Ian Betteridge

Personal stuff, not tech, some fiction

This was a quick exercise just to warm up, about a special kind of hell.

In my first week of being dead I discovered that hell isn’t a place, it’s memory. The memory of everything you ever felt but can never have again. A fresh breeze gently stroking over face, neck and shoulders – that’s what it feels like to be alive.

When you are alive memories are as slippery as a tiny freshly caught fish in your hands and as deceptive as someone getting you to play the shell game at a fun fair. They careen between clarity and fuzziness, sometimes so sharp that you can immerse yourself in believing it’s happening now, and sometimes so far back in your head that it feels like they are being whispered to you from the end of a long, dark tunnel.

In life you take your memories selectively apart, filling in the blanks dug by your own feelings of inadequacy and guilt and making yourself the hero in your own story. When you rode roughshod over someone’s feelings, when you made your partner burst into tears, when you betrayed a friend’s trust: all these things were inevitable, accidents of time, and it was not your fault.

When you are dead, though, all your memories are just there. Linear, logical, and accurate. You can’t deny what happened because you remember every detail, every word that was spoken to you and every footstep you took.

When you are dead, when your memories cannot be hidden, when you have to confront them and truly own them, your story isn’t a story. It’s a history and you cannot hide from it. The moment you die all this becomes clear.

And that is when you know you are in hell.

“Merry Christmas!” The driver, a rotund man in his late 40s, was greeting every single person who got on the bus in the same cheery way. The broken veins on his nose indicated a life of warm beer, television and a cosy domesticity. I hated him.

Over the top of his itchy nylon uniform he wore an even itchier, more nylon Santa outfit, accompanied by a beard held on with elastic and the obligatory hat. The whole thing looked like a nightmare of flame retardant material, the kind which industrial chemists herald as the beginning of a new era in modern fabric, safety first yet comfortable. Judging by the rash where his fat neck met the collar of his shirt, comfort had come second to safety.

This was exactly why I wanted to get away from Dudley. It was entirely appropriate that the kind of thing which made me want to run screaming away from the place was going to be part of leaving it. As I sat on the bus taking me to the station which would take me to another life, all I could do was fantasise about testing quite how flame resistant his beard was.

That night in a hostel in London I dreamed of four things:

  • A runaway horse, galloping all over the place, giving birth to weird fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or design.
  • A friend I had when I was nine years old, who ignored the government information films and fell into a pond while trying to retrieve a football, his ghostly white drowned face with his mouth gulping at the water like a goldfish in a too-small tank
  • A house that I had never lived in, with a family that wasn’t mine, who treated me like their own child despite my protestations that I was nothing to do with them and could I go home now.
  • A cup in the hands of an old man, a crack running through the porcelain, weeping stale tea on to his fingers.

I have always lived a rich interior life. Moving away was all about finding something else to be interested in. As I had been obsessed with my own inadequacies, so my life’s work would be making the world around me less perfect, less pristine, for everyone.

Gluing up locks was where I started, when I was 14 and discovered my father’s stash of superglue in his shed. Local banks, building societies, Rotarians and other assorted Oddfellow’s halls were all logical targets.

But just squeezing glue into a lock was too easy and too obvious. Building something which slowly leaked glue into a lock so that it got stiffer, then seized up entirely while giving a small electric shock to anyone who tampers with it – that was much more fun.

Cars were fertile territory for my work. I spent time working out how to loosen the nuts on a wheel so it rolls away from the car as soon as it starts, like it was owned by a clown. I also placed a little piece of electronics under the car, which played a loud hooter as its wheels fell off. My next project was to work out how to make the doors fall off too.

One day, when the normal people realise I am the master architect of every single gremlin which inhabits their now not-so-perfect world, I will go back to Dudley, find that Santa, and gleefully set fire to his beard.

This story began life as a fun exercise designed around taking three writing prompts — sentences from different books — and turning them into a coherent story. I don’t think it turned out too badly.

One night at a drunken party, someone you would loosely and incorrectly describe as a friend told someone we were talking to that he thought I was evil. Not evil like a death camp guard, or evil like the kind of MP who wants to cut free school meals while feasting on pressed grouse for £5 in the House of Commons, but he said “banal”.

Of course, he didn’t know how right he was. I showed him later, on the way home, just how banal I could be.

I did it quickly, as I always did. I watched his eyes mist over, his mouth slightly open like he wanted to say one last thing. I imagined his last words were, “thank you”.

There’s no devil on my shoulder telling me to do this. No sudden urge takes over and turns me into a different person. It’s a constant hum, like the golden glow aftermath of really good sex, but with me all the time. Some people feel a mother’s love like that. I feel evil, a constant presence of it in my head, my body.

It’s very physical, evil. Ignore anyone who tells you it’s some trick of personality, a disorder of the mind. I feel it in my skin, muscles, and bones, where it’s a warm, reassuring tingle. I’ve never doubted it, never wanted it gone. I can’t imagine anything worse than losing it. I think I would die, not like my children die, but permanently, in agony forever.

I imagine that the people I end see it too. Perhaps that’s their last vision, the memory they take to whatever is beyond this life. The light of my evil and love was revealed to them; the holiest mystery made apparent. I hope they appreciate this gift I give them.

I think they do, in their last moment. I think they know I’m giving them something precious. Like the best Christmas gift they ever wanted, the one their parents never gave them, all wrapped up in the best paper, with string, balloons, everything to make it perfect for them.

I am a new mother to them all. Just as their first mother brought them into this world, I bring them to the next. They didn’t have a choice about who they were born to, so why should they choose who gets to move them on?

I love them all with everything in my heart. I will keep them all there forever. They’re all my children, and I am their mother.

I couldn’t take my hands off the controls. The heat had blistered my skin so much I felt I couldn’t move them. Then the blisters burst, the plasma sizzling against the metal of the yoke. I was part of the aircraft, and whatever happened to it was going to happen to me.

I’d like to say we had completed the mission, taken down the German building and more than a few Nazis with it. But we didn’t. We missed the target. Maybe we didn’t even bomb the right place. It was a mess, and now we were a mess too.

We weren’t the first to be hit. I saw the engine of the B17 on our port side explode as something tore it apart. Then they were veering and beginning to spin down, and their speed dropped below stall, swooping underneath us like a bird of prey descending on some poor unfortunate rabbit.

Then it was our turn. A bang as our wing was hit, the fuel tanks bursting and unloading 100 octane gasoline all over the hot engine. A wall of flame that broke like a vicious, spitting wave over the back of the fuselage.

I fought to keep the plane level. Told the rest of the crew to bail out before the heat and flame made the exits unusable. What was left of the crew, anyway. I don’t know what happened to the tail gunner or bombardier.

I saw the navigator go, watching him spiral down as the wind caught him and took him safely away from the flames. I saw him pulling at the cord, parachute flying out, only for it to fail. I watched him spinning down as I lost control of the plane like we were racing them to meet the ground. I was sorry for him, but I was more sorry for me. I suffered and burned all the way down till the whole thing hit the ground. The last thing I thought of was my mother, praying she would never know I died in pain.

Awake. Am I awake? I feel the pressure of the water around me, the warmth through the skin-tight suit that embraces me gently all over. No sounds other than those my body makes, heart beating, the rush of blood pressure in my head. No light other than the visions which slide into my view, the ones which I know can’t be real.

When you swim like this, your mind creates a new world for you. Your eyes, retina, and Occipital lobe, all the way at the back of your brain, conspire to show you something you could never see. They are bored at having nothing to do, no sensation to work with, so they seize on to the stray particles that hit your retina even in the dark and build castles from them. Castles, unicorns, or demons. Whatever they feel like showing you.

She told me it would be fun. “We’ll be wearing skin-tight outfits and swimming together.” The first part was true: the suits we had to wear were skin tight, designed to stop us from feeling anything other than their touch, to shut off our senses. We weren’t together, though. Separate tanks for each individual, large enough for you to float freely and not bump into the sides.

We asked if there was one we could share. The answer was no, the bearded guy in his t-shirt and flip-flops insistent that each tank could only take one, and it would “ruin it for everyone” if we were bumping around each other. His accent was Californian brutalist, a contrast with the Northern English town outside.

It’s strange what goes through your mind and what emerges. At one point, I was at a party, telling someone they were evil and banal. They murdered me later on. Then I was the navigator of a World War II aircraft, bailing out only to find my ‘chute wasn’t working, revelling in a minute of falling and fear as the ground grew larger and large and then BANG.

Eventually, everything faded, and there was nothing.

The tanks felt warm to the touch. Each Dreamer, gently cradled inside, was bringing into being worlds, their bodies slowly dissolving into proteins, energy, and nutrients to power the Dream. He turned and smiled, shedding his clothes, hair, and skin. Everything was safe for another day. And tomorrow, another set of Dreamers would do their part and gently birth their world-children into reality.

This started life when I was sat outside a cafe in central London, near quite a few of the very touristy hotels which tend to harbour well-heeled tourists. This girl walked past, I made some notes, and this turned into the opening for a story. I would like to know more about what she gets up to, because she sounds like fun. Annoying, but fun.

At 14 she took a trip to London with her parents. London! The greatest city in the world, home to punk, home to everything she believed in. In the hotel in her room – her own room! – she dressed in the clothes she wanted to, the clothes that marked her out as different in Minnesota, the clothes which would send her mother into a silent sulky rage. A long-sleeved fishnet top she had bought for the occasion, Sex Pistols t-shirt defiantly over it. Combat trousers with holes in them. Her platform Doc Martins, which had tipped the baggage over the limit at the airport (she had made her father pay extra rather than leave them behind). Her make up took forever. Just her eyeliner took an hour.

Her parents knocked at the door to check if she was ready, and she shouted no. Minutes later they knocked again. Five times, each time louder and more insistent than the last, until she ran to the door, yanking it open so hard it hit the wall.

As they left the hotel, she said to herself: “OK, walk like you know what you’re doing. Walk like you’ve walked more than five minutes in these shoes. And when people stare – stare right back.”

The only people dressed like her were Japanese tourists. The British girls, far from being the snarly attitude-laden Demi-vampires she expected, looked... normal. Where were the punks? Where were the people like her?

Not, it seemed, in an Angus Steakhouse.

This piece was written as a quick exercise based on two writing prompts: sentences plucked at random from books, with the aim to write something that connects the two. Normally these are quite throwaway, little warm-ups to get me in the mood to write, but I like something in this story. It’s not finished, and I might not finish it. But it’s fun.

“Did you know coffee grounds are a sure cure for baldness?” His booming voice came from the kitchen, and even though I couldn't see him, I knew exactly what he was doing: holding the empty coffee pot at a 45-degree angle, staring intently at the mucky grounds at the bottom, and pondering whether to fish them out and spread them across the glossy patch at the crown of his head.

I say at the crown: the reality was that the default state of his head was hairless, with only a fringe above the ears indicating he had once had long, flowing, amazingly sexy hair. It was the first thing that attracted me to him and the first thing I loved about him that disappeared.

“I said, did you know that coffee grounds are a sure cure for baldness?” he marched into the living room where I was trying to write, coffee pot in hand. It was, as predicted, tilted away from him. There were toast crumbs in his ridiculous moustache, the one I had been trying to convince him to get rid of for about twenty years. It made him look like a banker.

“Yes,” I mumbled under my breath. “Now can you please go away and leave me alone while I try and write.”

He puffed his chest out, face drooping as he realised I really wasn't interested in either the grounds or the state of his head. “Oh. Sorry.” He turned and wandered back to his spot in the kitchen, the place he always stood. It's not just that everything he did and said was entirely predictable. Perhaps after 30 years of marriage, that was something to expect, even to embrace. I knew couples our age who celebrated these little rituals, and even loved each other more for them.

It was his complete lack of awareness that I had changed and how much I didn't want him to be there, being exactly the same for the rest of my life.

“Are you getting ready?” came another shout from the kitchen. “We need to go in ten minutes, and you're not even dressed for the funeral.”

Annoyingly he was right. I had been lost in the writing, the work which was now sustaining us in, as he said “the style to which we have become accustomed” after he took early retirement. He took the role reversal easily, me now the breadwinner, him the semi-useless domestic help.

Twenty minutes later, we were in the car, the one that he insisted that I should be a passenger in even though his driving was getting increasingly worse. He claimed it was down to him needing new glasses. Of course, actually, just getting new glasses was beyond him: the calls and letters from the optician were ignored, the glasses he had increasingly perched on the end of his nose as he looked over them to read. It was another thing which made me dislike him.

We pulled up at the cemetery and got out. Another friend gone, another family with their loved one torn away by time. And here was I, wishing it was him. My life had been a long series of waiting games: waiting for him to want to marry me, waiting for a baby to appear, waiting for our child to leave home so I could have some peace. And now waiting for him to finally do the thing which most mattered to me: dying and freeing me from his everyday annoyance.

By the graveside, the children clustered around their mother. They were holding hands at the funeral: a tiny gesture of love and care. Would anyone hold hands at mine? He wouldn't be there to see it (I was very sure of that), and our daughter had no siblings to hold hands with. Perhaps my sister would be there and give her that simple human gesture of love. If she bothered to come, of course. My sister and I were best described as “not close”.

I wanted him gone. Why wouldn't he do the decent thing and just die? Some days I even fantasised about taking that into my own hands. Bludgeoning him to death with a leg of lamb, which I would then feed to the detectives investigating his murder. Tying him up in a warehouse full of explosives with a timer, then calling the police and sending them to the wrong address.

Batman. Was that from Batman? My head was always full of other people's stories and endings. Perhaps that was why I found it so hard to write my own.

No more watching “Murder she wrote” at 2am with a bottle of wine open for me.

I made up my mind: I would cure him of his baldness for good.

The sound of a ticking clock is something we rarely hear now. With computers sat in our pockets and wrists, the passing of time is silent. It lacks the steadiness of a clock’s metronome.

When you hear ticking, you become aware of the other rhythms which define your life and its passage. The slow breathing which you realise it more shallow and dangerous, more fragile than you would imagine. The gentle thrumming of your heart beat, a sign that your blood pressure is higher than it should be.

A clock ticking is mechanism brought to bear on the world’s fluidity. It fences in time and comes from the same age as enclosure in England. As we carved acres of commons with newly made hedges and fences, so we divided our lives into the steady tick of the clock.

The buzzing wings of an insect also follow a regular rhythm, but they rise and fall in intensity as the energy of life strains harder or more softly in the creatures’ muscles. Fibres twitch, firing faster as the insect’s nervous system points it in one direction or another, up or down, responding to desire and danger in equal measure.

The beating of a heart. The buzz of an insects wings. The ticking of a clock. All setting rhythm into the world.

You were such an odd child”

In my mid-40s, I talked to my mum about a memory I had from when I was very small. It was sitting on the edge of my parents bed with her, mum holding me close and singing to me. In my memories, she often sang to me ,and the song I remembered most was “Nature Boy”, a Nat King Cole record which talked about “a very strange enchanted boy”. I had never realised that my mum was singing to me as that strange boy, but I always knew that that was what I was.




Police sirens in my childhood weren’t like they are now when they make the WOW WOW WOW noise that we copied from the American cop shows. Instead, they had that bee-borrr sound, up and down, up and down.

My parents made an terrible error when they bought me a remote controlled police car with flashing lights and a loud BEEE-BORRR sound one Christmas. Christmas was too exciting for words, and as I never had any patience for anything I would get up at a ridiculously early hour to run downstairs and open my presents.

Sometimes I’d be so tired that my parents would find me asleep in the front room – never a “living room” – amidst a nest of torn up paper. But the police car was too exciting. It wasn’t a radio controlled car, as those were too expensive, but connected to the orange remote via a cable that was a few feet long. You couldn’t stand far away from it. And I didn’t as I drove it through the dark of my parents bedroom, sirens blazing.

The Starship Enterprise that fired plastic “photon torpedoes”, little disks which shot out when you turned the top of the saucer, was another present had its down side. Aiming carefully at the baubles on the Christmas tree, which were actually Romulans in disguise, I was a little surprised when the silver bauble exploded into a million tiny fragments of glass, drifting gently down and embedding themselves in the carpet, where they would continue getting into people’s feet for days.

“Glass?” I thought. Who makes baubles of glass? Ancient and fragile, they had made it through Christmases with my siblings: Lynne, running around and shouting no doubt, and David trying to keep up. Lynne, always the Sargent major: Dave the loyal footsoldier, willing to jump off the roof of the shed (and break his wrist) without question.

But they didn’t survive me.

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