Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Don't worry. None of this blood is mine.

Dear Fuchsia – Part IIIa: 21/2/12

Dear Fuchsia,

As I write these words to you, it’s 1:34am on Tuesday 21st of February. Depending on which due date you prefer to believe, you’re either due yesterday, in 6 days, or in a week and a half.

I’m listening to ‘The Humbling River’ by Puscifer – which, incidentally, is fucking awesome.

Right now, I look like this:

…only less blurry in real life.

Katie (your mum; calling her that is still very weird to me) just texted me saying she was trying to sleep, but not doing too well with it. The last time I saw her was just before 1am, and she was in behind these very doors:

I just went downstairs to get some stuff ready, before I inevitably forget to do it later. Katie wanted me to bring 5 things to the hospital tomorrow – five things in addition to the three bags of Whatever that I’m already toting around.

It’s now 1:59.

I’ve remembered 4 of them: The book she was reading; The camcorder (which was a wedding present, by the way, and came with us on our honeymoon); some (more?) socks (for some reason?); and her phone charger. Whatever the fifth element in this continuum was supposed to be, I suspect it’s banished from my mind forevermore. I could text Katie and ask, but I don’t want to risk waking her up.

‘Shake It Out’, by Florence and the Machine just came on my random playlist. That’s a cool song.

Last night, literally minutes after I’d arranged to go see Bruce Springsteen in Dublin with Katie (and our friends who’re almost definitely going to be Uncle Rob and Auntie Erika to you), Katie informed me that her pee was a funny dark colour. This was rare. Dare I say it, this was exciting. I thought, for the first time in 9 months, this pregnancy was going to do something interesting. Frankly, it’s been pretty tedious past the major milestones, so you owed us some jazz hands.

Like all adults in this exciting age of reason and rhyme, we Googled symptoms. As with all Google diagnoses, it turned out to be something between Nothing At All and Total Womb Destruction – the latter of which, now that I type it out, is sort of a rad band name.

Panic wasn’t exactly setting in. As I said, you’ve been such a boring pregnancy event-wise that if I’m being completely honest with you, I’ve often forgot you existed, and stopped marvelling at the process months ago. For a long-ass time, you’ve been nothing more than a parasite that makes my beloved new bride into a swollen, waddling Sigh Factory. Weekly checkups always showed a very strong heart. You’ve been extremely active in the tummy (I call it the Fuchsia Pod) to the point where every single midwife making a note of it has become boring, too. Yes, it’s hard to find the heartbeat because she always moves so much. Yes, we’re aware she’s an active baby. Yes, we’re aware the heartbeat’s very strong once you find it. These are the things I endure for you. It’s like a shitty repeat loop of the most banal small talk. One of the most active babies you’ve seen? Wow. Woo. Yay. All that means to me is that when she’s born, she probably won’t sleep much. That’s not good. Sleep is awesome. If you don’t think that, Fuchsia, I’m not even sure you’re the blood of my blood.

So even now, when something unusual happened, I have to admit I thought it was probably going to turn out to be nothing.

“But she never does anything interesting,” I said. “It’s a boring pregnancy. We know that already.” There may have been a hint of whining in my tone, there. I won’t deny it.

We tried calling the maternity ward, six times, without getting an answer. I wanted to make a crack about the NHS being shit, but that would be the kind of thing a Tory would do. Instead, I blamed the lack of an answer on the Tories, which made me feel much better and infinitely more indignant about the whole situation.

When we eventually got through, Katie explained the situation. They said we should come in, just in case, as it might be any number of things.

We reached the hospital just before 8pm. There were several more incidents with staff that made me think things like: “Hey, shut your mouth for three seconds so my wife can explain what’s happening,” and: “You, madam, are a cunt.” But overall, it went pretty smoothly. Enter 800 tests, stage right, most of which involved me holding things to Katie’s stomach to find your heartbeat. The phrases “The baby’s fine” and “See, that’s a happy baby” joined the rest of the pregnancy’s tedious phrases that – because of their overall niceness – I can’t bring myself to say were exactly unwelcome, but were still a bit, y’know, vague and boring.

Anyway.

Katie’s water had broken, but it was one of the slower, subtler ones rather than a brilliant piss-yourself-downpour, which she’d been dreading and I was totally looking forward to finding hilarious, like an insensitive jackass. And the reason her pee was a funny colour was because it wasn’t just pee. It was, in fact, mostly amniotic fluid.

In what may be the most grotesque thing ever to be amusingly common in pregnancy, you’d triggered one of the signs of foetal distress by, uh, making meconium in the amniotic fluid. While I appreciate that means I don’t need to clean it up (seriously, the horror stories of that stuff have been my Number 1 Terror), and while I know it’s not exactly rare, it does tick a few danger boxes. I’ll be 100% honest: Katie wasn’t scared, she was disgusted. Being told by the nurse that it happens a lot didn’t help her get over it. I wasn’t scared, either. I thought it was gross and high-larious. “Good, strong heart,” they kept saying. “She’s a happy baby.” And all I could think was “Why is she happy? There might still be some poo on her skin. I wouldn’t be happy if I was her. Goddamn, babies are gross.”

So Katie’s staying tonight for observation. After about 5 hours, they kicked me out and told me to phone at 9am tomorrow morning to see if there was (in their words) “anything happening”. Nice. Nice and blase’. Not even “Come back in visiting hours.” It’s “Call first, about mid-morning, or whatever.”

This probably sounds scarier than it is. To explain it better, I’ve just spent those 6 hours listening to your heartbeat and movements, and – perhaps more reassuringly – listening to nurses bang on about how good your heart sounds and how your movements are fine. Katie’s being induced, with proceedings aiming to kick off tomorrow morning. If everything goes wrong at the last minute, she goes in for a C-section. Right now, with her water broken, she’s in the teeny-tiny contractions (and less tiny cramps) of early labour. I was fine to crash in a chair by her bedside, but no dice.

So now I’m here, home, at almost 3am and listening to ‘Fuckin’ Perfect’ by P!ink on my playlist melting into ‘Twilight of the Thunder God’ by Amon Amarth. I can’t sleep. I should probably try. The nurses kept telling me to. Katie kept telling me to. I can tell it’s not going to happen.

So. Thanks for finally doing something interesting. Something not exactly unique, but gross enough to be notable. We’ll call that phenomenon “grotable”.

See you tomorrow.

February 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 30 Comments

It Wakes Up At Night

Here’s a picture of me, the other night, as Katie and I finished Fuchsia’s nursery, and finally put away all the clothes and toys our families and friends have been awesome enough to send us.

The reason I look confused isn’t because I’m scared and lost and holding up clothing for a future person who only exists right now in Katie’s tummy.

No.

The reason I look confused is because that bear behind me is actually alive, and none of us know how that’s possible.

It goes through my bins at night, and occasionally eats my Frosties. Here we see it going through Fuchsia’s stuff, perhaps looking for a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is objectively the best book ever.

And here’s the little fucker five minutes later, looking decidedly Blair Witchy:

So anyway, that’s what’s going on in my life right now.

How are you?

February 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 34 Comments

Post-Heresy Meeting, Pre-Baby. Plus, The Lord Inquisitor.

So, anyway, I’m back home.

On the banal side of life, that means sending half the internal components of my new desktop computer back to the lab, for a judicious application of Please Fix This Shit, Thanks. There’s baby furniture to build. There’s a new carpet to prepare for. There’s the knowledge I now have that – after visiting my friend John’s agonisingly middle-class suburban home (plus his wife, Liz; plus their baby, Henry) – that I’ve now actually become my parents, at the start of their parenting career. I’m starting to do the things they did, and have friends in similar situations to theirs back then. I have to do things like, f’rex, assemble nursery furniture, and hanging out with my friends no longer involves shivering in their shitty apartments on the stabby-stabby side of town.

Which, y’know, is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Visiting your friends should involve liking their wives, thinking their babies are beautiful, and central fucking heating. It shouldn’t involve prayers to a variety of pantheons that the shitheads on the corner will choose not to disembowel you with kitchen knives, or tazer you in the spine because they totally got a stun-gun on eBay.

A net gain, there.

I missed most of the last Horus Heresy meeting, which is fine as I didn’t have that many questions anyway, and out of all the team, I’m probably the one who least enjoys discussing his in-progress stuff. I see the value everyone gets out of the chats, and how it can change stuff from, say, a detail here or there, to the entire course of a book. I mean, we’ve surely spent 6 hours or more at meetings discussing Fear to Tread in the last couple of years. I’ve known the storyline of that novel, and been around for the chats and feedback about it, since before The First Heretic was released. But I prefer to work in a little more isolation.

That said, Graham changed the entire focus of Betrayer with a single sentence last time, so… y’know, whatever. My point is this: I hate talking about planned or in-progress stuff, and prefer to retreat into my isolation chamber until the book’s done. I did have a suggestion for Betrayer’s subheader, which went down pretty well. That was about it.

The Emperor’s Gift is finished, at 102,000 words. I picked up my proof copy of Void Stalker (which, to my surprise, was also on sale at the SFX Weekender). It’s cute how it’s 15% chunkier than Soul Hunter. Work-wise, fuck it, I’m taking a couple of weeks off to get ready for Fuchsia’s arrival.

I didn’t actually do much at the SFX Weekender itself. Graham (McNeill) is a master at interacting with fans, selling himself without being creepy, and just hanging out at the booth all day, chatting, laughing, etc. Me? Not so much. I am so, so, so very notoriously bad at that even at the very best times, especially when it’s busy, like it was at SFX. That was magnified by the fact I was in the chalet most of the weekend, finishing The Emperor’s Gift, so I was a bit of an invisible presence all ’round.

I surfaced long enough to be on a panel discussing space opera, alongside (among others) Dan Abnett, Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds. There was another guest added at the final minute, which meant I surrendered my chair to sit on the end, looking like a fucking idiot. My bad.

As a massive fan of Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton, that was a pretty amazing moment for me. Another step closer to being able to say “I’ve arrived” at some arbitrary point in the future.

I’m pretty terrible with photos, and didn’t take any of interesting stuff that people would actually want to see. I tend to forget other people read this thing, and end up taking photos just for, well, me.

Like this one:

I screwed this one up because I was laughing. One of my traditions when I’m over for a Heresy meeting or a Nottingham signing is to go through the Citadel Miniatures Hall of Old Stuff, and just see what’s been added. Anyway, just as I was taking this one, I heard someone over by the door say in that fake-quiet library voice: “That’s Aaron Dembski-Bowden…” which made me smile and glance away the same second I took the photo. It was supposed to be of the huge Khorne symbol ruin, but as you can see, I moved. So now it’s now a photo of… some guy’s wings, and some lens flare.

I visited Forge World, through their public office and into the secret bowels of Stuff You’re Really Not Allowed To Talk About. Stuff that’ll be about in the next 6-12 months, etc. While all of that was awesome (and probably my favourite abuse of GW clout) best of all, I found this motherfucking thing:

Which, as you can see, is rad.

“Dude,” I said to Ead, Forge World’s customer services manager. “Dude, get a photo of me with the storm bolter.”

Worth it. Totally worth it.

Anyway, I returned home to Katie who is now, if possible, even more swollen with the Dembski-Bowden heir. As a general rule, I tend to avoid any conventions or signings where she can’t make it as well, as her not being there only adds to my discomfort about the whole “surrounded by too many people” deal, and I feel shitty leaving her home while I go out and do cool stuff. Especially cool stuff like messing about with life-size storm bolters.

In another abuse of power, I also asked if Graham would send me the Word.doc of his novel Priests of Mars when he’s finished with it, because I didn’t want to wait until it hit the shelves. Better than that, he’s sending me it chapter by chapter, which is awesome to the power of killer. Out of Black Library’s entire 2012 line-up, that’s the one I’ve been keenest about for ages and ages, so getting hold of it is a bit of a personal coup. It’s also got the very best cover. No, really, just look at this fucking thing. To say I’m “jealous” implies a mortal, human limit to my envy. I assure you, no such limit exists. My jealousy is a seething, eternal thing – a matter of primal instinct usurping all sentience and drowning all higher function. Love it to bits.

Returning home after 5 days away also means I had an inbox rammed full of jazz in desperate need of some attention. A lot of it was asking Fuchsia’s due date, which is – depending which doctor or midwife you believe, Feb 20th, Feb 26th, or March 2nd. We tend to err on the side of 26th-2nd, but obviously she’ll come when she’s ready, so we’re not holding our breath. If she does hit her target date, she’ll actually arrive when our friend Barney is over for the week, which would be surreal and awesome.

And now, you may have heard of this:

http://www.thelordinquisitor.com/. And this: https://www.facebook.com/The.Lord.Inquisitor.

And maybe seen this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7glPda2Lcc.

I’ve seen those things, too. Hey, we’ve got a lot in common, right? Let’s do lunch.

When I got back from the HH meeting and the SFX con, I had about eight million messages and forum comments that said “ARE YOU WRITING THE LORD INQUISITOR?!”

I’ve been following the project for a long time, and I’ve commented in various forums about how I was variously amazed at the detail, thought it was beautiful, and was mean enough to say I hated (I think I actually said “not a fan of”) the voice-acting and the script. But for a proof of concept trailer, that shit is far beyond killer.

A while ago, the Lordi (teehee) overseer Erasmus Brosdau (which is surely the most 40K name ever) got the green light from GW’s legal dept. and put out an open call for people to help out and make the thing happen as a 40-minute movie. That’s sort of when I came on board. I asked what they were looking for, and how the process had gone with GW. Nothing major. It quickly turned into something a bit majorer, which isn’t a word, but I’m going to pretend it is as I quite like it.

So, to answer your question(s): Yes, kind of. I’m not writing the movie all by myself. It’s a collaborative effort, and I’m just one little gear in the machine – I didn’t jump in and demand to run the show, or any shit like that. Obviously, everything’s in early development right now, so no spoilers. Suffice to say that I’m on the team, and absolutely freaking thrilled about that fact. I may make a billion suggestions and they all get ignored. I might write the whole script and we end up using a single scene. That’s just how this jazz works; I don’t want people thinking I just moved in to rule someone else’s show. This is still Erasmus’ brainchild, I’m just on the team.

ARE WE CLEAR?

We’re clear.

Excuse me now, while I go try to remember what the fuck free time feels like.

I have a feeling it’ll feel like making furniture, tidying my office, and playing The Old Republic.

P.S. I’m not saying Craig Charles was high during his DJ set at the SFX Weekender, but I will say that guy needed to sniff a whole lot, and kept wiping his nose on his sleeve every three seconds.

I’m just saying.

February 7, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 19 Comments

It lives in the sink…

As I enter the last couple of weeks before my deadline (and even typing that gives me a sinking, weak feeling that reminds me of when I had meningitis and couldn’t walk from one side of my hospital room to the other) I’m basically nocturnal. I catch about 3-5 hours sleep during the day, between driving Katie to work and picking her up, and spend the rest of the time working.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened. In fact, it’s happened three times now. Each time it does, I look at the stuff I’m writing in a mad dash for the finish line as essentially cursed. I tend not to be all that happy with my writing even when I have ages to do it, but I reserve a special loathing for the shit I get done when my back is to the wall. It’s not always the end of a novel, either. It might be a few chapters I skipped in a bad mood “to come back to later or whatever”, and so on. Usually, it’ll be the parts I write very early on and literally can’t stand the sight of come the end. They have to be rewritten. They just have to be.

When it comes to editorial feedback, reading circle opinion, and the reviews that follow, I’m always wrong. The bits people like best are always the parts I struggled with the most, and the ones I’m least happy with. I’ve given up trying to understand why.

Anyway, being nocturnal has its disadvantages. One of those – in a sensory aspect, surely the biggest one – is that night is dark, and when it’s dark, humans can’t see a fucking thing. Add that general rule to the fact I live in the middle of the countryside, miles from civilisation, and you’ll come to realise not only am I excellently situated to survive the zombie apocalypse, I’m also seventeen miles from the closest streetlight.

In short, if the moon and stars are behind the clouds, it’s as dark as the Abyss.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Hey, Aaron, it’s 2012. Houses have electricity, and electricity can be converted to light via glass bulbs and filaments and stuff like that.” Well, dubious phrasing aside, you’re right.

In some cases, that only makes the situation worse. Such as at 2:30am yesterday, when I came downstairs for my 36th coffee only to hit the light and recoil – physically cringe and recoil – from what I saw in the sink.

Allow me to explain.

Me and Katie, see, we’re not exactly loaded. We’re not dirt-eating poor folk any more, but for a couple of years, while I was waiting for royalties, we were pretty fucked. As someone who is so middle-class that I’ve genuinely told beggars asking for change “Sorry, I’ve only got notes”, being poor was an unpleasant surprise, but sadly comes with the whole territory of being a writer. But, as I said, things are looking up a lot. They’ve levelled out the last year or so. Things are good. I thank The First Heretic for that, and by proxy, all of you lot for buying it.

But my point is this. As a kid, I was spoiled by a Mum who gave me pretty much every toy I asked for. Not all of them, but if I rrrrrrrreally wanted something, she’d usually find a way to get it. I was never short on rad toys. Maybe I didn’t have every Star Wars action figure, or every single Autobot ever, but I had a chunk of every money-sucking license I was in love with at the time.

The flip-side of that comes around now, when I have a lot less money coming in than my Mum and Dad back then, so I’m already looking at my bank balance and feeling the first stirrings of sadness at Fuchsia having to miss out on cool toys she really, really wants. I’m aware – obviously I’m aware – that there are more important things in the world than cool toys. I became aware of that on the shallowest level when my Mum would occasionally cry that she couldn’t afford to get me X, Y or Z, and I’d always think “Mum… I have a lot of stuff already, I think I’ll live.” I’m sure Fuchsia will think the same, as I’m sure all sane kids do when they reach that level of awareness.

But anyway, as Currently Poor People, we’re recycling Katie’s old toys. As in, her family have dug them out of basements and attics and barns (HA HA COUNTRYSIDE), and now we’re washing them for Fuchsia to play with when she shows up. I find it even more heartbreaking because Katie’s toys were already Poor Person Toys, whereas I had rad shit like a Millennium Falcon and Powermaster Optimus Prime. I was also the first kid in my school to have Ultra Magnus. True (and awesome) story.

So there we are, washing these old, old dolls and cars and stuff. We wash them in the kitchen sink. Even looking at them brings me out in strangely intense middle-class future-father angst of being a shitty provider for my family, but that’s just background to the real story.

Imagine you’re walking downstairs at 2:30am. You’re tired. You hate what you’re writing. You need coffee.

Your beloved bride, to whom you’ve been married for just over a half a year now, sleeps the sleep of the innocent upstairs. You’re trying to be quiet, since she’s 8 months pregnant and doesn’t sleep all that well now. The fact she’s pregnant mere seconds after coming off the pill is something you’re secretly proud of, and occasionally you cup your balls in private, saying “Damn, I’m a good shot” to yourself. For the sake of this visualisation, that’s the kind of guy you are. Basically, an idiot.

Imagine all of this. Those of you reading this who lack balls; an easy simulation can be achieved through getting two eggs in some cling film, and hanging them between your legs. Please note, that’s gross. I mention only for accuracy of simulation for those who prefer a practical approach to the imagination.

Anyway, imagine all of that. Now imagine you walk past the sink – your head filled with thoughts of your pregnant wife, your future daughter, and the Grey Knights you’re writing about upstairs.

You hit the light.

You see this:

I’ve never, in all 31 years of my life, thought so many things at once. And they were all bad. All of them.

A snapshot image of my mind would’ve looked like this:

“OH HOLY FUCK KATIE HAD THE BABY AND THE BABY IS DEAD AND THE BABY’S IN THE SINK AND FUCK IT’S IN PIECES AND CHRIST AND FUCK.”

And that’s why you shouldn’t spend an entire month on minimal sleep and 30 cups of coffee a day.

January 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 29 Comments

Nothing Says “You’re having a baby girl…”

…like your mum sending you a huge box of baby clothes that she’s been buying, in preparation for grandmotherhood.

Booties! Pink baby booties!

Jesus, this is all getting a bit scary.

I mean, it’s funny, I can’t stop smiling most of the time. But it’s also scary. Once, I forgot to eat for over 24 hours. That bodes ill for parenthood.

But look at the booties!

What I like best is that it shows I’ve not trimmed my facial hair in over a month. Wait. How long? I think it’s only 2 weeks, now I think about it. Feels like longer. Whatever.

Tidy.

This was actually the second photo I took. The first one was ruined, because I heard our cat Loken meowing in that weird, wailing way that sounds like a FUCKING BANSHEE OUTSIDE HOWLING MY NAME.

“Aaaaaaaron… Aaaaararararararrrrrron…”

For the record, here’s the first one.

November 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 19 Comments

Dear Fuchsia – Part II: The 20 Week Scan

Dear Fuchsia,

A couple of nights ago, I felt you move for the first time. I was in bed, reading Stardust for the second time. Katie couldn’t sleep because you were, in her words: “So wriggly.” I kinda hate exclamation marks as a general rule, but the ones that follow really do represent the level of zeal in the description; the next morning, she even did karate punches in time to describing what it felt like. “Ka-pow! Pow! Ka-pow!” 

Cut back to that night, about 3am. She asked “Do you want to feel?” and for the most bizarre moment, I really didn’t. Everything is starting to feel scarily like it’s all actually happening, rather than just something to think about as part of some nebulous future. Things are developing from “Katie is pregnant…” to “We’re going to have a baby and Jesus Christ the house needs decorating and shit we’re not ready and fuck I’m not earning enough for this madness oh God oh help should I get a real job oh fuck me where’re my car keys today…”

And there’s a difference, trust me. A really huge one.

I’d assumed feeling you first move wouldn’t be much of a big deal, to be honest. We’d seen you on the scan. We knew you were there. It was real enough (and funny enough) seeing Katie occasionally hold her tummy and look confused, or grunt slightly and say she felt something. But this week, in Week 20, you really decided to get into gear. When I felt the little push against my palm, the most genuinely painful grin spread hard across my face, in what was probably the most honest smile of my life. I think I said something like “Oh, fuck…” and started laughing, which is about my usual level of eloquence in moments of high emotion.

The day before that, we’d had the famous 20 Week Scan. Note the capital letters, there.

Let’s be honest, that looks like a mess. It’s hard to make out anything, and the parts you can make out are extremely – to use my phrase at the time – “very skeletonny”.

But we’ll come to that in a minute.

This ultrasound was one of the most tense moments of my entire life. I literally couldn’t force my muscles to relax. What if you had slitted eyes and prehensile claws? What if you were a reptilian dinosaur baby thing? And if you were, what did that say about a) my sperm, and b) Katie’s lovelife?

But there you were. The midwives kept pointing out a bunch of stuff I was too excited to take in, and managed not to roll their eyes when I kept saying “But that’s okay, right?”

Sometimes they were just talking to each other, and I’d totally interrupt. “But that’s okay, right?”

They checked for something to do with your skull, some bit at the front that’s important, or whatever. Your face, maybe? No, it wasn’t that. It’d make sense, though. Then there was something about your brain. Then different heart chambers, with coloured flashes to show blood flow. Then they mentioned you had your legs crossed, which was apparently “comfortable” and “Yes, don’t worry, it’s normal.” Then they checked your spine. Then the kidneys. Then some other stuff. Then even more other stuff. Not only do I not remember all of it, despite it being a few days ago, I didn’t even know all of it at the time since I was barely paying attention in my jaw-clenched panic. All I remember clearly is stroking Katie’s hair while she craned her neck to see the monitor; staring at the screen without really understanding how I’d reached this point of my life, and accompanying the entire half hour with a soundtrack of “But that’s okay, right? That’s normal, right? That’s good, right? But that’s okay, right?”

It was indeed all good, normal and/or okay. At one point, one of the midwives did scare me with some irritating wordplay. “If you look here, here’s the tail… bone,” she said, leaving just enough of a pause between the last two words to make my heart start beating like a bastard. “The tail?” I said, and for once didn’t add “But that’s okay, right?” because even though I’m not a doctor, even I knew that wouldn’t be a good thing.

But let’s go back to the scan photos.

The whole thing lasted about 30 minutes. During that time, we saw you clearly enough to install a whole new level of Oh Shit This Is Real to my previous plateau of terror. You opened and closed your mouth, like a real person. You kicked and wriggled and squirmed (Oh, fuck, did you ever kick and wriggle and squirm). You were… a baby. There. In Katie’s tummy and on the screen. The midwives showed us every inch of you, inside and out. Like I said, some parts were uncomfortably skeletonny.

At this point, when all the important midwifey scanning was done, Katie asked about your gender. Please note, she cited my impatience as the primary factor. “He wants to know,” she said, as if the hunger for knowledge was some kind of crime, rather than the motivating force behind humanity’s advancement throughout history. As if I was the bad guy.

The midwife moved the scanner. I watched the screen. The resolving image seemed almost suspiciously clear. I remember thinking, very clearly, “Well, that’s a vagina.” 

“It’s a female,” the midwife said.

My response was to say (in a vicious little whisper – and with a secret fist pump) “Yesssssssssssss.” I then added “That crazy fortune-teller was right.” Because, clearly, she was.

Then it came time to actually printing the photo.

The screen became a mess of blurs. Some of the blurs were kicking. Others were wriggling. Several seemed to be squirming.

The midwives rolled the scanner around a bit more. Up. Down. Left. Right. East. West. Port. Starboard. All ahead full. Raise shields. Lock S-foils in attack positions. At last, the blurs stopped moving, resolving into an image of what was clearly a Russian moon landing. Or something.

“Hmmmmmm,” one of the midwives said, with the kind of narrow-eyed musing you never want to see taking place on the face of a medical professional. “She’s rolled over.”

 “But that’s okay, right?” I asked by accident. My instincts wouldn’t quit. “I mean, that’s normal, right?”

They laughed, somewhat dutifully. I think they were bored of me by that point. The machine started making noises, and printed the photos shown above. The midwives pointed and nodded, saying things like “Her arm is in front of her face” and “Do you see?”

But I didn’t see. I didn’t see at all. After 30 minutes of looking at what was definitely a baby, I now had no idea what the hell was going on. I resisted the powerful, powerful urge to say “But that’s okay, right?” That sentence had served me well thus far, but I sensed we were reaching the end of its usefulness. Everything was obviously okay. These medical professionals weren’t agitated. I suspected if I kept asking the same question, there’d be a real danger of them starting the scan from scratch, checking to see if I’d actually passed down some previously unseen retardation.

Also, there’s a real danger of anthropomorphising here, but having you suddenly hide from a camera was ruthlessly typical behaviour for one of your shared bloodlines. The coincidence amused me.

Once we left the hospital, clutching the photos that Katie still insists make sense to her and that still mean absolutely nothing to me, I called my mum. That’s Nanny D to you.

“Mum,” I said. “We’re at the hospital.”

“Oh God, what’s happened?”

“…” I replied.

“Oh,” she clicked. “The scan. How did it go?”

“We just got out. It’s all fine. Everything’s fine – heart, lungs, spine, all that stuff.”

“And?”

“And it’s a girl.”

At that point, she dissolved into tears and I wasn’t really sure what she was saying for another half a minute. The rest of the conversation, once Mum had calmed down a few minutes later, was about oil prices. Look, I never said real life was always romantic and wonderful. This isn’t a rom-com.

Hilariously, in the car on the way home, you started doing some kind of 20-Week Celebration Dance on Katie’s bladder. People often make funny faces when they’re trying not to pee themselves. I think it’s even funnier with redheads, perhaps because of the freckles, and perhaps because they’re so pale that when they go red from trying not to pee everywhere, they change colour with a speed and severity rarely seen outside cartoons.

—   —   —

—   —   —

—   —   —

Life Tip #1: The most important speed is 88 miles an hour. Shout those numbers every time you reach it. Do not reach it in front of the police, or on icy roads.

October 19, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 27 Comments

Dear Fuchsia – Part I: Dragons

Dear Fuchsia,

Your mother is 17 weeks pregnant now, almost halfway. If all goes to plan, you’ll be here in just over 5 months. I hope you appreciate just how difficult it is to write “your mother” instead of “Katie”. That’ll take some getting used to.

I’ve been thinking about these letters for a while, mostly thinking about about whether or not to write them, and what possible use the end result may actually be. I want you to have something that you can look back on – something a little unusual to mix in with your memories, that tells you more than you’d otherwise have known about me, your mother, and our lives before you came into the world. That’s the idea behind writing these letters. This is what it was like before you. This is what it’s like to be expecting you, and to raise you. This is how we were, way back when: what we did with our days and nights, why we did it, and what we thought at the time. A chronicle of moments and mistakes, for you to ignore or look back on as you will.

The first one of these was going to be about family; what my family has meant to me, what  means to your mother and what it seems to mean to other people. Then I decided it was going to be about your mother – why I love her, and the reasons I married her. After that, I decided to make it about friendship, which is a topic I’ve spent more time and effort thinking about, writing about, and discussing more than anything else in my life. I’m blessed by my friends. I’ll tell you why in one of these letters one day, though you’ll probably see for yourself before I’m gone for good.

Or maybe a letter with loads of advice, or a list of the crazy doubts and fears that keep my up late at night. I mean, there are enough of them. My computer’s desktop is littered with digital Post-Its, each one decorated with a liberal spread of questions, some based on whether you’re a boy, and some based on you being a girl. “If a dad is shopping with his toddler daughter and she needs to pee, does he take her into the men’s room or the ladies’ room?” “If you promise never to lie to your child, where does Santa Claus stand in this noble and deceptionless tundra?” “Here are some of the best ways to manipulate women into actually wanting to have sex with you.” Possibly my favourite one among all these lists is a line I think will make it into a book pretty soon – on the topic of love: “The heart is an unclean organ.”

But anyway.

We’ll start with something easier. In fact, we’ll start with the best thing in the entire world. And wouldn’t you just know it, it’s not even a real thing. Typical.

The best things in life are dragons.

The world’s got a lot of different kinds of dragons. Many cultures and countries have their own legends and stories about dragons (or similar monsters and beasts), and I’m not going to write a long and boring essay about Christian metaphor, East Asian water elementals, or the 8,000,000 types of dragons I’ve read about in various books.

But dragons are awesome. Nothing else in my life has ever inspired me the same way that dragons do, and nothing captures my imagination to the same degree. When I was a kid – and we’re talking way before the mighty double figures of 10 or 11, even – my relationship with dragons was pretty antagonistic. I mostly thought they needed to die, because they were monsters. I mean, they breathed fire. They ate farmers’ cattle (though why that meant anything to a boy growing up in London, I’ll never know). They were the Bad Guys that knights had to kill in order to save princesses, or whatever.

Saint George and the... weird little Chicken Thing.

Dragons have changed a lot over the years. Apparently, according to some Western European artists, they were once little wriggly dudes who were easy prey for lances. If you look into a lot of this stuff, you’ll find religious mythology behind a bunch of monster legends. But now’s not the time for that. Now’s the time for this:

"Because we're DRAGONS. And dragons BREATHE FIRE."

My first real encounter with dragons was also the one that made me fall in love with them. There was a film in the early 1980s called The Flight of Dragons, which was both amazing and (at certain points) sort of terrifying to my infant brain. The crux of the story was about a man called Peter being hit by a miscast spell, and how he had to learn to live as a dragon. During the story, he comes up with scientific explanations for how dragons work, which was pretty intense for my little mindscape at the time.

I loved this movie. Absolutely adored it. It had knights, elves, ogres, archers, good wizards, evil wizards, a war between science and magic, and above all, it had dragons. Dragons everywhere. It had huge dragons. It had long, slender Chinese dragons. It had dragons of every different colour. They flew, they fought, they breathed fire. They slept on hordes of gold and treasure. They talked and joked, and they had friends and enemies among their own kind. That film taught me what hydrogen was, and helium, and had one of the most impressive, powerful moments of character death and self-sacrifice that I’ve ever seen. Even hearing the opening music to that film makes me embarrassingly emotional, 25 long years later.

I bought the book, The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, when I got my first job at 16 (2 hours a night, every evening after college, sweeping up metal shavings in a metalworks factory). I lost it in one of my many, many house-moves – and if you add up the number of times I’ve moved house, it works out at about once every 2 years, up to the age of 29. It’s one of the reasons I’m so happy settling down here in N. Ireland now. Your mother is here, and these boots are no longer made for walking.

So, I lost the book.

I bought it again, about 10 years ago, when I was 21 and spending my university money like it was too hot to hold onto. I still have that copy, though not for much longer. It will be the first book you ever own, and it’ll sit on your nursery shelf waiting for the day you can read it. Even if you never bother with it – even if you have no interest in dragons at all, which is perfectly fine with me – it’s still going to be there, just in case.

The Flight of Dragons also had this guy:

He just hatched!

That’s Gorbash, as a baby dragon. You have no idea how much I wanted him to be my best friend when I was 4. I can honestly say I’d probably not have taken brilliant care of him, as he’d need to eat limestone (as well as whole cows when he grew up), and there wasn’t a lot of either of those readily available in Middlesex, London in the early-mid 80s. We had a lot of Thatcherites, which you can probably find on Google even in 2030 by cross-referencing “Fuckhead”.

My mum (who is already calling herself “Nanny D”, which is also weird to me right now) was the one who showed me The Flight of Dragons. Maybe she thought I’d like it, maybe she just chucked it on in the hopes it’d keep me quiet for a couple of hours. I doubt she had any idea it would form such a huge part of what I liked in my adult life, as well as giving me a great focal point for what I consider to be resonant, emotional storytelling. After seeing it, I loved dragons. That’s the long and the short of it. Since then, I’ve watched, read and played just about everything I’ve ever seen with a dragon on the cover.

Not all of it has been good. If we’re being honest, a lot of it really hasn’t thrilled me, and I’m being tactfully generous, there. That’s the pitfall of an indiscriminate obsession. You may want to note that one down, it has the hallmarks of a decent life quote. I can already feel it echoing into eternity.

My next major encounter with dragons came around the time I’d clocked up a decade of BMX bikes, bruises, and bad childhood haircuts.

The ancient D&D Basic Box Set - displayed with sincerest thanks for giving me a career.

I’d played RPGs before, both on my computer and the pen n’ paper variety, but my mum bought me this at a car boot sale around the turn of the 1980s becoming the 1990s. As a sidenote, you may sense a theme with my mum buying me all this stuff. I wasn’t spoiled, but my mu– uh, Nanny D was always very, very generous with buying me and your Uncle Adam the things we really wanted. She still is, actually. I’m sure her credit card companies love her for it almost as much as we do.

Incidentally, a car boot sale is sort of like eBay, but in a car park, and with no search bar.

D&D is often lauded and criticised in equal measure (like all fiction, video games or movies) as being simple escapism. I’ve never really understood that. I don’t see hobbies and interests as tangential to some other, more meaningful “real” life. Dungeons & Dragons is no different from playing any other game with my friends, either around a table or on a pitch with a ball; and it’s no different from my parents playing Trivial Pursuit with their friends. Games are fun. I like to dedicate as much of my time as realistically possible to enjoying myself. Call me crazy.

While playing as an elf, a dwarf, or whatever else at the weekends (and memorising truly horrendous-sized tables of dice-generated events), I was also starting to seriously read a lot of fantasy fiction. That hasn’t changed, though I now tend to read something outside the genre for every fantasy or sci-fi book I read these days. A bit of a balancing act.

I’d gravitate in two ways, which was a bit of a fork in the road. While I tend to prefer low fantasy stories (stuff closer to historial fiction, or fantasy worlds without a lot of magic and inhuman races), I also always – without fail – read any books with dragons in them, which is about as high fantasy as you can get in most cases. Not always, of course: see Robin Hobb.

This was the cover of my copy of The Two Towers, which remains one of my fave pieces of fantasy artwork:

Yeah, yeah, a Fell Beast isn't a dragon. Shut up, it's close enough.

…and with fantasy fiction of the more complex and high-quality variety, came the simpler, unashamedly derivative stuff, too.

DragonLance was a major kick in the teeth for my youthful self. It presented new breeds of dragons that deviated from standard D&D tropes, with draconic gods and their children of various colours. The metallic dragons were aligned with good, and the chromatic ones with evil. That wasn’t, in itself, something heartstoppingly interesting.

The fact they had armoured knights riding on their backs, carrying massive lances… Now that had me hooked.

Over 15 years later, I still wince at the fire bleeding out of that gold dragon's new neck-hole.

No spoilers, please. Seriously. Katie's still halfway through this series.

I met your mother in a game called World of WarCraft, you know. That’s got dragons, too. Dragons, I should add, that turn into scantily-clad pixellated women – a fact that goes some way to underselling an otherwise fun game. At the time, I was playing an Elf Hunter, and she was playing an Elf Paladin. That’s not a particularly interesting story (1 in 4 relationships are supposed to begin online these days) but it’s notable in that the first picture of me and your mother isn’t actually me and your mother.

I should also note that this was in one of my breaks from playing undead or trolls, which I tend to prefer.

I always really hated elven hairstyles. You could never be a skinhead. Instead, behold my character's strawberry-blond ponytail.

I was never much of a fan of that armour, either. But nevermind.

The absolute pinnacles of dragon-ness came into my life fairly recently. Firstly through the work of Robin Hobb, my favourite author. I won’t go into detail, beyond saying her low fantasy approach to dragonkind has been almost achingly well-realised. I rarely envy any other writer, but I wish I’d had the wherewithal and angles of imagination required to think up her realisation of dragons in fiction.

The second was a movie based on a book, and it came very close to toppling my favourite film of all time. Fortunately for my self-esteem, the children’s film remains in second place., The top spot still goes to Ravenous, a film about murder, snow, starvation… and Native American cannibal spirits. That’s not one to watch in your first few years. We’ll be keeping it out of your reach, in my office upstairs.

But How to Train Your Dragon came close. It was basically the film I’d always wanted to see as a five-year-old, and they’d made it two and half decades too late. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s a great family film, and it highlights so much of what’s awesome about dragons, as well as what’s awesome about being a kid and loving dragons.

I. Want. One.

You’ll come across some books or movies in life that genuinely ring all the right bells with you. They’ll feel like they were made just for you, with all your emotions in mind. This is one of mine. There aren’t many, but they always hit you like a hammer when you find a new one.

I’ll unfailingly cry at this film, every single time.  It touches every chord, pulls every heartstring, hits every note in why I love dragons and what I want in a story about them. I’m not even talking about blubbing at the end (which is just… just so perfect), but also at the scenes when Hiccup is first making friends with Toothless and taking his first ride. I wish with all my heart I’d written the book, or had a hand in the film.

I. Really. Want. One.

Please buy me one. I'll feed him every day.

Considering how much I love dragons, how much I read about them, and the fact it’s my job to put words on paper (or, increasingly, onto e-book screens) for other people to read, you’d think I’d have written about the scaly beasties in some form or another by now. To be honest, I never thought I would.  I’ve always thought the dragon tales rattling around my head were best saved for bedtime stories. They were never in the same violent, bloodthirsty league as a lot of what I read and write. They were always about something else, something… gentler, I guess. I’m not sure that’s the right word. I’m not sure I even know the right word.

Everyone has a number of stories to tell, but some of them are waiting for the right audience. They might wait forever. I never expected to get married, nor did I expect to have kids. I never expected to find the right moment to tell my dragon stories. I’m not even sure I can coax them out of my mind’s recesses, they’ve been hiding back there for so long. If they emerged, blinking into the light, they may need years of editing, anyway. I’m not threatening you with the first draft of anything, here.

Ultimately, it makes no difference to me if you love or hate dragons. Everyone discovers their own tastes as they grow up, and as long as I don’t have to watch football with you, I won’t have much to complain about. Do you think you can commit to that? I’d appreciate you trying.

In three weeks we find out if you’re a boy or a girl.

We’ve agreed on one thing, either way: you’re getting a fairly traditional first name, as the curse of spelling Dembski-Bowden to everyone all the time is enough of a chore.

According to all the guides (and trust me, I’ve been reading dozens and dozens of the damn things), weeks 16-18 are when women usually first start to feel their babies move. Of course, they’re so tiny at that point (uh, the babies, not the mothers) that a lot of mums-to-be don’t realise it’s happening, or mistake it for just normal tummy feelings.

I was about halfway through writing this when I had to pause it, in order to go get your mother and drive her home from work. In the car ride home, among the usual complaints of feeling heavier and increasingly swollen, she said she could feel you move. That means that halfway through my first letter to you was the first time she thought she could feel you moving. As coincidences go, that’s not a bad one.

September 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 33 Comments

(Why I Made) The Face

Some of you may remember when I made The Face, at about 6pm on July 16th.

Hello, ladies.

At that moment, I’d just sat down, and my new wife Katie (so new I still called her my “wuh… wuh… ex-fiancee”) had just left the house to go watch Harry Potter with her family. I was staying in to do some work, and to avoid Harry Potter like the plague. Shut up, plebs. Don’t judge me.

Anyway. I’d had The Face on for just over a minute. A curious thing was happening to the skin over my skull. It was locked in place, forming The Face, and it stayed with the tenacity of rigor mortis as the seconds kept ticking on by. Intrigued by what The Face felt like, I took a photo of it to see what it looked like.

Turns out it looked like me pulling a stupid face, somewhere between fear and confusion. Who’d have thought?

The reason for The Face was was a simple (but frightening) one.

One Minute Before The Face: About a minute before the photo was taken, just as The Face started to settle onto my rugged and chubby-cheeked hamsterish features, I was standing alone in my kitchen, in silence, preparing to walk upstairs. I was also thinking “I wonder if I have her piss on my hands now”, which was exceedingly unromantic, but there we go.

Two Minutes Before The Face: About a minute before that urine-based thought, I was in the same room with Katie. She was smiling and trying not to laugh, while unnameable emotions danced in the hazel and green swirls of her Irish eyes. I, on the hand, was hopping from foot to foot, clutching two pregnancy tests that she’d recently peed on, and saying “Oh shit oh fuck oh Jesus where’s your mum let’s talk to your mum oh fucking hell.”

She didn’t want to talk to her mum. Not yet. She was about to go see Harry Potter with her family, and her parents were going on holiday for two weeks mere hours after the cinema trip. Now, she reasoned, was not the time to inform them we were accidentally pregnant many, many months earlier than even our vaguest plans.

I dealt with this in a manner becoming of all thirty-year-old adult males. I was cool, calm, and collected. “But but but but shit oh Jesus what if it likes football and wants to join the army?” I said, uttering what history will surely recall as my most excellent and rational sentence. A crazier thought manifested, but I never said it aloud. ‘Maybe if I’m gay this won’t be real’, I thought. But that made such little sense that even my stalling hind-brain refused to give it voice. It was too late for gayness. Much too late.

Three Minutes Before The Face: And about a minute before my wondrously eloquent outburst (and secret failure of a homosexuality escape plan), I was alone in the bathroom, having cheated and crept in to look at the tests before Katie checked them. They were wrapped in tissue paper. I was still thinking ‘Gross, she peed on those,’ as I used a shower gel bottle to roll the tests over so I could see properly. I said, very clearly, “Fuck.”

There followed a moment of silent, raw smugness. I actually cupped my balls and nodded to myself. ‘This must be what men feel like’, I thought. Did I feel a brief spark of awareness in that moment? Did I suddenly want to play football, or perhaps even more drastically, watch other men play it?

The answer was no.

The moment of powerful manliness faded. I began to hop from foot to foot. Clutching the pee-sticks in my hand, I went to tell the girl I’d been married to for two weeks that I was both masculine and virile, and she was about to spend the next year getting fat. As has been explained, what actually happened was that I mumbled swear words at her, and she went to see Harry Potter while silently panicking, and I went to take a photo of my face. The Face, in fact.

The next generation Dembski-Bowden. Week 12-13.

We call her Fuchsia. For you foreign folks, that’s pronounced Fyoosha. I mean, we’re not actually calling her Fuchsia (after Fuchsia Groan from Gormenghast, because Katie won’t let me), but that’s how we refer to her now, as her “Oh Jesus, there’s a baby inside you” name. It might be a boy, for all we know. We have names picked out, but it’s early days. We’ll save all that for later.

I’m immensely looking forward to one thing about parenthood more than any other: inflicting my bitch of a surname on yet another human being. It’s so, so, so much fun to hear Katie saying “Dembski-Bowden… D… E… M… No, there’s a B… S… K… I… Hyphen… B…” to other people, after so many years of suffering alone. My brother has the same name, but I’ve never heard him have to spell it for people, so my joy was diminished in that regard. But Katie spells it all the time, and it’s hilarious. I had no idea I looked that annoyed for so many years. I look forward to Fuchsia knowing the same delightful torture at a mental surname.

In another moment of absolute intelligence, in the name of being thorough, I asked the doctor doing the scan this morning: “Uh, so, like, it doesn’t have two heads or anything?”

Evidently not.

Look at her little feet.

Weird.

Heh.

Babies.

Oh, Jesus.

August 26, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 38 Comments

The Face

On July 16th, the day after returning from my honeymoon in Bruges, I made this face:

I also apparently forgot how to shave my head.

I’ll tell you why I made this face, at some point in the future. No answer will be forthcoming for a while yet. It could be personal-life-related, it could be something about my career, it could simply be that I sat on something sharp, or conversely, something alive.

Also, my eyebrow piercing scar looks cool, there. Go me.

July 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 30 Comments