Half asleep, I couldn't tell whether this shouting was happening in the streets below, or next door on the other side of the bedroom wall. It had been loud enough to wake me and was certainly a very vocal debate between a man and a woman.
My reaction was mainly irritation until the man yelled, "I will make sure you burn!".
This phrase was barked out in a style very much befitting a man deranged. More like "I. Will. Make. Sure. You. BURN!", but slightly less staccato.
Anyway, it was mad. And silence reigned afterwards. No more shouting.
I got out of bed, heart rate steadily rising as the writer's mind kicked in...
Suddenly, in my head, the woman was tied to a chair, gagged, eyes wide as the man splashed petrol over her. Or he'd knocked her unconscious and was now spinning dials on the gas cooker, opening the valves, letting the flat next door - because it was now the flat next door, or this wouldn't be a dramatic threat - fill with noxious, flammable fumes. Any minute now, he would leave that flat and hurl a lit Zippo lighter back in through the letterbox. The flat would explode. What would that do to our flat? Would ours explode too? Why the hell didn't we live in a detached house? There'd be none of this bother then.
Last year I read a Stephen King interview in which he said, and I'm paraphrasing, "The writer understands that the worst possible things can happen at any moment". And so it was that I found myself darting out of our bedroom and gazing out through the spyhole at the corridor outside, anxiously looking for signs of smoke.
I got dressed, carefully unlocked our door and ventured out into the corridor, padding up along it, looking for smoke, my senses keenly alive. I paused outside our neighbours' door and listened.
One sudden sound made me jump, but it seemed to be coming from above.
I crept back inside our home. A mere few seconds later, there was activity in the corridor. Peering out through the spyhole, I saw a young man walk into view and start talking through the letterbox of the flat opposite, who clearly didn't want to let him in. This was a different flat entirely to the direct neighbours' flat, which may or may not now have been a blazing inferno. A hushed conversation ensued, which I couldn't make out. Something about keys and "judgement" about someone "acting like an idiot". Eventually, the man walked back off along the corridor, talking into his mobile.
Was this incident connected to the narrative I'd constructed about the homicidal madman who was about to make sure a woman burned?
Because, as I eventually came to accept, somewhere around dawn, a constructed narrative was what it was.
The yelled argument almost certainly happened in the street outside. The words "I will make sure you burn" were almost certainly never spoken. The hushed conversation through the letterbox was almost certainly either a coincidence or connected to the street-based argument from earlier, as opposed to the imaginary argument next door involving petrol, Zippo lighters and horrendous death.
There was no smoke and therefore no fire.
I sat down to write this post, intending it to make the point that writers will always dream up the worst case scenario, which is both a strength artistically (because it theoretically gives us a neverending stream of material) and a weakness in day-to-day existence (although I'm convinced that one day my overly skittish imagination will save my life).
All of which is true. Only now, though, do I realise that this incident was largely down to John Higgs.
John Higgs, as JMR Higgs, is the author of the fictional The Brandy Of The Damned and the non-fictional I Have America Surrounded: The Life Of Timothy Leary. Both are great and highly recommended.
He has also written a thoroughly unorthodox biography about early '90s dance crew The KLF, entitled KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money (September 2013 update: it's now called The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, released through Phoenix.) I finished reading the manuscript yesterday.
It is a quite brilliant and fascinating book which rather blew my mind, telling the story of The KLF's Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in a way which, depending on your belief system, suggests they were mere pawns in a game orchestrated by Chaos. Or maybe even by the Devil himself. It's an ingeniously woven narrative which takes in the assassination of JFK, Discordianism, Situationism, 9/11, the Illuminatus! trilogy, Doctor Who, Alan Moore's concept of Ideaspace and all sorts.
Higgs has a gift for crawling under his readers' scalps and messing with their heads. It's no coincidence that, the very night after finishing KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, I heard the shouted words "I will make sure you burn!".
It is, after all, an odd thing to say, even in the heat of the moment, if you'll pardon the pun.
If I hadn't read KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money - a book all about conscious and unconscious connections; about how we perceive life through certain models and how ideas can powerfully and perhaps magically affect the real world, taking on a life of their own - I would almost certainly have heard something else shouted. Something which was still aggressive, but wouldn't have made me fear for my life and property, anticipating a sudden tumultuous wave of fiery destruction.
John Higgs, The KLF, The Justified Ancients of Mummu, Discordians, the goddess Eris and countless other key players: you all have a great deal to answer for.
The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds by JMR Higgs is out in paperback and Kindle now, via Phoenix. Here it is, at Amazon UK and Amazon US.
In Comments below, please tell us of a time when your writer's mind ran away with itself in a real-life situation...
UPDATE: you can now read my and Higgs' work combined, in a special low-priced ebook entitled Brandy In The Basement.
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Want to feel afraid in your own home, like I was this morning at 5.21am? My 10,000-word short story A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home can help. Presented as a letter to YOU which is delivered to YOUR house, this grave warning from the previous resident tells you things you really don't want to hear. A Sincere Warning... can be purchased as a low-cost ebook or as a uniquely personalised physical letter which is mailed to your home address! Full details at ScaryLetter.com
Amazon UK, Amazon US and more. More details here. Beast is also available as half of 'double A-sided ebook' Brandy In The Basement with JMR Higgs' The Brandy Of The Damned.