Wednesday, 7 August 2019

remember, remember...

On a page in your journal, answer one of Neil’s questions from A Calendar of Tales. Now write a story from this answer. This can be as long or short as you like.

“What would you burn in November, if you could?”


Whatever happened to duffel coats? The question popped into Joel’s mind one warm, November morning as he walked towards the bus stop on his way into work. Joel was one of those people who always seemed to be cold, but the morning had been so warm and clear that even he had been forced to seriously consider leaving the house without a coat. He’d grabbed one on the way out, of course, but the short walk up the high street was already causing the first prickles of a sweat to bead on his forehead and to trickle down the small of his back.

Novembers didn’t used to be like this, did they? Joel certainly remembered duffel coats. Not the trendy, designer label ones that you occasionally see in the Sunday paper (‘This Season’s Must-Have Overcoats’), but the heavy, distinctly unfashionable ones that your mum used to make you wear with horn toggles and that covered you from head to knees and had a tartan patterned lining. They might even have been part of the official school uniform as everybody seemed to have one. If you tried wearing one of those on a day like today, you’d melt. Maybe that was why you don’t see them so much anymore.

And it used to be colder, didn’t it? Cold, crisp November mornings where you could see your own breath on the air and where the frost would sparkle as it reflected the thin, end-of-year sunlight onto the grass. Joel couldn’t even remember the last time he saw a frost. In February maybe? Only once so far this year? The world was warmer now.

As he neared his bus stop, Joel saw a pram dumped next to the old toy shop. As he got closer, he realised that it wasn’t a pram and but was, in fact, a strange contraption fashioned from ancient pram wheels and old crates. A go-cart! Good lord! Joel could scarcely believe his eyes. When was the last time you saw an honest-to-goodness go-cart? In the age of the micro scooter, it seemed like a glorious relic from a bygone age, yet here it was. Was it possible that… Joel got a little closer and peered inside. Yes! There it was! A pile of stuffed sacks dressed in raggedy clothes, with a painted-on face and a hat at a jaunty angle. Hanging around this approximately man-shaped pile was a cardboard sign with a simple, scrawled request:
“Penny for the Guy?”

As a cub scout, Joel could remember spending cold early-November evenings with the rest of his pack putting their Guy together. The best would be proudly pulled around town in a go-cart before being hoisted up onto the bonfire for burning. But when was the last time anyone saw a Guy? And what good was a penny going to do anyone anyway? The local Rotary Club or Round Table was surely going to need more money than that. Inflation meant that you couldn’t even buy a penny chew for 1p nowadays.

Almost without thinking, Joel began to smile and moved in for a closer look at this relic from his childhood.
“Alright”
Joel leapt back in astonishment, wrenching the headphones from his ears. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he could have sworn that the…
“Wotchoo looking at?”
The Guy was speaking to him, its twisted facsimile of a face didn’t appear to be moving, but he was definitely being addressed. Joel quickly looked around him, but the street was still deserted this early in the morning.
“Um…. Hello?”
This was pretty much as good as he could manage under the circumstances, all the while looking around the doorway and underneath the go-cart and the Guy to see if there might just be someone hiding under there, playing a desperately unfunny joke. There was nobody there.

“I’ve got a problem”.
Joel blinked, swallowed and then, for want of anything better to do, opted for a somewhat tentative reply. “Oh yes?”
“Yeah. I need a bonfire. I got to get burned, you see.”
Thousands of questions flooded through Joel’s mind all at one. He only managed to get one of them out. “Why?”
“Well ain’t that a stupid question? I’m a Guy. Guys get burned. It’s what we do. It’s what we’re for”.
Joel’s head swam as his reality began to collapse inwards. He shook his head and started to think that perhaps he should just walk away from this hallucination and just get on with his day. He began edging away.
“Where do you think you’re going? I’m talking to you and I need your help. I need to get burned.”
Joel froze and, a little reluctantly, turned his head back towards the Guy. “Well, how can I help? What can I do?”
“You need to find me a nice, big bonfire and you’ve got to slap me right onto the top of it and then I’ve got to burn”.
“Um. Okay. Can I do this later? It’s just that I really need to be getting to work now and my bus will be along any minute now…”
“Do I look like I can wait?”

And so it was that, somewhat against his better judgement and definitely confounding all his expectations for the morning, Joel found himself skipping work and instead hauling an old go-cart down to the river and the site of the weekend’s scheduled bonfire and firework display. The Guy didn’t really say very much now. Perhaps he’d said his piece. The day was really heating up now, so Joel had removed his jacket and, for a want of anywhere else to put it, had wrapped it around the sloping shoulders of the Guy.

As he sweated his way down along the riverbanks, Joel reflected how profoundly strange a tradition it was to burn the effigy of a Catholic on a bonfire every year. Perhaps it was an instinctive understanding of this that had led to the slow withering of the tradition. Perhaps it was just that the burning of the Guy was a late addition to an older, far more ancient fire ritual anyway, from a time when people huddled around bonfires to stay warm but also, more importantly, to stay away from the dark. Darkness was pretty hard to find now, real darkness, anyway. But even so, people still had bonfires and they still had fireworks at this tie of the year, even when the nights were warmer and the celebration of the torture and death of a Seventeenth Century Catholic was fading from memory. Oh, for sure, it was still called Guy Fawkes Night by some people, but mostly it was just Bonfire Night, and people turned up to bob apples and to watch the fireworks regardless.

The Guy spoke only once more as Joel hauled the effigy up the pallets and branches of the bonfire site at the rugby club. “You need to keep the spark alive for the long winter to come. To ward off the darkness”.

Joel reflected on this as he caught the bus into work at lunchtime, rolling up his shirt sleeves as the day grew ever hotter, and only then realising that he must have left his coat on the bonfire.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

big wheel keeps on turning...

I was at the physio yesterday.

I ran four marathons last year and I've run 782 miles so far this year. Given that I have a chronic, incurable neurological condition, I suppose that it was only really ever going to be a matter of time before I needed a bit of maintenance.

I'm currently seeing various specialists about various ailments, but my visit yesterday was to consult with an expert about a sore achilles tendon on my left side.  I tend to have a rolling list of things that bother me when I run, and this sore tendon has worked its way up to the top of the list over the last few months, overtaking a stiff ankle and finally moving its way past my previous number one concern of very sore internal oblique muscles. Yeah, it's a laugh a minute keeping this show on the road, let me tell you. I was hoping that I'd be able to get some easy answers and some quick treatment to push this back down the list.  Sadly, this isn't quite how the session worked out.

You will not be in the least bit surprised to know that all of these complaints are apparently connected. As I sat down to talk through my reason for booking the session, the physio looked at the side of my left knee and pointed out that my tendon there looked like it was substantially wasted. Indeed, when I looked, you can see a hollow developing where it used to be. He also admired the fact that there was noticeably less muscle on my left hand side compared to my right and moved down to examine my ankle.  Oh, look at this.... you've got almost no strength here compared to the other side and your tendons have got about twice as much slackness as they're meant to, meaning that I have very little control at all over the lateral movement of my foot, which is why I fall over a lot as I lose control of my foot and my ankle rolls.

He's shown me a load of exercises to do to try to build up the strength of my left ankle, but I left feeling a little down about the whole thing. A sports specialist told me ten years ago that it wasn't likely to be the MS that stopped me running, but that it was probably going to be some underlying, secondary issue caused by the MS. This looks like the way it's going to be.

I'm a stubborn old bastard and it will take a lot to take me off the road... but it's always sobering to have your own physical decline spelled out to you. No matter how much I like to pretend otherwise, I'm not entirely like other runners and my performance isn't linked to how hard I train or how much I want it.

I've got an appointment at the musculoskeletal clinic next week. I'm hoping that I'll get some proper bio-mechanical assessment done to see if there's anything more that can be done to help keep me out and running... be that orthotics or whatever. In the meantime.... I've got a 10km club trail race tomorrow to keep me busy and to both take my mind off and to focus it intently on my physical shortcomings.

cry me a river....

Set a timer for 60 seconds and write the opening of a story. Set the timer for 30 minutes and finish it.

When was the last time you cried? What caused it?


When I was a younger man, tears were a precious commodity, to be hoarded at all costs; buried from view; to be kept secret from the world. Maybe they were, so we reckoned with the wisdom of youth, a myth. Perhaps they didn’t even exist at all. Not to a real man, whatever that was, as if any of us would know.

Now that I’m older, many things have changed. For me, at least - I’m sure there are many other men of my age who still cling to the certainties and stupidities of their youth, but I do not believe that I am one of them. The passage of time has taken many things from me, but it has also stripped me of some of the certainty and ignorance of my youth.

There’s nothing wrong with crying. Of course there isn’t. Why would there be? Why do some men seem so afraid of such an overt display of emotion? Is it some lingering Palaeolithic need to hide a weakness that might single us out from the pack and render us vulnerable to predators? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Although I don’t remember feeling the pressure of my masculinity, I didn’t cry much. Oh sure, I cried all the time as a small child. I’d cry at the drop of a hat. I’d cry long and hard, as though the world was against me. They were real tears too. My brother, after me, would cry bone dry crocodile tears, but mine always flowed freely down my cheeks as I cried and cried at the cruel, unfeeling world.

And then, at some point, I stopped. The tears dried up. At school, my friends cried for their parents and for distant homes, but I never did. I even felt guilty that I didn’t feel at all homesick, but I didn’t cry about that either. The absence of tears wasn’t because I was afraid to show my emotions, it was because I simply didn’t feel any.

Over the years, I built an armour around myself to protect me from the unpredictability of feeling. Almost nothing can penetrate the forcefield around me and it has left me feeling blissfully numb to the unpredictability of feeling.

Now that I’m older, that armour seems to be slowly melting away and I’m beginning to feel the world seeping in around the edges. I’m now feeling for perhaps the very first time. I’ve been numb for so long that suddenly I’m now feeling everything with the intensity of the new.

I never cried before, but now the tears flow readily. The sensation is so new and so unfamiliar to me that I don’t know what to do with it. My first instinct is to hide it. I’ll be watching a mediocre film in the dark of the movie theatre or on the sofa at home and the hot, prickly feeling of tears begins to mist my eyes at the lamest, cheesiest of sentimental promptings. I don’t know if I’m ashamed, exactly, but it feels like a part of myself that I need to keep buried. I sit in the dark and try to wipe my eyes dry in secret, as though this sudden, unexpected display of emotion is something to be embarrassed about, revealing some terrible weakness of character.

When was the last time I cried? When was the last time I watched a stupid reality programme featuring a sick cat? Does this make me more vulnerable to predators? Maybe. Well, there’s not much I can do about it now. The armour is gone and, for better or for worse, those feelings aren’t going away any time soon.

--
I'm not sure this is exactly a story, but this is what came out when the timer started ticking.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

the climb (part ii)

Take your subverting expectations short story. Shift the location, take risks. Come up with a scene that is frightening or upsetting, or just beyond the bounds of what you’re comfortable with.

I didn't know how far I could go with this one. Have I gone far enough, or is it obvious?

• A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

Trying her very best not to be noticed, Liv quietly worked her way through the seething Bank Holiday crowd. What is it about Boxing Day that it seems to bring out the very worst in people? Retail therapy they call it, when what they really mean is that one day is more than enough for most families to tire of the magic of Christmas. Barely twenty-four hours with the shops shut and most people can’t wait to flee the claustrophobic confines of their tinsel-bedecked homes. George Bailey had many other problems to deal with in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, but the toxic combination of cheap alcohol, crappy gifts and simmering resentment wasn’t one of them. She could practically smell it coming off the crowds now, the cloying stench of hangovers, regret and unalloyed consumerism. Liv also seriously doubted that Bedford Falls ever experienced this kind of a crush outside Debenhams. Zombies, the lot of them.

Her dad loved that stupid film and, as a result, the family watched it every Christmas Eve before the adults rolled off to the pub and then on to Midnight Mass. Liv cherished the precious few hours after the film finished and before the adults rolled back into the house. Silence and a chance to read and to just revel in being alone. Blissful silence and the chance to hear the ringing bell when the next angel got his wings. However long it lasted, it was never long enough. It was practically a Christmas tradition now that she pretended to be asleep as her parents giggled and fumbled their way around her room in search of her stocking shortly after they rolled back into the house.

Santa Claus is coming to town. A merry blooming Christmas to you.

The morning after always brought with it fuzzy heads, but that had never yet stopped the opening of fizz at breakfast. Well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Although she was only fourteen, Liv usually had a flute pushed into her hand so that she could raise her glass in toast to the season alongside everyone else. Cheap prosecco seemed to her like a pretty good way to ruin an orange juice. The very thought of that sour smelling, sickly sweet cocktail made Liv wrinkle her nose in disgust. Ugh.

Liv paused as she worked her way past the crowds outside Next and risked a glance back over her shoulder. There he was: tall enough to be clearly visible as he walked urgently past Argos. He was looking around, craning his neck to get a better view. Liv didn’t think that he had seen her yet, but the sight of him gave her renewed purpose and she ducked inside John Lewis, through the sudden blast of hot air blowing down around the door and into the shop. The crowds were thick here, surrounded by reduced Christmas gift packs of fancy-looking wine and biscuits. Liv headed towards the escalators, but her progress was slow as the people around her thronged together, competing for a bargain they wouldn’t have looked at twice only two days ago. Frustrated, Liv turned again and saw him as he passed the doorway, pausing before turning into the shop. Her heart seeming to skip a beat and, more urgently now, she pushed herself against the crowd in an attempt to disappear.

She’d been a happy child, more or less. As happy as most people, happier than some. Although she was barely fourteen now, Liv somehow thought of herself as older. Her earliest memory as a child was of her father gently brushing her hair after a bath and then tucking her into bed to read her a story. Liv had always loved reading, but above all else, she had loved being read to, by her father most of all. She loved the way that he would do all the voices in a story, working to make every character come to life, whether they were a mouse, a goblin or a Gruffalo. The scary stories were the best of all, not because Liv liked to be scared, but because she loved to be comforted. Her father would take her in his arms and smooth her hair, telling her that everything would be alright. Even now, she wasn’t sure whether she was really scared or just pretending to be. She was too big for stories now; her body was changing. Sometimes, in spite of everything, she still longed for someone to scoop her up again and to tell her that everything would be alright.

But it wasn’t alright. Liv didn’t like the stories now. The past is a dangerous place filled with secrets and questions that can never be answered.

She looked again. He’d seen her, and was pressing through the crowd, eyes fixed on her. She involuntarily gasped out loud and reeled backwards. The man standing beside her stopped browsing for a moment to look down his nose at her disapprovingly. There are unspoken rules to being in a crowd like this, and nobody likes to see these rules broken. He was small and tweedy and smelled of pipe smoke, but after a quick glance at her, he quickly turned his attention back to the port and stilton gift set he was admiring. He tutted to himself and Liv moved on, arms in front of her now as she swam her way through the press of people, breast-stroking her way towards the escalators. If she could just get upstairs now, she could dip out of the exit on the first floor and hope to lose herself in the seething throngs in the rest of the shopping centre.

Being small gave Liv some advantages in the crowd as she ducked and weaved her way through the throng. It wasn’t advantage enough, though, and being tall and strong brings other advantages. He was now elbowing his way towards her and was gaining fast. She ducked and began to push frantically towards the escalator, realising too late how exposed she would be as she began to rise up above the fray on the step. As she stepped on and began to lift up and away towards the first floor, he stopped and smiled at her as their eyes locked. Then, he simply stepped onto the escalator, about ten steps below her, and they both rose slowly up towards home furnishings.

The shop was busy, but the escalator itself wasn’t all that crowded. Had he wanted to, he could easily have worked his way up to close the gap between them, but he did not. He just stood there and watched her with a slight smile on his face. Liv looked down at him and tried to calm herself enough to think straight. Escape seemed unlikely, but surely there wasn’t much he could do in such a busy shop, was there?

Too soon, the escalator step she was riding reached the first floor and discharged Liv, unwillingly, to begin its journey back down. Huge, flat screen televisions were broadcasting the Boxing Day football and what looked like an episode of the Blue Planet. A humpbacked whale with its calf breached the surface of the ocean and plunged back into the depths in glorious 4K high definition. Liv barely noticed. She only had eyes for the man beneath her, cresting the climb and walking confidently, but slowly towards her. She didn’t have the strength to run any more. Instead, she waited. He crossed to her and reached for her hand, his other hand reaching up to stroke her hair. Her skin crawled and it was all she could do not to physically recoil from his touch.

“You nearly lost me that time.”
“Did I?”
“You won’t be getting such a head start next time, I can tell you that for nothing.”
“I see.”
“Yep. I reckon you will.”
Liv looked up at her father with a face filled with a mixture of fear and resignation as he took her gently by the hand and began to lead her home for her bath and for her bed.

Friday, 26 July 2019

tidings....

Tell a short story in 100 words.



I must have been about nineteen when it began. It was the magpies, of course. I don’t know why or how it happened, but they spoke to me, their rude chattering laid bare before me in all of its glorious, symphonic clarity. At first, I was afraid to perceive the meaning behind their staccato laughter, but soon I was simply overjoyed to be included in their world. It was, of course, a secret never to be told. Who would believe it? But quickly their voices became cacophonous, unbearable tidings of the devil himself. And now I cannot make them stop.


Wednesday, 24 July 2019

down by the river...

Using the questions below, create a character. This person can be based on people you know or have completely invented. Write a sentence or two describing what the character wants.

What is their name? Age? Gender?
Joseph. Joe. 16 (or at least just into his teenage years. He’s small, so it’s hard to be sure how old he is as he looks younger than he actually is). Male.
What do they look like?
Small for their age. Mousey brown hair, nondescript features. Glasses. Perhaps slightly tubby. Not fat, but not fully grown into their body yet. It’s puppy fat that’s likely to disappear as they get older, but Joe doesn’t know that and is perhaps a little self-conscious about his size.
What’s in their purse or pockets?
He’s probably got a scrappy old pair of binoculars around his neck and a notepad and pencil somewhere in his pockets.
What’s their favourite thing to do?
Be outdoors and not cooped up indoors. Just walking and looking out for wildlife. Joe has a deep love for all wild things.
What do they hate?
Noise. Heat. His love of the countryside means that he doesn’t really like the build-up of houses and shops and roads that tends to come along with any concentration of people. Joe likes quiet and his own company.
What matters to them more than anything in the world?
Animals. Joe is a sensitive soul and he derives a sense of peace from a communion with nature.

Using the character you created above, write a conversation or a situation where this person cannot get what they want. You may find other characters emerge from this—let it happen. Try opening the scene at the main point of tension—for instance, in the middle of a fight— and fill in the necessary details as the scene plays out.

“After you’ve finished your breakfast, I’m going to need your help in the garage.”
Hearing this, Joe’s shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly. He had been planning to spend his day out along the track by the river with Ged, whiling away the time looking to see if he could spot the red kites that had been seen down near the old nature reserve. He paused before answering.

“Yes, dad.”

The hesitation hadn’t been for long, but it was long enough to convey his reluctance to his father, who had been looking for it.

“I don’t want to hear any attitude from you about this. You know how important this work is to this family.”

Joe knew from bitter experience that there was no way that he could win this argument. Whatever he said now was going to be leapt upon by his father as a sign of rebellion and insubordination. Even saying nothing was likely to provoke.

“Yes, dad.”

Even though he was careful to keep his tone neutral, Joe watched his dad cautiously for further escalations. There seemed to be none forthcoming, so he thought he’d push his luck. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “What time do you think I might be able to get out later on?”
There was no immediate reply, so Joe pressed on. “I was hoping to get down there whilst it was still light.”

His father looked at him over the kitchen table. “What’s down by the river?”

This felt like a trap and Joe hesitated as he considered his options. As far as he was concerned, the less his father knew about Ged the better. It was bad enough for him already that his son was wasting so much time away from home wasting his time, heaven knows what he might think if he heard his son was hanging around with that weirdo.

“I just wanted to get some air today, that’s all.”

“There’s no fresh air anywhere and I’m not sure it’s safe down there anymore. You know that I prefer you where I can see you. You certainly shouldn’t be going down there on your own.”

“But…”

“There’s no ‘buts’ about it. You’re not to go down to the river and you’re going to be helping me fix this engine for as long as I need you to be helping me to fix it. Now.”
Joe loathed it when his father finished with a ‘now’. What he meant, of course, was “…and that’s an end to it”, Joe knew this. And yet, every single time, he felt an almost overwhelming urge to shout “NOW WHAT?” back at his father. So far, he’d been wise enough to keep this thought to himself. So far….

Joe wasn’t a bad lad and he’d happily help his father with the engine. Better to bide his time and to slip off out when his father wasn’t looking. If they made decent progress with engine, or if one of his father’s friends called by, then he could look to slip off and his dad probably wouldn’t even notice he had gone. Play the long game, Joe. Play the long game. Don’t blow it for the rest of the summer by being hasty now.

“Yes dad.”

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

the climb...

Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

• A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

The cliff was slick with salt water, rain and worse from the gulls that shrieked at her from their nests, unwilling to share their niches with her even for a moment as she passed. She was so close to some of them that she could almost taste the thick, warm air coming off their bedraggled feathers.

From the bottom, the cliff looked impossibly sheer, but here, up close, she could see the tiny fractures and imperfections that were the key to her ascent. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been climbing now, but her world had quickly collapsed into the steady rhythm of putting one hand in front of the other as she searched the next safe hold and pulled herself upwards.

The rain lashed her face and slicked the sweaty hair back against her head. I’ll smell as bad as those birds by the time I reach the top, she thought as she paused for breath. She risked a look down and her head jerked back up when she saw that he was closer now, inching his way up the rock wall towards her.

The wind was howling, but she could hear his breathing as he worked his way steadily up towards her. More urgently now, she began to work her way up, reaching her fingertips above her head, looking for the next hold, probing into the cracks to see if this was the one. She heard a curse below her. Perhaps he’d seen her moving more quickly, or perhaps he’d simply slipped as he reached above his head for the next grip on the slick rock. Whatever had happened, the man did not appear to be slowed and was methodically continuing to work his way upwards towards her.

Liv knew this cliff like the back of her hand, of course. Her father used to joke that she was climbing before she could walk. First it was the bars on the side of the crib, then it was the baby gate at the top of the stairs, so it was always only going to be a matter of time before she set her mind to climbing the cliff that loomed at the bottom of the garden. Her whole family were climbers, so it was no accident that they had ended up living in that particular house. Almost as soon as she turned thirteen, and much to her father’s loudly voiced disgust but plainly visible pride, Liv started to climb without ropes. It was, of course, insanely dangerous. That was the appeal. She’d climbed this cliff a thousand times, a million times and she knew practically every route up this rock wall. Liv used to live for those long, hot days of summer when her dad would come home early and they’d head out to the cliff to see if they could find new, harder ways to get to the top.

What was at the top that was so exciting, that was worth risking life and limb for? Well, to be truthful, nothing at all. A patch of bare grass and a few disinterested sheep. That was about it. Once you reached the top, all there really was to do was to have a breather and then climb right back down again.

Liv almost smiled at the memory of those sun-dappled climbs, but she was cold, the cliff was wet, the night was drawing in and he was getting ever closer. She looked up. Another 50m to go. She wasn’t 100% sure that she was going to be able to reach the top before he reached her, and her heart started to race at the prospect of his hairy great hand grabbing hold of her ankle from below, peeling her off the cliff-face leaving her desperately pedalling at thin air before plunging downwards. She closed her eyes and swallowed deeply. Now was not the time to panic, now was the time to calmly and steadily do something she had done many, many times before. She reached upwards for her next hold, and then the next, and then the next. She steadily worked her way up the cliff. 50m to go. 45m. 40m. He was now only about 10m below her and she could hear every heavy, grunting breath he took. Where Liv was light and seemed to float her way up the sheer rock wall, he was heavy and muscular and seemed to haul himself up by sheer brute strength and force of mind. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. 30m to go. 25m. 20m. She could now hear the rustle of his clothing and the throaty, wet rasping of his breathing as re-doubled his efforts to catch her up as they both neared the top of the cliff wall.

10m to go. 5m. He was now only just below her and, with her heart in her mouth, in a final effort, Liv seemed to almost fly up the last of the cliff before disappearing over the lip and climbing up onto the grass at the top.

She drew in a deep breath and rolled over so her head was poking over the cliff edge. He was just below her, so she reached down and grabbed his outstretched hand and helped haul him up over the top and onto the plateau.

“I nearly had you that time.”
“You did.”
“You won’t be getting such a head start next time, I can tell you that for nothing.”
“We’ll see.”
“Yep. I reckon we will.”
In spite of the rain, Liv beamed at her father with a face filled with pure happiness as they gathered themselves for the climb back down.

In the years to come, Liv would cherish this moment as the last time that she was truly happy, but she wasn’t to know that yet as she prepared to follow her father back over the cliff edge to chase him back down to the ground to the warm stew that awaited them.

--

Hm. Not sure about this one.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

you're still alive, she said...


Finding your voice

Sometimes a fear of making mistakes will sabotage your writing process. It may stop you from putting ideas on the page, or it can cause blocks while you’re in the middle of a project. To develop confidence, challenge yourself to write a short story in one sitting. You’re not allowed to go away from the project until you have a completed draft. It can be any length, but tell a complete story that will satisfy a reader. Don’t do too much editing while you write, just let your ideas flow and then structure them once you’ve got everything on the page.

--

There’s probably never been a better time to be undead.

Fibre-optic broadband, 24-hour cable TV, Netflix, every possible boxset you can imagine streaming directly to your phone or tablet or flatscreen, widescreen plasma television on demand to satisfy your every viewing whim…. There’s really no need to be bored as the rest of the world sleeps. Those days are long gone.

How can the witching hour exist when you can have Deliveroo delivering you an almost-warm burger from your favourite fast food outlet at the click of a button at any time of the day or night? And hey: I won’t judge if you don’t really fancy the look of that burger. Perhaps the courier that brings it to you will be more to your taste? The beauty of a zero-hours contract is that no one really knows enough about these guys to really miss them. My back garden is full of bikes. Every so often someone comes around with a van full of scrap metal and takes them off my hands. I like to imagine that they’re passed on to the next generation of couriers in a form of up-cycling. I like to think I do my bit for the environment, but perhaps I should include the uniforms too so that I can reduce my carbon footprint a bit more to make the whole thing even more sustainable. David Attenborough himself might approve. You have to take your hat off to the guy: he died years ago and that seems to have been absolutely no impediment to the progression of his career. In fact, I think he’s even more popular now than when he was alive, even if he does seem to have become a little self-righteous since his heart stopped beating. When you’re dead yourself, you start to recognise other people in the same position. There’s a lot more of them around than you might think.

Generally, I’m happy enough, I think. If you really twisted my arm, I’d probably say that the thing I miss the most is cricket. I was never really much of a player, but I did like to while away my days sitting in the sunshine with a nice, cold beer pretending to be absorbed in the finer details of the game as I daydreamed. An Australian summer looks absolutely gorgeous in high definition at 3am on a cold December morning, but the best television in the world and a comfy sofa isn’t quite a convincing substitute for sitting on a hard plastic seat surrounded by chanting drunks inside a cricket ground yourself. Sunblock technology has come a long way over the years, but even with the broadest of brimmed hats, factor 50 and long sleeves, I’ve never had the courage to spend more than a session or so out in broad daylight. Bursting into flames isn’t the sort of entry you want to see in the scorebook for delaying the resumption of play. Besides, I look pale enough at the best of times without adding a thick layer of suncream. I do not tan well. Never did before and definitely don’t now. Luckily, the goth look is never out of fashion. As long as Robert Smith is still a thing, I can wear all-black on the hottest of days and not raise a flicker of attention.

I suppose the biggest change in my life was when I started dating. It wasn’t something that I set out to do, but if you spend enough time on the internet, you get talking to all sorts of people and eventually, if they let you in, you get to know them really well. Over time, one thing leads to another and you find that someone on the other side of the world just, you know, really *gets* you. Not everyone is who they say they are, of course. But that’s just life, isn’t it? I’ve always been fairly direct and I’ve never lied about who or what I am. Not exactly, anyway. People claim to be all sorts of things on the internet, don’t they? Perhaps some of them really are what they say. Who are we to judge? Whatever works for you, right? I can’t really use the expression ‘live and let live’ with a straight face, but taken entirely metaphorically, it’s a great motto to live by.

I met Dorothea through blogging. Her blog mostly, not mine. I don’t really post all that much any more. Somewhere along the line, I just lost the urge. Dorothea’s blog is buzzing though, and it always has been. Where comments are now as rare as hen’s teeth on my page, below the line is where all the real action happens over there and that’s where you meet the most interesting people. Sure, some are just robots trying to direct you to some advertising site somewhere, but they’re always pretty easy to spot and to ignore. What you’re looking for are those threads where the chat really takes off and where your host is happy to give and take below the line. I can’t remember how I first found her page, but I think Dorothea really caught my attention when she posted a review of some stupid sci-fi tv show that I liked and we just got talking, initially in the comments but pretty soon swapping to messenger. One thing soon led to another, and before long we were virtually inseparable (virtually being the operative word at this point as we still hadn’t met and lived in countries on opposite sides of the world). It was nice. I know that might seem like a woefully inadequate way of describing the beginnings of a significant relationship, but that’s exactly what it was: nice. They say that love makes your heart beat faster, and in my case that obviously can’t be true, but I definitely felt a surge of warm feelings through my cold, dead heart. I liked it.

We discussed my animation status fairly early in the relationship. What would be the point of trying to keep something like that secret? She didn’t seem to mind, and actually it seemed to kick-start the relationship to the next level. Almost immediately, we were making plans to have her come over and visit, which she did a couple of months later. It’s always going to be a frightening moment meeting someone who means so much to you face-to-face for the first time. What if that spark just isn’t there? I was as nervous as I’ve ever been, but when that cab pulled up outside my door that night and I invited her in across the threshold and into the house, it just felt so right. We’ve been inseparable ever since.

It hasn’t always been easy. For starters, she’s alive and I’m dead, she eats food and I survive only by consuming the blood of living things to feed my immortal soul. But every successful relationship is built upon tolerance and compromise, isn’t it?

We’re happy together and happy that we found each other. That’s what really matters.

--

I don't know if I've discovered my voice or not.  When I put this story into the I Write Like page (recommended in the workbook to today's masterclass chapter), it told me that its analysis concluded that I wrote like Anne Rice ("Anne Rice (born Howard Allen Frances O'Brien; October 4, 1941) is a best-selling American author of metaphysical gothic fiction, Christian literature and erotica from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her books have sold nearly 100 million copies, making her one of the most widely read authors in modern history."

Hm. This guy is hardly Lestat, is he? Yesterday's story is like Daniel Defoe, apparently.

To be honest, I'm inclined to think that this analysis may be flawed.

Monday, 15 July 2019

call it magic...


Sources of Inspiration


Change point of view: Choose an alternate character to retell a familiar story.

--

Listen. Magical creature or not, everyone needs to make a living, don’t they? Spinning straw into gold isn’t as lucrative as you might think, not when you’re a homunculus like me who for some stupid, arbitrary magical reason can’t make use of the gold that I spin. I wasn’t born into money; I don’t live in a palace in a gleaming city. No, I live in a cottage on a high mountain on the edge of the forest where the fox and the hare say goodnight to each other. And a bloody racket they make of it too. There aren’t any good roads up here; there aren’t any supermarkets and you can’t find a decent latte up here no matter who you know. When I heard that crying, I didn’t have to leave my comfortable little home and travel down the crappy roads through the forest and all the way to the city, but I did. Alright, so maybe I didn’t entirely do it out of the goodness of my heart, but I went when it would have been easier to stay at home. I may move with unnatural speed, but I also like to sit in front of my fire with a good book. So I went. With all that happened, that still has to count for something, right?

Did I stop to wonder why this slip of a girl was locked in a room in the palace with a spindle and a bundle of straw? Well, to entirely truthful, not really. When you’re in my line of business, straw and spindle are really just the tools of the trade, so this was just another opportunity. The whats and the whys would have been pretty obvious to anyone, but there are certain protocols that ought to be followed in situations like these, and what are we if we don’t pay heed to these niceties? Savages? I politely asked this girl why she was weeping. The king wanted the straw spinning to gold. Of course he did. Who wouldn’t? If you heard that someone could do something magical like that and you were king, would you just shrug your shoulders on a juicy nugget of information like that and let it pass? No, of course you wouldn’t, not when this one simple thing could transform an era of austerity into an era of prosperity. You’d want a piece of that too, wouldn’t you? It’s hard to blame the guy really. Quite why the miller thought that an audience with royalty was just the moment to make that sort of ridiculous boast is another matter. What on earth was he thinking? What did he think was going to happen? Or maybe he knew all along and was just playing the long game; rolling the dice with his daughter’s life and counting upon the greed of the king. And counting on me too. Hm. Have I been manipulated all along?

Could I help this poor girl? Of course I could, but I wasn’t about to do it for nothing. That necklace felt like a fair exchange to me. She certainly wasn’t complaining when she agreed and then sat back and watched me spin that room full of straw into gold. The tears dried up pretty quickly too, as I recall.

Of course, all this wouldn’t be enough for the king, would it? So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I heard the crying again the next night. Back I went, back down the mountain, back through the forest and all the way to the palace in the city. She was in a different room this time. Bigger, of course, with more straw. We did our little dance, she offered me her ring as payment, and I spent the rest of the night doing what I do best until all that straw was spun into gold. The tears dried up pretty quickly on that evening too, and I don’t remember getting a thank you either. If that girl hadn’t known what to expect before, she was fully in on it now.

The next night? The same of course: down the mountain, through the forest and all the way up to the palace in the city. The biggest room yet, and the whole thing absolutely rammed to the ceiling with straw. There were going to be some pretty uncomfortable horses in the stables of this city come winter, that’s for sure. Naturally, the king was beside himself with joy at all this gold and thought he was onto a real winner here. Turn this last lot into gold, he said, and I’ll make you my queen! Yeah, yeah. Of course you will. After all, what kind of king doesn’t want a beautiful young maiden who can spin straw into gold in his bed? Let’s just hope he doesn’t have a straw mattress, eh?

Having already given me her necklace and her ring, the question of payment was now a touch awkward:
“I have nothing left to give you,” she wailed.
Alright then, how about your first child when you become queen?

Look, perhaps I should explain myself at this point.

I’m not some kind of pervert. It’s lonely up on that mountain and I just craved some human company. It’s as simple as that. No funny business. I'm a magical creature and we have strange and magical requirements. She didn’t have to say yes, did she? No one was twisting her arm. She could have said no and faced up to the king with a room full of straw the following morning. She agreed happily enough because she wanted to be queen and she knew the drill by now. It was an honest contract, and she got another room of gold in exchange for something that might never have happened. She certainly got her crown, didn’t she? I can only imagine the king must have found some other magical creature to get her a diamond for her engagement ring. He could certainly afford to by now. In that moment, in that room, that girl knew exactly what she was doing every bit as much as the king did when he shut her in there and made that promise to her. It was only later that she tried to back out of it.

So, a year or so later, I go back down the mountain, through the forest and up to the capital city to claim my dues. She’s had a few months to enjoy her new life as the Queen and to give birth to her beautiful, bouncing royal baby. Don’t feel bad for her: the king kept his word to marry her and she’s been living the life of Riley as the queen of a kingdom that’s suddenly swimming in riches. Meanwhile, I’m still living alone in my cottage up that mountain as everyone else is getting fat on my gold. She knew this day would be coming. As I made my way down the mountain and through the forest, I couldn’t help but wonder if the greedy king had been able to stop himself turning up in their bedroom one night with a spindle and a bag of straw, and if he did, what would she say? Not my problem, I supposed. Perhaps the king finally knew the answer to the question of how much gold was enough gold. Or he was in love. Or he’d just run out of straw and was waiting for the next harvest. Perhaps we’ll never know.

She was surprised to see me, of course. Or at least she pretended to be. She offered me all the riches of her kingdom instead of her precious child, but I wouldn’t be swayed: I can spin straw into gold, so what good are riches to me? A deal is a deal. But she cried and wailed so much that I eventually relented. After all, I'm a magical creature but that doesn't mean that I'm a monster or that I don't have feelings. If it means that much to you, I said, if you can guess my name within the next three days, then we can renegotiate, and you can keep your child. It seemed a little unlikely that she’d be able to guess, to be honest, but there you go. She had a chance now, didn’t she?

Why three days? Why make her try to guess the unguessable? I don’t know and I wasn’t really thinking straight. I sometimes wonder if there are forces in this world that drive our destinies but are beyond our understanding. Why do things always seem to come in threes? Why can’t I just use my own spindle and have a thriving business selling cheap gold that I’ve spun from straw to undercut the market and make myself as comfortable as can be? Who knows? Perhaps that’s just the way of this world.

You can imagine how this went.
Day one: down the mountain, through the wood and up to the city. Nope: Kaspar, Melchior or Balzer I ain’t.
Day two: Ribsofbeef, Muttonchops, or Lacedleg? Um. No. Seriously? Those are your guesses?
Day three: Kunz? No. Heinz? No. Rumpelstiltskin?

What?

How on earth could she know that? Either the devil told her (possible in this world) or she sent someone out of the palace, away from the capital city, through the forest and up the mountain to hear me singing my own name in my cottage in front of the fire in my delight at the Queen’s inability to guess correctly. Hmm. Yes. Now I think of it, it might have been that. Don't look at me like that. I can't get Netflix up there. I don't know how this spy have got back down the mountain, through the forest, up to the capital city and into the palace in time to report back before I arrived to claim my prize, but get there before me he most definitely did.

Now I think about it, the whole thing just seems so preposterously unlikely.  I suppose that's a magical realm for you.

And that’s now it. She keeps her child and her king keeps all his gold and poor old Rumplestiltskin gets nothing, not even the power of the secret of his own name. It’s enough to make any self-respecting magical creature tear themselves apart in frustration and the unfairness of it all.

That girl needs to check her privilege.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

you're an embarrassment...

So, I've started doing the Neil Gaiman Masterclass on storytelling. Each chapter comes with a workbook and a writing exercise. I'm not sure if I'll be posting them all, but here's the one I wrote from the "Truth in Fiction" chapter.

A time when I was deeply embarrassed

As you write, pay attention to your inner register about what you’re writing, noting the particular things that make you uneasy. Try to be a little “more honest than you’re comfortable with.” Remember that being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared; it means you do it anyway.

A few years ago, I went back to my old school. I would say that, on the whole, I have an uneasy relationship with my schooling. It’s not that I don’t have fond memories of much of that time, because I do. I’m just embarrassed by it: I’m embarrassed that I received a private education and I’m embarrassed that I haven’t exactly taken advantage of any of the opportunities it might have presented me. My parents both came from fairly humble backgrounds and worked hard. They wanted their children to have the best possible education and were happy to sacrifice holidays and other luxuries so that they could afford it. What this meant for me is that I spent eleven years of my life at boarding schools. At the age of seven years old, I effectively left home in pursuit of this brighter future. I learned lots of things in this time, and I’m sure that it has afforded me many advantages in life. I’m privileged. I also think that it robbed me of a closer relationship with my parents and damaged my ability to form meaningful emotional connections with other people. I once mentioned to my mother that I would not send any children of my own to a private school and she cried. She only wanted the best for me and it must have been intensely difficult to send her young, vulnerable seven year-old son away to school and it was very upsetting to hear that same son effectively rejecting those decisions and those sacrifices.

I generally avoid reunions like the plague and I’m not sure what I expected from this one. I met various teachers and old school friends, but it was the smell of the place that really took me back. All it took to throw me back in time was the smell of the place, the changing rooms, the dormitories. They smelt exactly the same, and the scent brought the memories flooding back of the seven-year-old boy teased for his crooked teeth, his glasses and his puppy fat. No matter how thin I get, somewhere inside me is that child teased for being fat. I wasn’t fat then and I’m not fat now, but the damage was done. I can still remember some of their names. They would be fifty by now, and they were only twelve years old then, but I remember them, and I remember the way their teasing made me feel. The funny thing is that, in spite of everything I never really felt homesick, even in those early weeks. I feel guilty about that too. I suppose that’s the kind of self-reliance and stiff-upper lip that the British Empire was built on. You don’t get to rule over most of the world by talking about your feelings, do you?

On the very last day of my first term, we had a carol service in the village church. It was only a short walk away from the school, and the whole school processed there, all dressed up in our Sunday best and our bright, yellow ties, neatly scrubbed and brushed to within an inch of our lives for the set piece finale to the term. It was a very traditional, church of England kind of a carol service with the traditional songs and some readings: Once in Royal David’s City, The First Noel, O Come All Ye Faithful. You know the drill. In later years, I would be a member of the choir and would play a much more active part in the service, but this year, I was just one of the smallest members of the congregation and sat on a pew in the cheap seats. I don’t imagine that the service was very long, but at some point, I remember I began to feel the urge to pee. What started as a gentle nagging thought soon grew and grew until all I could think or feel was this terrible, burning necessity. Of course, there was absolutely no question that I could get up and leave the chapel. How could I? Everyone would be watching. Even if I did, what was I supposed to do next? I couldn’t just walk back in and take my seat, could I? I’m not entirely sure I’d know what to do if this happened to me now, but I definitely didn’t know what to do as a seven-year-old, so I sat where I was and felt this quiet desperation building inside me.

Somehow, I held on and eventually, the service ended and we all made our way back towards the school to be picked up by our parents for the start of the Christmas holidays. I can remember rushing out as fast as I could and making my way down the path through the woods that led back to the school. It was a dark December evening and there was no lighting through the trees, but I could see the lights of the school twinkling a few hundred meters away. I hurried along, probably pulling on the end of my penis, as little boys do and hoping somehow to make it back before it was too late. I can still vividly remember the moment I knew that I wasn’t going to make it back: I hadn’t managed to get very far from the church when I stopped dead in my tracks and my just bladder relaxed. I experienced an immediate relief, followed at once by a spreading sense of warmth and wetness in my pants and down my legs. Of course, the shame quickly followed. No one was there to see me, but this had now happened to me and surely couldn’t be kept hidden. I was seven years old, nearly eight. I was much too old for this to happen to me and now I’d made a mess of my best school trousers. I was going to be in trouble for this. Worse, I was going to be laughed at for this. I can remember running the rest of the way back to the school and heading straight up to my dormitory. I’d travelled so fast that I was the first person back, so I quickly stripped out of my sodden clothes and changed into the clothes I would wear to travel home. Without really thinking, I dropped the soiled clothes into the laundry basket and went home for Christmas. I did not tell a single person what had happened. From that day to this, this has been my secret.

I sometimes think about that. Presumably the person processing the laundry would have found it hard to miss the piss-soaked trousers? Heavy and wet and stinking of urine as they must have been. Like all my school clothes, they were also marked with my name and my school number, so how could this secret be kept hidden? Someone must have known what I’d done. Surely they would tell someone else and the game would be up and my humiliation would be certain. And yet no one said a word. At least, not to me. At the start of the next term, those clothes were clean and dry and folded with the rest. So I kept my embarrassment silently to myself from that day onwards, never knowing if anyone else knew. Perhaps they did and they just didn’t care.

That day wasn’t even the last time that I wet myself. After my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, I’ve experienced a few issues with my bladder and I now catheterise myself on a regular basis to make sure that it has drained properly. There’s something richly ironic about this because, amongst my friends, I’ve been famous for having a weak bladder for most of my life. I’ve always been the one amongst us who needs to go to the loo most often. I don’t know if I actually do have a particularly weak bladder, to be honest. Maybe. Actually I think it’s entirely possible that I simply developed a compulsion to take every possible opportunity to empty my bladder because of that night in the winter of 1981.