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Reading Instructions . . .

They had to restrain me. Give me some kind of sedative. And it had all started so calmly. Hold on. Let me think. That could be so different. They had to restrain me, give me some kind of sedative, and it had all started so calmly. That’s better. Or is it? The first has an imperative feel. Direct. Urgent. They had to restrain me. Fact. Am I still restrained? If I am, then the sympathy is with me, the empathy. If not, I have escaped, I am the hero, the revenger. If they let me go, then where am I? Hiding in a broom closet? Beneath a table? In the boot of your car? Could this be a tale from beyond the grave; a manuscript found hidden under the thin mattress, written on sheets of toilet paper using blood as ink, a tongue depressor for a pen? Or a memoir – now rich and famous, be-robed in Egyptian cotton, ensconced in a sumptuous suite, recording how I rose from oppressed individual to advisor of kings and governments. Perhaps nothing really happened and the narrative you are reading is a fancy, drawn up to keep you amused while other more important things are played out behind your back. While you’re not watching. For what we have to ask is: who are “they”? Why no names? They? It’s rather vague isn’t it? Some shady organization? An experimental medical facility kidnapping people off the street, drugging them, tying them down, injecting them with viruses, diseases, bad blood. They. Or family? A Christmas argument. An insult. The dredging up of not-so forgotten feuds. A wisecrack about weight. A complaint about the turkey, the lack of chestnut stuffing, the consistency of the cranberry sauce. They. Or friends? A confrontation. An intervention – all of them there when you come home, the women sitting on the sofa, the chairs, the men standing against the wall telling you you have to pull yourself together, stop drinking, stop taking drugs. Or someone stopping you punching someone who spilled your wine, your beer, insulted your girlfriends, your favourite football team. Stopped you going around to your ex-wife’s or ex-husband’s house to: give him/her a slap, kidnap the kids, abuse the new lover, slash the car tyres, sit outside hunched in your soon to-be-repossessed motor. They. But it was I they restrained. They. The faceless mass, the nameless throng, the shadowy crowd. It could have started so differently. He had to… She had to… You had to… Or better. The police had to… The doctors had to… The nurses had to… Or better even… K had to… X had to… V had to… Or better still… Sue had to… Mike had to… Gary had to… Whatever it wasn’t, what it was was, “They had to restrain me.” They didn’t have a choice. Nothing they could do. I didn’t give them an option. Or you. If I wrote, “They didn’t have to restrain me,” or “They didn’t restrain me,” or “They failed to restrain me,” then I would be free and there would be no They, no imperative, categorical or not. And not in my case. I’ve just thought. Maybe you are they. The you of you with other yous lost in the they, the them. And if so, then you must want to know the story. Must want to know why you restrained me. Why you were impelled to restrain me. What I did that made you join in with them, lose your you, become one with the throng. What did I do? They had to restrain me. Had. The past of have. The saddest words. Have. Has. Had. He has money. He had money. The book has a meaning. The book had a meaning. I wanted to join the priesthood but they wouldn't have me. I have a role in a film. I had a job as an extra. Have a great trip. I had a bad time. He had pancreatitis. He has diabetes. I have morals. I had ethics. Have him bring me wine. They have no beer. He has two brothers. He had two sisters. He has a beautiful wife. He had a faithful girlfriend. He had the balls to question my actions. The book has a flowing narrative. He had a large nose. I will not have any distractions. Rumour has it. He had it. To have neither love nor happiness. To have a monster of a child. He has you where he wants you. After you have finished this story you might think you have been had. This sentence had me stumped. I had a devoted follower. She has left me. She had left him. I have to go soon. You had better get home. They had to restrain me. They. They had. They had to. To. Not from. Approach and arrival. Insistent. Help if you want to. I went to the house. The road was clear all the way to the off-ramp. The road runs perpendicular to the facility. Turned to me and said. Loved her to a fault. Brought her back to life. The time is four in the morning. Slept from one to three. Stepped out to relieve myself. A rag to the wind. Take me to a doctor. Had the room to ourselves. Guiding the blind to the darkest room. Their faces close to the whirring blades. Nose to nose. Searched for the bullets to the gun. Calling for an answer to my prayers. Unsuited to punishment. An outlook different to the doctors. Pull the door to. I’d like to leave. To hold back. Restrain. They arrested me. They put me in binds. They fitted a white polythene bridle in my mouth. Chained me to the bed. Confined me in a room. Constrained me. Contained me. Controlled my breathing, my blood pressure, my heart rate, the flow of my urine. Curbed my flight impulse. Curtailed my freedom. Delimited my liberty. Detained me. Fettered my limbs. Gagged my mouth. Handicapped my legs. Harnessed my body. Hindered my movement. Hogtied me. Held me. Impounded my papers. Imprisoned my family. Inhibited my movement. Jailed my friends. Limited my access. Locked me up. Manacled my hands, my feet. Muzzled me. Pinioned my arms. Prevented me from escaping. Repressed my natural instincts. Restricted my vision. Subdued my thoughts. Suppressed my ideas. Tied me up. Tied me down. Twisted my words.

Steve Finbow.

Steve Finbow’s novel Balzac of the Badlands will be published by Future Fiction London in October 2009.


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