Fiction · 05/22/2019

Tabula Rasa

Every morning, I write the day’s most important headlines on a blackboard.

Death toll passes 7,000 in Philippines typhoon. Second body found in rubble of Norfolk building. Ex-SS guard on trial over Bergen-Belsen deaths.

I scrub the board clean every night before getting into bed.

“When are you going to stop doing that?” my brother asks from the doorway.

“What’s it to you?” I say. We get on, my brother and I, though I try out mean stuff every now and then. It feels like something I owe him, being the older sibling and all.

“Dad says you’ll get bored soon,” Franny says.

“I’ve got a board.”

“I mean bored bored. He says you’ll lose interest before you use up the chalk.”

The blackboard was a Christmas present. Dad must’ve got it without thinking, because now I’m using it, he seems against the idea. “What do you want to do that for?” he asks, as if I’m going to do anything else on an A0 blackboard hung on my bedroom wall.

“Does he now?” I say.

“He does.”

The more headlines I write, the more consecutive days I clock, the angrier and more worried Dad gets. He’s tried yelling, reasoning, threats. Now he’s playing the long game. “I won’t take the board away,” he said at the end of our last debate, a grin dancing at the corners of his mouth. “I just won’t buy another box of chalk.” Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“Okay,” I say to Franny. “Tell him: challenged accepted.”

Franny turns and leaves, as though duty bound to pass on the message.

I continue to scratch the day’s news onto the board. The project is finite now, marked by the chalk itself as it slowly whittles down to nubs. It’s a sad thing to think about, so I try not to think.

I have a pretty big box of chalk, but there’s an awful lot of news.

+

Franny isn’t so great at school, so I help him with his homework when I can.

“Chalk is the ionic salt calcium carbonate,” I tell him. “CaCO~3~, aka calcite, aka tiny shells from the eukaryotic phytoplankton coccolithophores, shed and left to fall to the bottom of the ocean in great white sheets. Like, one hundred million years ago.”

“What’s that got to do with the xylem and phloem?”

He’s got a point. It has nothing to do with the xylem and phloem. I go to tell him this but he’s off in his own little world again.

“Body found in backpacker search,” Franny reads from my board in his deliberate reading voice, squinting like a cartoon mole. “Bodies found under suburban patio. Ten funding bodies implicated in foreign aid abuse shame.”

“Don’t get distracted,” I tell him, jabbing the textbook with my finger. “Think about xylems and phloems.”

“Everything alright in here?” Dad asks, his head appearing around the door.

“Xylems,” Franny says, “and phloems.”

“Good boy,” Dad laughs, his head disappearing again.

I listen to his footsteps descend the stairs. Franny is gaping around my room once more. He either suffers from a mental condition, some acronym that means your teeth itch if you look in one direction longer than fifteen seconds, or else a chronic disinterest in anything and everything. It’s sometimes easier and more respectful to assume the latter.

“Earth to space cadet,” I announce through a rolled-up magazine. “Let’s get back to it.”

“Sorry.”

“Like I was saying… chalk.”

Franny groans. “We’re not doing chalk, or plankton, or chemical formulas of any kind. All that stuff is too old for me.”

“But xylems and phloems aren’t?”

Franny looks puzzled by that. Bingo. Checkmate.

Truth be told, I’m a little annoyed that he doesn’t care about chalk. It’s not his fault, he doesn’t set the curriculum, but it’s important. Chalk is history in its raw form, I like to think, unshaped and full of potential, waiting to become the events of the day.

Chalk is history, chalk is life.

+

Dad mines Bitcoin in the room below mine. The computing power required for even a modest mining rig is huge, and as such my bedroom always feels subtropical. But I don’t mind the heat, it lends a sense of urgency to what I do, in a weird pressured-newsroom kind of way.

Afghan car bomb, Afghan wedding blast, Afghan hound returns home after three-year absence.

Like I say to Franny, If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the (My) Bedroom.

Dad is planning on buying cooling units eventually, because cooler rigs = more efficient rigs. However, due to the current set-up regarding rig arrangement and power points, installation would result in a period of not-insignificant downtime, resulting in a kind of catch-22 situation where the cost of increasing efficiency wipes out any potential benefit.

A tricky conundrum, we all agree.

But like Dad says, If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Crypto.

+

Every night, I scrub the board clean before getting into bed, though sometimes certain headlines linger — ghost words or phrases not completely eradicated by my circular wipes, haunting the news of the following days.

Jihad

Jihad

Jihad

Jihad

I’m not sure why some words last longer than others. Do I press harder for certain subjects, do I tense up when excited or scared?

After all, big news is exciting news.

Big news is bad news.

+

“Dad says you’d get bullied at school if the kids knew. Dad says you’d get eaten alive.”

“Eaten alive, huh?” I say, imagining Tom and Moh and Marvin tearing my skin with their hands and scooping my guts to their mouths. We’re on the sofa, Franny and I, eating ice lollies shaped like Spiderman. A few years ago, several kids reported getting their tongues frozen to this brand, impossible to free without severe injury or medical care. Something to do with the consistency of the semi-liquid centre. Something to do with the chemical makeup. It was on the news. We left our tongues flat against the lollies for as long as we could stand, but nothing weird ever happened to us.

“The thing about Dad,” I tell Franny, “is that he worries too much.” The TV plays a kids’ game show with a medical theme, the gunge-filled obstacle courses designed to mimic various organs and body cavities. “Or, he doesn’t worry enough, and let’s the little things get to him. Does it really matter if your daughter writes the day’s most important headlines on a blackboard every morning, or scrubs it clean before she goes to bed?”

Franny looks at me as if waiting for a clue, his lips stained blue at the edges.

“Think of all the other things I could be doing. Think of all the trouble I could be up to.”

A small chubby boy wades through knee deep gloop, searching for green balloons and gold stars. The boy wears knee pads and elbow pads and the type of round helmets that skateboarders wear. His face is red and he’s puffing and it looks like he’s half given up despite the counter saying he still has ninety seconds to grab the balloons and stars. One minute thirteen. One minute ten. The balloons represent nutrients, the gunge digestive slime. The gold stars win Playstations and iPads and the military-grade Nerf guns only ever seen in catalogues and commercials.

“What I’m saying is, he should buy me the chalk.”

+

When the stories are longer or more complicated, my handwriting starts normal but gets increasingly small and squashed as I go across the board.

Air rifle attack duo spared jail in clerical error

Japanese pilot nine times over alcohol limit — suspended.

Barcelona, Spain: Tragedy as world record paella attempt ends in stampede with twenty dead and four missing

Long and complex headlines get me down because they use up my dwindling supply of chalk. I prefer short, sharp ones. Riots and brawls, bombs and heists. School robberies, school blazes, school shootings.

I could rob a school, if only schools still used chalk.

+

I write the day’s headlines with something the size of a cigarette butt.

Student bus massacre in Chihuahua City.

+

I write the day’s headlines with something the size of a Tic Tac.

Car smash survivor brain dead.

+

I write the day’s headlines with something the size of an apple pip.

Suspect arrested in drone dynamite scheme.

+

I write the day’s headlines with something the size of a pinhead, something akin to a grain of sand.

Manson memorial outrage continues. Machete maniac spared jail. Machine-based assistance melting —

Struggling for purchase, I drop the final fragment and it skitters under my bed. If I wasn’t halfway through a headline already, I would leave it there and call the project dead. Only I am halfway through a headline, so I get onto my hands and knees and commando-crawl toward it. I grasp in the dark for my last particle and instead find a large rectangular box. I grab the box and reverse commando-crawl out. Turns out it’s actually three boxes, a hattrick of one-hundred 8 × 0.9cm sticks of white chalk, taped together into a brick-sized present from the gods.

“Machine-based assistance melting brains,” says study.

+

Every morning, I write the day’s most important headlines on a blackboard, and if needs be I do it in the afternoon too. This drives Dad even crazier but what am I to do? The Morning News, the Lunchtime News, the News At Ten — those days are gone. The world doesn’t wait for the bulletin anymore. The news is getting more frequent, more pressing. The temperature in my room seems to be rising and rising. I imagine the globe crawling with important people partaking in historic events. I imagine Dad’s digital nets groaning with their crypto cargo.

I’ll have to make my handwriting smaller.

Twenty dead in disco blaze.

North Sea oil spill worse than feared.

Pope’s message of peace after days of tension in Brazil.

The radio is on and set to a news channel. It’s playing a feature about a person in America somewhere who started seeing a mouse cursor tracing across their field of vision. At first, it only appeared when they were tired or stressed, but now they see it all the time. It’s not a headline but it’s interesting all the same. Sometimes it’s an arrow and sometimes a little gloved hand and other times a wheel that spins around and round.

Supermarket siege ongoing as Vilayat Dagestan claim responsibility.

Search mission called off in Gold Coast yacht mystery.

Dengue reaches Illinois, Iowa next.

+

“Do you think Dad will ever win at Bitcoin?” Franny asks.

I frown at him. Bitcoin is no game.

“You know, like be a millionaire or whatever?”

“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. Bitcoin comes up in the news now and then, but if you take the positive and negative stories and put them on the scales, I reckon they’d come out just about level.

We are doing Franny’s homework again. He’s moved on from plants to animals and I’m waiting for the best moment to bring up chalk.

“So what sorts of animals belong to the molluscs?”

Franny is looking around my room, his head on the swivel.

“Oi, Francis. Molluscs?”

“Oh, umm…” he drums his fingers on the desk. “Like, the chalk things?”

“Damn! I was waiting to say that!”

Franny laughs with delight. “You can’t tease me!”

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if I am teasing him, or if I just really want to talk about chalk.

“Not the chalk things,” I say. “Slugs and snails, and puppy dog’s tails.”

Franny just writes it all down like a robot, mummering under his breath. Slugs. Snails. Puppy. Dog. Tails.

His handwriting is neat, I’ll give him that.

Which gives me an idea.

“Hey, Franny.”

“What?”

“Two things.”

“What?”

“Do you want the good or bad thing first?”

“Bad.”

“Dogs don’t have molluscs for tails.”

“That’s bad?”

“The teacher will laugh at your homework.”

He looks down, aware of what he’s written.

“The good news is… you’ve been promoted!”

+

Vote recount threatens oil executive in Kinshasa controversy, Franny writes. Beheaded student body returned by Al-Shabab.

+

Dad feels part of the future with Bitcoin, one of the chosen few. He spends time on internet forums, where men like him convince one another that they are right and wise. Some of them are hackers and some are anarchists and most of them are just like my dad, looking to make some sort of living without ever having to leave the house.

Sometimes, when he goes out, I log onto my dad’s computer. Franny says not to but watches all the same.

The men see themselves as pioneers, as geniuses. They see the future as electric blue.

“It’s not about seeing what is coming,” I read aloud. “It’s about creating it.”

“Pffft,” Franny says, which is something he got from TV.

He gets bored and leaves, so I keep reading.

“RIG TOO NOISY??” one topic asks. Dad had replied saying his set-up isn’t that bad, and will be even quieter once he has the PWM controllers in. Dad’s signature is a comprehensive list of every piece of equipment that makes up his rig.

Dad’s rig is right there in the room with me. It is so loud it feels like it’s trying to suck your brain from your ears.

+

“Maybe we should change them?” Franny says.

I scroll through the day’s news online, page after page. “What?”

“Like, just a little bit?” He was in the middle of writing something about politics and the Muslim Brotherhood, and he was rapidly running out of room.

“No.”

“But we’d fit more on then,” Franny complains. “These aren’t headlines. They’re too complicated.”

I’m on page thirteen and my finger’s getting tired of clicking. I switch to endless scroll and scroll some more. “We’re not here to change anything,” I say. “That’s not the point of the game.”

Franny scratches his head, chalk dust turning his hair white. “It’s a game?”

+

It might be because he’s got multiple risers hooked up to one SATA cable, or the dangerous counterfeit graphics cards from Chinese eBay, or else just straight bad luck. In any case, Dad’s mining rig catches fire.

Dad’s got a special fire extinguisher for this very occasion, only he isn’t here right now.

I only realise there’s a problem when Franny bursts into my room yelling, “The house is on fire! The house is on fire!”

I’ve got an A0 blackboard and more chalk than I can count but the house is on fire. The mining rigs are on fire and the mining room is on fire, and the stairs are on fire and now my room is on fire too. My carpet is on fire, my pillows and sheets. My posters and pictures and photographs are on fire. My closet is on fire and my wardrobe, my clothes and books and childhood toys. My lampshade is on fire. My office chair. My television, my Playstation, my computer tower and everything else. Outside, the lawn in on fire.

There is nowhere to run, nowhere to jump. There is nowhere to turn, quite literally — the very air itself full of burning smoke.

Franny helps me scrub the blackboard clean, our palms tacky against the hot surface. Our hair and clothes are on fire. We close the curtains as best we can and climb into bed, burying our heads beneath the covers.

+++

Jon Doyle has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University and is currently completing a PhD at Swansea University, where he is at work on a debut novel and was awarded a grant by Literature Wales to work on a collection of short stories in 2019. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 3AM Magazine, Review 31, Cardiff Review, New Welsh Review and others.