The blank page was as empty as a bank account the day before pay-day, and as depressingly familiar. Like a signpost pointing an accusing finger, the page indicated another day of failure, of emptiness and despair. Oh, words had been briefly typed upon this mocking sheet, and then erased before they had time to settle there. If this had been an old-fashioned typewriter, then a forest of paper would have been in the bin by now, and with crumpled islands of discarded starts surrounding the target. That was one small mercy of the computer revolution, no waste paper any more. Instead, the untitled page opened day after day, with all words wiped from it. Surely there was a Greek myth somewhere of someone who toiled all day writing words that faded from the page as night fell. If there was, he couldn’t remember how it ended
Well, the words didn’t fade: he deleted them, despising himself and those ill-chosen words that just sat on the page like awkward teenagers, jostling each other and looking out of place and untidy and defiant. It was the defiance that got him angry and made him hit delete over and over again.
I used to be so good at this, he thought, miserably, closing the file and shutting the computer down. A glass of wine to chase down the blues, and he’d call it a night, again, sleeping fitfully and being pursued by words that fled when he turned and tried to see their shapes. Tomorrow, just to be that little bit more hopeful, was another day and it held all sorts of joys, not least of which was an appointment with a hypnotist. He sighed, drank the wine too fast to enjoy it and went to bed.
“I want you to visualise your block,” said the hypnotist.
Trying to oblige, he did so.
“What form does it take?”
“It’s like the Berlin Wall, but a hundred or so feet high,” he said.
“Visualise a door.”
He did so. It was a very handsome door too, with brass fittings and a massive bolt and lock.
“It’s locked,” he said.
There was a tiny sigh from the hypnotist, and through the filters of his downcast eyelashes, he saw her glance at her watch. She’s bored with me already, he thought, and sighed himself.
“Look in your pockets, you’ll find the key,” she said and he could hear the boredom and irritation.
In his mind’s eye, he pulled out a massive bunch of keys, and after rifling through them, he said,
“Nope, it’s not there.”
“You must try harder,” she said and he snapped open his eyes, and glared at her.
“Do you not think I’m already trying as hard as I can,” he snapped.
“I think you’re deliberately sabotaging yourself because you don’t really want to get through this block,” she said. “Don’t bother to make another appointment until you make your mind up to really embrace this.”
Well, that was a waste of time and money, he thought as he drove home to the empty screen awaiting him. Now I know my block is a hundred feet high and crosses a whole country, and I don’t appear to have the key. Really helpful. Not.
Before he opened that taunting file again, he checked through his emails and found one from an old friend.
“I’ve sent something for your little problem; should be with you tomorrow,” she’d written.
The block had become so much a part of his life that he often felt he ought to introduce his friends to it at parties. The block had lasted longer now than many relationships and like a failing marriage that has ceased to even invite interest, let alone the kind of slightly voyeuristic attention it did at the start of the downward slope, it had become a subject to avoid among his friends. They were bored with it and with him; a writer who can’t write any more ceases to have a place in the world unless he reinvents himself, perhaps as an editor or a critic. For him that would be when mercy killing might be in order.
His friends scarcely ever mentioned his block, as though it were an embarrassing disorder the discussion of which might somehow infect them, so it intrigued him what she might be sending. At the start of it, people had been full of helpful suggestions and ideas, all of which he’d tried, with a steadily decreasing amount of enthusiasm. He wasn’t sure what else might be possible; hypnosis had been his last idea.
The following afternoon, the parcel carrier van pulled up outside his house and offloaded a large and heavy box. Signing for it, he barely managed to get it inside and dumped it on the kitchen table with a resounding thud. Taped up and mysterious, it sat there, inviting him to open it. He stared at it, wine glass in hand unable to make a start on it. Somehow the prospect of another disappointment was almost too much to bear. By the second glass of wine, curiosity was getting the better of him and he began ripping away the tape and slashing at the cardboard with the vegetable knife in a frantic effort to get it open.
Peeling the flaps back, now ragged from his frenzy, he peered inside. He blinked. Amid the polystyrene chips, there sat a large rough hewn block of wood, which was tied up with a bright red satin ribbon.
“What the f-?” he said, biting back the obscenity.
He emptied the box, tipping the chips out on the floor and feeling through every corner of the box. Nothing. Not even a note, nothing.
“The bitch…” he breathed, awed that someone he thought he knew so well could surprise him like this with such a vicious piece of mockery. He’d really not have thought her capable of such extraordinary nastiness.
Anger boiled over, and he hefted the block in his arms and marched outside into the fading light of the garden. The wood shed was mostly full, with the arrival of a new load for the coming winter and he at first intended to just chuck the block in there but as he flung open the door, something caught the light and glinted. The big axe he used to split logs was embedded in his chopping block and the polished head gleamed with oil.
“I’ll show you what I think of your block,” he said, and seized the axe, tugging it from the block and as his long-repressed fury took control of his hands and his heart and he placed his gift on the block and began to attack it with the axe.
Halfway, he stopped and sharpened the axe very carefully. It was only the coming of darkness that halted his focussed efforts. By then the block had been reduced to splinters suitable for kindling only.
Sweating and breathless he threw all the pieces he could find into the log basket and carried them back into the house. Well, tonight seemed to be getting colder; time to light the fire for the first time this autumn, then. The hearth needed sweeping before he could lay the fire, and by the time the flames had begun to warm the room, he felt only a sense of emptiness again. He’d lost a friend today, truly, because he’d obviously never really known her at all.
Sat cross-legged on the hearth rug, he gazed at the fire and felt tears streaming down his face, distorting his vision and making the flames seem softer somehow, reminding him of his grandmother’s house when he was small. She’d make him crumpets by toasting them on the fire and slathering them with butter from their own cows. He remembered her with some surprise; she’d been gone more than twenty years and he’d scarcely given her a thought in all that time. Strange, really, when she’d been the one who’d enthralled him with tales of her own childhood and of things her grandmother told her. He probably owed his whole love of stories to her.
Watching the dancing flames, he saw images in them, pictures of things long ago and far away and rather marvellous and magical, and he found himself reaching for his laptop and beginning to type, filling that blank sheet with words that danced like the flames and made patterns of surpassing wonder.
And he didn’t delete a single word.