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Pickle Me This

February 22, 2007

The best possible time

I’ve long adored the line from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew was wrong.” Those times make the best stories. And there was one particularly upside-down period in my life when stories were absolutely omnipresent. My one regret is that if I turned them into fiction, no one would believe me.

The last time everything I thought I knew was wrong, I ran away to England, took up residence in a backpacker’s hostel, and lived off expired cans of tuna. And I got my job with Child and Family Social Services which for almost two years served to significantly broaden my perspective on the possibility of human experience. That job was all about stories. More dramatic, however, were the stories I witnessed whilst living at the hostel. Of course, after three months I moved out into a terrace house with my dear friend Matthew who’d been banned from the hostel for “attitude”. And this week he and I have been emailing, waxing nostalgic over lost time. Wherein lies my point– these stories, and what can possibly be done with them.

If I wrote a story about the small man with a mullet who lived in the attic, slept with old ladies who carried all their wordly goods in a picnic basket, and, so I’ve heard, resides at the hostel to this day, you would not believe me. And how on earth could I write about Goldtooth. Goldtooth? She turned up on a dark and story night with a gold tooth and gold spray-painted running shoes. Partial to sit-ups in the nude. She claimed to be searching the country for an Israeli soldier she’d once slept with, and she spent her days inscribing strange symbols into a scrapbook with photos of Paula Yates decoupaged all over the cover. Then there was the pretty Australian girl-child and the Spanish boy who became her boyfriend, and the message of love they left behind, preserved in the hostel’s guestbook for all eternity. The Catholic Bisxual Northern Irish member of the British Territorial Army. The very old man who veiled his bunk with beach towels, and huddled inside them most days transcribing something about Nostradamus. He claimed that if you ate just enough lentils, you would be able to see spirits, and the Norwegian chorister who slept on the bunk above him (and was fired from his job because of flatulence) became his devotee. And all this happened. How can one possibly contemplate fiction in this reality?

It will take time, some distance. Nearly five years later, and I’ve written two stories inspired by then, though of course “then” has served as a jumping off point and all reality is usually filtered out in the end. And as those days get farther away, I think they’ll be plenting more mining to be done with them.

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