Trouble for the hero in Stuff begins when he’s making a slice of toast. That might not sound too dramatic but this is a major turning point. It’s at this moment he realises he must have been to the supermarket to buy the bread, but hadn’t been paying attention.
It’s the kind of thing that could happen to any one of us, and probably fairly regularly as we wander around on automatic pilot. But it doesn’t happen to this guy. This guy notices stuff. Lots of stuff. This gives Charlie Hill the chance to show off his wonderful descriptive prose.
‘… Next to the hole is one of those green metal telecoms boxes. I slow down as I walk past an engineer, working away. The wiring is like a bomb that could stop time. His hands are steady but the expression on his face is less one of concentration than unhappiness and I wonder why, I wonder if he is a communist, or his van has a slow puncture, or his dog is dying.’
This was life for our hero when he was ‘alive’, when he was able to ‘blaze’. This seems to be something like mindfulness – paying attention to the world around you. Or maybe like the guy from the TV series Psych. But darker.
Hill’s usual humour is still here, this time tackling a satire of modern day British culture and, more specifically, consumerism. Our hero stumbles, dazed without his blazing powers, over the course of a week as he tries to get as far north from Birmingham as he can. He leaves his work, his girlfriend and his dying mother behind. He can’t connect with anything anymore. He’s lost interest in all the things he took notice of before. None of it has meaning anymore. It’s all just … well, stuff.
It’s a grim journey for the unnamed narrator, and it’s easy to go along with him. He makes a convincing argument for escape, but is there anywhere left to go? Hill doesn’t explore too many options in this novella of little more than 30-odd pages. He doesn’t need to. This story opens the door for us to look around and take in everything that surrounds us.
Any Cop?: Stuff is a captivating piece of short fiction, easily devoured in one sitting, and with a story that lingers long after.