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Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

Backtracking

This is the first story I wrote for my writing tutor in October 2009. I hadn’t written since school but found myself longing to write again after my father died and I needed time alone in other worlds. I’ll never know whether it was his death that inspired my writing or my starting to write but looking back it feels like it was a catalyst. And having the discipline of a course to follow was just the boost I needed. I was inspired to dig out this particular story this week when a friend shared a photo of a sculpture by Penny Hardy. I’ve asked permission and Penny has kindly allowed me to use this photo here. Many thanks to her. I’ll put some links below for further interest.

You Blew Me Away by Penny Hardy

You Blew Me Away by Penny Hardy

Backtracking

Eddie sighed, feeling old, as if retiring from his job at the rail company was another nail in the coffin. He felt silly and uncomfortable wandering around a scrapyard, looking for goodness-knows-what amongst the rust and mechanical miscellany. Still, he had to prove Jan’s friends wrong – he wouldn’t be ‘getting under her feet’. So phase one of clearing his allotment was making the shed a useable space.

He’d noticed other allotment holders had chairs and tables and radios amongst the pots on their shelves. He thought he should probably have the same and that the scrapyard would be the place to look for some of these things.

Staring at the sharp, unidentifiable rust shapes and contorted bicycle jungle he scratched his head. It occurred to him that he was probably looking in the wrong place; what he was after wouldn’t be left outside in all weathers. But he continued staring up, impressed by how beautiful orange rust looked against an intensely blue summer sky.

And that’s when he noticed a hand. A metal claw of a hand, an accidental shape created by broken and twisted bicycle spokes. The hand was reaching up out of the wreck into the sky, reaching out for help. A cold bullet of shock and sadness torpedoed through his body and his memory tried to reload images from his past. He blinked them away turning towards the small office at the entrance where he would ask for help.

Under a shelter behind the office was a collection of old school desks. He ran his hand along one, feeling the varnish and remembering his own school days. This would be perfect; great for storing his sandwiches. He wouldn’t even have to go home for lunch. Eddie found a deck chair and an old radio and took them and the desk to his car then turned back for one more look. The spokes no longer looked like a hand at this angle – just a twisted mass of wiry metal. He found himself compelled to walk back to where he’d previously stood, so that he could recreate the illusion.
How wonderful that something so useless could conjure up such a powerful image:
A human shape created from junk.

And then he was in amongst the rust and spikes, pulling. Pulling out whatever he could find that was bendable, shapable. A powerful urge to have that feeling again was taking over. He could do this himself. Something that looked like old bicycle spokes could also look like a hand, so why not arms? legs? a head? He took to his car anything vaguely malleable, staining his clothes with rust and cutting his hands, until there was no room left in the car. He would come back.


‘You’re quiet this evening’ said Jan after dinner. ‘What’s going on in that head of yours?’
‘Nothing’ replied Eddie, visualising his hoard in the shed and imagining it taking shape already. He would start with the first: Hayley, the manic depressive who had leapt in front of his train in 1970. Then Mikey, the lad who ran after his ball onto the track in 1978. He would make 7 metal sculptures in all and stand them on his plot with a view of the valley and tell them all how sorry he was and how he would carry their deaths around with him for the rest of his life.

It was three months before Jan became curious. She had continued to keep the house as neat as ever, had seen her friends as much as before and was beginning to notice that Eddie’s retirement had made little difference to their marriage after all. In fact she was feeling rather neglected.



‘It was terrible’ she heard him say as she entered the shed ‘Your poor wife, John. I read all about her in the paper. Right, you can keep an eye on Mikey, while I start Gareth. At this rate I’ll have you all together by Christmas’
As he turned to move sculpture number three next to the first two he caught sight of his wife. She wasn’t moving, her face was pale, and tears flooded her eyes.
Eddie stepped forward and Jan dropped her head onto his shoulder. With their arms still by their sides, they both trembled with the release of many years’ pent up emotion and tears.
‘You don’t forget’ whispered Eddie to the top of her head. ‘How can you forget what you’ve done to people?’ He raised his head, guided Jan into his deckchair and leant himself against the school desk looking down at her, eyes feverish. ‘I read about them all afterwards. I didn’t want you to know how bad it was.’

Jan reached up and took Eddie’s hand ‘Tell me now. Tell me everything.’


End.


Many thanks to Penny for allowing her photo to be used.
Penny Hardy has a website here
: http://www.pennyhardysculpture.com/
and a facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Penny-Hardy/122465097936140?fref=ts

(I’ve noticed WordPress has just congratulated me on my blog anniversary. It’s 6 years old today so that was nice timing.)



Part of the Furniture

Two old chairs sat side-by-side facing the window. Arms worn, seats sagging, covers bleached by sunlight.

‘We used to talk. We used to look at one another. I remember when you used to notice me. You used to ask me me how I was. You said I was beautiful. Don’t you remember? You never talk to me anymore,’ said one chair to the other.

‘No. Not us. We never did. That was the humans,’ said the other chair. ‘We’re just chairs you daft bugger.’

‘Why don’t they then?’

‘Why don’t they what?’

‘The humans. Why don’t they talk, why don’t they look at one another? Why don’t they say nice things anymore? Don’t they care?’

‘I think they think they are chairs too.’

A Chance to Shine

My modest return to Friday Flash. It seems I haven’t written and shared a flash fiction since December 2012!

This isn’t the first time I’ve given a voice to an inanimate object. A couple of years ago I wrote a very short fiction about a pair of shoes with their own opinions…


IMG_3390
An apple from the garden, sat atop the wooden kitchen table, all perfectly imperfect.
Alone in the half-light from the cookerhood lamps, it proudly glowed: its contours more strongly rounded by its halo, the two small, black bruises and the – as yet negliable – newly forming wrinkles hidden by the shadows.

‘Paint me,’ it whispered. ‘I’m still beautiful. Paint me before I die.’

A woman entered the room, switched on a single light bulb, remembered the apple she had rescued from the ground in the morning, and smiled now at how its middle seemed noble and self-possessed like a robin’s. She saw the asymmetrical left-lean of the stalk, the elliptical shadow pool, and the way the reflection from the light bulb beamed out midway where the red and yellow colouring met. There was something really palatable – comforting almost – about the form of an apple.

She remembered drawing and painting apples in school. Hadn’t she been quite good at still life? For the briefest moment she wondered if she would like to sit and draw this apple now. But it was late, and anyway what would it achieve? She didn’t have time for unproductive things like drawing and painting.

‘Paint me. I’m dying.’

‘Where’s Cézanne when you need him?’ the woman asked the apple, pressing her lips together in compunction, as she turned out the lights, shut the door and followed the stairs to bed.

The forlorn apple’s previously tight, satiny skin turned sticky and soft in the dark, warm kitchen. It had tried its best but it hadn’t managed to inspire her.

Maybe the stories it had heard on the tree about humans being creative and appreciating nature the way no other animal could hadn’t been true after all.



Why I knew I would love The Night Rainbow

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

In 2010, I bought a copy of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, and found a story by Claire King, called Wine at Breakfast, which was written in a way that seemed to fit me. It had a rhythm that felt familiar and matched the way my own word rhythms work. This made it natural for me to read it as if it belonged in my head. And it contained all the things that I find powerful and captivating: family, love, imperfection, struggle – the wow!ness, if you like, of real life.

So I decided to stalk this writer and was delighted to find her on Twitter. I was also delighted to discover she was every bit as human and warm as her writing suggested.

At this time I was going through a type of writing immersion: I was taking a writing course with the Open University, writing daily, following hundreds of writers on Twitter, joining groups and subscribing to writing magazines. I found another winning short story by Claire, in Writers’ Forum Magazine, about the exhaustion of being a new mother. Again it had all the things that suited me and was delivered in Claire’s natural musical phrasing so that the words flow through and over you instead of bumping and making you take breath in the wrong places. When someone writes that well, there’s no need for bells and whistles – the way the pull of human struggle is written and draws out your emotions is enough of a ride.

What I like best about Claire, though, is not that she is good writer. It’s that she doesn’t talk about her writing all the time – she talks about life, she makes jokes, she puts her family in the number one position before everything else in her life. She doesn’t judge others. She likes silliness, food, drink, the open air, and life – real life – in general, and she sends herself up. You get the feeling talking to her that she knows how short and sweet life is and that in order to cope with the briefness we need to appreciate the sweetness. There is also an overwhelming sense of empathy and understanding that emanates from things Claire says. She comes across as someone who knows what pain looks like and has possibly seen things that give her a special perspective on life and a deep understanding of people. She shares. And shares this well in her writing.

So when (in 2011?) I heard Claire’s first novel was to be published, I was very excited. I was in the middle of writing an important assignment but stopped and had a drink for her (“in the middle” in a “checking out what was happening on Twitter” kind of way!).

I finally got a copy of The Night Rainbow in my hands when it was published in February this year, and found myself in the most wonderful position of knowing without a doubt that I would love it. Things at home had been tough for one reason or another and I was shattered and low, so I put the book on the shelf next to the bed and waited. I knew there would come a time when I would be ready.

And finally, four months later – eight days ago, I was ready. Not liking spoilers of any kind, I had carefully avoided reviews about the book, and I let the whole experience be a complete surprise.

While you could apply terms such as “unputdownable”, and “page turner” to this book, I was strong and managed to stop turning pages and put it down each night and make it last a week. I’m glad I didn’t take a one-day trip to be in France with a little girl called Pea and her world. I’m pleased I got to visit for a week, and get a feel for the place.

Just as Claire doesn’t tell the reader how to think, I don’t want to tell you what to think of the book. And there are a couple of surprises that unravel along the way – one of which I feel must unravel at the reader’s pace so they have their own unique experience whilst reading. What I can say though, is that the beautifully rhythmic writing is there, the human condition is there – everywhere! My senses came alive, my heart was broken and patched up, and I really felt I’d stepped outside myself and been Pea in France for a while.
There is one strong thread throughout the book and that is the sense that the boundaries between what is real and what is not real are often blurred. The absence of speech marks makes this especially clear. While we are watching 5-year-old Pea struggle so enormously to make sense of the world – and perhaps we are happy sometimes that she doesn’t – we can also be allowed to think that we as adults – and indeed the adults in the book – are just as guilty of seeing things through only one pair of eyes, through one perspective as Pea does, and how that can never and will never give the whole truth.

Of course I will take my own individual reading of this book and make it fit my own concerns, but what I gained from the novel was a sense that it is all too easy to judge and/or be afraid of others but we are all the sum of life’s struggles and need to be loved. There was not one character that was truly awful or wholly bad, but there were often behaviours that concerned or had an adverse effect on others. This is how human beings are. Revolving the story around Pea’s perspective gives an insight into how complicated we can look from the outside and how actions or words can be misinterpreted, but overall, most of us are pretty decent people. As time goes by in the story we can see how the adults struggle just as much Pea to make sense of the signs and misread each other.

On a personal level, I recognised the exhaustion of pregnancy, and the difficulty I found in being what everyone needed me to be in difficult times. I recognised also the tremendous power grief has over a person. I’ve seen what it looks like and how difficult it can be to claw your way back to normality. As a very young child I watched my mother cope with debilitating grief and Claire has expressed this really effectively in the novel.

Despite the horribleness that everyone seems to have endured at some point, there is a life-line of sweetness brought to the reader through the delights of the natural world and the seasons running through everything. The descriptions of food are totally delicious! Life stops and starts and bumps; it hurts, it shocks, it confuses. But life goes on and it’s not all bad, especially when there are biscuits.

I’m not really a fan of star-rating for books but, just in case Pea is reading, I would like to give this novel eleventy hundred.
And do I recommend it? You betcha!

The Night Rainbow.


NIghtRainbowPaperback


(Also available in paperback in August)

Middling

A flash fiction
BroomHer house was in the middle of the town. It was not particularly big or small or fancy or plain. It was pleasant enough. She didn’t love it and she didn’t hate it. She liked it well enough.
She felt she had no cause to brag nor good reason to complain.
Mustn’t grumble.
Fair to middling.

She swept her driveway, pulled weeds out of the lane so folk could walk by, and clipped the hedge so the neighbours’ light wouldn’t be obscured. She didn’t play loud music or throw wild parties or keep noisy dogs.
Passers by made no comment. Passed no judgement. Offered no sympathy either.

She was just there. There she was in the middle.

She’d had love. She’d lost love. She was alone. She was lonely. But she saw that she had more than some and hid her tears. Who was she to feel sorry for herself?

She saw people come and go past her house and saw the fat people, the thin people, the old people, the young people, the rich people, the poor people. She heard love and hate in a word on the wind, violence in a drunken roar, thoughtlessness in a loud engine. She noticed differences, struggles, children crying, and she felt a need to be useful: to point out these differences.

Somehow.

But how?

So she wrote a poem and made a giant sign. For days she thought about the words, about the design. She made it by hand with brushes and ink. She thought about suffering and unfairness until her heart ached, and wiped away tears before they dropped onto the ink on the page.
She asked for those who have to care about those who have not.
She asked for people to love one another.
She asked for everyone to think about their actions.

After days of hard work, she bought an expensive frame and nailed the sign with the poem to the side of the house overlooking the lane, for all to see.

She went inside and rested.

When she awoke she heard breaking glass, shouts and knocking.
What did she know about pain and suffering?!
What right did she have to tell others how to live?!
Head-in-the-clouds poets should get a proper job!

After dark she went outside to remove the sign. It was broken. It was defaced. She was crying.

In the morning she went out and swept the drive. A passer-by spat on her broom. A driver in a shiny black sports car mocked her through his car window as he revved his engine and choked her with fumes. An old woman tutted in pity at her foolish extravagance.

She felt hurt and lonely and foolish.

She leant on the broom and controlled the tears.
She felt she had no reason to complain.

Who was she to feel sorry for herself?



Forty Quid and Some Fruit

A flash fiction

There’s something about having nothing that makes you feel … well, both heavy and light all at the same time.
There seems no point looking forward or back, ‘cause every time you do you feel sad and kinda hopeless. Life like this just goes on and on and on, and when you see no end to it, no better days ahead, it makes you want to top yerself. But there’s a lot of point in living in the moment. Why not smoke? Why not drink? Why not eat sausage and chips? Small pleasures. Simple things.

My health? My future?
I’m not expecting anything to be honest.

So, I stop the fags and buy some fruit?… What then? I sit here and fiddle with me orange peelings and cry about tomorrow? No. I share a fag with a mate over a cuppa tea and we get a few things off our chest. We can’t do much for each other but we’ve still got that.

And do I tell Benjy he can’t get bladdered with the lads after work on Friday so he saves a few quid? What then? His whole working week is about Friday and his friends. He couldn’t get through it if he didn’t have his Fridays. The rest of the week is bloody miserable for him. You know they don’t even pay him properly because he’s officially still training? What a load of bollocks.

Anyway… What have we got then? Forty quid and some fruit? That can’t get us a car, a new place to live. The fridge is knackered, the cooker is knackered. Megan needs a new bed. There is no future just by depriving ourselves further.

I was looking over this fella’s shoulder on the bus the other day – reading ‘is paper. Some woman had written how people who drink and smoke should pay more for healthcare. I laughed out loud, I did. The man turned and stared at me like I was mad.
I was mad to be honest. “Healthcare”?! Most people I know don’t even bother with doctors no more. We just wait until we keel over with liver damage or breathing difficulties. What’s the point of being told we ain’t living right, huh? “Yeah, sorry, doc, I lost me Waitrose loyalty card and haven’t been eating my pomegranates recently.”
It’d be funny if wasn’t so bleedin’ tragic. You know I know some people who’s not even registered with a doctor?

I think if I did have forty quid and some fruit I’d make a big bowl of punch and have a party. Share a little bit of happiness. We never seem to have any fun these days.

Ghosts

A flash fiction


What was strange, Florrie noticed, clipping Mabel’s overgrown fringe behind her ear the way she’d seen Mum do it, was all the stuff they said that she’d never heard before; stuff they could have said years ago if it was bothering them both so much.

‘Does it hurt?’ she asked as she tightened Mabel’s pigtails.
Mabel sat there trance-like; white-faced and red-eyed and smelling of Marmite. School mornings in winter were hard enough without being woken up by Dad coming home at 2am.

‘No,’ she whispered in reply like a ghost, staring blankly at the window as if there was nothing beyond it.

Mabel was silent until they reached the school gates. And then in a voice as thin and high as the frail winter cloud trails, she said, ‘I’m being good and quiet and it’s still all going wrong.’

Florrie took her hand for the first time in years and walked with her as far as the infants’ entrance.
‘It’s not your fault, Mabel. It’s nothing you did,’ repeating what Grandma had said to her.

But did she believe it?
She would carry on not being a nuisance too. Just in case it helped.

Yuck

A flash fiction

We are allowed to watch a film on a doctor’s fold-up computer in the camp. It is a film in a language I don’t understand with people so different from us it is like they are from another planet. Their clothes are plain and pale and flat. They speak too loud and too fast and there is never any still or any quiet.
A translator tells us it is a film popular with children all over the world.

There is a girl my age in the film. But she is not like me. She sits with her family at a table to eat but she doesn’t like her meal and refuses to eat it. I can not imagine ever refusing food.

The girl in the film is shouting at her father.
When the floods came and the mud and the house moved down the hill and we tried to run away I shouted at my father. But he didn’t hear me.

The girl in the film says a word: Yuck.
I would like some yuck. I would eat some yuck. I want to pull her flat hair and sit in her place and eat up all her yuck and show her how hungry I am.

Shelterbox

True Love


Will you still love me when I’m ugly?

You are ugly

And you love me?

Yes

Will you still love me when I’m old?

You are old

And you love me?

Yes

Will you love me when I’m wrinkly?

You are wrinkly

And you love me?

Yes

When I’m embarrassing?

You are

And you…?

Yes

Was I ever beautiful…? And not embarrassing?

No

And you’ve always loved me?

Yes

Well I wish you’d said something

What? And spoil your fun?

On The Button

I’m celebrating 2 years since my first attempt at flash fiction by sharing that first story from July 2010 (which is in fact more like a short story than a flash)
(Isn’t it funny – and rather worrying – how only 2 years ago I thought of sponsored academies as fictitious)

‘Zophar, listen.’ Luna crouched before him on the pavement. ‘You can get out whenever you want, okay?’
Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
‘Did you Anti-Germ your hands?’
Another nod.
‘Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?’
Zophar patted his backpack.
‘And mask? Remember which pocket?’
More nodding.

His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
‘Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.’ He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground. ‘One last button test, perhaps Luna?’ he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
‘Yes. Quick button run-though,’ said Luna. Tell me again.’
‘Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.’ Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list. ‘Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.’ He touched his cuffs next. ‘Panic buttons. Now can I go?’ The five-year-old jiggled impatiently.
‘Anytime at all, if you are worried,’ continued Luna, ‘if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?’
‘I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?’
‘Okay.’ Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. ‘Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!’ She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. ‘And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!’

Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. ‘Good luck. Come home safely,’ she whispered.

Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being.

This was better than birthdays. There were other children here.

The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
‘Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,’ came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of ‘I want to go home,’ ‘I don’t like this,’ while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. ‘They’ll soon get domesticated,’ she had said. ‘Everyone learns eventually.’

Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. ‘I can hold my breath loads longer than that.’
‘Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,’ said another boy.
‘He goes swimming?! Wow…’ Zophar stared.
‘Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.’ The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. ‘Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.’
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.

‘Why are your buttons so big?’
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
‘No! Don’t!’
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
‘Please wait until your car arrives,’ said a voice.

From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. ‘And remember:’ she said, ‘shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.’

Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.

Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.


This story is now published as an e-story from Ether Books:

(N.B. Thanks to Norman Geras – @normblog , who very kindly supplied me with the inspired prompt word: “prompt” when I asked on Twitter!)

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