Philip Charter is a writer who lives and works in Pamplona, Spain. He is tall, enjoys travel, and runs the imaginatively named website 'Tall Travels'. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction Magazine and The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology among other publications. He was the winner of the 2018 Writing on the Wall Festival Flash Fiction competition.
THE DIARY OF XANDER H. ROBERTSON
Thursday 15th March
Everyone needs an excuse for failure, and now I’ve got mine. Mother is in denial, with her head buried in charity paperwork, and my father was the cabinet minister (you know, the one who just committed suicide).
You’re making me write this as part of the treatment. Forgive my scepticism, but did talking things over ever get us anywhere? Uncle Joe and FDR ‘talked things over’ at Yalta and that led to 45 years of Cold War. I suppose you’re used to processing death and I’m not, that’s the problem.
Isn’t it un petit peu ironique that our sessions are being paid for by the dead man? My student loan goes toward watery pints and reduced price microwave pizzas, and it’s got to last another year after the disaster of the dissertation; no more excuses they said. My personal tutor wants to see your autograph every week to make sure I’ve been to Planet Beige.
It is not just the grades either; I knew the game was up when I took stood under the shower for so long that Jenkins resorted to breaking the bathroom door down, shouting about rising gas prices. Something has to be done to get that image out of my mind - him, staring through the windscreen at the closed garage door, with the engine running and his seatbelt on.
I picked out this notebook from the Student Union shop. It’s not too cumbersome, I don’t want to be hanging onto it like a comforter for years to come. It feels strange writing something other than notes or lists. The lecture halls seem to be full of faux working-class heroes with iPads, and Chinese geeks typing things into their watches. Putting thoughts on a page takes time. It’s 3 a.m. now and I have been lying here for hours replaying everything. It feels like I’ve got a bloody anvil sitting on my chest. I’ve been getting about as much sleep as prime Maggie Thatcher, so I may as well make use of my extra waking hours and put pen to paper.
Some reprints of Punch and The Strand I’d ordered finally arrived today. The Post Office clerk almost curtsied when she saw the addressee, Lord Alexander H. Robertson Esquire, my little joke. Thinking about it made me smile today, I think I’ll keep the title.
Monday 21st March
Monday grabs us by the scruff of the neck even though it’s just another day. Why are we so desperate to prove ourselves in installments every week, like some god awful soap opera? Well, you told me to write about my everyday life, so here it is.
Today I managed to drag myself out of the pit at ten and drank a warm Red Bull on the bus. I was late to a seminar where I feebly pretended to have completed the suggested reading. We won the sports round at the pub quiz last night which meant we got to keep what we could pour in one minute behind the bar. Riggers distracted them by spilling Guinness and I went straight for the top shelf . . . classic. We did a good bit of damage.
Sunday night was better than Saturday’s depressing Skooldayz disco. Wearing grey shorts and a scruffy white shirt felt somehow regressive. I remembered how Marcus Dean used to padlock my briefcase shut, and threaten to punch me if I told.
“Forgotten your work again Robertson?”
“Yes Sir, sorry Sir.”
I’m 22 and I still get bullied, but now it’s for suggesting that we should pay less tax. A group of freshers in the queue wouldn’t shut up about the NHS being ‘torn to shreds’. The old man didn’t give 30 years to the party to be insulted by a bunch of political tadpoles. I left before the disco even started.
We discussed the 1906 Liberal Party campaign in the seminar. Elections were a lot simpler when you just had to think up a couple of good poster slogans. The professor started to talk about how the term ‘Liberal’ has become so negative in today’s society. I don’t think his seminar style could be described as laissez faire. He certainly didn’t like it when I pointed out that the party had only ever been successful when fighting against something and went into a huge rant about Gladstone’s four terms as PM. I suspect he was wearing a yellow rosette under his blazer.
Afterwards, Jenkins and Riggers accompanied me to the cafeteria where I stuffed down a baked potato with prawns and then proceeded to lose £6 to the quiz machine. Sending good money after bad into these ruddy lie-boxes is just about the most routine event of my week.
After lunch I had some reading to get through so I headed over to the library. Two coffees and a few chapters later and I nearly missed the last bus home! I normally lock myself in one of the quiet audio visual rooms which house the archived cassettes and VHS players. I sometimes feel that I was born two or three generations too late. Luckily I made it back for question time. The British public’s lack of understanding of tax credits supplies me with more entertainment than a hundred DVDs ever could.
Thursday 31st March
9:08 p.m. - In less than three hours I’ll be the April’s fool. Not even a note from you could get me out of this one - 2,000 words on whether the Great War or the Suffragette movement was more influential in extending the vote to women. After my third visit to The Spectator website hoping for something to raise a titter, I’ve decided to procrastinate offline by writing.
10:30 p.m. - Opening another bottle of wine was either ingenius or idiotic, either way I need some liquid fortitude in order to read up about war atrocities and frumpy women.
10:32 p.m. - Found more videos to browse online including an interesting documentary on the invention of bodyline bowling.
11:59 p.m. - If I write this very slowly . . . it’ll be Friday.
12:17 a.m. - The second bottle is long gone, now I’ve switched to coffee and I am reading furiously, trying ignore the loud computer gunshots and grunts coming from Jenkins’s filthy den.
1:50 a.m. - I’ve decided that this would be an opportune moment to look up information on Victorian workhouse conditions for a story I’ve started. The essay will write itself, real art must be squeezed out like juice, then the sugar added, then the really clever stuff (you know the compressed xanthan starch and riboflavin).
3:31 a.m. - Six hours to deadline. Plan nailed and passages highlighted, time for forty winks.
7:38 a.m. - Woke up to a blank page and an empty bottle full of fag ends. Caffeine required!
10:45 a.m. - I cained the essay. 1,850 words in two hours. I missed the bus so it was submitted late, maybe they’ll give me a break for only just missing the deadline. It doesn’t really matter how long we all spend writing essays, we’ll all get similar marks. Last time I tried hard I ended up with a 69 and that’s a 2:1, the same as a 60. We all learn to play the system to our advantage. And now to sleep.
Monday 18th April
It’s been a little while since we spoke because of the end of term. I spent Easter at home, only it wasn’t the home I remember. It was like being stuck in no man’s land, surrounded by silent footsteps and barbed wire insults. God it was depressing, shuffling around waiting for the bombs to drop, only they didn’t. We’re not very good at communicating, even though all politicians do is talk.
Easter was especially wet and dreary this year, no matter how high we turned up the heating, or how many fires we lit, we couldn’t get the damned draft out of the place. I think the cottage has gotten too big for my mother. She is hardly ever there now that she’s redoubled her efforts with her campaigning. She needs a cause, but I don’t want to be the one to tell her she should face up to the clogged gutters. I said that if she wanted a job she could read up on 17th century tax law for me but she didn’t seem impressed.
I spent most nights knocking back cheap scotch in the Cocked Hat, receiving heartfelt pats on the back from concerned constituents.
“Any ideas what you might get into yet Alexander old boy?” The old colonel always was a supporter of dad’s.
“I hate politicians as much as the next man but I have already got a taste for whisky and lies,” I said looking into the glass. They didn’t laugh.
I even spent every day walking in his shoes (his wellies actually). I enjoyed taking Teddy out into the woods. Every time he dropped the ball back at my feet, all slobbery, he looked at me like he was asking a question he already knew the answer to.
Friday 22nd April
Got inspired on the loo yesterday reading about a chap who writes to companies about trifling matters hoping to bore them to tears. Thought I would do the same to get my own back on the smarmy Geoffrey in the estate agent’s office. He barely looked at us when we came to complain about the boiler and it still hasn’t been fixed nearly a week later. We’ve been taking showers at the gym on campus but three quid is rotten value if you are a weed like me and don’t use the weight machines.
Estate agents don’t care about students, low margins and endless problems to fix. It was his manner that got my goat, like our time was worth nothing. Je refuse monsieur! I value my time enough to take a break from my punishing West Wing marathon to write a two page letter to your manager.
You told me that writing could be a good outlet, and it was quite cathartic. I am writing even more these days, I have even dusted off a few story ideas I had in college. Don’t worry, I won’t be subjecting you to the first draft of “The Peelers vs Mutant Street Urchins” just yet.
Anyway, the letter backfired because it was a little too creative. Now his manager wants to see me to clear the matter up. I should have just sent a flaming turd in a paper bag through the office letterbox like any normal disgruntled customer.
Sunday 24th April
I met Sarah at the Wine & Whisky outing, and she was a welcome break from the wind bagging about tannins and peat levels. Riggers and I always go together, but we soon split up, like a squadron breaking formation peeling off into the dogfight. I am certainly no ladies’ man, but I could lie for England, so after a few single malts turning on the charm isn’t too difficult.
It’s better to tell you about Sarah for fear of more Twitter screenshots or Daily Mirror exposés. I don’t care if she scolds me like a naughty schoolboy, I could listen to her for hours. She oozes enthusiasm about books and sauvignon blanc, and the silences somehow aren’t awkward. I met her for coffee the next day, and the next day. She’s a big reader, although she didn’t seem taken with my time travelling space mutants idea. I haven’t had the heart to tell Mum about my budding relationship yet, it might prove too painful for her.
Monday 2nd May
Last week I told you how I felt like I was climbing out of the hole that David Robertson MP’s death dropped me into. It turns out that it’s more of a sea, and the when the tide changes the swell just gets bigger. I spent so long fighting off reporters that when the adrenaline ebbed away, I found myself clinging to my lifeboat of university routine.
I haven’t had much desire for parties of late, they always end up with drunken stragglers huddling around some funny internet video. No one wants to put the world to rights, no one wants to talk politics around me.
Today I made up some excuse about a sore throat in order to avoid my ‘heavy’ schedule of two lectures. Sarah and the books have been keeping me company dans la maison, but it’s not easy on her with three swines rolling around in kebab grease and dirty tea cups.
Friday 6th May
Success! I submitted a short piece to the student rag and it’s going to be published. One of the lads from my school is the assistant editor and he said they normally have plenty of space. It’s all about who you know. My first byline, and all this from a musty red £3.99 notebook. I suppose it will be the first positive piece of Robertson news published in a good while.
I go to the writing club every week now. The Lit twits all come in with their coloured woollen scarves and some tatty classic gripped under their arm. They hate me. My brash striped shirts make them want to cower together in the corner. They sniff and snort at my readings, but it feels good to reel something off, like I am shedding a skin and leaving it for all to admire. I don’t pay attention to the criticism, at least Sarah liked my Victorian science fiction story. Sometimes a close friend’s support is worth more than public opinion.
Monday 16th May
Sarah’s texts got snarky, then angry, then desperate, and then there were none. Another empty space. Too much time writing and drinking wine alone, apparently. I should never have trusted her to understand. Even though she has exams and I am postponing mine until next year, I can’t share my time.
I’ve got to think about the summer, and what I’m going to do with myself before I re-enrol for my final year. I’ll have to see if I can still take up the internship at the think tank that he organised. That’s going to be an awkward conversation.
Wednesday 18th May
I traipsed around the careers fair without giving out a single CV: accountant, accountant, actuary, HR, finance, accountant. Why the hell are the brightest graduates so desperate to be locked into a structured program that guarantees mediocrity? Scarface was wrong. Everyone’s got money now, it doesn’t get you power, it just gets you deeper into the mire. Before you know it you will be scrabbling around in the dirt for a 10% raise while those with the real power smile on and take their cut. Don’t we want to prove ourselves as men anymore? My father spent years raising funds and kissing the right arses for his safe seat, but it still wasn’t enough for him. He wanted positive change. You asked me about my future last session and the sight of honours students grabbing at free corporate pens on offer made me want change too.
All of my unlucky housemates are burning the midnight oil studying, while I send begging letters to Westminster polling companies asking to work for free for the summer. I think most of them can’t see past the potential oil slick of a tabloid headline. Most of them haven’t even replied.
Saturday 4th June
With my bow tie open around my neck and a red wine glow, I sat at the table with my notebook taking notes on my peers’ antics. Everyone else at the Leavers Ball was actually leaving and I felt trapped in limbo, a purgatory of bad DJs and tacky photo poses. The notes will make a better keepsake.
You told me I’d regret it if I didn’t go. I suppose it was alright, the Union did a good job putting on some decent bands and a TV panel show comedian. My head still feels like it is strapped onto the unsafe whirly fairground ride this morning. When can I get off?
Thursday 9th June
Today is my final session with you. One final signature and my book is finished. I am even doing my homework and writing this before class this time. I must be ready to handle my degree course again (cue your sarcastic eye roll).
I have papered over some of the cracks that appeared after the funeral and I am back into a better routine of walking and writing. The showers are even down to a brief 3 minutes now, a la James Bond.
I don’t want you to get all blasé about helping the next politician’s grieving child, but the diary was a good idea. It’s funny how a blank page sometimes makes the best pair of ears. I talked to the party chairman on the phone this week and he said he could arrange a summer placement and we could talk about a 2020 running date.
Xander H. Robertson MP you heard it here first. Perhaps I’ll even make the upper house.