Adrian Cross, Gary Budden and Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, and great craic in the pub afterwards with fellow contributors Barney Walsh and Amanda Oosthuizen. But what an eventful journey there. When I stepped on the train at Stockport, chaos was reigning: the carriages turned out to have fewer seats than had been reserved, and the stocky bouncy sixtyish guy in the seat next to mine was taking charge, promptly ousting the poor woman who had perched on my seat in the hope, presumably, that I wouldn't turn up, and finding her another elsewhere, and generally looking out for everyone. 'Isn't he a kind man?' said an old lady to me, as, instructed by him, she sat in his seat while he looked for another for her. Yes, he was kind, and really likeable, and tremendously gregarious, and that was the trouble for the next four-and-a half hours of the journey, which I had intended to spend re-reading the stories in Unthology 7 and looking at the scenery of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. As things calmed down he began explaining it all to me: how the seat numbers only went up to 54 (my seat), but the reservations went up to 60-odd, and how the guard had explained that the wrong carriages had ended up on the train, and that that poor old dear there had a reservation for seat number 63! I got out my book and he asked what I was doing. I said I had things to read before I got to Norwich. He said, 'Oh, I'd better leave you to do your homework!' I put my head in Unthology. Two minutes later he nudged me, and started telling me more. Then he told me why he was travelling, and all about the job he'd done on the oil rigs, and how now he was retired he really missed it and had to find ways to fill his time, and he'd decided to have a new way of living and had given up drinking during the week and was eating healthy foods, and he didn't really know many people in the place he had moved to, but it was great, and he had two budgies to keep him company, and he always had these trips to his relatives (and luckily, one friend to look after the budgies; and how he lets the budgies out to fly round the room and perch on the curtain rail, and no, they don't shit on the curtains because he rigs up a towel in this special way I couldn't follow because he had a very strong Liverpool accent and seemed not have his teeth in and had a way of talking with his head turned away so I had lean forward and strain to listen). And he'd given up driving, he'd done so much driving for his job - he'd been away so much, it had just put too much strain on the marriage and his wife had just got fed up - and it was so nice just to relax and take the train everywhere, and, by the way, he really liked my double denim.
Well, how could any writer resist? He was such a great character: there was such a subtext of loneliness and loss, yet he was so well-meaning and determinedly cheerful. Finally he said, nudging me again, 'Hey you get on with your homework!' so I turned to the book again. But as soon as I looked up from it to see the Pennines he took the opportunity and started saying it all again. And so it went on, all the way to Norwich, for four and a half hours. Every time I looked up from the book he pounced, so in the end I didn't dare look up, and missed the Lincolnshire and Norfolk countryside altogether, but he pounced anyway, even while my nose was in the pages, and in the end I gave up and was treated to all the photos of his siblings and kids and grandkids on his camera. As Elaine Chiew said to me when I got to The Library Restaurant that evening in Norwich for the launch and told her, 'That's the kind of time to slip on the dark glasses!'
So I didn't get to read the stories again that day, but I really didn't need to: they are all so vivid still in my mind from the first reading, Elaine's language-busting and gut-wrenching tale of paedophile grooming, Dan Powell's eerie and unsettling portrayal of a marriage in danger, Garry Budden's haunting story of a return to the place of one's youth, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt's evocative depiction of the loss of a childhood friend, Adrian Cross's creepily impressive account of murder by homeopathy, Amanda Oosthuizen's story in which a past trauma creeps unsettlingly into the present, and Barney Walsh's stunning first-person account, 'My Lobotomy'. And all of the others. Do read them: you won't be disappointed. The book is available here.