Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


personal 3 min read

I’ve come to dread the phone calls.

That’s an interesting thing in itself, because ideally they wouldn’t happen often enough for me to learn to dread them. Ideally, they wouldn’t happen at all.

When you write, sooner or later you’ll have to familiarise yourself with something new. Something outside of the normal sphere of your life. That’s fine. Learning is good, and should be undertaken continuously.

If you write adventure stuff, say, and check your research history – by which we all mostly mean wikipedia – it can be arresting. Perhaps even arrest-worthy, if the authorities were to find out. Heavy weapons, security infrastructure, and spatter patterns. I tend to add “research” to the query just in case.

It’s amazing what you pick up.

I’ve gone down the research rabbit-hole more times than I can count. An afternoon vanishes, and suddenly I have a solid enough grasp on some esoteric subject to at least briefly hold court on the matter; affectedly blasé, as if I’ve known all along. You’ve done it too.

I’ll regurgitate these facts whenever circumstances allow, besides in my fiction. There’s a disturbingly Jungian tendency for the topics to arise soon after I’ve finished reading about them, but that’s probably just biased recollection. Suffice it to say that storytellers are a significant asset to any pub quiz team.

I opted into learning about that stuff – whether it’s rocket-propelled grenades, or the menopause, or the progression of a rare disease, or the structure of the European Union’s various administrative arms. I chose to seek that information, and take it on board.

Sometimes, fate chooses for us.

I’ve certainly suffered from insomnia in the past. Suffered in every sense. It’s rare now, but I’ve been there. I sympathise. Maybe it’s more widespread than I’d expect. I suppose I could check wikipedia.

But surely it’s not that common. Sleep is homeostatic. You’re always heading for the next nap. We all get the occasional restless night, but for the most part, we manage to sleep just fine.

Why do so many people even have sleeping pills in the house?

It’s the details that make it real. Not the specifications, or the most impressive statistics. You could have made those up, and they read like a sales brochure. They don’t ring true.

It’s not the barrel length, or the calibre of the ammunition, or the firing rate. It’s not the onomatopoeic rendering of the gunshot. It’s the little things, that you don’t get in the fact sheet. What’s the texture on the grip, and how does it feel through fingerless gloves? Have the markings on the firing selector (textual or pictographic) rubbed off from sheer use? What does the air smell like after you’ve pulled the trigger?

You actually can just make those things up, from whole cloth. Don’t even bother to do the research. Because they sound true. They sound like you’ve held the weapon yourself – and fired it.

That’s what the reader has to believe. That’s what you need to convince them of. That’s how intimately you have to know.

Which is fine, if it’s something you chose to learn.

The way it works is simple enough. The ambulance arrives, and the paramedics check responsiveness, heart rhythm, respiration, blood pressure, and temperature. Questions and quick tests.

They ask for the medication container, too. If there’s someone else there – as there usually is – they’ll ask for an estimate of how much was taken. The container goes with them.

Next steps depend on the above factors. It might just be observation. It might be emetics. It might be the procedure that wikipedia calls gastric lavage, but you and I probably call a stomach pump. There are other possibilities too.

The small details – the ones that make it true – are the bleep of the electrocardiograph (heart monitor), and the police officer who shows up at some point to run through a cursory checklist, and mostly all the waiting. Waiting for drugs to clear the system, which takes several hours. Waiting for the consultant psychiatrist on call to show up. Waiting for the psych consultation and either admittance (rare), or dismissal (surprisingly common).

At some point, usually once the ambulance has been followed to the hospital and people are huddled, pale-faced, in a waiting room that’s going to become very familiar to them, phone calls are made. Hushed calls, maybe from outside with the smokers, or over in the quiet corner by the vending machine.

(Chocolate and sugary drinks in a place of health care? Absolutely – right beside one of a hundred hand-sanitiser dispensers mounted on walls all over the building. These are the details that make it real.)

I’ve come to dread the phone calls.

I never thought I’d become familiar with them. I didn’t do my research. Someone else chose. Four times for the pills (three people). Two more times for suspending a length of rope, with a large loop at the end. For one of those, the ambulance drove away without its sirens on, and in no hurry.

It’s sorely won knowledge. Not just a story that’s imagined, empathised with, fleshed out, and presented as art or entertainment. It’s something else instead; something between. A shadow thing, with tragedy masquerading as a tale. That’s what a lot of fiction really is. If you read carefully, you can tell which stories are which.

I can’t set them aside so easily, once written, because these scenes are from life. Instead of being created, they’ve been… dressed. A smear of lipstick, too red against pallor. A freshly-pressed shirt, hanging strangely on shoulders that are too thin. It has its own life behind, or at least it once did.

I know it too well. We became acquainted not by choice, but by fate – and that’s what makes the details stick. I can’t hide it away, or pretend it’s not there.

But I can use it.