t-shirt underneath. His mum hauls it back down.

“It’s too cold.” She says. The boy crosses his arms.

I recall the battles I had with mum, trying to rid myself of each Christmas jumper. First it was too itchy, then I feigned an allergy. None of the excuses ever successful. Teachers have heard them all. I should have embraced it back then.

Christmas traditions. Every family has them, good and bad. Mostly bad. I still remember rare moments of unity with my sister, bemoaning our mum’s compulsory photoshoot at the top of the stairs with the two of us holding our stockings. It’s fun to look back and see how progressively worse the hangovers got over the years. Although we were ready to declare all-out war when she insisted on videoing us opening presents in our twenties, resisting became part of the theatre of the day. We might have hated it but fighting the camcorder became a fun tradition in itself.

I like to think Mum felt the same about me trying to sneak downstairs to open the presents every twenty minutes from two in the morning onwards. She must have preferred that to me stoating in at two with presents still to wrap. I swear that’s what killed me during the family quiz that my sister started after Christmas dinner. I dread and miss those games.

The carriage slowly empties as we pass each stop, each departure diluting the cheer until it’s time for the last stop. The remnants trickle up to the train door behind me. I resist the urge to assure them of my love for Christmas. My suit doesn’t fit with the dress code of Santa hats, antlers and Christmas jumpers.

After we filter out of the train I pass the boy and his mother as she zips his jacket over his jumper. I smile at the boy.

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Merry Christmas,” I reply, “Make the most of it.”

I meander up the winding road to my apartment block, wrestling the key into the lock before it finally turns. My footsteps echo up the staircase, it’s especially cold here. I enter into my apartment, neglecting the big light, opting instead for the lights which strangle the tree hiding in the corner of the room which extend around my window. I check the answer machine as I do every year for a message that doesn’t come. One of my three Christmas traditions. I fetch my Christmas jumper and change into it, making sure to flick the switch that makes the lights attached glow. I open my briefcase and remove the pack of six mince pies. I stick three of them in the microwave and heat them.

Mum used to usher me out the door round to old Mrs Fisher’s house to deliver banana loaf she’d cooked, my reward was taking the brunt of an hour long conversation. It’s the one tradition I can preserve. The microwave dings and I stick them on a plate. There’s no response at the first two doors on my floor, so I leave the pies sitting at the doorstep. They’re probably still out. I can hear Christmas songs from the last door. I knock the door and linger. They probably can’t hear me over the music, so I knock louder. There’s no response. I think I can hear muffled voices as I motion to knock again but I stop. I place the pie at the door.

“Maybe next year”, I say.

Let’s Talk About Oscar Categories

We need to recognise the films featuring men resembling a half melted candle opposite the latest talked-about actresses on the scene.

Recently the Academy’s decision to introduce the award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film sparked fierce debate about which honours belong at Tinsel Town’s showpiece event. As it’s the season of goodwill, it’s only fair that we put together a list of awards categories which have been neglected for too long.

The Award for Best Cinematic Universe, in which the only candidate is the Fast and the Furious franchise. The Award for Best Donald Glover Performance; is it for acting, writing or soundtrack? Probably all three. How about an award for actors and actresses cursed by being typecast? Yes, I am trying to find a legitimate award for Mark Hamill, but I’m also looking at you, Meg Ryan.

We’ve got an award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, but what about the Best Unoriginal Screenplay? Let’s hear it for the reboot of the remake of the movie adapted from the book, adapted from the fairytale. Robin Hood has recently returned to the big screen and if there’s one thing we’ve been begging for it’s an updated take on the notorious outlaw in order to ask: which will be more vacant? The script or the cinema? You’d have to travel all the way back to the distant year of 2010 for the previous adaptation, released alongside films such as Alice in Wonderland. Don’t even think about it, Hollywood.

Remarkably, one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes has yet to receive an awards category. I present to you the Award for Outstanding Age Difference between co-stars. It’s commonly known that men are allowed to age in the film industry whilst women seem to ridiculously pass their sell-by date by forty – if they’re lucky. We need to recognise the films featuring men resembling a half melted candle opposite the latest talked-about actresses on the scene. Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence and Brie Larson are some of the many lucky women to embark upon this rite of passage.

Sticking with age, it’s high time the Oscars introduced the The Liv Tyler Lifetime Achievement Award for Women. If movies have taught us anything it’s that when a woman’s fuckability expires, she might as well start a trendy smoothie company. As San Diego State University’s recent study shows, only 29% of women over forty star in mainstream movies. This award would help the next batch of actresses in their late thirties transition into the next stage of their career: network television, subpar Netflix movies and relative obscurity.

Saving the best for last, I think we’d all welcome the Matt Damon Medal of Commendation award. It’s been a rough year for all the ‘good guys’ in Hollywood – isn’t it time for them to get some recognition? Last year Damon bemoaned the lack of attention on those in Hollywood who don’t partake in sexual misconduct and are in fact decent human beings. It’s time we gave those men the respect they deserve on the back of a difficult year for them. Keep holding those doors open you chivalrous champions!

High Brow Horror

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence.

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence. Whilst outliers such as A Quiet Place (2018) are both box office and critical successes, far more prevalent are bloated franchises packed with jump-scares, many of which appear to have been chopped up and reassembled in a slightly different order from their predecessors. But why do audiences opt for franchised offerings like The Nun (2018)? What makes them more profitable than critical successes Hereditary (2018) or It Comes At Night (2017)? 

We need only look at the Paranormal Activity franchise, an example of the formula A Quiet Place seems destined to fall victim to. The first movie in the series was a genre-changing hit with audiences and critics alike, grossing $139m against a meagre $15,000 budget. It earns the scares through a slow build of tension and disconcerting scenes such as the iconic moment its protagonist, Katie, wakes in the middle of the night to stand lingering over her bed for hours. By the time 2015’s The Ghost Dimension was released, everything the first entry had done successfully had been butchered. The franchise became a shambolic mess of jump-scares and was consequently slaughtered by critics. The root of this can be traced back to Paramount adding a new theatrical ending to the original which was included in the film’s wider release, adding a jump-scare finale as a setup for future instalments. Once the imagination had bled from the franchise in exchange for lazy moments of shock, Paranormal Activity became a safe financial investment.

Similarly, franchises offer audiences the kind of safety that original-concept just can’t. The formulaic nature of franchised horror films grants ticket-holders a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Originality doesn’t always appeal when the option to step back into recognisable scares already exists. Take the recent entry into the Conjuring franchise, The Nun. The film’s effectiveness hinges solely upon whether you find the appearance of its titular character scary. After that, it relies upon jump-scares in order to frighten its audience. There’s little imagination offered up in these lazy attempts to frighten, and this transfers to the viewer. It’s momentary terror driven by a sudden intrusion of noise, often without an accompanying frightening image. Scared, we may be; but the feeling passes. We’re not asked to think too hard, and if we do we’re likely to dismantle a nonsensical plot. We leave the cinema with an adrenaline rush, but there’s little to dissect and no lasting effect on our psyche. 

In contrast, the horror of It Comes at Night is born from the unknown. It examines psychological degradation as one family struggles to maintain their humanity under threat of infection from an unseen enemy. The audience is given no information about the infection, we never see any creature or infected humans actively trying to hurt them. The tension is instead drawn out through a dubious friendship with another family and the resulting paranoia created. The film effectively approaches its world building with unsettling imagery, an atmospheric soundtrack and its placing of characters under extreme duress, all elements which linger long after the film ends. Yet, the marketing for the film by production company A24 presents it like a creature horror much more akin to 28 Days Later (2002).

This year’s Hereditary issues a lethal injection of terror with its compelling depiction of a family unravelling in grief. It was billed as ‘this generations The Exorcist and yet, The Nungrossed nearly $300m more at the box office. Hereditary was also distributed by A24, with much of the promotional material portraying a more generic movie seemingly revolving around a disturbed child. There’s a correlation between packaging psychological horror films as formulaic and their poor performance with audiences. It suggests that we would rather take our chances with the spooky Nun, which has a tangible presence, than the more abstract haunting presence of evil which is liable to linger in our minds. When presented with a film which is more challenging than initially promoted, audiences respond negatively.  

This goes someway to explaining why A Quiet Place enjoyed such universal success. It managed to blend unnerving imagery and a tense atmosphere with an accessible story. There is undoubtedly a place for both the jump-scare and more emotionally challenging horror. Whilst some films will lean heavily on one or the other, the best manage to combine them, earning the scares which service a story that audiences are invested in; allowing the horror haunt us long after the closing credits.

Skate Kitchen – Review

It’s a welcome change to see women with agency in a culture which is often portrayed as predominantly masculine.

There’s a moment in Crystal Moselle’s 2018 Movie ‘Skate Kitchen’ where the titular posse pass a young girl on their skateboards as they roam through New York City. The girl turns and gawks at the group, whilst her mother drags her in the opposite direction. It’s easy to relate to the young girl as we’re thrust into the New York City skateboarding subculture, just as we relate to protagonist Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) who struggles with her identity throughout the movie.

The film opens with Camille suffering a particularly nasty injury whilst skating in her local Long Island area. Despite being in pain she attempts to skate home, still wearing hospital clothing, which grants us an immediate insight into the importance of skateboarding to her identity. When her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) bans her from skating, it’s clear she’s going to ignore her. Their relationship is turbulent – her mother often speaks to her in Spanish, but Camille only responds in English. Such is the disconnection between them, her mother stumbles through asking if she’s alright after a follow up hospital visit.

Where Camille does find a connection, however, is with the all-female ‘Skate Kitchen’ in New York City. Though her introduction is awkward, she decides to meet with them because of a post on the group’s instagram and establishes a rapport through her skateboarding. Still, we can sense her discomfort as the squad skate off through the city traffic and she is left behind. Director Crystal Moselle is excellent at capturing mood and perspective through moments like this, using locations, street signs, street art and backgrounds to great effect. As the group of friends chill and smoke they cling to a fence which segregates their decaying skate park from the affluent city in the distance.

As Camille’s relationship with her mother crumbles, she moves in with Janay (Ardelia Lovelace) and her family. She grows closer to her and the group and, more comfortable with her sense of self, adopting lingo used by the group’s brash leader Kurt (Nina Moran). The film is at its strongest when discussing teenage insecurities and sexuality. The group also explore concerns about the insidious aspect to male skaters they encounter which serves to foreshadow a close call later in the film. It’s a welcome change to see women with agency in a culture which is often portrayed as predominantly masculine. The dialogue feels natural, rarely indulging heavily in exposition, instead only opting to do so when it’s earned.

However, when her newfound friendships threaten to come off the rails, Camille is forced to confront old wounds. Her past insecurities seep into the new identity she’s established – testing whether it can survive without her friends and without the security of skateboarding. ‘Skate Kitchen’ demonstrates the strength an individual can gain through friendship. It encourages us to share our passions, to reach out and form bonds, as Camille does, gaining confidence as an individual – and as part of a team.

Great Movie Scenes – Part 1

Sounding the spoiler claxon nice and early here.

‘Interstellar’ (2014) – Docking

Christopher Nolan’s space epic is a favourite of mine. Arriving after his Batman Trilogy and before recent critical hit Dunkirk, Interstellar‘s reception was a little more lukewarm. Its run time clocks in around 3 hours, dives into black holes and time dilation and ties it all together with love and family. There are several spectacular scenes (Miller’s Planet and just about any involving the Black Hole named Gargantua) but the most unforgettable is the Docking sequence.

Starting with the explosion in space without sound is haunting, it puts us in a moment – following from Dr Mann’s last piece of dialogue – and a moment is all Cooper needs to consider his options. The visual of the Endurance spinning, the ticking clock sound underpinning the score, debris scattering above the Ice Planet below, combined with the Organ striking up and thrusting us into the do or die attempt at docking is a perfect build of tension. The track features a grander, stretched out version of the motif which runs throughout Hans Zimmer’s score. It helps emphasise the strain on Cooper and the struggle as he attempts to dock the ship –  failure to do so will see them stranded or sucked back onto the Ice Planet below; their mission and mankind, in ruin.

’28 Days Later’ (2002) – Opening

I’m still holding out hope for the final movie in the 28 Days/Weeks series. It’s a forlorn and fruitless hope, I’ll only be disappointed as it seems the chances are almost as remote as surviving in the post-apocalyptic world built by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland. The film rejuvenated the Zombie genre, despite technically not being a zombie film. It’s such a bleak setting, but that only serves to make the few glimmers of hope so beautiful.

YouTube doesn’t have the full opening scene, but it gives a flavor of it. Sadly it skips the part where Cillian Murphy wakes up ‘bawz oot’, but that’s not hard to find. The empty London streets, usually smothered in people, houses only scattered souvenirs. The slow build of the music helps to elevate the unease and yet despite this, it’s an oddly personal scene. We’re questioning everything just as Jim is, where the fuck is everyone? What happened? His simple screams of ‘Hello’ which echo, unanswered, are haunting. I’m sure on reflection I can think of a better opening to a film, but as I write this I think this is probably my favourite. Also, as YouTube neglected to give us the whole opening here is another favourite: “World’s worst place to get a flat”

‘Jaws’ (1975) – Indianapolis Speech

Nothing really needs to be said about how iconic Jaws is so let’s just get into the scene:

The trio of Brody, Hooper and Flint enjoy a fractious relationship in the early stages of their journey. This scene is an absolute masterclass. The visual build up as Flint and Hooper compare injuries which grow as they go on competing gives us a false sense of camaraderie before the tension sets in and Flint recounts the aftermath of the sinking of the Indianapolis in World War II. The jovial atmosphere of the scene evaporates. We’re granted an insight into the tragic backstory of Flint, who initially comes off a unhinged, and we share the shock, discomfort and yet an element of sympathy and understanding which Brody and Hooper feel. Flint suddenly seems vulnerable, more human and relatable. It’s a wonderful way of humanising a character who initially appears as a bit of a lunatic and of course foreshadows what’s to come.

‘Baby Driver’ (2017) – Coffee Run

I’ve got some serious love for Baby Driver and I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright – though I’m not a huge fan of his movies. I went into Baby Driver not knowing what to expect, but not really expecting much either. What I got was a captivating experience, one of the most stylised movies I’ve ever seen which deserves all the praise it got and more for some incredible sound editing. This isn’t necessarily my favourite scene in the movie but it demonstrates everything the movie does well.

Each scene in the film features a track and it’s designed to match it. Actions meet the rhythm and beat in the soundtrack. It’s more apparent in the action orientated scenes but the coffee run scene manages to capture the subtlety and the more obvious moments of cohesion. The graffiti matches the song lyrics perfectly, see 0:40-0:45 “whole lotta” is graffitied behind dancers and “soul” appears on the lamp post Baby shimmies around. Baby slides to the left as a passerby barges past, just as the lyric commands, quickly transitioning into him playing the trumpet positioned in a shop window – it’s film making at the highest level. Managing to capture such synchronicity with subtle moments in a near 3 minute tracking shot so effectively is such a great technical achievement, it adds an extra layer to a film which already oozes style.

I’ll leave it here for just now but I’ll try and fill Part 2 with less tension orientated scenes. (and I’ll probably fail at doing so)

Okay… let’s leave it with some fun to counter the serious scenes:

 

‘Little Thoughts’

Marlene awoke to the hot breath of summer on her face. The flowers on her curtains danced in front of the rising spotlight of the sun, swaying back and forth. She rolled over, rubbing her eyes – the gritty remnants of yesterday’s mascara dragged across her knuckles – and lay blinking up at the ceiling. The alarm clock radio clicked on.
‘Ugh.’
“It’s Seven-Thirty AM and a day for celebration here on Wake up with Wogan! While we have been unable to have the show renamed ‘Arise with Wogan’ in light of the New Year’s honours list, yesterday London was confirmed as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games. So, to start us off we’ve got the campaign’s wonderful theme song ‘Proud’, by Heather Small.”
Marlene aimed a swipe at Terry Wogan, but caught a bottle of Tesco’s finest Everyday Vodka instead – it exploded as it landed on the floor. She lay static, her eyes closed and her mind drifted back to sleep.
“Not today, Terry,” Marlene said, allowing her flailing arm to rest on her chest. The looming threat of vomit grew with each movement, like a time bomb ticking closer to detonation.
POP. POP. POP.
It sounded like someone jumping on a juice carton full of air.
There was yelling outside.
“Jacob?” She shouted.
Leaping out of bed she approached the window. Crouching, she poked her head through the curtains and peeked out. Outlines formed like an emerging Polaroid. Mrs Tilly was yanking Freddie, her English springer spaniel’s chain. Freddie had stayed with them earlier in the summer whilst Mrs Tilly went on her annual cruise. It convinced her that this was the year they would get their own for Christmas.
Freddie was doing his best to piss on the graffiti covered broadband box. The Dixon sisters dueled each other in the garden behind it, waving their wands at each other as they ran around the swing. Marlene squinted – the sound started again – and then rolled her eyes. Of course. It was Steve next door.
“That fucking car. Piss on it, go on Freddie, piss on it,” she whispered.
Steve waved up at her and she crumpled back behind the flimsy protection the curtain offered.
The door creaked and Marlene watched her son’s button nose poke out as he edged the door open. He stood in his Arsenal academy tracksuit with his foot on a ball, fixing an Alice band over his shoulder-length black hair. Marlene gazed up at him, remembering how he had clung to his first player of the tournament award in the under 6s, trying to take it to bed with him. The way he stood now, nearly ten years later, resembled the trophy.
“Are you giving me a lift to training today? Or-“ Jacob asked.
“Sorry love, you’ll need to get the bus. Mum’s not feeling too well. Give me a minute and I’ll come make you breakfast.”
“It’s fine. I’ve already had it,” he said, “I’ve left you out a bowl.”
“What time is it?” She asked, looking round at her alarm clock.
“And we’re coming up for 8.30…” Terry answered.
Jacob flipped open his mobile phone.
“Oh shit. I’m sorry,” Marlene said.
“It’s fine, I’ll hop on the bus. It’s a nice day anyway,” Jacob answered, not looking up from his phone.
He lingered in the doorway, snorting at a text message he received before looking up from his phone, “Just remember the tournament tomorrow.”
“Of course. July the 8th. I’ll be there.” She said with a smile.
He nodded.
She gave him a thumbs up and stretched her smile wider.
He returned to his phone, pulling the door closed behind him.
“Just leave the door Jacob, I’ll be two minutes,” Marlene said.
It was another ten minutes before she peeled herself from the muggy room and staggered her way towards the kitchen. Jacob was filling his water bottle. He brushed past her before she could enter. The little jobs she used to do for him now reminded her how hopeless she was at the bigger ones.
“That’s me heading off,” he said.
“Be careful,” she replied, half raising her arms for a hug.
“Always am,” he said, opening the door.
“Go score some worldies!” She said.
“Muuuum,” he replied, leaping out of the door.
“Bye love.” She called after him as his outline melted into the light, her hand hovering over her brow as she squinted.
Back in the kitchen, Marlene pulled down the blind, squeezing out the daylight. Her attention turned to the bottle of vodka perched above the biscuit cupboard. She dragged a chair over and leaned her foot on it. Spread across the back of the chair was one of Jacob’s football tops.
“You are killing me, Jacob,” she said, stepping down off the chair and picking up the jersey. She glanced at the vodka again then held the jersey closer – inhaling the scent of lavender – before sighing and returning it to the chair.
She replaced the chair under the table and turned on the TV. Red bled into the screen as the darkness lifted, revealing the words “Breaking News”.
“It’s thought though, that the incident was caused by a collision between two trains, a power cut or a power cable exploding,” the anchor said.
“Liverpool station is of course one of the busiest hubs, especially during rush hour,” his co-anchor added.
“We’ll let you know more as soon as we get it on this developing story.”
The rest of the report was drowned out by the tap water as she filled a kettle to boil. She grabbed her mug from the drier and rubbed her thumb over the worn print which read ‘Mum in a million’. She dumped the instant coffee in with five teaspoons of sugar. One new message flashed on the answering machine, Marlene listened while she waited for the kettle to boil.
“Hi Marlene, it’s Jenna here from the job centre. Just a quick call about your job seekers meeting we had scheduled for yesterday. If you could give me a call back on-“
“Message deleted.”
As she emptied the contents of the kettle into a mug her attention returned to the report.
“If you’re just joining us, terror has come to London,” the announcer said. “We have reports of three explosions on Underground trains.”
The kettle slipped from her hand as her throat tightened, spilling the remains across the counter and crashing into the sink. Her hand shot to her mouth. Her eyes nipped as tears threatened to well, the nauseous lump that had lingered in her chest climbed into her throat. Marlene rushed to the kitchen phone hanging on the wall, the handset slipped in her clammy hands. She dialed Jacob, her throat growing drier with each number pressed.
Engaged.
Marlene thrashed the handset against the dock, leaving it to swing and strain against the wall. She charged off in search of her mobile, ready to erupt. Cushions rained down on last night’s dinner plates, abandoned on the floor, as she attacked the living room couch. She seized her mobile from the void down the side of the couch. Sweat trickled down her back, as she cycled through the numbers, finding the right letters to text.
“I need you home NOW. Phone me”
Marlene returned to the kitchen and replaced the now lifeless hanging handset on the dock.
The steam from her coffee was absent, sitting on the kitchen table. Marlene draped the sleeves of Jacob’s jersey over her shoulders from the back of the chair. Tapping her foot on the floor, grasping her phone, she willed a response. Her phone trembled, vibrations rippling against her tightening grip.
‘Message failed to send: The message to Jacob failed to send.’
She tossed it across the table.
Pulling the ashtray closer, she plucked a charred cigarette from the ashes and sparked her lighter. Her hand quivered as she drew the last sign of life from the remains. Smoke slivered from her nostrils and the cigarette extinguished.
She laid the cigarette to rest and snatched her mobile, resending the text. The same response:
‘Message failed to send: The message to Jacob failed to send.’
Fumbling through her phonebook, she selected Jacob. She dialled. She waited.
“This is Jake. You know the drill.”
An extended beep followed.
***
Marlene awoke wrapped in red Arsenal bed covers, clutching a bottle of Everyday Vodka. Her head pounded. Each swallow felt like dragging bare feet on the old hall carpet they had replaced a couple of years before.
Her spare arm broke free from her cocoon – glancing the breakfast bowl of cigarette butts – and grabbed her phone. The battery was dead. She watched the clock which hung below a match magazine poster of Thierry Henry. The second hand was stuck, unable to pass fifteen.
“I kept telling him to replace those batteries.”
Her stomach gargled on a cocktail of vodka and hunger. Peeling off the covers, she staggered out of bed, kicking over her ‘Mum in a million’ mug as her feet touched the floor. She heard the hiss of rain behind the undrawn curtains.
The rain followed Marlene as she draped the duvet over her shoulders, rattling along the ceiling as she descended the stairs. She lingered for a moment a few steps from the bottom, remembering how she used to tell Jacob off for jumping onto the new carpet. It felt like a routine the two of them had, an activity they could share with each other. He would apologise and she would scold him; she had almost looked forward to doing it again.
Envelopes were gathering at the door to pay their respects; friends, neighbours and well-wishers. She walked past the fifteen voicemails that looked to do the same in the kitchen. Each cupboard was barren. Inside the fridge lay the remains of a tray bake. Mrs Tilly had brought it over with a cluster of white carnations that now lay discarded, still in their packaging and shrivelling on the counter.
Marlene froze at a chap on the door. She pulled the duvet tighter. Another chap. Her head peeked around the corner. The letter box was held open, she hoicked her neck back behind the wall.
“Mrs Ramsey?” The voice asked. “Mrs Ramsey, my name’s David. I’m a volunteer from the Victim Support organisation. I saw you through the kitchen window, do you mind if I come in and have a quick chat?”
She pulled the door as far as the security chain would let her. He produced identification with a smile and she considered closing the door again.
“Just a second,” Marlene replied. She collected the envelopes and placed them on the kitchen counter.
She returned to the door and removed the security chain. She let the draft ease the door open to invite him in.
He followed the trailing duvet into the living room and presented his hand as she sat, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said. She dangled her hand out in response and he shook it. He picked up Jacob’s football jersey before placing his satchel on the couch across from her.
“Was this his?” He asked, sitting down.
Marlene nodded as he held it out. She broke free of the duvet and snatched it. The straggling sleeve dragged a half-eaten Tesco cottage pie container from the table which separated them. He cleared his throat.
“We left you several voice messages but I understand this must be a difficult time for you.”
“There’s some tray bake in the kitchen,” she said as her stomach groaned.
“I-I’m fine, thank you. Mrs Rams-“
“Marlene.”
“Right. Sorry.”
He cleared his throat again.
“I came to chat about the support centre we’ve set up in Westminster. It’s at the Royal Horticultural Hall.”
“Do you know when I can bury him?” She asked.
“I-I’m not really privy to that info, but if you come down to Victim Support-“
“I’m not a victim.”
“Mrs Ramsey-“
“MARLENE!”
He bowed his head. Marlene cradled the jersey, weeping as he placed a contact card on the table. His hand lowered towards her shoulder but she dismissed it.
“This… clearly isn’t- I’m sorry, Marlene. We’ll be in touch again, but please, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our details are on that card. Come and visit us. We’re here to help.” He got to his feet. “Goodbye Marlene, please take care,” he said, stepping on the cottage pie container as he left.
She waited for the front door to close before lifting the jersey to her nose, inhaling. The smell of stale smoke slithered into her nostrils – forcing her to pull it away. Sniffing, she laid Jacob’s jersey to rest on the couch.
Tears dripped from her chin onto the container as she collected it – carrying it through to the kitchen – and placing it at the top of the bin, overflowing with flowers and food. Her attention turned to the letters lying above the bin on the counter. The seal of the envelope on top was flimsily clinging to the back, begging her to tear it open. Inside was a condolence card from Jacob’s coach with the new team photo, signed by the rest of the team. Tears trickled onto the photo, she wiped them away with her thumb, resting it over Jacob’s face.
Discarding the card and envelope, she clutched the photo and opened the cleaning cupboard under the sink. Marlene stretched back behind a mountain of cloths and unused Mr Muscle to grab a bottle of Everyday Vodka. She placed the photo on the counter and tried to unscrew the bottle. There was a knock on the door. The lid grated against her palm as she twisted. Another knock at the door, she tightened her grip. The ribbing burned her skin and she sent the bottle crashing across the kitchen. The front door opened as she sunk to the floor, holding her knees and burying her stinging eyes between her legs.
“Marlene?!” It was Steve. “Marlene are you alright?!”
Glass crunched at the kitchen door and she raised her head.
“What happened?” He asked.
She sniffed in response.
He stepped around the debris and sat next to Marlene, wrapping an arm around her. Her tears formed a dark patch on his sleeve. Finally, she raised her head, the tears plugged by her constant sniffs.
“Sorry,” she said, as he removed his arm.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What happened?”
“I was… I was trying to read some of the cards and I just… I don’t deserve this sympathy.”
“Of course you do.”
“But it’s my fault.”
“How can it be your fault?” He asked.
Her eyes followed the creeping sunlight, unfolding across the floor and lingered on the remains of the vodka, “Because.”
“Marlene, I’m not here to preach at you or tell you it’ll get better. I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through, but you’ve got to give yourself the best chance to get better. Blaming yourself, isn’t the way.”
“That sounded a little preachy, Steve.” She spluttered.
“Fine, but give it a shot. Your neighbours are here for you, whatever you need.”
“I chased a guy from Victim Support ten minutes ago,” she said.
“I know, he came knocking on my door asking me to see you.”
“Oh.”
“Give them a chance. Give us a chance.”
She got to her feet, collecting the team photo, “Can I ask you a favour then?”
“Of course.” He answered, standing.
“Do you mind, getting that awful car of yours and taking me to their centre in Westminster?”
***
Steam rose as the sun baked the road ahead. The exhaust popped and spluttered as Marlene dragged her fingers along her jeans, clawed at her pockets and chewed her fingers nails. She felt a cold sweat emerge across her forehead. They passed a group of boys kicking the ball around in a park. Her attention lingered on the rear view mirror, on the park and the empty back seat it reflected, before resting her head against the window and closing her eyes.

 

 

Critical Analysis
This short story falls into the genre of historiographic fiction, existing on the fringes of history. I was interested in how ‘The Dark Room’ tackled the war and considered how I might be able to do something similar in a more contemporary setting. I chose to expand upon a homework exercise on the London bombings on July 7th 2005 because I felt there was scope to explore something on the periphery of that event.
I transcribed and adapted an intro to the ‘Wake up to Wogan’ radio show from June 2005. Wogan had been named in the New Year’s honours list and the Olympics had been awarded to London the previous day, this gives a hint at the time-frame without being explicit. It also enabled me to insert some foreshadowing into the story. I adopted segments from the actual Sky News broadcast coverage, where the initial incidents had been reported as an electrical fault, a collision or a power failure. This allowed a small window where the reader will likely know what is going to happen, creating some tension as Marlene carries out some simple tasks and reveals a little more about her life which is going to be changed dramatically.
I wanted the initial focus to be on a mother and son whose relationship was straining. Jacob was growing up and becoming more independent, Marlene was slipping deeper into alcoholism and becoming less reliable. Her awareness of this only serves to hasten her decline. When writing Marlene I felt that she would find some hope. It felt unrealistic that she would conquer her alcoholism, and by extension the guilt from her failure to her son by the conclusion. However, I felt she would find the desire to battle those demons in the face of the tragic event.